Like a well-oiled machine

School principals often feel overwhelmed by their isolated struggle to lead teachers, parents and pupils. But an ­initiative that partners principals with business minds intends to help them succeed.

The School @ the Centre of Community project is run by the non-profit organisation Symphonia for South Africa with support from the South African Principals’ Association. Its Cape Town-based founder, Louise van Rhyn, said since the start of 2011 they had partnered school principals with business ­leaders as “thinking partners”.

How the partnership works
The principal and the business leader sign a partnership agreement to work together for a year.
Furthermore, they undertake 100 hours of training, which focuses on ­leadership and change management.

Before launching the project, Van Rhyn worked with Ridwan Samodien, principal of Kannemeyer Primary School in Grassy Park, Cape Town, in April 2010.

She agreed to work with the school for a year, but that partnership has become an ongoing relationship. “I’ve become a member of the community. I can’t imagine myself walking away from this school,” said Van Rhyn.

“The initial idea was that the school is at the centre of a ­community. We have been working to create a stronger sense of ­partnership between the school, parents and the community.”

Van Rhyn has since expanded the project to include 29 schools in various provinces. She aims to have 120 participating schools by June.

Involving parents
“Louise challenged us and we discovered that there are a few parents who are interested in getting involved. We needed to look for them and enrol them and others to help the school. It was a chance to value the parent and get them involved,” said Samodien. He said they invited ­parents to school meetings and ­created an environment for them to engage in conversation.

“We have created a space for parents to have their voices heard and the energy rises. The ripple effect from that is awesome. The whole energy of the school has changed. It went from being depressed to ­optimistic,” said Samodien.

Running the school with a partner
Having someone to listen to him, said Samodien, helped him to “think creatively about opportunities to explore at the school”. He said that he stopped feeling “lonely with no one to share the dreams for the school with.

“I had a thinking partner and developed as a person. Sometimes one feels that one is drowning because the bureaucracy and workload in education is unbelievable. Building a community is way down on your list of priorities.”

Training workshops helped
André Pretorius has been the principal at Heathfield Primary School in Cape Town for the past 18 years. He partnered with Sue-Anne Bakker, a personal performance coach who runs Perspectives Coaching and Facilitation.

Pretorius said training workshops helped him and his staff to “take time to think. We needed to slow down. Even the way we speak to each other has changed. We look at the strengths of everybody at the school.
We started talking a different ­language,” said Pretorius.

“We start meetings with a question. We share the things that we were grateful for in the past month. This is about building trust. We work better as a team. We turn to each other and thank each other.”

He said that his “school has changed because we are looking at the possibilities”.

“We have talked to parents because they are citizens that must accept ownership of the school. Rather than looking at what must be fixed all the time, we focus on people’s strengths.”

The results are energising
Bakker said she initially thought the commitment to assist a school principal to succeed would be overwhelming, but it “energised” her.

“You get engrossed in the school. I saw that the principal’s job seemed isolated and lonely. He had to be a leader for his teachers, but also take flak from the education department. Managing a school is more than just running a classroom,” said Bakker.

“Principals need to run their schools like businesses, but they are educators. I shared my business skills with the principal.

“I set up the 40-year-old school’s first website. We also secured a corporate to sponsor a sports field at the school,” said Bakker.

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