The school principal
He’s revered, sometimes feared. He can make or break a school. The principal sets the tone that fi lters through to every child and teacher. But what does he actually do? Come and meet the principal

It’s the time of the year when school opens and the new Grade 1 kids line up next to their classrooms for the first time. You’ve probably checked out the sports facilities, visited some classrooms and maybe spent a few minutes with the principal. Now it’s time for your little one to meet her teacher.

The Grade 1 teacher is likely to have a huge impact on your child and will play a positive role in shaping her young mind. At first the principal may have little or no direct contact with your child, but his leadership style and the decisions he makes will have a definite influence on her education.


The schoolhouses of yesteryear consisted of one room dwellings. Children of all ages and grades were taught by one teacher who also oversaw the required administrative duties. Changes in the number of children attending school soon forced authorities to better cater for education and multi-grade schools were introduced.

With this came the need for more intense management programmes and some level of discipline. One teacher was appointed as a “principal teacher” and oversaw these tasks while still teaching. Learner numbers increased further and principal teachers were soon forced to stop teaching in order to fill these administration roles in a fulltime capacity, becoming headmasters or school principals.

Today's principals

Today's principals are multitasking individuals responsible for many facets of the running of the school. Alongside their role as educators, principals are managers, public relations people, human resources officers, financial managers, mediators and disciplinarians.

Modern principals are not usually called on to teach but some do opt to remain part time in the classroom to keep abreast of teaching trends.

“One of the main aspects of the principal’s job is to ensure that he or she has a happy staff, because this translates to happy children,” says Di Rademan, principal of Edenglen Primary School near Edenvale.

Di says that sound leadership skills are essential but alongside this, principals must be good communicators, not just with parents but also with learners. “The modern principal is less austere than that of the past,” says Di.

The role of the principal in both public and private schools is essentially the same. “The core job of managing a school, its learners and parent body remains the same,” says Simon Lee, communications manager of the Independent Schools Association of South Africa.

“The differences are primarily in areas of governance: the head or principal of a public school is appointed by and ultimately accountable to the Department of Education (DoE). The head of an independent school is appointed by and accountable to the school’s governing board.”

Technology and its impact on principals

The age of technology has in many ways made the principal’s job a little easier, but in others it is more of a challenge. “Keeping in contact with parents is much easier,” says Simon.

“But principals are now expected to do more of it than ever before. They are expected to be accessible to everyone at all hours, while still managing a school and attending school functions. In fact, the most frequently heard complaint from principals in the technology age is that they never have enough time to do the things that need to be done!”

Recognising the importance of a school's principal

Parents recognise the importance of the principal in a school’s performance. When Janine Pereira had to move her son Dylan (13) to a new school in Grade 4, she was a little apprehensive. “The principal was new and this can be an unsettling time for a school but I soon realised that things were going well the under the new leadership,” she says.

Her daughter, Jessica (6), starts Grade 1 this year and Janine believes that in these early years class teacher plays a more direct role in day-to-day education. “I believe that many children fear the principal but if the child has the opportunity to meet him or her before starting school they would feel different.”

Protocol system for grievances or problems

Every school has a protocol system to ensure that grievances or problems are dealt with promptly and with decorum. “In our school, parents are requested to first see the class teacher,” explains Di Rademan. “If the outcome of this meeting isn’t satisfactory to either party, they can request a meeting with me.”

Financial difficulties are an exception. In this case, you can request a direct meeting with the principal. New parents can also request a meeting before enrolments.

Situations may dictate that the principal requests a meeting with parents. If this is the case, keep your appointment. Remember, the principal and your child’s teacher have her best interests at heart.

Making the principal's job easier

Di says that there are ways parents can help make the principal’s job a little easier. “Attend parents evening,” she says. “Check homework, attend school functions with your child and show an interest in what is happening at school. More importantly, pay your school fees so that we as administrators can use these funds to give the best we can to your child.”

Guidelines for meeting the principal

  1. Call the principal and set up an appointment.
  2. Make a few notes for the meeting – list your concerns or questions and any possible solutions you may have to the situation.
  3. Depending on the reason for the meeting, sit down with your child and ask her for some input, perhaps she has some concerns you want to raise.
  4. If you have called the meeting, the principal will give you a chance to speak first. If the school has requested the meeting, the principal will speak first. Each party should be given time to voice their views. Offer your perspective on the situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Try to avoid criticism and remain calm and composed throughout. Arguing or assigning blame helps no one, least of all your child!

One-on-one with the principal

JC Engelbrecht, SABC 3’s weatherman, is the principal at Abbots College in Johannesburg. JC started his teaching career in 1991 and entered his first post as headmaster in 2003.

Q: What is the biggest personal change, going from being a teacher to a principal?

A: I’m philosophical about this issue. I believe that you can never get away from being a teacher! It is a calling and it should be the one thing that you remain passionate about. Becoming a principal did not change that for me.

Yes – you will be dealing with other issues and you will be dealing with students on a different level but without a clear understanding of what happens in a classroom you will never be a successful principal.

One needs to understand the pressure that comes with being a teacher in South Africa today. As a principal you need to be informed, compassionate and fair. Development of learners and staff now becomes your responsibility.

Administration and mediation takes up more of your time but in the end, I believe, you remain a teacher.

Q: What are benchmarks of a good principal?


  • Consistency when dealing with staff and learners.
  • Fairness in all situations.
  • Compassion and understanding for all involved.
  • Self-discipline in the way you represent yourself and your school.
  • Leading by example.
  • Respect for different opinions and viewpoints. May we all strive to achieve these qualities.

Q: What indirect impacts does the school principal have on a learner, especially in the early years at school?

A: The way in which the principal sets an example and interacts with learners and staff will not only set the tone in the educational environment but will also have a lasting impression on the young learner. Respect must be earned from both sides and acknowledging every individual will give
confi dence and support the personal development of every learner.

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