Principals I used to know
By Vijaya Jayasuriya
@ The Island - 22 July 2006
It is axiomatically said that the opening of a school leads to the closure of several prisons. The basic idea here is what most Greek philosophers opined about education—it is the duty of the school to mould the character of students to be virtuous citizens.
The better part of the responsibility for this in a school is to be borne by the principal who is invariably saddled with a multi-faceted role in his institution—manager, administrator, counsellor, teacher, facilitator etc. This is indeed an extremely onerous task although, most unfortunately, many individuals who act in the capacity of a school head today hardly realise the gravity of it resulting in grievous situations followed by disastrous consequences. It is the students who suffer the most in such instances as their destiny depends to a great extent on decisions taken by principals and also the way they manage the staff under them.
My convictions thus expressed are based solely on my experience as a teacher for fourteen years and an administrator for six years during which time I have met and worked with a vast spectrum of personalities dealing with multifarious situations in schools. These characters, ranging from the most noble to average and mean levels, have arguably contributed a considerable extent to the success or failure of teaching situations resulting in students who either achieve higher levels of learning or just sink to such depths as the dregs of society.
A fine specimen of school heads I encountered was the headmaster of my very first school as a child. He was a man with a formidable appearance—a tall well-built man with a plump face on a large head with grey hair combed nicely to a side. He generated terror in us instead of inspiring respect, mainly because he always carried as his erstwhile companion, a thick cane which he used to keep behind his back as he strutted, or rather stalked, round his territory, with eyes flitting this way and that to catch anyone misbehaving. He signed his name as "Peter" with two initials and one sure thing about him was that he proved to be a very capable administrator with his gruff and grumpy demeanour that made him a veritable source of fear not only for students but for his miserable staff as well, the better part of which consisted of very timid females who never dared even to look him straight in the eye.
Our headmaster used to be a tough disciplinarian, so much so that students who were absent had to go to him the following morning for "punishment". He asked the "culprits" to line up before him and sitting in his large armchair kept them on tenterhooks, trembling with trepidation, occasionally raising his big eyes from the book before him to scowl at them. He would then suddenly rise to his feet with the cane in hand and say "atha" (hand!), and as the little ones raised their arms palms upwards, delivered two cuts each muttering "ayeth iskole kut karanne ne neida" (no cutting school hereafter, eh?).
The worst part of it was that I too was sent by the class teacher once or twice for being absent and faced my turn in the "polima". He used to assume a very benign attitude and would gently say "go to the class!" without even raising the horrible cane! This differential treatment was embarrassing as I felt sad for my friends who wilted under the sharp cut while I enjoyed an unreasonable "amnesty"!
One day a big boy commented that the headmaster did not punish me as he feared my father who was "someone" in the area. As he said it with a little malice, one day while returning home after school, I retaliated by showing him the tree tops visible from the road and saying, "yes, those are the coconut trees from which my father gets toddy to drink".
The headmaster sometimes took the reading lesson with us apart from his admin duties. When he came, he got us to stand in a circle under a tree and walked behind us menacingly with his cane threatening to thrash anyone who faltered in reading. The cane fell on our backs the moment we missed out a word, mispronounced or even failed to pick up from the point the last reader stopped. So it was one full period of agony for us little ones, aged around eight or nine, whose faculty of loud reading had only barely developed. It was only after becoming a teacher educator myself that I happened to discover the fault of the whole process of this kind of "forced" reading—applied linguists call the process of reading "a psycholinguistic guessing game". It’s called guessing because any reader tries to mentally link his existing (past) knowledge with the encoded message. What is more important is the concept of being "psycholinguistic" as reading is a mental activity that requires optimum peace of mind, without outside interference, let alone the threatening atmosphere created by that headmaster of ours. Rightly enough I still falter sometimes in my reading after having studied volumes on my subject apart from reading works of fiction, while none of my classmates in that primary school was able to pass the entrance exam to be selected to the Central School. I only passed because of the "bookish" environment I had at home.
The principals I encountered at the Central School proved to be the veritable antithesis of the aforesaid individual. While having a redoubtable personality that inspired more respect than fear in us, more than anything else they were exemplary individuals who were a strong influence in moulding our characters and in facilitating our education towards achieving professional heights.
As I have once before expatiated in these columns on one of these principals just a brief mention is made here on his noble qualities. There was one teacher called Mr. Wijesuriya who was also a volunteer army officer not allowed boxer who had little regard for authority though he respected the principal for his genuineness. Travelling from Dodanduwa to Ambalangoda by rail and then by bus to Karandeniya, he was sometimes late arriving and was often disallowed by the principal to sign the attendance register. He did not return home, but carried on with his classes according to his timetable although he was marked absent on some days.
One fine day while we were at the morning assembly, a village thug crashed in, strutting menacingly between the two lines of students towards the principal with a sandal in his hand as if to hit him with it (it was later learnt that his child had been refused admission to school on some valid reason). We all stood aghast while the principal, Wilmot Silva, stood unflinchingly before the imminent humiliation.
Mr. Wijesuriya lunged forward and in spite of his grudge with the principal took the man by his arms and dragged him back to the gate, while some big boys followed them fearing retaliation. "Stay where you are" snarled the principal and the students immediately took up their positions. It was heard later that the principal never melted in his attitude towards his subordinate because he averted a rather embarrassing situation at the assembly that day, and always stuck to his ritual of refusing the attendance record whenever the latter got late!
This is indeed the epitome of a good principal who never wavered in carrying out his principles and acted according to the dictates of his conscience. When we compare this kind of noble behaviour with what is happening in many places today favouritism is to be seen as the key characteristic of individuals in managing their staff. This kind of conduct by principals inevitably creates bitterness among teachers who do their duties conscientiously and if not for their sheer dedication in the face of ill-treatment by their heads, it is the students who are ultimately compelled to bear the brunt with their futures disrupted.
I know of a certain current instance where the principal leaves the school soon after signing the book and returns only at midday after getting his private business done. A lady working as his deputy being unqualified and incompetent runs the school haphazardly, showering on her acolytes favours like avoiding classroom teaching and leaving before closing time to attend to their household work. The principal keeps praising those who help him maintain a false facade with activities promoting pomp and pageantry. He lets them enjoy freedom from classwork so that they remain in and around the office vegetating and often providing information to the bosses as their main task!