Schools and Leaders

Schools and Leaders


Schools deal with people who must be allowed to grow in their own ways Photo courtesy: Reuters

The CEO sat next to me on the flight. We smiled, as old friends do when they meet after a gap of years. She had been my boss ten years ago, and I had learnt much of my leadership skills from her. She was of course now seen more in magazines and newspapers. I was but a teacher.

“What do you do now?”, she asked with her characteristic crooked smile.

“I run a school. Actually, it is almost two schools now”. A hint of pride in my voice.

It had been a tough ride. From the land to the clearances. From the idea to funds. Then the hard work of creating the models that had been buzzing in my head for years. Honed in the rich and poor classrooms I had stood in, sometimes teaching always learning.

“So you did not want to lead a company?”, she asked.

But I do, I thought. I lead a company of men and women who care. I lead a company of eager eyed students who would rather be with me at my school than anywhere else. I lead a company that has budgets and bugbears and targets and everything that your company has – only it is smaller. In monetary terms.

“Not the kind of company you do, no”, I smiled sweetly to soften the blow.

It glanced off her unseen. I was glad. She had been my mentor and had taught me much. I was grateful to her for the confidence in myself. She was my inspiration.

But her model of leadership would never work in a school. I tried some, and most had to be modified. For years I had heard teachers say – these consultants and their ways/these policies. They look nice on paper but our school is different.

Therein lies the fundamental difference. Companies deal with products and services that try to be the same. People who are held to the same standards. Schools deal with people who must be allowed to grow in their own ways. We support difference even as we seek higher standards.

The path to order in businesses is via standardisation. In schools, I know many have tried it. We impose uniforms. And syllabus. Everyone has the same books and the same teachers who must prepare each class (more boxing in there) for the same examinations. We try as much as we can to put our students and teachers in neat little boxes. But as a school leader I know this is the right way to run the school, but is not enough to nurture.

But she was not my guru for nothing, and her very next sentence disarmed me. “You and I do very similar work you know, but yours must feel more complex to you. Close contact with diverse ambitions does that.”

Corporate leadership is not very different from school leadership in its objectives and even in its theory. A workshop on either would look very similar if one only looked at the handouts and slides. Leadership in both would be about creating a vision, communicating the mission and building teams. But in its practice, the school leader is often dealing with a flatter structure and feels the pressure to offer more access. In schools, the norming often happens via rules and that could – and possibly must – seep through the leadership and management style of the head too. The authority is exercised in more traditional ways. Consensus is often led rather than allowed to evolve and management is often by task rather than by objective. All successful school leaders acknowledge that their forays into more ‘lenient’ ways of managing their teams have made things more difficult for them in the short run. Schools expect their leaders to hold them together, to maintain the hierarchy as proof of order and to inspire awe.

“Schools expect their leaders to inspire order a bit more than corporates do”, I asserted. “I have to be more hands on in my leadership. I cannot delegate it the way you can to your teams. My people expect me to take all the decisions. Being a leader in a school feels harder because I have to lead and manage both.”

“And you think I do not do both and more?” I could see that she was trying to stop herself from laughing. “The larger the organisation, the more there is to organise and manage – that much must be obvious. And while the risks, rewards and valuations are large, at the end of the day everything is about the people and their alignment. A leader constantly works to ensure their flock is in alignment with their vision. The only way to do that is to nurture their work. I call it leading, you see managing.”

“Do they not look up to you and expect you to make the choice?” I asked

“I have chosen the direction. They must walk the path, knowing that I am watching them every step of the way. That way, whenever they turn or stumble, they see me supporting them, cajoling them. Yes, it is hard work, much more than they will ever see. And yes I do know what happens in each branch, each shopfloor everyday. But that is what you and I are here for.” She smiled as she rose from her seat – “Lets talk more sometime, you have my numbers”

I knew I would not call, but I knew she was there for me. She, as she said, had shown the direction. I could make my own milestones.

(P.S. This story is not entirely fictional)

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Everybody needs a pat on their back. From time to time, everybody needs to be able to talk to somebody more knowledgeable, more experienced and more philosophical. Sometimes because one needs a little encouragement, sometimes to renew the faith in oneself. Often one needs a more experienced hand to help us decide direction. More often than not, it is simply because we need to know that somebody is listening and somebody cares. In this competitive world, it is a relief to find some one who is objective and invested in our success.

Mentors help us with our existential questions, but do not answer them for us. They are there for us both as a sounding board and with handy advice when we tackle our classic stage of life questions: What should we do next? How should we do it? What pitfalls can we envisage and try to avoid? Mentors have the experience and the networks to help us reach farther than we can on our own. They are essential for fledgelings, or for any change or  ‘lift off’ stage of life. Mentors are our booster shot in life.

Indian culture, and for that matter many other traditional cultures have mentorship built into the warp and weave of life. Our Guru Shishya parampara was not merely the relationship between teacher and student. The Guru is a mentor, often for life. One relies on the gurus, goes back to them in times of need. Sometimes just to rest, sometimes to lean back, often just to feel safe from the battering that one may receive at work. One comes back renewed, refreshed and ready for the next challenge – and if the guru is skilled, one does not even know how it happened. Then, just the thought that the door of the guru is always open is a resource, a source of strength.

As teachers, we are often mentors to our students, though maybe not to all of them. For those who we mentor, a little nudge here, the right questions asked at the right time, a little mental exercise, a challenge set and achieved – these are some of the tools we use everyday. Students may not even realise they are being mentored. The most elegant mentoring is subtle. Parents are mentors too – but their emotional engagement in the child’s success impairs their mentoring. There is little room for strong emotions in mentoring.

Teaching could be a lonely place, and teachers, more than any other profession need a mentoring network to keep them on track. Much of teaching, in practice is about talking to students, holding one’s own in the staff room and looking invincible. That is exhausting – we know it. All leaders know this, and just like in the corporate world, teachers too need renewal and support.

The best teachers are those who set up self renewal mechanisms. They have senior teachers as mentors. They build relationships full of affection and respect inside their classes. In the staffroom they are able to give and receive advice with no loss of face, because it is between peers. The feedback loops here are constructive and therefore effective. Some people seem to do this naturally, others watch and learn. The ones who watch, learn and then pass it on are those who build institutions.

Mentoring should be a part of the formal role of seniors in organisations and must be kept separate from the reporting relationships or from appraisal networks. This is very difficult in small places. In schools senior teachers and head teachers should have formal mentoring responsibilites – a duty of care in addition to the duty of sight. Formal mentoring would mean allocating time and resources to regular sit down sessions, phone/email conversations and interventions. A mentor has a duty to look out for their charges. Informal  mentoring networks look easier but depend too much on personalities. Those who are shy or reclusive often miss out on the potential for growth. Mentoring networks, whether senior or even peer networks do not happen automatically, they need building and nurturing

We seek mentors for advice, but when they give it, it can be difficult to take. Traditional and untutored mentoring can be oppressive too. It is a skilled mentor who guides but does not stifle. It is an extremely lucky person who finds a good mentor. It is a wise person who seeks many mentors and learns from each. And, it is a silly person who takes their mentors for granted. Mentoring others is hard work and takes time away from one’s own life and interests. The rewards are few – satisfaction and the joy of making someone else successful. Within corporates the worth of mentoring has been appreciated and forms part of the formal role, but even then much depends upon the goodwill of the mentor. It is often a one way street. All the more reason for the person receiving support (I am not fond of the word – mentee) to respect the time and effort put in by the mentor in their success.  The input is such a treasure that thanks are inadequate, often payment inappropriate.

Does everybody deserve a mentor? We may think so, but would the mentors agree? There is a story in hindu mythology that speaks of a time when Shiva, the most perfect performer would not perform until he found the perfect audience – Vishnu. So it is with mentors, as with gurus. They know that some people benefit more from their inputs.  With some people stronger bonds are created, and with the common cause comes a more successful partnership. Mentors seek that, because that is their main reward.

Finally, can mentoring be taught? Is it a skill or a talent? Both of course, but more of a skill – thus the tools can be taught. Most people can give advice, not all can be mentors. Mentoring involves self discipline, objectivity and the ability to eliminate oneself from the discussion. At the same time,  mentoring need not be a complex process – sometimes all it takes is a warm hug, virtual or real. From time to time.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 18, 2012, and is linked here, and

This entry proved more popular than many others, surprisingly, and was shared by sites around the world.

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Handling a Crisis at School

Bad news in schools. Happens. What does the school leadership do? How are they supposed to handle the crisis? Does it depend upon the nature of the crisis? Naturally yes, but are there standard procedures that can be put in place to help the leader when the need arises. Certainly. And this must be done. Or the crisis can only become worse. 


Just this week, the father of my son’s classmate (best friend actually) passed away. He died in a train accident. All the children are in their early teens. Does the school have a responsibility to do anything in this case? Are the other children in their care in need of support? Last year, in the same school, a few children beat up a boy and fractured his arm. This is a large school, incidents like this do occur, frequently. Does the school call this a crisis? Do they deal with this as an incident? A disciplinary issue? If it recurs, then? What if such behaviour escalates – a child throws another off a parapet? Is that a crisis?


The shooting incidents in schools in America are indeed a crisis. As are the instances of violence in schools in India, whether perpetrated by teachers or students. Crisis could be a medical emergency, such as with the Bird Flu epidemic where certain classes or entire schools had to be shut down. Then of course there are those crisis that we bring upon ourselves by bad maintenence of equipment – many electricity junctions are fire hazards. Or buses killing children. Many such instances across schools and colleges. We do reel from crisis to crisis, survive by firefighting, create angst and move on – and in the process we lose much. We lose our faith in systems, because we have none.

Should we not?

Crises come in various shapes and forms, from earthquakes, to fires to incidents inside and outside the schools. A dharna outside a school is as much a risk to children coming and going as is a child missing a school bus. These are everyday risks that must have standardised operating procedures. Elite schools do conduct risk assessments, and often the others too have evolved processes. But these need to be codified. Everybody must clearly know their role and responsibility in a crises, so that anxiety is minimised and all the essential things get done. We have seen city wide exercises in responses to earthquakes, and these exercises received much criticism – they were disorderly, badly organised and did not establish any protocols as they should. Schools may not even have fire alarms, let alone weekly tests and monthly fire drills.


Nor are communication protocols in place. Crises are rare, but it would only make things worse if parents and helpers could not contact each other. Or worse, received the wrong messages. Even worse would be falling prey to rumours and speculation. In any crisis, as in war, the key is planning and communication.


There can be nothing worse for a parent than to not be sure that their child is safe. And nothing more callous than for schools to ignore the need to plan for the parents and the community. You would not want to be in a postion where everybody is calling all the numbers they have, and not getting a clear response anywhere.


A few things that all school leaders must put in place as part of their responsibility.


  1. Run a risk audit, even if you do it yourself, with responsible staff. Figure out where the school is vulnerable and plan to rectify those issues
  2. Plan for severe outages of water, electricity, telephones – if your school is used to these luxuries and depends on them
  3. Plan exit routes and practice a safety drill at least once a month. Yes, it is hard work, but will save lives and tension on the day it is needed.
  4. Allocate responsibilities in case of a crisis to staff and parents, ensure that there is back up. Draw up scenarios and plan for safety.
  5. Have a communication plan ready. And have a general agreement (if a policy feels to formal) on the tone of the communication. If a teacher calls up parents in a crisis and speaks in a panicked voice, parents will also get agitated and may react inappropriately.
  6. Ensure all contact lists are updated regularly. And details such as blood group, allergies are recorded in a place where they can be easily accessed.
  7. Ensure that the school has access to counsellors and supportive professions to deal with the distress of a crisis.
  8. Ensure good flow of information to the school authorities to try to pre-empt the problem, if possible.
  9. Ensure that the follow up plan for after the crisis is in place.
  10. Ensure that adequate training is given for critical tasks to ensure smooth execution.

Use Common Sense – ensure that for each scenario the the basic questions are answered: Who is doing what, when and where are they supposed to be doing their allocated task and how they do it – all of these need to be in the plan. Verify, Collate, Plan, Liase, Support, Contact, Review – build all of these into the process. Above all, be considerate and human in interactions.

There is much more to be said about planning for smooth management of emergencies, and those who seek help only have to ask. Do have a plan in place, for a problem is not a problem when there is a (good) plan. Then it becomes an understood task, easily done.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 18, 2012 and is linked here:

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Governance in Schools: Tragic Costs

Support and mentoring have been proven to work, and we need to see more of them in the network of schools that is widespread in the country 

Last Friday, some schools in Maharashtra refused to serve the mid-day meal to their children. The principals refused to take responsibility for it. Schools in Pune followed suit. It was in Bihar where the mid-day meal deaths started being reported. That started off the shocked realisation that all is not well with the food we give our children, the most vulnerable ones who need the food the most.

Many come to schools just for the food. Schools and students still do not have the trusting relationship one would expect in a nation where the middle-class bets its bottom rupee on education as the driver of prosperity. It is not universally true, because all schools do not perform their duty of care as they should.

Report after report, whether by agencies or news media bemoan the state of our schools. Our food can kill the children. The teaching is left wanting — students are at least three years behind their grade levels. Students are slapped or beaten. Casteism is rife, and girls are made to wash and clean. Girls do not have adequate toilets and drop out of school. Teacher absenteeism is rife, as many live in towns far away. School buildings crumble, till budgets need to be used up at the end of the year.

Is there any one in charge?

The charge of making sure all goes well lies squarely with the principal. The buck stops with the principal. It is the principal who is in a position of accountability for all that happens at the school. There is no getting away from the fact that leadership and governance at the frontline of the education system reside in the office of the principal.

And now the principals say nay. I am sure they will have many supporters — their reasoning seems to be rational. If they do not control the raw materials or the preparation, then it does not seem to be fair to hold them accountable. Yet in the infamous Bihar case it was the head-teacher’s husband who was accused of being the supplier of the raw materials. Despite this control and supervision the tragedy occurred. This clearly is not the real issue.

The big question here is one of governance of schools. If school principals are not in a position to implement the tools of governance, then who is holding the fort? If they cannot ensure that teachers land up, that classes start on time, that students learn what they are supposed to and that the school facilities are maintained well — then what is their role in the school set up?

Governance in schools has been overlooked and has cost the system its very credibility. It is true that the statistics point out that almost all children in India are registered at a school. There are schools within a mile of most habitations. For a country as large and populous as India, this is no mean feat. To have schools, teachers, books, uniforms, and even food, is a humongous task. But if the school does not deliver what it was intended to, then this achievement loses its sheen. The failure may be seen as operational, but delve deeper and it is clear that the duty of oversight has not been managed as well as was needed by this system.

Governance at schools is about three things: Monitoring, support and consequences. As is every constructive system. The system falls apart at the first step — monitoring. So far there is no authentic way of monitoring either the attendance of teachers, teaching quality, pedagogies or student progress. There are a few studies but these are outside commentaries on a system that should be monitoring itself for improvement. The reports on the school system report statistics that do not answer all the questions which analysts need answers to in order to design supportive interventions.

In terms of support, the school system does have the provision in the form of block development officers and district education officers. Some are excellent, and the results are obvious in those districts. The areas with poor support mechanisms clearly suffer from de-motivation that filters through to poor care and lax operations. Support and mentoring have been proven to work, and we need to see more of them in the school system.

This was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on August 22, 2013 and is linked here and

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Teachers Learn to be Leaders Too

Sometimes teachers have to face the strangest situations.

“My student will not stop crying and won’t tell me why’ is probably the most common. Every teacher has had these days when one child completely loses emotional control and it is up to the teacher to keep the class going, make sure that the contagion does not spread and of course needs to console the child.

“I’m having an asthamatic attack and forgot to bring my nebuliser”

“I want to go to the toilet but its too late now” (yes, I paraphrased this one)

Of course the very common,

“He’s hitting me”

and the terrifying,


Yes, teachers deal with all of this and more. Often alone. Standing in front of that class the teacher is the tallest leader ever. A role model. A pillar of strength.

However much the situation daunts them, it is theirs to resolve.

Some are lucky, they work in large and well equipped schools and can transfer some of these problems. The school clinic will be able to take care of the blood and the nebuliser, there may be an ayah or cleaner (in rich Indian schools there is one) to help with the spillage and the toilet issues.

Other teachers are even luckier.. they have been trained in dealing with most situations. Some may even have been trained in spotting conditions such as dyslexia or  ADD/ADHD and will therefore have been told of the ideal response in the class room.

Most teachers are not so lucky. They teach in difficult circumstances, in small schools and in remote areas. They may or may not be prepared to deal with emergencies, they may not even have another teacher in the school to support them in a crisis. These teachers are daily heroes.

And when a newly qualified teacher steps into the job on the first day, it is stepping into the shoes of a hero. Personal heroism is what is required of the job, though, thankfully only occasionally. Thing is, you have no idea when that moment will come.

And that moment is probably the greatest learning a new teacher will receive. The moment when they know that they must step up and deliver. There is no other adult in the room-it is them! For many new teachers, this is their first lesson in leadership.

Learning in the classroom is never just one way. The teacher too is learning how to deal with their circumstances. Some teachers use this as an opportunity for personal growth. Others as a chance to enhance or validate their sense of power. For others it is merely a job. For those who will, there may be no better way to self discovery than to teach young minds.

The lessons of leadership are learnt by doing. Leaders are rarely created by simply reading a book. You have to put yourself out there and build the loyal followership, shape them to your vision and take them along with you on a journey – a teacher does all that everyday.

The leader is in a position of power, but respect and followership do not come merely from the position, but from the knowledge and mentorship that the leader is able to demonstrate. Sometimes a teacher’s power comes from the chair that they occupy. Sometimes, they are simply the largest person in the room. Sometimes, they are looked up to because of the wonder they bring, the stories they tell. Often children really have no idea of the transformation their teachers are bringing, and may even hate the grind they are being put through.. but they do know who cares for them and invests in them. In teaching, more than anywhere else, much of it is leadership by care.

And what does the teacher get for all this lofty leadership? Do they get promotions for being better leaders? Do they get bonuses for standing up for their little people? Not always, we know. Do they get respect? A place at the centre of the community? Economic security? Satisfaction for a job well done? Some do, most don’t.

What teachers do get is a great sense of self, a maturity. Confidence that comes with few other professions. Teaching is about building and communicating self belief. The teacher knows that they have no choice but to have a ‘can-do’ attitude. To know that one can step up when the need arises is a gift earned by a teacher. Whatever the circumstance, with or without incentives, a teacher must make it happen.

To keep leading, to build a followership year after year, not sure of the incentives or rewards, and to still step up and be counted – I don’t know what you call it but it is the stuff that makes heroes.



This was published in the Times of India blogs on February 26, 2013 and is linked here and

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Education and Leadership

Leading educators and educational institutins is a challengs as it requires skills in both management, leadership, administration, pedagogy, organisation development and often, research.


The challenges are often greater than those in other companies, as education is both highly regulated and keenly supervised by its many stakeholders. Often, issues are complex, made more so by the high levels of emotional engagement. Sometimes political involvemetn, often regulatory constraints, but most often, sheer humanity makes for situations that clearly require non-liner solutions.

We hope to make this a forum for support and siscusin based on real challenges faced by leaders of educational institutions across the world.

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