Bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and teaching and administrative licensure are just a few of the requirements for becoming a school principal in the United States. But, in many parts of the world these qualifications are not mandatory. Uganda, for example, does not require that a headteacher (the equivalent of a U.S. school principal) obtain official preparation.
During the summer of 2009, Pamela Hallam, professor in the Educational Leadership Foundations department of the McKay School of Education, along with colleagues Steven and Julie Hite, spent a month in Uganda examining these challenges and researching strategies of new headteachers and the liabilities of their newness. Most of the headteachers’ schools are privately owned, funded by student fees and personal investments from the school director and board of directors. These schools are resource poor–lacking basic supplies and equipment.
Although the professional rise of Ugandan educators is much easier than advancement of their U.S. counterparts, some of the challenges they face in top administrative positions are similar. Advice given to Samuel, a Ugandan headteacher, from an informal mentor sums up the situation: “The higher a chimpanzee climbs, the higher its naked bottom is exposed.”
Samuel recalled that his mentor provided this advice to explain that you can’t avoid being critiqued when you are a top administrator. He said, “You need to create an atmosphere where people feel free to critique you, because once they know they have that freedom, they will eventually become contributors to your growth rather than contributors to your downfall.” Hallam notes that this advice is fitting for both Ugandan headteachers and educational administrators in the states.
Interviewing 20 headteachers who had no more than four years of experience in their positions, Hallam and the Hites, discovered five core challenges these new headteachers faced: managing school administration and resources, navigating succession, balancing diverse stakeholders, ensuring school academic performance, and surviving the competitive school environment. “US principals face similar challenges,” said Hallam. “But the sheer magnitude of these decisions makes the decisions required to run a school extremely difficult.”
In the US, managing limited resources could mean having to decide between cutting an elective course or an extracurricular activity. Managing resources in Uganda would mean having to decide between feeding the students and paying the teachers. “The 20 headteachers I interviewed had such a love for student learning they would sacrifice time and energy–and even go without food,” said Hallam.
Navigating succession is another core challenge for any new principal filling the shoes of a veteran. Not only do headteachers in Uganda lack formal training, most receive no form of mentorship from the outgoing administrator. “All participants felt unprepared, insufficiently informed, and challenged by the succession process,” said Hallam. Samuel remembered, “ The former headteacher left, giving me no information to carry on…. There was quite a gap. I just came in and started from scratch.”
Although the magnitude of problems is different, Uganda’s strategies for addressing challenges are very similar to U.S. practices. Headteachers seek advice from mentors, work to enhance the school image, and actively communicate and build relationships with each other. The necessity for building relationships and networks was a strategic theme for most of the informants interviewed by Hallam.
These Ugandan headteachers have a great deal of optimism and vision despite their difficult circumstances. Hallam said, “I was amazed at their positive attitude and the hope they have for a better future. They believe they are making a difference. They are so invested in the youth because they recognize that student learning is the only way to strengthen Uganda.”
To minimize the liabilities of newness she observed, Hallam suggests that the Ugandan Ministry of Education require or at least provide preparatory training or on-the-job training and mentoring that would give headteachers more opportunity to positively influence their students’ education and their schools’ performance.