The education of a principal
Roni Salameh discovers that politics is as important as pedagogy.
"Before I was appointed a school principal, I thought I would be involved in pedagogy 90 percent of the time, that every local authority understands that education is the most important thing, and that therefore I would get whatever I asked for, within rational limits. Now I understand that you have to be a politician, too.
"Sometimes there's no choice, because you have to work with various groups: pupils, parents, the municipality and the Education Ministry, and there isn't always agreement among them. And also because education is too important. It's a more dangerous profession than being a surgeon: If I fail at the 'operation' I will cause the pupil damage or trauma; the 'patient' will continue to live for another 70 years, but he'll never open a book or take an interest in his surroundings."
That is how Roni Salameh, 44, tries to sum up her first two years as principal of the Agamim elementary school in Safed. She arrived here shortly after the end of the Second Lebanon War, and her first task was to create a new educational institution out of two small schools that had been merged, while confronting parents who didn't want the change, and veteran teachers who were in no rush to cooperate with it.
The number of decisions made by every principal, especially if he's new, is tremendous: from purely pedagogical issues, through nurturing the atmosphere in the school and up to ongoing administrative issues. "I didn't know that the job of principal is so lonely," said Salameh. "At any moment something terrible could happen. Nobody wants to share the responsibility, but many are willing to share the glory."
Another, no less difficult aspect is maneuvering among the demands made by various factors. For example, the desire of some of the parents to remove "problematic" pupils from the school. Salameh says "I don't believe in the viewpoint that if there's a problem, someone else has to solve it. That's precisely my job, to find an answer to all the pupils' difficulties and to try to keep them inside the system."
And there's the matter of achievements, on which the school is measured via the nationwide, standardized Meitzav (Measure in Efficiency and Growth) examinations. "Of course, one has to demand achievements of the pupils," explains Salameh, "but I have a different order of priorities. I'm less concerned about which chapter in the Bible the pupils will reach in the lesson, and more concerned about how to raise them to be contributing citizens. If we don't start with that in first grade, it won't happen later."
Shortly after beginning the job, Salameh organized the Student Leadership. This is not only the familiar student council, but rather cooperation on more fundamental issues: a decision as to whether the educational institution will be called a "school" or a "place of education," and afterward choosing a name for the school and designing its symbol. The members of the Student Leadership went from class to class, explained the various possibilities, and organized a poll, in which the parents and teachers also participated.
Salameh worked similarly with the 25 teachers who teach in the school. "It might have been easier to run things with me deciding on all the issues," she says. "After all, the teachers are very busy in any case. But one of my jobs is to empower them too, to ask what their dream is and to help make it come true." Most of the teachers took new projects on themselves in addition to their regular work, projects such as developing a "computerized report card" for the pupils, a lesson on Judaism at the beginning at every Hebrew month, or setting up a game room to be used by the pupils during breaks.
Salameh says two central events shaped her activity as a teacher and later as a principal. The first took place when she was a first-grader, "and the teacher said I was stupid and that nothing would come of me. Today I'm already a big girl, but I'm still proving the opposite to her. I began as a first-grade teacher, just so there wouldn't be teachers like that."
The second event took place about 10 years ago. "I insulted a child in front of the whole class," she recalls, with some emotion. "I said something like, 'You have to try harder, and how many times do I have to tell you?' He was insulted and lowered his head. I immediately understood the mistake. I can't forget that child. Sometimes I think about finding him, asking him if there is any way to make amends for what I did. I have many achievements in education, but I'm ashamed of that mistake. Maybe that's why I try so hard to ensure that all the teachers in school treat the pupils with respect."