Principals Be[a]ware

Principals Be[a]ware!: Student centered learning also requires teacher centered learning and it must permeate every aspect of schooling, even discipline!

By Dr. Barbara Kameniar

After spending nearly 20 years in teacher education I decided to “put my money where my mouth was” and return to teach in schools in February this year. I had spent 2012 undertaking the role of a “clinical specialist” supervising teacher candidates during their placements in schools and had become increasingly enthused about returning to high school teaching.

Having taught across a good part of the teacher education program at three different Australian universities and in subjects ranging from ethics and education, to educational psychology, sociology of education and subject specific pedagogical studies, I had developed a strong sense of what was possible within the classroom. I was aware of many of the inhibitors to student-centered practices as well as some of the ways in which to address those inhibitors. I had also become increasingly convinced that one of the best ways to effect change in education was for expert teacher educators to return to school classrooms at frequent intervals to share their expertise and to learn.

I quite deliberately chose a school in a disadvantaged area where national literacy and numeracy assessment results were low. For example, approximately one in four students were below the national benchmark in literacy and one in three below the national benchmark in numeracy at one of the year levels. The school had a principal who had held the position for four years and by all accounts the school had moved from being unwieldy and, in some cases, unsafe, to being an orderly and well-kept place with increasing enrollments.

However, a quick glance at the publically available literacy and numeracy results suggested that while order and discipline had improved, learning outcomes for many students had declined. So what happened and what can be learnt from the example of this school?

First, it is important to note that the principal was no doubt well intentioned, and that this school is not unique. Australia’s decline in international test results over the last ten years suggests that performance outcomes for many Australian students have fallen. This fall has happened at the same time that there has been a shift to private education, an increased emphasis on uniforms and discipline, and a focus on a single national curriculum and agreed standards. That is, the more governments, education departments and schools have focused on uniformity and control, the greater the decline in outcomes. It is important to note that this decline has not been universal. Some students still do well but overall outcomes have fallen.

The reasons for this change are multiple and complex. However, I would like to focus on three elements of school leadership that are not often spoken about in a field of literature that emphasizes policies and procedures; trust, freedom and respect. Before discussing these I will briefly outline a key practice within the school in which I worked for a few weeks and highlight how its apparent success had negative implications for trust, freedom and respect, and ultimately for student and teacher learning.

The Practice

As noted above, four years ago the school had significant problems with violent, aggressive and dangerous behavior. Like many principals in Australia and Thailand the incoming Principal acted decisively to “take control”. Quite appropriately the Principal established clear boundaries and clear consequences for any breach. The Principal insisted on a “whole school approach” to discipline. This entailed the identification and articulation of behavioral expectations among students that were to be systematically applied by all teachers. Behavioral expectations were reinforced through clearly defined rewards and punishments.

At the center of this system was the use of a school diary. Behavioral expectations were reduced to four (and later three) core values that were printed on every second page in the diary. At the beginning of the week, all students commenced with a grade of C+ for each value. During the week teachers were encouraged to record a student’s adherence to the values through notes in the diary that specified “good and respectful” behavior and “bad or disruptive” behavior. At the end of the week the pastoral teacher went through each diary, undertaking a calculus of “good” and “bad” notes, adding up or down from the C+ to derive a grade for the week. Students would then take the diaries home with the opportunity to share their success or otherwise, with their parents or guardians.

Teachers were expected to adhere to this process and were followed up by senior staff if they didn’t identify or manage a specific breach of behavior – particularly those breaches related to uniform, lateness or being out of class. Teachers were also expected to sign-in when they arrived at school and sign-out when they left (an unfamiliar but increasingly common practice for teachers in a traditionally liberal society like Australia), and clear expectations around arrival and departure times were set for staff.

An array of experts was brought in to undertake performance development with the teachers, and teachers were supported to undertake professional learning outside the school. Most teachers’ workloads were high (in part, as a result of needing to pay for a growing number of administration and non-teaching managerial staff) and teachers who were not deemed competent (or in some cases competent but not compliant) carried workloads that were so heavy they inevitably made the decision to seek employment elsewhere or they asked to go part-time. At times requests for part-time employment were refused and teachers subsequently left.

After four years of these processes being rigorously applied I arrived to find students who wore their uniforms well, were generally very polite, arrived at class on time and with the books that were required for the lesson. I also found a school in which teachers arrived early, worked at their desks in between lessons and stayed late. If the mark of an effective school is order then this school might be deemed to be effective.

However, I also found students who were passive learners and who saw the teacher as the locus of control, not only for their behavior but for their thinking as well. Most of the students saw “getting the right answer” as the purpose of learning and “remaining quiet while completing a required task” as the mark of a “good student”.

I found teachers who deeply loved and cared for the students and who were prepared to engage in their own professional learning so that student outcomes were enhanced. However, their teaching loads limited planning time and the idea of planning as a team, was foreign to most. The application of rigid rules around behavior, compliance and obedience meant the teacher’s creativity and effectiveness was reduced.

While creative pedagogic practices occurred in some classrooms, they often appeared to be used as engagement tools rather than learning tools. That is, students enjoyed the classes because the activities were fun but the activities were not necessarily organized to enable building of deep knowledge and discipline-specific skills over time.

Because the principal frequently asked students questions like “who is your favorite teacher?” and student dislikes and complaints had implications for the teachers, some teachers inevitably sought to “keep the peace” by not asking anything too demanding of the students. The rather dangerous practice of emphasizing “favorites” was one of the few examples of seeking students’ feelings about their schooling. However, it acted more as a way of “catching teachers out” than as genuinely seeking student feedback regarding their progress and learning experiences. In short, the attempt to create a safe and orderly school environment encouraged students and teachers to be silent and compliant. They effectively became disempowered.

When I arrived at the school the Principal recognized a problem existed – “the students in this school are not active learners and the teachers need help”. However, the Principal was unable to see that the discipline policy that had been so successful at stopping unruly behavior four years earlier was now a big part of the problem. While we would all agree that an orderly school is important in terms of safety and learning, when orderliness becomes control, active, deep and insightful student centered learning is severely inhibited.

The discipline practices described above are reminiscent of Pavlov and his dog. B.F. Skinner, the often-maligned behaviorist, criticized simple reward and punishment approaches to learning arguing instead that positive and negative reinforcement, provided at indeterminate intervals, was more effective. Given that Skinner’s behaviorism has itself been severely criticized over the years for its de-humanization of students and narrow outcomes, one does have to ask why this, and other schools, continue with practices that are pre-Skinnerian and that Skinner himself described as ineffective.

Certainly there may be times when behavior in schools is so dangerous, or obstructs learning to such an extent, that it becomes justifiable to utilize a strict behaviorist approach. However, once the immediate danger is over it is imperative that a school quickly moves to more humanist and restorative sets of practices. That is, practices that are commensurate with the education of active and responsible citizens must always be a priority. Narrowly defined behaviorist practices that render students and teachers passive and compliant must be resisted as much as possible.

Truly student-centered practices require trust, freedom and respect for students and teachers. Below I outline very briefly where each of these qualities were missing and what practices might have assisted in developing them. I also argue that there needs to be coherence between expectations for students and the support that teachers are given.


One of the most basic human needs is to be able to trust and be trusted. According to Erik Erikson (1979) we must first learn to trust and then to know others can trust us if we are to become autonomous, independent, industrious people who are able to take initiative and be active, powerful and productive citizens with a sense of social justice for ourselves and others. However, for all intents and purposes, there appeared to be a lack of trust in the students and teachers at this school. Why else would so much about their daily lives need to be itemized and administered? Why else would surveillance be normalized and reporting on infractions have had been so valued? Teachers and students were corrected and controlled, and this affected learning.

Teachers were expected to engage in student-centered and constructivist practices in the classroom because they were told to do so. However they, themselves, were treated as passive recipients of the wisdom of others. They were exposed to “experts” who were either brought into the school or encountered in professional learning days away from the classroom. Much of the professional learning was abstract or limited because it focused on what others thought the teachers needed rather than what the teachers identified as important for their immediate and long-term practice. Later, when the teachers were asked what they needed, they identified simple and affordable practices – time to plan together, fewer interruptions to classroom time, support for extending their pedagogic content knowledge that was relevant to their current needs, the opportunity to watch others teach and to have others watch them and give them feedback. They wanted feedback! But feedback for themselves and their growth as teachers, not feedback for a performance review that would result in a judgment being made about them as a teacher.

It seems like common sense to say that student-centered learning will be most effective when teachers understand “from the inside” what it means to be valued and trusted themselves, when they are acknowledged as learners, as much as they are understood to be teachers. Recognition and negotiation requires a situated understanding of what recognition and negotiation looks like, and feels like. Teachers tend to know what they need and they must be trusted to be able to identify and articulate these needs. Like students, not all teachers may know the best way to achieve their identified needs, however, they are usually open to suggestions that are respectful of their freedom.


Paulo Freire (1972) calls education the “practice of freedom”. For Freire, if education does not lead to freedom then it is not education, but instead, another form of repression.

Freire articulated a view of student centeredness that was reliant on a reconceptualization of the teacher as teacher-student and the student as student-teacher. This reconceptualization is dependent on structural enablers within a school that do not control the teachers’ practices through excessive focus on minutiae.

It has become increasingly common in Australian schools to document almost every detail of each student’s learning. The documentation often has regulatory intent insofar as it records not only the student’s progress but the teacher’s practices as well. The increase in documentation has occurred at a time when classroom contact time is also increasing, leading to an emphasis by some teachers on record keeping of results rather than on student learning per se.

Knowledge and skills are also broken down into minute detail and arranged hierarchically with an assumption that progress is reliant on the successful completion of preceding stages. While there are some clear advantages to understanding various steps along the way to expertise in any area, focus on the steps as an end in themselves is problematic in the extreme. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1991) wrote that attendance to “little things” is an effective way of training individuals and groups in “correct” practices that are defined by people who have authority and power.

Attention to minute detail is frequently engaged as a practice to render people passive. If student-centered education is ever going to fulfill its aims, teachers as well as students must be given the freedom to negotiate with one another about what learning is valuable, what learning outcomes are appropriate, and how learning should proceed. The ideas of teachers and students must be respected and valued as importance components of successful education.


When an excessive adherence to similitude first gave way to an understanding that difference was not only a part of life but also something of great value, “tolerance” was considered the most appropriate response. The idea of tolerance lost favor because of the way in which it reproduced an imbalance in power between those who were tolerant and those who were being tolerated. More recently “tolerance” gave way to the much more radical disposition of respect. Respect entails recognizing the inherent worth of something or someone. Teachers and students should be respected by one another and should also be respected by and respect Principals and other education leaders. It is only in a climate of deep respect for one another that all participants in education will grow.

Recently I spent time in another school in a disadvantaged area not too far from the school I described above. This school approached disadvantage in a different way, through trust, freedom and respect for teachers, students and the local community. The school has a long history of adapting teaching and learning to the interests and needs of students in the school and of taking students out of school to meet the requirements of the curriculum in alternative settings such as farms and industry. However, most impressive was the way in which teacher learning is seen as a vital part of student learning.

Rather than the Principal being seen as someone who must control outcomes for students through controlling teachers and their practices, the Principal in this school works with other senior staff to sit alongside teachers in their classrooms and help them with their planning and practice. Working more as a coach or mentor than a supervisor or judge, the Principal and senior staff work with teachers to help them identify the learning needs of the students and to ensure that their practices help to meet those needs.  Teachers are trusted to be able to engage in professional conversations about their own practices and given the freedom to experiment with alternative ideas. All teachers I spoke to indicated that their practice was becoming more student-centered in response to the opportunity to engage in non-judgmental professional conversations that are the result of direct observations of their practices.

There are probably no distinct sets of practices that will meet the learning needs of all students and teachers in all schools. Whatever practices are engaged in should be driven by a desire to trust both teachers and students, value freedom and be prepared to live with the “risk” of freedom, and be prepared to respect teachers’ and students’ understandings of their needs and also their desires. This is a story for Principals because they are, in the end, the people who limit or permit the shape of learning in schools. It is an Australian tale but, as someone who has spent quite a number of years visiting schools in Thailand, it is a Thai tale too. Our desires for positive outcomes must always be underpinned by a commitment to trusting others, being prepared to accept their right to freedom, and respecting the decisions they make. This does not diminish the role of the Principal. Instead it frames the Principal as a wise and knowledgeable Ajarn who gently guides, rather than a bureaucratic administrator whose chief role is to assess.

2 replies on “Principals Be[a]ware

An excellent and refreshing article that is relevant at all levels of education. I certainly hear the term Student Centered Classroom mentioned a lot and it is my preferred teaching style as can be seen from my website the Active Learner. What I have found is that very few people actually know what a Student Centered Classroom is and what defines it.

This article really hit the SCL nail on the head. A toast to the author and a wish that we can see more writing from her. With Gratitude, Danny

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