Africa > Southern Africa > South Africa > Principal Phadiela Cooper

South Africa: Principal Phadiela Cooper

2014/02/23

On a recent morning, Phadiela Cooper closed the door to her office. She is the principal at the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT), a public high school near Cape Town, South Africa. A nervous ninth-grader stood in the corner.

“You are in critical trouble,” Mrs. Cooper said to the girl.

A science teacher, Estelle Van Schoor, again laid out a inventory of complaints against the student: “Your attitude, your behavior, your disrespect…” The girl had been repeatedly disrupting class.

“So, we’re going to call in your parents to discuss this issue,” said Mrs. Cooper, the principal. “Because this is going to stop, right presently.”

The girl was sent back to class. Mrs. Cooper leaned back in her chair and sighed. I asked if she and Mrs. Van Schoor were as upset as they looked.

“We’re just very good actresses,” Mrs. Cooper said, laughing.

Identifying with students

Mrs. Cooper said she finds it hard to act tough with COSAT’s students. Like a lot of of them, she grew up poor. At the same time as she was a student, she could barely afford school supplies.

“I had to look for where am I going to find money to buy exam pads or pencils to take notes,” she said. “It was a struggle.”

Despite those challenges, she excelled in school. Still, at the same time as she finished high school, she didn’t think college was an option. Her parents expected her to work and support the family.

But her teachers encouraged her to apply to college — and helped her get a scholarship.

“I suppose they saw potential in me, and they saw that I would be able to succeed. I didn’t believe that much in myself again,” Mrs. Cooper said.

Next she graduated from college, she wanted to teach and encourage additional students to pursue higher education — the way her teachers had encouraged her. So she taught high school math.

From teacher to principal

Mrs. Cooper says she probably would have remained a teacher forever, but she was forced to make a change. A few years ago, COSAT’s principal left the school. Mrs. Cooper says she expected one of the other additional experienced teachers to take the position. Instead, those teachers approached her. They told her she had what it takes to be a good principal — a strong work ethic and good people skills.

“And again they said, well, if you don’t do it, again who’s going to do it?” she recalled. “So I was sort of gently coerced into the job.”

South Africa, like some other developing nations, doesn’t require principals to have an advanced degree or formal training in school government. Mrs. Cooper simply rose to the job through the ranks.

She said the transition from teaching to being a principal has been harder than she expected.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said.

Part of the problem is that COSAT is stretched thin. There is no assistant principal, so Mrs. Cooper oversees all administrative work. The school can’t afford a counselor, so that job falls to her. And the school has no nurse, so Mrs. Cooper often plays that role, too. Before this year, a twelfth-grader named Lusanda developed a critical stomach problem, and she said it was Mrs. Cooper who looked next her.

“She took me to my doctor. She was very worried. She even called me at night,” Lusanda said.

But looking next everyone else has taken a toll on Mrs. Cooper.

Learning to lead

The majority difficult part of the job has been managing the staff. Before this year, she felt that some teachers weren’t working hard enough, and she feared that the quality of instruction at the school was falling. But she didn’t know how to confront the teachers.

“How do I sit a teacher down and tell her or him, ‘Listen, you are not performing’?” she asked. “I don’t have the heart to do that.”

She avoided tough conversations. Her stress levels grew. Again, a few months ago, she reached a breaking point. She couldn’t sleep. She had memory problems — sometimes forgetting entire conversations.

“There was a stage where I actually couldn’t function. And that’s at the same time as I realized that I had to go to the doctor and talk about this,” she said.

The doctor diagnosed her with acute stress.

That episode led Mrs. Cooper to an significant realization: she needs professional training to be a additional effective principal. So she applied to a program, called the Principals Academy, that teaches leadership and management skills. She was recently accepted and begins the program this month.

Under Mrs. Cooper’s leadership, COSAT has excelled. It has one of the highest graduation rates of any public high school in South Africa. The teachers praise what she has finished, but Mrs. Cooper sees how much farther she has to go.

“I need to still learn so much for me to do a real proper job of being a principal,” she said.

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