Penny Alston, Preparatory School Headmistress
I have enjoyed an exceptionally fulfilling career in education in the Durban North area with varied experience of teaching grades 4- 7. I made my way up the ranks first as a grade co-ordinator, Head of Department and then Deputy Principal at Chelsea Preparatory School. I was appointed headmistress of Glenashley Preparatory School in 2013 and enjoyed five wonderful years, working with amazing staff to turn this school around. It resulted in me writing up an autoethnographic Masters study on the very personal journey of leading a school. There are so many educational policy guidelines
on how to run a school but very little literature on what actually goes into a principal’s day. At this time I also lectured B Ed honours students at Pretoria University’s Distance Unit in a module called Human Rights and Values Education. Following on five successful years at Glenashley, I was asked by Sheena Crawford Kempster, Director of Reddam House Schools South Africa to join the Umhlanga Campus as Head of the Preparatory School. I am indeed again most privileged to work with a phenomenal staff whose tenacity, resilience and coping under extreme pressure to ensure we were ready to teach online last year in
March, at the same time juggling the needs of their own children and loved ones and managing their Corona Virus fears was nothing short of remarkable.
We were excited about the start of the new 2020 school year, we had plans after all. Bonding and sports tours, the Moonlight Carnival, the School Production, the Grade 3 concert, Sunset Proms. There were lots to look forward to especially for our Grade 7s and their excitement of finishing primary school, for some last times together. Suddenly the wind changed direction and we reset our sails, forced by a storm into a context we did not imagine.
It was surreal, stepping back in time into a twilight zone, into a strange parallel world of school that we paradoxically knew well but didn’t at that moment. We collectively decided to use the pandemic as an opportunity to focus on authentic, active, compassionate and lifelong learning to help our students create an understanding of
who they are. The first week of online connection with students left all of us feeling buoyed. “This is why we do our jobs!” we remembered. “It isn’t about the curriculum or the technology; it’s about the students.”
Being part of an international network of schools under the Inspired banner, we were fortunate and enjoyed regular calls with heads in schools around the world where we shared experiences and learnt from one another.
As we navigate the start of 2021 with a return to a hybrid approach, for the time being, the staff and I offer the reassurance that we care deeply for the children and our hearts are filled with compassion. All our teachers adapted to online teaching incredibly successfully- seeking to ‘go the extra mile’ to maximise learning opportunities for our students. I am proud of them, grateful to them and humbled by them
We have responded constructively rethinking, in light of what we’ve learned since last year, about how school time might be better used. We are also buoyed by the enthusiasm of students both face-to-face and online, and we learnt a lot of new skills that will benefit our teaching in the long run including how to have more fun. There are bright spots for us all in this brave new world. We are stronger, nimbler, more adaptable today than we were a few months ago.
At the same time as my appointment to Reddam House Umhlanga, esteemed Professor Jonathan Jansen invited me to join his PhD programme at Stellenbosch University where I am currently working on my research dissertation on the leadership practices of school principals.
Being the custodian of the Preparatory community, it is my responsibility to serve each member of this school. This is certainly not my school, it is our school. I love serving as a principal, it is as plain as that. Intrinsically there is so much fulfilment. My passion is developing positive relationships with within the school community, working with students as they grow, supporting staff so that they can reach their greatest potential, strengthening a connection between school and home, and a fostering a positive school culture. At our core, we know that the school to home partnership is what allows us to provide an extraordinary school experience for all students. It is that intrinsic desire to improve which motivates my staff and me to dedicate the best part of our lives to serving our students and this community.