Stakeholders must manage high stress levels among principals

A section of headteachers at a past Kenya Secondary School Heads Association Conference.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • If banning the cane was intended to relieve students of the stress caused by the fear of it, it resulted in the unintended consequence of shifting stress to the teachers in general and principals in particular.
  • Of late, the Ministry of Education admits one or two extra streams of students without considering the school’s capacity to accommodate them.

About 20 years ago, a couple of law postgraduate students from Yale University, in the United States, conducted research in Kenyan schools on the extent of (ab)use of the cane.

In one school, the Yale students took a photograph of a teacher using the cane to point at what he had written on the blackboard as a way of emphasising important facts about the topic that he was teaching.

They pointed out that the students were tensed in the classroom because the teacher was wielding a cane while teaching. In another, they found a school with the motto “No gain without pain” and inferred that the source of pain could most likely be the cane used.

Their report found its way to an international conference on education in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where Kenya was roundly condemned for allowing teachers to subject students to brutality by caning them. As a result, the government outlawed corporal punishment in schools. Incidentally, a few states in the US had not outlawed caning in schools.

If banning the cane was intended to relieve students of the stress caused by the fear of it, it resulted in the unintended consequence of shifting stress to the teachers in general and principals in particular. Other methods of correcting wayward students, such as guidance and counselling, have been applied to various levels of success largely since teachers and principals barely have advanced training on the subject and teachers have a huge workload, leaving little time for it.

Major stressor

However, stress among teachers is not solely caused by indiscipline of students. In Kenyan schools, especially secondary school, stress levels among principals is, in my view, high. First, parents have very high expectations of the performance of their children, exerting a lot of pressure on principals at their annual general meetings. Secondly, principals have in recent years been made to be personally responsible for managing the KCSE examination — a novel idea, indeed, but stressful.

Thirdly, as soon as KCSE ends, the KCPE results are released, leading to parents looking for principals in an attempt at getting their children into their preferred secondary schools — never mind that this process has been automated. Fourthly, of late, the Ministry of Education admits one or two extra streams of students without considering the school’s capacity to accommodate them. This is a major stressor for boards and principals.

Fifthly, as the principals grapple with preparations to receive Form One students, the KCSE results are released. Woe unto a principal whose school has not performed well! They are subjected to all manner of ridicule, including demands for transfer or demotion — and this comes at a time when they have not had time to rest from August of the previous year.

This is likely to get worse come January 2021, when these principals have to administer Covid-19 protocols, which are, obviously, financially straining to the schools.

Counselling

Going forward, the following need to be considered. First, the employer, Teachers Service Commission (TSC) may, from time to time, have carry out studies on stress levels of principals with a view to assisting those found to be highly stressed.

Secondly, the Kenya Secondary Schools Heads Association may need to set up an acceptable process of peer support for their members at the sub-county level.

Thirdly, the appointment of board members and election of parents’ association members could consider including individuals knowledgeable in psychology, sociology or psychiatry in their midst to assist principals to manage stress. Fourthly, guidance and counselling courses for teachers need to be provided continuously.

Finally, the principals themselves need to find time to relax and forget about school challenges for a few hours every week.

Without this, they could suffer burnout, break down and get replaced by younger zealous principals who will, in due course, have to contend with the same cycle of stress.

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