One of the most interesting and gratifying parts of my work in our seminar center is the opportunity to work with local public school principals, Jewish and Arab, in various projects. This gives me the chance to watch them in action and to compare different personalities and different interpretations of the role. Especially as the end of the school year approaches, I remember my own perception of this period when I was a principal - the feeling of being strapped to the front of a speeding locomotive, plunging headlong from Purim to Pesach to Yom Hashoah to Yom Ha'atzma'ut to Shavuot to end-of-the-year performances and festivities, all the while dealing with the hiring and firing and budgeting and recruitment for next year, with no time to stop to think or teach or learn and no hope of a snow day... It's at this time of year that I most appreciate principals and identify with their lot. I believe that the principalship is one of the most complex and interesting jobs there is, and one of the most influential in terms of impact on the lives of students, teachers, and parents - and on society at large. To me, the principals that I have met in my travels around the Galilee are the culture heroes of Israel today.
In Israel the public school principal stands at the interface of a number of constituencies, representing each to the other. S/he is an employee of the Ministry of Education, answerable to its bureaucracy as well as to the local municipality's department of education. S/he must stand up for the best interests of the teachers against the bureaucracies and against the parents, for the best interests of the students against the teachers and the bureaucracies, for the concerns of parents against the teachers, and for a vision of educational goals against all of these competing interests. And of course, s/he must be a personal example of the values that the school seeks to foster.
Just entering the building, you can feel the difference between a school run by a principal who is in over his/her head and one who has learned to navigate the straits between strikes, budget cuts, inadequate facilities, bureaucratic oppression, parental apathy or antagonism, teacher needs, and student learning. I like to think of principals as orchestra conductors, coaxing the very finest sound out of each musician, maintaining balance among them all so that the resulting harmony makes the world a better place for both the players and the listeners - and all this based on a score written by someone else, but open to a great deal of interpretation.
I know an Arab principal whose school is a showplace, rich in facilities and programs, despite all the difficulty Arab schools face in getting access to resources, and despite the location of this school in a relatively poor, out-of-the-way village. The principal is a highly professional go-getter, who has figured out that the way to get the best for your kids is not self-pity but learning how to play the system and take advantage of every opportunity.
I know a number of principals of secular schools who are struggling thoughtfully and creatively to realize a vision of secular Israeli education that is grounded in - and not alienated from - the Jewish tradition. And this in the face of parental indifference or opposition, and teacher ignorance or resistance.
In Israel, the minister of education changes with every coalition upheaval, and we have known several such ministers who, despite knowing that their tenure will be limited, have heavy-handedly made (or tried to make) major changes in personnel and policy, often based on political ideology. It is the principals, as the line officers of the ministry, who bear the brunt of these reversals as they seek to keep their schools sailing on an even keel and a rational course. And given this reality, it is remarkable that so many competent and dedicated professionals make it to the principalship - and stay there.