Matters of Principal

  • Title: Matters of Principal
  • Author: Mike Russell
  • Editor: Karen Runge for Reach Publishers
  • Published by: Mike Russell using Reach Publishers’ services
  • ISBN: 978-1-77636-218-9
  • Available from:
  • Reviewed by: Pat Brink

Mike Russell’s book, Matters of Principal, is one that should be read by every head or aspiring head. His reasons for writing the multifaceted story of his personal and profession life are listed as follows: to provide a family history, entertain his readers, and cause them to “pause and reflect”.

Having been a head from 1999 to 2007, I wish his memoir had been available then, as it would have reassured me that the majority of challenges faced by heads are common to all – not a result of incompetency or some inadequacy of one’s personality.

Emigrating from Scotland to South Africa as a tall, lanky 13-year-old lad with white-blue complexion, Mike’s introduction to swimming in South Africa was unfortunate, due to an insensitive teacher – nevertheless he was able to turn his embarrassment into a story against himself that caused much hilarity whenever it was told. His examples of mentors during his teaching practical remind us how important it is to encourage and build confidence during this critical time of initiation for new educators.

Mike’s erudite prose, sardonic sense of humour and willingness to share instances of his failures and downplay his successes make the stories engaging, instructional and entertaining. His educational philosophy is founded on building relationships; throughout his career, he intentionally learnt the name (and correct pronunciation) of each student and regarded every moment in school as a teaching opportunity.

As principal, teachers were appointed by him not so much for their subject knowledge and teaching expertise (that was a given) but rather according to their values and willingness to engage with children beyond the curriculum.

The unfortunate episode when he was appointed as principal to develop a new corporate-owned school is dealt with in his usual honest manner, including the lessons learnt for the future.

Both truly independent schools of which he was principal had an ethos that suited his personality and mindset. Even though Redhill in Johannesburg celebrated its centenary and Bridge House in Franschhoek turned 20 during his tenure, they were both schools that were unshackled by tradition and encouraged innovation.

At Bridge House, the approach of “ready, fire, aim” was adopted to achieve the implementation of technology in education. We all know how vital that was when Covid-19 forced the closure of schools. Another innovation was the introduction of an alternative curriculum for grade 8 and grade 9 – a courageous move given the fixation of Umalusi on absolute compliance with the CAPS guidelines.

One learns so much from Mike’s success but equally takes cognisance that “failures” are inevitable. When challenges arose, the importance of deep listening and willingness to change rules and practices that were anachronistic were emphasised in his discussion.

To me, leadership is about creating relationships with others so that neither party wants to let the other down.

Always aware of the dynamic between trust and energy, Mike was prepared to spend time to uncover the real reason behind defiance by students or anxiety among staff; when necessary, he had the backbone to throw down the gauntlet when undermining teachers needed to be jolted into respectful behaviour.

The fact that Mike at times experienced tension between himself and staff and particularly with certain Board members resonates with most principals. His survival testifies to the good relationships that he developed with key members of the two school Boards. His send-off from both schools was emotional and deeply felt.

Mike’s memory for names and events is prodigious – he repeated the stories from his book when we chatted during the recent ISASA Combined Conference.

Chronicles about his family, years of teaching at Rondebosch Boys High School, professional development for PROGRO with Dr John Gibbon, mentorship by Ben Brookes when he joined Redhill, dealing with specific disciplinary matters, are all stimulating and entertaining to read – especially his habit of going off on a bit of a tangent then returning to the matter at hand with the oft-used comment: “But I digress”.

I believe that one learns more about leading a school from reading stories such as Mike’s than from attending lectures and conferences. The head girl of Bridge House, whom he quotes, summed up his interaction with friends, family members and staff so succinctly: “To me, leadership is about creating relationships with others so that neither party wants to let the other down.”

From the anecdotes and discussions in Matters of Principal, it is obvious that Mike epitomised the servant leader that our independent schools require to succeed.