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Notes from a Headmaster’s Desk: The challenges of education, parenting and teenagers

| August 20, 2014 | 0 Comments

Author: Marc Falconer
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 987-1-77010-352-8
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Upon retirement, it’s become fashionable for principals (like politicians) to pen a memoir or summation of their vast and valuable experiences ‘in the field’.

Marc Falconer, headmaster of King David High School in Linksfield, Johannesburg, Gauteng, has ‘seized the day’ and done it in his spare time. I use the phrase ‘spare time’ rather cheekily because I know that Falconer, whom I first met many years ago at St Stithians College at an interhouse play competition he asked me to adjudicate, will smile, exhibiting his own unique sense of humour: a healthy dollop of wicked, blended with detachment and seasoned with a mellow empathy.

Perhaps these qualities are strict requirements for the first non-Jewish head of one of South Africa’s largest, busiest, most successful Jewish schools. Certainly, Falconer makes it clear in his book (he calls it “[a] compilation of reflections… essentially a set of short essays on various themes”) that he has found them useful in leading an institution in a faith-based community that is energetically invested in almost every aspect of the school and its pupils’ development.

Nurturing menschen

In the book’s foreword, respected clinical psychologist Dorianne Cara Weill observes that Falconer is able to use his inimitable attitude in his writing. As a non-Jewish principal, he can stand back to observe just how best to “nurture menschen” and inculcate nachas (pride and joy) in his staff, pupils and parents. At the same time, he is, as Weill points out, wrestling with the following questions:

“How do we allow our children to burn their fingers but ensure they are not third-degree burns?

How do we insist on conformity but promote individuality?

How do we assist and support but not disempower?

How do we love but not over-rescue?

To what extent are we present and available without engendering a sense of entitlement?

How do we maintain valued traditions and ensure progress by moving with the times?

When do we stand back as parents and trust the school and its teachers to know what’s best?

When should the school and teachers trust as parents?

How do we as parents and teachers cope with our anxiety in order to be adult and available for our children?”

Private sustenance and public guidance

These are, of course, questions that take up the time of any principal in any school, and in this respect I am grateful to Falconer for having put his thoughts down so frankly on paper. I anticipate that this book will join many a pile of trusted, dogeared volumes on principals’ desks, to be dipped into for private sustenance in a quiet office after the last bell has rung, and public guidance at the assembly podium, or in the staffroom during professional teacher development time. There should, in fact, be a copy readily available for all staff at all schools to dip into and derive pleasure, comfort or edification, on a wide range of topics – for Falconer demonstrates that he is both receptive to the wisdom of others (not as common a trait as one may think in school principals) and determined to stay on top of current affairs both in his own community, across the country and around the world.

Well versed

Falconer has collected so many insights and wonderful stories as both a parent, a teacher and a school leader that this book is divided into no less than eight subsections, each one packed with well-edited short essays. Each one of those is food for thought. For example, Falconer on technology: “Teachers now have the opportunity for a level of engagement, analysis… and critical thinking… it has never been easier to be part of the education process.” Falconer on providing a moral compass: “Our school is not modelled on the ‘real world’. On the contrary, it is designed to be an artificial and protective hothouse… it is our intention to give pupils the space to confront safely many of the challenges they are going to have to face outside.” And Falconer on educating for independence: “Every time new parents come into my office… one issue in particular keeps being raised: will our children be adequately prepared to take on the challenges of the world they will encounter when they leave school?”

Such chutzpah!

One of Falconer’s most priceless anecdotes comes right at the start of this wonderful resource, and it seems right to end this review with it:

“At my very first staff meeting [at King David] I was proud of my efforts at demonstrating linguistic and cultural adaptability. Somewhat smugly, I loudly and publicly requested a young and rather buxom member of staff, who had chosen this moment to spring-clean her handbag, to put away her tzitchas (breasts) instead of her tzatchas (trinkets). It’s not a mistake that will be easily forgotten.”

Category: Spring 2014

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