New Primary Leaders
New Primary Leaders

Michael Cowie

Michael Cowie is an Honorary Fellow of the College of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh. A former headteacher, Michael was previously Co-Director of the Masters Programme in Educational Leadership and Management at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the North of Scotland Headteacher Preparation Consortium, a partnership involving the universities of Aberdeen and Dundee and nine education authorities. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

Continuum, 2011


Content Type:

Book chapter

Education Level:

Primary Education



Related Content

‘I Want to Do the Best Job That I Can, So I Worry’: A Novice Principal in China Reflects on the Responsibility and Complexity of Leading an Urbanizing Rural School

Xiao Liang meets with Fan Heuli, principal of Zhatang Primary School

DOI: 10.5040/9781350091252.ch-008
Page Range: 112–124


Hunan province lies in the central southern part of China. Its capital city is Changsha, with a population of some 6.5 million people. The city of Changsha is situated within a municipal area that is also called Changsha. Changsha is in the northeast of Hunan province, in the lower reaches of the Xiang River at the western margin of the Xiang-Liu Basin. It is a famous historical and cultural city. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, it was an important rice market, and it became a major Chinese revolutionary centre during the Republican Period. During the war with Japan Changsha was a battlefield. It was rebuilt and underwent development during the formation of the Republic of China. The economy of Hunan province is now developed and is based on machinery, technology, tourism and the media and entertainment business. Changsha is now an important city in the midwest. Education has been a local government priority, and the province has a national reputation for the sacrifices parents make for their children’s education.

Wangcheng County is one of four county areas within the municipal area of Changsha. In economic and cultural terms, Wangcheng County is relatively well developed. Following local government reorganization in 2007 and as part of Hunan province’s urbanization process, some of Wangcheng County became incorporated within Yuelu District, one of four urban districts in Changsha City. Yuelu is located on the west bank of the Xiang River and named after the Yuela Mountain, an area of historical interest and scenic beauty. The district also got its name from Yuelu Academy, where scholars have gathered since ancient times. Yuela Academy is one of four great academies in China and an institute of higher learning, with a history of more than 1,000 years. In the twenty-first century Hunan province is still a centre of knowledge and learning because it is now China’s ‘Silicon Valley’ with over 16 universities and research institutes concentrated there.

Yuelu District is the western gateway to Changsha with convenient transportation links. The Xiang River extends to the Yangtze and eventually to the sea. Three bridges link Yuelu with the four districts in the east of Changsha. This gives Yuelu District a strong strategic position in terms of priority development within the Xiang River Ecological Economic Belt. However, Yuelu is also an area of historical interest and scenic beauty, and administrative reorganization and the urbanization policy and process has created uncertainty and given rise to concern among school principals, teachers, students and parents, as well as general residents. There are mixed views about the changes that have taken place, because the advantages of the change are not clear.

Soon after the policy decision to reorganize local government, all schools in the area changed their name affiliations from ‘Wangcheng County’ to ‘Yuelu District, Changsha City’. Zhatang Primary School, previously of ‘Wangcheng County’, is now ‘Zhatang Primary School, Yuelu District, Changsha City’. ‘Zhatang’ was the name of part of the village before, which means ‘pool of dregs’ for some geographic reason. The school was first established in September 1989, and is located in an urbanizing rural area, east of Yanjia Bridge, and surrounded by woods and mountains. The school belongs to Dongshanwan Village, Hanpu Town. The school is about an hour’s drive from the centre of Changsha City.

The campus is over 1,314 square metres with an area for sports of around 665 square metres. The campus was built and renovated based on academic and security principles. There are computer labs, a school library, chemistry and physics labs, a music room, a file room, a sports facility room, a multimedia room, a labour skill room, a students’ event room and a medical assistance room.

All children within the age categories in the locality are enrolled, giving three classes and 77 students. There are seven teachers, three male and four female. Fan Huali is the school principal. Huali is 28 years old, married and with no children of her own. She has been a teacher for 9 years and was appointed to Zhatang as principal in August 2009 under the ‘Guazhi Duanlian’ policy of the Changsha Education Bureau (temporarily appointed to a lower-level school as a leader in order for further promotion in one’s career).

Huali had previously been a Chinese language teacher and director of a Chinese language researching and teaching group in an urban school called ‘Yinwan Road Primary School’ in Changsha City. She must have been diligent and smart in her previous job, because only those teachers and staff with ‘top performance’ recognized by their schools qualify for this kind of opportunity. In her previous position, she taught Chinese language to good effect using vivid and practical methods that enabled her students to develop a deep interest in learning. When she led the team for research and teaching, she had harmonious relationships with her colleagues and leaders. She also admitted that she did not spend much time ‘reporting’ to her leaders. Instead, all her performance was spontaneous and active.

Huali was influenced by her teaching parents when she was growing up. In 2000 she graduated from Jiangnan Industrial School with a secondary diploma and later studied at Hunan Normal University, a well-known university in Changsha City with a national reputation for cultivating future teachers. Her husband is a professor at the National University of Defence Technology in Changsha, a well-known military university sponsored by the Chinese central government. Following her marriage, she lived in the residential area of the National University of Defence Technology. Huali started teaching in 2001. After 8 years of teaching, she was appointed to the post of principal at Zhatang Primary School after going through a set of strict pro cedures. Every day Huali drives over 30 km of mostly rutted and bumpy roads to school. It takes her about 50 minutes to cover the 30 km.

On the left end of the second floor of the teaching building at Zhatang Primary School, there is an office for the teachers. All seven teachers have desks here and use them to check homework, prepare for classes or take a break. Huali shares the office with every other teacher. The office is big enough for seven teachers, but it is not spacious enough, apparently, when the occasional teacher–student discussion is needed. The view from the window incorporates the school playground where teachers and students gather for special moments such as morning exercises. The view from the doorway takes in all the classrooms on the second floor of this teaching building.

There is no separate principal’s office in the school. I met Huali in the comparatively big and quiet computer lab.

Huali’s story

I became a formal teacher in 2001 after I finished my studies. After 8 years I was appointed principal of Zhatang Primary School in August 2009. Prior to accepting this new position, I was a director of the teaching and researching team on Chinese language in another urban primary school, and I consider that as a ‘small leader’; it was a more academic position. The principalship at Zhatang was offered to me after I had gone through a strict application and confirmation process. It was the first time in my life that I applied. I did it through writing application papers and other related procedures.

Honestly speaking, I was not intending to become a teacher when I was quite young. It was my mother, a teacher at that time, who recommended this career to me, saying that this job would make my life stable and enjoyable. As we know, there are two official semesters in most Chinese schools: the first semester of each academic year starts in September and ends about 1 month before the Chinese lunar New Year; the second semester starts right after the Chinese lunar New Year, basically in February, and ends at the beginning of July. Then teachers would have 1 month’s winter vacation and 2 months’ summer vacation with official payment. Being a teacher is especially proper for a woman since it gives you plenty of time to take care of your family. My parents also indicated that being an educator can endow me with a strong sense of spiritual achievement. I remember when I was much younger, I thought that I would rather pursue another career that is more mobile so that I could have a real taste of the ‘outside society’. In my life until now, I have not had work experience in other areas. I’ve only been a teacher. But if there had been other opportunities, maybe I would have considered other professions beyond education as a career.

After I became a teacher, even with several years of experience, I still thought that I was not the kind of person who is suitable for being a leader. I heard from my previous leader and other colleagues who said that I was too innocent and inexperienced. In other words, I was too ‘pure’ to become a school leader and handle all the complexities of an entire school. They must have observed this through my daily behaviour of keeping simple relationships with colleagues and speaking straightforward words to them. However, deep in my heart, I knew that I would prefer to have a try and see how it goes. I did not believe that a person should be that ‘sophisticated’ in order to manage a principalship. I do welcome the challenge.

The application process was a bit complicated and serious. First we had to make a decision in the countryside to turn to Guazhi Duanlian under the policy of the Ministry of Education. Then we had to complete an application report. The school had to sign and agree, and then we had to send the document to the education bureau. The education bureau then considered the application, and a certain percentage of applicants are approved.

After a series of application procedures, I finally got the chance. Honestly speaking, I was anxious since if I could obtain this position, it could bring me huge pressure. I remember that my previous principal indicated that I was too young and inexperienced. Plus, I heard people say that coming to a rural elementary school to support rural education is quite relaxing. Many people regard the countryside as a place to relax and spend your holidays. But I did not want to waste time, and instead I decided to make my life more substantial and colourful as well as challenging. But unlike others who have just 1 year in countryside schools, I have 2 years. My psychological preparation was not sufficient, obviously. I was not given notice of which school I was heading for until the eve of my arrival day in school. Perhaps they did not want me to change my mind – they just let me know which school to go to one day ahead.

I did read many books related to school management as part of my preparation. But this is not called ‘training’; it is in my mind ‘self-promotion’. There was no regular training provided to the new principals. However, there were aspects that I considered useful in reading, such as in methods of management, including ‘taking into consideration others’ feelings’, employee-centred theory and so on. Before becoming a principal, there was no formal training in leadership or management for me. But once I had made the decision to come here and become a principal, I intentionally imitated the way my leaders spoke, the attitude, the ways of acting and behaving. They influenced me a lot. This was my only real preparation. However, I believe that my professional experience of being a teacher and a director for the research and teaching team endowed me with a lot of insights into education, and these have helped in my current position as a school principal. I was also determined that if I encountered problems, I would turn back to books as often as possible.

Once I took up the post, there were not, fortunately, any conspicuous objections in the school, although I could sense the suspicions that some people had. Sometimes teachers did not say anything, but based on their delay in executing my policies at times, I could see that effecting change might be a longer process than I thought. Well, my idea is to construct a better school, not for the benefit of myself or the teachers, but for the students and the community. Therefore, I have no fears. However, I still wondered, as a completely new principal, would my idea be an idea only, or would it become true at last?

Once I started my work as a principal, the most apparent transition for me was having to make decisions. Previously I kind of relied on others to make possible and right decisions, but now everybody else counts on me. This was the biggest change for me. I could see the expectations in the eyes of teachers. The whole school is dependent on my choices rather than on other people’s recommendations or even their own inferences.

Since I came into this management work, I certainly would, according to both teachers’ and my own expectations, wish to make some positive changes on educational ideology in a countryside school. And I hope to bring countryside children some urban educational ideology and enable them to enjoy the same quality of education as children in urban schools. Comparatively speaking, with regard to hardware, including school infrastructure and facilities, or software, including school regulations and team spirit, current urban schools in Changsha, or even in China, possess much better and of course more advanced conditions. Surely I had some indication that the parents would think about the reforms I wished to make in a doubtful way. Teachers would also hold a ‘wait and see’ approach towards my decisions. They have hopes on me but they did not have trust in me at the very beginning. I knew I had to do something, to take some effective measures and let them know that changes could happen and these would be in favour of them and the students. In spite of having no conspicuous oppositions in my school, I always recall the anxiety and suspicion existing among my teachers and staff.

Zhatang Primary School is the only school in Dongshanwan Village. Dongshanwan Village was incorporated by Zhatang Village and Dongshan Village several years ago in accordance to the township policy. Also due to the decreasing number of kids as a result of the Chinese ‘one-child policy’, the former Dongshan Primary School was cancelled and there is only Zhatang Primary School left. But not all resident kids come to our school since there are other choices in the neighbouring villages. The school’s history and availability in the neighbourhood draw a large amount of attention from general people. The parents expect the school to provide basic and necessary foundational knowledge to their kids and also to teach their children how to behave in this society. There are no other real expectations. In order to understand more about parents’ thoughts and ideas, I make use of the frequent birthdays or weddings and some other gatherings to communicate with them. In addition to this, on my way back and forth from school to home, I always meet some parents and stop and have a chat with them. This kind of exchange of ideas is not difficult, and there have been no problems. I think that the parents accept this school and me as its principal.

Inside the school, there is not a very well developed ideological environment among teachers since most of the staff are older and I believe that they are at a stage in their careers where they are less motivated to engage in further studies, research or exchanges. In addition, this school, although it has a relatively long history, has not established itself as a campus with its own culture. All of this is somewhat disappointing me and the situation is far from my ideal. Age and life experience sometimes make people too proud or too content about themselves, I think. My job is to try to motivate them in aspects of teaching and learning so that their students may benefit more from their education in our school.

Looking back over the first year of being principal of the school, I have mixed feelings. I recall that after my application was approved, I felt huge pressure and a certain degree of anxiety. Though this is not a critical post, it is a brand-new environment and I knew that I would face many new challenges. My family, my colleagues and my leaders set great score onto it; I am afraid of people blaming me or accusing me of not doing my job well. I was also afraid that 2 years later the school may not have changed at all, or it would have become worse after I took the position. How miserable that would be!

When I was appointed and finally reached Zhatang, it was not relaxing at all. One problem was that I had not realized that is so far away from my home and the city. I think in my heart there was a little bit of regret, since the geographical distance was much farther than I had thought. But there was no going back. There were no other choices and the decision had been made. The town school management authority leaders and the previous principal instructed me a lot about the school, and with almost total innocence, I started to really learn about the school from the moment I first set my foot in it.

On the first day I came to Zhatang, our upper school principal Mr Li introduced me to others, and then I made a brief self-introduction. I began to understand about parents according to what the teachers said and to understand students through my personal observation and participation in the classes. I personally teach the Chinese language classes and also I regularly observe other teachers’ classes and made a policy of observing classes among respective teachers. I also asked students to offer feedback for improvement.

In order to facilitate the understanding between the school and parents, in this past semester I held a parents’ meeting. It was interesting. Before this parents’ meeting, I believed that rural parents did not attach great importance to education. I was wrong. They pay much attention to education; the only dilemma was that they do not know how to deal with their children’s education and support their learning. They not understand the correct ways to cultivate them. The reasons might be their lower education level themselves, and they may lack information in this relatively remote area in the countryside. But with their earnest approach and sincerity, everything could be much easier if we want to initiate reforms towards a better school and a more excellent education.

During the first few weeks I felt that the pace of the school was slow, including that of the teachers and students, and this was much different from my previous schools, much slower. And their politeness, behaviour and study habits were kind of unsettling. For example, in my previous school, the teachers would enter the classroom right after the bell rings, but here in the countryside the discipline is not that strict – although the bell rings, teachers might still chat for 1 or 2 more minutes and then meander off to class. And usually when we assigned some tasks, they acted slower than I expected. These were the kinds of habits that I could not get used to.

In the transition from being a class teacher to a principal, I felt and experienced more complicated interpersonal relationships, too. When I was a director, I was dealing with people as well, but now I face more people and the matters that I am supposed to manage are more problematic. But this proved to be helpful in improving my capabilities of doing things. After I took the position, in the adaptation process, I found that my role here is different from the role I had in my previous school. I have to be a leader; if staff did not know how to do something, I would teach them how to do it; if they were unwilling to do it, it is fine because I would finish it by myself. Many teachers cooperate with me now since they know that I am simply taking over the position here for 2 years. As a younger woman, I am ready to do so much for the development of the school, and I think they felt embarrassed at being the real master of this school and the older generation of the school. They began to put more devotion to this process of turning an idea into reality.

With the increasing communication with teachers, I found that the changes that happened were astonishing. Now they are actively making contributions to the school development. Their roles have been transformed. I played some role here, but now everyone is playing a part.

Changes had to be made and still have to be made. But with continuous self-encouragement and group work, the process is no longer a sole process. There are pleasant changes for everybody to see and feel. It is the reality. On the one hand, student behaviours, such as being polite and their approach to study, have been elevated. I think that the students now have a more genuine interest in studies rather than taking study as a task only. On the other hand, teachers have more passion towards the school’s operation and have shown increased concern. Besides, we have held events such as parents’ meetings and the sixtieth Anniversary of Young Pioneers celebrations. My idea of improving teachers’ educational ideology and implementation efficiency, enabling them to use computers effectively, internet resources and other modern education technology, is being fulfilled step by step.

Luckily, there have not been any tense interpersonal relationships between me and teachers. But there have been some situations when there is only one person – me – who is working on a particular task. I was frustrated, but we had to move on. Teachers see this and sometimes they want to be of assistance; it is only that they did not have the ability to help in certain areas. If this happens again, the situation would remain the same.

Of course, I am more often enjoying my work. When I see teachers are involved in the reform and innovation process, I am enjoying it. Except that sometimes I am sad to see teachers’ unsatisfying work pace. There is not any surprising thing for me to experience here. And I think every step taken is as planned.

There have not been many unsatisfying points worth mentioning. What I am most concerned about is elevating teachers’ skills and comprehension. I am also happy about the support from the leaders above and related organizations. When I experience difficulties, I sometimes seek help from my previous principal, previous colleagues and current village leaders, through which I gain more experience of school administration and improved educational understanding. I learn, too, from urban teachers teaching temporarily in the school. Village leaders also help me with solving some practical problems.

I would say that my leadership and management style is ‘ democratic’. When in situations where I cannot be completely democratic, I will hold meetings to have further discussion from others, at the end of which teachers will figure out an approximate direction. If there are still disagreements, the solution is ‘minority obeys majority’.

Compared with the previous principal of the school, I think that there are not so many differences. But according to our teachers, the previous principal would do whatever the funding allows for the school but nothing more. She would never do something extra. I, instead, would be much more proactive in fundraising work and in rationally allocating the funds.

As far as I am concerned, there have been positive responses from the teachers involved in this school. They say that there are changes, and they have been very cooperative. Parents have also responded very well, perhaps because they have had their very first parent meeting and got a close look at the school, which is their kids’ daily environment. I think they believe that this principal is a perfectionist and thinks about the students’ interests first. Like me, parents want the school to be better and better. And they want their children to be more effectively educated.

Honestly speaking, my decisions were not always accepted or understood by school employees at first – they could not get used to it. I still want to bring some advanced approaches from the city, but they have been accustomed to many aspects and they have limited abilities. But they are not resistant. It is not that they do not cooperate; they are kind of not willing to do things.

I would say that the community of Dongshanwan Village, as well as Hanpu Town, tend to accept our school much more than before. They definitely have witnessed its improvements: students’ progress, parents’ meeting and a change in the school environment.

However, that is not to say that there is no pressure. There is pressure for sure. Some older teachers are less motivated, and a lot of tasks have to be completed by me and the director of teaching affairs. This is a mental stress for me, too. I want to do the best job that I can, so I do worry. I worry about the long-cultivated habits of teachers such as delaying tasks, which makes it difficult to achieve many of my ideas in the school. In addition, some relationships with institutions outside of the school have given me sleepless nights. Now it’s better as I have been working here longer. But there are still too many things in my mind at the same time. I sometimes regard myself as not being an appropriate candidate to be a school principal, because I take others’ feelings into account too much. I suspect that in many cases I should be more powerful and make every task more achievable. I think I sometimes lack that kind of forceful determination.

School affairs have influenced my life a lot since I became principal. I put a great deal of energy into school management. This position has also had some negative effects on my health and moods. If you ask me whether I am tired because I am a woman, I don’t think so. Instead, I think that being a female principal can make you more sensitive and give you a sharper perspective when making decisions – and it makes it easier to communicate with teachers and parents (she smiles). Still, when I am facing problems by myself, with no outside support, I would definitely feel helpless and lonely. But I am also pleased to see the progress students are making in their studies, the improvements of teachers’ passion towards the school and the school having a higher reputation in the parents’ eyes. This is why I repeatedly say that I have mixed feelings.

Until now, if there is a typical difficulty, it has been to help teachers learn computer technology. They do not think this is highly useful for them. They have relied on books for too long. I always create chances to hear from teachers, such as regular meetings. Talking to parents is also part of my job in order to gain opinions and suggestions.

In the remaining years while I am a principal here, I plan to focus on students’ academic work. Simultaneously we will organize a variety of activities to further facilitate students’ comprehensive cultivation. My idea is to train excellent school graduates and therefore help the countryside to develop in a faster and more effective way when they grow up. Recently our school was assessed to be a ‘qualified school’ by the city education bureau. Next year we are building it into a provincial ‘qualified school’.

I am pleased that we can, in most cases, obtain support from teachers and parents. Together with all staff in the school, I intend to help students improve their study habits, to help teachers learn more advanced education ideas, to help parents realize the importance of school education of their kids and encourage them to cooperate more with us.

If there is another chance, I would choose to be an ordinary teacher. During the time when I am a school leader, I meet financial troubles with the tight school budget and there is also the inconvenience of transportation. When problems such as misunderstandings between me and other teachers occur and we cannot resolve them, I will report them to related leaders to understand more about teachers. This might help me to some degree, but not completely.

I hope in the future I will be able to invite some successful and experienced principals and teachers to share some of their experience and perspectives with us. Also we should provide some opportunities to visit other schools for the purpose of learning and exchanging ideas.

After these 2 years, I could still be a principal in some school, since I have contributed much to improving this school and its atmosphere, and this has been recognized by both leaders and the community. Of course, speaking of my personal reasons, such as personality, if I am not suitable to remain a principal, then I possibly would become an ordinary teacher again. If I am a principal 2 years later, I will choose another school. I hope that the next school I will go to will have more young teachers and staff. I have consulted my family and friends in this respect.

I don’t think being a school principal is the ‘best’ profession in this world. In order to make the school a different one, a more outstanding one, in terms of teachers, students and other factors, is not be an easy task. I understand that there are several ‘musts’ to fit a person for this job: a noble personality, a knowledgeable mind and a willingness to learn. Well, experience is accumulated through life. If I continue to be a principal after my 2 years at Zhatang Primary School, there is likely to be more pressure to cope with. If I find it difficult to cope, I will be a regular teacher again.