11 February 2013

Hire the Best Staff, Particularly Your Secretary

When I began writing my book, About Time For Teaching – 120 time-saving tips for teachers and those who support them! I asked educators in both Australia and New Zealand for any time-saving strategies and techniques they’d found especially helpful.

From Owen Hoskin, Principal at that time, of Henderson High in West Auckland came this great tip and story. (Following are Owen’s words. Details have been changed for reasons which will become obvious!)

Friends in other occupations often say: “You teachers live in a different world!” They’re right. A school is different and needs special skills.

A secretary may have forged a great reputation in a similar position in the business world or even in another government department, but working in a school moves them into another dimension. Within this “zone”, there is none so different than being the Principal’s Secretary. It looks deceptively similar. It is not.

The successful PA, and I have been blessed to have a number of them, adds value to a whole community. The poor performing PA is a prime example of the New Age metaphor of the small butterfly on the remote tropical island that flaps its wings. The minute action gathers strength in an atmospheric chain reaction, eventually resulting in a typhoon of destruction on the other side of the globe. I have experienced PA meltdown twice in the past. In one situation a whole school community suffered. In another institution with wider responsibilities, a large New Zealand city suffered unknowingly! The pandemic of inadequacy spreads through an institution more quickly than the flu! Everyone suffers!

My misplaced dreadful PA was a very pleasant woman with a wonderful CV. She worked in a successful real estate office and wanted a change. Melissa’s typing skills were impeccable. Her referees attested to her administration and filing skills. She was personable during both the formal and informal interviews. My interview team selected her unanimously from a short list of three other strong candidates.

However, it wasn’t long before an impending catastrophe began to gather as dark storm clouds on our pedagogic horizon.

Busy teachers are not always polite and organised. Hassled parents can be demanding and unflattering. Students may be raw and may roar! Even senior staff and Board members are known to have their moments! On wet and windy days, all of the above may happen and at once!

I provided advice and guidance to Melissa on several occasions. I explained how schools and the individuals within them tend to function. Every day is a hot house day. Staff need to roll with a few punches. We try to pick our important battles to win. We are flexible. We are (mostly) gracious under fire. PAs and secretaries are Mother Theresa, the Law Enforcer, Ms Fixit and Wonder Woman wrapped into one.

The darkened, damp and chilly office on that wet and wild windy Wednesday afternoon was the final straw. Melissa blew up over some minor issue, dissolved in tears and an uncontrollable rage. She stormed out, handing in her sodden resignation to me at the door. We have not seen her since, and hear that she is back working successfully in another real estate office.

Why didn’t it work out? Attitude!

Schools are like big families. Even multi-tasking mothers are stretched beyond belief from time to time. They hang in there because they love their husband and they love their kids. This is the core value for working in a school – love. It encapsulates and is the springboard for all the other positive values and attitudes.

I look always for this in any prospective staff member now. It is the first requirement. Do they like people? Do they like teenagers? Incredibly, many do not like either. No love? End of interview. Avoid these folk. Find an instrument to screen them away from your shortlist. The management book, ‘Blink’, assures us that intuition is enough. It is not.

A good secretary is a pearl of great price. A bad secretary is a stone in the shoe.





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