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School leadership: principals’ experiences of change and reward.

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This study explores principals’ experiences of school leadership. Through synthesis of varying definitions of leadership, the conceptualisation of the three foci of leadership namely, “person, practice and context” offers an initial organisational framework for this study. The democratic South Africa provides the context of change which is operationalised around issues of the pass rate, desegregation and democratic school governance. The existing landscape of leadership theory is then grafted with the South African context of change to set up the theoretical framing of this study. This study is positioned differently from dominant leadership studies in that the leader (principal) is fore-grounded rather than the “practice” of leadership. An interpretive paradigm is invoked to facilitate the acknowledgement, activation and inter-woveness of the researcher’s dual positioning as researcher and as school principal. This ambivalent positioning creates a methodological paradox that simultaneously privileges and imprisons the production of knowledge. Coherent with the methodological choice of narrative methodologies, an award winning literary play “Copenhagen” is used as a creative representational device. This play highlights issues of “personal, political, moral and scientific” challenges which become key pivotal points with which to connect all the chapters of this study. Six principals of previously disadvantaged schools, facing similar challenges of leadership participate in this study. Narrative methodologies guides both the data production and data analysis strategies. It also intentionally focuses on “personal, political and moral” challenges. Lengthy interviews produce richly detailed co-constructed mindscapes of leadership. The voices of principals and their stories are represented as individualised “reconstructed career narratives”. These provide complex, themed and descriptive understandings of leadership at the first level. At the second level, the researcher’s voice becomes dominant while meshing together data, theory and first level analysis to provide cross-case analysis providing deeper insights into experiences of school leadership. These insights challenge the dominant theoretical landscape of leadership. The main finding of this study suggests that principals “personal” experiences re-define relationships between key components of the context of change and in this way determine understandings of leadership. Principals consider the pass rate to be most important at a systemic level. However, their “personal/biographic” experiences with regard to “validation” and “professional experience” mediate that consideration and influence particular understandings of leadership. Similarly, principals’ “personal” experiences together with institutional histories play a significant role in understanding leadership in relation to issues of desegregation (geography). Principals’ “personal” experiences also determine how democratic school governance is understood with regard to accountability, consultation and agenda constructions. Finally, leadership is understood to be intricately linked to the concept of reward. The “scientific” construct of a Trefoil knot is used to develop an explanatory model and posit the basis of a “Relational Reward Theory” of understanding leadership. The thesis concludes with a discussion of the implications of pushing back contextual, methodological and theoretical boundaries in understanding school leadership.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2009.


School principals--KwaZulu-Natal., Educational leadership--KwaZulu-Natal., Theses--Education.