What makes a good headmaster?

"Mr. Minder, why are so many suitable headmasters missing?"

Thomas has been a Minder since August 1st the headmaster the German part of Switzerland. The Thurgau about acute school head shortages, Lateral entrants in the teaching profession and his goal of exerting greater influence on politics.

Interview: Evelin Hartmann and Nik Niethammer
Images: Anne Gabriel-Jürgens / 13 Photo

Anyone who makes an appointment at Eschlikon train station can be found quickly. Only a few passengers get off the train. Thomas Minder waves to his visitors and leads them to the nearby parking lot. “The best place to talk to us is in the school administration. That is not far, ”says the new president of the umbrella association for school principals VSLCH. Once there, the photographer and journalists are amazed: Thomas Minder's place of work is a 130-year-old elegant villa with Tuscan shapes and lavish decor. After a short tour of the site, the interview can begin.

Mr. Minder, what makes a good headmaster?

Quite simply, he or she has to be the egg-laying woolly milk sow. No seriously, Conversation skills, patience, empathy, ability to resolve conflicts are important qualities of a school principal. In addition, he or she must also be able to set themselves apart, not allow problems to get too close to them. Then there are business aspects and leadership skills.

If we asked your colleagues what makes you a headmaster, what answer would we get?

I am someone who supports my colleagues and who is open to the concerns of the teachers. Someone who can stand by when he has made mistakes and who seeks conversation.

Let's say a new student comes to your school who had a difficult time with her previous school. The new teachers also have problems with the girl. What is your job as a school principal?

My job would be to build a network so that it doesn't escalate. Especially on the burden side of the teachers. Because although the situation is incredibly stressful, they should be able to do their work in a healthy way. Even if that happens very rarely in our school building: There are these children who just freak out. And that is extremely demanding for teachers.

Do you see yourself as a kind of arbitration board?

There are situations in which I sit down at the table with parents and teachers. Then I listen to the parents and take up their concerns, but I feel more committed to the organization of the school. I know the teachers and their strengths and weaknesses, and when parents come up with criticism, it is often about something that we are already working on. It would be unprofessional to comment on this publicly. And just because parents don't hear from me about this doesn't mean that we're not working on it internally.

Has the job of headmaster become more demanding compared to earlier times?

In the area of ​​communication with security. The speed at which news travels is increasing, as is the frequency. Parents hear a rumor and share it with other parents via Whatsapp.

Parents are better connected today.

But they don't use this network to better support their children.

What do you mean?

I agree with the Israeli psychologist Haim Omer on this matter, who says: If there are problems with the child, mothers and fathers should use the whole support system that the school offers, teachers, headmasters, school social workers and psychologists, but also those Peers and their parents.

And parents don't do that enough?

Basically, most parents do it very well. But there are mothers and fathers who do not make use of this support network or who make insufficient use of it, they just get upset together with other parents.

Which bodies can school principals ask for support or help?

For example, I use the collegial network consisting of other school principals, get opinions or inquire about specialists. The point of contact for school principals is usually the president of the cantonal school principals association. The latter sends the inquiries via email to his network and asks for feedback to the sender.

You run a primary school in a more rural region. You know each other from clubs, your wife meets the fathers or mothers of your students while shopping. In this case, is it harder to set yourself apart?

It is also an opportunity when you work in a smaller community that you live in. But yes, my wife must have learned to distance herself. When I took up the position as headmaster, my children were still young. Now they go to school and the parents of my students know me as a father too. That makes you more human and relaxes the situation a lot.

Do your children go to the school where you are the headmaster?

Yes, I didn't want my children to be treated differently. Even if it is not always easy for the teachers. So they have me on their backs as boss and father.

You have been President of the Association of School Leaders in Switzerland since August 1st. To do this, you have reduced your workload as headmaster to 60 percent.

So far I have had two school locations under me, one I was able to hand over to a younger colleague. He was my preferred candidate for the post. It is not a matter of course to be able to fill a school management position from within your own ranks.

You are alluding to the lack of school leaders.

Which, in my opinion, is even more serious than the lack of teachers. I don't think it's happy when people “only” speak of a qualitative deficiency - instead of a fundamental lack of teachers or headmasters. That means that the last contingent will fill vacancies, and that is not a good starting point for a school community that has to find the ideal person and not take the last available one.

Why is there a lack of suitable school leaders? Isn't the position attractive?

It's a lonely role. Up until a year ago I was the manager of 50 people. That is incredibly demanding. Each individual has concerns for their boss, as well as communication with parents and the school authorities. Hardly any school principal does his job on a full-time basis; many teach on the side. The workloads are often too tight.

What should I do?

It is not enough to make training more attractive, or it is the wrong approach. The headmaster's job should be more attractive. One factor would certainly be to give the headmasters enough time for the tasks that arise. This is where politics are called upon.

How do you feel about lateral entrants?

Of course, it would be easier if a teacher who knew the system became the headmaster. But it is more important to choose a person who is passionate about people. It's a popular saying, but it goes like this: a teacher as well as a school principal have to like people, otherwise you are in the wrong place. There are teachers, albeit few, who cannot work with people, who stupidly ended up in the wrong profession. As a school director you have to be passionate about creating good situations, with the people who work there, for the children who come to us.

Do you understand teachers who struggle with lateral entrants?

Naturally. They think that the person or person does not understand their situation because he or she does not know the system. As a secondary school teacher, I became the headmaster at kindergarten and primary level. At first I was met with skepticism.

Did you make mistakes?

Yes, but I don't think too serious. For the kindergarten I once designed a questionnaire on which the pupils should tick: “applies”, “sometimes applies”, “does not apply at all”. The kindergarten teacher drew my attention to the fact that the children did not understand this at all. You work with smileys at this level. As a career changer you might make two or three beginner mistakes, but if you are generous yourself and you are generous with those around you, you can do it together.

What will be the big topics of your term of office as VSLCH President?

On the one hand, I have set myself the goal of promoting better networking between the individual cantonal school headmasters' associations. On the other hand, I want to develop tools such as position papers or a communication concept to support cantonal educational work. In addition, I would like to make the school director's association and its work better known. Our country lacks an idea of ​​what school should look like in the future. In this regard, I would like to influence the political leaders and associations.

How do you imagine the school of the future?

In my mind, the perfect classroom becomes one Mixture of living room, workroom and kitchen - a place where you come together at a large table and become productive together.

Are you a proponent of multi-year classes and individualized teaching?

School will change accordingly. I am convinced of that. The Prussian school system, the teacher as an authority figure at the front of the blackboard, who instills knowledge into his students, is a thing of the past.

This idea overwhelms some teachers.

And I can understand these colleagues too. But it's not about immediately offering every single student a suitable program, but rather about allowing that the children and young people create something themselves. Some children will be able to do this very well and independently, while others will have to be accompanied more closely. And that requires good teachers who should see themselves as motivators or coaches. Gone are the days when children stood up and stood at attention because the teacher entered the class. Today it's about personal contact with each individual student, about empathy and relationships.

But there may be colleagues who cannot and do not want to adjust to this new situation.

That's right. The task of a school management will also be to properly accompany such colleagues into retirement. Your way of teaching isn't bad per se either. But I prefer personal contact with the students.

Do you always manage to build a good relationship with your students?

It is always my goal. But I always had students with whom I thought: They actually need someone other than me. If you had a system in which children could freely choose which teacher to teach with, someone who was good for them, then you could work differently with these children. Of course, our job is not just to make wishes come true. A certain general education is necessary. But basically it is about promoting the individual strengths of the children.

If your three children could wish for something from the top school principal in Switzerland, what would it be?

They would like to have the support to implement their own ideas. There is so much creativity in children and we always manage to nip it in the bud.

More about the development of schools:

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