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Opinions of Sunday, 24 January 2016

Columnist: Dery, Francis

Mary was without the mother and the good counsel

Exciting news!!! Mary Mother of Good Counsel has a new Principal.

Yes, that school; the selfsame school previously embroiled in a lawsuit regarding the completely crude disciplinary measure by a teacher, who duct-taped a kid’s mouth, hands and feet in order to restrain the kid. That incident was a new low point in unprofessional teacher conduct, but as they say, that matter is history now. What is also history is the Principal who presided over that incident. There is no proof however, that Rev. Sister Patricia Asante’s departure from the school is in any way directly connected to that heinous incident. What may nevertheless be true, even though the Catholic Hierarchy is mum about it, is that a series of disturbing incidents over the tenure of the former Principal, culminated in her transfer. Still, others have postulated that the church posts its clergy to schools on fixed term rotational basis and that the former Principal would still have left the school regardless of any of these events. That’s hard to swallow. The Catholic Church, my Church, has perfected the practice of relocating its clergy over centuries, especially in the last and this century, in order to remove them from difficult and embarrassing situations. In this school in particular, things were so bad that Mary, Mother and Good Counsel were thrown out, and what was left was just a school. Hopefully, Mary, Mother and Good Counsel can be put back into the school.

Those who have interacted closely with the former Principal, especially parents, have few pleasant memories of those interactions. Investigations reveal a general consensus among parents that the former Principal had a particularly acerbic tongue no matter the type and tempo of discussion. It appears her “take no prisoners” style, alienated many in the school community, especially those who differed in their opinions from hers. At PTA meetings, opinions expressed contrary to her positions were rebuffed aggressively. In fact, those who attended PTA meetings gave the impression Patricia Asante often came to PTA meetings with decisions already made and insisted upon them at what was supposed to be a vigorous exploration of mutually acceptable best solutions in the interest of the school. For example, at a routinely scheduled PTA meeting to elect committee members, attendees were surprised when instead of calling for nominations, or presenting candidates for election to various committees, substantive new members were introduced to the gathering. Apparently, appointments instead of elections had already been made. This conveyed a perception of manipulation, exclusion, dictatorship and a lack of transparency in the entire process.

If Sr. Patricia’s leadership style was abrasive, others questioned her thought processes which informed her decision-making. Some of her utterances, according to those in the position to know, gave the impression of thoughtlessness and an almost atavistic penchant in running the school. For example, she had no good policies for addressing common student misconduct and general school community issues. The absence of a good policy, which could be consistently applied to issues of similar concern, created a vacuum in which solutions were erratic, ad hoc and selective. On a good day, a problem getting a good solution had as good a chance as any of getting a bad solution on any day. Her comments were often presumptive, without any basis whatsoever or if there was a basis, it was a grievously erroneous one, or one that was based on primitive, unscientific fact-free assumptions; more like running a formal corporation like a table-top business. This sometimes made parents wonder whether appropriate school administration and management principles and practices were at play.

Sr. Patricia also had a poor grasp of advocacy and leadership, which is why many of her programmes failed. For example two years ago at a Speech and Prize-Giving Day ceremony, the programme was so poorly planned and executed that the “Appeal for Funds” item was put at the very tail end of the programme, by which time many of the parents and guests had left. The result was that fundraising for the function suffered severely. In another example, in honor of “Teachers Day”, a one-day activity to give parents a feel of teacher experiences was launched. However, Sister Patricia’s “sales line” rather alienated parents from participating by assuming that parents had never been teachers before, or were unaware of teacher challenges with difficult students and subject matters in the classroom. What she appeared not to know was that many parents were themselves teacher many years ago. The result was that there was poor patronage of the programme and many parents who could have shared their teaching experience and talents to enrich the activity were put off by her misguided presumptive statements. Still, a particular example speaks to her lack of advocacy skills. A programme appealing for used clothing from parents was launched. Some parents donated some clothing but others simply forgot. When the programme ended, Sr. Patricia during school assembly, congratulated the students who brought in donations from their parents but went further to say “shame” on those students who couldn’t bring in any donations. Essentially, she blamed students – kids who don’t earn and thus cannot acquire any clothing for themselves - for what was a failing of parents. Persons who solicit help but believe they must first insult benefactors in order to force them to assist them are obviously without good counsel. The following year when the same programme was launched, participation was low and many parents confirmed that their refusal to participate was because of the fact that she blamed students in the previous programme.

Another difficulty with Sr. Patricia’s tenure was the fact that somehow she walked around the school with a perpetual scowl or frown. A parent, speaking on condition of anonymity, recalled witnessing a rather bizarre expelling of what Sister Patricia believed were machinations of the devil in her work challenges in her office. One can forgive this view point considering her vocation, but a penchant for blaming the devil for acts omitted or committed by humans, among them herself, is a lame excuse for lack of imagination, leadership failure and lack of managerial acumen. Throughout my investigations, the name that kept coming up was a Sr. Paula, in contrast with Sr. Patricia. From what I gathered, the former was a straightforward, fair, firm but a dynamic Principal. Still, it must be stressed that the “good old days” have their own wistful traps.

But Sr. Patricia Asante was not the only one responsible for the prevailing bad situation at Mary Mother of Good Counsel School. First among the other culprits were primarily parents. Some parents formed a sort of cabal around her, providing bad advice and identifying so-called opponents for targeting and punishment, especially in the admissions process. For example parents with children already in the school, and who found themselves in opposition to some of her ideas, were denied any additional admissions. On the contrary, parents who supported her got not just admission for their additional children and wards but also the children and wards of friends. A parent recalled how Sr. Patricia told her in person that those opposed to the manner in which a standby generator was to be acquired for the school were identified by other parents present at a testy PTA Meeting on the matter. Parents knifing parents for patronage and favor – this was the general atmosphere. Self-seeking parents colored their advice to Sr. Patricia which may also have led to her own pitfalls in how her management of the school turned out. Some of those parents are still there and will likely sharpen their schemes to corrupt the new one too, if they haven’t already started. Further, many parents chose to be hypocrites. Even on issues they shared the same concerns with other parents about Sr. Patricia’s actions, they left the discussion to a few vocal ones who became immediately alienated because at times they were forced to be harsh in their criticism. Many such parents gave up and stopped attending PTA meetings, leaving the discussion to “yes-parents” and thus denying the association of vigorous, rich, critical but helpful debate in ideas. The school’s website project is an example and to this day remains a major challenge, when this writer knows at least one parent whose professional expertise is precisely technology. Yet that parent is completely disinterested due to some of the problems enumerated above.

Another entity with no small part in the bad state of the school is Rev. Fr. Amissah, the resident Chaplain of the school. If the accounts of Fr. Amissah’s conduct are true, then this man is unfit to be Chaplain especially in terms of the kind of advice he provided to Sister Patricia and the role he played in many difficult exchanges between the administration and parents. Before the election of PTA Executives, Fr. Amissah announced that “they” wanted only catholics to be elected to executive positions. This was disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it is uncatholic. Period. Catholic institutions in this country have always educated people without regard to their faith in or out of the catholic church. I attended catholic school with muslims, pagans and baptists and there was no discrimination. Today, Pope Francis epitomizes and reinforces a non-discriminatory catholic doctrine and yet here is a Chaplain bent on doing the exact opposite? The attempt to make it appear that this was some sort of church policy, or that this practice pertains in evangelical schools still doesn’t make it right. The catholic church and its institutions must not descend so low.

Some teachers cannot also escape blame, although most of them had been bullied by Sr. Patricia and Fr. Amissah so much that they were literally afraid of raising any issues, even if respectfully. Some of their own colleagues, turned into informants, bad-mouthing their fellow teachers to the administration. The then Vice Principal, Mrs. Laryea, was virtually ostracized as she became the lone voice who dared to challenge some of the crude, unprofessional and disturbing decisions of Sr. Patricia. Incidentally, she was among the first to be moved from the school. The result was teacher apathy which also helped enable the general lack of discipline among students. A parent recalled that she arrived one day in school a little earlier and found Patrol Leaders (prefects) at a loss as to how to control students, from kindergarten to JHS2. All the classrooms were chaotic and this was because there was a staff meeting in progress. Readers, many of you remember staff meetings in your school? Did you even hear a single squeal while a staff meeting was in progress when you were in school “back in the day”? Your parents would have been summoned to school or you would have been punished.

Still, there is a bright side to all this. Sister Patricia’s removal or relocation provides an opportunity for renewal in learning, better school discipline, a transparent and fair school management and admissions process and building stronger and better relationships between parents, teachers and the school administration at Mary Mother of Good Counsel School. In essence, it is time to put Mary and Good Counsel back into the School. The new Principal whoever he or she is has a unique opportunity to seize this moment and turn this school away from the state of acrimony and despair that overcame the school in the past. While she cannot do this alone and needs the support of teachers, staff and parents, it is hoped that the cliques which operated around Sr. Patricia and would cease and desist from poisoning the new Principal’s mind and corrupting him or her. That way, the Principal will have a large pool of school community talent from which to tap resources for the progress of the school. Vigorous parent-teacher engagement in the school’s academic programme will lead to improved learning outcomes and student performance, ultimately delivering the core goals for which the school exists. Parents who volunteer resources and support must do so selflessly, without expecting any favours in return.

There are those who say the known devil is preferable to the unknown angel. That’s cliché and not always true. The truth however is that if the concerns about Sr. Patricia’s management of the school are true, then she’s transferring the same bad leadership, management and advocacy styles, and acerbic character to another school and soon enough, some other students and parents will become the unfortunate victims. The solution of such matters rests with the Catholic Education Unit however. The focus for Mary Mother of Good Counsel School for now should be that the new Principal doesn’t become another Sr. Patricia or that she isn’t already one, transferred from elsewhere to burden this school with bad habits previously acquired. For now, he/she has to be given the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully, the same is extended to Sr. Patricia in her new assignment wherever she may be; perhaps, Sr. Patricia has learnt some good lessons which will make her a better Principal in her new assignment. Otherwise, it is a bright, beautiful sunny day at Mary Mother of Good Counsel School in 2016. Good Luck!!!


Francis Dery
Email: dery.francis@yahoo.com