What it’s like being a high school secretary and PA to the principal
Unlike the rest of my posts during this career series, this one was submitted anonymously. Having worked in schools around Cape Town, though through a role in a non-profit, I know first hand how hard working in public schools can be. I once was at a school when a student stabbed another student.
Another time, a child arrived at school wearing plain clothing instead of uniform, a six-year-old. When asked why he wasn’t in uniform his response broke me. He said “my uncle got shot by a gangster yesterday and mommy went to the hospital. I didn’t know where my uniform was.” I don’t think I will ever recover from that comment. At age six, this was his life. It’s no easy task being involved in some public schools in Cape Town.
While the school being referred to in this interview may not be the kind of school I experienced, it’s clear that you really do need to be called to this profession or have a really thick skin and a serious love for shaping lives!
What it’s like being a high school secretary and PA to the principal
What is your job / what field are you in?
I am a sergeant major, nurse, psychologist, therapist, educator, mediator, law-maker and guidance counsellor amongst others. In short, I’m the principal’s PA and high school secretary.
Do you need a qualification for it? If yes, what and how long does it take?
Not really although an administrative or secretarial certificate or diploma is an advantage. Depending on where you choose to study it can take anytime from six months to three years to complete.
How did you get into it?
I stumbled into it. I don’t have a secretarial diploma but my qualification in tourism and years of experience within various fields has equipped me with administrative support knowledge. What helped was that I’m an active School Governing Body member that has prepared me for working within the school environment.
How long have you been doing this?
Just under one year.
Do you remember when you first started? Tell us a bit about that.
Yes. I was nervous. Not the new job nervous, but genuine fear. My school has a reputation of breeding gangsters. Months later I can tell you it’s unwarranted. Not all misguided youth are gangsters. Mostly just hearsay. The one reason that made me take the job and stick it out was that it’s in my neighbourhood. I can walk to work. Which I don’t but I’ve always wanted a job close to home.
Do you work for yourself or for a company or organisation?
I am a Public Servant.
What’s an average day like for you at work?
Where do I start? There are almost always parents waiting when I walk in at 7:15 needing to sort out their kids and mostly the school. I ensure that deadlines are met, appointments are kept. It is my business to know everything at school. Not because I want to. I can really live without knowing some information. I answer an average of twenty plus calls a day, speak to no less than ten walk ins, answer a multitude of emails, keep the principal’s diary, listen to kids problems, listen to educators vent, have meetings, and, and, and…I run around the whole day, especially after my principal who is never in his office. I think it’s for this reason I’m allowed to wear my sneakers to the office. That’s when I’m not fixing a tear in a girl’s skirt with a stapler or educating them about menstruation. Fending off advances from hormonal teen boys is sadly one of my daily tasks. Never the same boy twice though. They misinterpret “nice” as a gesture. Their socio-economic backgrounds doesn’t help my situation either. It is a work in progress but for a young-looking woman I know how to command respect. I also give them crap for treating women any which way. Slowly they are learning. I sometimes think they only behave in my presence for my benefit and to avoid my wrath. I’ll take it as a win anyways.
Then there is the not too great part of my day when I fight with people who may pose potential risks to the school and our kids. They come in the form of “Blessers”, estranged parents, drunk family members and the odd gangsters who come in the guise of the aforementioned. It’s mostly power struggles. Mine is bigger than yours type of thing. Or who can puff out their chests more. It is for this reason that I have perfected the Wonder Woman pose.
Breaks do not factor into my day. I eat in the morning before school and then when I get home the afternoon. I’ll have a nutritional shake to sustain me during the day between meals but that is on the go. I am that busy.
What has been the most memorable moment for you in your career?
It’s too soon to tell at this point. I’m sure there will be many in future.
What moment would you like to forget?
Three weeks ago when a gang entered the school and stabbed one of our learners and ran through the office with weapons (a panga being one of it). Then the ambulance services asking me too many questions that required me to look at the wound. I do not deal well with blood. You can only imagine what my dreams have been made if since then.
If you could live your life over, would you still do this?
YES. I think I am exactly where I’m supposed to be in my life. I have a strong personality and choose to think that the school needs me.
What are some of the biggest challenges about this field?
Plenty of people consider secretaries as lesser mortals. Truthfully I didn’t really think that much of the profession before I entered it. You get the short end of the respect stick because of your title from all different angles. Educators, learners, parents, the department and just about everyone you come into contact with. If you’re not strong enough it can and will break you.
Being a parent myself I cannot deal with how blasé parents are when it comes to their kids education. It’s up to the school to ensure grades and manners. The biggest challenge is the socio-economic circumstances. Many of these kids don’t know any better. Alcohol and drugs are as normal to them as the time slots of daily soaps on tv. The sad reality is there are some brilliant kids who will probably not get to live their dreams because of it. There are plenty of opportunities but not everyone has access to it. Bearing witness to this daily and not having the power to save everyone is troubling. It makes me have zero tolerance for the privileged who take simple things for granted and mother my own kids all the harder.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into this field?
This is not just a job. It’s a calling. You have to be a people’s person and the ability to suck it up and move on at times. Your true strength sometimes lies in how good you are at keeping quiet. Knowing how to diffuse a situation is a good quality to have. Planning is very important although your day or week will never go as planned. Good organizational skills and flexibility is vital. Be prepared to wear many hats that is not detailed in your job description. (See answer to first question) Last but not least, a sense of humor comes in handy. You’ll need it more often than not or you’ll lose your marbles.
Kids who are loved at home come to school to learn and kids who don’t come to school for love. To many of them, you and the educators are it. If you don’t have a love for kids and education then this is probably not a job for you.