“These are very challenging times for educational leaders, and they need all the information available to make the best possible decisions”

Dr Stephanie Chitpin, Professor of Educational Leadership, University of Ottawa


* ‘There may be more opportunities for success in larger countries, like Canada. However, when one arrives in a new country, one must start anew’

Stephanie Chitpin left Mauritius as a teenager on a Canadian scholarship and eventually settled there as a Professor of Educational Leadership at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, Canada. She is the recipient of the 2020 Research Excellence Award. She is the Series Editor of Transforming Education through Critical Leadership, Policy and Practice. She is also the founder of the Equitable Leadership Network. Herself a product ot the Mauritian educational system, and brought up as a Buddhist, in this interview she shares her experience about educational leadership and makes some interesting observations about the local educational system.

* You make the case for strong decision-making and highlight the importance of educational leadership in a school setting in your book ‘Understanding Leadership in Educational Contexts – A Case Study Approach’, published earlier this year. Why do factors matter in an educational setting?

School principals work in complicated and multi-faceted operational decision-making environments (Hallinger & Heck, 2010). The book ‘Understanding Decision-making in Educational Contexts…’, which forms part of the Series Transforming Education through Critical Leadership, Policy and Practice, is a live account of what is happening in our schools. It discusses what we are teaching and learning, what we already know, what we are uncovering and discovering, and how school leaders make decisions as a result of specific events that occur widely in schools.

Regarding student learning, school leadership is second only to teaching, among school-related influences. Although decision-making is a central activity for school leaders with respect to student learning, relatively little attention has been paid to the mental models underlying principals’ decision-making processes in solving problems. These are very challenging times for educational leaders, and they need all the information available to make the best possible decisions, given their own contexts. Clearly, educational decision-making is not a one-size-fits-all process. The leader must take his or her context into consideration when making decisions so that the positive effects of the decisions made outweigh the negative influences that have created the issue(s) in the first place. Therefore, good educational leadership depends on high quality decision-making.

* If leadership matters in educational contexts, who should be empowered and what goes into the process of empowerment?

Empowerment is about providing people with the resources they need to get their jobs done, within a context of bounded autonomy and accountability. Bounded autonomy refers to giving people the freedom to find their way to the goal line while ensuring that they know the rules of the game and the boundaries of the playing field. One key resource is providing relevant information; information that is transparent and open. Other resources include funding, training, staff support, organizational clearances, and whatever else individuals need to get their work done successfully.

Freedom must include a sense of responsibility, otherwise freedom is only a half-empty glass. In his classic ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Viktor Frankl (1956) refers to: ‘Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.’

From a humanitarian perspective, the central responsibility of educational leaders is to create environments where all teachers and support staff succeed. Clearly, the latter need to be provided with unambiguous expectations, as well as with regular and timely feedback. They also need to be well supported, in that they should not be on their own to err, meander or fail. So, good educational leaders need to be both good managers of people and skilled creators of the school systems that support them.

* It’s known that some Asian countries are doing very well in education, a few even outperforming most countries in the West with superior performance in international comparative exams such as PISA, in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths). Asian students in the US, for example, are doing better than the Americans. Doesn’t this have to do with the competitive environment in those countries as well as a particular (Asian) culture that values and promotes the acquisition of high levels of knowledge?

While I am somewhat familiar with international systems of education, I do believe that the success of Chinese international students comes at a significant price. Even if it may be true that these students outperform North American students, the suicide rate among Chinese nationals is unacceptably high, due to the stress of competing with other national and international students. While educational leadership in this context is focused on achievement, perhaps an additional focus on well-being and mental health would be helpful. The high cost of success is but one focal point that may be worthwhile for educational leaders to consider.

* What’s your assessment of the educational system in Mauritius? Tell us what you think are its limitations and what is required to improve the system so that it becomes more equitable and efficient?

I am no expert in the Mauritius educational system. But I would assume that it is broadly similar to that of the United Kingdom, since Mauritius was a former British colony. Standardized assessment continues unabated throughout educational systems in the United Kingdom, while the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, including state schools and some independent schools (OFSTED), evaluates educational leaders whose employability depends on the outcomes of these assessments. Such leadership inspections, combined with high-stakes, standardized student examinations, create inequitable conditions for disadvantaged and marginalized populations.

One of the case studies in my book ‘Understanding Decision-Making in Educational Contexts…’ specifically explores the issues of inequity; it looks at how school leaders identify factors hindering student performance on standardized examinations, which may, themselves, be an inequitable measure of student achievement. School leaders need to articulate how collaboration and competition are influenced by organizational structures. Also, they must recognize mismatches between governmental targets and student support. They must also address individual variables, cope with diminishing social and financial support and minimize competitive aspects of the educational environment.

* For having been a product of the education system that’s available here, would you say that the empowerment of educational leaders in Mauritius would have a dramatic impact on the system and will enhance its efficiency?

Empowerment has become a household word and a fuzzy idea that is hard to pin down. I believe educational leaders need to go beyond hypocrisy or empty rhetoric in order to grapple with the serious and important task of finding ways to increase people’s ability to make informed decisions and choices that would actually make a difference. Research evidence points to the fact that, when organisations empower their employees to do a better job, both the employees and their organizations feel better about their work, which is a win-win situation.

* We understand that you were raised in a Buddhist temple as an orphan and went on to become a full professor at one of the largest bilingual universities ranked among the top 100 worldwide – University of Ottawa. Tell us about that journey from the Temple to the University…

My background and upbringing have left an indelible mark on me and have made me who I am today. It is befitting for me to acknowledge the role that my life as the ward of a Buddhist temple (Pagoda Fook Soo Ham) and the lessons I learned from my principal guardians, a head nun, the late Ah Feeti (a.k.a. Ah Pak), and a worshipper have played in bringing me to my present state.

Shortly after I turned six years old, the worshipper (late Joseph, pseudonym) convinced Ah Pak that I should attend a Western, English medium school, arguing that, by receiving a proper education, I would be able to take care of the pagoda’s affairs, instead of having to rely on him and others. Shortly afterwards, I was enrolled in a one-room kindergarten, a few metres away from the pagoda. I was the oldest student in that class, as kindergarten starts at age four. There, I learned Creole with the other ten kindergartners. The late Joseph agreed to pay one rupee (approximately five Canadian cents) per month for my schooling. I then attended Villiers René Government school and moved on to the Loreto Convent Port Louis for my secondary schooling.

After I had completed my secondary studies, and while awaiting the official results, I was in limbo. I did not know what to do with my life or where I was heading. My whole day was spent attending to the various chores in the pagoda. Late Ah Pak would ask me to accompany her to pay visits to the sick or to go to town for groceries or supplies.

With the encouragement of the late Joseph and the support of my “Godfather”, the then Minister of Justice, I applied for a scholarship in Canada and was accepted at the University of Guelph, where I spent two years completing my bachelor’s degree in French with a minor in mathematics. After completing my BA, I applied for my Bachelor of Education at the University of Toronto and became a teacher, one of the youngest certified and qualified educators in Ontario.

I went on to complete a Master of Arts degree in Linguistics and a PhD in Educational Leadership at the University of Toronto, while pursuing my full-time teaching and administrative roles. Upon completing my PhD in 2003, I was offered a position with NASA/University of Huntsville in Alabama. I stayed with NASA/UAH for a year and was head-hunted by the University of Ottawa, where I have been a professor for almost two decades.

* Did the Temple, coupled with the fact of being an orphan, have a decisive impact on what you have achieved professionally? There must have been more to it than religion, such as the cultural influence, isn’t it?

I don’t think being an orphan had an impact on what I was to achieve professionally, culturally or religiously. The late Joseph (one of the worshippers) fostered my independence and encouraged me to broaden my horizons beyond the temple and beyond Mauritius. Largely due to his influence, I graduated from high school and, with his encouragement and the help of my “Godfather”, who was a politician, I applied to Canadian universities and succeeded in getting enrolled .

* It’s said that context matters in different areas of human undertakings. Would this also be a reason why Mauritians settled overseas, like in Canada, for example, seem to do better than in the home country?

You raise an interesting point. I believe there may be more opportunities for success in larger countries, like Canada. However, I also believe that, when one arrives in a new country, one must start anew. The advantage that newcomers (immigrants) have is that they frequently arrive with so little that the risks taken by ordinary citizens are miniscule, compared to those immigrants must take. In order to advance, the newcomer takes risks that those who were born in that country would not think of taking.

In short, those who are not already settled can fall very low if their venture is unsuccessful. I am not implying that taking these risks are easy; it is simply that they are necessary.

* If you were to travel back in time today, and a decision had to be taken about emigrating, would you still opt for Canada or would you choose some other country? If so, why ?

Canada was the country of my choice and would still be the country of my choice. I have lived in the United States and I am grateful to be a Canadian.

Canadians are more open to multiculturalism than many countries are. Canada has been known as a “land of immigrants.” As a result, immigration to Canada is not an impossibility for someone, like me, who arrived in Canada as a teenager, with no family or friends for support.

Although Canada and the USA have similar cultures, they are very different in terms of their immigration policies and I believe those policies speak volumes about what life will be like in each country, post-immigration.

* Does this mean there are still opportunities out there for those who are adventurous and hardworking enough to tap them?

Absolutely. For those of us who wish to take risks in order to improve their lives, there are still plenty of opportunities. One must have a good plan and it is helpful to have strong support. If one is smart and goes about it in the right way, the world will open up.

However, it is also wise to remember that the people we usually look up to are those who have been visibly successful. But there are also many stories about those who have “almost made it.” Yes, there are still opportunities. However, no opportunity is a guarantee. If one is hard-working, plans well and keeps moving in the right direction, eventually they will end up at their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.

* Published in print edition on 19 October 2021

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