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7 Questions on Leadership with Renate van der Westhuizen

Name: Renate van der Westhuizen

Title: Founding Principal

Organisation: Apex High School

Renate is the founding principal of a no-fee High School in the Cape Flats. The school is currently a school of choice in the province with more than 2800 applications every year. In 2021 Renate was crowned, by the National Teaching Awards as the best secondary school leader in South Africa. She served on numerous academic boards, leading discussion with regards to violence in South African Schools. Renate has also been a guest speaker at the University of Stellenbosch, discussing Gender Violence in South African Schools.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Renate's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Schools must adhere to various government , state, and local regulations, including those related to curriculum, testing, special education, and student safety. Keeping up with changing regulations and ensuring compliance can be complex and time consuming. School leaders must navigate the expectations and needs of various stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, staff, and the broader community. Balancing these often conflicting interests can be challenging.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I was a deputy principal at a local school for 8 years, when I saw an advert for a principal. The advert really spoke to me with the line: " Are you wanting to challenge the status quo" of the current state of education.

The massive gap between previously advantaged and disadvantaged schools has always angered me. And I was ready to do something about it.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I am very consistent. I leave home every day at 06h00, and I am behind my desk at 06h15, sending out my morning message at 06h20. I move out to the gate to greet the kids when they arrive and the rest of my day is filled with teaching, observations, coaching and data meetings. I generally leave my office at 17h00 or 17h30.

Between 18h00 and 20h00 is family time.

And then I complete my admin or prep for the next day from 20h00 to 23h00.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

School leaders had to quickly adapt to new learning environments recently whether it was transitioning to remote or hybrid learning, implementing safety protocols, or adjusting to changing guidelines. The ability to pivot and adapt to unexpected circumstances became a crucial leadership skill.

I have also recently been reminded of the importance of keeping your focus on the target and to never lower your standards.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

The book Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has really impacted the way I lead the school. It focuses on 7 levers, that when, implemented successfully will increase academic results and create positive school culture.

And then another great read is Grit by Angela Duckworth. It really speaks about the benefit of having a growth mindset, resilience and the importance of feedback.

Also really enjoy reading Brene Brown and Simon Sinek.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

As a school leader, you set an example for others. By prioritizing positive relationships, you demonstrate the importance of empathy, respect, and cooperation to the entire school community. Model the behaviour you want to see and always walk your talk. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, your values, and your leadership style. This self-awareness will help you lead authentically. When students feel a sense of connection and support from their school leaders and teachers, they are more likely to thrive academically and socially.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

Every afternoon I try to stand outside the gate as our scholars dismiss. One day, as Mark leaves, he turns back and asks me if he can show me something. At this stage, Mark is a grade 11 learner, a few years older than the rest of his cohort. You can see that he knows the hardships of life. He has lived. He has suffered. He pulls out a creased piece of paper and tells me that he found it whilst cleaning his cupboard. Unfolding the paper, I was faced with the worst report ever seen. Some subjects have 0% next to it and there is not one mark more than 15%.

Confused, I look at Mark, he tells me that that was his report before he came to our school. That he failed grade 8 and then again in grade 9, after which he dropped out and got involved in gangsterism. When his mom enrolled him in the “new” school in Eerste river, he thought to himself: “different school, same story…”

And then he thanked me. For changing his life. I was blown away. I responded that we are not to be thanked, as he made the choice to take ownership of his future, besides I did not even teach him. Mark then responded with these words, “No Ma’am, but you hire teachers who care”.

Mark matriculated in 2021 with a Bachelor pass and is going to pursue a career in the Tourism industry. We use his story to motivate other learners to take ownership of their own studies.

To be honest, I did not even know that Mark knew his teachers’ names. But he did and they impacted his life in such a way that he wanted to spread the message to everyone who would listen. Their passion ignited his passion. They taught to inspire, and it changed Mark forever.

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