leading – and wearing a mask

I first met Jane Baskwill when she was still a principal in Nova Scotia. She was also a published children’s author. She’d started work on a PhD and I was to be her new supervisor. Having moved out of schools and the principalship myself not so long before, I could immediately relate when Jane showed up at our first meeting carrying a box containing a mask she’d made.


Jane was investigating the experiences of her colleagues, other women who were elementary principals in the province. The mask became a pivotal point for her research.

This is how she wrote about her mask-making.

Instead of thinking in words, sentences and paragraphs, I found myself thinking in images and seeking mediums in which to convey them. I thought about the possibilities of the metaphor in terms of the ‘mask of administration’ I wear each day, a face that is formal and restrictive and one that I would rather not have to wear. I wrestled with the notion that, at times, I feel as if I do hide behind that mask and use the power the position affords to protect myself.

As the mask-as-metaphor took form in my mind’s eye, I felt excited and energized by this phase of the research process in a way I had not been previously. I set to work. The Mask of Administration was molded from my own face using plaster of Paris bandaging material. On its surface I glued segments of the Education Act that described the duties and responsibilities of the principal. I made the hair by putting the documents through the shredder and hot gluing the long strips to the molded form, giving the mask a wild look.

Throughout the making of this mask I felt I was engaged in an act of ultimate defiance. I was defacing a sacred document: The Education Act — the’law’. I took delight in what felt like a subversive act. The mask was an inside joke played on the ‘system’.

The mask allowed Jane to interrogate her own experiences and ambivalences in the job. But it also provided a focus for her interpretation of her colleague’s experiences and her relationships with them.

The Mask of Administration also symbolized for me the way I had had to camouflage the identity of the principals such that they became dis-embodied participants in this research. So that my use of their words would not do them harm, they had to remain ‘faceless’. However, by creating masks as another way to (re)-present my analysis of the data I was able to give them form and life. I was also able to externalize the dilemmas of representation and have “re-imagined” (Neilsen, 1998) masks as a form of textual representation.

As I made masks of my own I began to see them as part of my own personal mythology surrounding my work as principal and the (re)-presentation of that work and the work of others. I made 8 masks (in addition to The Mask of Administration), one for each of the 8 women whose transcripts I had chosen to work with. As I listened repeatedly to the tape recordings of the interviews, the visual images I had became clearer and clearer. I sketched my ‘impressions’ for each and listed possible materials I could use. I constructed each mask using my face as the mold. Each mask was a (re)-presentation not only of the transcribed interview but also of my experience during the interview. Instead of constructing categories and themes, or verses of poetic prose, I worked with plaster, clay, wood and paper.

Young (1998), says of his masks: “I want the masks to transport the viewer to places we don’t need to understand (and may not be able to) but do need to experience “. In relating this to my research I discovered that creating masks enabled me to (re)-present my thinking about the data. It seemed fitting to use this ancient art form to ‘give face’ to the otherwise anonymous ‘informants’. The masks afforded them protection but also gave face to their voices as I heard them.

These masks thus became “Talking Heads” which afforded me the power to replace one ‘reality’ with another — the principal-of-the literature with the principal-of-the-everyday. Through the masks I was better able to explore the emotions of the relationships, the forces, the pushes and pulls and the person in the otherwise faceless position. The creation of the masks afforded yet another way to place critical points of tension between the principal of the literature and the principal, as I ‘knew’ her. Later, when used as an integral part of a staged performance, the masks became both symbol and metaphor of the complexities surrounding research-with-others.

Jane’s PhD was ‘artful’ – in addition to documentary research on women principals, she wrote a play using her participant’s words. This was performed and a subsequent audience discussion about the position of women principals was recorded and analysed. If you are interested, you can read her thesis online and/or a paper that she wrote about her research and mask-making.

Jane’s mask-making resonates with the ways in which Amanda and I both experienced our own work as principals. Jane talked about the role of the principal as something formal and restrictive, profoundly shaped by external regulations and expectations, some of them current, some historical. Our everyday leader wardrobe choices – how we struggled with ‘looking like a principal” – offer a way to explore this issue. Just like Jane, we too will have to wrestle with our own research relationships with our participants, and how we represent what we are told. Whether we do something as creative as Jane’s mask-making remains to be seen!

And – we are still seeking volunteers for our women, wardrobes and leadership survey. If you are an aspiring, serving or retired school leader, we’d love to hear from you if you have twenty minutes to spare. We’ve been told it’s quite an enjoyable exercise to do!