Education Review asks New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) president IAIN TAYLOR discusses how the role of school principal has changed over the years and how to manage the challenges of this demanding position.
A: Iain Taylor: The role of the school principal has evolved considerably over the past 50 years according to social, political and educational change. Perhaps the most significant change came in the late 1980s with the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools.
This policy was intended to shift the control and ownership of schools to communities rather than the school education boards which were consequently disbanded. It gave school principals a high level of autonomy to be more responsive to the needs of individual children and at the same time gave ownership and power to communities to influence the direction of their local school and its curriculum.
Alongside these structural changes have come pedagogical changes such that teaching is no longer treating all students as equals – as if they all progress, as a class, at the same rate of learning, just because they happen to be the same age. Pedagogy is now very focused on the individual, on inquiry learning and more recently on modern learning environments to assist in achieving higher rates of self-managed learning.
Societal changes, particularly with the rapid acceleration of poverty and inequity means that principals have far more serious social issues to deal with from children arriving at school unfed and poorly clad to higher rates of learning disabilities and behavioural and health issues. There has also been a plethora of compliance issues to cope with, particularly in the last decade.
As theories of leadership have developed there is now more onus on the principal to empower senior team members and to mentor and coach them to build capacity in principalship.
There are issues with the average age of principals in New Zealand being over 50 years old and the likelihood that 70 per cent of all current principals will retire within the next five years.
Q: What are some of the main issues principals are confronting at the moment, in general terms?
A: A recent NZPF survey to all regional presidents of principal associations found that principal wellbeing is the top issue for principals, followed by principal workload, special education services and principal leadership support and advice.
NZPF is working with the Ministry to fund a principal leadership support and advisory service across the country. Currently there are three such positions based in Whangarei in Northland, Invercargill in Southland and Gisborne on the East Coast.
Q: What are some strategies principals can use to help manage and balance their workloads?
A: Principals use a variety of strategies to cope with the increasing workload and complexities of running a school. These range from ensuring they have clear, well-communicated strategic plans and action plans so that they know what is relevant and what is not, to eliminating unproductive conversations, controlling appointments and meetings, delegating as much as possible, and making sure communications are always clear so there can be no misunderstandings that waste time.
Also important is having clarity about meetings, especially clear, shared agenda, prioritising resources and assistance to meet deadlines, having organised filing systems, making ‘to do’ lists, organising electronic mail into folders to reduce interruptions during the day and attending to email messages only at set times.
Just as important is learning to say ‘no’, prioritising critical issues and eliminating as much as possible that is not priority or core business.
Q: Do you think there are enough mechanisms in place to give principals the necessary support to do their job well?
A: No! Educators would be the least supported of all professions. That is why we are advocating hard for a principal leadership support advisory service system-wide so that all principals have access to advice, support, mentoring and coaching as required.
Q: Why is collaboration with other principals both locally and further afield important?
A: Collaboration is a practice that professional educators have always incorporated in their practice. It provides the opportunity to share both challenges and solutions and to create solutions where they don’t exist.
Collaborative groups are also great sources of PLD for schools and many share resources which they then agree to channel into a common area for development, whether that is for teachers within schools or for leadership. It has always been a challenge for isolated or rural principals to participate in collaborative groups for PLD, because of the extra travel component.
However, it is perhaps even more important that rural principals are able to connect with each other because they are already isolated with little or no contact with other principals. The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) has become very popular with isolated schools as they can collaborate at least virtually, even if not in person.
Q: What sort of PLD should principals be seeking?
A: New Zealand schools are all self-managing and so challenges for which PLD may be an answer will vary. Principals do seek out opportunities to learn what is happening elsewhere in the world and they also seek out examples of high performance and successful strategies in New Zealand schools.
To achieve these goals they may well seek out conference opportunities. If ICT is a challenge there is the U-Learn conference held annually, which thousands of professionals attend.
They may identify a particular challenge with a particular issue that is common to their local collaborative group and again pool resources and seek out an expert to meet that challenge; principals will know best what PLD they need at any given time.
Q: With the triennial Board of Trustees elections looming, how should principals approach a new or refreshed BoT?
A: One of the most important relationships a principal has is that with the BoT and, in particular, the chair of the BoT. As BoT membership changes it is critical that the principal takes the time to meet and properly engage with new members.
It is the BoT, after all, that employs the principal. In the main, it is a system that works very well, and having the BoT membership drawn from the local community helps the school’s decision-making to reflect the values and aspirations of the community and provides an immediate link between the principal and the community.
NZSTA offers excellent targeted training courses to BoT members as they seek it. So as changes in BoT membership occur, it is possible to upskill the BoT.
Q: From where you sit, what appear to be the most rewarding aspects of the principal’s role?
A: The greatest rewards come from seeing kids succeed. That’s always been the case and always will be.
In the end, the reason we ever get into teaching is for the kids. We want to give every single kid the best day we possibly can. We want them to learn, to change, to have fun, and to ultimately all be successful, happy, contributing citizens. We want them to fulfil their potential, whatever that may be. We want every one of them to look back and say, ‘My school days were the most productive and the happiest days of my life’. Sometimes that does happen… students return to show us what they have made of their lives and that’s just the best!
Q: And the most challenging?
A: The most challenging aspects usually are the frustrations that are difficult to resolve. We can have the best answers, the best pathways for kids’ learning, but not the resources to make it happen.
The other frustration for principals is the time that compliance and paperwork takes away from leading learning in our schools. This means that much of the paperwork is done outside school hours. While most principals quietly manage working these extra hours, there are times when stress builds and principals can feel overwhelmed by the volume of work and the inability to achieve any down time at all.
The final challenge relates to the desire to be inclusive. A growing number of children are presenting at school with learning and behavioural disabilities that can be difficult to manage. We find that our special education service is not always responsive or helpful and can often add to the frustrations and the difficulties in accessing appropriate support.
Q: What advice would you give a first-time principal?
A: My advice to a first-time principal would be, firstly, to build an excellent, healthy and open relationship with the BoT chair and other members of the BoT.
Secondly, I would encourage them to engage a mentor/coach to help guide them through the first year or two.
Thirdly, I would suggest they connect with other local principals to share in the knowledge and expertise that is available through professional networks.
I would also encourage them to seek advice on drawing up a school charter and operations plan that reflects the aspirations of the community. It requires particular skills to consult with community members in order to prepare a charter that is acceptable to the whole community as well as the school staff.
Once constructed, a good charter can guide decision-making and can bring staff together with a shared vision of where the school is going. It can avoid any misunderstandings and unintended divisions in staff.
Finally, I would say go out and enjoy it!