Education Review asks a principal, a senior leader and a middle leader to share their thoughts on the opportunities and challenges at various levels of school leadership.
Bec Power, Principal, Muritai School, Wellington
Congratulations on your new appointment as principal at Muritai School. What are your first impressions of the principal role, now that the first term is nearly behind us?
Moving into a new school at the beginning of a school year is a very busy time! I walked straight into preparing several teacher-only days, and a professional development plan – attempting to plan strategically for a staff and school community I was yet to get to know. Nothing like hitting the ground running! Luckily, our leadership team are absolutely superb, and with a fantastic distributed leadership model already in place at Muritai (with four associate principals), we’ve been working as a team to prepare the planning for the year ahead.
The role of principal is often touted as being multifaceted – and it absolutely is. No two days are the same, nor are any two interactions with parents, or being surprised with blocked drains, community group presentations, recruitment and employment dealings, finances… ‘expect the unexpected’ may be the best advice.
I’ve also walked into two major school property projects for 2017 that have the ability to change our landscape of learning significantly – which is a great opportunity for us as a school community to reflect and review our teaching and learning beliefs that empower students to ‘be the best they can be’.
In a nutshell, can you share your career path journey to principalship?
I began my teaching career at Broadgreen Intermediate in Nelson. I was lucky to have outstanding leadership including my tutor teacher and deputy principal Cate Gully. Cate demonstrated how to grow and maintain strong relationships with everyone she met across the wider community. She also taught me to innovate – to use what worked well and improve on it.
I had rapid advancement into leadership at Broadgreen, where I was a subject leader, an associate teacher then tutor teacher, before winning team leadership then a senior teacher position by the time I was in my fifth year of teaching. At the start of my sixth year I began my first deputy principalship at Nayland Primary. I was able to become a lead teacher on the Link Learning ICT cluster and over three years was exposed to fantastic professional learning. The great lessons I learned were around creating conditions for the best teaching and learning practice – and keeping ‘learning’ as the focus of our work.
I chose not to pursue a smaller ‘country school’ principalship, as I believed my best fit is in a larger school. I chose to instead move to a large school (as a fully released DP) that I had always wanted to work at since I’d visited as part of the Apple Bus Tour a decade earlier – Tahatai Coast School. My principal at TCS, Ian Leckie, is a great believer in growing leaders, and from the get-go, treated me as an equal. He trusted the leadership team to lead major portfolios across the school in a distributed model. We were a high-performing team. Ian also encouraged me to shadow him in all areas of leadership and school management, which of course has been vital and definitely significant in my preparation for principalship.
One thing all of my school leaders have had in common, was their unwavering commitment to growing leaders within their staff. One of the reasons I wanted to become a principal was to continue this work of empowering others to lead and influence.
What professional development have you undertaken along the way that you feel has been instrumental in developing you as a school leader?
Prior to winning my first teaching position I was lucky enough to have an exceptional professional studies lecturer, who is now the director of eLearning at CORE. Derek Wenmoth is the very epitome of being future-focused, and what I learned in the late 1990s alongside Derek, I still see as effective practice in classrooms today. During this time, it was as though there was an impending ‘call to action’ as an educator, that we needed to bring about change in our schools; this belief and drive has never left me.
I’ve been very lucky to have taken part in a variety of internal and external PLD. I learned many leadership lessons as an early DP; the most significant ones were probably as a literacy leader and an eLearning leader.
I’ve also maintained a determined focus in all of my leadership positions in growing my own knowledge and valuing of tikanga Māori, te reo Māori and te ao Māori, with a relentless view of ensuring Māori learners achieve success as Māori. I formed a strong connection to the Nga Potiki hapu in Papamoa, and sat on their education sub-committee.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and since becoming an educator, I’ve read widely on teaching and learning beliefs and trends.
I’ve worked with a variety of external ‘leadership experts’, usually as a collaborative leadership team, which has been invaluable in growing as a high-performing group.
I have attended a wide variety of conferences – some school funded and some I’ve paid for myself and attended in my own time. I’ve taken something special back to improve my own leadership practice from every one that I’ve attended.
I was a CORE eFellow in 2014 and was lucky enough to learn alongside inspirational researchers Dr John Fenaughty and Dr Louise Taylor as my supervisors. Our eFellow group has maintained a tight friendship and ongoing collegial support. I undertook research into personalised professional development whilst seeing many of the new schools across New Zealand in action.
In 2015 I was awarded as an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) and through this programme travelled to Singapore, then to Berlin in 2016 to take part in Institutes to learn alongside the very top of their field in future-focused education using Apple devices.
I have been very strategic in being a well-rounded leader in my preparation for principalship. Leadership roles in literacy, eLearning, Connected Curriculum, Māori, assessment, sport and EOTC, to name a few, have all added to my kete of skills and experience.
As things stand, do you feel there is enough support for aspiring principals in New Zealand?
As an aspiring leader I was able to take part in the NAPP – National Aspiring Principals Programme – which is unfortunately no longer in operation. The only other formal support I’m aware of (apart from individually sought out or designed PLD) is the Emerging Leaders Programme ‘Providing leadership development for potential leaders in Communities of Learning’.
Through the NAPP programme the focus was learning about the role of the principal’s leadership in making sure schools’ systems and processes operate effectively, as well as celebrating our dual cultural heritage and building a strong moral purpose of equity and social justice.
After taking part in all of the korero and the year-long inquiry, I certainly was left under no illusion around the role I was working towards, which I’ve always seen as a unique privilege and a grand responsibility.
As DP at Tahatai, I attended all board of trustees meetings. This gave me an invaluable insight into what my responsibilities would be when I was a principal with my own board, and how to be an effective member of a board. When we reflected on our work, Ian used to say, “You’re only as good as your last board meeting” – this is so very true! It allowed us to refocus and grow each month as we improved on the month before.
What about teachers aspiring to middle leadership and senior leadership roles? Do you feel there is enough guidance for teachers as they progress or is it down to a school’s individual approach?
Some educators arrive in schools with a career path in mind; however, I was not one of them. I remember being quite shocked when it was suggested to me to apply for a team leader as I hadn’t ever considered it. This is so important in schools – spotting potential, but also growing all teachers as leaders.
The reality is that you can often only go so far in any particular school, so there may be a need to move schools or towns for opportunities. This depends on an individual’s personal drive and beliefs – for me it was natural to push forward into new adventures; for others they may have commitments that keep them in one area. My husband is incredibly supportive and as an educator himself understands the demands of the role – also, he’s always keen on a new adventure.
The demands on a middle and senior leader in 2017 are quite different from when I began my leadership journey. Being skilled in innovation, rethinking, collaborative connections, having adaptive expertise and being future-focused with the use of technology and learning environments were not skills deemed as necessary in the not-so-distant past. Welcoming all learners to conversations and thinking around being the central players in the learning environment is also an essential part of our role.
It’s important to remember that you don’t need a title to lead and to have influence; we can all probably picture a person in our own schools who has mana and influence without an official title. The important question might be – what does this person consciously or unconsciously do so effortlessly that we might learn from?
What are the biggest hurdles for a deputy principal in making the jump to principal?
I think the biggest hurdle is making a commitment to go for it! I did set myself a timeline goal, which was to be a principal before I was 40 years old (and I made it – just!).
The biggest hurdles can certainly be perceived rather than actual; however, having self-belief that you can do the job sits right at the top. You also need to really want the role. There is no halfway as a principal, it is enormously challenging and – already I can see – incredibly rewarding.
In making the leap, the largest hurdle I have faced is certainly being female, being a first-time principal, and wanting to work in medium to large schools. I needed to find the perfect combination of a capable and future-focused (yet not necessarily experienced) board, a vision that I believed in and an outstanding bunch of colleagues to work alongside. I have certainly done just that! I’m still pinching myself, and feel as though I’ve won the lottery.
Do you think the demands and expectations placed on principals are making the position increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable?
It’s no coincidence that the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) Conference in 2017 is around leadership and principal hauora, which is also one of the strategic areas of interest for the work of the NZPF.
Almost daily in my social media newsfeed or in one of our major newspapers there is an article around teacher and principal fatigue.
The elusive ‘balance’ that we try and attend to is very difficult to achieve. We spend a portion of our teacher-only days exploring balance and brainstorming ways of finding and maintaining it. It is certainly elusive. Having a fast-moving career path to principalship has been an insatiable drive for me; however, it has come at the cost of personal health and wellbeing – no longer am I at peak fitness! But children don’t learn from exhausted and unmotivated teachers, and teachers won’t be inspired by leaders who are uber-busy and overwhelmed.
Before I was an educator I worked briefly in finance and dipped a toe into the corporate world. When I started as an educator (as well as taking a pay cut and working more hours!) I could see a big change in the commitment to tasks, dedication to the cause and hours worked in the week – and in the passion that educators have to make a difference.
Having the right people in the right roles in a school makes an enormous difference. I’ve walked into a kura where I am surrounded by exceptional staff, including two office ninjas who make a huge impact by removing many day-to-day pressures. It’s an exciting team that represents a balanced approach.
Generally speaking, do you think there is sufficient collaboration with neighbouring schools in the community at the principal level? Or are there more opportunities for working together?
In Eastbourne we are a little geographically isolated from many other Wellington schools – we are the only mainstream state school in the area. That didn’t stop many of the local principals reaching out to welcome me early in the year, and continuing to as the year progresses.
We do not have a formal community of learning; however, as a school leader I do, of course, have a widespread network of collaborators whom I can call upon at a moment’s notice to celebrate, commiserate or question.
The senior leader:
Lisa Squire, Deputy Principal, Hobsonville Point Primary, Auckland
What is your current role and how long have you been in it? What are your core responsibilities?
This is my sixth year as deputy principal at Hobsonville Point Primary. I was lucky to be involved in the exciting establishment phase of the primary school and also to work with the secondary leadership team on the establishment process of the secondary school, which opened in 2014. My role developed responsively to the needs of inducting new staff, a developing community, a growing school roll and most importantly the children.
There was a desire to challenge the traditional idea of what a DP does, so a far more collaborative leadership role has evolved. Another aspect of my job is regularly speaking at conferences and leading tours of visiting teachers/schools; I love the opportunity to discuss the potential of innovative learning spaces beyond the physical building.
The core responsibilities of my role vary but predominantly are focused on collaboratively helping to establish the systems and structures to create an innovative, child-centred learning environment.
Can you share your career path journey to where you are now?
I began teaching in Christchurch 1998 at Chisnallwood Intermediate, where I steadily gained teaching and leadership experience over 12 years. From there I took a secondment working as an ICT facilitator for eTime delivering support throughout Canterbury schools. Following this, I was appointed into the role of deputy principal at Linwood North Primary. In 2012 I shifted to Auckland to take the role of foundation deputy principal at Hobsonville Point Primary.
What professional development opportunities do you feel have been instrumental in developing you as a leader?
My professional development over the last six years has mostly come through working alongside a driven and innovative group of people. I am very well supported in my leadership journey by my principal, Daniel Birch.
Being able to attend international conferences has exposed me to the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Yong Zhao, Sugata Mitra and many more, which has been important in helping me to ‘think big,’ feel affirmed and be inspired.
I enjoy research, especially the work of Professor Guy Claxton, Carol Dweck and Daniel Pink, as I feel one of the most important qualities in a leader is understanding what makes yourself and others tick.
Working alongside Dr Julia Atkin has helped me understand the essential principles of effective leadership, school visioning and curriculum design, which are essential in a senior leadership role.
I find opportunities to get out of my own school context helpful in creating a mental space for reflection and building professional networks. I led trips to Sydney and Melbourne, taking groups of colleagues to visit a variety of successful schools and collaborate with their leadership teams. I’m excited about an upcoming trip to San Francisco where we will be visiting their top innovative schools.
In 2014 I was selected as a Google Certified Teacher and experienced an intense short burst of professional development called the Google Teacher Academy, run by NoTosh at Google Headquarters in Sydney. This led to the opportunity to be a part of the GEG NZ Leaders and we launched a conference essentially run by children, for children, involving over 300 students. Being an Apple Distinguished Programme school, I also attended the Australasian Leadership Symposium.
I was involved in the National Aspiring Principals’ Programme (NAPP), which is tailored towards growing leadership skills and a practical knowledge of the key components required to lead a school.
I also sit on the board of trustees as the staff representative, which gives me a much better understanding of the function of a BOT, its relationship to the principal and responsibility as a good employer.
I worked with AUT faculty to help design a one-year master’s programme. As an adjunct lecturer I run professional learning groups, support mentor teachers and student teachers. I’m about to start my master’s degree through AUT as a next step in my professional development journey.
As things stand, do you feel there is enough support for senior leaders in New Zealand schools?
In terms of whether there is enough support for senior leaders, I think in general there is very little formal training being offered through the Ministry of Education; however, this pushes us to think more creatively and seek out support through alternative means.
I think the key in getting support in any role, regardless of seniority, is understanding what you and your school need to be successful, understanding the resources available to be able to meet those needs and bringing people together to help one another.
I think it’s about utilising the people you know within your networks to get the support you require. For example, we employ an experienced ex-principal, who comes into school two days a week to provide our leadership team with extra support and general mentoring. This works very well and enables us to get on with the core business of teaching and learning.
What are your career/professional goals? Do you have aspirations for a principal’s role?
For me it’s not so much about a title but loving what you do every day. Right now I’m really enjoying growing Hobsonville Point Primary, working with innovative people and helping to create a school that benefits the children in a really authentic way. Potentially, I would like to become a principal and lead an innovative school and all my professional development is helping me develop towards this goal.
Do you feel there is clear pathway to achieve these goals? Is there enough support/guidance/PLD out there for teachers to progress to where they want to get to? Or is it down to a school’s individual approach?
A key to achieving your goals is to make the conscious decision to surround yourself by people who will encourage you and support you on your pathway. For me, it’s all about having the passion to turn up to school every day and make a real difference to the children, their families and ultimately the school. I use this as my base to find things that interest me and I make a conscious effort to apply myself to continuously improve my own practice. I think being proactive and seeking out professional development that inspires you and encourages the passion is really vital.
There are lots of different avenues and flexible learning opportunities available, and they don’t all fit the traditional model so being open to new experiences has really helped me. There are loads of free resources available; some of my favourites are TED Talks!
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles for a classroom teacher in progressing to a middle leadership position and then a senior leadership position?
I think the biggest hurdle going from a classroom teacher to a middle leader is the mindset change required to effectively lead adults, as well as children. You need to be able to lead and build teams effectively at this stage, and the art of teaching adults is very different from teaching children.
The move from middle management to senior management requires you to change how you think significantly. It tasks you with thinking creatively, strategically and logically, while managing a wide array of relationships,
with a focus always on relationship building. Often I think people doubt themselves and wait until they feel they’ve acquired all of the skills necessary to do the job. My advice is to have confidence, back yourself and be open to learning along the way.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your senior leadership position?
I think it would be easy to become systems-oriented and stuck in the office but most importantly school is about the children and noticing the non-measurable elements of a successful school so you can celebrate successes as a team. So, for those reasons I deliberately make a conscious effort to get into the different teaching spaces, talk to the children, teach them and generally spend as much time as I can with them.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the stress involved with being a principal. Do you think there is a knock-on effect for senior and middle leaders? How do we manage this?
I think the scope of a principal’s job is huge and again I think it’s about harnessing the skills of the team and allowing people the opportunity to help lessen the load. I think implementing frameworks like the distributed leadership model may help principals to manage their workloads better, however obviously there are some tasks only a principal can do.
Within my school context, the Private Public Partnership (PPP) model works extremely well, allowing us to focus on our main job of delivering the New Zealand Curriculum, not having to worry about the physical facilities or caretaking staff, which means the principal can focus on what’s truly important – the teaching and learning.
I think when it comes to teaching people to manage stress, coaching them to be able to say what they need and how they feel can be very useful in catching problems early and thus provide the right type of support.
Generally speaking, do you think there is sufficient collaboration with neighbouring schools in the community at the senior leadership level?
I think working with like-minded people can really help an organisation and this includes collaborating with your neighbours. I really love the way online environments, like the Google Educator Groups, can help facilitate this, when time and geography may be a barrier.
I really value the opportunities to catch up with local schools and an example of this is how Hobsonville Point Secondary invites the local primaries to informal breakfast catch-ups, which provide us with the opportunity to unwind over a coffee and talk. It’s wonderful for building relationships and provides a natural way of sharing, celebrating or sometimes problem shooting!
There will always be more opportunities for us to work together and I love the way schools seem to be opening their doors more and focusing on collaboration not competition.
We are just at the emergent stage of bringing together a group of like-minded leaders, as part of the formation of our CoL.
We share a lot of common challenges – rapidly expanding rolls, for example – however, with similar outlooks it will provide another opportunity for us to support each other as we endeavour to grow.
The middle leader:
Jakalah Trask, Team Leader at Golden Sands School, Papamoa
What is your current role and what are your core responsibilities?
I am currently a teacher at Golden Sands School where I have been a team leader for three years. This year I lead a team in our year 3–4 learning community. Previously I have led in the year 5–6 community. My core responsibilities include leading effective collaborative teaching practice, delivery of a strong curriculum and creating professional development opportunities.
Can you share your career path journey to where you are now?
At the beginning of my career I taught a year 3–4 composite class in Whakatane at Apanui Primary School. During my two years there I completed my beginning teacher programme and gained my full teacher registration. After my two years in Whakatane I gained a teaching position at Golden Sands School. I taught year 5–6 students for a year before achieving my position as a team leader.
What professional development have you undertaken along the way that you feel has been instrumental in developing you as a leader?
I have been a part of extensive professional development opportunities including in-school professional learning delivered by both internal and external providers. I have continued to refine my teacher practice and broaden my curriculum knowledge through mathematics professional learning with both Dinah Harvey and Charlotte Wilkinson, the writing programme with Gaye Byers and inquiry through working with Trudy Francis. I have developed strong classroom management skills through completing the Incredible Years Programme.
As things stand, do you feel there is enough support for middle leaders in New Zealand schools?
I have great support and professional development within my school environment. We develop our leadership theory during our middle leader meetings. The focus for our meetings is relevant and structured around our leadership goals. I’m aware there is an Aspiring Principals Programme and feel it would be great to see a national aspiring middle leaders programme to build another layer of support.
What are your career goals? Do you have aspirations for a senior leadership role or a principal’s role?
Currently my goal is to continue to develop as a team leader and a strong classroom practitioner. In future years I can see this focus shift towards a senior leadership role.
Do you feel there is clear pathway to achieve your career goals? Is there enough support/guidance/PLD out there for teachers to progress? Or is it down to a school’s individual approach?
I believe that there are multiple pathways for teachers to progress in their career. I feel there are ample professional development opportunities for teachers to develop their curriculum knowledge and classroom practice. However, I feel that professional development on leadership theory is down to a school’s individual approach. My school provides good pathways for teachers to progress into leadership and efforts are made to support teachers to pursue aspirations, through an aspiring leaders programme.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles for a classroom teacher in progressing to a middle leadership position?
I feel the opportunities for professional development in leadership theory is a hurdle for teachers to progress. As a young leader a hurdle could also be gaining an opportunity to lead.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your middle leadership position?
In education, I believe time is the biggest challenge. It is vital for middle leaders to ensure they manage their time effectively to ensure the practice of a strong classroom programme and to lead a high-performing team.
There has been a lot of talk about the stress involved with being a principal and concerns about principals’ wellbeing. Do you think there is a knock-on effect for senior and middle leaders? Any thoughts on how we manage this?
I think wellbeing and stress has a knock-on effect right through to our teachers and support staff. Education is a demanding profession as we work collaboratively to provide best outcomes for our students. All boards of trustees need to be mindful of their staff, including their principal.
A flattened hierarchy and a model of distributed leadership helps each staff member to feel supported. It is in this way that we all work together to face challenges to ensure we achieve the best outcomes for our learners.
Generally speaking, do you think there is sufficient collaboration with neighbouring schools in the community at the middle leadership level? Or are there more opportunities for working together?
It would be great to connect with purpose with other middle leaders in my area and/or nationally. Currently there are networks for principals, APs and DPs and I feel there could be value in connecting middle leaders in a local area.
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