Principals share their experience

15th January 2021

Introduction

This is a post that was significantly delayed by Covid. I started to work on it late 2019 but then in early 2020 Covid-19 put an end to school visits and I had to put it on hold. Rather than keep it in a sort of permanent freeze I have decided to take the material I have and write something that can be released at the start of 2021.

Essentially, I was interviewing principals who had built up extensive experience in the role, in an attempt to identify key learning experiences that would be of help to those just beginning or in the early years of their careers as principals. It was something of a ‘wisdom of the elders’ exercise.

The following is based on interviews with the 3 principals I was able to contact. The interviews themselves were fairly open in nature and, not surprisingly, there was a wide range of topics and issues covered. There tended to be strong agreement on both the critical issues of interest and the key take-aways.

The three principals involved were female. This was not intentional. It was more a product of the pandemic’s timing. However, it is interesting to note the significant increase in the number of female high school principals over the past 30 years. The many reasons behind this shift would be worth a study in its own right.

Obviously, in this sort of open interview exercise, respondents might not get the opportunity to identify and comment on every issue that is important to them. Almost certainly, after the ‘interview’ they will think of something they should have said. Also, each interview was conducted separately. If there had been one joint interview, there might have been different emphases placed on the topics covered and perhaps a tendency to more filtered and nuanced responses. So there are many qualifications you could make about the effectiveness of the process.

As far as instructions to the three principals were concerned, the only specific prompt to them was that I was looking for advice or direction that they could provide to principals beginning in the role. With all these qualifications in mind, there were many instances where experience, understandings and advice were common.

Wendy Johnson speaking at SASPA’s 2019 conference

 

 

 

 

 

 

the principals

Amanda O’Shea, Principal Victor Harbor HS

Wendy Johnson, Principal Glenunga International HS

Kristen Masters, Principal Kapunda HS (as of 2021, Salisbury East HS)

Kristen Masters speaking at SASPA’s 2018 conference

Between them, the three principals have nearly sixty years experience in the role of principal, in both metropolitan and country schools. Additionally, each has had extensive experience in other DfE roles.

leadership team

All three principals spoke of the critical role of the admin or leadership team. Obviously, the collective team is critically important in terms of the overall efficient and smooth operation of all the complex and interrelated responsibilities that characterise the school. In this sense, each dedicated leader must provide the leadership in terms of their particular and highly specified responsibilities. So there are the critical issues of defining roles and ensuring that the person responsible has the commitment, skills and necessary resources.

But, as well as the focus on the individual team member, the principal must have a team that represents a single voice in its ongoing interaction with the staff and school community. Amanda O’Shea put it in terms of the leadership team needing ‘to speak with one voice’. This one voice covered areas such as the school’s vision, priorities and improvement agenda. But it also covered the more mundane but still critical areas such as school processes and everyday operations and expectations.

Wendy Johnson put it slightly differently when she started talking about all such leaders being on the ‘same page’. She spoke about the importance of how, whenever a staff member went to any member of the leadership team for direction, they would always get the same response. She also made the point that the response is not some low-level example of corporate group-talk but, rather, an expression of a much deeper, background story of what the school is and what its direction is, and why. In other words, the leadership team shares and presents a common narrative on the school’s culture, direction and purpose.

In terms of the style or form of leadership, the principals agreed that the focus was not on authority, via hierarchical structures and processes, but on common interests and shared responsibility.

And while all three recognised the critical importance of the high quality leadership team, all also acknowledged that it could be a real challenge setting up such a team; and that the exercise could take a considerable time. For significant school change you need the right people in the team and you need them there for an extended period. Amanda O’Shea noted that in her earlier career, leadership teams were often characterised by ‘burn-out’ and ‘churn’; and it could be very difficult to create and maintain the desired team. Kristen Masters noted that often, after considerable effort has been put into developing the team, very capable people move. Also, of course, the principal new to the school can inherit ‘leaders’ not of their choice; and then there is the dilemma of ‘re-forming’ them or ‘moving’ them or ‘working round’ them or ‘compensating’ for them. And none of this effort is minor or inconsequential, given the acknowledged critical role of the leadership team.

If the leadership team is such a critical factor in the success of the principal’s work, questions on the nature and degree of support offered in this area by DfE – and other agencies – need to be asked. Such support would be even more pressing for beginning principals.

Amanda O’Shea at SASPA’s 2019 conference

pressure on early-career staff

Interestingly, the issue of burn-out and disillusionment in beginning teachers came up several times. For example, Wendy Johnson noted how important it was to support new teachers to the school. However, she meant more than ensuring that the conventional range of supports were in place to reduce the pressure, streamline the process of induction and generally enable the new teacher to settle into the school’s culture, processes and, most importantly the experience of teaching. Specifically, she noted the need to protect such teachers from the experience of ‘disillusionment’, by which she meant that their expectations had to be reasonable and achievable. She was concerned that some beginning teachers set unreal expectations for themselves and that they had to recognise that it was not possible to teach the ‘perfect lesson’ for every class, in every period, every day of the school week.

Kristen Masters gave a specific example. She spoke of a young teacher who impressed while at the school in pre-service training. She described the teacher as committed, enthusiastic and ‘great’ with the students. Everyone was impressed by the excellent teaching skills. Not surprisingly, the school was able to organise a one year contract. In one sense everything was fine, but in another sense the teacher became anxious over not being able to reach her own high expectations. She left the school and travelled for a year. When she returned to another contract the following year, the teacher became convinced that when students were not able to reach the school-wide A-E targets it had to be a reflection of her teaching ability. She could not be talked through the situation and left teaching. The principal found it a great loss to education and a very salutary lesson. It is one thing to have ‘aspirational’ expectations, but all expectations and drives must be grounded in real-life experiences. Obviously, no principal wants staff to have minimal standards or low expectations but, equally, in the contemporary educational world of constant improvement and ever finer targets, it is even more important to set realistic and achievable expectations.

the principal’s tenure and status

This topic promoted much discussion. There are many ways to approach the topic but one that appealed to all three principals was the direct question of how long it takes for the principal to effect and consolidate significant change in the school. Obviously, it is never just a question of time, and other factors such as the intensity of the principal’s commitment; the strategies they employ; and the support of the school community will shape the outcome. Moreover, some will want to argue that, in fact, significant change change can happen quickly; and that sometimes it needs to happen quickly.

At the same time, the three principals did focus on the length of time required to effect significant change; and, moreover, the length of time was considerable.

First, there was the issue of the length of time required for the principal to establish their presence and status within the school. Again, merely being in the school as a physical presence is hardly going to create the essential gravitas required, but all three principals did feel that the length of service in the school as principal and the ‘visibility’ of the principal in the school were essential. None of them believed that principal appointments could be seen as a series of short-term, stepping stones to a more senior role or a higher-value school. And all of them definitely wanted the principal in the school as the highly visible leader. It was very much a case of – you are the principal of this school and this school needs your undivided attention and your leadership will be judged by the success of this school.

The principals called for long-term commitment to the school on several grounds. They spoke of the time required to understand the particular culture of the school and plan for change. There was the issue of ‘winning over’ the staff, and the broader school community. Obviously, for significant change the principal must have the staff ‘on side’. But staff support only comes when, amongst other conditions, the staff have confidence in the direction advocated by the principal and in the principal’s leadership, and this in turn will be assessed against what the staff perceive to be the principals’ commitment to the school, for the long term. If the staff perceive the principal to be ‘marking time’ in the position, their support for significant change is bound to compromised. Moreover, in such circumstances, the staff can be very creative in the skilled art of resistance. Basically, the staff have to see the principal committed to the school and the direction they wish to pursue, and know that this commitment is long-term and focused specifically on the school. Everyone has to commit to the same ‘journey’ and, potentially, it will be a long one. Typically, the three principals spoke in terms of 5-7 years for significant school change.

And there is another major, related issue. If significant school change does require these levels of committed and creative effort on the part of the principal over such an extended period of time, then why is the principal’s tenure limited to a relatively short period of time? The anachronistic practice of limiting a principal’s tenure to a specific time frame (most commonly 5 years) has been counter productive.  The provision in the 2019 Education and Children’s Services Act to extend the tenure of a principal is a welcome improvement to the employment conditions of school leaders.

Sitting just outside this question of the principal’s limited tenure is the tension between the role of the principal in the state and private systems. In the private system there is the history of the ‘great principal’, where individual schools have effectively been defined by the character and service of the principal. There were also shades of this tradition in the SA state system, at least until the 1990s.

Perhaps it is time to tease out the logic behind the current arrangement. For example, is its purpose to reinforce the authority of the director over the principal? Or is it to satisfy the impression of an open, merit-based selection process? Or is it intended to reinforce the belief that the principalship – its status and influence – only exists so long as the person holds the position. In other words, the experience and expertise of the role of principal only has significance for the specific period the person fills the position. Whatever the logic, the department needs to spell it out clearly because it is possible that the present arrangement effectively undermines the power and significance of the role of principal as It can compromise their ability to commit to the kind of long-term change that the school might require. Any discussion in this area will highlight exactly what we see as the role of the principal and the supports that the Department has in place to enable the principal to fulfil the role.

visibility of principal: in school and classroom, but also community.

Not surprisingly, all three principals spoke of the need for the principal to be a visible presence in the school. This also included a presence in the classroom. The argument was a that staff, and students, needed to see the principal as a fixture in the school, and see and interact with the principal on a daily basis.

Moreover, it was not just the principal who needed to be present. Wendy Johnson insisted that the school had to take precedence for all staff over other professional interests, involvement or commitment. As she put it, there were to be no ‘absentee landlords’ anywhere in the school. The school required everyone’s presence.

For Kristen Masters, it was not just a question of being visible – in the yard and classroom – but also knowing students’ names; although there are obvious limits here.

While no one is going to question the need for high visibility and the overwhelming need for the principal to be school-focused, it is important to acknowledge limitations to the general idea that the school must always take precedence. For example, Amanda O’Shea pointed out that increasingly – and this may be more the case in rural settings – the principal is called upon to perform the role of civic leader and become involved in local matters. Moreover, maintaining the profile and good name of school can inevitably mean a greater role for the principal in local settings. The community has developed a set of expectations of the principal that require a presence outside the school.

It is also fair to say that all three of these principals have taken on roles, generally short-term, outside the school. Indeed, all of them have had extensive experience in other Departmental roles – superintendent, director, specialist advisers etc – and, even in work of a highly specialised nature in other jurisdictions or other educational settings. Obviously, the experience and expertise have proved invaluable for their professional careers and made them more successful principals. Also, it is important to reflect that the Department itself relies on the movement of the expertise and experience of its staff across all its various agencies and branches. The point is that DfE is a system of (public) education, not a series of independent, autonomous schools, and the movement of such experience and expertise is essential for the good of the system. So, in a real sense, no principal can create an island of their school. Nor can they stand totally outside the system, as much as they might wish to be left alone to focus on their school. The challenge is to balance the various needs and pressures; and it is arguable that this pressure is becoming ever more acute. There is considerable skill required to manage the balance between the school and the system personae. It is an area particularly challenging for someone new to the role of principal.

best job in the world

It was reassuring that all three principals were happy to declare – and even volunteer – that the role of principal was the ‘best job in the world.’

Wendy Johnson stated that it was particularly gratifying to be able to observe the growth and development of young people over the time of their schooling. She described the transition in terms of keen, innocent Year 8s, moving through some more painful and challenging years to become the confident, committed and ‘fabulous’ school leavers of Year 12. She also spoke of the enormous power and influence that was vested in the role of principal to create a learning environment that could ensure the best outcomes for students.

Amanda O’Shea commented on the pressure of the job and admitted that there were some days when you just wanted to walk away from it. She remarked how people wanted to know how she could manage the job and that they were convinced no one in their right mind would do it. She also noted that the role could leave the principal feeling alone, and even isolated, and that only those who had performed the role truly knew how demanding it was. But for all that, she believed it was a job like no other and, again, the real positional power and authority associated with it meant that it was possible to effect significant change that made a real difference for students, and staff.

Kristen Masters also agreed that the role of principal was still the best job in the world. She made the same point about the power of the position to effect educational change and improvement. Indeed she made the direct contrast between the role of principal in the school and a role such as that of director in the system and noted that it was only as principal that you could experience the sense of making a real and direct impact in the lives of young people. The opportunity to see the growth of young people was another great attraction. She also noted that particularly in the country setting, the position attracted considerable status and was seen by the community as critically important.

One final point that Kristen made was sobering. She noted, not surprisingly, that over time the position had become ever more challenging, and she then admitted that some of the difficult challenges she had faced in the recent past – as a long-serving principal with many years of experience in the role – had been so tough that, had she faced them in her early years as principal, she did not think she would have survived. It is a profound comment and certainly raises a range of questions round the level and nature of support that both the Department and the ‘college’ of experienced principals can make available – quickly, routinely and non-judgementally – to new principals.

relations with DfE

As already indicated, all three principals have had experience outside the school serving in senior positions in the Department. Effectively, they have the experience and contacts, and they know how the system works. They acknowledge that the Department respects – and to a significant extent, ‘tolerates’ – long-standing principals who stretch limits and ‘do their own thing’. But they also appreciate that the ‘latitude’ only comes with longevity and experience. The same accommodation is not there for beginning principals.

Related to the issue of the critical relationship between the principal and the Department is the preoccupation with accountability. Education systems that become more politicised, less confident in their own direction and culture and preoccupied with assessment and measurement tend to compensate by ratcheting up accountability. Kristen Masters described herself as a ‘data junkie’ but she said that the demands of accountability had gone into overdrive, beyond any manageable limit. She described, as one her roles, the need to protect staff from the excessive demands in this area. She also pointed to enormous gulf between those in the Department who created the need for the accountability data and the principal who was expected to apply the regime at the school level and who understood the additional pressure that staff would be placed under.

instructional leadership

All three principals highlighted the centrality of instructional leadership in the principal’s role. But with this as a given, there were interesting and more specific perspectives offered. For example, Wendy Johnson highlighted the important role played by students in any school improvement process. She saw students as the most powerful lever for school change or transformation. She noted that the students were naturally focussed on their learning and they knew what worked – and what did not work – for them. And it was more than just learning, because she also noted that they could provide the critical input for their own well-being and their role as global citizens. She believed that the school had to engage with students across all three areas.

Specifically in relation to the classroom, Wendy also believed that students generally were more sophisticated in their understanding of learning styles and processes than adults tended to give them credit for. She also saw them as very respectful in their relationships with teachers. She believed teachers needed to see students as a powerful resource in the teaching and learning dynamic rather than, as it were, the ‘target audience’.

Parents represented another critical resource for pushing change in the school context. While staff, for a range of reasons, could be resistant to change, Wendy believed that it was incumbent on the principal to build or win support for change via strategic leadership; and that it was imperative never to contemplate or accept simple binary votes in relation to important change. She wanted the discussion and decision-making to run on more open and informed positions: I really like the proposed change; I can live with the change but with these qualifications; I do not like the change for these reasons.

Amanda O’Shea spoke of instructional leadership in terms of moral leadership and the responsibility to address critical issues of inclusion and equity. There was a focus on the additional supports that need to be in place for disadvantaged students. All three acknowledged that instructional leadership sat within an ethical framework.

In the general discussion on instructional leadership the point was made that current approaches to leadership were based on the expertise, vision and actual ‘leadership’ of the principal rather than any sense of hierarchical entitlement that went with the role. It was also pointed out that this was the situation across all levels of school leadership and that, in fact, team or collaborative leadership was the common model. Drawing on their past experience, the principals contrasted the current approach with the ’silo management’ of the past, where roles were narrowly defined – and often guarded – people managed rather than led and they focused so closely on their specific area of responsibility that the overall interests of the school, and even the sense of the school as an organic whole, were compromised.

Realistically, it is only the principal who holds the total picture of the school in their mind. It is the principal who creates and holds the vision and the principal who sees how all the components parts, operations, priorities and values have to fit together and create, and constantly improve, the ‘whole’ of what the school represents. Amanda O’Shea said she still became very frustrated when staff reverted to their own ‘enclave’ and while they continued to do ‘their bit’ – and generally did this to a high standard – failed to see themselves or their work as part of the high-functioning, organic, whole school. Obviously, in complex social institutions like the school, particularly when people are operating under great pressure, there is a natural tendency for individuals and groups to ‘tune out’ and retreat to and protect their private domains. A critical focus of instructional leadership has to be to have ‘everyone on the bus’ and actually committed to the journey.

While all three principals accepted the primacy of instructional leadership they also acknowledged just how important it was to develop supportive leadership teams round them and delegate responsibility. At the same time, all acknowledged that they personally ensured all performance and accountability systems in the school were very strong. Professional development was another area where they provided leadership. Another area was the selection process for leadership positions.

the principal’s own professional background and development

Each of the principals acknowledge the importance of their own professional development over many years. It was an integral part of their development and growth as a principal. They referred to educationalists such as Michael Fullan and Viviane Robinson and also their own tertiary study.

While they were generally complimentary towards the Department’s recent efforts to build professional development opportunities for principals, they still believed that principals needed to have more input in terms of shaping the direction of the professional development and assessing its worth. They also believed that principals, particularly those with experience and proven expertise, could be more directly involved in the delivery of the professional development itself. Again, there is this sense that principals feel ‘sidelined’ by the Department and that their potential contribution is neither understood nor appreciated. This view might be tied back to the limited tenure of the principal’s position and the underlying notion that the status and value of the principalship is limited to the length of tenure. Such a perspective obviously precludes the possibility that a ‘college’ of principals could be formed that would play a critical role in areas such as the description of the role of principal itself; the identification and provision of appropriate professional development – both initial and ongoing – for the position; and direct involvement in the setting of policy and direction for the Department. In this context, all three principals spoke of the critical importance of SASPA.

qualities of leadership

There were several critical reminders of what quality leadership from the principal looked like. For example, there was the focus on ‘high standards’. The principal had to model what was referred to as thorough, strategic and organic planning. Nothing could be done ‘on the run’. And the skilled leadership the principal modelled had to be reflected in every other leadership position in the school.

Then there was the character of the principal. The principal had to have emotional stability. They could not be intemperate, rash or angry. They could not play favourites or appear to be partial. They had to rise above confusion and division. They always had to put the interests of the school and students above everything else. They had to be prepared to make ‘tough decisions’. They needed the skills to be able to read the ‘environment’ and the politics of situations. The school community needed to be able to see what the principal stood for and what was non-negotiable.

Within the context of the ever increasing pressure associated with the role of principal, and also the corresponding increase in pressure on all teaching staff, the argument was that the principal had to be able to call on an inner strength that they knew would get them through. They had to be able to project reassurance and strength in crisis situations. It was the conviction that no matter how tough things became there was this depth of experience behind them that convinced them that they could manage; although, as noted, this might not be the case with principals very early in their career.

There was also the view that the principal was increasingly being forced to be ‘protective’ of their staff. The argument was that the expectations and specific demands from the Department on all teaching staff had become so pressured that the Principal was forced to intervene and effectively filter out the excessive and unnecessary ’noise’. Whatever ended up being required of staff had to be achievable, with the resources provided and within the school’s priorities. Principals could not be in the business of ’sugar coating’ challenges but they always had to offer a realistic pathway for meeting the challenge.

Nor was it just the Department that was responsible for the increased pressure on staff. There was the argument that parental and community – and ‘consumer’ – expectations of staff had increased greatly, fed in large part by new technology, which amongst other impacts, had the effect of making the individual teacher more responsible and answerable to students and parents, virtually on a 24/7 basis. The principal needed to set realistic limits in such areas, even as some staff wanted to embrace totally the new technology, and even if such enthusiasm meant that unrealistic expectations were being set for all staff. In the background there was the realisation that the mental health of staff was a real challenge for principals.

Finally

Not surprisingly, any open-ended discussions on the status, work and challenges of the role of principal invariably gravitate towards the relationship between the principal and the Department. There continues to be significant tension in this relationship. While long-term, experienced and successful principals have learnt to negotiate this tension and even exploit their relationship with the Department, the challenge facing the beginning principal in this critically important relationship is very significant.

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