Co-principals – more than the sum of two halves

Kristan Mouat and Peter Hills, co-principals of Logan Park High School, speak about their experiences after a year or so in the role.

We are two people running a co-ed environment in a collaborative way with a flat management structure where people are valued. That’s what we believe in.

Why share principalship

We did it for us. It’s an enormous job being the principal. I don’t want to do this on my own. I want to keep a life. How can you be everything to everybody in a school and maintain health, happiness, relationships and things?

Having done it as a co-principal I can’t imagine any advantage in having a single leader. The buck stops with the principal. If you were doing this on your own, how lonely it must be when you’ve got to make all those calls on your own. As co-principals we have twice as much exposure and half as much load.

We believe shared decisions are better decisions. We strongly believe two heads are better than one, and more heads are better than two. We believe in getting wise people together. We do not believe one person has all the answers or solutions.

Everyone has strengths that can enable them to lead. The job is to provide avenues for people to participate and express leadership. Leadership today is much more collaborative, consultative and distributed.

We can continue to teach. Being able to continue teaching one class was part of the attraction of the co-principalship model. It gives you credibility with your peers because you know some of the challenges of getting young people to give their best, meet deadlines and negotiate the curriculum with you. We’re grappling with the same issues and challenges our staff grapple with. It keeps us humble.

    “Job-sharing in the principalship supports preferences for shared or distributed leadership models, as opposed to sole, heroic leadership notions. … Shared roles also emphasise continual professional learning on the job as an imperative of a successful principalship.” (Starr, 2010)

Compatible and complementary

It is important to have shared professional values and philosophies about the future direction of the school. Some of the things we share include:

  • always doing things better and not being complacent
  • pretty high expectations of where we want to be for ourselves and for the school
  • respect for others
  • trust (integrity, honesty, upfront, similar work ethic).

Having complementary strengths and being effective communicators are also vital. We talk to each other constantly – luckily we’ve got offices across from each other – or we’ll text. We’re able to get along with each other and go toe-to-toe and still walk away and laugh about it.

It’s helped us that we’ve worked closely for many years at the school in AP and DP roles before we took this on. That’s worked for us but I have reflected on whether you could do it if you didn’t know each other, and maybe you could, if you went into it with your eyes open.

We have our own areas of responsibility and areas we work on together. One of the areas we work on together is the continual evolution of the curriculum and listening to student voice. We think we’re making more progress on that together across this year.

I don’t think that was the intended area when we started out, but as we talked about decisions we were making, we found we were both passionate about what the outcome from a school is.

And when you’re both saying the same thing everyday and modelling it everyday, and resourcing it and writing about it in curriculum plans and annual plans and so on, it actually has far greater strength from the start.

Confidence and challenge

We’ve been discovering each other’s strengths and are increasingly playing to those – "I’ll butt out of this. It’s your thing. I understand where you are going and I’ve got complete confidence in that."

I imagine that after this year we won’t need to check in with each other as much, because I think we’re both more comfortable about being able to make decisions in our areas and then at the end of the day informing the other. There probably were times early on where I’ve made a decision out of habit and then thought, “Oh, hang on, I forgot …”. You get it right for the next time.

We’re also quite confident to challenge each other. It’s not like we blindly accept. There are times where I’ll push and Peter will pause, or I’ll pause and Peter will push. I do think that’s a much more balanced model.

We also hear different voices so can bring their different perspectives to our discussions. Often I’ve been surprised that the decision we come to isn’t what I or Peter initially proposed. We come to something better.

My ego’s probably changed a little bit. Sometimes you think you’re right, but if you’re prepared to be wrong, which I am, and also to learn, then you realise that something you thought was really the best thing and were really excited about maybe isn’t as good as you thought. So you reflect and reassess. Both of us, I think, are quite happy to go, yep, that’s an improvement. That’s cool.

    “The job did not take less of their time but they were spending it differently, talking decisions over with a colleague rather than mulling them over alone. By constantly talking things over they were able to be more reflective, and therefore probably more effective, school leaders.” (Upsall, 2004, p157)

A successful year

In exit interviews students said they are really positive about the changes and the strengths and differences we have. They feel we kind of balance each other out.

Department heads say they’ve found it easy. They know who to go to most of the time if they want an immediate answer, but they also know they can come to either of us on anything. They’re also used to us saying that we’ll have to discuss the bigger questions or ideas they raise and get back to them.

People have been overwhelmingly positive about the model and the year.

Personally we feel you get stronger affirmation about what you’re doing with two of you and feel stronger because you’re not shouldering the responsibility of everything. The responsibility of a principal finally and ultimately all rests on you. That’s a big step up – APs can go home at the end of the day.

So, it’s been fantastic knowing you’re not in it alone. You can use another brain and get a different perspective. I think we make each other better in terms of empathy and doing things effectively rather than efficiently.

We feel we’re more in tune with the staff and the students, and more in tune with the parents and whānau, because there are two of us. It’s been fascinating having the time to listen to our senior leaders and senior students who aren’t necessarily the most articulate or confident and really hearing their opinions. It’s been so useful for us for making decisions about things for next year.

An area of growth this year has been understanding the potential of our people and how if you harness that really well, your job is made so much easier. I think we’ve been able to capture, enable and enrich our people – we’re all in this, you’re all in this, let’s be wise and listen. That’s taken the heat off us quite a lot.

We’ve got a couple of APs who are new to the job and have grown into it as well. They’ve taken that responsibility – it’s quite disseminated which means you’re not feeling the total burden.

There’s a bunch of things we know we’ll get better at next year, because we didn’t have enough time or energy this year. So, we’ve said, “Look that’s enough. We’ll come back to it.”

Both of us have the personal goal of continuing to love the job, both of us feeling happy to get up in the morning and come to work. Maintaining that happiness and love of the job tells me that our communication is working.

    "The benefits of sharing the principalship include better decision making, increased job satisfaction, reduced stress." (Upsall, 2004, p158)

Greatest surprise

It was crazy how many people were risk averse and sceptical about how it would work. Just about everybody told us don’t do it, it can’t be done, it’s too hard, or whatever.

But the fact that it’s been really successful for us, we don’t feel burdened by the job but feel inspired to make positive change, has prompted a number of people to think about how it could work in their schools.

We’d like to see the message get out there, that it can be done, it’s not hard, and others should probably consider it.

    Examples of when leaders might want to consider shared principalship include:

  • principals faced with losing an experienced deputy principal they value
  • experienced principals looking for new ways to develop others
  • experienced principals contemplating early retirement because of burn out
  • leaders who aspire to leadership but want professional collegiality and support as they begin in a leadership position
  • bilingual or immersion environments.

(Upsall, 2004, p152)

    For any other schools considering a co-principal model we believe that having two people who share common educational philosophies, vision, values and work ethic is crucial to a successful partnership. In a collaborative leadership model you need to have a high level of trust, be willing to listen, be open to other perspectives and have open, honest dialogue with one another. It is also important that both parties strongly believe in the value and strength of a shared leadership model. Enjoying each other's company is also essential!” 

(Catholic Secondary Principals Association, 2017)

References

Catholic Secondary Principals Association. (2017). Co-principalship after 12 months.  Australia.

Court, M. (2003). Different approaches to sharing school leadership. Research Associate Reports, National College for School Leadership

Starr, K. (2010). Benefits and disadvantages of sharing the principalship. The Australian Educational Leader, Vol 32(1)

Upsall, D. (2004). Shared principalship of schools. New Zealand annual review of education, 13, 143-168

More stories of co-principalship

School leadership: A co-principalship model – Teacher, 4 June 2018

Double act – Leader, October 2018

Note: Arrangements for sharing the principal's role need to be agreed with the Ministry of Education.

Tags: Collaborative practice

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