Fiona Dwyer - Taihape Principals’ Cluster: principals working together to enhance their own practice
Fiona Dwyer, principal of Mataroa School and Chair of the Taihape Principals’ Cluster talks about how the cluster functions and how Kiwi Leadership for Principals (KLP) shaped their meetings.
We’ve got 10 school principals in our local cluster. They’re from all sizes and types of school - from Taihape Area School with 400 plus students to Otairi School which has four. We’re really spread out. While most of us are local to the Taihape region, some people come from as far away as Hunterville. Papanui Junction is our most isolated school. It’s this isolation that makes our cluster really important professionally to us all.
We meet twice a term. One meeting is a short one for planning and housekeeping. The other meeting is a full day where we focus on our professional learning. We meet at a different school each time.
On the cluster meetings
At our first planning meeting we decided that we’d use the newly released Kiwi Leadership for Principals (KLP) document to shape our meetings over the year. We planned that each term we’d focus on one of the four areas of leadership practice described in KLP.
Our first meeting started with overviewing the document as a whole. We read an article about KLP from the Term 1 issue of New Zealand Principal* as preparation, then discussed how it aligned with documentation and acts of leadership we already have in our schools. The original plan was that subsequent meetings would focus on: Leading the Curriculum, Culture and the Curriculum, and finally Partnerships and Networks. It hasn’t quite worked out that way because we spent two sessions looking at Partnerships and Networks – but we’ll pick up on the other one the following year.
Naomi Kinnaird, from Massey University Centre for Educational Development, worked with our cluster to plan the sessions which follow a particular pattern. We send out links to the Educational Leaders website on research or articles related to the meeting topic – it’s a really good resource for this kind of thing. Principals are expected to have done the reading before they come. We hold a quality learning circle (QLC) on the reading we’ve chosen.
This term we’ve also been using a planning resource from the website that focuses on culture. We’ve adapted it for ourselves. Principals completed it independently and then we collated all the information to form an outline of our cluster culture, as we see it, for new members when they enter.
Each term principals are asked to bring a reading, book or website recommendation so that we can swap ideas and share resources.
Using KLP has focused our meetings more this year. It has really shaped our conversations and shifted our thinking. It’s helped us to recognise the importance of educational leadership as opposed to organisational management in school leadership.
This shift in thinking has had some influence on how I do my job. For example I’m getting my staff to read relevant articles before we have a staff meeting to inspire and focus our discussions. We’re having deeper and more focused conversations as a result which I believe is having an impact on teaching and learning.
At Mataroa School we have aligned the principal's appraisal goals and performance agreement to the KLP document and I’m using it to feedback on progress with my goals. Also I’m undertaking some other principals’ appraisals and basing the documentation and feedback to each principal on KLP.
The educational leadership model (ELM) came out in a really good time in my career. When I first started as a principal the organisational side of the job was at the forefront of my mind, and educational leadership was less of a priority for me. But after I’d got through the first year I identified that I needed to “up” my focus on educational leadership, so I started to do more research and reading and made it a priority. When the ELM came out it fitted with where my own thinking was going and has focused our whole cluster group.
There are big challenges for us as principals though, like managing the balance between keeping things running smoothly while keeping focused on educational leadership. The cluster helps by giving us a chance to share issues and concerns and talk about how we each deal with them. Sharing knowledge and expertise and best practice between schools. It’s been a big shift for us, but we’re doing this successfully now.
On the travelling cluster conference
One of the things that has really built trust in the cluster group, so that we feel confident in sharing professional ideas issues and concerns, was our travelling cluster conference. We tied this into our Partnerships and Networks theme. The original idea behind it was to foster collegiality in our cluster and get to know each other better. Our area has had a history of roll competition between schools – so we’ve had to work hard on building collegiality and trust as professionals.
Ten of us took three consecutive days this year to travel to a number of best practice schools. We each identified things we wanted to do in our own schools, and decided to see if we could observe them in other schools that were similar to ours. Someone wanted to look at good board reporting, another wanted to discuss ERO visits, others had a look at inquiry practice and environmental education. One of our members organised the visit and matched principals with schools. There was partial funding from NZPF to do this, and also we each added funding from our individual schools.
We visited schools in Feilding, Wairarapa and Wellington and we talked to people who were taking part in the Ariki** project and then came back up through Foxton and Palmerston North.
Feedback indicates that it was the most incredible form of professional development that cluster members had ever had. We had terrific professional conversations as well as a chance to build greater trust in each other. The experience also helped us to establish a wider network of colleagues and contacts.
* Fitchett, M. (2009). Kiwi Leadership for Principals: what is happening out there? New Zealand Principal.
**Stewart, D. (2009). The Ariki Project: Collaborative Critique based on Evidence of Practice.