Areas of practice

Principals work within four areas of practice to lead change and to solve problems in their schools: culture, pedagogy, systems, and partnerships and networks. The areas are described separately but in practice they overlap and interlink.

Culture: "What we value around here"

Principals who focus the school culture on enhancing learning and teaching:

  • have the skills to develop and implement shared goals and vision
  • develop targets which set an expectation that all students will experience success in learning
  • create a culture in which teamwork is expected and valued, and in which teachers are enabled to take on appropriate leadership roles
  • build distributed leadership networks that secure commitment and responsibility for continued improvement through all levels of the school
  • challenge and modify values and traditions which are not in students’ best interests
  • lead and create opportunities to celebrate progress and success.

A school’s culture consists of the customs, rituals, and stories that are evident and valued throughout the whole school. An effective school culture is one in which the customs and values foster success for all; and where clear boundaries are set, known and agreed to by everyone (Stoll et al, 2003). In developing a positive culture, effective principals ensure that educational practices are inclusive. They make certain that students and their families do not feel alienated either from their own culture or from the culture of the school.

A school’s culture is also reflected in how, as an organisation, it solves the problems it faces. Effective school leadership ensures that the culture of the school is one that is safe and well organised, allowing teachers to focus on their teaching, and students on their learning (Robinson, 2007).

The Treaty of Waitangi provides a rationale for building a school culture that acknowledges kaupapa Māori, and promotes te reo Māori and tikanga Māori. New Zealand research indicates that student achievement is affected by the degree to which a student’s culture is respected by the school, and by the degree to which there is a connection between the culture of the community and whānau and the values of the school (Bishop et al, 2007).

Pedagogy: Knowledge about teaching and learning

Principals who foster an environment where there is an expectation that all students will experience learning success:

  • participate in professional learning and are recognised as “leading learners” in their school
  • are regarded and consulted as professional leaders with significant knowledge about teaching and learning
  • have direct, hands-on involvement with curriculum design and implementation
  • understand what teachers do and build a professional learning community that supports, challenges, and inquires into its own professional practice
  • keep assessment for national qualifications at levels that are manageable and reasonable for students
  • enable teachers to explore the links between their teaching practice and the learning of each student
  • encourage innovative teacher practice linked to each student’s learning needs and outcomes
  • demonstrate understanding of, and support all teachers to use, assessment for improving student learning
  • ensure that teaching and learning programmes are informed by ongoing self-review and evaluation processes using student achievement data.

Successful schools are organised around learning. Their principals are knowledgeable about effective pedagogy and about what works for the individual needs of different students in their particular contexts. They are recognised in their schools for their professional knowledge and strength as pedagogical leaders. They involve the whole school community in setting clear goals for teaching and learning. They recognise that teacher learning is crucial to improving achievement and other valued outcomes for students. They create opportunities for professional learning communities to flourish throughout the school so that teachers can work collaboratively and share evidence-informed practice with each other (Coburn, 2003).

As principals develop their own professional knowledge and thinking, they gain a deeper appreciation of the conditions teachers need if they are to achieve and sustain improvements in the learning of each student. While teachers are responsible for ensuring that all students achieve to the best of their ability, they will be supported in their work by their principals’ deep knowledge about teaching and learning. This knowledge enables principals to discuss changes with teachers and helps them to make appropriate adjustments to class organisation, resourcing, and assessment procedures. In large schools, principals are likely to distribute this kind of pedagogical support through senior and middle leaders.

Research indicates that principals who are pedagogical leaders have a moderate-to-large impact on student outcomes (Nelson & Sassi, 2005). Powerful pedagogical leadership practices include principals participating and promoting professional learning, and principals, senior/ middle leaders and teachers working together to solve pedagogical problems, obtain appropriate resources, and plan and monitor the curriculum and the quality of teaching (Robinson, 2007).

Effective principals create conditions that mean the school, as an organisation, is focussed first and foremost on teaching and learning. Students learn best when their social needs are met and their engagement with learning is strong. This begins with developing a collective sense of well-being for every member of the school community. It also means ensuring the right level of care and support for each student.

Systems: How things work around here

Principals who develop and use management systems to support and enhance student learning:

  • know about effective management practice and systems, and model consistent use of them
  • prioritise and resource selected areas targeted for improvement
  • use evidence to monitor progress, plan, and manage change
  • delegate the running of systems to appropriate school staff
  • establish contingency strategies for when unforeseen circumstances arise.

Every school needs to have systems that help create the conditions for staff and students to work effectively together. Everyone appreciates simple, clear goals, and effective processes. School systems provide and effectively communicate the ground rules for everyone. They ensure a measure of consistency in approach and action across the school.

Effective management systems are crucial to sustaining quality teaching and learning. Such systems involve setting up processes and structures for school self review, external review, performance management, student assessment and reporting, curriculum organisation, and timetabling. Good systems help reduce distractions from the core focus on teaching and learning.

Effective management of systems and structures ensures that the school is an open organisation where everyone is familiar with everyone else’s roles. The cultural norms of the school that flow from such systems strengthen cohesion and support a smooth operation so that learning is maximised.

Because New Zealand principals work in self-managing schools, they have some autonomy to manage resources to meet the needs of their school communities. They can shift resources and structure systems to better meet the learning needs of all their students.

Principalship requires a mix of professional knowledge and expertise along with the ability to develop and manage systems efficiently. Except in very small schools, the principal is likely to delegate aspects of the management systems to other staff.

Partnerships and networks: Creating positive links to support learning

Principals who strengthen partnerships and networks to enhance student learning:

  • are knowledgeable and strategic about wider trends and opportunities in education
  • are enterprising and resourceful in developing informal or formal partnerships that promote learning opportunities for students
  • demonstrate the interpersonal skills needed for building strong relationships with key stakeholder groups such as trustees, parents, whānau, and local organisations
  • can manage the conflicts and dilemmas that sometimes arise in the school community
  • are able to connect with their peers in other schools to build effective professional learning communities.

Effective principals have external networks that range from face-to-face through to online contacts. Networks help provide them with up-to- date and relevant knowledge about educational trends and issues. They give opportunities for making connections and developing learning partnerships that can be an effective way of sharing resources. Local schools may cluster together to share ideas, to organise student or professional learning, or to support one another. Principals are expected to work with partner schools in these clusters. They are also expected to engage actively with the Ministry with regard to students who have disabilities.

Effective principals are community leaders. This starts with their role as chief executive of the board of trustees. They work with trustees as representatives of the local community in setting the strategic direction for the school and determining priorities. A school’s vision and values statements have strengthened validity when they are developed in partnership with the local community.

Effective principals also work with local parents and caregivers on home-school partnerships that ensure all students are welcome and their learning needs addressed. Partnerships that succeed in engaging parents with the learning of their children have been shown to contribute to improved student outcomes (Biddulph et al, 2003).

The people who make up a school community are not typically of one mind on many issues. There will often be a range of views across different interest groups on educational matters. Effective principals are sensitive to these differences and work with groups and individuals to develop common understandings, and ideally consensus, on key educational issues.

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