Key principal leadership activities

Leading change

To lead change in schools, principals need knowledge and insight into the complex processes of change and the key drivers that make for successful change (Fullan, 2005). In particular they need to keep their focus clearly on the central vision for their school, even in the face of distractions. A principal’s ability to establish relational trust among all members of the school community contributes to building a collaborative learning culture that can help bring the school community together around the core values that underpin the vision.

Achieving the desired impact of the revised New Zealand curriculum will depend on the leadership and initiative of principals, particularly over the next three to four years. The curriculum provides the overarching vision, principles and values for education in New Zealand. It also outlines key competencies which have emerged from research about the abilities and qualities successful school leavers need to participate fully in society. Supporting students to explore values, develop competencies, and build the knowledge and skills identified in the New Zealand curriculum will require principals to identify areas for change in their schools, consider the focus for this change, and how the change can be stimulated and sustained.

Focussed effort in a school is important if school-wide teaching and student learning are to improve. This involves communicating clear academic goals, having high expectations, and valuing student well-being. All change processes benefit from being evidence informed and having regular review of progress and effect.

Although the principal is in a critical position to lead change, he or she cannot do it alone. Empowering others throughout the school to develop and exercise leadership roles and to share in the leadership of change is both desirable and achievable. This, along with the engagement of support from external agencies, is vital for principals working in difficult or challenging school contexts.

The greater the challenge of the school context, the greater the need for a deliberate leadership focus on student learning and well-being. Few troubled schools have been turned around without the intervention of a principal who has set clear priorities and goals that are followed through with effective strategy. Many other factors contribute to such turnarounds, but leadership is the catalyst (Marzano et al, 2005).

Principals who lead change effectively recognise that there are procedural and emotional considerations. One can impact on the other. Change on a large scale invariably needs a team approach to leadership. The team leading change requires:

  • up-to-date knowledge of successful approaches to teaching, learning and assessment
  • the ability to convincingly communicate the rationale for any change
  • the ability to lead staff development that results in change
  • knowledge of the ongoing conditions needed to support shifts in teaching practice
  • skill in monitoring the impact of the change and making adjustments when needed.

Effective leaders recognise that change can bring about counter-productive emotional responses. It can also challenge established practice and professional values. Principals leading significant change need to pay particular attention to:

  • ensuring all staff feel their concerns are genuinely listened to and understood
  • supporting staff who feel they may lose control during the exploration of new approaches
  • explaining how changed approaches may be consistent with some established values while challenging others.

Problem solving

A key activity of educational leadership is identifying, analysing and solving problems that occur in schools. The skill of understanding and managing the problem solving process is central to all aspects of educational leadership.

Educational leaders who are successful problem solvers see the “big picture” and ensure that others understand that students’ needs or interests are the first consideration in the process of reaching a solution. They begin by identifying the issues that need to be taken into account, and they recognise that there are often tensions between the issues and the range of possible solutions. When attempting to solve problems it is important to involve others in a collaborative process to help reach a full understanding of the underlying issues. It is also important that all relevant considerations are seen to have been addressed in a balanced and thoughtful way.

Principals who are effective problem solvers:

  • explicitly check their own assumptions about the problem
  • relate the problem to the wider vision and values of the school
  • clearly state their own interpretation of the problem, with reasons, and without restraining other views
  • actively seek the interpretations of others
  • anticipate obstacles and how they could be overcome
  • plan a collaborative problem solving process; develop widely shared goals for the process
  • overtly manage the meeting and discussion processes
  • express little or no negative emotion, frustration or impatience.

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