Becoming a principal and making a difference

by Louise Anaru

I have always seen the role of principal as a privilege and a responsibility. It’s a privilege to be able to make a difference to learning. The responsibility is that every student has a right to high quality education and to be successful. I just want to be part of that really.

Originally I trained in social policy and social work and I worked for a number of agencies, including Te Whānau o Waipareira. I got the opportunity to cover for a social work tutor and I just loved the teaching. I saw education was such a pro-active way to make a difference. In health I was often an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. But I could see that education had this huge potential for change. So I went to teachers’ college and into teaching from there. It was an unusual pathway really.

Taking up leadership opportunities

Waitakere College was my first school and although I had trained in Te Reo Māori I also taught health, health education and social science. I became a Te Hiringa I te Mahara and Te Kotahitanga facilitator and was very much involved in professional learning. Then I applied for a DP position in Taipa Area School up in the Far North and again I was responsible for staff professional learning and student achievement. It was really exciting for me. During part of that time I had to step up as acting principal which helped build my leadership capacity. All the way through I have been lucky to have all those opportunities quite early on to extend my practice and leadership.

NAPP a pivotal experience

The NAPP (National Aspiring Principals Programme) was pivotal for me - I had always thought about leadership in schools, but not really about being a principal. My involvement happened when I was a DP. I saw NAPP advertised and it looked great. It was known as a very high quality programme. It was the structure and the way the professional learning was set out that was really beneficial. It also gave access to “hot off the press” educational research.

We could opt into different seminars according to our learning needs and choice of personal inquiry project. I found the needs analysis tool really valuable. It was all at our fingertips, and it provided a great way to work through our own leadership development, challenge ourselves and build our own capacity. It gave me confidence and lit a spark in me around applying for a principalship. When I think back to the course, and to my peers, we were all very passionate about becoming principals!

NAPP helped align our practices with the Leadership BES and Kiwi Leadership for Principals. It helped make sure that how we would develop would make a big difference for student learning and achievement. So it was a great programme!

Mentoring and coaching

I received a lot of mentoring and coaching in between and after the NAPP. This has always been crucial to me. My grandmother was very important as a role model. She had integrity and leadership and a vision for equity in terms of outcomes for people. From Waitakere and Taipa and through NAPP I had significant mentors: Peter Garelja, Eileen Piggot-Irvine, Margaret Bendall and others were big influences on me as I aspired to become a principal. I have a supportive family as well.

Key areas for change at Flaxmere College

I’ve been principal at Flaxmere College for 10 months. I researched the school before applying, looking at the ERO reports and the NZQA datal. I could see that there were some key areas for teacher professional learning and student development that would be good for the school. Achievement was low and with my passion for all students having equitable outcomes I wanted to be part of change and improvement at Flaxmere.

Two or three weeks after I began we had an ERO review. I had been conducting my own research into what the current situation was, and so it was great to have the ERO investigation as an external review. With that evidence we could be confident of the real issues for the school. We planned with the staff collaboratively for our next steps. We looked at the data and analysed it together, and together we came up with a shared vision for the school – a year plan. The key areas that we identified as needing attention were student achievement, attendance, engagement, consistent teaching and learning practice and leadership sustainability and capability. This collaboration has meant that there is that ownership by staff, and a common vision.

I think having the review, collecting our own data and analysing it brought everyone on board. We have a sense of urgency and we operate with that sense and the need to bring about change.

Our roll has grown to 340 students: 72 per cent are Māori, 22 per cent Pasifika, and the remaining 6 per cent are mainly New Zealand Pakeha, Indian and African.

Building relational trust

My other key goal was around building relational trust, so I met with all of the staff with any sort of position within the school. I asked them what changes they wanted to see in the school, and what their expectations were of me. I made sure that I was out on duty at interval and lunch to meet with the students, and out the front of the school to meet with parents. I just got out there in the community to build that relational trust. I knew that whatever processes we put in place needed to be open, honest and transparent. I think that was really the big focus to start with and it was pivotal in developing the shared vision we have at the moment. I feel confident that I have the support of the staff and the senior leadership team.

Ako and pono

As the principal I am also a learner. I don’t know everything and I see that as a good thing. Leadership practices will change so it is very important for me to carry on with my own professional learning. I signed up to the First-time Principals’ Programme after the success of NAPP. It has been really helpful, and it keeps me up to date with professional reading and research. I want to extend my learning after that at university level. I align my practice with Ka Hikitia, and the Leadership BES and with my knowledge of Te Kotahitanga I want each student to experience educational success as they are entitled to.

“Knowing myself” is one of the important things I learned from Margaret Bendall. Having that self knowledge and doing the things that keep me balanced and well are really important. I know when I need to go to my space and centre again.

Managing tensions and keeping focused

There are also tensions. Mainly these are around the sense of urgency that I have, collaborative practice and building sustainability in what we are doing. We need to realise that it takes at least five years to change a school culture and to achieve our vision for the school. It won’t happen over night. With leadership I know there are lots of balls in the air at once. It is important to align all our practices to our goals. We are still very much at the beginning point and we have a long way to go.

The main things are to keep focused on key areas: evidence informed, collaborative, building leadership capacity in others, professional learning, and doing things that make the biggest difference to students’ outcomes. Last year we increased the NCEA results by over 100 per cent. That was a huge achievement and it increased the expectations of teachers, students and the community. We saw an improvement in attendance, and engagement. We celebrated that as a school. This year we are on track to repeat the success. But we need to keep the consistency of high quality teaching and learning and leadership.

This year we have really focused on professional learning focused on student achievement. We’ve created strong professional communities among both teaching and support staff. They meet with senior students around NCEA progress, pastoral care and they help the students develop pathways for their futures.

I am happy with the collaborative ownership we have for what we have done. The board of trustees share the vision too and have been very supportive. We are looking forward to the end of the year when ERO checks back in and our plan is to be on a normal cycle with them as a strong self-managing school.

Reflective questions 

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this story:

  • Louise Anaru’s account of the National Aspiring Principals’ Programme shows how useful it can be for those thinking about school leadership. What steps are you taking to encourage future leaders in your school? Consider the usefulness of NAPP as well as the roles and modelling you provide for people in your school to encourage them into school leadership roles.
  • Louise describes the contribution the evidence from the Leadership BES, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, Ka Hikitia, and a range of mentors have made to her leadership practice. As you plan leadership learning with your senior management team think about how you can use these documents and mentoring opportunities.
  • Louise talks about Flaxmere College’s need to turn around learning outcomes for students. Improving students’ achievement is important in all schools. Consider what plans you have in place to achieve this goal in your school. What steps can you take to continue this work?
  • At Flaxmere it has been important to embed good practices. Louise has focused on teacher professional learning, establishing professional learning communities to improve students’ engagement, attendance and achievement. How are you ensuring that good practices are embedded in your school?

Tell a colleague | Back to top