Preparing for principalship: a personal story

by Lisa Morresey

First-time principal Lisa Morresey moved mid-year from her deputy principal position at Fairfield Intermediate School in Hamilton to become principal at Mt Maunganui Intermediate School. Here she writes about how important regional and national aspiring principal programmes have been in helping prepare her for principalship.

I’d been a walking DP at Fairfield for four and a half years, and I could see that principalship was where I wanted to head, but I needed to be “ready” to apply. By that I mean I needed to develop the professional belief in myself that I could do that job. I wasn’t prepared to apply for the job until I believed I could do it. The aspiring principals programmes gave me the confidence I needed.

Learning about the role

The Ministry of Education’s National Aspiring Principals Programme (NAPP) wasn’t available in 2009, so I enrolled in a Waikato / Bay of Plenty regional aspiring principals’ programme run by Waikato School Support Services and the University of Waikato Educational Leadership Centre. It focused on coaching and mentoring. After that I applied for and was selected into NAPP 2010.

I went into a complete sense of panic when I started the regional programme in 2009. I saw the same sense of panic among other participants at the start of NAPP 2010! When you start to learn about the job it seems so overwhelming and all-encompassing that you imagine noone can do it. I think that feeling is about coming to terms with the role of being a principal.

My own anxiety stemmed from realising how many stakeholders there are, the tension and academic challenge, the various roles and the different hats that you have to wear. It all seemed impossible until I got my head around what my beliefs were. That was what the regional and national programmes did for me – they helped me to consolidate my leadership philosophy and made me identify really clearly what I believed about leadership. The panic left me after that.

Shaping my beliefs

The range of experiences I got from these two aspiring principals’ programmes helped me to shape and consolidate my beliefs about leadership, particularly hearing change stories and doing the professional reading. Leadership mentors that I’ve had helped and continue to help me see things through a more external lens.

If you’d asked me what my leadership philosophy was before I took these programmes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But I am really clear now!

When you’re on the treadmill in a school having a mentor who can see what you’re doing and say, “This what you need to read to shift your thinking” or who affirms the direction that you are instinctively going is really powerful. My mentors provided academic and professional support at the time when I was able to use it to make sense of my leadership philosophy.

The NAPP 2010 conference pitched at another level of leadership learning. It’s easy to get immersed in your own school and your own region but having a national picture presented about what leaders are required to do, and hearing the Ministry’s vision for schooling and their expectations about the kinds of leaders needed to lead our schools, was also very powerful.

When I applied for this job I had to articulate my philosophy of leadership. I talked about the four pillars of my philosophy: teaching and learning, relationships, collaboration (between staff students and the wider community) and high expectations. During my interview I had to show how that would look in this school. Because of all the reading and research I had done, I found that really easy to do.

New to the job

One of the very first things I did with my new staff was to share my philosophy. Having a clear focus and vision keeps me really grounded.The sessions I’m now taking with staff around school culture, the needs of adolescent learners, how we relate to one another, our challenges, and where are we heading have been happening since the first day I started. It takes time to plan these sessions – but I believe that it’s vital that I do this work at an early stage.There was a sense of expectation from the whole school community when I was appointed and I felt that I needed to build on that expectation straight away.

At the moment I feel as though I’m spinning plates though! I’m not sure that I was quite prepared for the intensity of the job – and having to make sense of so much information – but when I look back at what’s happened so far, the feedback I’m getting is really exciting.

Every interaction that I now have at school I see as a vested interest in my students, my staff and my school community. I believe every action and interaction has to be high quality. Being a principal is a really exciting and empowering position.

If you’re thinking of being a principal

I would advise those thinking of principalship that they definitely need to do the National Aspiring Principals Programme. It gives you a theoretical base and important academic input. It also helps you to make sense of your current position and where you wish to be. It gave me confidence that I had things to offer and that I had real strengths.

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