Reflections from a first-time principal

by Juliette Hayes

This is something I always wanted to be and do. I have always been ambitious in my career and would never have been satisfied remaining as a classroom teacher. As an English teacher I always did writing and moderating, and wanted to keep adding to my portfolio of experiences and responsibilities.

I think leading students and staff are very closely linked. Being principal I am able to influence even more people and lead learning.


I became a deputy principal at Waikato Diocesan in Hamilton and Gill Simpson the principal then, made it really clear that she had chosen me as a DP to lead the teaching and learning portfolio specifically. She had done this to build me as a school leader and she was very clear and encouraging about it. The next principal, Vicky McLennan, was a brand new principal and I got to see through her what it would be like being a first-time principal. She was a huge support to me and still is. These mentors and others have been really important along the way.


I completed a Masters in Educational Leadership at Waikato University during this time and it included a thesis. That helped a lot, it wrapped the theory around the practice on a day-to-day basis, and it was what I wanted to do. We were implementing the new New Zealand Curriculum at school and I was responsible for it. It was an exciting time to be leading that and it set me up so well to be an instructional leader of a school.

The leadership team at Waikato were amazing too, setting high expectations and I loved being challenged in that way. They encouraged me to present papers from my work. The thesis was on future-focused leadership which meant talking and working with four other principals who were moving their schools towards a possible new future.

At Geraldine High School, which is my first position as principal, I am doing the First-time Principals’ Programme (FTPP). It lasts for 18 months and matches you up straight away with a mentor, an experienced principal from your own region. It is really great to have that person at the end of a phone to discuss things that are going on. We also have residential course in Auckland with workshops and speakers. There’s a great variety of principals on the course, and probably there is a tendency for it to have a one size fits all approach. But it is great to know that you have the support of people.

On the FTPP programme we set goals from the Leadership BES, and from Ka Hikitia.

Supporting Māori as Māori

Although we have only a small number of Māori students at the school, we have doubled the number of children who identify as Māori, because school has become a place where the students can stand and identify themselves. The work with Māori students has been a massive change and this year is about settling that in and embedding it. We have one Māori staff member who is fantastic. We have a great resource in her. I work with her and I know she is excited about having something to develop further.


I have learned a lot. For example I have had to deal with property things here which had been going on before I arrived. I have discovered that it just isn’t about buildings and nails. It is about people, about the people who will use the rooms and facilities that are built. There’s a huge amount of passion about the whole process. I want to make sure that everyone is heard, that there is consultation and a fair process, so that we end up with what we want. We have had to have a property committee, and lots of meetings and I have to be at them all!


I knew that relationships would be important, with the staff, the leadership team, the board and the community as well as with the students. I have really worked on these. The leadership team members have become very close and important allies. They want to be seen as leaders in the school. So we have spent time organising their job descriptions and distinct areas of responsibility where the accountability lies with them, not with me checking in all of the time. Recently we had a full day retreat at my home, as we do each term. It was wonderful and the trust that has developed between us is great.

The board, which has changed since my appointment, is supportive, proactive and interested. I am the first woman principal for this rural community and it has been quite a shift. So I have had to do a lot of listening, and invitations for coffee, and I try to go to everything and get myself involved in the whole community.

Many of the staff including senior teachers have been here for a long time, and they do challenge me, but at a great level. Some expect "the leader" to make decisions, others are the opposite, so I have to keep a balance, and it is a tension and it takes time. But they know each other very well; they have long partied together! Their memories and their background provide a great strength for the school.

Developing a shared vision

When I first arrived here I wanted to know “Who are we and what do we do that is good for this community?” I wanted something new for us to work together on, to get on the same page. So one of the things that has made the biggest difference is our work on the strategic plan. We narrowed down what we had to four key values: achievement, relationships, respect and responsibility. I talked to staff about this when I first met with them. For me it was a big step. It has created a sense of identity, understanding and expectations across the whole school community. Last year we took one value each term and incorporated it into lessons. I used it in newsletters, head students spoke about the value in assembly and we had an in-form poster competition. The winning poster was designed professionally and is up in every room. We now know what the school stands for, and use it in marketing. We want to make Geraldine High School the school of choice for our community. Our roll has really grown, so we can feel the impact already.

Student engagement

Another thing that was important for us was as a year 7–13 school we want to keep our students for as long as possible, even though there is plenty of work for school leavers. So my challenge is to make every year really engaging and different, something that you want to stay for. We now have a structured senior leadership programme. And in year 10 we have broken down the timetable so that they have a year of challenges. Each term for three or four days they work at Peel Forest, clearing land and growing more natives. It is brilliant. I have gone with them and every key competency or value in the curriculum is being used there and it is such an exciting place where you see learning happening. At years 7 and 8 we concentrate on the transition to high school, and build basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Pono and self-care

Being a new principal throws out a lot of challenges, especially around the pace of change. I do have to keep my own energies going. Having a young family helps because when I am with them I just have to switch off completely. I also often go and watch sport on the weekends, or travel away with our students when they go on exchanges. They give me energy and they like to engage with me. They will come up to me in the school, or into my room to talk. I love that.

I keep my professional interests up as well. For example I am very interested in the NZEALS network and am on their national executive, and I edit the magazine. I connect with really interesting people across the sectors, and internationally as well. At first it was a real gap not have the Waikato University and their leadership people to mix with and talk about things with. But I think I am filling that. I mean I read all the time. I do keep moving forward and I keep my ambitions going and that keeps me energised.

Reflective questions

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

  • How important have mentors been for your career as you have moved into school leadership? Think about how other people have influenced you, and what you have achieved as a result? In what ways do you provide mentoring for others on your staff?
  • How do you work with your leadership team? Juliette Hayes, based on her own experience, makes sure that her leadership team feel trusted and valued, and can make their own decisions about things. Consider how you could make changes to the ways you work with your senior leaders to provide greater responsibility to them.
  • What is the point of difference between your school and others? For example, is it in your strategic plan where you have specified the difference that your school will make? Or, like Juliette Hayes at Geraldine High School, do you make points of difference in different year levels? Work with your school community to articulate and develop your points of difference.
  • In the Leadership BES and here in this In Your Own Words story there is a lot of emphasis on building strong and trust based relationships with members of your school community. How are you doing this in your school, and what is being achieved by it, as a result?
  • At the start of her career as a first time principal Juliette Hayes joined the Ministry’s FTPP programme and of special importance for her are the relationship she has made with her mentor, and the goal setting. What contacts do you have outside the school and how are they helping you to develop your leadership.

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