Starting in a new school

A new year in a new school

Starting off well in a school will make all the difference for a new principal. 

This guide offers suggestions to principals starting in a new school to help:

  • make the first term a positive one
  • avoid major issues
  • develop good processes.

School culture

Tuning in to the culture of the school will be one of your key tasks when you begin your new job.

  • Listen, ask, and observe before acting on any issues.
  • Check out traditional school activities.
  • Become familiar with the board and community's expectations of their principal.

Other resources include:

  • Culture section – readings to develop your understanding of this important idea.
  • School culture section in Kiwi Leadership for Principals.

Making changes

Every new principal will make some changes, and your staff will expect this. There may be some aspects of school organisation that you cannot live with, so change them. Make sure everyone who will be affected knows why and remember that "winning" your first challenge is important.

Be considered in your decision-making around change. Some people may raise issues and want instant answers or solutions. Premature action could lead to the very relationship problem you want to avoid, so take your time to look at the issue carefully first.

Let staff know that you are going to work in this way, but avoid statements like, “I won’t change anything during my first term here.” You may miss a good opportunity. Some issues hanging over from the previous administration might have to be dealt with. Not making any changes may suggest your tacit acceptance of situations that could come back to bite you.

Getting to know staff

For efficiency, gather information that will help you get to know staff and learn about the school at the same time. Organise individual meetings in their space rather than your office. This provides an opportunity to make a personal connection and find out about the school: What do you value most about the school? What needs changing? Responses to the latter question may be shared as long as privacy is maintained.

Be visible around the school. Attend school social functions, even initiate them if nothing is planned. Showing a personal interest in staff members is important. In this way, they know you care about them as individuals, not just as teachers or support staff.

Information on school performance

Understand the school’s financial position and do your homework on the community, demographics, roll and so on, to help build a picture of the school’s resourcing position. This will help you make appropriate school resourcing decisions in your first term. 

The Ministry of Education maintains a number of applications for schools which have information on your school. Find out what these are and what they can tell you about your school.

Have a look at your school’s last annual report, charter, analysis of variance, and current goals. These will give you information about the recent priorities and the financial position. Your school's Education Review Office (ERO) report will provide other information.

Building partnerships and networks

Your local community will see you as an important person, so work on developing your profile with them. Use any local events to make yourself known and demonstrate that you are interested in what's happening. In rural areas, there are many opportunities for becoming involved in local events.

Principals’ meetings are places to make contact with colleagues in the schools that yours contribute to, or that contribute to yours; this includes early childhood services if yours is a primary school.

However, it is your school that really counts. Your parent group, board of trustees, PTA, and any other school groups are your most important contacts. Make the most of these contacts and listen to what they say. You will build a picture as you do.

Professional advice

Until you find your feet, you might need ongoing support for everyday management and organisational matters and for dealing with professional, personnel, or community issues. Ask for help when you need it. Your principal colleagues will respond.

Cultivate a relationship with a valued and trustworthy colleague who can provide support. Everyone needs professional support and advice, especially in the early stages of principalship. Your local principals’ group may have a support team.

Find out what is offered nationally or contact your local Ministry office.

Being a teaching principal

If you are in this position, you will need to balance time spent in the classroom with time spent out of it. If your teaching component is small, you could use it in a specialist role, or to meet a need in the school – see John Western’s case study at the end of this guide.

If you have a sizeable teaching component, you have the added burden of significant teaching preparation and the need to be seen by others as an effective classroom practitioner, as well as a manager and leader. Plan and prioritise your time out of the classroom so that you are dealing with the most important matters. Delegate where possible.

Short-term goals

It is difficult to look too far ahead in a new job, so concentrate on short-term goals until you have the confidence to start thinking and planning for the longer-term future of the school.


Research and experience make it clear that the vast majority of problems in schools occur as a result of a breakdown in relationships. As a new principal, one of your most important tasks is to build good relationships and help to ensure that those of staff, board, parents, and students are working well too. Make sure you deliver on what you promise, and avoid statements like “at my last school …".

Back to top

Being a new principal: two stories

Two principals recalled what it was like for them in their first year of principalship. 

  • John Western reflects on his experiences starting as principal at Maungaraki School in Lower Hutt 
  • Louise Moore reflects on her experiences starting as principal at Glendowie College in Auckland, after spending 3 years as deputy principal and a term as acting principal.

Both principals have since moved on to other schools. 

John Western, Maungaraki School, Lower Hutt

I started at Maungaraki (roll 180) in the fourth term and was fortunate to find that good organisation was already in place, giving me time to observe, talk to everyone, and gauge the needs of the school. I had a 0.2 teaching component and opted to do my teaching in the new entrant area, at the start of each school day. This turned out to be the best decision I could have made, as it put me in contact with the parents of the youngest students and I was able to establish a good relationship with them and address the concern about the low numbers in the junior school. All of my recent teaching had been in the year 7 and 8 area, so I had to call on other staff to help me. This assisted staff relationships and made them realise that I was prepared to move outside my comfort zone and take risks to bring about change. This worked well as the roll has increased rapidly over the last 2 years.

Being conspicuous

Another key move was to be very conspicuous around the school – at breaks, on the patrol crossing, before and after school, visiting classes daily – and accessible to parents, teachers, and pupils. We set up parent morning teas, the newsletter was updated, home and school meetings attended, and the foyer entrance made more accessible and child-centred. I talked and listened to everyone to get a picture of the school and its culture.

I was fortunate that at the start of my principalship, a Westfield promotion was underway and the school became involved. I encouraged participation and got the community and the extended families of the children actively working towards success. In the end, the school won the competition and $30,000, but the biggest success was the way the community had supported the school and revelled in its achievement. This now flows into all aspects of school life.

Collaborating with local schools

It was not all plain sailing; there were significant financial and staffing issues that had to be managed, and I called on my colleagues and mentors for assistance. There was also a need to break down the feeling of competition with the other two schools in the district. The three principals got together and worked hard at developing a spirit of collaboration – all being members of the First-time Principals Programme helped – and we now join together regularly for a variety of activities.

Knowing your strengths

New principals must make the most of their strengths to gain acceptance. One of my strengths is information technology, and I assisted senior pupils to make a video of the first day at school of new entrants, for their families to keep. This became so popular that it is now done for every 5-year-old.

After 3 years and 2 terms, I am happy with progress and feel the school is open and prepared to respond to needs and make change for the benefit of the students, but there is still much to do. The First-time Principals’ Programme was a wonderful opportunity to come to grips with the day-to-day business of running a school, while maintaining the focus on the paramount issues of raising student achievement.

Back to top

Louise Moore, Glendowie College, Auckland

When I started as principal, I knew that I had big shoes to fill and that the staff and community would be watching carefully to see if I was going to make changes that would affect the unique culture of the school. Glendowie (roll 940) is an intimate, community-based school with a high level of participation in school-wide ventures and well-developed processes of consultation with stakeholders.

Initial challenges

I was keen not to affect the culture adversely, but was aware of the changes that were inevitable as the school moved from decile 6 to 9 in a very short period. It took a year before the time was right to implement systems and programmes to cater for the needs of our new clientele.

Understandably, there was reaction from a stable staff, but our decisions are data-driven so progress was made, and borne out subsequently by current results.

My major initial challenge was to alter the expectations of the staff towards me. In my deputy and acting principal roles, I was visible, accessible, and involved in a variety of activities and programmes that I could not continue as principal. Many staff continued to want the same level of access, which I was unable to provide.

To assist this process, I added one member to the management team and changed the management structure to reallocate my previous leadership roles. This helped me with the process of settling into the role of principal.

We are now dealing with increased parental expectations as a result of the decile change, but continuing our policy of transparency through consultation and the sharing of information, so the culture is intact.

Support from colleagues

As the First-time Principals’ Programme had already started for the year when I was appointed, I decided to defer my invitation until the start of the following year. I got through the "nuts and bolts" stage with help from a former principal of mine and another principal colleague, so I had a year’s experience under my belt when I began the induction programme.

I was able to focus on my role as the leader of learning and benefited greatly from the programme and input from my mentor. It was a tight, hard year.

After completing the programme, I instigated a local cluster of principals, which continues the support and sharing.

My advice for first-time principals is to take time to get to know your staff – if you get them on board, you can achieve anything!

Further reading

Zeis, J. (2020). The strength of a teacher–principal partnership. ASCD Express, Volume 15, Issue 09. ASCD

Tell a colleague | Back to top