First-time principal in the swamp

A teacher accepts an acting principal position at a new school. It is a low decile school of about 400 students, with a bilingual whānau operating alongside the mainstream classes. There is widespread inadequacy in both the quality of teaching and learning and school systems and structures, including governance.

A golden opportunity

It is October 1989 and an education board makes one of its final appointments before the shift to the system of self-managing schools. Prior to accepting this position, I had spent a number of years in middle management positions and a one-year spell as an acting principal. I knew very little about the school, apart from hearing there were serious concerns around the competency of the deputy principal, hence the offer of the job to me. With all the enthusiasm and optimism of youth, I thought this was going to be the golden opportunity from which to launch me into a successful principal’s career in the brave new world of Tomorrow’s Schools!

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The reality

My plan was simple – take the job, wow everyone with my enthusiasm, passion, and ability, and position myself for at least a fighting chance when the position was advertised! Nothing had prepared me for the systemic, deeply rooted issues that permeated through virtually every aspect of the school. Fortunately, the chairperson was very capable and supportive, and we quickly struck a rapport and found we could work well together. The strength of this relationship was to prove critical.

Apart from the chairperson, the board had little understanding of governance. One board member was also employed as a school cleaner and her partner was the caretaker. Unfortunately, the quality of caretaking and cleaning left a lot to be desired. The Pasifika board representative did not attend meetings, despite constant assurances that he would. Each board meeting usually had at least two of the members not in attendance.

At best, Richard, the deputy principal, could be described as weak. He engendered no respect from, or influence over, staff, students, or parents. The assistant principal was hardworking, but only just keeping her head above water coping with the complexity of issues often facing families and children in such communities. Teaching across the school was generally custodial and the low teacher expectations of the children were generally reflected in the quality of programmes being delivered. Many of the staff had been at the school for a long time, to the point where some of the staffroom chairs were ‘allocated’. There was a husband and wife team on the staff, which added another dimension to the challenge of implementing change.

The bilingual whānau was well-established, but actual learning outcomes were inconsistent. As was so often the case, it was virtually impossible to find qualified staff with fluency in te reo and the challenge was as much about simply keeping the unit going as it was around ensuring the children received quality learning opportunities. Despite being part of the same school, the whānau operated more as a ‘school within a school’ and the relationship was blurred.

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The bubble almost bursts

My optimism and enthusiasm were quickly tempered by the realities I faced. I had two young children at home, my partner had recently returned to full-time work that sometimes required her to be out of town, and I was up to my armpits in the swamp. In addition to the many deep-seated problems, there were many other issues to deal with, from the day-to-day, like some very nasty cases of child abuse, to the frenzy of policy writing and budget preparation that accompanied the transition to Tomorrow’s Schools. I well remember one long night, when my wife was out of town and I almost lost it. I got out of bed bathed in sweat and actually spoke out loud to myself: “Take a grip, you’re going under here!”

The issues for me related to my self-confidence and my ability to cope with this overwhelming feeling that it was all just too much. As an acting principal, what was my mandate to tackle big school issues? Just how was I going to sort out this mess, yet at the same time build some relationships and move forward?

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Reflective questions 1

  •  What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  •  What would you do at this point if you were in this principal’s position?
  •  What are the principal’s options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. Keep building on the strong relationship with the board chairman, as he is likely to be a major support in getting through the swamp. Also, look for a staff member or two who may be key drivers and start working with them in moving the school forward.
  2. There are lots of issue at play here. The first task in any new school is to start developing relationships with key players and to decide which issues need to be tackled first in order to bring about the best change for learning. During this time, it is useful to have an external mentor who you visit on a regular basis to talk through issues, build on understandings, role play scenarios, and so on.

Principal two

  1.  Take some time to identify the core issues and try to take the personalities out of the equation.
  2. Contact a leadership and management adviser for specific support around working on school culture, school vision, and techniques that could focus the school on raising student achievement.
  3.  A meeting with the deputy principal could be held to discuss professional standards.
  4.  Development of a robust performance management system would be vital.

Leadership adviser

  1. When taking up an acting principal position, it is important to remember that it is exactly that, acting. Making changes at this stage will not be seen from the same perspective as from the fully appointed principal. Moving too fast without establishing some credibility will create a feeling that nothing is right around here!
  2.  It appears that the cleaner may have been an ineligible board member. The principal and the staff representative are only ones eligible from the paid staff.
  3. It is important to narrow the areas of focus. In this instance, the priorities would be the board of trustees and the senior staff. If these two areas or positions are not working together for the betterment of the school, then direction implementation will be in conflict.
  4. Taking NZSTA advice on the organisation of the board and planning intensive offsite development for the senior staff are the key priorities. Many of the attitudes and behaviours that influence change!
  5. Establishing a plan of action with the chairperson, hopefully through the board of trustees, is critical to the support the principal needs when implementing change. This communication needs to be regular, open, and considerate of the students, staff, and community needs.
  6. We should never make open pre-judgments about student learning outcomes without accurate data. Through collation of data, for example, in the area of literacy, numeracy, or social skills, staff will be more likely to reflect on current practice and accept the need for change.

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

After one year in the acting role, I was appointed permanently to the position, where I stayed on for a further three years. The board chairperson and I continued to work closely together over a loosely prioritised set of issues. We decided that some key infrastructure/cosmetic stuff needed to be done to make an observable difference to kids, teachers, and staff. This included the school office being modified to make the school welcoming to parents, refurbishing the staffroom with a dishwasher and microwave, some tree planting, and me getting out and talking to parents at the gate and in the playground with the kids.

We held a whanau meeting, where I outlined the difficulties of finding suitable staff, but at the same time I expressed my commitment to doing whatever was needed to keep the unit operable. An outcome was that, with a couple of parents helping, we created an open-plan teaching space, something that the whanau had long wanted. This was done without going through any of the correct Ministry protocols – we addressed these after the deed was done!

The board member who was a cleaner was given a verbal warning and resigned from both positions. The caretaker was given verbal and written warnings, but was still employed when I left.

Competency proceedings were set in motion with Richard and one other staff member. In both instances, they resigned before the completion of the process. I was able to appoint an absolutely outstanding new deputy principal. This was the watershed. We had worked together before and shared similar views about education. Having a dynamic, high-energy colleague on the staff who I could confide in and who could model effective teaching in the classroom made a huge difference to the school culture.

Through all of this, my partner was incredibly supportive.

I also developed a close professional relationship with a neighbouring principal. My other key supporter through this journey was the school secretary – never under estimate the importance of this person! Finally, and most importantly of all, it was the kids themselves who made the difference. Without even knowing it, their smiles and successes kept things in perspective.

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Reflective questions 2

  •  One of the most important aspects of this dilemma was the building of strategic and personal alliances with key groups or people. In the context of your school, who are your important strategic and personal alliances with? Do you need to make any new or different alliances for future developments?
  •  Many of the complex issues facing this principal required professional and legal knowledge of significant systems and regulations. How do you suggest that principals can best keep themselves informed and up to date about such matters?
  •  Sometimes competing priorities mean that principals often leave to one side their own personal and professional needs as they negotiate the tensions involved in leading their school. This principal came close to ‘the brink’ a number of times. What learning about principal wellbeing and work–life balance can be gained from this dilemma?

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Writer’s reflection

During this time, we had an ERO review. The review was very positive about the progress the school had made. This was important to me, as it gave me some external validation of the challenges I had faced and work I had done to address the issues. I left the school considerably wiser. I had made mistakes, there had been moments of self-doubt, but I had not just survived, I had made a real difference. However, if it were not for the support, encouragement, and love of others, I’m not sure the result would have been so positive.

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Reflective questions 3

  • What do you think about the ways the principal dealt with this dilemma?
  • Can you identify the crucial decision–making points in this dilemma, where one course of action rather than another was taken?
  • Can you take any learning for yourself from this principal's story, and the comments offered by others?

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