Supporting new school leaders – what we have learnt in the last four years

I have had the privilege over the last four years of leading the project team that provides timely, targeted, responsive and planned support for principals across the country for their first two years after appointment. 

It has been an incredibly rewarding journey, rich with learning. Along the way, we have reflected on our experiences and gathered feedback from over 900 beginning principals about what has worked best for them.

We have recruited a team of highly experienced ex-school principals to provide this service and they have brought to this work a strong personal commitment to supporting and enabling beginning principals to be successful in their school leadership. It is extremely important to the team that principals are genuinely supported to respond to the daily realities of their role across the diverse context that they find themselves leading in, while also growing in their confidence and capability as organisational leaders.

We have learnt that across primary and secondary schools, state and state-integrated, rural, urban, large, small, English, dual and Māori-medium there are common features of the support that the beginning principals identify as essential and significant in truly making a difference for their leadership so they can make a positive difference in their schools.

Beginning principals have consistently given feedback that the thread that holds everything else together to make the support work for them is to be able to engage over time in an open, honest and trusting professional relationship with a key support person who they feel is truly vested in their success. They often describe this person as someone who is caring, approachable and non-judgemental, allowing them to feel safe enough to show uncertainty and vulnerability so they can learn and grow. This is a relationship that has a positive impact on the principals and the schools they lead.

For the principals, building such a trusting relationship is closely linked to having a credible support person who understands the complexity of their role as the school’s organisational leader. It means their support person can call on their knowledge and experience of principalship to be able to provide timely and appropriate advice when needed and know when to be the guide on the side.

The beginning principals have also provided clear feedback on the features of the support they value most in enabling their success in their role. They have identified as significant the ability to engage regularly, primarily through face to face meetings with their key support person around topics and challenges that are authentic and relevant to them. This means they experience support that is responsive to their changing needs and school context. The challenges of working through a COVID-19 lockdown and the subsequent feedback highlighted how support that has such strong foundations could be complimented by virtual support while not being replaced by it.

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When the foundations are in place and beginning principals are engaging regularly with a trusted and credible support person, they seek support that continues to be adaptable and responsive to the complexity of their role. The feedback tells us that there are some common expectations about the nature of support provided.

It is very important to the beginning principals that as well as providing quality advice their support person is a skilled coach able to use active listening and quality questioning to support their reflections, help them gain clarity, at times challenge them and guide them effectively through problem-solving processes. While at other times they really want a ‘sounding board’ to listen and talk through challenges in confidence, explore ideas in depth, encourage and affirm their progress and nurture them in their leadership and their well-being.

Beginning principals, like all principals can find the role lonely and isolating so they really need and value the opportunities to build relationships and connections across the sector and the system. These are relationships that will sustain them over the years, through the highs and lows that may lie ahead of them. While their key support person has an important role in helping initiate these connections it is also something that their principal colleagues and local sector groups enable through informal catch ups and formal group activities.

We have learnt during the last four years that beginning principals from incredibly diverse experiences and backgrounds all benefit from regular, ongoing, high quality support to sustain and grow their leadership so they can truly make a difference in their schools. They all come to their role with the same passionate commitment to equity and excellence in student outcomes and with the right support they can be set up to succeed.  

Evaluation Associates is contracted by the Ministry of Education to provide support to beginning principals/tumuaki across the ten Ministry of Education regions of New Zealand. Read about our Leadership Advisor support.

Tags: leadership beginning principals leadership advisors principals


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