There is, quite rightly, a strong focus in New Zealand on educational leadership at present. We see this through a number of professional development programmes offered to aspiring principals, first-time principals and experienced principals. There is also increasing demand to support the professional learning of middle leaders (HODs, syndicate leaders) and teacher leaders at their early career stage. In addition, research activity in the field of school leadership is gaining momentum.

International Successful School Principalship Project [ISSPP]

This 20-country (including New Zealand) research project aims to move research attention away from effective schools to focus on factors behind leaders’ success. Case study methods were employed for the initial phase of the New Zealand research study in 2008-2010, using a total sample of ten cases: one specialist school, one early childhood centre, one intermediate school, five primary schools and two secondary schools. The size of the institutions ranged from an early childhood centre of approximately 25-30 children to a secondary school with a projected enrolment of 1500 students. There were seven male and four female leaders in this study, covering a spread of geographical locations throughout the country.

Leaders were selected against two criteria: (1) the schools/centre had received a positive external and independent inspection report by the Education Review Office, particularly with regard to the leadership and management of the leader, and (2) the principal/leader was widely acknowledged by their professional peers as being effective and successful in their role. Research guidelines informed the development of a schedule for two educational leader interviews, observational protocols, and the use of inductive cross-case analysis.

Findings about practices used by successful New Zealand educational leaders can be summarised under three themes. Firstly, the area of pedagogical leadership, in which it is clear that successful leaders focus on the core business of teaching and learning. Leaders hold a vision of teaching and learning that aims to increase levels of student achievement. They see possibilities and creative opportunities, rather than limitations, in their curriculum. Leaders encourage collaboration among their staff through stimulating learning conversations where teachers make meaning together to gain new insights and knowledge that, in turn, will lead to changed pedagogical practices. Leaders also encourage explicit sharing of teaching and learning strategies, and pay close attention to accurate student assessment data to help identify learning and skill development needs of individual students.

Second, successful leaders in this study are characterised by their use of a range of common professional leadership strategies. These strategies include adherence to a particular vision or clearly articulated philosophy, accompanied by a deep moral purpose. Leaders use a culturally responsive style of leadership that incorporates a strong ethic of care. They aim to employ and motivate quality teaching staff by setting clear expectations of teacher performance in order to raise levels of student academic achievement. Leaders build individual capability among staff through distributed leadership practices. They develop an acute awareness of the world around them which results in a strong sense of advocacy, particularly for social justice in their inclusiveness of ethnic groups and of special needs students and their families.

Finally, personal leadership constitutes the third success factor area. Here, principals model and build respectful relations within their school community. These educational leaders strongly favour people-based leadership. They demonstrate empathy, loyalty to school and community, a sensitively expressed ethic of care, and a lack of ostentation. The personal and professional integrity of the leaders is acknowledged by those with whom they work closely. Trust-building through positive relationships permeates all the leadership case studies. They have an ability to ‘read’ people and understand the impact of working alongside them instead of forcing an accommodation to fit their preferred way of working. It would appear that successful educational leaders develop relationships as a priority, and secure trust at a deeper level where the authenticity of their values and belief systems intersect and resonate with others.

New educational leadership roles

The Government is investing an extra $359 million over the next four years to help raise student achievement in New Zealand schools. Four new roles are proposed which will share expertise across schools and help lift achievement in schools in need: Executive Principal; Expert Teacher; Lead Teacher; and Change Principal. With the forthcoming establishment of such roles, there are positive prospects and challenges that will be tested.

First, introduction of these new leadership roles builds on two areas of educational research known to have a positive impact on student learning:

(1) the excellence of classroom teaching; and

(2) quality leadership that supports teachers and learners. ISSPP results complement the research base that informs the development of successful leaders’ practice in schools across the domains of pedagogical, professional and personal leadership. For senior school leaders, the creation of new principal roles may represent an opportunity for assistant and deputy principals to grow their own leadership skills in an acting principal capacity. For teachers who are selected for the role of expert or lead teacher, this may provide an opportunity for in-school growth and career pathway for those who simply want to teach.

There are also broad-based challenges with new role selection and implementation. The parent community may have concerns that they lose their best teacher/principal to other schools for periods of time. Schools and their Boards of Trustees will have to make a paradigm shift in their thinking as they move from a prevalent market forces model of education that promotes inter-school competition to a different collaborative model of teaching and leadership. More specifically, there are challenges within establishment processes of the system itself. These include provision of sufficient central funding to support the professional learning and transition of seconded personnel. Most importantly, it includes selecting personnel with care, as success in one school culture does not always equate to successful teaching/leadership in another environment, given the importance of contextually-responsive leadership identified in the ISSPP research.

As always, the hope remains that we can make a positive difference to our students’ learning.

Associate Professor Ross Notman is director of the Centre for Educational Leadership & Administration at the University of Otago, and New Zealand director of the ISSPP research project since 2008.


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