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Theme two

Two principals working.

Principal leadership is the key to success

A focus on developing a shared vision

Distributing the leadership

Fostering a professional learning culture

Principals as learners

Dilemmas and challenges the principals faced

Across the case study schools it was clear that NZC implementation was driven by principals who saw the need to take steps to encourage commitment from teachers. These principals were strong, skilled leaders who were able to enthuse most staff. They consulted widely within their school community on how to best manage the implementation process in their school, but especially with senior staff and/or volunteer enthusiasts. Teachers generally valued their own principal’s judgement, confident that they were leading the school in the right direction. However, we saw some evidence of continuing pockets of resistance, especially in secondary schools. This section highlights some of the ways in which the process of implementation was facilitated by school leaders.

Across the case studies there were broad similarities in the school leadership approach; for example, to get teachers and community to commit to the new curriculum goals, values, and key competencies; to develop teachers as communities of learners; and to begin working on school programmes. The style of leadership fell broadly into what Woods (2005) called democratic leadership. But as Woods found, there were differences in the details of the approach in every school, no doubt influenced by different personalities, type of school, community, and students.

A focus on developing a shared vision

Principals saw the importance of having a clear vision for the school, and a process led by them for putting this vision in place for the whole school community. As discussed in theme five, the development of a school vision was often “a work in progress” and, particularly in the primary schools, it was often a continuation of previous work on vision development. The guidance of the principal was important when considering the structural elements of the curriculum and reviewing the mission statement, vision, principles, and goals.

Some principals were determined the school vision should be both shared and lived. One principal declared that no teacher or school lives their vision until the students can talk about it. In developing the school charter most principals were keen to consult their school community, the aim being to focus on what is valued at the school as a starting point for all activities. Charter development was empowering for staff in a number of schools because, having consulted the school community, teachers realised they had “reinvented” the key competencies, or at least there was alignment. In general, staff had faith that the direction in which the school was headed was the correct one for the school and one with which they were comfortable. It should be noted, however, that some teachers remained unconvinced.

Distributing the leadership

Principals could only function effectively if they achieved substantial teacher ownership of their aims and commitments. In this they were often supported by leadership from other key “players”, the school board and senior teachers. In secondary schools, at the instigation of principals, heads of departments, for example, were re-named, in some schools as leaders of learning, and in others, as lead learning coaches. A number of the primary principals were cognisant of the need to use a distributed leadership model, and were actively and strategically developing such a culture at their school.

Most principals worked to engage and involve the board of trustees in implementation of NZC. The general approach in primary schools was one of shared ownership of change, albeit led by the principal. In secondary and intermediate schools, boards ratified the school’s broad vision and goals, and relied on the principal to lead the day-to-day implementation.

Fostering a professional learning culture

In all schools the principal was the catalyst for the development of a strong professional learning culture and teachers reported a commitment to professional learning in the school. Principals used their skill to identify clear student achievement targets in the many professional development opportunities their staff had experienced, and then put a framework in place to foster a culture of celebrating success in the school. They set about developing a school culture that would enable the whole school to go forward in the same direction. Principals encouraged teachers to think through the changes so they would “own” the new directions being pursued. The principals fostered teacher reflection because they believed that teachers as reflective practitioners were linked to improved student learning outcomes.

There was widespread affirmation of the leadership of the principal in providing guidance and support for staff professional learning and for accessing professional development material; and for school boards in supporting these policies. Evidence showed a strong alignment between a principal’s approach and the degree of commitment and acceptance of it by others.

Primary principals typically led discussion of NZC aspects such as key competencies. They found that for the most efficient and effective approaches the curriculum implementation process began with a focus on a particular aspect such as the school vision, a key competency, or a specific unit of work. By using these starting points, teachers were encouraged that their current skills and knowledge were valued.

In the secondary schools, school-wide shifts in culture were being attempted by the breaking down (or at least “softening”) of traditional learning area boundaries. Whole-school professional development programmes were led by principals and intended to challenge teachers’ thinking, with an emphasis on the holistic nature of learning and the key competencies rather than a subject-specific view of learning. This focus enabled teachers to see the bigger picture of pedagogical structures and approaches when thinking of how they could implement NZC for their specific subject area. In secondary schools in particular, a common understanding of what constituted effective teaching and learning for secondary students needed to be developed before the principals attempted to lead curriculum change, a process requiring ongoing negotiation with staff to maximise overall commitment. Teachers were being supported to become facilitators rather than traditional “top-down” teachers and to place more responsibility on students for their own learning. Staff worked in cross-curricular teams and were supported to try new approaches; the whole school community including the principal, teachers, and board viewing themselves as learners, in some secondary schools, alongside their students.

For intermediate principals, in particular, exploration of the curriculum was intertwined with other aspects of the school such as behavioural issues and underachievement in literacy. They were also very involved with their contributing schools and the secondary schools which most of their students would be attending. Some had not yet visited the curriculum as a whole staff, although the teachers had looked at it individually or in groups with their cluster schools.

Principals as learners

In many of the case study schools, principals were involved in professional development activities focused on school leadership. Some schools had reasonably new principals but all were experienced in teaching and the previous curriculum document. Most principals credited their acquired leadership skills and knowledge to a principals’ support group; for example, the Principal Professional Learning Group (PPLG), or the First Time Principals Programme (FTPP). Membership of these groups offered principals the opportunity to co-construct ideas about staff professional learning and to share results of implementing these ideas. Many indicated they drew inspiration, energy, and support from their local “very strong” principals’ associations or professional learning groups. They described their support group as an exciting and invigorating stimulus for professional learning through which leadership expertise was readily available. Membership of a principals’ group was especially helpful for schools in remote areas because it was difficult to attend external professional development. These principals would meet regularly with their local counterparts and organise guest speakers to visit their region with the costs being shared.

Many of the principals had also recently been involved in academic study, which served to motivate and inform their approach to school-wide development and curriculum change. Several had completed doctorates. For one principal, a study focus on self-regulated learning had alerted the whole primary school to a wealth of ideas and resources. Another principal had studied “leadership as an inquiry process”. As in these examples, principals actively sought doctorate or master’s thesis topics that would benefit their whole school learning community, supporting it in its curriculum and pedagogical journey. These were topics that would help in the implementation of change, provide insightful professional development for teachers, and support inquiry-based learning. According to teachers in some schools, readings provided by the principal and findings from their research were useful to them in their professional learning and exploration of the new curriculum.

Dilemmas and challenges the principals faced

Principals encountered some challenges and difficulties along the way. For example, developing the school’s curriculum in a way that ensured a balance across curriculum areas could be in tension with taking community views into account. Some principals were challenged by assessment questions, especially formative assessment and its use in improving learning. Others were challenged by how their school could best align the key competencies with the learning areas.

An issue that needs consideration is the pressure on principals as they plan for and lead implementation of NZC. There were signs that, at times, they could be isolated, especially if they were trying to do most of the leadership themselves. Activities linked to persuading teachers to raise their commitment can be taxing on a principal. The most effective leaders were working with other school leaders to share the load and commitment. Professional development and support on a continuing basis were necessary to sustain principals and other leaders.

Published on: 30 Mar 2009