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Beyond middle leadership – Denis Pyatt

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Denis Pyatt, South Island co-ordinator NAPP, discusses what a middle leaders needs to do to prepare for principalship.


I think middle managers in secondary schools need to be aware of two contextual things, which are really important for them. One is that they are in an impossible position - they’re the classic middles, so they’re being pushed both ways. They’ve got demands on them from above and below and from the side, from parents, from students, from their staff, and that creates a heck of a lot of tension in their lives. The second thing I think they should be aware of, of course, is that they are, in many cases, managing people in departments which are larger than a lot of primary schools. Now they, therefore, have huge skills in management and at setting vision for their departments. Both those things, the fact that they're dealing with the tension of being a middle, and the fact they've got all this experience of leading a group of people, is in itself preparing them well for principalship.

I was reminded the other day by something I saw on a principal’s wall, which was a translation of a Chinese proverb - ‘leaders have to be careful that they don't, when they're pulling the cart, they don't lower their heads rather than looking at the road ahead’. That of course is the dilemma for middle managers in schools. Because the old picture of the HoD was the person who was imprisoned in their silo, who was battling for their kids and their subject and their department, [but] that’s outmoded now. Now HoDs, good HODs, have to be looking at the wider picture - the bigger picture of things - and realising that they are providing part of a child’s education in league with everyone else in the school. In other words, I think what I’m saying is that they have to realise that education is about the individual student, not about the needs of the providers.

Taking all that into account, what does an HoD in a secondary school need to do to prepare themselves for principalship? Firstly, I think they have to be a damn good HoD. Because if they’re running a really good department, and if they’re taking that wider view of the school, they will be preparing themselves well for principalship because the skills of an HoD are generic - they’re leadership skills which they’ll be able to apply equally as a principal. Secondly, I think they must be reading and gathering together information the whole time, and using a whole range of places to get that information from. There is now a huge amount online on various websites - educational leaders, for example, is one, the NZC website. There’s so much information available to them, which they must be using and using well. In the same way, I think they need to be developing their networks. After all, leadership is primarily about relationships. They will be developing relationships in their jobs as HoDs and, as preparation for principalship, they need to be intensifying those relationships. Of course, a lot of those relationships are available online, again, so they will be getting involved in the various online communities.

Bearing in mind that Chinese proverb we talked about earlier, they must realise that they’ve got to lift their eyes to see the big picture out there and to be working for the betterment of the whole school and each individual in the school, and not risk falling back into that old silo mentality of siloed curriculum, which is not what we want.

Another thing I think they should be looking at doing is taking the opportunity to use the pre-principal training which is available. Part of that, many people these days are doing extra study at universities and there are various options available, in a post graduate way, for preparing for principalship. Probably the most significant one now is the National Aspiring Principals Programme, which is now a nationwide programme - it’s the same across the whole country. That will provide aspiring principals with training and things, such as:

  • getting to know themselves better and what they are like as a leader
  • looking at leading learning,
  • looking at leading change in schools
  • looking at a future focused [school] – what our schools may be looking like in the future - so they develop a disposition for future-focused thinking.

And, as well as that, it will cover off a lot of the more management day to day stuff, which a principal needs to know, along the resourcing and the staffing [lines] and all that sort of stuff which a principal will need.

Published on: 15 Aug 2011