When Frank Fitzgerald asked me to write something for the CaSPA Case Studies, he mentioned that my 23 years as a principal placed me in a small percentage of principals and made, I'm guessing, a generous assumption that some useful wisdom must have been gained in that time. Perhaps that's true, but that's a judgement best left to others. What I can say is that I've been very fortunate across those years to have had a varied experience and to have worked with some truly outstanding educators, principals and teachers from whom I learned a great deal and whose wisdom I am more than happy to use and share.
I have been a principal in four Catholic schools in Tasmania, in rural and city schools and across Kinder to Year 12. I have taught History, English, Religious Education and Literacy and for each one of those 23 years (apart from this year) I've taught at least one class. Not everyone gets the opportunity to move around as much as I have and there was a lot of chance and circumstance involved in those changes as well as deliberate choice, but having experience across K-12 and across a range of schools was, for me, valuable preparation for role of principal. I would also highly recommend the experience of teaching in disadvantaged communities as I think every principal needs to understand, sympathise and care for those students and families who face the hardships of poverty and prejudice and to learn to be an effective teacher in challenging classroom environments.
You could fill a decent size library with advice on leadership which I'm not going to add to but I have included the 10 most useful pieces of advice I received over those years from some of those the outstanding educators I have known, worked under and with and I've added my own thoughts on why I think they work. They have become my maxims for school leadership and I hope you find them as useful as I have over the years.
1. Seek advice
As a novice principal I relied, and still rely, on the advice and support of experienced principals and teaching colleagues. Often, that was simply to weigh a course of action and talk it through. I can't overstate the importance tapping the collective wisdom of experienced colleagues.
2. Always Act Ethically
Like teaching, leadership is a reciprocal relationship which is based on mutual trust. Acting unethically, being duplicitous or breaching trust is fatal. If you lose the trust of your colleagues, their tacit consent which is the foundation of your legitimacy as a leader, disappears along with it. If that goes, all that's left is the sign on your door. Transparency in decisions and actions builds that trust. Some things must, of course, remain confidential, but surprisingly few. One Director expressed it to us thus 'If I know I have acted ethically, no matter what the turmoil of the decision, I have nothing to worry about.'
3. Hasten Slowly
Probably the most valuable advice from one of my earliest mentors was 'festine lente' (hasten slowly). It's difficult to translate to leadership speak, but I took it to mean be deliberate, thorough, careful, focussed and decisive without procrastinating or overthinking. That's a lot to take out of two words which contradict each other but principals are often under pressure to make decisions quickly and there are often unforeseen consequences. Applying those qualities consciously gives a decision the best chance of surviving the inevitable time demands.
4. Admit mistakes
Everyone makes them and I don't have enough space here to even go over my top ten. However, if Maxims 1, 2 and 3 above have failed you, be honest especially with those most affected. Nothing is more foolish than denial, nothing more damaging than attempts to shift the blame or dissemble. If you're making too many mistakes as principal, you may be in the wrong job but if you're in the average range, they'll happen occasionally due to the complexities inherent in the role. Some will be unavoidable. Learn from them, talk them over with your team, accept responsibility, always take one for the leadership team (even if it wasn't your fault) and move on.
5. Be You
There are volumes written about authentic leadership. I'm not sure I can add anything more than the advice I was given - be your honest self, warts and all. Everyone can spot a phony. Have confidence in yourself. Too many warts and you wouldn't have been appointed in the first place. Time on the clock has a propensity to produce warts so check in the mirror regularly.
6. Foster Creative Dissent
Perhaps the most important quality any leadership team possesses, and any staff for that matter. If you've surrounded yourself with people who agree with you all the time, you're in deep trouble. With an atmosphere which welcomes contrarian ideas and a staff and leadership group keen to speak up and craft alternatives, you get the free and open competition of ideas which is what learning is based on. Creative dissent in a team is a sign that opinion is valued and power distributed, that the mission is the true focus and that people are free to give voice both to grand ideas and to major problems which need fixing. Which leads me to my next point.
7. Welcome Complaints.
Let's be honest. Would you rather sleepwalk over a cliff or have someone shout at you to wake up? Too often, principals, teachers and schools treat complaints and complainers as enemies instead of friends. If someone is courageous and motivated enough to speak up, they at least deserve attention. They may be wrong, but so what? Its far more damaging if they're right and ignored or fobbed off. Likewise, its far more damaging - right or wrong - if their audience is the car park or Facebook committees and not me. They may be angry, but you can assume they're not motivated by pure malice. If you treat a complainant with respect and courtesy, encourage them to come forward, thank them for doing so and do something about their complaint (if you can) you may just turn a potential PR disaster into something altogether more positive. Complainants are your best friends.
8. Teach If You Possibly Can
And I know it's not always possible, but if you can manage it, you have a seat at the table with every other teacher in the school. You speak with added authority about pedagogy, sympathise with the teacher struggling with an unruly class, understand fully the anxieties of parents and have that wonderful connection with students that only teaching can bring. You have an insight into the many complexities of marking, reporting, technology and the other demands that teachers face. If nothing else, you're much less likely to hear the dreaded word 'coalface' as a metaphor for a principal's disconnection from the classroom and for that we can all be grateful.
The X factor in leadership and teaching is truly caring about the people you work for. We need to bring an appropriate level of skill, training and commitment to the jobs we do and we need to be competent in what we do. But all that is wasted if we are not motivated essentially by an authentic care and concern for others, and in our Catholic context, the Christian model of servant leadership. This is what brings you back into the classroom when you have been insulted, assaulted, disregarded and spat upon. This is what prevents you from using the power of your position for your advantage, what guides your actions away from self-interest toward the good of others.
10. Enjoy your Work
The narrative around the role of principal can often be depressingly bleak. True - it can be a difficult and stressful job at times but there are so many joys it can bring along with the many wonderful opportunities to improve outcomes and lives, both for students and teachers. It is a privilege and an honour, a career accomplishment to be truly proud of and a unique opportunity to shape and grow a most important human institution for the betterment of society. Like any principal, I've had my fair share of difficult and stressful times in the role but the vast majority of my time has been happy, fulfilling and enormously satisfying and even in the darkest of times, there's something of value to take away even just the experience of surviving. When Jesus said 'I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full' he didn't promise that it would all be good. 'Life to the full' is a good way to describe the life of a principal enjoy it to the full!
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