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Case Study - 20 plus years as Principal - Peter Daw

Posted on 9 August 2017
Case Study - 20 plus years as Principal - Peter Daw

Peter Daw - Reflections on Principalship - August 2017

I have loved most days,

hated some and been in absolute despair on others,

tried to laugh often

and absolutely enjoyed the relationships I have built with students, staff, parents 

and the wider educational community

and would not change a thing.


My first principalship began in 1989 in a catholic school of 450 in the western suburbs of Adelaide.In one instance it seems a lifetime ago in another it has flown by and could be yesterday. Much has changed over that time both in the way schools operate and the way that the Principal role is expressed. Personally I have changed much and tackle the role very differently now than then. 
In 1989 I was principal of a College that had the highest level of disadvantage of all Catholic secondary combined schools in the state. As a beginning principal I had an inexperienced Deputy and a woman who acted as both receptionist and business manager. I had no personal assistant. 
I don't say this to elicit sympathy but rather to point out that this was the norm in many schools. It was very difficult to show any sophistication as the leader of the College as much of my time was spent on operational day to day management. At 33 I was leading a staff that was either in their first few years of teaching or who were long time hardened veterans. Not many people in between. At the same time my wife and I were raising a young family. To be honest I could not have done the job without the support of my wife who took on much more than 50% of the parenting duties.
My leadership experience had entailed 5 years as Deputy Principal in the school in which I assumed the principalship and a few years as the timetable and Year 11 Coordinator at my previous school. Opportunities for young people to take on leadership in catholic schools in SA abounded as many religious brothers and sisters were moving out of schools leaving behind a leadership vacuum.
My first principalship was five years and was a mixture of periods of great challenge and great joys. Many lessons had to be learned and often I flew by the 'seat of my pants'. However, this experience was invaluable. I learned to survive as a principal I needed to build quality relationships with all members of the school community. Relationships that would promote mutual trust and loyalty but could not be based on friendship but rather professional respect. I remember this as a very demanding time and due to the large numbers of young staff and incredibly complex social issues that existed amongst the student body. It took a personal cost. Stress levels rose and toward the end of my time at the College I became too negative in my thinking. Even though I felt I had achieved a great amount I was getting frustrated by those problems that exist in all schools that you just don't seem to be able to fix. I needed to move on but couldn't drag myself away from the community that I loved and a school that had grown and improved, particularly in the area of achieving better student outcomes. Fortunately, fate stepped in and a principal position became available at another Catholic school. I applied and was successful.
Suddenly, those frustrating problems disappeared, they were replaced by others but they were new and I had renewed emotional and physical energy to deal with them. The culture at the new college was complex. The staff were divided as a result of a previous situation at the school. I very much had to earn my credibility and it took some time to build the culture of mutually respectful relationships that I desired.  Coming in to a second principal position, though, allowed me to approach the role with a confidence that comes from being perceived by the community as an experienced principal rather than the deputy that had been promoted in the same school. A very different circumstance. There were times at this College that I was very much alone as I had to be very careful not to be seen to be aligned with either faction. Gradually the community evolved to one where individuals could still see life from different perspectives but where their different point of view would at least be listened to and respected. During this time I had a more effective personal support structure around me. I inherited two experienced deputy principals, employed a skilled and loyal personal assistant and the College had a designated Business Manager. Towards the end of my 8 years at this school my principal role became less operational and more strategic. I had developed systems that allowed me to keep myself better personally organised which were based upon the work of Stephen Covey. Covey's work has had a significant influence on my life both personally and professionally. I loved Covey's concept of leadership as it made so much sense to me and challenged to me to build into my weekly schedule opportunities to develop my educational leadership, spiritual leadership and leader of staff, students and the wider community.  I even adopted Covey's concept of 'sharpening the saw', in other words to build in time each week to look after my own personal heath both mental and physical. Covey's ideas made sense to me and or the first time I could put words to how my leadership and me as person were integrated. This congruence enabled me to make a paradigm shift in the way I saw myself as a principal and the way I led others. At the same time I undertook a Masters of Educational Leadership through the Australian Catholic University and this also greatly assisted me in this journey of change. So much of what I had been doing as leader on instinct and thought was OK was validated through my research and study and enabled me to gain greater confidence in my role as principal.
My leadership style had changed during this time. I no longer felt that I needed to be present at the school every day and be a part of everything that was going on. I took on a more a strategic leadership role and was thuds free to move forward to address more systemic issues. I became part of a group of four system leaders charged with the responsibility of reviewing the then model for funding catholic schools. A model which I considered to be unjust. This process sharpened my political skills as I needed to work with winners and losers as a result of the proposed model.
At the end of eight years at my second school I was offered the opportunity to be the Catholic Education SA representative on a team from the three sectors to develop a new state wide R to 10 curriculum. Following that I became an inaugural Principal Consultant for Catholic Education SA. A position which provided me with the opportunity to regularly meet with and mentor a cohort of 23 principals around the state. I think I learnt more than I ever taught anyone and began to long for the opportunity to return to the cut and thrust of a school.
Fortunately, I was successful in gaining the principalship at my current school in 2004. This College is a complex co-educational school that caters for students from Reception to Year 12 and has a staff of approximately 200. It offers three International Baccalaureate programmes. The IB Primary Years Programme to years R to 5, the IB Middle Years Programme to years 6 to 10 and the IB Diploma and SACE for students in years 11 and 12. The College operates one of the largest full fee paying international student programmes in the state, operates a Language Centre for newly arrived students from Asia and manages some 80 homestay families. This is a little like having 80 small boarding schools. The College is also accredited by the Council of International Schools, CIS. The CIS accreditation process provides an excellent opportunity for rigorous and high quality feedback that we have used as material for the strategic planning process of the school.
I remember clearly when I returned to principalship in 2004 after last being a principal of a school in 2000 the most demanding change was the incredible explosion of email. It just kept coming and has not stopped!
Other things remained constant, people were still people and the old 80/20 rule still applied. 80% of time spent on 20% of the staff. Students were still students but social media had exploded along with email and dealing with issues created by the cyber world. Parents had higher expectations that I had remembered and rightly held the school to high levels of accountability. One thing remained the same and that was that school could only thrive when its culture was based on the formation of quality relationships.  Relationships built upon mutual respect, trust, compassion and fairness. 
As a leader I have changed. I have become less and less involved in the operational day to day management even though I think I was fairly good at this and miss it. After all a love of school day to day management was the reason I went into leadership in the first place. These days I have developed structures around me that give me the time to be more visionary and strategic in my work and provide time to lead and challenge the emerging leaders around me. I am better at trusting those around and have become a much better delegator. I have listened to those on my Leadership Team and have less direct reports. All in all I have more time to do the important things rather than only that which is urgent. (A shameless paraphrase of a Covey concept.)  At my current school I have had the opportunity to become more involved in the international education scene and have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the best leaders both local and around the globe. I have also benefitted greatly by being able to network with non-educational leaders and reflect upon their wisdom and how best it can also be applied to the school setting.
At the end of next year it will be 30 years since I began as a rookie principal. Has the job got any easier; yes personally I think it has. Not because the role is easier, in fact there is absolutely no doubt that it has become increasingly more complex, time consuming, demanding and levels of accountability have skyrocketed. It is no place for the feint hearted. However, I think personally I have grown and matured into the role so that it is much less emotionally draining. I am better at letting go and being present to my family when not at school.  The years have taught me not to feel the need to do all the difficult things but allow others the experience, with guidance, to take up the challenge. Even so there are still a fair number of difficult things with which only the principal can deal. Further, I have decided that I don't need to be the first at school and the last to leave and my effectiveness is not determined by the number of hours I work but rather the quality of the work that I do. I don't think my current College is any less a school because of these decisions in fact I believe it is far stronger and well placed to continue to be so in the future. 
Over the years I have been a person who has endeavoured to work with school communities and invited, and tried to inspire them, to work as one to build a shared preferred future. As principal, I have seen my primary role to build a culture that is congruent with the fundamental principles of the schools that I have led. A culture based around the gospel values and one that is committed to doing all things possible to provide students with the opportunities to become people who can make a positive difference in the future world in which they will live.
I strongly believe that the contemporary principal needs to be more highly skilled than ever before as the complexity of schools and the societies they serve increase at an exponential rate. The contemporary principal needs to be able to read the moment and thus be flexible in response. There are times for personal reflection and slow progress and times when a quick decisive is needed. There are times for collaboration and times for individual judgement and the courage to go it alone. The contemporary principal is expected to be all things to all people, a pedagogical leader, a faith and spiritual leader, a human resource manager extraordinaire, a politician, a master communicator in all forms, a financial wizard, a master builder and much more. Parents increasingly expect the Wisdom of Solomon as do the bureaucrats and governments that oversee schools. With all of this I don't believe you can survive without a strong network of support and I have fostered, and greatly enjoyed, the relationships that I have made with so many wonderful colleagues. No one quite understands the role of a principal like a fellow principal and I have tried to make meetings with my trusted professional friends an integral part of my routine.
Even with all of these challenges it is a privilege to have served in a position that has at its heart the desire to influence and shape the minds and attitudes of young people. Young people who are continually evolving and questioning why; young people who just by their presence keep those who work with them young in mind and spirit and keep life interesting and fun. 

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