“If you knew then what you know now, would you make the same decision?”
It’s a question that raises a whole range of responses. But when that question was put to a group of Australian principals about their career choice, an astonishing 96% were certain they would do it all over again.
There must be something rewarding about the life of a principal to raise that overwhelmingly positive response. Yet only 10% of principals deliberately pursued their leadership role before the opportunity was presented to them.
That raises questions about how we nurture leadership talent, promote the many positive aspects of the role and build the status of the school leadership profession.
A complex operating environment, increasing autonomy and unflagging expectations to make good decisions are among the features of a modern school leadership role. While the demands are great, the opportunities to create a thriving learning culture are arguably even greater.
So to help improve principal preparation in Australia, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has researched the most common challenges new leaders encounter and created a series of resources to help address them.
New principals experience professional isolation
Across diverse geographical settings, the challenge of professional isolation is encountered by many new principals. Holding accountability for staff and students’ learning and wellbeing and making final decisions are important instances of heightened responsibilities for early career principals. In a new role, established relationships with other staff may shift unexpectedly. A lack of support to negotiate the system or insufficient feedback on progress may also exacerbate feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
Coming to grips with task diversity and time management
As they first step into the role, principals commonly experience an emerging sense of realism about their operating parameters. The ambiguity, unpredictability and diversity of tasks may challenge their capacity to manage time effectively and reduce their desired focus on instructional leadership.
The technical challenges of administration and management - including responsibilities such as financial management, marketing and compliance with legislation - are not always addressed through formal training or previous roles. Requirements of principals in this area have shifted with education policy focused on school-based management.
What does it take to develop staff?
Creating and strengthening a culture of collaboration and collegiality among staff demands resilience from new leaders. Sophisticated interpersonal skills are required to address matters related to staffing, including handling difficult conversations and establishing a culture of feedback. Alongside administrative management, staffing issues are often found to be one of the most time- consuming aspects of school leadership.
Managing the expectations of the school community
Engagement with the school community is an important part of the identity-forming process for new principals and directly influences their feelings of connectedness. Challenges may arise when changes are made to established procedures or when community expectations don’t align with those of the principal. This is especially true when the community is accustomed to the leadership style and practices of a previous leader.
A new way to support new leaders: AITSL’s Leadership Scenarios:
Better understanding of these common challenges is a step towards more effective principal preparation. Drawing on real-life experiences, AITSL’s Leadership Scenarios is a series of videos, guidebooks and resources that offer practical strategies for new school leaders as they approach some common challenges. They’re a valuable addition to the breadth of opportunities that make up the principal preparation landscape in Australia. When new principals are well prepared, professional satisfaction and excellence in learning are the rewards.
To be prepared, visit www.aitsl.edu.au/leadership-scenarios
Sue Buckley is the general manager of teaching and school leadership at the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)