Schools thrive best when their principals engage directly with teaching and learning, a new study into effective leadership has found.
The research study, titled: ‘The impact of pedagogical leadership on student achievement in New Zealand primary schools: A mixed methods study’, found that while principals begin their role with strong knowledge from past experience they are not as well-prepared for managing human resources, finances and property.
“This could indicate the need for exposure to preparatory modules during middle management and planned delegation to build leadership capacity,” Doctor of Education candidate and St Matthews Primary School principal, Kathryn Rowe, told The Educator.
“Both the context of the school and the access to vicarious expertise produced inequities in principal professional development and in implementing student achievement goals.”
Rowe said that in schools with higher achievement the principal established transformational goals but remained highly involved in pedagogical practices, engaging directly in learning conversations and teaching development.
Whilst conducting the research, Rowe said she was surprised by the degree and number of times in which legislative changes, affecting education, increased the principals’ workloads.
“Changes to legislation are contextual drivers to principal learning. These drivers were not a planned part of professional development but were dealt with reflexively as a matter of compliance,” she said.
“The implementation of legislative changes was often inadequately resourced or supported at the national level.”
Rowe said she was also “delighted” by the number of insights she received into her own leadership practice as each principal in the study shared their knowledge with her.
“Some things I knew, such as having a strong understanding of my values base helps prioritise my decision-making, and other insights challenged me to further develop my own knowledge, such as applying principles of adult learning [Knowles, 2012] to teachers’ professional development,” she said.
Unpaid work often goes unacknowledged
When it comes to addressing principals’ workloads, Rowe pointed to several recurrent “tensions”.
“A top-down solution threatens a loss of autonomy and therefore a loss of responsiveness to local contexts, and a bottom-up solution demands greater resourcing when the education budget is already under strain as it tries to meet the needs of increasingly diverse learners,” she said.
“The principal role has a paid nine to five component which is the job.”
However, Rowe said this is tangled with another unpaid component – the discretionary workload.
“This is an unrecognised component to the role of self-sacrifice and service in terms of time, work/life balance, and personal resources given by the principal to education,” she said.
“This aspect of the role is not often acknowledged or overtly valued by the community, employers, or government. The level of self-sacrifice is initially very high, to implement the principal’s personal vision and learn the job.”
Rowe said the level of self-sacrifice can be reduced to a sustainable level overtime as the principal learns and reflects, but it can be disrupted again by context or events.
“The level of self-sacrifice is often driven by values and beliefs,” she said.
“It can be reduced: after physical or mental burn-out; if the principal perceives their extra effort is not valued; or if someone helps them re-interpret having a work/life balance as reducing the amount of short-term tasks achieved but improving the principal’s long term effectiveness; or changing the context such as moving to a bigger school with more staff and therefore more opportunities for delegation.”