This year, I stepped out of leadership after 16 years as a school principal in the Catholic education primary sector in Victoria to take up the role of Principals’ Officer for IEU VicTas, Maureen Shembrey writes.
In my new role I meet with and talk to principals about many aspects of this complex work and continue to be impressed by the commitment, knowledge and professionalism on show. How do these people get to know so much about so many things?
I reflected on my own experience and had to smile inwardly at the brief ‘induction’ into the world of principalship provided by the system at that time. It included a half-day on finances, a session on governance telling me who was the boss just in case I didn’t know, advice on how to deal with difficult people and another half day on legal liability. Thank goodness I was well prepared having spent 10 years as deputy principal with a leader who was a wonderful mentor. She involved me in all aspects of leadership and allowed me the freedom of responsibility for key areas within the school – the best grounding I could have received. One huge plus of my limited induction process was the collegiality of the ‘baby principal’ group themselves. Sharing experiences, trusting in the group and problem solving together with just the right mix of humour and despair (and the odd glass of red) was reassuring and provided great learning.
Times have changed, with systems providing quality professional development opportunities for aspiring and current principals. The various forms this takes allows leaders to connect with that which is most effective for them, thus allowing them to take responsibility for their own leadership development. Systems can sometimes, however, expect ‘buy in’ from all constituents around new initiatives or trends which can be an added burden, given the time constraints around principals’ day-to-day working life. Many principals I meet are committed to postgraduate studies which may or may not actually lead to improved practice but, rather, merely to a qualification enhancing employment opportunities. Principals can, also, be deeply involved in the professional learning of their own school community as they navigate their way through School Improvement Plans which set future direction and the development of quality teaching and learning for students. Do any of these professional development avenues actually link into the principal’s personal professional needs and, thus, growth as a leader?
The advent of the Australian Professional Standard for Principals and Leadership Profiles describe the leadership requirements of professional practices of principals in great detail and outline what these practices look like at increasing levels of proficiency. The Profiles, in particular, “allow users to review their current leadership practices, to recognise their strengths and focus effort where development is most needed”. Could this model be the impetus for quality, targeted professional development for principals or will it become another measure of performance in which principals feel obliged to participate in order to progress in their careers?
Standards not incentives
John Connors, Principal of St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in Kew East, Victoria, said: “To this point in time, published standards have had little effect on the type of professional learning I have undertaken. I suspect that this is because there is no promotional or incremental incentive linked to the achievement of standards. I certainly do not support the linking of the standard to any form of industrial agreement. The skills and talents most principals bring to their schools can be well outside the scope of any published standard”.
“As an experienced principal, I have found that the opportunities to meet with my colleagues via network meetings, clusters and the like to be the most valuable form of learning I’ve had. The chance to hear what is happening in others’ schools, to discuss issues in a collegial manner and to hear from experts with the chance, then, to discuss with peers, has the greatest impact on my professional learning.”
Fundamentally I believe it to be critical that school principals themselves are, and are publicly viewed as, learners who engage in a variety of professional development opportunities at any given time. It may not always be the ‘formal’ courses or study but could include professional reading, collegial conversations, involvement in shared interest clusters, openness to shadowing type activity for reflection and analytical purposes, interpersonal workshop opportunities or, indeed, any type of activity identified as being capable of enhancing the professionalism and performance of the principal. Effective principals lead the way and will often investigate new programs or initiatives prior to taking them to staff for discussion as to the possibility of introduction into the school. This is, in essence, professional learning at its best.
The delicate balancing act around professional development is definitely about meeting personal, school and systemic requirements while still attending to the day-to-day rigours and unpredictability of school life. We would all love to devote regular designated time each week to professional development but the truth is that the experience gained each day is real learning. Is it enough though or do we need standards and profiles to identify, direct and evaluate growth? I believe these types of formalised, public statements are starting points but the next step would be to link a range of appropriate resources, activities, courses or experiences to them so the learning is targeted to effectively meet the needs of the individual and contribute to their professional and personal growth. Do systems provide this flexibility and scope and do they trust principals to be responsible for their own professional development or is it more a matter of checking up on our leaders? I suggest that, currently, the question may well be ‘is the professional development being offered really cutting the mustard’?
Maureen Shembrey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.