Principal Q&A

April 2015


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Education Review asks SANDRA JENKINS, principal of Freemans Bay School in Auckland, about her journey to becoming a school principal, the highs and lows of the job, and what she’s learned along the way.

Did you aspire to be a principal at the start of your teaching career?

Jenkins: It did not occur to me to become a principal until I was well into my teaching career. I had worked as a teacher and was promoted to senior teacher at Clendon Park School in my fourth year of teaching. I was seconded to the Department of Education and worked as an advisor in schools the next year. I was encouraged and inspired by colleagues to reflect about the direction I would like to take in my career.

My first principal position was in a country school called Ruakituri in Hawke’s Bay. Being a principal in a small, rural school was a great way to start my career as a principal. I gained promotions in bigger country schools, including Kohukohu and Mangonui in the Far North.


I was encouraged by a colleague to start on post-grad educational leadership papers, which helped me to understand the wider role of being an education leader and building school cultures that support learning across the school community. The exposure to educational leaders’ thinking, such as Fullan, Senge and Hargreaves, inspired me to think more deeply about education culture and change management and bring some of these ideas to what we do in our schools.

What are the most rewarding aspects of being a principal?

Jenkins: The opportunities to build highperforming teams of school leaders and transforming learning communities can be inspirational. Leading, adapting and constantly moving forward in times of complex change is both challenging and rewarding. Solving complex problems with our values and beliefs about education informing decisions in a collaborative community is exciting and causes passionate debates with our teams. The opportunities to be innovative and entrepreneurial, to bring the best resources and experiences available for our
schools, are challenges I find good fun!

And the most challenging or frustrating aspects?

Jenkins: Probably managing work-life balance and balance in the job. As a school leader I need to be a better role model to others around the hours that I work and making good choices around work-life balance. It is difficult when you love the job and enjoy it with a passion to be sensible about such things.

Do you have a good support network with other principals?

Jenkins: I think it is absolutely essential to have a strong network for reciprocal support. My own support network includes our local Auckland Inner City Principal Cluster – which is a fabulous collaborative group. The professional relationship with my BOT chair is also pivotal and helps to keep me grounded in keeping the aspirations of our school community a priority.

Professional organisations such as NZEI, APPA, NZEALS, NZPF and STA have all been supportive and have influenced directions in my career. With Twitter, blogs, PLCs and the opportunity to attend events nationally and internationally, I have been able to be motivated and inspired by a wide range of fantastic leaders.

Do you miss being in the classroom?

Jenkins: Balancing the administration of the role and time in classrooms with teachers and learners is very frustrating. I love the time I do get to spend with learners, participating in classrooms and wider curriculum events. I would like to make more time to do so.

How important is your own professional development and that of your staff?

Jenkins: I believe it is important for me, as principal, to lead learning as a lead learner. It is a priority to collaboratively develop communities of learners so that school communities all have their schools’ learning values at the heart of their decisions. I completed my MEd (1st class) five years ago and encourage teachers to participate in post-grad learning as part of their professional learning. I also consider that professional learning communities centred in inquiry around learning that is personalised and future-focused will bring innovation and rigour to our teaching and learning practice.

What do you count as your biggest achievements as principal?

Jenkins: Principal achievement is a team effort at all levels. A highlight of my career was being a recipient of the APPA/ASB Travel Fellowship last year. Over 10 weeks I visited 26 schools in six countries, exploring modern learning environments and purposeful design for learning.

And what is still a ‘work in progress’?

Jenkins: In 2010, at Freemans Bay School we demolished a large, subsiding classroom block and built new learning hubs in a two-storey building. This building design was scoped to develop flexible spaces to enable teachers to teach and students to learn in a variety of ways. The remaining school buildings have since been identified as either leaky or past their use-by date.

We are now in the Ministry of Education’s new schools building project. The challenge of totally rebuilding Freemans Bay School sparked my interest in thinking more deeply about how spaces are designed and used to engage learners. Visits to schools, universities, libraries and co-corporate organisations continue to play a significant role in shaping thinking around design and pedagogy and the transition from traditional classrooms to purposeful spaces with a focus on more personalised learning in open learning zones.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Jenkins: I would like to think that those who work with me consider my leadership style empowering and motivating. I like to challenge teachers to be innovative and to take on new opportunities to develop their passion to make a difference to learners.

What advice would you give to an aspiring principal?

Jenkins: Start on post-grad Educational Leadership papers and complete your MEd thesis on an area of leadership that inspires you. Take on other opportunities, such as the National Aspiring Principals Programme. Join local professional learning communities and networks. Talk to your principal, who will coach and mentor you on your journey towards your first principal appointment. Determine your transition plan to achieve your goal and start on it immediately.

What is your greatest hope for New Zealand education?

Jenkins: I believe that The New Zealand Curriculum is one of the best curriculums in the world. The vision of the curriculum for “Young people to be confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners” is aspirational and powerful. This provides an opportunity for every school to realise their community’s vision for learners through a collaborative process.

I would hope for a greater national focus on supporting teachers to develop high levels of personalising learning and what that looks like in actual practice. I would hope for more support to teachers to strengthen personalising learning experiences to give greater traction to shifting from teacher-led education to learner-led education. 

This way our learners would be empowered through a personalised curriculum centred in deep challenge, creativity and inquiry.

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