Support for first timers

August 2013


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JACQUI PATUAWA recounts her difficult and lonely experience of transitioning to the role of principal in the late nineties and reflects how far things have come since then, with programmes like the First-Time Principals’ Programme proving invaluable for new principals.


I began my principalship in term four 1998 in a reasonably isolated area and a distance from where I had done most of my teaching, and thus, my professional networks. At that time, there was limited support transitioning into the role of principal. My only support was the principal who had assisted the board of trustees with my appointment (who also became my appraiser) and the principal I had worked with immediately prior to my appointment.

Term four is a busy time in a school. Principals focus on bringing one year to an end and beginning to plan for the following year. For a new principal who had only ever been a deputy principal, setting budgets, drafting annual plans, and finalising staffing through management of the direct resourcing of teacher salaries was like learning a foreign language. Trying to achieve all of this at the same time as building relationships with staff, students, and community was no small ask. I had an inherent fear that asking for help would be seen as incompetence and therefore was reluctant to do this. I struggled on ‘alone’.

International literature highlights the critical importance of professional support for new principals and particularly at the induction stage. Griffith and Tarraban (2002) explain: The preparation of classroom teachers to be principals is, at any time, a complex teaching process to reframe individual horizons of professional interest and knowledge. The immediacy of classroom teaching and learning that forms the lived experiences of teachers must be brought into the context of relationships and responsibilities that extend throughout the school, its communities and the bureaucratic relations linking the school to the education system. The principal must mediate these complex relationships. Indeed complexity is one of the most distinguishing features of principalship.

At the beginning of 1999, I was able to join a series of three one-day workshops called ‘Introduction to Principalship’ offered by the local Leadership and Management advisers. Whilst the course content gave me a good overview of the principal’s roles and responsibilities, it was the opportunity to meet and connect with some key people who were consequently influential in supporting me in my development that was the real benefit. I was also extremely fortunate to have a past colleague move into the area and we were able to establish an effective critical friend/mentoring relationship. I am pleased to say that I survived the “sink or swim” period despite having to face some very steep learning curves.

Thankfully the reality for those appointed to their first principalship is very different now. In 2002, the First-time Principals’ Programme (FTPP) was launched. The programme is a partnership between the Ministry of Education and the University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership. With an average cohort of around 180 principals, there have been approximately 2160 principals through the programme over its 12 years of existence.

The national induction programme is designed to develop the professional skills and capabilities of new school leaders to work effectively in their unique contexts alongside their colleagues and communities to further improve teaching and learning in New Zealand’s’ schools. There is recognition at the highest level of the importance of school leadership. Bush and Glover (2004) contend, “whatever else is disputed about this complex area of activity, the centrality of leadership in the achievement of school effectiveness and school improvement remains unequivocal”.

Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson, the Academic Director of the FTPP, stresses this recognition is strengthened by the recent research evidence about the impact of various types of leadership practice on student outcomes. Robinson requests leaders note the emphasis on the impact of leadership practice, not the impact of leadership on student outcomes. The difference is important because the average impact of leadership per-se is not much; it is what leaders choose to do that determines the level of impact. The FTPP mantra has been derived from this research: “the more leaders focus their relationships, their work ,and their learning on the core business of teaching and learning the greater their influence will be on student outcomes”. The FTPP curriculum aims to build competency across the six dimensions and three capabilities identified in the BES: Leadership.

The national induction programme is delivered over 18 months and has four components, a residential programme, a mentoring programme, an e-learning focus and an integrated evaluation/research strand.


Residential Courses

The residential programme is a vital dimension in the FTPP. Held twice a year and over three days, they have been designed to provide new leaders with access to a fertile mix of leading educational theory by world-recognised researchers, and to high quality practice by leaders across the range of sector groups and educational organisations throughout 

New Zealand. This creates a unique opportunity for new principals to develop a profound and systemic understanding of New Zealand education and to develop powerful networks of professional interest and support. It also provides an uninterrupted learning space in otherwise busy schedules to have current leadership practice both affirmed and challenged.

The curriculum for the residential programme aims to directly meet the global needs of the cohort as gleaned from the initial evaluation data received from the principals. Residential activities include keynote addresses and a mixture of smaller workshops and case study presentations. Increasingly the themes coming through as areas our leaders would like to focus on are improving teaching and learning; building relational trust; and leading diverse schools, with a focus on the priority learners.



Each FTP is assigned a mentor who is, or has recently been, an experienced and high performing principal. The mentoring relationship is individual and needs-based. Guidance is delivered through face-to-face, email, Skype, and other digital technologies.

The mentoring programme is based on the following learning activities:

  • Building relational trust (trusting relationships underpin school improvement; open-to-learning conversations)
  • Capacity assessment/environmental scan (helping principals to understand themselves as educational leaders and the context they are working in, as well as problem identification)
  • Goal-setting and action planning (developing a professional learning plan and designing a specific path that will lead to the achievement of the goal).
  • Ongoing monitoring, feedback, and support (measure progress over time, address challenges that emerge, providing encouragement and support and assisting the principal to achieve their goals.)

Mentors are inducted and participate in ongoing professional learning and discussion with The University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership. They are included in curriculum design and resourcing. Mentors see huge reciprocal benefits in being involved with the programme both for their personal growth and for the leadership of their schools.



Learning is how we prefer to display e-learning in the FTPP. This serves to emphasise to leaders that digital skills and tools are integral to all learning.

Communication and collaboration tools play a key role in mentoring and residential courses. FTP is expected to engage with Twitter, Skype and/or Facebook, Google applications, and other web-based tools. The FTP website, is a repository for access to a wide range of multimedia resources including PowerPoint documents, 10 minute video highlights, modules, and smart tools designed to build professional capacity.


Evaluation and Research

The FTPP project ream is committed to the continuous improvement of the programme. All phases of the programme are evaluated and any recommendations coming from the participants carefully considered and acted on where possible and appropriate.

Research is another vital component and a number of publications have resulted from the programme.

This article began with my story – my experience of beginning in principalship at a time where support was limited. It was a confusing and very lonely time. In 2004, I applied and was accepted as a mentor in the FTPP programme. My motivation in applying was to ensure others had a more supported transition than I had experienced. As the current director, I am passionate about ensuring people beginning in principalship receive the required support and that we grow leaders who will focus on our students, ensuring they have every opportunity to succeed.

John Hattie’s research states it is teachers that make the biggest difference. Research further suggests it is effective leadership that enables and empowers teachers to make that difference. Bryk et al state “School leadership functions as a catalyst for change in nurturing, guiding and coordinating efforts to improve.”

The First-time Principals’ Programme is essential to the induction and support of those new to principalship. Such leadership development cannot be left to chance. If we want system lift, effective leadership and consequently targeted professional learning for leaders is at the heart of this.  n


Jacqui Patuawa is director of First-time Principals Programme at The University of Auckland Centre for educational Leadership. For full reference list, please contact


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