The transitional principal

August 2013


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In her move to another school, one principal shares her experience of the transition period, discussing the challenges and benefits of having a foot in both schools at a time when boards of trustees are changing.


Wow, good on you, moving on to lead a second school. Makes me re-think whether I should move on”.

“Congratulations on your new appointment. Do you think I should apply for your old job?”

“Hey, I didn’t even know you were looking!”

These were some of the surprised remarks from staff at the school where I am currently principal, following the shocked silence when I announced my move to another school. Well, I had been preparing for this possibility for some time, but for others, I imagine the news came as quite a shock.

More surprising was the reaction from the community in which I was leaving. Some staff and families took my departure as a personal slight, and in fact, it took some staff several weeks to look me in the eye again.

A wise principal once said to me that a person’s integrity is reflected in their behaviour once they know that they are leaving. Having quoted this occasionally in the past, it was important for my professional integrity that I continued working as hard as previously and not slacking off in any shape or form. This was important as programmes, professional learning, and future planning needed to continue as ‘business as usual’ for the sake of the staff and students.

Of course, primary-aged children thought that I was leaving the next day (and possibly felt a bit cheated when I didn’t!). The senior students felt quite relaxed as they were sure that the acting principal seconded the previous year when I was on a principal’s sabbatical for a term would return, and he was much loved. A couple of students asked if I didn’t like them anymore. It’s interesting that even though we know that people change careers more often than previously and that in some industries movement is common, in a school setting, principal movement is perceived quite differently, even in an urban Auckland school.

In retrospect, none of the comments, or rather lack of comments, should have surprised me, as I hadn’t been looking to move. Also, most of the comments were not about me moving, they were more about the impact that my moving was going to have on them as individuals. To be fair, most of the teachers at my current school were employed by me over the last eight years.

In that period as a first-time principal of a U5 (now U6) school, like all first-time principals, many lessons have been learned. I’ve learned that one of the most important tasks in my role as principal is staff appointments. Before leaving during the term, I had to appoint an associate principal of the junior school, two Scale A appointments, and manage staff anxiety about my replacement. When all of those appointments were done and dusted, within a week I was asked by my new school whether I wanted to be involved in two Scale A appointments!

The timing of being appointed as principal to a school immediately before the triennial board of trustees made for interesting times. It left the board of my current school in a vulnerable situation as I tendered my resignation on the 7 April and negotiated to stay until the end of term 2 (28 July) to allow the board of trustees time to appoint to my position and hopefully not have a gap between principals. However, I didn’t factor in the timing of the board of trustees elections. I was also left in a potentially vulnerable situation as effectively a board of trustees had appointed me who, potentially in the short term, were no longer going to be the employing/employer board, and I hadn’t even started yet! More positively, a new principal and a new board working together is an exciting opportunity to grow and learn from each other and together for the betterment of a schooling community.

As Murphy ’s Law would have it, the board of the school from where I was leaving had galvanised into action to engage an educational consultant and moved quickly to ensure that there would be no gap between me leaving and the new principal starting. This was great in theory. However, as only five members (two existing, three new) re-stood and a board of trustees election was no longer required, the new board took office much sooner than if there had been a board election.

The result of this was that the whole new principal appointment schedule was thrown into disarray. Our first board meeting consisted of 30 minutes where all of the old board, the new board, and the educational consultant requested the new board to appoint a sub-committee to continue the principal’s appointment, which involved shortlisting that night. So much for my carefully planned new board induction session!

Of course, at my new school, 13 people stood for new board positions. I tried surreptitiously to attend the “meet the candidates” evening where each candidate had to stand and deliver a spiel to convince a discerning community to vote for them. Sitting in the ‘new school’s hall’ was a surreal feeling when 10 of the 13 had never set eyes on me before, and yet could effectively be my new employers. To make matters worse, the attendance was small, and I was promptly introduced to the community. For the remaining two hours, I felt that all eyes were on me, gauging my reaction to each candidate’s spiel. The presentations were superb, and one in particular was so carefully researched and sounded so similar to a beginning of the school year staff motivational speech that I asked for a copy!

My existing deputy principal, whom has been at my current school for 25 years and effectively does the day-to-day running of the school, kindly suggested when I got my new job that I should spend a morning a week there this term, supporting them, as the current leadership team are mostly in acting roles. This was a generous offer and one I would recommend to any ‘transitional principal.’ The acting principal at my new school (deputy principal) was most receptive to this offer. This allowed me to attend morning tea at the ‘new school’ regularly, allowing me to put faces to names and spend a few hours each week meeting with the leadership team, listening to their operational concerns and supporting them in their acting roles when asked. This varied from answering questions about staff leave issues and teaching them how to advertise jobs in the Education Gazette to sensitively critiquing their revised mid-year report.

By and large, the three leaders came up with an agenda for us to work through each week. I also attended board of trustees meetings (and tried to say very little) and signed up immediately for a school email address, so yes, I was reading two schools’ emails. This has proven to be invaluable in terms of getting to know people, the school, and their systems. I feel like a have a foot in both schools and have had to be a bit more discerning with my time, as of course, there are unanticipated commitments from the new school, such as board of trustees’ training and staff appointments.

I am hoping that my first official week at my new school will have a different feel from when I started as principal eight years ago because I have been in a privileged position to access email and spend regular time in my new school beginning to build relational trust with staff prior to my official start date.

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