Insights from a school leader #2 - JPP







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Today we learn from the wonderful principal @journeyofaprimaryprincipal once again. Many weeks ago she agreed to write this blog post and her insights into educational leadership are as refreshing as ever. In this post, she speaks about the growth of her school, her background before principalship and growing a tight-knit school community and what that takes. Here are her thoughts.

Leadership and school growth

I am the administrative principal of a multidenominational school that has seen rapid growth since its founding, and also, the challenges and rewards that this growth brings. As you can imagine, there are many different aspects to my job as a school leader, and I have the responsibility to lead our school and staff in a direction that is of benefit to all. As the saying goes: ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’, and I see every day, how the strength and professionalism of teachers, goes above and beyond the role, to ensure that they give their best to their school.

Steps on the career ladder

I taught for 15 years in a large urban school and moved to a 2-teacher developing school for a bit of a challenge ( I left my permanent job for a temporary one – a big risk at the time but I am so glad now!). I thought that being deputy principal of a small developing school would be a great opportunity. I ended up being principal there after my first year. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end!

I moved to my school in 2016, and the school has grown rapidly since; there were only 3 children in 2015 to 260 children today). We are up to 4th class now.

A leader’s holidays

It never really stops; there is no switch-off time. I try to tell my teachers not to have email on their phone, but I haven’t managed to do that myself! You don’t really get much of a summer either, I do try to get away with my family, but I take the laptop with me to tackle issues if they arise. I tried leaving it at home a few times but it’s never worth the mess that awaits you when you get home.

Decision making

School leaders also have to make lots of decisions that you know won’t suit everyone, but you have to do what is best for the school. I thought that I would find this more difficult as we are quite close as a staff, but I quickly found that there is no way to please everyone. I filter everything through the lens of ‘What is right for the school?’, and after that, I can deal with any fall-out. However, our staff is exceptional and really get behind everything.

Being a leader can be lonely; our staff are just amazing at supporting each other, but I know that principalship can seem like a lonely place, especially when it comes to child protection issues, and at interview times. We have taken on lots of teachers every year, and it is so interesting and exciting to see what each new staff member brings to the team. It is also lovely to watch teachers grow and flourish as they progress.

The job application process

As administrative principal, I oversee the selection process and it can be a big issue when applicants have not read the application correctly. As a multidenominational school, it is important that applicants show me that they know what that means, and why they would like to teach in a multidenominational school. Really, once I see kindness, a genuine interest in children and a good knowledge of curriculum/ teaching strategies, I am happy. A good interviewee is sure of what their strengths are, what areas they would like to work on, isn’t afraid of sharing a piece of themselves, and engages meaningfully with the questions. Sometimes, a candidate just cannot meet the criteria - they may be absolutely amazing but just might not be the best fit for the school at that time.

Teachers are amazing! As an admin principal, I am always aware that although my days never end, if I have a tough meeting with a parent, I can take a few minutes to compose myself and get a cuppa if I need to. Teachers do not have this luxury, the show must go on. The work ethic among the teaching community is just amazing. I think that teachers just want the best for their children and are always striving to create situations to promote the best learning environments in their classrooms.

A genuine interest in teaching and learning is of utmost importance, and it gets harder to keep a hold of that once you move into admin principalship. I try to slot into station teaching, and I read to the Junior infant classes whenever I can. I really do miss having a class of my own.

These are a few factors that must be considered if you are considering going for a leadership role in your school.

  • Resilience – you must be able to keep your head and weather whatever storms come your way.

  • You need to like people! As the head of a school, one of your primary roles is dealing with people.

  • An ability to see the bigger picture – a leader must be able to take a subjective view of a situation and do what is right for the school and all concerned.

  • Communication is, without a doubt, the most important part of being a leader. You must be able to communicate your viewpoint and your decisions clearly.

  • Willingness to show vulnerability and being open to learning is very important - quite often, my best learning moments come from watching much younger teachers in action.

Teacher wellbeing

The wellbeing of teachers is high on the list of priorities for me as a leader - after a long haul of online teaching, I do feel that our teachers are tired, and possibly a bit down. With restrictions with staff rooms etc., it is hard to think of ideas to raise spirits. We are all in this together and it is important to keep spirits up among the staff. The demands on teachers are great enough and there are extra pressures on teachers in a developing school as we never have enough staff to reach all of the children who need support - especially in a developing school where SEN allocation is so low.

To lead by example and in order to avoid burnout, I try to plan my week in advance, and I usually try to do 3 long days and 2 shorter days. On my shorter days, I try to leave regardless of what is on my desk. It’s taken a bit of time to get used to this, but I have learned that my desk is never clear!

Team and community development

Maintaining that tight sense of community that comes with being a small developing school, can pose challenges for a leader and for the staff alike. We grew from 3 students to 260 in just 4 years, so as you can imagine, the team has grown really quickly also. This has all been very exciting, but lots of work as well! I think that a good leader is not afraid to get her hands dirty, can show that they are willing to work hard doing whatever job needs to be done. If you expect the staff of a school to get stuck in, then being seen to be working hard is vital also. If you expect your staff to be inclusive, kind and considerate, then you must lead by example.

Overcoming challenges

My journey from teacher to admin principal was not without its issues. I guess I struggled with the idea of becoming principal when the opportunity arose. For me, a principal was a certain type of person, and that person was not me! I couldn’t imagine there being a degree of separation between the staff and I, or having difficult conversations with parents. The problem was that my vision of a principal was conflicting with my vision of myself. I now realise that a principal does not have to fit any stereotype; I have learned how to handle difficult conversations with parents and there is always a degree of separation with staff who may be interviewing for fixed-term or AP2, but that does not mean that you can’t chat about Love Island or have a few drinks with your staff. You can chat about normal things and still be the person sending the reminder email about the Cúntas. When people say to me that they could never do what I do, I try to set them straight. There is no magic to being in a leadership role. It’s about working hard and putting your own stamp on the role. I have made so many mistakes along the way, but I am not afraid to pick myself up, learn from it and carry on. As I said before, the importance of not being afraid to be vulnerable cannot be overstated. If a leader can admit that they made a mistake, or that they do not know how to proceed and may need help, it only strengthens their bond with their staff.

Covid 19 and changing the way we work

Every member of the school staff is important and I really do have the utmost respect for our staff members and the work that they do every day to ensure that our young people get the learning experience that they deserve.  Teaching can be a very challenging job and especially in these strange times, with all the changes that have been forced on us by a global pandemic. As a leader, I am glad to have such great people behind me, working with me to make our school as great a school as it can be, for all.

Many thanks to @journeyofaprimaryprincipal for taking the time to write this blog. She has been so helpful to me personally and I am very grateful to have such a kind and helpful network who will share their thoughts with us here on Instagram and my blog. Mise le meas.  

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