Musings On Educational Leadership


A view across Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown – a great place to think and connect with Principals from around New Zealand

I’ve spent the first part of this week in the beautiful resort town of Queenstown attending the annual SPANZ conference for Secondary Principals of New Zealand. It’s always valuable listening to the presentations at an event like this, along with taking the opportunity to talk with Principals about what is top of mind for them in their schools and it seems like an accurate way to tap into the zeitgeist of education in the country.

A decade ago I quit my job in an IT company that was focused on the emerging Cloud hosting business and trained as a teacher of History and English – most of my peers thought I was crazy! I ended up as a Head of Department for Social Sciences before moving into a Director of ICT role in the Executive Leadership Team at a large K-12 Independent School. These experiences, coupled with regular chats with friends and former colleagues working in the education space (many of them sitting in senior leadership roles in both primary and secondary schools, most with aspirations to be Principals themselves one day) have informed my thoughts below.

Without wishing to be too contentious and with no desire whatsoever to be offensive, I thought I would share a few reflections on what I have observed and also make some suggestions for an alternative model for leadership roles.

The Typical Progression Into Leadership

As new teachers emerge from training colleges fresh, eager and at times overly idealistic, they are usually placed into a provisional registration program where they receive varying levels of mentoring and feedback to assist them in turning their theoretical knowledge into practical expertise in the classroom. If they have aspirations to move into senior roles and also increase their earnings, they’re generally confronted with a decision after a few years teaching about which pathway to proceed down:

  1. Pastoral Care – usually in a Deaning role of some sort and providing the link between the student, school and home (and often with external social support agencies as well)
  2. Head of Department – managing a team of teachers and overseeing everything from curriculum planning through assessment and moderation, to staff performance appraisals

leadershipIt is not surprising that the people with management skills (required or learnt in the second pathway above) tend to lead to quicker acceleration into Senior Leadership Teams (variously SLT or SLG). That experience, along with deep curriculum knowledge, normally marks out Heads of Department as future Assistant or Deputy Principals and, all progressing well, they go on to become Principals of their own schools one day.

Senior Leaders: Administrators or Visionaries?

It’s at this stage, when a successful teacher who has proven themselves a competent Head of Department or even an excellent Pastoral Care Leader and has graduated to a SLT role, that I see things becoming a little strange.

Often, the classroom excellence, teaching innovation and educational vision that they have demonstrated in their careers to this point gets stifled in their new roles of Assistant/Deputy Principals as they are loaded up with ownership of a multitude of what can best be described as ‘administrative’ tasks. What does this look like? In my experience and talking with aspiring Principals, often their duties include things like:

  • Co-ordinating the school photos
  • Managing the day relief teaching when teachers are sick/away
  • Timetabling of classes
  • Managing the various specialised programmes a school may choose to run e.g. enrolling of students into Duke of Edinburgh etc
  • Running discipline events such as after-school detentions
  • A variety of other non-educational tasks that certainly need to be completed but do not necessarily require deep educational expertise

too-busy-to-improveAll of these task are necessary and certainly they all need to be handled professionally for the smooth running of any school, however it seems to me that in assigning these roles to SLT members they are effectively turned into highly paid administrators. Most, if not all, of these tasks could be successfully managed by a competent administrator who understands processes and systems without requiring a deep understanding of education.

With the exception of perhaps the Principal, most SLT end up focusing very heavily (if not exclusively), on the smooth day to day running of the school. There is scarce time available for deep educational reflections, consistent strategical planning and review, or ongoing mentoring of staff.

What Does Your Work Week Look Like?

A wise Principal once offered the following advice when prioritizing strategy and planning versus the day to day fire-fighting of issues in my role at a school I worked at. They suggested breaking down my day/week into three categories:

  1. ‘Business as usual’ activities that need to be done.
  2. Reactionary activity to something unusual that has emerged unexpectedly
  3. Long term strategy and planning

For this leader, they split their time over the three categories above as follows:

  1. 20% – planning presentations to parents, assemblies, involvement at school activities etc.
  2. 10% – being involved in student discipline, community emergencies, staff issues etc.
  3. 70% – thinking and planning deeply for the future success of the school.

By contrast, they suggested that a typical teacher with a full teaching load was more likely to look like:

  1. 80% – the bulk of their day is teaching in the classroom, marking assessment and planning for upcoming lessons as well as co-curricular commitments.
  2. 10% – perhaps responding to a student incident, parent complaint or something else going wrong.
  3. 10% – re-thinking how they might teach units, introduce new units or assessments and professional development

I would hazard a guess that for many SLT (excluding Principals) their split might look something like:

  1. 60% – doing all of the administrative tasks listed above such as day relief, managing events like Assemblies, co-ordinating photos etc, teaching 1-2 classes.
  2. 25% – responding to things going wrong e.g. discipline issues with students, education outside the classroom trips having problems, staff departing/hiring etc
  3. 15% – vision and goal setting for the school.

vision-innovation-strategy-400x218The above numbers are, of course, going to vary from school to school and leader to leader but I suspect they are broadly accurate because of the ways schools are typically run. Reflecting on this, I have wondered if there is a better way to utilize the particular skills and motivations of educators. I know first hand that when you’re operating in a job outside of your gifting, interests and motivations then it is very quickly draining and stressful. This article from September 2017 led with the opening statement:

The principal of a top Taranaki school has resigned after 12 years in the role – and says other school leaders have congratulated him for getting out of an increasingly stressful profession.

Charles Gibson is one of five Taranaki principals and deputy principals leaving their posts this year.

Meanwhile, this article from EducationHQ in January 2017 stated:

Kiwi primary school principals and deputies are suffering high levels of stress and burnout because of heavy workloads and a lack of support, a survey has found.

I am not sure any young education graduate imagines the pinnacle of their career is going to look more like an administrative role or running a business than being an inspiring educational visionary.

A Bold Alternative For Educational Leaders:

So what is to be done? Unquestionably schools need to run smoothly and the ‘day to day’ business as usual jobs need to be efficiently taken care of. My thoughts, as intimated above, would be to:

  • As much as possible, offload the administrative tasks to those who do it best: trained and/or experienced administrators who are ‘process people’ that can adapt their existing knowledge and experience into an educational environment, without necessarily being educational experts.
  • Free up SLT members to focus exclusively on what they know and do best: educating future generations for the changing requirements of the 21st century workforce and mentoring existing teachers to be the most effective they can in the classroom.

If SLT were not spending hours a week on assigning relief lessons to temporary staff, running detentions for misbehaving students, or performing other administrative tasks, what might their role look like instead? Well, here’s a few thoughts:

  • Deep and meaningful mentoring and coaching of all teachers, not just those in the first couple of years of their professional careers.
    • How many teachers regularly have another, experienced educator observe their lessons and provide constructive feedback? Not many I would suggest. Better yet, perhaps some co-teaching could take place allowing a full time classroom teacher the benefit of observing and teaching alongside an expert educator.
    • Most businesses are increasingly trying to implement effective mentoring/coaching and it makes simple sense for education to follow suit, with the ‘best and brightest’ who have risen to SLT status to share their experience and insights
  • Spend frequent time thinking strategically and reflectively on the direction of the school, the approach to teaching and learning and how they’re implementing one of the most forward thinking and flexible curriculum in the world.
    • Find any statistic you like, invariably it will suggest that the majority of students in schooling today will be going into jobs that don’t exist or will look vastly different to what they do today. Therefore, it’s axiomatic that preparing students for that world is not easy. It requires thought, planning, strategy, agility, and a willingness to change direction as appropriate. I wrote about this in October 2017 when I reflected on the “Teachers of Tomorrow”

Knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies. But there is no central bank that prints this currency; we cannot inherit this currency, and we cannot produce it through speculation. We can only develop it through sustained effort and investment by people and for people. And no school system can achieve that without attracting, developing and sustaining great teaching talent. Andreas Schleicher (emphasis my own)

Another telling insight from Andreas Schleicher that I quoted in the blog post above reflects the unique and inherent challenges that education institutes have in trying to be agile and nimble:

Even the most effective attempts to push a government-established curriculum into classroom practice will drag out over a decade, because it just takes so much time to communicate the goals and methods through the different layers of the system and to build them into traditional methods of teacher education. In this age of accelerations, such a slow process is no longer good enough and inevitably leads to a widening gap between what students need to learn and what teachers teach. When fast gets really fast, being slow to adapt makes us really slow. (emphasis my own)

  • Engage and grapple meaningfully with the issues presented right here and now around things like digital assessment and equity of access to all learners.
    • Karen Poutasi

      Dr Karen Poutasi

      I listened to Dr Karen Poutasi (CEO at NZQA) at the SPANZ conference this week and she was talking about the accelerating rate of assessment and the use of Micro Credentials that are focused on providing “just in time” qualifications and relevant skills that employers are wanting. They are trialing this already in Otago – have a look at this link for more information.

    • The vision of NZQA is to build on the strengths of the current learner focus but to do so by using new tools and in doing this they will be ‘learning locally, leading globally’.

Final Thoughts:

There will be many naysayers who would look at my musings here and declare them out of touch or unrealistic, perhaps even uneconomical. However, a school could economically employ administrators at a ratio of 2:1 or even 3:1 in relation to their Senior Leadership Team. This would reduce the size of their Senior Leadership Teams but in doing so, increase their focus on educational transformation and doing what they love the most.

Significantly, the status quo may not be viable in the short to medium term. Not only is the average length of teaching service reducing (under 5 years from completing training as I understand it), there is an increased drop out rate of trainee teachers as well according to this article from May 2017

Poor pay, high stress, and better career options are being blamed for fewer people completing teacher training.

Figures released by the Ministry of Education show the total number of people training across the early childhood, primary and secondary education sectors fell from 4830 in 2014 to 4220 in 2015 – a drop of 610.

The number of students finishing initial teacher education had declined since 2012, while the number completing secondary teaching qualifications has steadily dropped since 2009.

There is a need to empower educators to do what they’re passionate about – educating and inspiring learners, whilst ensuring that their schools are agile and adaptive to the rapidly changing needs of the workforce of the future. Technology plays a significant role in this, however teachers and senior leaders are the key to effective education. Removing the administrative workload to allow them to be visionaries and forward thinking is the key to enabling our education to continue to be world leading.


  1. Sophie March 25, 2018
  2. Barend Blom March 30, 2018
    • Sam McNeill March 30, 2018
  3. learningideasnz April 2, 2018

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