The Retired Principal: Leadership Lessons

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The Retired Principal: Leadership Lessons by Mrs. Catherine Malcolm



I would imagine that very few persons who aspire to be a school leader would not be aiming to be successful. Principals, sometimes do not share experiences and insights with each other so as to facilitate shared learning experiences. This article has been written through a reflective lens to identify and highlight experiences gained in my years of experience in School leadership. As such, my focus is to highlight important lessons learnt in being an effective School leader. My role as an assessor with the NCEL programme  also provides me with in-depth knowledge of the programme and the opportunity to consider connections between my own past experiences and aspects of the NCEL training programme. 

In my opinion, the NCEL training brings into focus important aspects of the principal’s roles and responsibilities. The training encourages principals to identify problems in the school and by treating each as a project, through collaboration and inclusion of the relevant stakeholders, devise strategies that will result in positive outcomes. The expectations plainly indicate three crucial areas for the principal’s focus - through shared leadership, maximize student performance; facilitate teacher growth and improve school culture. There are many articles with various listings of the characteristics that successful principals must possess but there is no perfect mix of behaviours to determine success as it largely depends on the situation at hand. While it is rare (if not impossible) for a principal to excel at all the suggested characteristics, there are some crucial behaviours that principals should aim to embody or develop as effective leaders. A principal must be prepared to learn and grow.

Initiation to Principalship

My lessons began when I was recruited from my position as Vice Principal of a large urban primary school to assume the position of Principal at another, equally large school in close proximity. Even before I accepted the position, I took the opportunity to consult with two experienced principals to seek their advice in working with a new group of staff members who knew nothing about me, or I them. Some of the words and phrases they used helped to prepare me, and stayed with me throughout my tenure and beyond: shared vision, collaboration, inclusiveness and treating people with respect.  Of course, I decided very early to add important attributes of my own that needed to shine through such as ‘fairness’ and ‘integrity’. 

In an interview I was asked what I thought was the most important characteristic of a principal: after careful thought my answer was “integrity. (The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles) This may sound deceptively simple as integrity is seen as a ‘soft’ quality but, in my opinion, one's integrity greatly Influences one's behavioural pattern and in my experience, some of the most noble qualities can be undermined by lack of integrity. Needless to say, these qualities served me well as I continued to learn and grow.

When I started the job I recognized that some reactions I experienced, were not necessarily personal after all these people didn’t know me, it was up to me to teach them who I am. I realized that once you are sincere and authentic to who you are, once you meet people and they get to know you, things improve naturally.

Organizational Culture

I learnt that whether a Principal is new to the job, new to a school, or is an existing staff member, it is absolutely possible to reshape a culture and that improving the culture can move the school from a satisfactory status to good, or even excellent.  However, before reshaping, it is important to ‘audit the culture’ you inherit, such as, the organizational customs, interpersonal relationships among staff and levels of collaboration. Most significantly, it is essential to acknowledge identified strengths within the organization, respect the hard work and effort of those who came before you and give credit for what has been accomplished. This goes a far way in gaining respect and establishing credibility. It keeps you grounded and signals that it is not about you but for the improvement of school.  

Building Relationships

It is important for a Principal to value people. Schools are about maximizing student performance and teachers are very important to the process.  Seek to know teachers’ strengths, even the ones they have not identified for themselves and strategically make persons responsible for projects based on their strengths.  While putting this in practice, I noted that teachers, who previously hated mathematics not only, improved their teaching skills and gained confidence, but some became “presenters” at mathematics workshops. It is very important to constantly help teachers to improve not only their craft but their wellbeing. Principals have to be familiar with how teachers feel and how a teacher thinks. Furthermore, it is imperative that teachers feel that the Principal cares for them or ‘has their backs’. Regularly encourage teachers to upgrade themselves and continually facilitate their growth- even your best teacher can become better. To this end, I empowered teachers by regularly organizing retreats and training sessions to highlight new teaching strategies. I hired a coach to give exercise training to teachers and a chef to conduct sessions in gourmet cooking. I deliberately learnt alongside them and in the process, we all gained valuable life skills.

Team Building

Be on the cutting edge of research and help teachers to solve problems. Always seek to involve yourself with whatever the teachers are doing. That means you will always be learning new things. For example, when the school acquired a Smart Board and the hired trainer gave assignments, I was one of the first to complete them and print my certificate. It is not wise to ask teachers to do what you are not willing to do yourself; teachers quickly lose faith in principals who don’t seem to know what they are doing.

It is important that a Principal develops the ability to motivate the team, while holding people accountable. One of the early lessons I learnt was the importance of being strategic in introducing new ideas and getting buy-in from the majority. I would first sell the idea to the key people who usually willingly give their support so that by being prepared, they would help introduce and defend the plans to the others. When planning a project give everyone a voice, get their perspective and be ready to adapt. Always acknowledge the concern of the detractors but do not allow them to sabotage or ‘hijack’ the process. Plan carefully how to channel their energy in a positive way. Develop clear rules for accountability and effectively monitor performance. Good principals don’t necessarily make good decisions all the time but they listen and collaborate. Solicit points of view; give credit for new ideas but be decisive.

School improvement is continuous so constantly plan new projects to help the school change and grow. I planned a number of activities to bring school and community together, to name a few; Family Math Night, Family Reading Night and Math Fair. 

Final Reminders

Develop skills and characteristics that engender confidence. Be a good listener and be confidential, whatever is told to you in confidence should not be shared. It shows that you care enough to be a confidant and the respect you gain will be invaluable. Develop your ability to manage conflict and be fair, if you are inconsistent in your handling of comparable situations, both students and teachers will make comparisons of how you manage the different cases and you will quickly lose your credibility.

Finally, it helps to develop rules and policies to guide your actions. The implementation of rules and policies will provide visible guidelines for decision-making and actions and provide a standard for relevant stakeholders. While there is no overarching set of practices, focusing on these essential behaviours will improve the chances of success.


Profile of Writer

Catherine Malcolm is an educator with over forty years of experience, primarily at the primary level. She has a Masters Degree in Human Resource Development and multiple certificates at both the undergraduate and graduate level in Education, as well as exposure in the areas of Arts & General Studies. During her sojourn in the field of education, Mrs. Malcolm rose to the rank of School Principal, with particular experience as a Math Resource teacher/trainer. In 2009 she was selected as the Top Principal of Region One- Lasco Principal of the Year competition and subsequent to retirement has served as trainer/lead inspector and Assessor with the National Education Inspectorate (NEI) and the National College for Educational Leadership (NCEL) respectively. She is also a published author of a primary level Mathematics text for the Jamaican Math curriculum. Her service commitments have included commitments at the leadership level to the Optimist Club of Kingston, Church of the Transfiguration and the Central St. Andrew Principals’ Association.

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