Principal exchange turns leaders into learners

Issue: Volume 98, Number 21

Posted: 6 December 2019
Reference #: 1HA3fR

Principals from New Zealand and South Australia are reaping the benefits from a principal exchange programme.

There are not many opportunities like this for experienced principals,” says Paul Armitage, Elmwood Normal School principal.

That opportunity is the South Australia New Zealand Principal Exchange, which enables two school principals to switch places over a term. 

Paul spent four weeks at Willsden Primary School in Port Augusta, South Australia, shadowing principal Linda Ritchie before Linda’s four weeks shadowing Paul in Christchurch.

“It’s challenging, but as leaders we should demonstrate how to step outside our comfort zones and practise what we’re telling our tamariki.”

Paul’s colleagues said the exchange was the best professional learning opportunity they’d had, so after two decades of principalship and professional learning, he decided to apply.

Linda, in her third year, sees herself as “an early years principal” having previously worked 13 years in an Aboriginal school, eight of these years in leadership.

“Whether you’re a new principal or not, we should always be learning and finding out new things. Ultimately, that’s how you get effective outcomes for students.”

Focus on similarities, not differences

Paul and Linda welcomed the loose nature of the shadowing programme.

“Because our education systems are different, the first few days were about understanding how everything works. After that, we wanted to get into classes with children and teachers,” says Paul.

Together, they agreed to leave the home principal to work in the mornings (“because you’ve still got a school to run!”) while the visiting principal explored the school. They then used the afternoon to have professional dialogue and ask questions about their work – but plans sometimes changed.

“Because it’s only four weeks, you need to be flexible,” says Linda. “I felt like I needed to know all the children but Paul’s school has 520 students compared to my roll of 150. Eventually I had to admit it’s not possible in four weeks and that’s okay.”

Size was one of many differences, including different approaches to curriculum, teacher training and reporting. Paul and Linda tried to focus on similarities instead.

“We didn’t want to debate things that are out of our control. Our role is to be the best leaders in our schools and improve outcomes for kids. The systems are different but as principals we’re not so different,” says Linda.

Paul agrees, and says what ultimately unites them is their vision for their schools.

“Linda and I narrowed it down to one question: what do you want your children to have as they leave your school on their last day? Those things are the same: for our children to be numerate and literate, to stand tall, be resilient and be able to face challenges in the world,” says Paul.

Connecting with the school community

Shadowing one another was a full-time job and demonstrated the responsibilities they have in their wider school communities. 

Paul took Linda around Christchurch to see schools going through rebuilds and to learn about the impact earthquakes have had on families and children. She also attended a Normal School Conference to see what other New Zealand schools are doing. 

“When you come to a school you become part of a community,” says Linda. 

“I have been so well looked after and made new friends. I’m already planning to come back to see everyone.”

In Port Augusta, Linda chairs a ‘partnership’ (similar to New Zealand’s kāhui ako) and invited Paul to a meeting to see how the school principals work together. As sport plays an important part in her community, Linda also sent him to an Aussie Rules game.

On Paul’s first day, he was invited to Willsden School’s fire pit for a traditional Aboriginal meal of kangaroo tail and was entertained by a group of local Aboriginal dancers.

“I felt very lucky to experience that. The warmth from Linda’s community made me feel so welcome. Parents would go out of their way to meet me, shake my hand and tell me about themselves. I felt privileged they would want to do that.”

Linda says those new experiences offer some of the biggest learning opportunities.

“If you stay in the same place you risk just doing the same thing, but seeing Paul’s school made me realise I could try new approaches such as the focus on student voice, the way students are involved in their learning and the responsiveness to culture.”

Culturally responsive schools

New Zealand’s cultural responsiveness left a lasting impression on Linda, who wants to incorporate it when she returns to
Port Augusta. 

She was welcomed to Elmwood with a pōwhiri, visited a marae with Paul’s staff and even prepared a mihi. 

“It’s been an amazing experience and has left me breathless every time. I felt so special to be a part of it,” says Linda.

Cultural identity was also important for Paul across the ditch.

“I used my reo in Port Augusta but it was a bit unusual for the students. At my first assembly I greeted the school in Māori when I heard some boys whisper ‘what’s he saying? Doesn’t he know English?’”

Having worked extensively with Aboriginal children, Linda brought some Aboriginal books to read to the Kiwi kids at Elmwood.

“In Australia, there are many Aboriginal language groups so our challenge is responding in a way that means something to all children. Coming here has made me reflect on how we can do that better and it will start with me in my school. When I get back, I’m going to work with my Aboriginal education team to build greater community connections and make them visible in my school for all children,” says Linda.

“In New Zealand schools, I’d hear staff speaking Māori with children, it was an embedded practice done from the heart. I thought ‘this feels great’ and that’s the feeling I want to have in my school every day.” 

Learning for staff and students

Paul’s focus now is to reflect on his leadership practices and revisit some past work he wants to bring to the fore.

“In principalship, you’re often racing on to the next thing but it’s important to pause and take stock,” says Paul.

“Sometimes we can be blinkered as to what we think is happening in our schools, so it’s great to have someone come in who sees things a different way. It’s invaluable.”

Linda says that reflection couldn’t have happened without relational trust.

“We were pretty open and honest straight away. I always felt comfortable telling him when I didn’t understand because there’s no point wondering if it’s okay to ask certain questions,” says Linda.

“While we have different years of experience, we both agreed to be vulnerable. You can’t just say ‘this is my leadership style, this is what I hang my hat on.’ You need to be able to question your practice.”

The experience is something they want to see more principals do – for the benefit of other teachers too.

“It’s been one of the most enriching, rewarding professional opportunities for me but it also allowed my staff to step into different leadership roles while I was away,” says Paul.

Linda and Paul have begun to report back to their boards, teachers, students and PTAs about their experiences and learnings.

“That’s what principalship is about – planting seeds and watching them grow, for teachers, for the school community and for each other. The more learning we do, the more we can plant those seeds in others.” says Linda.

Five key takeaways from Paul and Linda

  • Don’t get too bogged down by differences. Instead, focus on identifying new leadership approaches/opportunities.
  • It can be just as valuable for leaders to revisit past work and bring it to the fore rather than always trying to reinvent the wheel.
  • It’s important to connect with parents, whānau and the wider school community as it helps leaders understand the context students live and learn in.
  • Cultural responsiveness starts from the top down; principals can introduce small activities to educate themselves and their teachers such as visiting a marae, preparing a mihi or practising pronunciation.
  • Be open-minded and willing to question your practice – don’t rest on your laurels. Leaders should always be learning new things.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:35 am, 6 December 2019

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