Tuesday 24 October 2017

Power of positive leadership on schools

Irish education is entering a new era with a flurry of initiatives aimed at supporting excellence in our school principals

Back to nature: Principal Siobhan Fitzgerald with Rachel and Katie Ward at Eglish NS, Ahascragh, Ballinasloe, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
Back to nature: Principal Siobhan Fitzgerald with Rachel and Katie Ward at Eglish NS, Ahascragh, Ballinasloe, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
National director of CSL: Mary Nihill
The book by Jacinta Kitt
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Principals have in their hands the power to make or break a school. It takes time and sustained effort to make a school, while it only takes a short time to break it. An inadequate leader can wreak havoc - interesting, if not surprising, insights from a timely new book by Jacinta Kitt, a well-known teacher educator and an expert in workplace relationships.

Discussions about education quality generally revolve around components such as class size, curriculum, classroom resources and teacher performance, but the lynchpin of a good school is a good leader.

The international think tank, the OECD, which keeps a close eye on global developments in education, says effective school leadership is a key determinant in school quality.

Jacinta Kitt's book, Positive Behaviours, Relationships and Emotions: The Heart of Leadership in a School, is a highy readable handbook about the power of positive leadership, and how to achieve it. It is timely because it coincides with the roll-out of a series of initiatives never before seen in Irish education to support established, new and aspiring principals in taking on what is an onerous, and increasingly complex, responsibility.

The initiatives are an overdue recognition by the Department of Education of the importance of school leadership, not least in a country with the ambition to have the best education system in Europe within a decade.

In Ireland, principals oversee the education of about 900,000 pupils every day.

Rising to the multi-faceted challenges of the job, from overseeing quality teaching, to dealing with modern-day threats such as cyberbullying, to managing staff relations and relationships with hundreds of parents, requires a unique skillset.

Harold Hislop, the Department's chief inspector, says really effective school leaders keep a focus on leading learning and teaching.

"When we see this in action during our inspections, we inevitably see principals who have created a culture in their schools where teachers collaborate as a team to regularly look at what they are doing and examine how well children are learning," he says.

"The principal and teachers will have high expectations for their pupils and they will be looking out for ways to improve learning and teaching. These sort of principals know their teachers very well and how they work.

"There will be a strong sense of trust among the whole staff, and they will be energised to implement new ideas. Leading the school staff in forging meaningful relationships with parents is also a crucial skill."

About 18 months ago, the Centre for School Leadership (CSL) was established. It is a joint initiative of the Department and the two professional representative bodies for school principals in Ireland, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) and the Irish Primary Principals' Network, both of which had been crying out for it for years. Last year, the CSL set up a formal mentoring programme for new principals, and this month saw the launch of a coaching service for established principals. A few weeks ago, the Department announced a Post Graduate Diploma in School Leadership course for aspiring principals, starting next September.

Mary Nihill, the national director of the CSL is on secondment from her job as principal of Calasanctius College, Oranmore, Co Galway. She is a former president of the NAPD and has a track record in professional developlment in leadership.

The deputy directors are primary principal Anna Mai Rooney, who has a Masters in Educational Management and has been a part-time facilitator with the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), and Máire Ni Bhróithe, founding principal of Ratoath College, Co Meath, and the education and leadership officer of Louth Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB).

While there has been some support available for principals before, the scale and structure of what is on offer now is at a whole new level.

Nihill says the new leadership development services mirror what is common practice in private sector organisations and other parts of the public service.

She says, by June, they will have 400 voluntary mentors in place, all established school principals - in the job for at least five years - who will be matched with a new appointee to provide advice and support. Jacinta Kitt will be doing workshops for mentors.

There are usually about 250 new principals every year, across primary and post-primary, and, according to Nihill, "next September, every one of them will have their own mentor".

While the mentoring programme is being provided from within the profession, the new coaching service for established principals is drawing on outside experts.

It will be the first time that Irish principals will experience executive coaching - in confidential, one-to-one sessions which, if principals were paying for them themselves, would cost about €180-€200 an hour, says Nihill.

She admits that some people have been sceptical, concerned that it would be perceived as a support for principals facing difficulties.

She says they worked hard to create a model that would be seen in a positive light and would be universally embraced.

"This is not Carecall," she says, a reference to the 24/7, dial-up counselling service for teachers.

"It is a big investment in teachers and principals as professionals. It is going to be a bit of a slow burner, but, having said that, we have had an amazing reaction."

Starting in September, coaching places will be available for 400 principals, for up to a total of 11.5 hours each, spread over seven sessions in a year.

The 40 coaches, who had to meet the highest professional standards, will meet a principal for a "chemistry check" to ensure they are a good match, before any sessions start.

Nihill says it is about unlocking potential and helping principals to achieve their goals. It will provide space and time to reflect, with the guidance of a coach, and for those who may be experiencing a dip in enthusiasm after a number of years in the job, an opporuntiy to rekindle their fire.

Leading by example

As a learning support teacher, Siobhán Fitzgerald observed differences  between the five schoools on her schedule, and knew what she liked. "I could see very quickly from the minute I went in, each school had a unique atmosphere. It was the simple things that stood out - how the students greeted you, how they spoke to teachers, whether their work was displayed on the walls."

It wasn't only experience as a learning support teacher that she brought to the job of principal of Eglish NS, Ahascragh, Co Galway. She has taught in Japan and Saudi Arabia, and spent three years in special education. Along the way, she picked up a Masters in education and a Post Graduate Diploma in education leadership.

Her 41-pupil school, which includes a high proportion of Traveller children, is a recognised beacon for teaching and learning, participating in initiatives such as Ashoka Changemaker Schools programme, which supports and connects innovative schools around the world. Fitzgerald says all her staff have additional qualifications in special education and take every opportunity to avail of continuing professional development (CPD). "We don't wait for the Department to give us what we think will benefit our students; our staff are great for pulling together to create it for ourselves."

She was presented with the Irish Primary Principals' Network leadership award 2017 last month, and a few days later headed to Finland with six pupils for the latest in a series of cultural and educational trips under the EU Erasmus Plus student exchange programme.

Irish Independent

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