LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 2 | 2024

The woman making frame round the sun with her hands in sunrise,Future planning idea concept.

Leaders in action: voices from the NZEALS Council

Navigating the Tsunami: An Optimistic Call to Educational Leadership

Article by Lisa Dillon-Roberts, Karyn Gray, Shelley McKay, Belinda Morgan, Samantha Mortimer, Sylvia Robertson, Lysandra Stuart, Pip Wells   

As experienced leaders in New Zealand schools, we stand at a crucial juncture in the midst of a tsunami of educational and social change. This is a moment not just of challenge, but of immense opportunity. It's a time for us to reflect, review, and revitalise our approach to education, ensuring that we prioritise what truly matters for our students, staff, and families.

Our message, forged from years of dedication and experience, is clear: Be brave, be bold, and be purposeful. The waves of change may seem daunting, but they offer us a unique chance to trim the fat and strengthen those learning environments and infrastructures that we know add value, have a purpose, and make a difference.

Wooden blocks form the words 'What's your purpose?' on blur background.

Our role is a privilege. We have the ability to shape the minds and futures of our teachers and learners. We have the ability to influence our future leaders of society. Each decision, each word, and each moment of encouragement has an impact. We need to be relentless in our drive to ensure our learners get the very best educational deal everyday. We must not forget the privileged influence we have as leaders in a school.

In times of change we need to uphold our vision of every child flourishing - be relentlessly optimistic, strength based, and solutions focussed, so we are not buffeted from our pathway by ongoing events, opinions or political influence.

One of our key tasks when things become challenging is to remind our teams why they are in this job, and to find the gems of joy and laughter to carry us through.

Leaders must be brave and ensure they are accurately informed when speaking out. It is important that leaders individually and collectively, think for themselves. We are the experts on our communities’ aspirations. Too often we are witnessing leaders forgetting to think for themselves and quoting others thinking.

In an environment where the pace of change is upon us, we must challenge ourselves to slow it down and to coin a phrase ‘stick to our knitting’. It is important to inform ourselves, equip ourselves and challenge ourselves, but not for challenge’s sake. Brave leaders outlast political initiatives and for very good reason.

As leaders in education, we often find ourselves having to bravely navigate others through periods of constant change and disruption. Staying focussed on what matters most for our tamariki and providing stability for our teams and whānau is a large part of being an effective leader. I believe the ultimate success of a leader will always come down to the relationship they have with their team, and the team's trust in their leader. Connected, consistent and collaborative leaders will advocate for the success and growth of all, while encouraging new leaders to emerge. Our goal as a leader is to ensure our team is the waka with us and rowing in the same direction, admiring the beauty of what we can collectively achieve, even when the waves come to throw us off course.

Knowing your purpose, your why and the purpose or why of the group or institution you are leading is paramount for clear leadership. The clearer our message about what we will stand for, and conversely what we won't stand for the stronger our leadership can be. Know who you are as a leader and stay true to that, especially in times of challenge.

Leading a school as an experienced principal, but one new to state integrated schools with a special character, has presented me with some unique opportunities and challenges over the last four years. Embracing the school's special character, which blends New Zealand curriculum with a Steiner Waldorf special character curriculum and philosophy, has required me as a leader to listen carefully and observe with respectful questioning. I have needed to be both visionary and empathetic. As John C. Maxwell said, "A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way." This has meant immersing myself in the community to understand its traditions, values and philosophies deeply. It has also meant fostering an environment where staff and students and the community around them feel supported and inspired, echoing Simon Sinek's belief that "Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge." By leading with integrity, transparency, and a commitment to the school's unique ethos, I hope I have been contributing to the cultivation of a vibrant educational community where everyone thrives.

As a school principal it is my responsibility to ensure that we have great staff who fit in well with our school culture so we can support our rangatahi to find success, whatever that looks like to them and their whānau. I believe that as leaders in schools, we have to put our students at the centre of our decisions, whatever is happening outside in the political arena, and focus on them and their success. For me this means being intentional and pragmatic in my thinking and my actions and not waiting for someone else (i.e. the Government through the Ministry) to do things for us.

A current example is as a leadership team we are focussing on middle leadership development in our school and not just letting it “happen” to “good” teachers. We are creating collaborative programmes, with input from our current middle leaders (deans and HODs), to intentionally “grow our own”.

Sometimes I think we lead without realising we are leading. Leading often happens when we find the courage to stand up for what we believe in, or we find ourselves fighting for something that is really important to us. How often have you heard people say, ‘I’m not a leader’ or ‘I wouldn’t want to be a leader’? Yet these are the people we see leading because they are quietly getting on with making a difference. Without realising it, they are modelling the behaviours or actions they want to see in the world and little by little they take people with them.

Looking back, can you recall occasions when you had to step up, try something new, or ‘go against the grain’. You might not have seen this as leading at the time, but others probably did. When you had to stick to your values and just do what you believed needed to be done - a time when you were ‘in action’ and led without consciously doing so. Perhaps these unrecognised ‘actions’ of leadership and the relationships they create are where we can find the essence of authentic leadership.

Some final words.

Review What Is Necessary and What Is Not

In the face of rapid change, it's imperative to evaluate our current practices and structures. What are the elements of our educational system that genuinely support and enhance learning? What practices, though perhaps long-standing, no longer serve our students' best interests? This period of transformation allows us to discard the unnecessary and focus our efforts on what is essential. However, let us also use our common sense, our experience, our growth mindset and not be swayed by media hyped catchphrases or well packaged programmes.

Be Brave and Bold

Leadership demands courage, especially in times of upheaval. We must be willing to take bold steps, to innovate, and to embrace new methodologies that better serve our educational goals. This might mean implementing new technologies, rethinking curriculum designs, or fostering more inclusive school cultures. Being brave means not shying away from difficult decisions but making them with the conviction that they will lead to a better future for our learners.

Strengthen What Adds Value

Amidst the change, it's vital to reinforce those aspects of our educational system that we know work. This means supporting proven teaching methods, investing in professional development for our staff, and creating environments where every student can thrive. It also involves building robust infrastructures that can adapt to future challenges, ensuring that our schools remain resilient and effective.

Embrace Purposeful Shifts

Change for the sake of change is futile. Our shifts must be purposeful, guided by the core values and goals of our educational mission. This purpose-driven approach ensures that every change we implement has a clear, positive impact on our school communities. Whether it's adopting new pedagogies, enhancing family engagement, or fostering student well-being, our actions should always align with our commitment to making a meaningful difference.

A Call to Action

In this time of unprecedented change, let us seize the opportunity to lead with optimism and determination. By being brave and bold, by focusing on what truly adds value, and by making purposeful shifts, we can navigate the waves of change and emerge stronger. Together, we can create learning environments that not only withstand the challenges of today but also build a brighter, more resilient future for all.