Executive school leadership Teachers in Australia

Congratulations on your first Principalship! What happens now…

Graeme McDonald

When your dream of securing a Principal position comes to fruition, it can be hard to know where to begin. Seasoned educator Graeme McDonald shares his wisdom on how to approach this new role, so you can bring your ideal school vision to life.

Step 1 – Adopt some TELOS thinking

The first thing to do is define your ultimate goal for the school. This can’t be done alone. Take some time to listen to key stakeholders like parents, teachers and the school board. It’s not only your school, but theirs as well and their ideas will be invaluable in the long-term. In these conversations you can start to share your vision for the future and adjust it to meet the expectations and desires of the whole school community.

Step 2 – Scan the environment

Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping abreast of what other schools in your catchment area are doing. Look at their websites, watch their marketing strategies and do your research on why they may have more success attracting high quality teachers to work at their school, or why they may have higher student enrolments.

Step 3 – Discover what makes your school tick

Schools aren’t just buildings, they are communities – and your staff are your most important resource. Talk to all your members of staff including teachers and administration to find out what they think are the pressing agendas. Find out what they expect of you, and how you can assist them in performing their best in their jobs.

Step 4 – Develop your strategic plan

A strategic plan is the process of mapping out where you are and the strategies you need to develop in order to achieve your goals. The strategic plan relates directly back to step 1 (where you defined your ultimate goal). To make an analogy, the strategic plan is like a road map that you need to create from scratch (can’t use Google maps for this one unfortunately!)

To be truly successful in this stage, you will need an adviser who will plan and run workshops, collate information and evaluate the data. Choose this person wisely, as they will need to be a ‘critical friend’ to you. The adviser will need to ask the difficult questions, identify key themes and help you ensure the processes aren’t hijacked. In other words, they can help protect you from ‘the flak’.

There is no perfect technique for strategic planning. Some approaches include SWOT or PEST analysis, SCENARIO PLANNING or BALANCED SCORECARDS. All are worth considering and once you learn more about each method you will be able to clearly see which one will suit the needs of your school best. I’ve found the BALANCED SCORECARD with its approach for setting targets for specific goals to determine whether performance reaches the desired level, to be invaluable.

In this process it’s important to remember that your school is first and foremost an educational institution and you are your school Board’s most trusted senior educational adviser. Do not allow the financial plan to dominate the strategy, however remember that the financial constraints will affect what can be achieved within the strategy.

Another pitfall here is when you strive to hit too many targets. Selecting a few SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) builds far greater credibility in a plan instead of having half- done goals or goals that remain unachieved. You will find that taking this approach will help you to clearly enunciate your vision and save you time.

Step 5 – Provide an executive summary

Once the planning has been completed, you can update your stakeholders with the school strategy that has been created. This will demonstrate to the stakeholders that their contributions have been valued and included. Your stakeholders will then become the ‘champions’ of this strategy and will help to implement it across the school on your behalf.

Done well, a strategic plan can be life-changing. It can raise the profile of your school; help you sell your vision for the future and enhance a sense of community in your school. Before you embark on this exciting adventure ensure you clearly define what is important to you. Be open to new ideas and be prepared to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing environment, but never lose sight of your vision. Your vision brought you to this point in your career and it will sustain you as you create an exciting new future for your school community!

Graeme McDonald M.Ed, B.A

Graeme has held an impassioned career for over 20 years as Principal of Independent schools across Australia. His involvement in education has been extensive both in and outside school walls. Graeme has held pivotal roles in AHISAIBSCGPS and is a long-serving member for ACE and ACEL. The academic, cultural and sporting successes his students have shared in, is a testament to his distinguished career as an educator.

Further learning – ‘3 Ways to plan for the (very) long term’, TED TALK by Ari Wallach