You can imagine how much experience matters in a police station, a maternity ward or a food processing plant. And no different in a school. Just look around and see how many principals and senior teachers are about to retire in the next few years.

One place literally overflowing with experience is the Principals Academy. Do you know that just the 17 coaches who responded to my online query have 79 years of combined experience as deputy-principal and 323 as principal? That is some serious collective experience. But it doesn’t end there because each coach has considerable in-depth experience of the schools where principals are mentored in their offices about twenty times each year. I literally feel that experience when I attend our fortnightly meetings and I learn so much from the insights and ideas shared.

I think our principals immediately relate to someone who has sat behind that desk, stood at the front of that staffroom, stewarded a governing body and faced a quad full of a thousand or more children. Our coaches have all experienced the anxiety and joy and the adrenalin of leading a school. They have learned the calmness and common sense of principalship, and it shows.

As a new principal you bring energy to an expectant school and freshness to its focus. You grow into the role with every teacher or teenager you engage, family you see and situation you solve. You make your mark from day one but, with experience, you bring a presence and a personal style to leadership.

Principals don’t grow in isolation. Like CEOs they interact with key stakeholders every day. So, experience matters. I’m sure you have felt the undoubted benefit of privately meeting two or three of your colleague principals for some personal and professional interaction. Doing so regularly in an uncompetitive, collaborative and confidential atmosphere makes so much sense. This sort of sharing is valuable because it is based on common concerns, current issues and varied approaches. Nothing impacted my thinking as a principal more than my partnering with key mentors and colleague principals.

Unfortunately, there is a crucial difference between years of service and experience. The latter encapsulates the new things you have learned, the knowledge gained, and the skills developed.

In sharing with a principal who was previously the deputy at the same school I asked, ‘Don’t you miss having a deputy who does all the things you did as deputy to the previous principal?’ That’s why experience matters. Every school needs high quality leadership at all levels of the organogram. Guard against having the school’s expertise in CEMIS or in network administration or in finance being centralised in and protected by one person. Encourage all such experts to be enabling team leaders who build experience.

One of the deputies I coach followed up her BSc by managing a laboratory in the private sector. When she became a high school life science teacher and subject head, she brought a range of skills from an environment where accuracy, attention to detail, stock levels, deadlines and targets were paramount. Her teaching and her leading were directly enriched by that experience.

I have often mentioned how valuable it is for a primary school principal or deputy to have substantial and successful foundation phase experience. If neither has the skills required, the foundation phase HoD must enjoy critical influence at the top decision-making level of the school management team.

If you are in a high school or if you are introducing subject teaching in a primary school, you will know how valuable it is to have experienced time-tabling experts who understand the process, the limitations and the most effective use of the teachers available. The best expert is the one who looks far and wide for workable solutions. Many other schools have tried software options, classroom complexities, different weeks or cycles and have refined these over many years.

I have also often mentioned how much I enjoyed teaching the same lesson four times in the same day. I approached each lesson based on the experience of the one or the ones before. Experience accrues when one is committed to getting better, to responding to particular needs, to trying new ways.

In conclusion, think of a teacher new to your school this year. What has this novice experienced in the last month in terms of the culture of the school, the loyalty it engenders, the work ethic and relationships? What are the chances of the new teacher being positively engaged and thriving from term one.
Experience tells me it’s time to stop here!

Til next time.

The Principals Academy Trust

No: 03/24
14 February 2024