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Talk-ED: In Praise of Principals – New Zealand's National Treasures


written by Marilyn Gwilliam

I am rather keen on Carl Honore’s book “In Praise of Slow”.  Published in 2004, it sparked a kind of cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.  Chapters in the book include commentary on slow cooking, slow eating, slow urban planning, slow leisure, slow travel, raising children slowly, and a number of other interesting aspects of our lives. 

In the book, Honore suggests that we should try to do things as well as possible rather than as fast as possible and when I think about the work of most of my principal colleagues, the notion of writing in praise of them as they try to do things as well as possible, has immense appeal.

Most work willingly and endlessly to ensure that the students and staff in their schools have  productive and fulfilling lives.  This is one of the basic premises of the slow movement. Principals encourage their teachers to savour and maximise every minute and hour of learning, rather than just counting the minutes and the hours.  They try hard to do everything at the right speed to ensure the students in their schools reach their optimum level of performance, and personal development.

Principals understand that learning takes time, you can’t fast forward it, it is different for everyone and you can’t actually make it happen.  The multiple conditions for learning have to be right. 

Not one of us would disagree that the improvement in student achievement is a core role and function of all schools especially in the areas of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools.  But right now, we are being told that it is the fault of schools alone that some students are not achieving or failing, and it is schools alone that have to fix it all up.

This seems to be the rhetoric that is around these days.  It feels like it is all about how badly schools are doing, rather than how incredibly well many are doing.

Over the last 2 years I have noticed an immense change amongst a number of my colleagues.  There are many around who are incredibly experienced. They see their principalship as a vocation and they have dedicated their professional lives to students in their schools and the teachers who teach them.  They have been constantly mindful of their role in their communities. Their principalship has not been a job.  It has been a huge part of their lives in many ways.  They are very effective, but currently very disillusioned principals.

In 2007, with the introduction of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), we were required to consult with our communities to develop our school’s curriculum around the fundamental principles of the NZC.  At that time we saw possibly the most meaningful rounds of consultation, debate and discussion between schools and their communities that we have ever had.

The Ministry of Education received more than 10,000 submissions during the NZC development that were collated and taken into consideration.

Secretary for Education Karen Sewell in the foreword to the NZC, states that: “It includes a clear set of principles on which to base curriculum decision making.”  Principals really took this on board and became readily engaged in exciting curriculum design initiatives. There was an understanding that the competency based, broad and responsive nature of the NZC meant that schools could design their own unique curriculum tailored to their students and the expressed aspirations of their communities.

It was an exciting time.  There was genuine collaboration happening and principals felt that Ministry of Education staff were sincere in their efforts to consult, to listen and to integrate feedback from the sector into the final document.  Principals felt that they had a framework to develop successful and well educated citizens for the 21st century and lifelong learning capabilities in their students and staff.

It all seems so long ago.  Currently, the broad goals of education at the top feel narrow and economic, rather than humanitarian.   There seems to be little connection between the future and the best of the past.  The NZC hardly gets a mention any more.  Many feel a huge sense of loss.  This loss includes professional trust and respect. 

Many in the primary sector are consciously working hard to ensure that learning areas other than literacy and numeracy continue to have a strong focus in their schools.  Others continue to really struggle to move beyond consistency, reliability and validity issues related to this government’s national standards in reading, writing and maths. 

So where to from here?  We would all welcome strong and transformational leadership from the top in education.  The appointment of a new Secretary for Education may hopefully provide this.  All principals in state funded schools want our work to be meaningful, useful, valued and supported by the government of the day.  We would all welcome a truly collaborative approach to finding the best ways forward for all our students.  And I believe that we have a right to expect this. 



Published inEducation

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