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Give peace a chance

  Principals are great people managers. Good leaders have the support and trust of whānau and their working relationships with boards and staff are positive. But good relationships take time…

Paul Nees, Jackie Nicholl, Graham Jones and Roy Fletcher

Left: NZEI Te Riu Roa’s four Principal Support Officers (l to r) Paul Nees, Jackie Nicholl, Graham Jones and Roy Fletcher. “There is usually a way through and people have come out of very difficult situations stronger and vindicated. PSOs are always available if things start to go awry” – Paul Nees


Principals are great people managers. Good leaders have the support and trust of whānau and their working relationships with boards and staff are positive.

But good relationships take time and effort, and it’s not unusual for overloaded leaders to miss the warning signs and suddenly find themselves in turmoil.

No matter how dire the situation, though, there is usually a way through, and people do come out the other side of very difficult situations.

Frances Nelson, immediate past president of the Auckland Primary Principals’ Association and a former NZEI president, says principals, teachers and support staff alike need to seek advice from NZEI Te Riu Roa, and act on it, as soon as things start to go awry.

“There are usually warning signs – relationships getting a bit frosty, criticism from the board, or someone on the board not engaging with the principal as much as they did in the past. I’ve seen a number of principal colleagues go through that.

“Sometimes it’s because they’re not managing their working relationships well, and other times the problem is purely the other person. Either way, you need to get advice,” she said.

Accusations from the board chair

The four NZEI Principal Support Officers work around the country and are very experienced at resolving conflict.

In one recent case a principal was under personal attack by the board chair. The principal had always had a positive working relationship with the board, but a new chair came in and started trying to dredge up historical issues. The chair also accused the principal of failing to act against a teacher facing conduct allegations, and failing to act in another case involving teacher competency.

However, the principal had handled both situations appropriately with the then-Teachers Council and the chair didn’t understand the processes that had been followed.

Even though the situation seemed dire for the principal, and the rest of the board was just sitting on the sidelines, the issue was easily resolved when the PSO helped the principal to craft a lengthy letter responding to the accusations. That was enough to silence the chair and they resigned soon after.

Keep staff onside

Lynda Stuart is principal of May Road School in Auckland and a member of the NZEI National Executive. She stresses the importance of keeping teaching and support staff team onside and letting them know they are valued.

“We know the huge workload that teachers in particular are under. We principals are busy and facing all sorts of pressures from the ministry and elsewhere, but it’s so important as leaders not to project our stress and frustration onto our staff,” she says. “We need to shield them and support them while sensitively keeping them in the loop about those things that potentially will impact on them.”

Stuart said staff appreciate it when school leaders take a personal interest in them and make time for team and one-on-one catch ups to inform, debrief and hear concerns from staff.

“You can’t build a relationship by email and memos – keep that for the mundane stuff,” she said. Stuart said the principal sets the tone and the culture in a school, either deliberately or inadvertently. A principal who builds strong working relationships will bring their team with them when they want to make a change in the school.

“You can’t drag people with you; that’s painful for everyone and liable to cause resentment and pushback. But if you put your people first, they’ll see that and they’ll gladly follow you anywhere.”

Top tips for successful leadership

  • Develop a good working relationship with your board and catch up with the chairperson regularly so there are no surprises. Help them to understand the parameters of governance and management.
  • Face-to-face communication with staff is essential, especially for significant or sensitive issues.
  • Don’t rush change. Ensure your team knows where you are taking them and why.
  • Be visible and don’t delegate the people interactions. The principal should be the one to do things like taking prospective families on a tour around the school. Do school crossing duty or be at the gates at 3pm regularly so parents can say hello or feel able to stop for a brief chat.
  • Respond, don’t react. If you’re approached with concerns about a staff or board member (or about you!) don’t take it personally or downplay the issue. Be prepared to have honest, robust discussions and seek solutions for small issues so they don’t become big issues.
  • Even if you’re right, be open to the idea that you could be wrong or that others may have an equally valid point of view. Melissa Schwalger