14 SES 13 A, Primary Schools in their Community
A school’s community has a significant role under self-management education policies which call on communities to provide official support for the school as an institution and its functioning as an organisation. The community in which the school is situated influences local curriculum, partnerships, and considerations of impact. However, the notion of “school community” is ill-defined. Every school (as a community) and the community in which schools operate is different, rarely homongenous, and varying in size as well as social and economic capital. Communities also vary in political and ideological standpoints. School communities can have high expectations of principals (Wieczovek & Manard, 2018).
The context the school principal finds her/himself in is an important influence on principal work (Wylie, 2012, Robinson et al., 2009). All schools are geographically-situated but they are also dynamic and evolving. There is a wide range of school-specific factors in play (Corbett & White, 2014). Responding to diversity, inequities and the special needs of students and the school’s unique community have an important influence on principals’ work (e.g. Alcorn, 2011; Robinson, et al., 2009). Whether individual work of principals of rural primary schools is formally appraised by education authorities or not, those in this position understand that members and groups of their school community hold expectations and make judgements on their work and the organisation they lead.
Expectations of school principals include particular personal and inter-personal qualities (Bolden, et al., 2003). Educational-leadership literature has given attention to individuals characteristics within leadership styles (e.g. ‘charismatic’, ‘transformational’, or ‘values-led’). Principal 'self-appraisal' is also influenced by neoliberal individualism and competition along with neoconservative claims of the benefits of self-monitoring for ensuring ‘the best’ receive rewards (Apple, 2006; Smyth, 1993).
Under New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools (since 1989) principals are formally judged by appraisers according to external regulatory requirements and professional standards. They are also judged informally according to expectations of boards of trustees, parents, and the wider school community (along with public judgement through mainstream and social media). Principals “appraise” themselves on the basis of their own professional and personal expectations. These three perspectives were investigated and this presentation is based on expectations of New Zealand rural primary school principals (and judgements about whether they meet these expectations).
The research question was: to what extent does the judgment or appraisal of principals (formal, informal and self), as experienced by six New Zealand primary school principals in rural settings, reflects the purposes and practices of quality assessment, recognises the nature and complexity of expectations in school-specific settings, and considers the human beings undertaking this work?
Principals of schools in rural settings were invited to participate in this study not because rural education represents some nostalgic educational past or to focus on educational problems in a particular place (see Corbett & White, 2014; Balfour, et al., 2008). Instead the special nature of typically smaller, community-based rural schools enables research attention to focus on expectations of principals that might otherwise be more difficult to observe in complex organisational structures of larger schools situated in urban communities. Fewer staff in smaller schools means fewer organisational layers of responsibility and a limited number of colleagues available for delegated duties. Principals in these schools tend to be directly involved in all daily operations and issues, therefore have more contact with parents and local community members than principals of larger schools. In short, the expectations of school principals from all three perspectives are concentrated in the work situation of a principal of a small rural school.
For this research I use ‘Contemporary pragmatism’ acknowledges moves in critical theory (Frega, 2015) and qualitative inquiry since Dewey’s time but continues to emphasise pragmatist ideas for use as a methodology for education research (Rosiek, 2013). Using contemporary pragmatism involves consideration of the future and ‘hopeful’ action as a result of an inquiry based on doubt and skepticism. This involves consideration of potential influences on the future for how the research could be read by different audiences as well as for the researcher, and members of the communities we study. Potential participants were found using purposive sampling. A limited number of principals of ‘smaller’ schools (up to 150 students and 6-8 teaching staff) at a convenient distance for researcher travel were invited to participate. For school size, I consulted the EducationCounts website (www.educationcounts.govt.nz), Education Review Office reports and Te Kete Ipurangi (www.tki.org) records. Six primary school principals were interviewed face-to-face three times over a period of 18-months. Each interview was semi-structured (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009) and averaged an hour in length. Kvale and Brinkmann (2009) describe the research interview as constructed in interaction, relational, conversational, contextual, linguistic and reflecting the storied nature of lived human world. As such, the use of interviews in this study was consistent with a contemporary Deweyan-pragmatist approach. My method of analysis was a process of abduction, seeking saturation, a sitting with and working with the evidence. Abductive analysis (Brinkmann, 2014) in this study involved a deep familiarity with all the evidence, time for deliberation, and time away from the work of research for insights to untangle and emerge. The goal of an abductive process is not to arrive at any fixed and universal knowledge but to draw out the good or desirable (Koopman, 2011) to "refine and expand present activity” (Dewey quoted in Colapietro, 2011, p. 161) for progressive improvement (Frega, 2017).
This study contributes evidence that the expectations, values and relationships of the community in which the school operates are a powerful element in perceptions and judgement of any individual principal’s success particularly in rural settings. The management of a past situations builds community confidence and trust in a principal's capabilities. Who judges principals' work is more important for these six rural school leaders than by what criteria they were judged. Principals in this study said an appraiser's knowledge and understanding matters, while the professional standards' criteria were recognised as only ever representing part of principals' work. Appraiser-principal interaction included feedback and advice but its value was the opportunity to talk with a trusted and confidential person. Thus, formal appraisal processes were working both formatively and summatively for these principals. The six principals in this study all practiced self-appraisal through questioning by themselves or with a trusted other (often a relationship developed over time from their personal or professional networks). They had self-imposed boundaries to their work lives, which, along with their individual ways of professional learning were acts of self-care that they understood helped them to continue to work as a principal. Although leadership models and appraisal policy in the literature put the focus on the individual in principalship, it is difficult to separate one person from the workings of the whole. This whole includes the school as an organisation, as part of the local community in a geographical region, as part of a national education system and of society. Also, judgement is exercised in any form of evaluation. Therefore, control of principal appraisal by education authorities through standardisation is unlikely to result in the levels of measurability that would make any purposeful 'accounting system' for principal quality straightforward.
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