Tags:InterviewPrimary SchoolPrincipalSLPP

5 min read

A golden plan: Tamara Bell on how SLPP helped Southbridge School

“Where is the professional development for principals?” 

It is a recurring refrain in the New Zealand education sector. While teachers and middle leaders have some opportunities to grow in a professional capacity, principals often discover Springboard Trust amidst a lengthy search for their own high-level development. 

Such was the case with Tamara Bell, principal at Southbridge Primary. A first-time principal in 2017, she felt there was a massive gap for principals’ own PLD. After hearing about the opportunities available through Springboard – but the lack of a Canterbury cohort – Blair Dravitski (Principal at Linwood Ave School) brought her together with an array of principals to help form the first South Island cohort in the Strategic Leadership for Principals Programme.  

The building blocks of support 

As Tamara tells it, every single workshop of SLPP was vital.

“I remember each and every meeting so vividly, even now. The impact that it has on me as a leader – it's the kind of learning you don’t forget.”  

In particular, learning to give herself permission to take the big-picture view struck a chord.  

“The workshops free you up, they allow you to be a leader. Things like focusing on what feeds you and what drains you, how to block out your calendar – how to let yourself spend time leading.” 

“They’re things that, when you’re starting out as a principal, you just don’t know.”  

Once SLPP was mapped out for me, I knew it was all going to be gold
Tamara Bell, Principal, Southbridge School

Taking the strategic plan to the people 

When Tamara began her role at Southbridge, there was a strategic plan – but not many people knew about it.  

“A lot of the planning was historically done between a few people. You very rarely had teachers, children, community and whānau involved in the process. I think, for many people, the strategic plan just becomes a compliance document – something you tick off once per year and then forget about until it’s time to do it again.” 

Through SLPP, Tamara learned the importance of not just having a clear plan – but having one that every member of the community had input on.  

“I didn’t realise that so much of the existing plan was not well known by the staff, parents or community. People didn’t know about it, they didn’t know how their learning or role connected with it.” 

“Once SLPP was mapped out for me, I knew it was all going to be gold – I could make something by the school and community, for the school and community.” 

Photo courtesy of Tamara Bell, Southbridge School

Bringing the team on board 

Core to the new strategic plan was getting the voices of the community, students and staff at Southbridge – a series of involvements that has totally changed the school culture.  

“Teachers are no longer stressed or overworked. They know the goals in the strategic plan, how they fit into the school’s vision, and which parts of it they contribute to or have ownership of.”  

“That changes the culture entirely. We have happier staff who understand where they are and are comfortable driving the direction of the school with me.” 

In a rural context, that kind of openness can be difficult. With a staff of five, and no walking Deputy or Assistant Principal, senior and middle leaders are often dealing with too many responsibilities to be involved in the plan – an isolating experience for any principal.  

But the taut focus that Tamara evolved through SLPP gave her team the gift of purpose and clarity.  

The results have been clear. Turnover has dropped from a few teachers every year to virtually zero, and staff workload has become far more manageable.  

This learning will continue in 2020, as Tamara brings her senior leaders to Springboard Trust for the Springboard Coaching for Leadership programme.

“Teachers have only ever been teachers – nobody taught them to be a leader.” 

“I want to give my DP and team leader the best possible start on that path, show them key responsibilities and giving them the coaching and mentoring that I benefited from so much.” 

Student voices to the fore 

Looking at the old strategic plan, Tamara has one primary comment:  

“Where are the students in all of this?” 

At the core of everything a school does, student voice is critical to a long-lasting strategic plan that creates positive outcomes

“The old strategic plan didn’t relate to how students wanted to learn – and if it’s not going to work for our kids, why would we bother using it?” 

Using the lessons learned on stakeholder engagement and centering student voices, Tamara and her team got to work. To incorporate learner voices, Southbridge’s team conducted an expansive set of interviews, one-on-one meetings, surveys and feedback channels to ensure that every student – and their parents, whānau, hapu and iwi - were heard. 

“We got really clear feedback – a lot of it boiled down to us being tied to old national standards. Too much sitting, too much teacher talking, too much emphasis and reading and writing percentages. We were keeping the same goals year on year because nobody was looking at the plan, but never listening or changing what we did.” 

With clear themes and a surplus of new data on new entrants and student engagement, Tamara and her team embarked on a massive overhaul of how they taught.  

This included more arts- and sports-based teaching, more time for students to speak and create in class, as well as an expansive play-based curriculum for new entrants. Now in its third year, this play-based learning will be rolled out for the entire school due to its effectiveness.  

“We’re still able to be focused on student achievement and progress, and track that how we need to – but with student input into how we run classrooms, we’re able to do it with much higher engagement.” 

By broadening the scope of what teaching and learning means for students, Southbridge’s entire environment has changed.

“We’re a completely different school from three years ago – it's been a phenomenal change.”  

At Springboard Trust, principals learn to take the big-picture view and focus on what matters most for their students. Freed from the constraints of 'how things have always been done', Tamara stands testament to the work we do and the impact we have

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