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What leadership has taught me...
Teresa Coughlan

School Notebook

As someone who never intended to become a principal, and who did not have a leadership qualification, the learning curve over the past 5 years has been steep!


There is no handbook for principalship and before I started it, it was the fear of the unknown that bothered me- how would I know what to do? And when?


Looking back, all of the practical bits just fall into place- you do what you have to do, but it was the other learning that has really stuck with me.


1. You can’t please everyone!

As a serial people pleaser, this was a tough one. No matter what you do, how hard you work, how good your intentions are- there will always be someone who is not happy with what you have done. As a principal, you are responsible for always keeping that global view in your mind- only you are in the know about every situation with every child, family and staff member.. You have to make decisions that might seem unfair to one person, but with that global perspective in mind, you know it’s the right thing to do. My advice is to look at everything through the lens of ‘What is best for the school- staff and children?’ If I have made a decision through this lens, I am happy to defend it.


2. You are stronger than you think

I feared my ability to hold my own. I am not, by nature, a confrontational person, and one of my big fears was that I would let the school down by being too soft. Although I can look back and acknowledge that there were times that I probably could have held a harder line in situations, experience has given me the confidence to stand up for our decisions. 


3. The ‘why’ matters

Spending time teasing out the reasons why a decision is being made, and communicating these clearly to the school community, is very helpful. As principals, we often have to make unpopular decisions, but if you can explain the ‘why’, it helps to reach a collective understanding. You’ll still upset some people (see no 1!) but spending time on setting up good communication channels makes life so much easier in the long run.


4. It’s okay not to know everything

I hadn’t a clue what a principal actually did when I took up this role. I knew there were class allocations to be made, I assumed there was some degree of budgeting and drawing up policies - but the day to day routine? Hadn’t a notion. I hadn’t worked as a DP, and although my AP2 had kept me busy in my old school, it didn’t give me an insight into what I was in for.

I am not going to lie - I messed up a lot. My secretary and I started around the same time, and we needed to set up every single system in the school- how to log phone calls, how to record incidents, how to prepare for a Board meeting. 

I found Misneach really helpful for the leadership side of things, but the practical bits ended up being a bit of a stab in the dark. 

Here’s the thing:

- Your patron will be hugely helpful- it’s their job to support you.

IPPN are excellent- their emails reminded me of closing dates, seminars and circulars.

- Whatsapp groups with other principals were a life line, and still are.

- The staff in your school have an abundance of knowledge and wisdom, and are generally delighted to help.


You do not have to know it all- you just have to know how to ask for help.

Which brings me nicely to no.5.


5. Vulnerability is cool now

Principalship has evolved as we have learned more and more about effective styles of leadership. Admitting that you made a mistake, or that you don’t know what to do is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. Sharing your problems (when you can), or explaining the downsides of frameworks and ordering processes allows your colleagues to understand what you are going through. Again, we do not have to know it all. We have to be willing to learn from our mistakes, reflect on how we can do better and move on. And we have to allow the same for our staff. 


6. The children are not the most important people in the school - the staff are!

Contentious, I know, but I believe it to be true. Yes, our end goal is to have a school full of content, confident, well adjusted students. However, this cannot be achieved if you do not have staff who are happy to come to work. Working in a school is hard work (working in a developing school is gas craic altogether!), but your staff need to know that you see what they are doing and that you appreciate it. Not for instagram, not to make your school better - but that you really, really appreciate it. Again, you can give them the world and someone may not be happy (see no 1!!)

See your secretary, your SNAs, your caretaker, your cleaners, your teachers - if they do something that you admire - thank them. Let them leave early if their child has an appointment. Buy the cakes. They deserve it.


7. The list NEVER gets shorter

Decide what time you are leaving each day and stick to it. There will be last minute panics at certain times of the year, but in a normal week, get up and walk out when your timer goes. There is always more work. There will always be more calls to make, letters to write, policies to update, classes to visit. (and this is from an admin principal’s perspective- let’s take a moment for the heroes that are teaching principals).


8. At the end of the day, it’s just a job

We are all replaceable to our schools. Not so to our families. Remember that. 

Screen Shot 2021-09-07 at 16.04_edited.jpg
Screen Shot 2021-09-07 at 16.04_edited.jpg

Teresa Coughlan has been teaching for more than 20 years, and is an admin principal of a developing school in Cork. She has just started an M.Ed in Literacy Education.

She created her popular Instagram page, @journeyofaprimaryprincipal in an effort to spark conversations about what leadership looks like in 2021. 

Lenses into Learning is the guest post feature of this website. Here, educators spanning a variety of educational sectors share opinion pieces, recommendations and thematic articles to inspire conversation, development and learning. 

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