The Courage to Appraise the Principal

While some school principals may feel threatened when required to undergo the rigours of performance appraisal, the process can invariably prove beneficial for a school leader. 

Progressive schools will realise that accountability and transparency of the principal’s actions are an essential feature of good management. As a result, governing boards a resetting requirements for the principal’s performance, and these they seek to measure objectively.

When Robyn Kronenberg took up the position of Principal at St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart her contract stated that, within six months of commencing the job, a process for performance appraisal was to be agreed upon, implemented and completed within18 months of her appointment. 

The appraisal would be used to identify areas for professional development, set future goals and review salary.

It’s a courageous thing to appraise oneself,’ says Dr Vining. Too often in the past, a performance appraisal consisted of the chairman of the board having a casual chat with the principal over lunch.

 This approach fails to review past performance systematically and to set specific objectives for the following year.’

Principals are under enormous pressure to perform, especially those new to a post. It takes open-minded principals to submit to appraisal and to admit that they are not an expert on everything.

Briefly, performance appraisal is the last thing a new principal wants to think about, but when Robyn Kronenberg accepted the leadership position at St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart, part of her contract was an appraisal process that was to be determined and implemented in her first eighteen months.Robyn contacted Dr Linda Vining at the Centre for Marketing Schools.Dr Vining had designed many market research instruments specifically for schools and together they developed a unique appraisal instrument which is now available to other school leaders.

Indeed, a good appraisal will reveal areas where principals may need to concentrate effort, or undertake professional training to improve their skills,’ she said. 

While some principals may feel threatened by the call to greater accountability, Robyn Kronenberg said she was keen to conduct a peer review and to learn what the board and the senior management team thought of her as an educational leader. 

I am very much in favour of formative appraisal processes that can guide improvement in practice, style and leadership,’ she said.

Pressure to perform

Governing school boards, parents, staff and students expect the principal to be a perfect manager of people ,learning, staff, operations and budgets. But principals are not perfect and it is of great assistance to know where we can improve our  performance,’ said  Robyn. 

She was aware of three main pressures in her first year.

Firstly, she was following in the steps of a long-standing head. Being new, she had to establish personal and working relationships with many different segments of the school community and earn their confidence. 

I wanted to be accepted by as many people as I could and to give them a chance to get to know me. But this takes time.’

Secondly, she arrived in June and was expected to introduce change by the following year – so she had only six months to get a feeling for the school and set up changes in the management structure.

Thirdly, there was the pressure she put upon herself.  There was so much she wanted to do, but establishing the processes for change takes time. 

Robyn felt she was managing the pressures competently but she wanted assurance that others felt so too. She looked to the appraisal to provide objective feedback. 

St Michael’s Collegiate School had used Centre for Marketing Schools surveys before to measure the perceptions of their final year students Year 12 Survey and the perceptions of their parents Parent Survey. From this experience it was obvious that a professionally designed questionnaire that was succinct but probing, and with an attractive layout, would achieve a high response rate.

There were also other criteria that needed to be met. In any evaluation of a principal by the staff and governors, the respondents must be absolutely sure of their anonymity or they will not speak openly. Robyn recognised that quality responses that were meaningful and sincere were most likely to be obtained by using a market researcher who was independent of the school and who guaranteed confidentiality. 

Delivery of findings was another consideration. In the past, Centre for Marketing Schools had delivered the findings in a report that was statistically sound but short, to-the-point, and easy to interpret. Robyn sought a similar reporting process that was easy for all to understand.

Once these considerations were affirmed, the principal’s appraisal began to take shape and the survey was arranged in three sections under the headings: About the Principal, About the School, and About You.

It was important for the board to determine that the principal was competent at managing the operations, as well as the teaching and the learning functions of the school. So the section titled About the Principal explored views on the principal as an educational leader, relationships, professional capabilities, strategic planning, financial management, leadership of staff, the care of students, communication skills, implementation of marketing strategies and effectiveness as a change manager. 

The questionnaire was distributed to all 10 board members, the 12 staff members on the senior management team (SMT), and to the principal herself. 

Robyn filled in a survey to compare her perceptions of herself with other people’s perceptions, in particular comparing what the governing board and the SMT collectively had to say.  Robyn’s responses were graphed alongside the other responses using a colour code to display variations. Written comments were collated so that patterns could be discerned between similar positive responses and similar negative comments.

The findings were delivered to the principal plus a committee of three, composed of the chairman of the board and two other board members. This ensured that the results were confidential and contained.

Putting the School Principal Review findings to work

A performance appraisal provides a school with a firm basis for salary negotiation. It signals transparency of operations. It confirms the strengths of the principal and identifies any weakness in skills that can guide the principal towards professional development. 

Robyn said the findings reminded her of the need to be careful of people’s sensitivities and how she deals with them, the need for active listening, actions to ensure that staff feel valued, and the need to manage the pace of change. 

She said the process helped the board crystallize a set of realistic and improved goals for the future.

As an immediate outcome, Robyn was motivated to write down her goals for the following year in the areas of leadership, teaching and learning, pastoral care, communication, and goals for herself, which incorporated time to reflect, and ways to manage her time more carefully. 

But one of the greatest benefits of the whole exercise,’ she said, was that the board and the senior management team put a lot of thinking into the appraisal process, which made them more aware of the complex nature of the principal’s role’.

About the author
Robyn Kronenberg is Principal of St Michael Collegiate School in Hobart. Prior to taking up this appointment in 2003 Robyn was Deputy Principal at Lowther Hall Anglican Grammar School in Victoria.   Dr Linda Vining was the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools.  She has designed a range of surveys to assist schools.