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Driving sustainable school leadership in Tonga's education system

How can school leaders in the Pacific be supported in adopting evidence-based practices that sustain a positive impact on student learning, while at the same time working within local expectations and traditions? Education Specialist Kris Needham explores ways to achieve this in the Tongan context. Her blog is the first in a two part series examining educational leadership and impact in Tonga.

Tongan culture, traditions and geographical isolation have shaped leadership roles in the education system.

A global perspective: school leadership and improvement
International research on school improvement highlights particular leadership styles that can sustain a positive impact on student learning outcomes via indirect methods. Key themes include:

1. Instructional leadership – when leaders are active and engaged in the process of teaching and learning. This involvement could be in formal professional development sessions, or informal contexts such as discussions about specific teaching problems. Instructional leaders are familiar with classroom instruction in their schools, support teachers’ collaborative work and are people with whom teachers feel comfortable discussing instruction.
2. Transformational leadership – when leaders have and share a vision, set directions, develop staff and are involved with the external community. A priority here would be engagement in an ongoing, reflective and collaborative sharing of teaching practice, and building a sense of collective enterprise, often known as a professional learning community.
3. Distributed leadership – when effective teams are established, and leadership is distributed formally and informally to increase participation. Teachers are empowered to play a role in decision making at the school level, with the leader cultivating leadership in others.

There is no single model for success. Principals’ ability to respond to their context and employ these approaches with authenticity and coherence is the key.

Enhancing school leadership in the Pacific context
While the global body of research on school leadership and improvement paints a comprehensive picture, it does not include any analysis of the Pacific context.
A significant contribution to the study of Tongan school leadership has been made by Dr Seu’ula Fua of the University of the South Pacific, whose research generated a profile of five dimensions of leadership: ethical, visionary, organisational, instructional and community connectedness. We can also use findings from the recent Tonga Secondary Schools Leadership Program (TSSLP), which made use of Dr Fua’s leadership framework. The TSSLP, running from 2012-2014, aimed to enhance the leadership capacities of secondary principals and their teams, and to raise the level of student performance and achievement.

Tongan principals face many of the same challenges as their counterparts around the world: ensuring consistently good teaching and learning, managing resources, motivating staff, building a positive school culture, working with external stakeholders, and managing student behaviour and attendance. At the same time, their culture, traditions and geographical isolation have shaped some differing characteristics of their leadership role.

Many Tongan secondary principals in the TSSLP followed models of school leadership set down by their predecessors. These models were often based on cultural notions of respect and power and positioned the principal as a moral and ethical leader. Social and ethical skills are highly valued as an essential quality of a school leader. In fact “ethical leadership” is seen as the most critical element for success. Most principals saw overall management of the school as their primary responsibility, with responsibility for classroom instruction delegated to the deputy principal. Decision making tended to be centralised and consultation with staff was not the norm.

Given these parameters, the shift to instructional, transformational and/or distributed leadership models would appear to challenge deeply held beliefs, values and perceptions. To change their practice, principals would need to conceptualise new ways of working, see them as preferable, and be supported while they adopted them.

Is there a best fit model?
The most effective professional learning design should work with these deeply held cultural beliefs and practices rather than against them. One approach that may be useful to the Tongan and Pacific context is to employ metaphors and strategies from the field of ‘Host Leadership'. Host Leadership is an emerging concept, promoted by management consultants Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey. There is a good fit with the social, moral and ethical aspects of the role of school principal.

Host leadership is seen as having leaders engage with the people in their organization via six roles: initiator, inviter, space creator, co-participator, connector and gatekeeper. Indeed many of these roles are already incorporated into ‘rolling out the mat’, a common Pacific cultural methodology that provides a space for open discussion with a view to finding a way forward, known as “talanoa”. The adoption of the metaphor of Host Leadership would allow a culturally appropriate frame for working towards change (initiator); distributed leadership (inviter); teacher collaboration and psychological ’safety’ in learning (space creator); and greater emphasis on instructional leadership through participating in professional conversations about teaching and learning (co-participator). The role of gatekeeper, knowing when to let in new people and new ideas, keeps the primary importance of the role intact.

While the Host Leadership metaphor is potentially very useful, it is critical that it is supported by a well informed, well designed and well structured professional learning program. This program should provide opportunities for input of new concepts as well as the discussion and meaning-making that would facilitate the transfer of these concepts into practice. One-on-one coaching, for instance, would provide a trusting relationship for this learning.

Once the shift in leadership practice starts to reverberate at staff level, and as leadership teams begin to engage with new models of collaboration and decision-making, there is benefit in building communities of practice between schools that foster networking and collaboration. Over time, principals will reconceptualise their function and take on a new kind of authority – a unique model based on their capacity to influence student learning and enable the work of teacher leaders. Significantly, this model would be shaped by core Tongan values – a key ingredient to the sustainability and success of school leadership.


About the author

Education Specialist Kris Needham.

Dr Kristine Needham is an accredited executive coach with an extensive professional background in educational leadership. She has been a secondary school principal, education consultant, researcher and advisor. Kris has a particular interest and experience in developing and facilitating professional development activities for newly appointed and aspiring leaders, combining the best of current research with a practical approach. Kris has held the position of Educational Leadership Specialist in the Tonga Secondary Schools Leadership Program, where coaching and a coaching approach were seen as valuable methodologies for educational change.