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Looking After Our Principals

Talk to any school principal and they’ll tell you they love their job.

Principals enjoy high levels of job satisfaction. Few professions get to improve and turn around the lives of young people. At the same time, our profession has extraordinary high levels of burnout. A strong  sense of moral purpose does not protect principals from sleeping
badly at night.

National surveys of Australia’s principals – conducted annually since 2011 by a team led by Associate Professor Philip Riley of the Australian Catholic University – confirm rising and
health-endangering stress. There are increased reports of bullying and violence, threatened and realised, by both students and parents. It points to an entire system under stress.
Abnormal demands have been normalised across Australia. Principals have too much to do
while there’s too little time to lead, teach and learn. One in ten don’t feel well supervised or
supported. It’s little better in private schools.

In fact, there are more similarities than differences across the government and nongovernment sectors. Riley believes the hours are so excessive, it won’t be long before
there’s a national and coordinated legal challenge under WorkSafe. 

What’s creating the norm of a 60-plus hour working week for principals? In part, it’s
community expectations; parents contacting principals all times of day and night (because
they themselves work long hours and combine their work with the mobile phone).

The main reason is compliance around managing and maintaining a physical site and
increased administration. It includes everything from human resources to occupational health and safety, tree audits, leaking roofs and cracking concrete. It’s important stuff, but others are better suited to get those jobs done. Principals are appointed because they are
expert educators, but they now spend only 25 per cent of their time on educational leadership – mentoring new teachers and creating an environment to optimise learning experiences – and 75 per cent on running a huge complex.

One solution is employing a high-level business or operations manager – at the equivalent pay of a deputy principal so as to draw experienced people in construction, business and
finance – or upskilling staff, who feel ill-equipped to meet growing demands. The Directorate has a role to play helping to recruit and train.

However, that’s only one strategy. What’s needed above all is clarity about the core role of a principal. Principals tend to do far more than leaders in other industries who are never asked
or expected to do as much as them. Member principals of public schools in the ACT are telling their union they should – and want – to be teacher experts, with their primary focus, time and energy on continual improvements in education. In support of them, the union wants a clear set of guidelines identifying the tasks in which principals should have limited or no involvement, so they can shed the many tasks that others should be doing. Surely, the community and bureaucracy would agree?

There should be extensive collaborative consultation between principals, their union and senior Directorate officers to both clarify and synthesise the role so that the prime focus of
principals is educational leadership. The Education Directorate is listening, somewhat,  providing more money to tackle mental illness and addressing sickness and absence. But the focus must be on primary prevention that would redesign the job itself. We must deal with the causes, rather than tinker with the problems by tackling only the symptoms. A number of
health-related programs have been established to support principals, but they are bolted
on, rather than integrated into what principals do.

The Directorate has to do things differently so as not to burden principals with unnecessary
process and duplication. While principals as professionals try to learn to say no to things
extraneous to their core role, policy makers must limit compliance measures and
agendas so principals are not tied up with paperwork. Principals are inundated by
emails from the Directorate to tick boxes and this work is better placed with other personnel.
If we keep principals as boxtickers, they will become risk-averse, and this will ultimately impede creative thinking.

As alluded to, reform also requires the community to adjust its expectations. As families have become more complex and disadvantage more compound, principals are increasingly expected to solve society’s woes, including increasing mental health concerns among students. Schools are now expected to run far more programs than ever before and to deal with just about every aspect of a child’s life, and this must come at a cost. Resources, human and financial, are essential, and our principals expect their union to continue to campaign for these. As one senior principal put it to us, “It’s good that schools feel connected, seen as a community and social hub. There’s nothing wrong with that. It might build social capital. But who wears the brunt of that workload? The principal!”

It underscores the point that principals must be freed from non-core work, and supported in
their almost impossibly complex role, to make schools work even better.

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