In 2019, having just become the principal of Killester College in Springvale, Victoria, Sally Buick was looking forward to stepping up to the challenge of leading the next generation of teachers and young people in her school community.
Less than a year on, she would be “plunged us into crisis management mode” – an ordeal that would go on to last for three long, gruelling years.
“I can't name all the challenging experiences I have faced as a principal as the list would be too long. Put simply, the challenge is without a doubt the complexity of our role,” Buick told The Educator.
“The overwhelming nature of the way mental health issues impact staff, students and families, and the system-wide inability to cope with these, is something that has a massive impact.”
‘Many sleepless nights’
A nationwide survey conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education (MGSE) found that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly half of Australian teachers logged in almost an entire extra day teaching from home, with some working in excess of 20 hours each week.
Principals – already navigating a complex maze of new health and safety regulations – were not immune from this spike in extra working hours. With the health system overwhelmed and families in panic mode, Buick found herself managing a plethora of responsibilities that just a year earlier would have been neatly unthinkable.
“We are required to advocate for students, staff and their families in a system that does not have capacity,” she said.
“It is impossible to educate a young person experiencing a significant mental health crisis or one who is dealing with the impact of a parent experiencing one, nor work alongside a colleague in distress.”
Buick said people in need of help are often unable to access any support services “for months”.
“We have to step in and create opportunities and supports to manage the risk while we wait for assistance and support,” she said.
“Managing the risk of a young person who is suicidal and who has been discharged from hospital without adequate care, causes many sleepless nights.”
‘I work a 60-plus hour week and I still don’t get everything done’
The Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2022 found school leaders are working an average of 56 hours a week under the toughest conditions they’ve seen since the survey started 12 years ago.
Buick said the hours she works are “simply unsustainable”.
“I often work a 60-plus hour week and I still don't get everything done,” she said, adding the compliance and regulatory obligations principals have to meet are “ever increasing”.
“These are all designed to ensure a safe and appropriate school for young people, and a fair and safe workplace for staff…but the attention we need to give to these compliance obligations are fast becoming where we have to give the greatest allocation of our time.”
The ACU’s latest report into principal health and wellbeing found the percentages of “red flag” alerts (generated when school leaders are at risk of self-harm, occupational health problems or serious impact on their quality of life) were higher for female principals than male leaders across all sectors.
“Women school leaders tend to work longer hours than men, and report higher job demands,” World leading educational psychologist and co-lead investigator Professor Herb Marsh, of ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology in Education, told The Educator.
“Women school leaders reported poorer levels of work-life balance, presumably because they are more likely to be the primary caregiver at home.”
‘Teachers are leaving the profession at a rate of knots’
Federal government modelling from March 2022 predicts that 50,000 teachers are expected to permanently leave the profession between 2020 and 2025 and that STEM-qualified teacher shortages could affect up to 70,000 students annually by 2030.
“We have a staffing crisis in education; teachers are leaving the profession at a rate of knots,” Buick said.
“They joined the profession to educate but are now asked to do so much more and the lack of respect held by some members of the external community for their work simply causes them to walk away.”
In December, Federal, state and territory education ministers approved The National Teacher Workforce Action Plan in a bid to attract new teachers into the profession and retain those who are thinking of leaving.
Buick said while concerted efforts to address the issue show some promise, they’re far from being a panacea as the crisis will not be resolved in the short term and will place pressure on principals who are developing their recruiting strategies.
“It also causes principal colleagues issues when we do successfully recruit from another school. We are required to be accountants, marketing experts, negotiators, conflict managers, coaches, counsellors, speech writers, recruiting experts, major project managers, and grant application experts,” she said.
“However, above all we are educators, and we do our vital work because we love our jobs and our communities, and we believe absolutely that every young person in Australia has the right to a quality education that will set them up to flourish and be successful when they walk out the gates of our schools.”
A principal shortage is just a matter of time
A recent study found the number of Australian principals planning to quit or retire has tripled over the last four years with teacher shortages a main driver of the profession’s stress.
According to the ACU survey of 2,500 principals, workloads, stress caused by teacher shortages, and demands outside the classroom have now escalated to “unsustainable levels.”
“My fear is that the young people entering our profession today will see the work we have to do, the hours of our lives it consumes, and these brilliant leaders of the future will walk away and find an alternative career pathway,” Buick said.
“They will not want the 60-hour plus work week or the lack of family time, even a lack of any capacity for flexitime where we can manage how and when we work, because the school day is dictated by bells and timetables.”
However, there does not appear to be any “magic fixes”, said Buick.
“We need to be better funded; teaching needs to be celebrated and respected by the wider community, and staff need to be financially rewarded for the hours they work,” she said.
“Principals need the compliance elements of our work outsourced in some way so we can attend to the business of running organisations that cater for the learning needs of our students.”
Buick said the mental health system needs to function properly so that it can better support people who are in crisis, instead of leaving principals to pick up the pieces.
“We are holding far too much of this at a school level which is not where this risk should be held. We need the media to ensure that our work is not maligned or ridiculed.”
‘We need to break this conversation open and stop having it behind closed doors’
Buick said more people need to understand how complex and hard principals’ work can be.
“When the job becomes overwhelming, we most often can't talk about it with our direct colleagues or our community. Consequently, it can be a very lonely job,” Buick told The Educator.
“In amongst all of this, I work at the most remarkable school. I absolutely love the community I have the privilege to be a part of. The staff, students and families are simply superb.”
Buick said that while she has seen her fair share of intense challenges in her time as a school principal, these are nothing compared to what some of her less fortunate colleagues are experiencing.
“I cannot begin to get my head around the challenges some of my colleagues face in communities that are not as supportive and wonderful. We need to break this conversation open and stop having it behind closed doors.”
Buick said she hears “time and time again” from her colleagues that they cannot sustain the workloads asked of them.
“I totally understand this because it is my experience also. Our young people deserve our best and the reality is we need to be better,” she said.
“We need to be better so the privileged role we undertake is one that does not compromise us so significantly that we fail to do it well…or that we simply walk away because our workload is so unsustainable.”