As the leaders who will shape the post-COVID direction of the school workforce, principals’ attitudes, perceptions and intentions matter profoundly to the future of the education sector.
Since the beginning of the 2020-21 pandemic, a number of surveys have been conducted to gain a better understanding of how principals are navigating the many challenges thrown at them and their school communities.
In September leading school workforce research and analytics company PeopleBench released its 2021 State of the Sector survey, which reflects the responses of 145 principals, 92 school leaders, 42 middle leaders, 169 teachers and 21 business/HR managers.
The report identifies where schools will be spending their time and energy this year, and how they expect the next three years to pan out. It also allows educators to see how their priorities and plans compare to others in the sector, as well as informing policymakers on where best to target support in a post-COVID schooling landscape.
Mike Hennessy, Chief Research and Insights Officer at PeopleBench, said the company’s survey found that only half of teachers were confident in their school's ability to execute its vision, while other cohorts – especially principals – were much more likely to report that feeling of confidence.
“From our experience, this might reflect a gap in understanding and communication between those on the leadership team – whose roles usually require them to think in terms of vision and strategy in the long-term – and those in the classroom, who need to spend most of their attention on supporting students day-by-day, week-by-week, term-by-term,” Hennessy told The Educator.
“This provides a terrific opportunity for leaders to co-design the future of the school with their teachers – and potentially bring the student voice into the mix, too.”
Hennessy said leaders can start addressing this gap by genuinely consulting teachers on what they'd like their school to look like in the future, and what they'll each need to do to achieve those goals, as a school workforce, together.
The report also provides some key insights into how principals can improve professional development.
Hennessy said teachers' lower levels of confidence in the school workforce might indicate a need to do professional development a little differently.
“Our findings showed that respondents expected technological skills and the ability to manage one's own wellbeing to increase in priority over the next three years, so leaders might look to create more opportunities for staff to boost their skills in those areas,” he said.
“It will also be really important that leaders clearly communicate the links between the vision and strategy [i.e., "these are the goals we want to achieve as a school"] and their investment in professional learning/professional development [i.e., "these are the skills we'll need to develop in order to achieve these goals"].”
Managing risk, leading change
Jennifer Oaten, a well-respected leader who has spent 20 years in Catholic education, heads up all-girls Catholic school Santa Maria College in Perth, where she is the driving force behind the school’s Strategic Plan 2021-2025.
She said that a critical element of professional development is risk mitigation, so understanding the emerging risks schools are facing in 2021 is paramount if principals are to lead effectively, and responsibly.
“COVID-19 has caused great uncertainty for staff, resulting in a heightened need to provide a sense of security, stability and an increased focus on wellbeing,” Oaten told The Educator.
“Staff who don’t meet expectations and underperform are also a significant risk to a school, highlighting the importance of regular performance reviews, either formal or informal.”
Oaten said situations related to Child Safety, both past and present, also continue to be a priority and require principals to take action to ensure the wellbeing of all those in their care.
“Ensuring all staff are aware of their responsibilities and required documentation is crucial,” she said.
Dr Barbara Watterston, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), said experiencing the biggest disruption to education that schools have ever seen has required leaders to rethink and reshape the way they teach and lead.
“In Australia we witnessed a multitude of responses to the pandemic from complete school closures for significant periods of time to ‘business as usual’, all of which have impacted on students, families and schools,” Dr Watterston told The Educator.
“Despite major challenges, the response of teachers and school leaders reinforced the significant role they play in the lives of children and young people, their families and communities.”
Dr Watterston said leading in complexity and providing the enabling environments for leaders to do their best work requires a culture where positive and proactive mental health and wellbeing strategies are embedded in that work.
“Importantly for ACEL, this includes supporting school leaders in responding to crises and strengthening wellbeing initiatives by partnering with well-known thinkers and professionals in the field, together with understanding school/organisation community wellbeing, how children and young people have been impacted, what this means from a data perspective and how this contributes to a culture of wellbeing.”