COVID-19 pushing principals to the brink – expert

COVID-19 pushing principals to the brink – expert

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the existing pressures felt by Australia’s principals, an expert on school leadership warns.

The latest national report into principal health and wellbeing found that nearly one in three principals face stress and burnout, as well as high levels of threats and physical violence by parents and students.

More than 84% of school leaders reported being subjected to an offensive behaviour over the last year, with 51% reported having received threats of violence, and over 42% being exposed to physical violence.

Richard Niesche, an associate professor of educational leadership in UNSW Sydney's School of Education, says the report shows that policymakers must pay heed if things are to change.

He says the principals he's spoken with recently point to the increased stress, anxiety, and workload they face under the present pandemic.

“The increasing pressure and workload being placed on school principals is unsustainable,” associate professor Niesche said.

“We know from Phil Riley’s annual survey of principal health and wellbeing that these issues have steadily been rising for years and the current crisis has only exacerbated them”.

He said the COVID-19 crisis has also “magnified” existing issues of inequality in Australia’s education system – particularly in terms of resourcing and funding.

“For schools serving disadvantaged communities, this has required extra planning and making sure all students have access to resources, equipment and support,” he said.

"It has taken a long time for many schools to even receive supplies of soap and hand sanitiser, for example. Yet they have had to remain open for students of essential workers”.

He said principals are also very concerned for their teaching staff.

“Balancing these kinds of wellbeing issues has been difficult with the added administrative responsibilities that burden principals,” he said.

"The constantly changing and often mixed messaging from governments and policymakers has made this a very difficult situation with school principals having to regularly change plans for staggered returns to school and so on”.

However, associate professor Niesche said he was impressed by the hard work and resilience that educators have shown despite these challenges.

He hopes that their efforts will be recognised by policymakers and the wider community, and that the present crisis will galvanise action to provide educators with the support they need.

“The care and hard work of all educators during this time has been nothing short of remarkable and is a testament to their hard work and dedication,” associate professor Niesche said.

“Principals have expressed to me their exhaustion but also their passion and willingness to go above and beyond in supporting their students, teachers and communities”.

Victorian Principals’ Association president Anne-Maree Kliman, a former principal of 15 years, believes that broader community’s increasing acknowledgement and appreciation of principals may lead to the culture shift the profession has long been calling for.

“We’re certainly seeing a growing appreciation and gratitude in the community for the work that our schools are doing,” Kliman told The Educator.

Kliman said if this culture shift can be achieved, schools are likely to see a big decline in aggression and abuse against teachers in the coming years.

“Right now, there’s an opportunity for shared appreciation, not just of what schools are going through but what home life is like…and this can help bridge the divides that have existed between schools and parents”.