Managing complexity: Practical tips for school principals

Managing complexity: Practical tips for school principals

There are growing concerns that Australia’s schools may be facing a looming principal shortage in the years to come, and going by recent data on the health and wellbeing of leaders, it’s easy to see why.

In March, the Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2022 found that principals are struggling amid a sharp rise in violent assaults, overwhelming workloads, and serious mental health concerns.

Adding to this triple whammy for principals is a worsening teacher retention crisis in the nation’s schools. According to a report from the Black Dog Institute, nearly half of Australian teachers are thinking about leaving the profession within the next 12 months – an issue the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. 

In 2022, after 18 years as a principal, Dr Loretta Piazza decided that she would retire mid-year, saying COVID-19 was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. But while she may no longer be sitting at the principal’s desk, she has been working to ensure those in the profession feel supported.

“Principal health and wellbeing remains at the forefront and is a priority like never before,” Dr Piazza told The Educator.

“In the coming months, a group of experienced principals will come together with community ‘experts’, in a series of round table discussions, to debate hard-hitting topics such as violence in schools, parent complaints and how to maintain perspective amidst the principal’s burgeoning workload.”

Dr Piazza says these conversations will provide insights, advice and practical solutions, enabling principals to feel supported and valued for their unending loyalty to their school communities.

When it comes to the ongoing contributors to leaders’ stress and burnout, the culprit, says Dr Piazza, is administrative workloads that are largely unrelated to teaching and learning and which take up valuable time leaders could be dedicating to what they do best – instructional leadership.

Below, Dr Piazza shares some helpful insights into how struggling leaders can better manage the pressures they’re feeling in their role to improve their work-life balance, workloads, and professional relationships.

  1. Restoring a healthy work-life balance

Separate work from home (easier said than done!). It takes discipline to leave unfinished work until tomorrow or the day after.

When home, disengage from emails and other work-related matters, particularly those that are non-urgent. Again, more discipline required to achieve this.

Try and walk or engage in some type of exercise, if not daily, at least three times a week.

Limit alcohol and eat well-balanced meals.

Proper, restful sleep is vital. If this isn’t happening, seek medical help.

  1. Improving relationships with colleagues

Network, network, network! Make time to meet with colleagues away from school for a coffee or meal.

Contact colleagues for advice, support or to debrief.

Attend network meetings, no matter how boring or how irritating they are. Make a conscious effort to chat with as many colleagues as possible.

If aware a colleague isn’t doing well, check in with them regularly. This will be reciprocated when you need the support.

Stand with your colleagues. If there’s a burning issue, voice the concern collectively. There is always strength in numbers.

  1. Making workloads manageable

Prioritise. Know what tasks are non-negotiable. If there’s a Ministerial Order attached to it, then you do it. If the task is in Schedule B of the principal’s contract, then you must attend to it. Don’t be a martyr; delegate where possible and when appropriate. (It is good training for other leaders in the school.)

Confidently and respectfully ‘push back’ on initiatives that you are asked to implement. Many less-experienced principals are under the impression that every time they are asked to implement a new initiative, they have no choice but to do so. Principals can say, ‘no’. If in doubt, ask for a directive to be put in writing (which rarely happens).

  1. Better managing staff, students and parents

Principals build strong, positive relationships with the school community but sometimes these relationships break down. As principal, recognise the inner feelings and emotions that are being triggered: is your integrity being brought into question? Are you feeling disrespected? Similarly, recognise the feelings and emotions that are being triggered in others, and build from there.

When needed, seek help. The APF and professional associations are great places to start.

Dr Piazza said that in a nutshell, “principals must prioritise tasks, learn to say, ‘no’ and develop strong networks with their colleagues”.

“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is critical. Principals must also reflect on their emotions and keep them in check as this is the only way to navigate challenging relationships.”