Opinion: Expert panel findings are in, but better support for Principals needed

Opinion: Expert panel findings are in, but better support for Principals needed

In March, Education Minister Jason Clare announced this expert panel will provide advice on the key targets and specific reforms that should be tied to funding in the next National School Reform Agreement (NSRA).

This joint agreement between the Commonwealth, states, and territories sets out directions in national policy and reform over the next five years. It is central to how schooling works. The panel report, just released, has suggested areas for focus and investment including: improving principal and teacher attraction and retention; strengthening high-quality professional development, support, and connection for principals, teachers, and other educators; better supporting teacher wellbeing in schools by investing, for example, in wellbeing coordinators; and celebrating the profession.

Currently, principals are stressed and leaving the profession, or thinking about leaving, at alarming rates. Australia is confronting an occupational crisis arising in relation to the health and wellbeing of school leaders.

There are persistent pressures and problems in relation to burnout, excessive workload, as well as conflict within school communities, amongst students, between parents and carers, and educators. An Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Survey shows the impact of these pressures. For example, over half of public school leaders are at risk of a serious mental health concern in the coming years.

The reasons are complex. Principals are a key figure in their local communities. The day-to-day work principals encounter when engaging them is messy. They have to manage very complex issues within their communities as microcosms of wider society and routinely have challenging conversations to foster social cohesion in their school community.

This involves labor that goes into managing their own emotions and negotiating the emotions of others; intense work that is often not visible. Our new national study is setting out to understand this emotional labor. We are asking principals what they identify as critical incidents, and how they deal with them. We’ve collected over 170 stories from principals about how they dealt with challenging issues in their schools and the emotional work behind managing them. Many are confronting.

Principals responding to our survey had to handle natural disasters, arson, suicides, allegations and disclosures of sexual abuse, violent students and parents, children who need more support than is possible, deaths of staff or parents, accidents on the school site leaving children injured for life, and more. Principals respond in a variety of ways, including recognizing their own strength and resilience.

So why do they keep going? For many school leaders, school leadership is more than a job or a management position. They have a very deep personal investment in what they’re doing because principals want to make a difference in kids' lives. They gain great personal and professional satisfaction out of their role. But the workload and intense emotional demands of the role can come at a real cost to mental health and wellbeing.

Principals are pivotal to what the panel recognizes as a need to strengthen “links between schools and community and health services, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities, to ensure that schools and students receive the support they need”. It has suggested incentives to attract and support highly effective leaders and teachers to stay in disadvantaged schools.

While the Panel found that “the workload and expectations on teachers and school leaders have grown over time, affected by the changing economic, cultural, and demographic conditions that are transforming every profession”, principals in government schools face unique pressures because many are required to work in these particularly challenging disadvantaged, as well as regional and rural communities, in which “student need and greater challenges accessing the wider range of supports locally” are particularly complex.

School leaders are central to building “supportive partnerships between principals, teachers, parents, and communities.” These communities additionally find recruitment and retention of staff even more difficult, as the panel suggests; “The current teacher shortage is likely to make support of these schools that much harder.”

As a report for the Australian Primary School Principals Association and the Australian Secondary School Principals Association argued this year, "Principal turnover has serious consequences for student achievement, community engagement, and teacher satisfaction and retention."

While there are already wellbeing programs and support for principals, we need to develop better, productive ways that principals can be supported, particularly when principals confront critical incidents. But the NSRA will have to walk a delicate line when fostering change.

As the panel finds, “change and reform” are already “taking a toll on the teaching workforce, undermining efforts to attract new entrants and retain those with experience, including principals.” To support attraction and retention, reducing workloads and celebrating the profession are just the beginning.

Australian government school principals can participate in the survey here.

Professor Lucas Walsh, Dr. Philippa Chandler, and Professor Jane Wilkinson are from the Faculty of Education at Monash University.