As a school leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, Robyn Evans understands how overwhelming the shift to remote learning has been, on both a personal and professional level.
In July 2020, a report found that two-thirds of primary and secondary teachers have been working more hours than usual, and a separate study found that half of Australia’s teachers lack of confidence in meeting students’ learning needs online.
Five years ago – a point in time that seems like an entirely different world from today’s one – Evans took up the principalship of Casula Public School in Sydney. There, her dynamic leadership quickly began foster a vibrant and exciting culture of personalised learning and empowerment for students, staff and the community.
Prior to this, Evans had led two other schools, giving her more than 12 years of combined experience in teaching and leading within diverse communities.
For the past four years, Evans has also been the Vice and Deputy President of the NSW Primary Principals’ Association (NSWPPA), which represents 1,800 primary principals across the state. This role has given Evans a unique opportunity to gain some important insight into how the pandemic has affected the profession across NSW more broadly.
In October, Evans climbed up the last rung, stepping into her new role as president of the NSWPPA, a position she calls “both a privilege and an honour” and a chance to build on the outstanding work of the previous executive led by the immediate past president, Phil Seymour.
‘The administrative burden must be a consideration’
Despite the massive challenges that this tumultuous year has thrown at educators, Evans said she sees many opportunities to make positive changes.
“One of these opportunities is to further build on and embed the thinking around principal wellbeing which remains the number one priority,” Evans told The Educator.
“The wellbeing of the principal in our schools, shapes the culture and energy of the school – and in turn that of the students, staff and the wider community”.
Another major opportunity heading into 2021, says Evans, is improving school operations as education sector adapts to the ‘new normal’.
“The systems and practices the Department of Education and Government put in place in schools – how these systems land in our schools is critical,” she said.
“We must be mindful of the workload and time required – the administrative burden must be a consideration”.
Evans said the NSWPPA will continue to work in collaboration with key directorates in the Department to ensure excellence through the NSW public school system.
“This will also ensure that systems, curriculum and practices land well in schools and can be operationalised seamlessly,” she said.
“Closing the gap for all students to achieve their personal best is the key”.
Preparing for the big shake-up
In 2021, the NSW Curriculum will see its biggest overhaul in 30 years as new syllabuses are dramatically stripped down to focus on what is essential in each subject.
The review, announced in 2018, was sparked by educators’ concerns that the curriculum is too cluttered and doesn’t focus strongly enough on literacy and numeracy, the outcomes of which have been stagnating over the last decade, according to NAPLAN results.
Evans said the Association supports the review’s recommendations, particularly when it comes to decluttering the “overcrowded” Curriculum.
“This has been acknowledged by principals and teachers across NSW,” Evans said.
“The NSWPPA’s Curriculum Reference Group has invested much time advising and advocating for evidence-based practice to ensure principals and teachers can implement syllabuses that focus on students developing their knowledge, skills and understanding in an in-depth manner, focusing on outcomes and identified core content in each Key Learning Area”.
Evans said the Association also looks forward to working with the Department of Education and NESA to ensure the successful implementations of new syllabuses as outlined by the government’s timeline.
“We are keen to ensure that teachers have the required support, professional learning and resources to improve students learning in literacy and numeracy across all Key Learning Areas ensuring we teach and embed the skills including the general capabilities”.
Principal health and wellbeing in the spotlight
Evans said the opportunities to improve the state of Principal Health and Wellbeing have been clearly defined by Dr Phil Riley through his work through the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey over several years.
“The annual surveys indicate that the high levels of emotional demand are manifesting in increasing levels of burnout, symptoms of stress, anxiety, sleep issues, cognitive and depressive symptoms,” Evans said, adding that significant research by Deakin University through The Flourish Movement and Dr Adam Fraser supports Dr Riley’s findings.
“The professional learning through The Flourish Movement supports principals and school leaders to consciously shape their work and personal environment to enhance productivity and wellbeing”.
Evans said the NSWPPA is working with Dr Adam Fraser to ensure principals are “maximising their personal energies and expertise” to leverage the performance of teachers, support staff and administrators.
“This will in turn enhance workforce performance,” she said.
According to the research by Deakin University and Dr Fraser, the Flourish program has seen a 53% increase in principals’ available time to coach their staff, and a 28% increase in time spent on strategy.
Evans said many opportunities exist in the year ahead for improvement and refinement to department systems and practices, including focusing on reducing compliance and administrative burden on principals.
“The time and cognitive load required to implement change must be considered as part of implementing new policies, procedures and programs,” she said.
“A proactive approach to performance and wellbeing management staff would see Professional Development Plans and supervision conversations with line managers prioritised”.
Evans said it is equally important to ensure that time is made for principals to work in their key role as educational leader of the school, as well as Administrator.
“Acknowledging the importance of wellbeing and its link to performance could be further shaped by providing systematic training about principal wellbeing beginning at induction and continuing throughout our careers,” she said.
“Leading a school is about community – it is about people – our stakeholders – Public Education is the greatest of systems – schools are the heart of the community. The richness and diversity of Public Education is our priority as school leaders”.
Evans said principals who invest in their own wellbeing model and influence their Executive Teams, their Teaching and Administrative teams are best placed to thrive in the year ahead.
“School leaders must prioritise their health and wellbeing by modelling and promoting behaviours that maximise performance and effectiveness for the long term”.