Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, studies found that Australian school leaders were suffering from enormous workloads and excessive working hours.
In May, the latest national report into principal health and wellbeing revealed that principals are working an average of about 55.2 hours a week during the school term. Approximately 97.3% reported they work over 40 hours a week, with 72.4% reporting having worked over 50 hours a week.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, educational researchers and politicians have been eager to understand the ways in which students, teachers and school leaders have been impacted, and what can be learned from the crisis.
In an interview with The Educator, Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) shared the findings of a national study conducted by the Association and two researchers, Dr Amanda Heffernan and Dr Fiona Longmuir from Monash University, in August.
Researchers surveyed more than 3,000 school leaders and 4,500 students across Australia and identified what Pierpoint said were “three broad learnings” for school leaders around the importance of community, communication, and connection.
“What we’ve learned about community, for example, is that school leaders now all understand that they are key figures in their community,” Pierpoint told The Educator.
“Clearly, there’s a difference between rural, remote, Indigenous and large urban communities, but all school leaders essentially understand that they hold a very special part in their communities”.
Pierpoint said the reason for this is that all types of school leaders say they were the key person who “interpreted and re-interpreted” statements that were made on the news the night before by various politicians and medical professionals.
“A principal might be walking around the yard in the morning and a parent would approach them and ask: ‘what did that actually mean for us here at school?’. The principal would be that important filter that helps them makes sense of it all,” he said.
Pierpoint said school leaders have also appreciated that the home-school connection has never been more critical.
“We’ve seen school leaders openly sharing knowledge and practices with neighbouring schools. In some areas, this isn’t the norm because some principals can be very protective of their data and research”.
‘School leaders have never made so many wellbeing calls’
Pierpoint said school leaders have come to better understand that the methods and arrangements for communication are incredibly important, as well as how they become more connected to the various parts of their community through communication.
“I spoke to a deputy principal who was using Microsoft Teams to organise a year level assembly for his Year 11 students,” he said.
“There were 12 staff and 330 kids at the assembly, all connected to Microsoft Teams, listening to the announcements and protocols about what was happening across that year level. I find that unbelievably amazing”.
Many school leaders that Pierpoint has spoken to said they’ve never made so many phone calls to check that students, staff and families were all okay and that they understood the work they were being given during the switch to remote and flexible learning.
“Often, these conversations would focus strongly on the wellbeing of kids, staff and families. School leaders are genuinely concerned about how their community are feeling during this challenging time,” he said.
“School leaders from all around Australia also gave glowing reports about the speed with which teachers worked and how they’ve been able to make rapid decisions about really important things and then putting actions into place to prepare for remote learning”.
‘Stronger connections mean we’ll be better prepared next time’
Pierpoint said that in the early stages of the lockdown, many school leaders prioritised the wellbeing of parents, students and staff over the learning component, both in and outside of school.
He said this was driven by a realisation that staff who are mentally healthy are not only more productive but happier and more collaborative.
“These stronger connections between schools and families mean that we’ll be better prepared for the next disaster, because this will happen again,” Pierpoint said.
“It might not be a pandemic, it could be a cyclone or a bushfire, so whatever it might be, these learnings are profound”.
During the Association’s survey of school leaders, Pierpoint said four important factors were identified when it comes to preparing schools for the uncertainties of the future world.
“This included the rapidity of change and what was accomplished during the pandemic – and it bodes well for how we’ll cater for unexpected disasters moving forward,” he said.
“School leaders have always known that their staff are adaptive, caring and professional, but I really think this crisis has accentuated these qualities in a big way”.
Opportunities for transformation
Looking ahead, Pierpoint said he is most excited about schools utilising the key learnings around community, communication and connection that can being about meaningful change and greater academic and wellbeing outcomes for young people.
“This could be different from one school to the next. At one end of the stick, you might have remote or isolated communities, so the learnings there are going to be different to a large metropolitan high school,” he explained.
“However, it’s important to note that principals know their community and they’ll be able to make sense of those changes”.
Pierpoint said school leaders have reported being most concerned about uncertainties concerning the pandemic.
“For example, are there any medical health considerations about the virus we don’t know about yet? They might not suffer as much as adults from the virus, but is there a latent period? Do they suffer in the long term?” he said.
“Principals are worried what might happen to their staff if they fall ill – and this is at a time when there are also concerns about a decline in the number of teachers entering the profession”.
However, Pierpoint is hopeful.
“While the principal health and wellbeing reports might paint a gloomy picture, we’re seeing good progress across a number of areas, which principal associations are also focusing on in a big way,” he said.
“A few years ago ASPA began working with the mental health service Headspace around the care of the principalship, and that’s probably been the best strategic decision we’ve made, because who would have known we’d be here a few years ago?”
Pierpoint said that when taken together, the learnings from the Association’s study and the increasing focus on staff and student wellbeing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic show that 2021 could be a year of great opportunity for school leaders.
“Principals have never been busier, but they have also never been able to accomplish more”.