The issues that we raised in our first article regarding the ongoing problems faced by many principals are now being discussed by state and territory governments. Many are stepping in to ensure that principals are given the support that they need to complete a very demanding role.
According to a recent article in The Herald Sun, government school principals across Victoria will soon get free counselling sessions in a bid to fight against the stress and strain of the job. Victorian principals and acting principals will sit in two sessions with an experienced psychologist every year, while those new to the job will be required to attend counselling within eight weeks. The Victorian government stated that these sessions would help to “address any potential stigma associated with seeking professional support to enhance health and wellbeing”. Australian Principals Federation president Julie Podbury is also quoted in the article saying that counselling for those in the top job “makes a great deal of sense” and “Some of the things you deal with as a principal are so traumatic and so deeply personal it is absolutely critical people have a way to debrief.”
In Western Australia, the Department of Education focuses on ‘three stages’ of principals – new, accomplished and expert, with regard to support for principals. It provides a plethora of learning and support opportunities for their principals in all three stages. There are similar examples to be found in all states and territory education department websites.
The ABC published a very supportive article in 2018- ‘It’s a Lonely Job’: How can we help stressed-out principals? It described many of the statistics that were raised in the first part of this article and also referred to the ‘Riley Report’ (Principal’s Psychological Health: It’s not just Lonely at the Top, it’s Dangerous) by Associate Professor Phillip Riley of the Australian Catholic University. Riley notes:
"The demands of principals’ jobs are seriously out of balance with the diminishing support resources available to them. Increasing bureaucracy and government accountability has significantly eroded principals’ decision latitude to deal with their work demands, further increasing the strain. Primary occupational health and safety interventions are needed to relieve principals from some of their job demands and increase their job resources. However, principals’ increased need for systemic support and resources to deal with the challenges is occurring alongside severe cuts to education budgets, and is potentially placing the future of our children’s education at risk."
Dr Adam Fraser, author of the ABC article, led the "The Flourish Movement" a collaboration with the Deakin University Business School and The Shoalhaven Primary Principals' Council designed to reduce burnout and boost efficiency for principals.
From the research, The Flourish Movement designed a 12-month program to address the issues affecting principals, acknowledging that the job has dramatically changed over the years and focusing on:
- wellbeing – especially recovery using strategies to rest, reset and reflect
- efficiency – which focused on reducing interruptions with better email and telephone use, as well as effective and healthy use of portable technology
- resilience – which focused on coping with unhelpful thoughts and emotions using different psychological techniques
- purpose- which focused on reconnecting principals back to their passion for the role and the reason they became a principal in the first place.
The results as noted in the ABC Report are quite remarkable. Among the 228 principals who were involved in the project, there was a 360 per cent increase in the number coping well and a 56 per cent improvement in how positive they felt about work. “Twenty per cent of principals went into the program with the mentality that they were going to leave the profession because of the stress. They are all now staying, and many of them have received promotions.”
Teachers to Principals
However, regardless of the statistics and regardless of the incredible demands of the job, thankfully, there are still many teachers who aspire to be principals. They look beyond the day-to-day, the politics, the stress and the lack of time. They look at how they can develop, lead and drive the culture within a school.
If we want to continue to encourage (and retain) top quality teachers to aspire, and apply, to become school principals, take over as older principals retire, and lead our school culture without creating a greater risk of adverse health outcomes from the stresses of the job, we need to look closely at our school succession plans and at how we support our current and prospective school leaders.
Some of the final recommendations from the Australian Principals Health and Well-being Survey Report for Schools are to:
- take the moral choice of reducing job demands or increase resources to cope with increased demands. Better still, do both. This will help to increase the level of social capital in schools
- provide opportunities for principals and deputy/assistant principals to engage in professional support networks on a regular basis
- target professional learning that is likely to make principals and deputy/assistant principals feel better supported than they currently report
- trust rather than rule educators. Leave the mechanisms for producing the best educators to the educators
- increase social capital. Long term increases in social capital helped Finland become the world leader
- address bullying and violence. Stop the offensive behaviour from within and outside of the school community. This is beyond debate.
Minimising the Risk
The imminent retirement of a long-standing principal is a very clear strategic risk for school boards.
Boards need to plan for succession and they should have well thought out policies and procedures in place to mitigate this high level risk or they may then have a succession of new principals over a short period of time. This, in turn, could lead to a destabilising effect on the school’s reputation.
Indicators of reputation risk can be wide and varying, often coming from outside of the norm. So, you need to ask the question, “Is this an uncertainty that would impact on the school’s objective of having a positive reputation in the community and be held in high regard and esteem by that community?”