Helping principals flourish
The Flourish Project is a collaboration between Dr Adam Fraser Consulting, Deakin University Business School and The Shoalhaven Primary Principal’s Council, designed to improve the performance and wellbeing of school principals. Dr Fraser tells Education Matters of the project’s genesis, achievements and why he thinks it can help principals thrive professionally, physically and mentally.
In February, the 2017 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey was released, reporting the latest annual figures on the state of our school leaders in a project that has run since 2011 and in which approximately half of the country’s principals have taken part.
The respondents reported high levels of job demands (1.5 times that of the general population), especially emotional demands and emotional labour. This correlated with higher levels of burnout, symptoms of stress, difficulty sleeping, cognitive stress, somatic and depressive symptoms.
The two greatest sources of stress for principals that have remained consistently high over the seven years of the survey have been the quantity of work, and the lack of time to focus on teaching and learning.
The report quantifies the effects of changes in the role of the school principal, as new technology, increased reporting systems and curriculum updates add to expectations from parents and communities to make many school leaders feel overworked and undervalued.
The Flourish Project came about in response to one such principal, Bob Willetts of Berry Public School, who decided it was time to do something about the situation. Mr Willetts called Dr Adam Fraser, whom he had previously heard give keynote speeches on education.
“He said, ‘I’m not coping, the principals around me aren’t coping. Rather than waiting for the cavalry, we want to be proactive about our wellbeing and hire you to come up with a solution for us’,” Dr Fraser said.
Dr Fraser brought Dr John Molineux from Deakin Business School on board to undertake research for The Flourish Project, looking at how the job has changed and how principals could work differently to become more efficient, while improving their mental and physical wellbeing. Mr Willetts was the driving force behind the program and helped customise the material for principals.
The initial research, which began in October 2016, involved the principals keeping detailed diaries and participating in surveys and interviews. It studied what the job entails, how much time is spent in each aspect, and how the principals feel about the different parts of their roles – what inspires them, what demoralises them and what strategies they use to manage their schools and their own lives.
The data was given back to individuals and their groups, typically of about 30 principals, and also shared with government and industry groups.
Getting that information surprised many of the participants, Dr Fraser said, as they hadn’t realised how much time they spent on some aspects, as they were simply too busy to quantify their time commitments.
“Due to the pace of their positions, their huge workloads and number of interruptions, one of the big findings was that principals did not know where their time went. Some of the groups underestimated their time on admin tasks by 200 per cent, and overestimated how much time they spent leading and coaching and developing people by 70 per cent.”
Dr Fraser said the role of a school principal was probably the broadest job he had ever seen, and the data allowed each participant to see just how their day was taken up.
“There are so many aspects to the job, and the job is so varied. Just the number of roles and tasks they go through in a day makes their heads spin.”
The volume of compliance and reporting has risen dramatically, as have the expectations of students, parents, teachers, staff, communities, and the media, he said. Parental interactions have become much more frequent across all socioeconomic levels, principals have reported.
“We’re also seeing a lot of change with social media as they are far more accessible,” Dr Fraser said.
There’s a constant juggle for principals, he said, of how to fulfil all the tasks that are part of their jobs while also keeping their families together and maintaining their emotional and physical health.
“They have to do things that are outside their training – conflict resolution, tree audits, fire safety – so many things that they never used to do that are not related to teaching.”
During the 12-month program, each group of about 30 principals takes part in a full-day workshop each term, is given behavioural resources such as videos and articles, and the groups form networks in which the members engage with and support each other.
This collegiate support is one of the factors Dr Fraser credits most with striking behaviour and attitude changes among those who have taken part in The Flourish Project. He spoke of a principal who shared a scathing letter she had received from a parent with the group members on their social media page. Not only did she get messages of support and understanding, but another principal in the group drove to her house to talk with her in person.
Another principal, who was mourning the unexpected death of a teacher who was also a close friend shortly before attending a principals’ conference, arrived at the conference accommodation to find her Flourish group waiting in her hotel room to show their support.
Thus far, 228 principals from New South Wales have completed or are still taking part in the project and the results, again taken from diary studies and interviews, have been clear.
In terms of efficiency, participants who have completed the project have reported a 22 per cent decrease in time spent on email and phone, a 15 per cent drop in time required for administration and compliance tasks, and a 27 per cent drop in interruptions.
The participants are reporting better work-life balance, with fewer taking stress related work home and more enacting strategies outside of work to reduce stress and look after themselves.
Most notable is a reported 56 per cent improvement in positivity towards work, an 18 per cent increase in energy levels and a 10 per cent increase in hope and optimism.
Dr Fraser said the department of education has been positive about the project’s results and the team is talking with all states in Australia in the hope of rolling out The Flourish Project nationwide.
Mr Willetts as also working with Dr Fraser and his team to develop and trial a school-based Flourish Project for principals to deliver to their staff. Mr Willetts said he is sincerely grateful that Dr Fraser has consulted him and other principals in every aspect of the project development since the two had their initial conversation.
Mr Willetts said he would highly recommend the project because it has been proved to support principals to take back control of their environment and make significant personal changes to enhance their productivity and wellbeing.
Dr Fraser credits several factors for the success of the project. First, he said, is the quality of the research the team does.
“Because we have studied them, we can give the principals very targeted things they can do.”
Having done that research, the project then gives participants evidence-based tools that they can implement to function more efficiently in their roles and also flourish in their personal lives.
Dr Fraser returned to the ‘buddy system’ the project’s participants develop as an integral part of strengthening their resilience as they share personal experiences and swap ideas with their peers – people who understand because they are also “in the chair”.
“You put 30 people in need together and they have some frank conversations and start to share and start to really generously care about each other,” he said.
Mr Willetts said the Flourish team had known since the initial feedback from the pilot group that the project was having a positive impact.
“The data from the Deakin University study is outstanding but it is the personal stories of how the project has enhanced the productivity and effectiveness of principals, as well as having a profound impact on their wellbeing and relationships, that is the real driver behind my passion for the project,” he said.