Brad Gaynor, President of the Australian Catholic Primary Principals’ Association (ACPPA), discusses the ongoing challenges and pressures faced by teachers and principals, and why it needs to be addressed.
In the last few years much has been written about how education is destroying teachers. High on the agenda is early career teachers leaving the profession in droves after five years. The impact Australia’s obsession with testing is having on teaching and learning and the interference of politics resulting in record levels of compliance and accountability is devaluing teachers and reducing deep classroom learning. The same can be said for many educational leaders. To put it simply – we need to let teachers teach, and leaders lead.
School leaders from all sectors – Catholic, government and independent – have had much to say about what is affecting and impacting on their role, and this is largely confirmed by Philip Riley’s extensive research into principal wellbeing. Many of the complexities of school leadership are compliance and accountability based. NAPLAN, learning progressions, NCCD, an overcrowded Australian Curriculum, assessment data collection, record keeping, reform agendas, not to mention numerous audits, surveys and regulatory forms and policies are all reducing a leader’s emphasis on teaching and learning. Added to this is rapid change and vagaries of Federal and State governments.
School leaders are also dealing with managing teacher performance and other human resource issues. They are dealing with complex student behaviours, mental health of staff, students and parents and unrealistic parent expectations. Isolation, limited resources, restricted access to professional learning and high costs are also affecting rural and remote leaders. A constant concern is ongoing social media and media scrutiny and negative publicity which is creating a poor public perception of teaching and school leadership.
So, what can be done about it? It is time to rethink what school principalship looks like. Authorities need to continue to be bold, despite financial and human resource constraints. These models need to be based on positive relationships, shared understandings and a common vision. They must be flexible and benefit the leader but advantage the students and school community. They require formation, support and reflection.
Ongoing advocacy is also vital. It often appears the profession is not being listened to and requests are falling on deaf ears, but school leaders cannot give up. We need to continue to campaign for involvement and representation of professional associations on working parties and forums that make decisions that impact schools and students; including unions and teachers at the coal face.
One of the most significant reforms is the need for a cultural and societal shift in politician and community expectations, perceptions and understanding of schools, teachers and leadership.
Schools cannot solve every social issue, teach more than they already are or be expected to take on new initiatives or so-called reforms. More importantly, it’s not okay to verbally abuse, intimidate or be violent towards school leaders. There needs to be a national campaign on what behaviours are acceptable. This goes beyond just school leaders but other frontline service providers. We need to rebuild trust in education and school leaders.
Another key improvement is the need to rationalise and centralise compliance and accountability requirements. Departments and systems need to consolidate services and minimise duplications to take the burden off schools and school leaders. Allow school leaders to focus on teaching and learning – it is our core business.
The significant increase in mental health issues, complex behaviours, social disadvantage, learning difficulties and disabilities requires significant restructuring at a school level. There needs to be an integration of community and family support services. Improved access to counsellors, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists and other health professionals will improve outcomes for students and their families.
Authentic formation and preparation programs for aspiring leaders and ongoing mentoring and coaching for school leaders is paramount in developing and retaining school leaders. Formation programs need to focus on developing clear understanding of the requirements and expectations of the role of principal, cultivate interpersonal skills, improve understanding of leadership and management practices and build capacity to lead school improvement, innovation and change. Current school leaders require effective and rigorous mentoring and coaching programs to continue developing skills and reflect on leadership practices. Essential to all levels of school leadership is the importance of developing network and support structures, especially for rural and remote school leaders. Networks which are regular and routine have a significant positive impact on wellbeing.
Without immediate action, education in Australia will continue to suffer. Governments, bureaucrats and system leaders need to include the profession in all levels of decision making – it is that simple. Teachers need to reclaim the opportunity to teach and school leaders need to be able to lead school communities.