Emotional labour in volatile times - Education Matters Magazine
All Topics, Australian Secondary Principals Association, Opinion

Emotional labour in volatile times

The principal’s role is changing, placing greater demand on their emotional management capacities to navigate diverse school demographics, outgoing Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) president Andrew Pierpoint writes in his final column for Education Matters.

If you are a principal in an Australian government school, Monash University want to hear from you. To share your story, go to https://www.monash.edu/education/research/projects/school-principals-emotional-labour-in-volatile-times

This article was co-authored by Jane Wilkinson, Lucas Walsh, Amanda Keddie, Fiona Longmuir, Christine Grice and Philippa Chandler.

In nations such as Australia, principals are being forced to navigate increasingly diverse and often volatile school settings and communities, arising from issues associated with identity, difference, privilege and marginality in areas such as sexism, racism, homophobia, gendered exclusions, Islamophobia and radicalisation (Howie et al., 2020; Keddie et al., 2018; Wilkinson et al., 2018; Zembylas, 2020). 

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated relational tensions in schools, with the highest ever recorded levels of burnout and cognitive stress amongst school leaders (See et al., 2022); record levels of mental health issues for children and youth (Brennan et al., 2021) and rising levels of poverty (Davidson, 2022). 

In addition, externally imposed accountability measures have increased principals’ workloads and added to the complexity and scope of their role (Heffernan & Pierpoint, 2021). 

These factors, along with increased market competition, have intensified relational tensions within and between individual schools and school systems.

These circumstances are not peculiar to Australia. One in three Australian principals’ health and wellbeing is deemed to be at serious risk (See et al., 2022), a pattern echoed in England (Thomson et al., 2021), New Zealand (Riley et al., 2021a) and Ireland (Rahimi & Arnold, 2022). 

The pandemic has exacerbated these stressors in Australia (Longmuir, 2021) and internationally (Hsieh et al.,). In turn, this is leading to an exodus of school leaders and a reluctance from teachers to apply for the principalship in Australia (Riley et al., 2021) and England (Thomson et al., 2021). 

Public schools in nations such as Australia are particularly vulnerable, for they grapple with a disproportionate number of students from equity backgrounds, including refugee background students with high levels of trauma (Wilkinson & Kaukko, 2020), students with disabilities, and children living in severe poverty (Rorris, 2020).

These intensified social and political volatilities place new demands on principals. They require principals who can harness community and bridge building skills carried out in increasingly polarised communities. In addition, they demand the requisite emotional management capacities to navigate diverse school demographics in holistic and socially just ways. 

This form of work involves ‘emotional labour’, that is, the capacity to manage one’s emotions and that of others (Hochschild, 2012). It is a crucial aspect of principals’ work (Beatty, 2000; Blackmore, 1996; Crawford, 2009; Oplatka, 2017). Yet, much remains unknown about the emotional labour of principals (Maxwell & Riley, 2017). 

What is known is that the skills required to manage competing demands, and the emotional capacity to switch seamlessly between stakeholder interactions whilst simultaneously impression managing, can impact on health and wellbeing. In turn, this can lead to chronic stress, feelings of burn out and lowered job satisfaction levels (Berkovich & Eyal, 2015; Heffernan & Pierpoint, 2021). 

Yet education policies, workforce development/induction programs and principals’ standards are largely silent about this form of labour. This is even though these skills and capacities are indispensable in fostering the kinds of necessary conditions for students, schools and their communities to be healthy and thrive (Walsh et al., 2020). 

This is particularly the case for public schools where disadvantaged students are predominantly located and women principals are typically over-represented given social perceptions of them as skilled emotional managers (MacDonald et al., 2021).

Monash University national study 

Monash University is conducting a national study of Australian Principals’ emotional labour.

This project investigates the intensified emotional management workload demands of the principalship required in current socially volatile times. Funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and running from 2
023-2025, it aims to:

(a) capture concealed aspects of principals’ emotional labour (via principal testimonials on a national website, focus groups with key stakeholders);

(b) map this labour in its granularity and specificity through in depth case studies of practices of principals’ emotional labour in Australian government schools; and

(c) generate new understandings of the moral and ethical complexities of this labour and the conditions that enable and constrain principals’ practices in this area.

The study has begun with a survey of these emotional complexities of principals’ work. It provides a chance for principals in public schools to tell their stories about how these demands are impacting the nature of their work. It will provide new understandings of the changing nature of the principals’ role when it comes to these emotional demands. 

A publicly available website that curates, in de-identified form, some of the principals’ stories will give the public a glimpse into the new emotional intensities of principals’ work. It aims to build public, media and political awareness of principals’ day-to-day emotional challenges.

About the ASPA president

Andrew Pierpoint

Andrew Pierpoint has over 38 years of experience working as a secondary level science teacher, Head of Department (Science), Deputy Principal and Principal as well as having several system positions in the support of Principals. Throughout his career, Andrew has worked in complex rural and remote communities through to large regional and metropolitan schools. He has led communities and reference groups at district, regional, state, and national levels. Andrew’s special interests are the provision of high-quality professional learning for school leaders and improving the wellbeing of school leadership.


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