#10 I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me. Part 2.

#10 I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me Part 2.

I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me Part 2.

Professor Philip Riley shares his thoughts about our education system, the unmanageability of the principal’s role, how it affects our health and the need to have conversations nationally where there are high levels of collaboration and trust. We finish the interview with Phil providing us with three key points and a strong message as to how principals can stay healthy and sane in the unpredictable world of the school leader.



You're listening to Loretta Piazza experienced school principal, mentor and coach. And together we're talking out at school. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences good and bad, agonized over decisions, and have tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.



Last week’s episode with Professor Philip Riley, the founder of the Principal Health and Wellbeing survey, really only scratched the surface.  In this episode, we get to the heart.  Phil shares his thoughts about our education system, the unmanageability of the principal’s role, how it affects our health and the need to have conversations nationally where there are high levels of collaboration and trust. We finish the interview with Phil providing us with three key points and a strong message as to how principals can stay healthy and sane in the unpredictable world of the school leader.


Interview with Professor Philip Riley

Loretta: Going back to about 2015. So it's a number of years ago. It was part of Mark Thompson's thesis, which he put to the department. And he, and I continued that research the following year after he'd already well, after he passed away, I actually published that. We specifically looked at assistant principals and they said, You know, I've been in the job for a long time, so I certainly have no intentions of being a principal. So the longer they had been assistant principals, the less likely that they were to step up to that next job. But what we did find also was this small group of very energetic and enthusiastic young males who couldn't wait to get into that job. I'm wondering what's going to happen to them?

Phil: Oh, that is the big question. And, um, one of the things that has worried me all the way through the survey and the more I've, um, learned about occupational health and safety is that, you know, stress kills people. And, um, it's often heart disease that creeps up. No symptoms, no, um, real indication that things are bad for you until suddenly you have a massive heart attack and either survive it and have to change your lifestyle hugely or don't survive it. I mean, you know, the classic sort of story of somebody who, um, is in their mid fifties or early sixties, who just keels over to the massive heart attack that nobody knew was coming. And they, they were thought to be fit and healthy and things. And this is clearly related to stress in the workplace and the literature is getting more and more convincing that this is a huge problem. And I do worry about these young principals who are in that highly stressful situation and think they're coping well. And if you, yeah, which clearly, um, the vast majority of them care a lot that makes you more vulnerable. So, they have to be, um, I think new structures about how these sorts of, um, particularly large schools are being run and a more seamless connection with departments, so that a lot of the administrative work that is really low level, um, can be taken away from the principals so that they just concentrate on the important bits of keeping the school running, which is the relationships between teachers and parents. And teachers and kids and all of that. And then making sure that there's, uh, an exciting curriculum that's meeting those kids each day. That's more than a full-time job.

L: Isn't it? Is there a difference, um, between male and females, how they approach the job and the repercussions of the job?

P: I don't think so. Really. Um, when you, you look at it, the people who there's a difference between, um, primary and secondary, more than between male and female, I think. And people always like to say, it'd be easy. You know, women have a more caring and males are more, um, cold and aloof or whatever. But I think that the, um, the reality is that, well, there are very few males in primary schools any more, which I think is a tragedy. We need a much better mix of males and females in both primary and secondary school. But we need to also have a societal structure that allows male caring to be seen as strong rather than potentially weak. And there's a bit of that kind of stuff. I think in society still the good male principals couldn't care less about that, but there's probably mythology out in the community that that is, you know, it's better for women to be doing the nurturing stuff. Well, actually it's not, it's really good for males to be doing nurturing stuff as well. So yes, that's a very long winded answer to say no, I don't think there's that much of a difference. It's much more, you know, personality differences, much more important than gender difference.

L: What about principals in low socioeconomic schools? Do they face any different sort of health issues?

P: Uh, we haven't looked at that in, in very broad terms where we can, but, um, my suspicion is there's not going to be that much difference. I think the types of stresses tend to change with socioeconomic status, but the, the level of stress is pretty constant. So it's a very stressful job. You're dealing with it in different ways and probably different levels of SES. If you know you're struggling with resources and things versus your struggling parents who are very pushy and want, you know, all sorts of other things added into the curriculum versus parents who are, you know, invisible or most. Yeah. And, and I noticed also it's the principals in the government schools also who have greater issues with their health.  Compared to say Catholic and independent.

L: Why do you reckon that is?

P: Yeah. Well, that's, that's interesting. I mean, part of that is if you look at it by year level at sort of prep years, or, you know, the early years of school, there's virtually no difference. And gradually what happens is both the Catholic system and the independent system are allowed to jettison their most difficult students. And they all end up in the government school system. By the end of, um, secondary school, the gap is really quite large, but it's, it's a kind of manufactured gap, um, that has happened through the years of schooling. So that's, I mean, it's a really tricky one. I, you know, I think we should be pushing for like Finland did in the 1950s and sixties that every child should really be going to their local school because of each school is as good as every other school where we have this kind of competitive system of, um, private versus public. And then, you know, add in a Catholic faith based system as well, as well as other religions too. Um, it's just a recipe for disaster in terms of how the society functions. And Finland has proven that because when they, they, they had a system like ours currently, um, with private public and people spending, you know, long time traveling from home to school to avoid particular schools and things and when they decided to revamp their system and said, you know, our greatest resource is our people. Why don't we invest in them? And then every school. Should be the best school in the area. That problem just basically disappeared. But I mean, look, it took a long time, but they decided to be completely bipartisan about education. Policy and education has never been, as far as I know, has never been an election issue in 20 elections or something since brought in those policies.

L: So is that the answer for us to take politics out of education?

P: Oh, I think so. I mean, the question is how, because we, with a federated system, I mean, we've all been introduced, I guess, in, during COVID to how powerful the states are. And the education system is no different in that, you know, the states really all technically legally can run their own race however they like. And the idea of a federated system is you know, it's, it's by consensus rather than by, by rule. But I think if we had a proper federated system that, that saw the, the peak of the system as being the school, rather than the department, and, you know, you flip that pyramid from top-down school, back to department and departments had a, a kind of, um, a service delivery model management, rather than command and control. We we'd have a lot of improvement in the system, I think because just as an example, you know, it's not the same being a principal of Borroloola in Arnhem land, as it is in north Fitzroy, even though you both have, um, a really relatively high indigenous population, it's not the same sort of.

L: Prior to this Labor government, we had the Liberals in power and their policy was to put all the authority and funding back into schools, individual schools. And I think on paper, that sounded absolutely fantastic, but it then meant that we didn't have a bureaucracy. We had nobody in region. There was hardly anybody in the central office and when we needed support, whether it was with, um, money or advice, or whatever, it just wasn't there. And that didn't work either.

P: No, and I may not have made myself clear, I don't mean that the system should be like that. I think the system should be, um, optimized so that, um, things like legal branch is available to everybody at any time. You know, those, those technical sorts of things that you need, the administrative load is taken away, taken away from schools so that, you know, salaries and all that sort of stuff, they don't have to think about, you know, in Queensland, the principals in remote areas have to manage all the housing for the teachers. Um, it's ridiculous. Um, but the principals should be able to spend the bulk of their time on the curriculum and how the relationships are going in that school, in their own context and working under a national plan of well, you know, everybody should be able to read and write and be interested in science and art and music and drama and phys ed and all of the other things that, you know, are in school. But they, they are weighed down by the really basic stuff of NAPLAN results and, or Year 12 results. If it's a secondary school, rather than what's a broad education, really look like what's the outcome of a good education. Not everybody can be a university professor, which is sort of the way, um, you know, curriculum seem to be written. Is that the only true success is that you become a professor in a university and we know the systems work properly?

L: So, how do we fix the problem? How do we make the survey results better? What are the answers?

P: Well, I think it's a slow burn thing. We have to have national conversations about the big issues, and we don't seem to do that. Everything is politicised. Conversations that really become meaningless, but we need to decide as a country what it is we want from our education system, and then handover the trust of the delivery of that to the professionals who are in place. I mean, the de-valuing of, of, um, teachers’ work and principals’ work has been just huge over the last 25, 30 years. And if you, if you listen to how some bureaucrats talk about principals, they describe them as, as something that sounds like a recalcitrant child, rather than, you know, a highly qualified professional person who is, um, doing their best to run their organization with probably far less resources than any other organization of a similar size would be provided with. So we've got to have a conversation. You know, we need some national drivers of this, some, um, energetic people who are going to drive this conversation and not give up when, um, it, it reverts to, you know, literacy wars or something silly like that. Um, and, and keep pushing away at it. And I think there'd be lots of support.

L: There's got to be a change of mindset also that you mentioned. What's that change look like?

P: Um, I think, well, a lot of it is probably around trust, you know, as a society, I think we've lost a lot of trust in our institutions. And, you know, probably for good reason, but if you, if there is no trust in the system, it's very hard to then give people the free reign, they need to run it properly. And, um, how you build that trust back up is, I guess, through deeds, we, we have to draw a line in the sand at some point and say, we're going to trust you to run this the way we expect it to be run and knowing that there'll be some failures along the way, but they'll also be certain successes and there'll be some unintended consequences and there'll be some intended consequences. And, um, we're going to support the people who, uh, need extra support and we'll probably take the foot off the pedal a little bit for some of the others who seem to be going okay, and can provide their own resources. You know, the money's never going to be huge. So I think we can better target who needs the help. And as long as it's presented as help, rather than management. Then principals can trust the people coming in to help them to, rather than saying, you know, why are they watching over my shoulder? What's wrong with me rather than, you know, the other thing. So, you know, it's not very nice, you know, there's no easy solution. That's going to take a lot of collaborative effort and a lot of working together and a lot of trusting in the professionals who are already there and valuing their opinions about what does and doesn't work. And then some of those people who, you know, maybe 25, 30 years into the job and are a bit cynical about how departments might have managed. So pull back a bit and go so well, I'll just leave my cynicism at the door here for a little while and see what we can do better. Yeah.

L: You also talk about that professional support and, you know, having been a principal for a very long time, I can honestly say that what principals want from the department is not always the sort of support that the department can offer. It's not that they don't want to, that they're not able to. So I think there is a real mismatch and a misalignment around what that support is, what it looks like and what the expectations are.

P: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And, uh, that's a very difficult, I, you know, I don't know how you solve that one because often when principals are looking for a big level of support from the department, they're at a desperate stage and they're probably not thinking as clearly as they might. If they're a bit more, um, you know, a bit less under the pump, um, and I've, I've found that working with departments over the years, that that's particularly true of, um, legal issues where, um, lawyers will often give them a, a kind of, well, there's this option, then there's this option. Then there's this option and you'll need to decide. The principal is really going, I just want you to tell me what to do. I've had enough with this family or with other one. Um, and they can't do that. Of course. So, yes, that's always difficult.

L: If you could give, um, a couple of say tips or solutions about how to make the principal's life better so that they don't become so unwell because of their job. So just a couple of things. What would they be?

P: Uh, I think the big one for principals to, to monitor themselves. Uh, are you sleeping well, and that means, are you sleeping enough? Firstly, I've, I've met… I don't know how many hundreds of principals over the years, over the years who, um, would say, oh, yeah, I sleep pretty well, but I only get four or five hours a night cause I'm working till 11 or 12. And then, you know, I'm up again early, so I can do a bit of exercise before I go to school. That's not a healthy lifestyle. You need to have your proper amount of sleep and you need that sleep to be restful. So if you're waking up at two in the morning, oh, I forgot to do this. And you know, all that sort of stuff, that is a really good indicator, that things aren’t right. And you need to do something about it. So you need to discuss that sort of stuff for the GP. So, you know, like they say in the airplane, when the oxygen mask drops down, put it on yourself first, before you go and help other people while it's really, that's got to be, the mantra that we all hold look after yourself. First, you have to be a model for, uh, for others. Principals have to role model healthy living in a school environment to the teachers coming up so that every teacher in that school wants to be a principal as well. So the next crop of them coming through can be good and healthy and, um, switched up. So that would be the first one. And I've, and one of the important things about that is being able to switch off. And it's much harder in an environment where you've always got your phone with you or has got a computer by you. You can always be doing a bit more work. Even if you're sitting at home work beckons, you have to find a way to mentally switch off. And as I've often said to principals, problems are very helpful. They'll wait for you. So they might disappear if you stop thinking about them. So they would be my two things on the personal level. And then the, I guess the third one at the systemic level is get to know the principals around you and get to know some of the departmental people around you and get a good relationship with them. No matter how much, how difficult that is. Make it happen because this is a collaborative game. And, uh, even though principals, uh, can be pretty isolated inside their schools, there is a lot of support out there. And, and principals generally speaking are very, um, collaborative when they're able to be so. As a new principal, particularly make sure you, you use that collaboration. It'll be very useful to you and it makes you kind of keep your ear to the ground a bit to you find out what's coming down the line, which can be useful to you as well. And then enjoy the job. Enjoy the kids. Enjoy working with the teachers. Don't be overwhelmed by the problems. Sometimes it's a good idea to just shut your office door, label the problems there and then wander around the school.

L: You know, it takes a fair bit of courage to be able to do that and say no to the department. And I think the more time we spend in the job, the easier it is for us to be able to do that. But the really one good thing is, um, even though burnout and sleeping problems and all those sorts of things, you know, are really huge for principals, the self-efficacy is well above the general population. So that says a lot about principals and the people who are running our schools.

P: It does. Yeah. They're a very important group and they're pretty, pretty much. They are, um, people who've chosen the career for all of the right reasons, they might make mistakes, but they've, they've done it for all the right reasons. nAnd I think at a very deep level, a lot of them know that. And that's where that self-efficacy, I think comes from, I can muddle my way through this and I will, you know, so there's a determination there as well as self-efficacy to get the job done.

L: So how long are you going to be running these surveys?

P: Well, it always depends on funding. So there's a funding application in to keep it going for another three years at the moment. We haven't heard the results of that yet. Um, but hopefully, um, for quite a number of years yet, because there's still a lot of work to do. And there's still a lot of, uh, information that, you know, needs to build up to potentially sway those in, um, power to. Think of it as a, uh, an important issue, an ongoing issue. I think without the survey, it would, uh, going into the background a bit blocked up in the process.

L: But I think it's very heartwarming to know for us here in Victoria, that our education department has introduced a number of initiatives to support principals and our aspirants as well to get them ready for the job. And I think that's, that's a very, very positive thing. And if any, if your survey has really helped bring all that to the fore, then we are very, very greatul. So on behalf of all the principals and assistant principals and aspirins, Phil, thank you very, very much. And on behalf of our parents as well, because we're doing a damn good job for their kids.

P: Well, thanks. It was good to talk.

L: Well, thank you very much. This has been really enlightening. Um, I wish you all the best and as you start to wind down, but don't wind down too much because you know, you're very skilled. You're very knowledgeable. You bring so much, you know, to this area.

P: There's a very, there's a very good team behind me who, who are continuing that work and will into the future. So it's, um, there's good news. There's lots of good things in the background.


Thanks for listening to this latest episode of talking out of school, where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs, and even the downright curious of the school leaders job. Want to know more?  Then visit me at shapingleaders.com.au

But for now here’s to staying ahead of the game.