#11 The principal who paid the ultimate price.

#11 The principal who paid the ultimate price.

The principal who paid the ultimate price.

He was a giant in education, a respected school principal and dear friend, and a great family man. I keep a photo of him on my desk, to remind me that there is nothing in this job as school principal that I can't walk away from.....


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


We have all heard and possibly even used the term, it's always darkest before the dawn. In other words, things always seem the worst, right before they improve. It's this hope and optimism that gets us through. But what if there is no dawn? What if there is no hope or optimism, only pain and such an intense pain that you will do anything to make it stop? Today's story is about a man who was a giant in education. He was also my very dear friend and colleague. This story is about Mark Thompson. As I talk to Mark’s son Matt, there's just as much pain for me as there is for Mark's family, even after all these years. Matt shares his insights, at times in graphic detail. And if this is something you are not comfortable with, please stop listening now. What's discussed in this interview is of a deeply personal nature, and may be distressing to some listeners. If any of this raises concerns for you, please seek medical advice or contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.


Loretta: Hello, Matt, welcome to Talking out of school.

Matt: Hi, Loretta. Good to see you.

L: It's good to see you after all these years. Now, today, you produce the channel 7 news. What's your story? How did you get into that?

M: It's been a long time coming since about eight years of age, I wanted to be a journalist. And I worked my way up through local basketball was over a quarter and a quarter announcer and then got into radio while I was at uni, studying journalism did that. And then I worked at the AFL for a while. And then I went to channel seven about a year before the pandemic began. And I went there as the sports producer on the nightly news. And things changed. And somehow I ended up becoming a senior producer on the bulletin. And now quite often on the one that's in the control room, putting the bulletin to air at night. So I'm the producer in the presenters is talking to them through what's going on in the show. And that's obviously a whole day thing, putting all of that together. And we have a great team and there's no one individual it's a real team. First approach. And it's such a great industry to work in. And then particularly the past the past couple of years.

L: COVID Yes, yeah. It's been extraordinary. Yeah, absolutely fascinating. You know, we see the TV people, they've, they've got their earphones or their earpiece, and I often wonder, what are they hearing? So what sort of things are you telling them?

M: Oh, you know, for example, I don't want to date this, but just last night, we had some breaking news and the presenters were already on set, and we got to change the start of the whole bulletin. So you know, it's talking them through things that are evolving while we're on air. You'll remember that there was, we had an earthquake, we had a some riots in the city, when you're on air for that sort of thing, rolling coverage, the presenter doesn't have an autocue with all the scripts. You're literally talking them through what's going on. We're going to this, we're doing that. So that's a big part of my job as well. That's tonight yeah, and it's good because I did a fair bit on camera at the AFL and I've done a little bit of stuff on a channel seven, but I've just for some reason moved into this producing role and I absolutely love it. It's a privilege surely in the middle of one of the biggest stories of our lifetime to be so heavily involved in it.

L: So does that mean that you probably won't go back to being behind the camera?

M: Maybe not. But I won’t say never. But I do like this role very, very much. And I'm kind of on that career trajectory now. I did radio for a long time on and off as well and that's probably my first love still radio so I'd never say never have an opportunity to show up in radio again one day, but right now channel 7’s my home life and hopefully hopefully I'll have a big future there.

L: Good for you. Well, today's interview is really about your dad, Mark Thompson. I met your dad well over 30 years ago, and I've got some absolutely fabulous memories of him. He was quite the joker. And he used to tell the most outrageous jokes about your mother. Are you aware of that?

M: I don't know how mum put up with that, for all those years. She, I think she'd say she really loved it. And he loved her so much. They were a formidable team, the best parents to grow up with and hopefully gave me my sisters, all the values that we have today, particularly things like work ethic, which I think is so important to succeed professionally. Both of them were really excellent parents.

L: Now you're talking about your dad in the past tense. Now, there'll be quite a few listeners who know your dad because he was very, very well known in the education community. But there will be a lot of people who probably don't know what happened to him. On the seventh of December 2014, your dad took his own life. What were you doing? Where were you when you got the news from your mum?

M: I didn't actually get the news from mum, I was single at the time. Remarkably, my life's changed a lot since then, because I've never had a partner and two kids. But back then. I was living in an apartment in Hawthorne. And the night before, we'd been out for dinner for my sister's birthday for Vanessa's birthday, my younger sister, and mum and dad had had a dinner party at home, which was completely separate to that we were out with Vanessa's friends. We had dinner at Southbank. And then, you know, I've had I've had the work Christmas party not for so I had a bit of an early night, I was home by like 10 or 11. And I think they kicked on, as you'd expect the younger guys to do it or not. And anyway, that morning, I had a missed call from my brother in law, Daniel and I thought they wanted me to go and pick them up from somewhere there stayed somewhere in the city overnight or at a friend's house. And then he left home. That was my first thought as to what it was. And it's you know, it's it's a bit of a blur, but from memory, I ran back. And I think Vanessa answered and said, You've got to come home right now. And I said why what's happened? And I could tell no voice that was serious. I said, is it dad? And is he dead and I was in a state of disbelief. And so I hung up the phone, I didn't think I was in a position to drive. So I called one of my best mates and he gave me a lift back out to Greensborough. And on the way I called my other sister, and I'm like what's going on? This is Emma. And she was kind of still a bit in the dark as well. Anyway, all of that preceding couple of hours is a bit of a blur. But I was lucky in the sense that I didn't see the scene of the tragedy. For those that don't know, dad jumped off a bridge, you might know the bridge, the Greensboro bypass because it's a bridge that's become sadly a little bit synonymous with this type of thing. And as a side note, I don't think enough has been done about that. There should be barriers out there. And there still aren't as they talked about, and seven years on, it's been talked about. And Dad wasn't the first and he hasn't to my knowledge, there's been more since.

L: Correct. There have.

M: So anyway, that I didn't see the scene, which I'm forever grateful that I didn't have to have. My sister and my brother in law Daniel did and my mum did from a distance.

L: You know, I'm wondering here, Matt, you actually said to your sister, Vanessa, is he dead? Why did you straightaway jump to something happened to your dad?

M: Yeah. Because of the tone of her voice when she answered the phone . She said you've got to come home right now. And the only indication that I had had was on the fourth of December, which is my late grandmother's birthday. She was alive at the time. We had dinner at the old England hotel. And when we went to order dinner, mum said, Dad's not well, you know, he's had a bit of a tough time at work, but he's going to see someone and it's all under control. But you know, just so you know, tell him that you love him and all that sort of stuff. And I did that. I spoke to him on the Friday night, the Friday before the work Christmas party. He seemed fine. I told him I loved him. He said he was getting help for the work issues. And then on the Saturday I hadn't spoken to him because I knew he was having a dinner party. I explained to Vanessa. Yeah, we don't necessarily speak to him every single day, but I did pretty much speak to him every single day, it's just coincidentally I didn't speak to him on that Saturday. And then yeah. And then, you know, something snapped in his head on that Sunday morning. Mum still has so much trouble on Sundays. And I try to speak to her on Sundays, because Sundays are just horrible, because it's just yeah, I still have the vision of it and the scene, I still have that thing. That idea the concept of what must have been going through his mind to leave the house, run a kilometre, kilometre and a half up to the bridge. You know, you just, it's, it's inexplicable.

L: You know, you're saying that your mum has issues with Sunday mornings. I just, I was with your dad, right up until about 5.30 the day before. He rang me, I was at the farmers market in Bundoora. He rang me. And he asked me, if I had some time, just to go over and take a look at his response. Now we'll go into that in a little bit more detail. So I was pretty well with him the whole day. And you do have trouble because you keep thinking to yourself: should I've seen something? Could I've done something differently? So I can imagine how that's playing on everyone's minds, especially your mum. And my one big regret, Matt, is that your dad and I…I sat in my car with the door open. And he stood there. We were there for about half an hour before I drove off. And I asked him to come with my partner and I. If he and your mom would drive with us down to the coast because I needed to do a little job at our beach house. And I really regret not going back inside and saying to your mum, why don't you and Mark come with us tomorrow? You have no idea how I regret that. Because if we did leave at eight o'clock, like I wanted to, it could have been a different story. But anyway….

M: Sliding doors….

L: Yes. Look, it is, it is and that's something that we all live with. Now, what do you know about what went on prior to this?

M: So I, you know, there's mixed feelings within our family, even there's mixed views, I guess about the significance of what was going on. At school, there was a, you know, the number one thing I can take a step back for a second, one more thing about Dad, the number one thing about that, and mum as well as educators was that their number one priority was the children. Like, beyond any shadow of a doubt, their number one priority was the welfare of children. They love kids, and they loved making a difference in their lives. They were such passionate educators. And you know what, for me, that's such a great inspiration. That's why I'm so passionate about my career. And my job because I learned about that from my parents. So dad would never have done anything wrong by a child ever. But there was this woman who was accusing him of refusing to let the child enrol in the school, because of I believe was autism is that your disability or disability of some description, which was not the case it was it was more to do with the location where the child lived, is from my understanding. But anyway, this woman was taking action. She was relentless. She sent a Christmas card to him which had this horrible message inside. And then the department was effectively taking the parent’s side for some reason. And that's how it feels to us. And I've tried to look at it objectively. I mean, I understand the department has to go through processes and stuff. But there was no support. For Dad, obviously, he was, you know, it was more it was a problem for the department. And he needed to fix it.

L: It was a problem for the department because the complaint went firstly to the minister then to the ombudsman. And there were about another three or four people on that list. And when something of this nature is distributed as widely as this letter was, or this complaint, the department feels that it has no choice but to act on it. So that's the background of that.

M: Well, that's fair enough. I don't actually have a problem with that. But there's just a bureaucracy in place when you can't just… Yeah, it was almost like it to me. I think dad felt that it was he was just being blamed without being given any chance to explain this. It's the circumstances it was just this is a problem, we have to fix it. And there is no system or mechanism in place to actually deal with it as an issue for what it was. It was more than it was a problem about probably worried about it getting into the media, for whatever reason. That's always a factor in government departments I've come to learn is yes and, yeah, that ended there was just no support. It's, it's pretty shocking. And yeah.

L: What went on prior to your dad receiving this letter of complaint?

M: Yeah. So I'm not across all of this. This is where you might know more than me, I'm not across all the details there in terms of what had happened. I know he’d been having a little bit of a rough time, because he was, what was it called a regional network leader. So he had, he did that for five years. And he worked very extensively with Strathuen and that community off the back of the Black Saturday bushfires, and that I think, affected him greatly. And then there were structural changes to the department. And it was decided, mutually I believe, for him to go back into a school.

L: Yeah, he went back into a school because he knew the job as regional network leader was changing. It was going from educational leadership, to a more managerial, you know, managerial focus, which he didn't want to do.

M: That's right.

L: And that wasn't in his heart. Because you said it. You hit the nail on the head before when you said that he was all about kids. And his love was to, to help kids and teachers and be in schools. And so he applied for schools. And do you know what went on when he applied for schools?

M: No.

L: Maybe I do know a little bit more than you. The school where your dad was the inaugural principal. It actually came up as a vacancy once again. Yeah. And he went in there as the acting principal for some time. And they loved him. And they wanted him to apply for the school and be the principal again. And then it just so happened that another school close to your home came up. And as your dad kept telling me, it's only seven minutes away. You have no idea the conversations that we had.  I said to him, Mark, take the other school, you know it. Okay, there might be a few crazies out there, but you know them, you know the people, you know this school, you're familiar with it. But he accepted the offer. And the rest is history.

M: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I think that the school that he went to, had great potential, it was in a great area. And I think part of that only seven minutes away, to give you an insight into his thinking would have been that he would have wanted to have been spending more time with mum. And mum at that stage was the principal of a not a founding school, but a school that had relocated and reopened on a new site. And mum was doing, like extraordinary hours. And he was such a great support to her.

L: Yes, he was.

M: And I think he wanted to be around more to support her. And I think he thought that the school he was going to have the ability to, you know, just fit in a little bit more than his lifestyle as he was kind of he was heading towards retirement and, you know, eventually and he did obviously complete his doctorate with yourself, which we were so proud of.

L: And it was, you know… it normally takes people six years, but it took us nine. It was hard going but we got it done.

M: And you know, and I felt that he had so much to offer and that he could have, you know, semi retired and worked with you and help teachers of the future and principals of the future. And, you know, all of that is sadly lost. And you know what, it's lost for mum now too, because mum has so much knowledge. And now she's lost to the system as well. Because she just can't, she just doesn't want to do it. And that's really disappointing, because she's a very, very smart, talented educator. And yeah, she went back to school for a while, but it was just too tough.

L: It was a big pain that she carried. She still carries. Looking back were there any signs?

M: Oh, I really don't think so. There was no sign that something this drastic was gonna happen. Like, you know, I'm always ….what I don't like living in the past. As a person. I don't know why. I just never really have. I'm always looking to the next challenge. I think Dad was a bit like that too. But he, you know, Dad always dealt with things. He was always the one I went to for advice. Like almost daily when I was having, you know, you have issues at work or whatever. And you know, that's something that I've missed for the past seven years. But yeah, was there was never ever, ever any indication that something this dramatic or drastic would happen.

L: Did you talk about this with your mum after the fact? Or was it too painful?

M: You know, you have to go through the phases of grief. And we all had counseling and stuff. But, you know, I think we did. We were always there to support him, as he was always there to support us. I don't think I don't have any regrets in that sense that, you know, I could have stepped in and done something. Because there was just no indication, like, you just wouldn't, I just couldn't imagine that a man as intelligent as my father, could one Sunday morning, have something snap in his head, that while mum’s in the shower, he leaves the house and runs to the top of a bridge and jumps off it. Like, you just can't, I don't know how anyone can see that coming in a second.

L: Look, Matt. And that's why I look back because I spent a fair bit of time with him in the lead up to his death, and I keep looking for signs. And, you know, I get goosebumps to think, did I miss something? Could I have done something differently? Could I've said something? So if you were to give advice now to the department, what would you say to them about this?

M: Well, I don't think that's, I think the approach they need to consider the fact that there, there are always two sides to the story. And to be honest, the way life goes these days, there's five sides to every story. You can't just lay the blame on the principal of a school, particularly when parents these days have this expectation, like the respect for teachers and principals compared to what it was 20 or 30 years ago is out the window. Now, that's not to say that the practices 20 or 30 years ago, were excellent, because there were probably some practices of teachers and principals that these days would be considered completely inappropriate. But we have all sorts of regulations and processes and policies and procedures that teachers have to follow these days that they didn't have to follow back then. And they're all following them. And I'm not saying that every teacher or every principal is always going to make the right decision. But there can't be an attitude of blame from the department before there's been any kind of reasonable level of conversation or investigation. It was just, I think that he felt like he was just being persecuted. And that they were just taking the side of this parent who wasn't actually even apparent at the school. I don't think she had another child at school. She was just trying to get her child into the school. You know, and this, this permeated around, obviously, in his head. I mean, I know he was worried about it. But I think that it was a combination of other issues too, most likely, you know, like, potentially the I look back and say maybe, you know, the Black Saturday stuff, maybe that took a greater toll on him than I thought it did. I just thought he was heroic. And he received that award from the Premier for something outstanding. That was just such a pivotal role in a time of great distress. But you know, maybe that, maybe that was part of what got to him. For some reason. He couldn't rationally deal with this because he felt like he was being persecuted by the department.

L: When I sat down with your dad, Saturday afternoon, the day before, he opened up his laptop, and I expected to see his response to the minister, his version of events. And you know what he had written in huge font across the screen of his computer?

M: No.

L: Discrimination. I couldn't get over it. And it was in his head and he couldn't get it out of his head. Because he was being accused of discriminating against that child.

M: Yeah.

L: And for him, that was the ultimate insult. And it was it just went against everything that he stood for.

M: Yep, and I hadn't actually thought of that word for a while but I do remember now that that was at the heart of it. And he believed so strongly and doing right by people. You know, and it's just really sad, isn't it that he had to that these final days he was dealing with this. And he couldn't rationally do anything to get that accusation. and all that out of his head. I don't know, when none of us know what actually might have happened next, if it had got to the department and someone there maybe had have looked at it rationally, as opposed to looking at it as a problem that needed to be fixed.

L: Look, I have no doubt that once the department got his response and investigated, he would have been cleared, no doubt at all. Because the mother who wanted to enrol her child, she lived outside of the zone. And she was asked, like all schools do, to show proof that she was living within the area, that's all.

M: Yeah, no, that's not, it's not ridiculous.

L: So he didn't do anything wrong. And yet, I think this was probably more about how, how can somebody accuse me of this, it's just not true. And he just couldn't, he couldn't deal with it.

M: And there's got to have been reasons for that. And I think those reasons go back probably years, and they go back to the department and the way the department helps principals, become leaders and deal with this sort of stuff, because principals are dealing with more rubbish now than they were dealing probably with what dad was dealing with 10 years ago. Yeah, it's sort of odd.

L: I think so that, look, the department has got a lot of processes, a lot of programs in place. And they're very helpful with the technical. But managing yourself emotionally and mentally is a totally different thing. And this is why we tend to rely on our, on our colleagues a lot, you know. We form those strong networks, and you know, we go see a psych and, you know, do all those things, because the department doesn't know how to help us other than to say, you know, you can have six free sessions with the psych, you can go to the doctor, you know, and have a health check, which most workplaces do these days. Yeah, that's great. Look, that's great. But it probably doesn't go enough, not not in this job.

M: It's a box ticking. That's, you know, it's largely that's, that's for them. And that's for organizations to tick a box and say, well, we want to, we offer all this, although all these things, but I don't think that there is…. you can tell me if it's changed, but I don't think Dad’s circumstances and mum's problems for that matter as well, there was practical, real practical support available. And I think to a large extent, that's what the regional network leader’s job that dad had, did provide to principals, he did such a great job with that. And then when he needed that sort of support, there was no one there for him.

L: His colleagues were there. That's about it. You know, the rest of the department, they were working through a process. And look, the other side of that is that it's all confidential. So really, he wasn't even at liberty to ring up his closest mates and say, Look, I need, I need to get this off my chest, because officially he wasn't allowed to. And that's a real downside of all of this too, when you actually need to talk to someone in the hope that they'll give you that moral support. Your hands are tied. What would you tell principals about looking after themselves?

M: Trying to have work life balance, I think is really important. Have other interests. And try not to, try not, you know, it's it's hard though, because dad's job was his life and that, you know, his kids and his, his wife was too. But, you know, they say in my industry, journalism is a lifestyle. As much as it is a career. You know, I live for my job. I follow the news all day, every day, whether I'm on holidays or not, because I'm interested and I want to know how it works. I want to know what's happening. And that's probably something I get from dad and dad was a bit like that with his work. So yeah, I guess, work life balance is one thing. I think that's really important. And a legacy that I hope my dad leaves is just don't forget what the main aim is. And that is the kids that he's that he's helping, you know, the kids of today become the leaders of tomorrow. And I know that sounds cliche, but it's that's what he wanted to do. He wanted to help kids get the best start in life. And that's a pretty important job.

L: How were you and your siblings coping after seven years? Has it gotten easier?

M: No, just it's further, it's further back in the distance, but it's doesn't get easier. I still live with them. I live with the thoughts that the same thing might happen to me that I might one day become sick like that. And that's actually quite frightening.

L: Absolutely.

M: It's not something that the rational me would ever consider doing. But he was, you know, he was, to my knowledge, you know, a very rational, sensible guy as well.

L: And if you were to disclose something like that, to your dad, what would he say to you?

M: He probably would have said that that's ridiculous. You know? I know my mum has, I've told her that I have that fear.

L: Is it because it came out of the blue with your dad? Or is it because you actually do feel those emotions? And those thoughts?

M: No, I don't feel those thoughts. No, I think it's because it came out of the blue with that. Yeah. And that, you know, that, could there be something genetic about it, you know, that mental illness becomes a thing as I get older? Yeah, it's just something that I have to be really conscious of, I think. But can you imagine like, it's, you might say, that's an irrational fear of mine. But it's, it's real. It's just there in the back of my head that something might go wrong in my life, but

L: It's not different to say a parent dropping dead of a heart attack. And you saying to yourself, well, is that genetic?

M: Exactly.

L: Will that happen to me?

M: That's it. Yeah.

L: Or will it happen to one of my siblings? You know, or one of my kids?

M: Yeah. Yeah. I don't think it is genetic, by the way.L: But you know, I guess the really big question here, Matt, is that we didn't see your dad suffering from depression and, and sometimes from depression comes suicide. Look, I'm not a doctor, a psychiatrist. I don't know how all this works. But with your dad, it came out of the blue. And I'd really like to follow up, not with you. But you know, medically, we've had many people who commit suicide, does it just come out of the blue? Because it's, it's just so hard to get your head around?

M: Because it's an extreme, isn't it? Like, on the whatever it was the Thursday, you know, he went to the doctor. He was getting help, he was going to see a counselor like there was he was in the process of getting help. So he's following all the right rational steps that someone in that situation would. So that's what doesn't make any sense. How does that happen? One Sunday morning. Just one Sunday morning, in December, when you're looking forward to Christmas with your family. And Vanessa's birthday, was a couple of days away, like, and our lives changed forever.

L: And how's your Mum? How's she coping?

M: She's got golf. And she has all grandkids now. She's got four grandkids.

L: And unfortunately, your dad missed them all being born.

M: He would have been a great poppy. And the kids, my kids know. There's photos around the house and they know that that's their poppy. Yeah, she's doing okay, but it still hurts.

L: And do any of us ever get over this?

M: Well, no, you just learn to live with it.

L: Yeah, I see your mum from time to time. And I asked her if she would talk to me about this. And she said, No, I can't do it. No, no, I just cannot do it anymore.

M: Yeah, she has done one interview in particular that's available online. If people who are listening to this want to know more about the story from her perspective.

L: Is that the article in the Age with Henrietta Cook? Yeah, what I'll do….I have actually downloaded that and I'll put the link in with this interview on my website's blog if anyone's interested. Well, look, Matt. No, can't take back what's happened. And I think the fact that you tend to focus on the future, that's a very, very positive thing because you can't go forward if you keep looking backwards. So that's a really good philosophy. You've got two gorgeous kids. You've got a beautiful partner, your siblings, you know, you've got a lot of people there to support you. And you know, and you've been extremely successful in your work. And I know that, as you say, that comes from the very strong influence of your parents, both mum and dad. So I'd like to say to you, thank you very much for your time. Now, I know you've shared some really personal things with us and you know it's not easy.

M: No, it's not easy. But I guess the final thing I'd say is that I think my dad would be proud of me speaking about this sort of thing. Because if me talking about this, which I've done a couple of times before, can help, particularly in a targeted podcast like this, which is going to be listened to by principals, and teachers is, is my story and dad's story and our family's story can help just one person, then yeah, that's, that's a good thing. And that's kind of his legacy, I guess.

L: Absolutely. I wish you all the best to you, your mum, your family. Take care.

M: Thanks.

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 shaping leaders.com.au

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


Additional resources

Henrietta Cook's article published in The Age 20 October 2016

Lynda Thompson's story