#14 The principal, authenticity and the glass brimming over.

#14 The principal, authenticity and the glass brimming over.

The principal, authenticity and the glass brimming over.

My 'partner in crime' opens up about his somewhat problematic relationship with the Department of Education. But he will always be authentic and honest because that is the person he is. This philosophy has stood him in good stead because after many, many years as a school principal, he goes to school every day and continues to give it his best shot.


Loretta  00:03

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 of tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.


During this series about the principal just doing their job, we covered quite a few topics, and heard several heartbreaking stories. But today's story is an uplifting one. And sometimes just a little bit irreverent. My guest is Berwick Lodge, Principal, Henry Grossek. I'll let him tell you how long he has been a principal. Yes, he's outspoken and a critic of education policies. But he's been around long enough to know the job inside out. And he understands its complexities. But most importantly, he's living proof that the job doesn't have to destroy you. I have great respect for Henry because it takes courage to publicly voice your opinions, especially when bitching in the corridors is a much safer and easier option. As series two comes to a close, let's not get too hung up with glass half empty issues. Let's do what we need to do to stay ahead of the game and to keep ourselves healthy and well. Henry, it's now over to you to wrap things up.


Henry, welcome to Talking out of school.

Henry  01:46

Hello, Loretta. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Loretta  01:49

How long have you been a principal for?

Henry  01:52

I'm now in my 37th year in total at three different schools

Loretta  01:58

as principal? 37 years? Geez, you must have been in nappies when you first became a principal because you're a very youthful looking man. What makes you youthful and energetic?

Henry  02:14

Well, the truth is that I wish I had been in nappies when I became a principal because I would have been another 20 or 30 years younger than I am today. But so thank you for the compliment. Look, there's there's a number of reasons. Obviously, one of them is I think, your genetics come into it. To some degree, you're born with a particular physiology, my parents were healthy, vibrant sort of people. So that was a good start. My lifestyle, I've always bothered to keep fit. I've been a very sporting person for much of my life as well. And I've tended to look after myself, of course, at uni a few times, we all go to parties and come home, worse for wear but have basically looked after myself. And I think to a large degree, I've been fortunate again, in inheriting my mother's spirited attitude. My mum had a tough life. She was a migrant, came from Europe after the war with dad out here and she went through a lot but my mum had a very upbeat approach, can-do approach to life. And I think, and I witnessed that in my family upbringing. You know, my parents were very supportive and positive people and made sure that the kids, myself included, I was the eldest of five, that we accepted responsibility for what we did, and that we didn't waste the opportunity that they gave us by migrating to the other end of the earth. That's another one. Balance in my life, and interests have always got something going on in my life that keeps me wanting to get up in the morning and challenge myself.

Loretta  03:57

How many hours a day would you actually spend doing the job? Whether it be at school, or at home?

Henry  04:06

It's a good question, because I don't actually keep a record of it down in a diary, and perhaps I should, but I would say on average, I do somewhere, depending on the day is somewhere between eight and 10 hours a day.

Loretta  04:21

So it'd be fair to say that you work around 50 hours a week?

Henry  04:26

Yes. I'd say that it'd be fair 50 hours a week. Look, it's an interesting thing. I listen to some of my colleagues about how many hours they do and I know some colleagues devote 60, 70, 80 hours. I've been very fortunate in my life, Loretta and I know I've chatted with you about this before. I've been blessed with having great mentors throughout my life and Barry Burns when I was an assistant principal at Chadstone Park, he was my principal there, and Barry had an attitude of when you pack up and go home, there's always tomorrow to finish off what you didn't do today. You don't have to get everything done every single day. Prioritize, get the things that matter done, go home, take a break. So I've been, I've been able to discipline myself that way that, yeah, sure, I sometimes think about things that have happened or might happen. But by and large, I switch off when I go away and I'm confident that when I come, the next day, if that some days are cloudy, some days sunny, but the sun does come up sooner or later,

Loretta  05:33

We often talk about that emotional roller coaster that we experience as principals, when it could be a personal attack from a parent or a staff member or something like that.  And I think while we're dealing with the technical, that's one thing. But it's that emotional roller coaster that's very hard to get off. How do you keep all of that in perspective?

Henry  06:01

Look, for the main part, I'm quite successful with that, partly because I'd say one of my skills is my social skills. I'm a fairly chatty person and a sociable person, my people skills are fairly good. So I'm able to share what I'm feeling about my work with with some of my senior colleagues, even junior colleagues, you know, having chats with people it's, it's a very reassuring and cathartic experience to be able to speak about things. The other one is, look, people see me as a pretty confident guy, and in many ways I am, but I'm like everybody else. You don't parade them, but I have my self doubts and my demons. But I think one of the things that some people sometimes get a little surprise at the end of the day, Henry's quite human, because humility about your strengths and weaknesses is so important. And I remember that, at the beginning of last year, I'd had a particularly tough time of it with some very challenging parents. And at the end of the school year, they were not happy with the measures we had in place regarding COVID. And I got some fairly strong criticism for what I was doing. And I remember going home and I didn't feel well about that I, I switched off over the holidays. And on the first day back, I always have a chat with my staff, and we will share stories about how was your holidays. And I opened up to my staff about how I really struggled at the end of the year, it had been a tough year for everyone. And personally, I found it tough. I rely very heavily on the people I work with the children at the school. And my colleagues, some of my colleagues, I'm close to a few colleagues. And my family too, I couldn't get through things, if I didn't have that support. And to have that support one has to be authentic. And if the going gets tough, and you're struggling with it, don't pretend I mean, let people know, I think I've learned very much is that most people are pretty kind, Loretta. And when they see you're struggling, and you share a little bit about it, rather than pretending to be strong or lock yourself in your room and be aloof, when you share that most people are pretty empathetic. And I think also, a couple of my staff came back after that meeting, and they said, Gee, Henry, it makes me feel better about myself, you know, when you're the boss and we sort of see you up there a little bit to see that you struggle makes us feel better that you know, struggling is not necessarily a sign of weakness.

Loretta  08:59

That's a lovely story.

Henry  09:02

Yes, a true one too.

Loretta  09:06

I suppose, you know, thinking back also, to my time as principal. The highs for me have always been being able to build those strong relationships, not just within my school, but with my colleagues in the network and within the department as well. What's your relationship? Well, what's it like with people at region and within the central office?

Henry  09:36

Look, that's a mixed bag. I've I've been a very outspoken person on educational policy for much of my career. I think the Building Education Revolution was probably a peak in that where I had a very high national profile and my view to this day; I wrote a book about it as well. My view to this day was that public schools got the raw end of the deal. That was my, my perception of it and I railed against what I saw was injustice from it that that burnt a few relationships with with bureaucrats and politicians. And there's been other times when I'm in the media, I remember one time when Phil Gould was the minister in the Jeff Kennett government, and this was way back early days in perhaps the early 90s, about '93. And I was a fairly young principal and an Age reporter was doing a report on teacher striking. And I said, Yes, I think they should have the right to strike Well, I got called into the regional office. And I was told in no uncertain terms that in my contract was in front of me, you can speak out publicly and if you want to speak out publicly go to the MCG. And you can do it over a pint of beer. And I said, Well, my father came here. It's a story I've told a few times Loretta, when my father came to Australia, he was trying to escape totalitarianism in his homeland of Poland. And my father was a learned man. And he he, he often said, you know, I'm, he quoted a quote, attributed to famous, famous philosopher. And it was, I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it. Well, of course, as a teenager, when I was arguing with dad a couple of times, I quoted that . Didn't go down too well! But I remember saying to the senior bureaucrat at the time, I said, Look, what sort of society do we live in? My father would turn in his grave if he felt that he'd come to Australia, land of relative freedom, etc. And his son's being threatened with the sack for speaking out in support of public education and something which was the law. So I've always maintained that and I think it's burned bridges. I mean, I've I've over the journey, a long journey. And there's been many things I've spoken about, I think, I've had a few death threats along the way. I've been threatened with the sack, I've had people call m  self seeking, media tart, and all sorts of things like that. But on the other hand, a lot of people have also said, Henry, you speak on behalf of many people who are too frightened to speak. And it's a good thing that you do it. And I look at today, and by and large, I'm pretty comfortable with all the things I've said, and the causes for public education that I've fought for. And nobody's sacked me yet. So clearly, you know, I must be running a reasonably good school. I must be a little bit on the money in which way I'm talking about a bit. I just, I just couldn't not do that for very long. And so I'd say, I have a somewhat problematic relationship with the people who are bureaucrats. I wish it wasn't so. Look, to their credit, I think they've got an invidious job, because they're the they're the ham in the sandwich between the schools and the government of the day. And so mainly they're messengers of the government policy of the day and I understand working in the public system that we have to implement government policy. But at the school level, were the ones that are, you know, at the at the coalface and I think feedback to them from the coalface may not change anything other than upset them a little bit, but it's a message I know, they would take back to the Minister. So from that angle, I would sum it up as I said, it's it's been problematic for most of my career.

Loretta  14:07

Why do you think there are such low numbers of applicants for principal jobs?

Henry  14:14

Because the job's not attractive to people in the way that it was perhaps 20 years ago, I can remember being on selection panels for principals. For good schools, they'd get between 20 and 40 applicants and then we'd spend a week shortlisting them, then you'd interview seven or eight of them and they'd be they'd be two or three and you'd have the panel spending hours debating over three outstanding candidates. Now, if you get if you get five applicants, it's almost cause for celebration. People are not applying and and I think the bottom line is people don't want the job because the I don't see it as attractive for a variety of reasons. I presume I can continue with what those reasons would be in my...

Loretta  15:08

look, please do because I think, you know, it's the challenges that that principals face. And, look, I mean, you'd know the research that Mark Thompson and I did, and we did it in 2014. So that's, that's eight years ago. And it was back then that the assistant principals said, We don't want to apply for jobs. We look at our principals, and we don't want to be like our principals, stressed out. So we knew that eight years ago.

Henry  15:48

Absolutely true. It's, it's one of the things that really frustrates me is that successive governments have poured a lot of money into what they call principal well being and welfare. I think the current government, I might be wrong here, correct me, but I think they've been saying they've put over $50 million into it? Well, look, I see a lot of good documents, training programs. But at the end of the day, things aren't getting any better for principals. And I think that comes down to several reasons. One of them and it's its workload, obviously, it's extremely onerous. And I think one of the areas where the government I think, has got things a bit out of kilter at the moment, in attempting to assist this is, in the area of accountability. We've now spent a lot of money on building regional support teams and Central Support Teams is a lot bigger bureaucracy. But what I see coming out of that is those people have jobs, they write policy, they monitor the policy, they work with this. There's so many policies out there, and we're chasing our tiles, ticking boxes all the time with these people. And I think there's an awful lot of churn in there with the best of intentions, but at the end of the day, it's adding to our workload. So workload is one of them. There's one that's difficult to measure. But I think it's, it's at the hub of a lot of things. And there's a it's a bit of a cliche, and I know that some people in the department won't want to hear it. But if you don't want to hear what people say, then you will never be able to address it is my view. And I hear more than a few principals say, you know, don't be too controversial, don't do anything too, too different. Stay in the square, keep your head down. Because if you don't, you'll be hung out to dry by the department. Now, the extent to which that may or may not be true, you'd need to do some serious research. But it's say that that is a perception that is shared by too many colleagues. And I don't think it's a perception that to date, the department has been able to counter now, whether that's right or wrong. That to me is a serious issue, that people are saying that because they feel like they're walking on quicksand all the time in their jobs.

Loretta  18:38

Do you think, Henry that the principals who hold that particular perception are the ones who are fearful of speaking up and therefore tend to keep everything, you know, inside or may just have a bit of a chat with a colleague, but generally, are not the ones that are speaking up? What do you think?

Henry  19:03

look, that's probably probably quite true. I would say, though, and I learned this a long time ago. Most principles don't speak out anyway, for a variety of reasons. And one of them is fear of the consequences. And there are anecdotal stories of that all the time that we hear from different principals over the journey that you'll get a call from somebody to say, hey, you know, we didn't appreciate that. The implication being, you know, don't do it again, type of thing. They don't speak out. So it's an interesting one too, because teachers are teachers and principals are leaders of in schools. That doesn't necessarily translate into the skill of being a public writer. Or if you like, an opinion person on television, and the The media has its agenda too in fairness to people. And my view is, look, if you don't speak out, nobody hears it, and someone else will fill up that space. And I know you know it, you'd hear it, we see commentators about education, who are not in the schools, they might come in, do a bit of research, or they might have some indirect connection to schools. And we rail against what we see as misrepresentation of the issues in schools. But but by not speaking out, that just continues that trend. So I think I think there's fear of how you might be portrayed this fear of what the department or the minister might, the view they might take in speaking out. The other one too, is that I think a lot of principals haven't got time to speak to busy. Me too. I mean, it's not like I'm sitting around every day, right? You know, wanting to say something or write something, my plate is full, I go to school, like everyone, and this is both the beauty of the job and the the challenge of the job, I go to school, have a morning with a plan. And by lunchtime, I'm alone, my plan has changed 10 times. And I get home at night, and I generally have only got two thirds of what I wanted done in the day, and been sidetracked with a whole lot of generally, people issues, you know, so speaking out. And then the other part about it is I think, to be to speak out, you probably need to have some runs under the belt, you need to be confident that you're doing a great job in or good job in your work. And that what you've got to say, actually make sense. So it's, and then at the moment, I think, you know, I think about half our schools on any given day, have got acting principals in them. And a lot of young principals were in a watershed time. I didn't speak out as much when I first started as a principal. I, those days, I I spent time working on regional boards of education and working with the Victorian Principals Association on committees and lots of those things. It's only as I progress through. So I do think speaking out that it takes time. And I think there's a there's a great lesson to learn for all of us. And that is listen, take some time to listen, listen, learn and then speak.

Loretta  22:45

Yeah, I think you've made a really good point there. And it's a great message to put out there that if you are going to speak up, and you are going to speak out, and perhaps even be a tad critical, it's absolutely imperative that you've got your own house in order, and you are squeaky clean. Here's a hypothetical for you. You become minister for education. What's the first thing you'll do?

Henry  23:22

What would be the first thing I'd do if I was the Minister for Education? Well, I would and again, I I'm apologizing to our minister if I've got this wrong, because I don't know what, who and what he says. And it's far from me to be judgmental about it. But the first thing I would do would be to go and have some really deep and meaningful discussions with the different stakeholders out in the schools, principals, teachers, kids, parents, don't just do tours, but actually have them. And the challenge then is to say that those discussions, the people with whom he talks can see action coming from it, not just what many politicians do. And we're in the middle of an election campaign at the moment. Yeah.

Loretta  24:27

And they have their own entourage and media....

Henry  24:30

take notes.  And here's another message. And again, I apologize to the minister if he's already doing this. But I do feel at times talking to colleagues and looking at policies that we are confronted with that the influence on the Minister is more by a smaller group of stakeholders than by stakeholders, per se. And, you know, I think as the Minister it's the same as ours, if you're alienating sections of your team, and we're part of the minister's team, you don't get the best out of them, you know, we go to work and we're all professional, we say this all the time in sporting teams, if if there's a bit of disharmony there, a bit of fear, a bit of whatever, people turn up, and they do their best in the circumstance in which they feel. And if you're not feeling that good, in whatever way we've already discussed this, then you're doing your best with one arm tied behind your back, or a lack of zest, or you're just exhausted. And so your best isn't the best that you can do if the environment in which you were working was was different. So I think that would be my advice, with all due respect to the minister that me Henry Grossek, giving him advice. But it's so eas when you're up there, you're a busy person at the top of it as we are, you know, yes, to be to be a little bit in an ivory tower.

Loretta  26:19

Yes. And you can draw some very distinct parallels between being a principal and how you come across to your own staff, and your own community, you can come across as a little bit removed. Which brings me to another point that has come up over and over. And that is around support. And it's often said, and it's it's a very, you know, common thing for principals and assistant principals, and so on, to say that we're not getting enough support from the department. And yet, if you speak to the people at region and in the central office, they will say, the support that we provide schools and principals is huge. What's going on there? Do you think?

Henry  27:22

Look, I think they're telling the truth, in from their perspective. They're working hard. They're delivering on policies, and they have their own KPIs like we do. But the problem it gets back to something I said a little earlier, the problem is, is a mismatch in my opinion, at times with the support we need, versus the support we're actually getting. That, I think is the the most fundamental problem that we've got. And with principal health and well being, for example, I think on the one hand, yes, they've got all these policies about how to look after yourself. And there's someone there to talk to, and there's a helpline, et cetera, et cetera. But then when it comes to the pointy end of it, a lot of that support is if you like, I'll use a metaphor here, palliative support.  I think in the centre, and I think this is a massive one, I'd like to see more people with school experience working in the centre. I think, over the last 30 years, we've seen a complete change, in 30 40 years, we've seen a complete change in the spread of people within the bureaucracy, the senior bureaucracy, again, talented people, but we too often think you people aren't part of the...... you've never been in the schools really, when you're making policies on our behalf. We don't know who you're talking to. Because these policies don't really neatly fit into our needs. So yes, they're working hard. Yes, they can be developing lots of policies, but they're, they're not school people to the level that used to be and I think, and again, perhaps people don't want to go there either, as I said earlier, but equally, there's lots of people in very important positions, who's only linked to schools as they went to school once. Well, I, I wouldn't pretend that I could go and be on a board for you know, Coles or Woolworths although I'm a customer, but I wouldn't think I could tell them how to run very well in a management level, even though I have managerial experience. I don't know the culture of of the retail world. So I wouldn't think I was the best fit for that. And I think there's a lot of those people who are career public servants. Great at managing, great at that sort of work, but not necessarily anywhere near an understanding of how schools operate. So that's where I think, with the best of intentions, a lot of mismatching comes. I also think governments come and go. And I think it must be awfully hard for the bureaucrats too because each government comes in and they have a completely different agenda. And you've got to pivot, as they say, very rapidly from here to there. And that's the, the public system is a big system. And it's a bit like the Titanic, I don't think we necessarily can pivot too quickly. And yet, there's pressure on us to be pivoting at rapid rate all the time, another pressure.

Loretta  30:49

After all these years as a principal, so knowing what you know, as a very successful principal with many, many accomplishments under your belt, what advice would you be giving to the less experienced principals and possibly even those who do have a number of years but are struggling a bit and trying to get that balance? What sort of advice would you give them about keeping well, and looking after their health?

Henry  31:24

I think one of the first things you've got to do is be kind to yourself. Everybody suffers guilt about what they could have done, should have done, might have done things in life, don't always go right for any of us. If you can go to bed at night and think, Well, look, I did my best today, I tried hard, not not everything worked. But I can put my head down. And I know that I did my best. And tomorrow when I get up, I'll do my best again. Whether things go right or wrong, don't be a perfectionist. That's a good starting point. Have a life out of school. Now I see too many people. And it's admirable in a sense, the commitment they put to their job is phenomenal. They work longer hours than me. I think some of them perhaps, could be more efficient in how they work. But let's just say they work all these long hours. I don't think that at all is healthy. From what I gather, and I know from my own personal experience, I need downtime. Where I don't think about school, my brain just gets too tired when I'm consumed with my work. So the more hours I put in, the more hours, I'm consumed with my work and I'm more tired. So find something, have, you've got to have hobbies or interests outside your work. And you've got to make time for them. People say I haven't got time, I haven't got time, I've never bought that one. Because if it's important enough to you, you'll find the time and the people around you will accept that. But but you've actually got to be strong and do that. There's an incredible sense, I think among a lot of principals of an aloneness, which leads to a lot of the other issues of which I've been talking about. And I think that's one of the things that is a big challenge for pins under the current regime. I know in a few places, principals are shown the initiative, and maybe we all need to do it more, you know, find a time where half a dozen of you get together or three or four on a regular basis. And it's it's part of your work time, not your weekends, which should be I think away from school. That would be something that I thought that there would be several of the things I think are most important in terms of advice, but the biggest one is Be kind to yourself. I'm not perfect. I'm far from perfect. I'm not saying anything. That's extraordinary in saying that, but at the same time I I do take the time to say well, Henry, I'm proud of this. I'm proud of that, too. And if I mucked up on something, I'll fix it up as best I can with support from other people.

Loretta  34:29

And really, that's fantastic advice. Thank you very, very much. I can't get over how you've been a principal for 37 years. That's a very long time.

Henry  34:40

I'd like to think I haven't just survived in principalship for 37 years and I think the message to everyone and it's different for everybody Loretta. Whatever you're doing in life, you've got to give it your best shot. And when you're no longer enjoying giving it you your best shot, find something else to do that you want to give it your best shot. Now, after 37 years as a principal, I'm still enjoying giving it my best shot. And I'm getting feedback that my best shots are still good enough. People can if I can see that people no longer feel my best shot is good enough. Then that will also be a message won't? Time to pull up stumps, Henry.  But well, they're not giving me that feedback. Or I'm not giving myself the same feedback. So you know,  I'll keep going for a little while longer. It's another friend of mine gave me some advice. He said never retire. He said just transition. Use the word transition Henry never retire. Well, at the moment, I might just transition from day to day in the same job. It's, I suppose, a new day, and we'll see what it brings.

Loretta  36:06

Henry, thank you very much for your stories, for your advice, for your insights, and the hypotheticals and all of that.

Henry  36:15

Thank you, Loretta, and I just want to applaud you on what you're doing. I know that you have been an outstanding principal for many, many years. You shared the highs and lows, like all of us. But post principalship I think what you're doing is outstanding work. And I'm just honored to think that you think I've got something worthwhile to share. And so thank you for that opportunity too.

Loretta  36:44

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.