#6 Doing the principal’s job; and when you just can’t do it any more.

#6 Doing the principal’s job; and when you just can’t do it any more.

Doing the principal's job; and when you just can't do it any more.

School principals love their jobs.  But what do you do when you can no longer do your job properly?  That was the dilemma faced by secondary school principal John Conway. The job became so untenable, that, for him, there was only one option...






You're listening to Loretta Piazza, experienced school, principal, mentor, and coach, and together we're 'talking out of school'. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences, 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



 Ask any principal what their number one job is and they will tell you it’s to keep their students safe.  In most schools, helping students to flourish is what they do best, but from time to time they fail.  And the reason for this is not because the principal has necessarily done something wrong.  It’s more about having to navigate through a system that is complex, process driven and gives everyone a hearing.  Today’s interview is with John Conway.



Loretta: John, welcome to Talking out of school.

John: Hello, Loretta, pleased to be here.

L: How long have you been…well, how long were you with the education department?

J: Oh, well, I was on a studentship four years at uni, starting in 1973. And I retired four years ago, February 2018, would have been my retirement date.

L: How long were you a principal for?

J: I was a principal for just over 20 years of that at two different schools.

L: What was some of the real highs around your time as a principal?

J: Well, the high for me was always working with kids. I was a bit unusual in that way. So I often took a class, which was fairly unusual in big schools. So absolutely. Because I always liked keeping in touch with what's going on, I think you can get a bit isolated as a principal. And it's always good to get on the coalface and see what's happening. Sometimes I get criticized by my staff for being too hands on. But you got to do the job your way. And that was my way.

L: Yeah, look, I think it's a great thing. If you can find, well, the time and the initiative and that incentive to work with the kids. I think there are a lot of rewards there. Because as principals, it's very easy to be removed from what's going on in the school, don't you think?

J: Absolutely. And for me, the the joy of the job was always the kids. Yeah, doing, and providing the best education outcomes for them. But the interpersonal relationships as well was always most important to me.

L: Speaking of the kids look, looking back at my time, I'd say I spent probably 80% of my time working with 20% of my kids, the naughty ones as well, unfortunately, and they were predominantly boys, but they were they were gorgeous kids. I just loved them. But they drove me insane. In your more recent years, as principal, what was that like?

J: Well, it was interesting, because I was retiring at the age of 60. My school that I'd been at for 17 years. And I'd actually was a bit naughty, as it turned out, Loretta, because, as you will know, if you leave the country, especially let the Regional Director know. And I had a staff So I had a staff member who got ill, just before she was supposed to take with two other staff members, 27 students to Italy over the holidays before I was retiring. They were term holidays, but they were away for two weeks. And I was the only one available that had actually been on the trip before. So I ended up going with 27 kids to Italy. And we're outside the Colosseum in Rome and my Senior Education Officer rang me and said, asked me whether I'd go to a school where the principal was on stress leave and look after it for a term. And I had to explain what, why why I was there with kids on a very strange time in Australia. But it wasn't a strange time in Italy. Anyway, I did fess up when I got back, I ended up at that school for another two and a half years. So until they were able to resolve well, until I left under, probably not the ideal circumstances and they were able to then advertise the job ongoing.

L: Okay. I’m interested in these unusual circumstances. Tell us a little bit about what was going on with the students at that school.

J:  Well, the school had a reputation I guess, of having difficult kids, but in fact, that's not what I found when I got there. In fact, my wife when she told one of her work colleagues, who, well, my wife works quite close to that school. So the school’s known to her her colleagues, you know, when Oh, why’s he gone there, and, and my wife said to me, he said, the kids are pretty good. You know, no different to any other schools. So it's certainly not what I found when I got there. However, it was a small school, it had a declining enrollment. And it was surrounded by what probably could be described as mega schools. And one of the unfortunate results of that was that when students were expelled from any of those schools around me, and they were pretty well four mega schools, certainly three anyway, where I was the next closest school, I'd get the expulsion. So you know, so I think in my first year there I got 10.

L: Ten students who had been expelled from other schools?

J:  Yes. So that created difficulties. Now, not all of those. In fact, some of those I guess were chastened by the experience and actually turned themselves around without help, without a lot of input from me. But one particular student, she'd been expelled for ….bip….a pretty serious situation. She was, was on a young side, only year seven.

L: Goodness….

J: indeed.  That wasn't my first year there, but it was my last year there. So we're talking 2017. So she'd started year seven at another school. And it lasted, I think two terms, and was a very, very difficult kid.

L: And obviously very troubled.

J: Very troubled kid. Yes. Anyway, probably don't want to go into the family circumstances. But yes, she was troubled. And anyway, she, she came to us. We were fortunate having a doctors in school program. So we had a mental health assessment done and organized, we got got her free psychology appointments, which is sort of more than the department could offer that kid. So we had a visiting psychologist that worked privately as well as one the Department provided and we set up those counselling sessions, she refused to attend and continued on her merry way, including ………………(bip)……………………..first week. That's not what I expelled for. But the issue came up where she somehow had gotten the phone number of one of one of our students in year seven, who was…..(bip)……and she got her phone number and started harassing her at home. Serious impact on this particular student who was probably less capable of dealing with it than any other student, but I think any student, even without the disability might have struggled with what was happening. So anyway, she'd been suspended a number of times for violence, we'd had the support meetings. She refused the sort of the counselling. And in the end, I did make a decision after that, I would expel her. Anyway, it went to an appeal, the father took it to an appeal. And the decision was overturned on the basis that we hadn't provided enough support. My question was, well, what did you expect me to do? Knock her over the head and drag her into the psychologists office, which clearly I couldn't do and didn't want to. The system really couldn't cope with this student, we'd offered her alternative placements at some of the alternative school she refused to attend, dad wouldn't push the issue with her basically let her call all the shots. So when I received the call on a Friday afternoon, in February, telling me that the student had appealed, the decision had been overturned, I informed the person who rang me who was pretty high up person in the department, that I would be -that was 3.30- I said, I'll be finishing work at 4.30 today. I'm resigning as today. I'll spend the next hour writing handover notes for the assistant principal and I walked out at 4.30.

L: Never to return.

J: Never to return.

L: Do you regret that?

J: No, I don't regret it. I really don't believe that I could have provided a safe environment, which is what I've would what it was what the reason I expelled it. Because I couldn't guarantee, I couldn't even be confident, much less guarantee that I could protect the safety of the other students in the school. She needed another setting, not a mainstream secondary school. Unfortunately, she refused to attempt those or even try them out. And as it turned out, she never attended class ever again. She returned to the school. And the assistant principal who became acting for a little while, actually had to employ a full time minder for her because she wouldn't go to class. She just walked around the school causing havoc. Dad later said to the assistant principal, acting principal, that he regretted appealing the decision because clearly, I didn't have, had a negative effect rather than a positive effect on it. So there are the circumstances.  I don't regret it. I had to look, I have to say Loretta, I'm not a disgruntled principal. I enjoyed every day in the job. I found it very rewarding. But sometimes you got to stand on your principles. And that was a principle, an LE principal, that I wasn't prepared to compromise on.

L: From experience, why do parents or carers appeal these decisions?

J: Generally, my experience is that they, they usually have had an issue with authority of some description, whether it be government or schools or whatever. And their first response is an adversarial one not not a cooperative one. That's the main problem. And I, well, I'm pretty confident having talked to the Father in particular on several occasions that that was probably the issue. He just wanted to fight city hall, to use an American term.

L: Well, unfortunately, though, he was successful because the appeal was upheld.

J: He was unfortunately successful, not because the appeal was upheld, but because it wasn't the best outcome for his daughter. She never attended a class again, ever. I believe she dropped out of school, though. I don't know that for certain. But I know at that school, she never attended a class again.

L: Okay, so what was the follow up from the department after you left?

J: Well, there was no follow up for quite a while. And then I received a call from the minister's office, asking me whether I would be prepared to be interviewed regarding the circumstances, by somebody, the department, which I did, I was interviewed for probably nearly two hours, and I can't, unfortunately, I can't remember the person's name. But there was, you know, when, when a bureaucrat fairly high up in the department, and said all about? Well, I wanted to know, they actually wanted some feedback. So it was, it was a genuine, a genuine attempt to understand the problem. And I said, Look, basically, that they, I said, the current system is this, we we haven't got the ability to deal with all of these kids that are really serious ones, the resources required are enormous to deal with a student like that, not not just within the school, but within the wider education system. I said, clearly, you can't have a system where a principal makes a decision, which is not subject to appeal. That's not the issue, all I could do is give them the written report, which I'd already done. When, of course, when you expel a student, you have to write a comprehensive report, you supply that, and the parent goes along to this board that no one knows who sits on it. And he can say anything. I said, so clearly, that is not a good system where you know, that, that that sort of thing can happen. So I said, my suggestion is that the principal should be able to be present and question and be held accountable for the decision, but should be able to come to that that decision making body and present the case, not just a written, written report that, you know, the parent can say anything they like unchallenged. And that's what happened, I believe when the ministerial order came out, although it wasn't in the department at the time, but I believe that was changed.

L: Yes, ministerial order 1125. Minister Merlino signed it on the 9th May 2018. And there were a number of changes in that one of the significant changes was the introduction of the RASP- the regional approved support person. Now, you probably would have assisted and worked with other principals during an expulsion process. But the RASP ensured that it was no longer a principal but it was somebody from the region.  Could be a psychologist, could be a speech therapist, it could be a bureaucrat, and it could be somebody with no knowledge of what goes on in schools. That that was one of the biggest changes and is still in place today.

J: Yeah, well, as I said, I wasn't in the department. So I don't know what the changes are other than what I've been told by people who still work in the in the system. But look, I've never had any problems with the support person, the RASP, the principal who attended the support meetings, I've never had any issue with any principal that I ever asked to be on a on a panel and that particular principal was at another secondary school a fair way away had no axe to grind or had no interest in the outcome. So I always tried to find a RASP that was, you know, wasn't going to get the kid if if they were expelled for example, which would create a conflict of interest. So I had a principal that came and supported me or supported the kid as an independent person to make sure the process was followed, that the decision making was a fair outcome and that they certainly gave me some advice you know, about processing and, and what sort of things should be considered in the in the decision making, but I never had any problem with those principals who sat on those support with those support meetings with the parents, etc. So I never had any problem at all. So I'm I don't know, what the result of having a non person, a person who doesn't work in a school directly as the RASP. I suppose I suspected some, I suspect it's, you know, all care and no responsibility.

L: Because, yeah, unfortunately, unfortunately, the fact that today's RASP often doesn't have a great knowledge of the workings of a school, especially what principals do and all the supports have put in place. And there's something like a 42 checkboxes that a principal needs to tick. And there are behavior review meetings, which would have taken place prior to 2018. Anyway, but it just seems that principals are jumping through hoops. And each hoop is bigger than the than the previous one. And I think the other side of that, though, is if there is an appeal, there's a good chance that the appeal will not be upheld, because principals have had to work through 42 checkboxes.

J:  can't remember how many checkboxes we had to work through prior to the ministerial order, but it was still a substantial list of and I used to, in fact, have that checklist in front of me when we when we had such a meeting. And I'd say, now we've got to do this, the children used to be the student had to have the opportunity to be heard, the parent had an opportunity to be heard. There was a there was a checklist, but I don't think it was 42 pages, or 42 checks long. But I always had that next to me when to make sure that I was following the process. When I was having those meetings and and then I'd ask the principal RASP as they were then. Is there anything that I've overlooked or forgotten? Or just to just to double check myself that I hadn't skipped over anything that I should have? I should have done? So I didn't find the process too cumbersome. But I mean, it's obviously unpleasant. I mean, you're dealing with kids in very difficult circumstances, and parents who are often angry and you know, feel like the world's against them. And so it's not, it's not a pleasant thing. And I always tried to conduct the meetings, you know, in that, well, what's best for this student? What's the best outcome we're going to get? And what what do we want to achieve? You know, and sometimes, you know, not in this particular, Well, the parent, the father really didn't fight very hard they did in the actual meeting before the child was expelled. He wasn't belligerent or aggressive or anything like that. But I've certainly had parents who with not just with expulsion, support meetings, but just generally the support meetings you have ongoing with these students who are in difficulty. All they want to do is fight you, you know, and I've had you know, there's been there's some funny stories over the years, you know, when I was still at my not at the last school, the previous one had a student who was in trouble. And we had number of support meetings, and we didn't get to expulsion, because he's dead, pulled him out and put him in another school. I didn't ask him to do and I didn't want him to do it actually, I thought we could work with this kid. And I'm sitting there at 6pm one night, the cleaners were just about to lock up. And the dad comes in and sits down and wants me wants me to give him advice about what he can do about the problem with this kid.  Mate, you're the one who took him away. Yeah, and I learned some there are some funny stories around about. Yeah, you know, but look, parents are frustrated too. I mean, I was lucky with three boys and they all, you know, they sailed through life and school.

L: Compared to what you went through.

J: Exactly. So it's, but you know, parents are under pressure too and they and they often get to their wit's end. But unfortunately I've got a fight city hall often gets in the way of what's the best outcome.

L: You don't take this approach to expel a student because you feel like it or because you don't like the student. Generally you've put hours and hours and days and weeks and possibly even years into supporting these kids.

J: Yeah, this one was very unusual because she was just so out of control, you know, I mean

….bip…you know, and that she actually did it at my school on the first week. She was there so didn't expel for the same thing she was expelled for the previous school you know. We continued to work with her and and whatever but you know, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make a drink. You know, mental health plan, refuses to go to a psychologist, dad won't push the issue. Give a give her some alternative settings that, you know, she might look at, which might suit her better.

L: Yeah. And the other side to all of that is, what about all the other kids who are affected? The staff who are affected? And who go to you and say, John, what are you going to do about this?

J: And the problem is to the state education system is, takes all comers. And my, not the school I finished at, but the school I was a principal at for 17 years, we had 390 kids when I went there, and 44 in year seven, it had a reputation of not having a very stable learning environment. I'd like to say I'm a very smart bloke, but I'm not. I just got the basics right, what's acceptable, what's not acceptable. And, you know, I built that school up to nearly 1000 kids before I retired. And that wasn't rocket science. It was just what the parents want from a school? Parents want a stable, safe environment for the kids to go to school, where they're going to be happy. That's what they want. So if you take away, you know, I mean, why do parents and I often say this to people who send their kids to Catholic or private schools, do you think you're getting better teachers? Because you're not to Catholic or private schools. You know, when Jeff Kennett did all those redundancies years ago, I was at Reservoir and I was part of the principal team there and we didn't offer those redundancies to our top teachers, they were good average teachers, you know, but they weren't out high flyer in superstars. And those, those staff that took the redundancies got jobs at Carey and, you know, some of the top private schools that have got the reputations, so they don’t have a better staff, but what they do have is the ability to control their cohort. And that's why parents a lot of parents that send their kids to the private system, because they think they're getting, well, they might think they're getting better teachers, but they are they do know that they're, you know, that schools have the ability to not have their kids in a dangerous situation because of other kids. They can. And they do.

L: You know, we've got a lot of young and inexperienced principals. And I sort of think, I wonder if they realise some of the challenges that face them in in this work today? What would your advice be to them around suspensions, expulsions, those sorts of things that can often be an issue for a principal? If you don't get it right? What would your advice to them be?

J: Well, I think it's probably as you pointed out, at the beginning, it is different in secondary school than primary school. When kids get to secondary school, they're on the way to adulthood. And adulthood is really being responsible and accountable for behavior. We know that, you know, for example, the criminal ae has just been put up from I think, 10 to 12?  At what stage do you keep cutting slack, cutting slack, cutting slack for kids who are really off the rails and where there's not a real consequence. That's the issue. And it probably varies for every kid. But I don't think, and I'll go back to that kid who, on the first day at the school I was at for 17 years, he was whipping other students with a branch in the corridors as I went down at recess. I mean, that's what he was doing. And some kid was gonna kill him if I hadn't got there on time, who was doing the favours, who did him the favours, you know, I made him accountable. And I told him, you step over the line again, and I'm going to expel you. And he never did. Because somebody drew a line in the sand. Now, it doesn't always work. You know, some kids will step over the line, and they'll go back, it'd be very interesting to see. If I was if I was trying to solve the problem. I would be saying, well, what, what's the outcome for those kids who are expelled? What is it, and then what resources are put in by the department to actually fix that problem, because that those, those kids need a lot of resource-intensive work to really turn them around. So my advice is, look, you've got to, you got to draw a line in the sand somewhere that says, if you want to come to this school, we value a safe learning environment, an ordered learning environment. And you really need to know that if you can't do that there is a bottom line somewhere. Now to answer your question, okay, what would my advice to young principals be? First of all don't get worn down by the negative stuff Because it's a great job. Trust me. Being a principal is a great job. And if you only ever get bogged down into the negative, you'll lose sight of that, which is why I always got involved with kids a lot. Because that was a big buzz. I mean, the buzz is the kids and and the 90 probably 95% of them that are great people are gonna grow up into great people, and you really enjoy their company. So focus on that as well don't just get bogged down in the negative. And the thing about difficult kids is, sometimes there isn't a solution, you can't fix everybody, all you can do is your best. And if you're really focused on the well being of the kid, most of the time, you'll get the best outcome possible. It might not be a perfect outcome, but it will be it'll be the best you can do. And and it's possible to do. So. Yeah, look at that. If you want to know, did I regret leaving the job? The only thing I regretted about leaving the job was the contact with the kids. I missed the kids. But I've sort of got my fix now, of that on. I am. As you probably now I'm playing a brass band. I conduct a junior band at Darebin brass, teach a number of kids mostly online over COVID. But but that's the only thing I really regret about leaving, I mean, was, you know, 63 I think 63 Just turned 63 when I when I left and I had my time. And to be perfectly honest, you can't do it forever. You can't keep working a 55 hour week. And that's pretty well what I think most principals do. You can't do it forever. I mean, you get to a stage physically where it just, it knocks you about. But mentally, mentally I love the job, you know. But you do get more and more exhausted, you know, the weekend, you're not much good for anything. So I'm happy being a peasant farmer Loretta, growing the vegetables growing..

L: I'm sure there's nothing pleasant about you….

J: Nice of you to say so but anyway.

L: I reckon this is a really, really great time to, to say thank you. And it's a very positive end to this great conversation. Look, I'm I'm sorry for you that your career finished the way it did. But as you say, if you don't dwell on the negatives, and you look at the positives, you've got far more positives, and you've achieved so many really, really good things. That's really that's important, don't you think?

J: Oh, yeah, look, I'm I'm very happy with my career. Couldn't.. if I had to do it all again, if I had to, you know, 22 where it was when I started teaching and sign up for this. I would have signed. Yeah. So it's a great job.

L: Well, John, thank you very much. I wish you all the best and happy banding. Yes, and trumpeting and doing all those things and your farming, which sounds absolutely wonderful. So wishing you all the best.

J: No worries. It's a pleasure. Thank you.


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.