#7 Doing the principal’s job; expect the unexpected.

#7 Doing the principal’s job; expect the unexpected.

Doing the principal's job; expect the unexpected.

The principal's job is not for the faint-hearted.  If serving in the job long enough, it's not if, but when something comes out of left field. In today's episode, we listen to the story of a principal who retired due to ill-health as a result of having to endure nearly two years of intense scrutiny after serious allegations were made.

 

 

Transcript

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, good and bad, agonized over decisions, and tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.

Introduction

So you're interested in becoming a principal? That's great. Or maybe you're asking yourself if it's the right job for you? Any principal will tell you it's the best job in the world. But don't be naive to think it's easy. Yes, the technical side of the work can be learned. But no one can teach you how to avoid the emotional roller coaster when something goes horribly wrong. And that something can be a parent complaint, an accusation of bullying from staff through to having to respond to a complaint that has been sent directly to the Minister. Today I interview an experienced principal who retired from her school because of ill health. She found herself on that emotional roller coaster for nearly two years, because of one person's accusation that her school was not doing the right thing by a student. Innocent until proven guilty? Well, that's how natural justice is supposed to work. But in reality, it doesn't feel this way if you're the one who's being investigated. My guest wants to remain anonymous. She's so traumatized by the ordeal, that even after several years, the whole saga still weighs heavily on her.

Interview

Loretta: Well, thanks for joining me and talking out of school.

Guest: Pleasure to be here.

L: Now you've been in education for over 45 years.

G: I have. That's a long time.

L: So what did you do in those 45 years?

G: Like everybody else started in a classroom teaching. I've worked in classrooms for the first 20 to 25 years and then went into administrative roles after that. I was working in a special ed unit as an officer in charge for a number of years. I worked in a school support centre for a number of years as an administrator. Back into schools and then into the principal class.

L: How long were you a principal for?

G: Oh, that's a good question. 20 plus years.

L: Now, your last principal role was in a different sort of a school. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

G: Yes, I've got a qualification special education. So I was a principal in a mainstream school to start and then I transferred into a special education setting. And the setting that I was working in was quite unique because it was a designated school for students with a severe intellectual disability. But with the increase in the number of autistic students, a lot of the students had to dual disability of the intellectual problems as well as an autistic problem as well. So their behaviors were quite diverse and unique.

L: I imagine that having so many students that required that high level of care that you would also have had a large staff working with these kids.

G: We did, we had an exceptionally high student to staff ratio. We had very small classes so that each individual student could have the attention that they needed. And the staff were very dedicated. And we had to do a lot of professional development to keep up with all the things that were not only happening with the Department of Education, but within the area of disability itself. So the team worked really, really well in that area, and we're always keen to learn something new.

L: Okay, so I know that you are also principal of a mainstream school, mainstream primary school prior to that. How are the roles different being a principal of mainstream in principal of a special school?

G: In a mainstream school there are many, many more students. But a lot of them can be grouped because of the needs or the abilities or the academic rigor that was required for those particular students. But in a special education setting, you literally had an Individual Learning Plan for every student within the school. And you really did have to go in and focus quite narrowly to have the outcomes that you wanted for those particular students. Also, in a special ed setting, there, you have a lot of work that you do with the families and parents as well. In the mainstream school, generally, parents are happy for the children just come in and do a day at school and go home. I know we have issues and concerns and you have interaction with parents, but in a special ed setting, the parents have higher needs, I think because the child doesn't fit into the normal range. And there's a lot of questions about what they can do, what's next and the long term future of their child.

L: What are some of the more memorable experiences that you had, I can you see smiling..

G: Well, parents are interesting, because they come in different categories in different styles and different MOs. You know, as you know, they can come in and confront you, they can come in and cry in your office, they can come in and just want to have that conversation because they've got no one else to talk to. So both settings have those parents. But the staff also fall into similar categories in both. But the problem or not a problem, but a situation that occurs sometimes in a special setting is that, due to the small number of students, the relationship between the teacher and the assistant that works in the classroom can become quite close. And it can be difficult when you want to separate those teaching teams, because people get used to working in a particular way, and they feel comfortable with it. But part of our job as principals is to ensure that they extend their skills and knowledge. And therefore they need to move around and see multiple modes of teaching and operation so that they can be better at what they do.

L: What are some of the challenges? What comes to mind?

G: I think the hardest thing for principals now is that the demands from the department are just so great. I think we've had this discussion before Loretta about how the department keeps adding on adding on adding on and adding on but never taking anything away. And at one stage, I remember there was a survey for principals that had been going for quite a number of years. And I think they determined there was 1004 jobs that a principal has to do every year and has to be on top of. And when you look at that amount of jobs and the amount of time and energy needed to do those jobs, it just makes the job very, very stressful and difficult, I think. I don't think it's at a stage where they can keep adding on any more because I just think that the system will fall over.

L: Thinking about mainstream schools, as principals, our number one role is to make sure our kids are safe, that they flourish in terms of their well being and we want to get them up academically, yes. Now, given that the kids at the special school academically, there'd be certain limitations. What went on there in terms of, you know, getting them to learn. And for many kids, they probably, you know, we're at the very, very low ends of the lower end for learning. So how did you go about all of that?

G: When I returned to special ed as a principal, the department had did not have in place any documentation or curriculum or guidelines about how to deal with children in special settings. We looked around and tried to find things from other countries that might support us and England at one stage was doing quite a bit of work in the area of disability in schools. But toward the end of my tenure as a principal, the department finally in relationship with the University of Melbourne developed some documentation that was really, really helpful for special schools. They developed Toward One, Toward Level One curriculum and the Ables assessment tools. And that gave the school a real focus on how we could go ahead and work with these students. And the really good thing about the Ables program was that theskills-based that they articulated in their program was hierarchical. So you knew that if you started at the bottom, when the child just achieved that particular goal, you could go to the next step, and then the next step and the next step. So it really gave us a lot of very good direction about how we could work with children. To determine their starting point, we used a lot of assessments. And we also had really good working relationships with the educational psychologist, speech therapist and occupational therapist, who also had input into where the starting point for the student was. And as I mentioned before, they all had an Individual Learning Plan.

L: So it'd be fair to say that all your kids achieved some sort of academic success.

G: Yes.

L: And you're able to determine the starting point. And you're also able to determine the progress.

G: Yes.

L: That's pretty sensational.

G: Well, was the school really, in the time that I was there changed significantly, and the level of professionalism and the amount of hard work that the staff put in for us to get there was just phenomenal. School was in a really, really good place.

L: How long ago did you leave the principal's job?

G: Three and a half years ago,

L: I know that those last couple of years in the job weren't great for you, were they?

G: No, no, they weren't, despite the fact that we had a very good reputation. And we'd worked really hard. And we'd had a number of people to our school to observe the work that we did. There was allegations made against the school that resulted in an investigation.

L: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

G: I had a disgruntled staff member whose contract was not renewed, who had a connection with the media and decided to make some allegations about the school that in a public forum. And my understanding at the time was that if anything is done publicly like that, then the department feels that they need to do an investigation. Doesn't happen all the time. But I believe it happens that the majority of the time.

L: So when you say that this went public, what does that mean?

G: He had a connection with a person on television, in television, and we ended up in the 7.30 Report.

L: Really?

G:  So it came right out of the blue to us. We had no idea what was going on. And the allegations were totally unfounded. But the department felt that they needed to do an investigation.

L: What were the allegations?

G: That we had mistreated one of the students.

L: In what way? Are you able to talk about it?

G: Probably not. According to the allegations, this student was treated in a disrespectful way and in a way that would prevent him from participating in a regular school program.

L: So these allegations were made. Your school was on the 7.30 Report, on national television. What happened after that?

G: I was contacted by my upline manager, and informed that the department would be investigating the allegations, and that they were currently looking for a consultative group to come in to do that investigation.

L: Okay. Did you have any feedback from your parent community? Did they see it?

G: The parents were very supportive of the school because very, very few of them had issues or concerns. So although they were aware of what was going on, we were told that the process needed to be confidential. So it's not something that we was discussed corridors or in classrooms or in offices or whatever it was kept very confidential so that the, we could not influence the outcome of the investigation. So because a lot of information wasn't being out there, people sort of tended to move on. Once the initial shock was over. Of course, school council would ask about the development and we would share whatever information we're allowed to at the time, but the general community settled back down and just weren't quite disbelieving that we'd been put in that position.

L: Okay. All right. So just be recap here. A disgruntled staff member, used connections to perhaps advertise publicly, or to make the accusation that the school wasn't doing the right thing by one of the students. Was this particular person working with this student?

G: No, and had never worked with the student or with the family of that student. So the information was like second or third hand, or I don't know where the information came from, or how he decided that that was the way that the situation was. But we were quite surprised that a person who'd never been involved at all with that family or that student would feel that they could go and make statements like that in a public forum.

L: And the repercussions are enormous.

G: While they are and I think that's what that was, the intention of the disgruntled employee was that because they hadn't had their contract renewed and was payback. So it took the department a long time to find a consultation group who could come into the school to do the investigation. And unfortunately for us, they came from New South Wales, they had never worked in the Victorian education system, and they had no knowledge of disability. And they came in to our, in our work environment and made judgments about us.

L:  What process did they use to reach a conclusion?

G: Just interview interviewed all the relevant people,

L: including you?

G: Yes, yes. I had union representation with me from the IPF, when I was interviewed.

L: From start, well, from the start of the investigation to when the report was handed down. How long did that take?

G:  Nine or 10 months? The first one,

L: The first one, which leads me to believe there was a second or something else after that?

G: When the report came down, the school had right of reply. And when we responded to the statements made by the consultation group, what the consultation group said and what we said was so opposite, that the people in leadership above us couldn't work out what was right and what was wrong. So they just said, we'll have to do it again.

L: Just like that?

G: No consultation. Nobody from the department came to me after the first feedback from us to discuss anything or talk about anything or to get a general idea. My Regional Director had never ever been in the school, had no idea the work that we did, or, you know, how how we operated or the degree of disability our students had, it was just we need to do it again.

L: So who conducted the second investigation?

G: The department employed a retired principal who had done a number of these before and had some knowledge of disability and worked in disability schools. So they felt that we would get up. I don't know whether it was better or fairer a deal or a more realistic deal? I don't know.

L: Looking back, was it a better deal?

G: No, no.

L: So what happened during that second investigation?

G: Same process all over again. So for an 18 month period over the two investigations, the staff were on high alert, and quite stressed for an extended period of time.

L: So would it be fair to say that, during those 18 months, you went to school every day?

G: Yes, I did.

L: With a smile on your face?

G: Are we allowed not to?

L: And you engaged with your parents and your kids? And you you did everything that a principal does, while keeping all of this inside?

G: Yes. And I have to congratulate the people with whom I worked because a school did not glitch at all. The same high quality of work and teaching and results was there that had been there prior to the investigation. So the staff really, really showed that they were very professional, hardworking people.

L: How did all of this affect you?

G: Well, I have a major health issue now as a result of living under stress for such an extended period of time. Have been in critical care in hospital as a result of that health issue. And it now impacts me regularly throughout my life and it's not going to go away.

L: Are you angry?

G: Oh very angry, very, very angry. I I have to say that. I don't think that I am wonderful, but my history in the department had been positive and hardworking. And I was committed to my job. And I loved teaching, and I love working with children. But none of that came into any consideration. Once the investigation started, it was like, you know, the assumption is you've done something wrong. And let's see what we can do to prove it.

L: What was the outcome of the second investigation?

G: The second investigation showed that there was doubt about the allegations,. It's very hard to prove when someone says, he says, she says, who, who said what and when, and whatever. But it became clearer that the second investigator who actually spent some time in our school environment, realized that we were actually a good school. So once that became evident, then the words of the person who made the allegation became less strong and less important. There was never an apology from the department, there was never an acknowledgement that maybe we could have done this differently or done it better. And I hoped that somebody would have come to me at the end of that process and asked for feedback so that they could learn to do that process better next time. But there was never any of that. And we were informed also, too, that they don't have people on tap to do these investigations, that when things arise that need to be looked at, then they have to seek somebody to do that. So that makes the process so much longer. It's just untenable, really.

L: Thinking back to what you went through during those 18 months. I mean, we understand that there was a process and you have to follow due process. We all understand that. But how could the department have helped you through this? What should the department have done, do you think?

G: I think I mentioned earlier that not one person from the department came near me during the process. I did have an upline manager who did my performance reviews, not that I went through that process while this was happening, by the way. But he he came periodically to the school but had never been involved in this process before. So I had no idea what he could do to help or support me. I contacted the principal welfare unit. And when I asked if the conversations I would have with the person there were confidential. That was a no, that that information could be used at some time in the future or to my disadvantage or whatever. So I didn't have a conversation with anybody there. So I don't see how that was helping me through the process. My Regional Director had nothing to do with me through the whole time. The only support that I had was amazing colleagues that I could talk to outside the school who understood me and the way that I operate and gave me tremendous support. And the APF, Julie Podbury was by my side from the beginning to the end, and terribly supportive and couldn't do enough for me. So my recommendation is, being a member of the APF is really worth its weight in gold.

L: Well, the Australian Principals Federation, the APF is worth its weight in gold. It does stand behind and in front of and beside its members, which is a really, really good thing. I have a belief, and it's pretty well come to fruition on many, many occasions that if you're in the job as principal long enough, it's not if but when, when something like this will happen, may not be a full blown investigation, but it will be something and many of our colleagues have experienced something similar. I know I've had my own. I've had two investigations, one by region and another one by police, because of an allegation that was made against me by a parent and her son, so I know how I felt. They only went on for perhaps not nowhere near as long as what you went through. So I'm wondering though, and I often think about our colleagues, especially those who may or may not fully understand but the job is, there's a lot of technical things that you can learn, we can learn about finances, and we can get someone to help us do the annual report and to do the minutes for school councils, etc, etc. That's not difficult. But it's how we manage ourselves during these really, really, really difficult times, times of high stress. It's that emotional involvement that we have, that's what we bring to us.

G:  We're all professional people who want to do the best job. For somebody to assume that we'd go into the office every day to do a bad job, just amazes me that somebody could even think that. We always try to do our best. But you're right, we all do bring a certain emotional intelligence to the job. And we all react in particular ways. But the bottom line is that, at the top, the buck stops with you, if something happens, you're the one that's on the line. And even though you've mentioned that to staff on a regular basis, it doesn't ring home until you're actually in the position.

L: So in terms of support, there is a lot of great support by the department. So we've got a legal branch, you know, and we've got people who can give us advice, on policy, on HR, all those legislative and bureaucratic aspects of our job. So I call that technical. So there's a lot of support around that. But there seems to be very little support when it comes to helping us to deal with that really emotional load, which is often which is often the consequence of, say, a complaint by a parent, or an accusation or, you know, I don't know about you, but you know, I've been sworn at, I've had my tyres slashed, paint bombs thrown at my car, I have had all sorts of things happen, you know, and it's my colleagues who I ring and who give me the support, and I can talk things through.

G: The same the same. A personal network is really important when you're a principal. To have an objective point of view from outside the situation that you're living in at that moment is really crucial. If I didn't have those people outside the school that who were objective that I could speak to during that process, I feel that I probably would have had to go on leave, I would not have been able to cope. And I debriefed with Julie at the APF as well on a regular basis. And because she has a pretty wide perspective, because she works and worked with a lot of schools with a lot of principals in a lot of environments, she was very knowledgeable and very wise. And she kept me on an even keel, even though I was extremely stressed.

L: Knowing what you know, now about the job, if you are giving, say a young principal,  an inexperienced principal, some advice, what would you tell them?

G: That's true, I think it's too hard, because there's too many factors that will could influence that person. You know, if they're very strong and very committed and very professional, well, then I encourage them to go into the work and to do the job. But they also have to have a safety net. They need to be a member of a union, they need to have a personal network, they need to be able to access information outside the system. Because you mentioned some of the support that the school has like the legal unit, and I mentioned the principal welfare unit, but the department pays their salaries, their loyalty is not to you as a person, it's to the department. And I think that's what surprised me when I rang the unit and asked for advice about the confidentiality, that it wasn't me that they were looking after. So I think they need to be aware that those situations can occur and they need to have things in place just as a backup to make sure that they can get through the process and actually do a really great job with the kids and really enjoy what they're doing.

L: So how do you spend your days now?

G: I move slower. And I really enjoy the fact that I'm in control of what I do and when I do it and spend a bit of time with family and I'm trying to get a garden renovated. So we'll see how that goes. But some days, my health is such that I find it difficult to get out of bed. So I have to really get up each day and then work out what sort of day I'm going to have. And I work out what I'm going to do.

L: So, as a result of those two investigations, over the one thing, you’re just not the same, are you?

G: No, no. I’ve always had really, really good health. It’s been really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I’ve got a major health issue that’s going to be with me for ever so I try to work around it. There are days no matter what you do you just can’t do it.

L: Despite all of that, you have retained your sense of humour, you’ve got a great smile..

G: That’s one thing you need as a principal, your sense of humour. If you didn’t have a sense of humour you would be a very sad sack.

L: Thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing your story. I know it’s a very personal thing and I know you were very reluctant initially, but hopefully it’s done you some good. To get it off your chest, after all these years.

G: And hopefully someone out there will hear this and know they have to be better prepared.

L: I think you have hit the nail on the head: be better prepared. Thanks for your time.

G: Thanks Loretta.

 

 

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 leader's job. Want to know more? Then visit me at shapingleaders.com.au

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

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

 

Introduction

 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.

 

Interview

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.