#8 We stand with all principals.

#8 We stand with all principals.

We stand with all principals.

All school principals need support, and even more so when dealing with a serious issue.  The Australian Principals' Federation (APF) is bi-partisan, totally independent and has no affiliation with anyone or anything that could prevent them from doing what is in the best interests of members.  Tina King, president of the APF, gives great advice about what not to do

 

 

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.

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

No principal should underestimate how important it is to have the right support, not just to manage the technical aspects of the job, which we know can become overwhelming at times, but support to help manage their health and wellbeing.  Yes, it’s vital to have a network of trusted colleagues, but it’s equally important to have the Australian Principals’ Federation stand beside you.  If something comes out of left field, and if you’re in the top job long enough, it’s not if, but when. You will need the strength, advocacy and knowledge of this bipartisan organisation that represents only principals and assistant principals.  In this episode I talk to Tina King who is the president of the Australian Principals’ Federation.  If you are a principal class employee and not a member, take note of what she has to say because it could mean the difference between flourishing and drowning in emotional despair.

Interview

Loretta: Hello Tina. Welcome to talking out of school.

Tina: Hi, Loretta, thank you for the opportunity.

L: Now you're the President of the Australian Principals’ Federation, affectionately known as the APF. So could you tell us about your role, how long you've been doing the job, those sorts of things.

T: Thanks. Yes. Um, the APF is the industrial organization that represents, um, Victorian government school leaders, principals, and assistant principals. We are not compromised in our representation because it is exclusively for school leaders. We do not represent teachers or education support staff. I have the honour of leading the Victorian branch. Um, and I bring to the role having been elected into this position in 2021. Um, I bring to the role over 27 years experiences as a school leader, I've had 15 experiences years as an assistant principal. And I had the great honour and pleasure of leading a government school, a primary school for 12 years. So it's one of the prerequisites of the role. You must be a practicing principal. And, um, it is a great honour to represent and advocate on behalf of our members, a membership base that is ever increasing, because unfortunately we are finding more and more, not, uh, people in need of industrial support, but they also need advocacy and representation because of the increased number of complaints and investigations against school leaders, particularly principals. And we do a lot of that work in standing alongside our members to guide them, support them and navigate the challenges that come um, when you do have a complaint and at times a subsequent investigation. It's an extremely challenging and emotional time when a principal is facing these sorts of matters and they really do need someone there to take the emotion out of it and really support them through the process.

L: There's another organization, the AEU that represents principals, it represents teachers and lots of other people as well. So what's the difference between the Australian Education Union and the principals’ union?

T: I guess the main differences we are not compromised in our representation. It is exclusively and only for principals and assistant principals, so that when matters come up, be they before the Merit Protection Board, be they a complaints and investigation that a principal has to lead, we do not represent the teachers. Our representation is completely and solely um, to that principal or assistant principal. And it is exclusive. It is uncompromised. And, um, we, when I say we, the, the staff that work at the Australian Principals’ Federation, know the job, we have our finger in the pie. Um, we are practicing principals ourselves; may have been, we may be on leave of absence, or we may be recently retired. So we get the job, we understand the job and we provide that uncompromised support and advocacy.

L: When you say uncompromised, has that got anything to do with government funding or not receiving any sort of funding?

T: We are a not-for-profit organization and our memberships pay the operations in running of our organization. So absolutely there are no investments from any stakeholders in terms of monetary investments into our organization. We are a key for voice around the table when we are engaging with department personnel or be it the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority or whatever. We go into those negotiations with complete openness and transparency, because our commitment is solely to our members.

L: Tina, do I take that then that the APF has absolutely no affiliation with any political party? T: No, we are bipartisan, no political, no political affiliation with, um, any party. Or as I said before, any stakeholder or group. We are completely independent. We're completely bipartisan. And, um, our conviction and purpose is solely for our members.

L: I have been on state council for about 14 or 15 years. I was elected back then. And I only meant it to be a short stint just to, well, I wanted to do a favor to a colleague who rang me up one day and said, I can't do this anymore because I've taken on a new job. Will you step in and just fill in for me? So I thought, oh, well, here I can do it for six months, 12 months, and 14, 15 years later here I am still on state council. And, you know, it's, you know, I've got to say I have learned so much. And one of the things that I have learned more than anything is what not to do. I just thought we could use some of our time for you to elaborate on what are some of the really, really big issues that face principals, if they don't necessarily know about until it happens to them.

T: That's a really big question because when we look at the job of the principal, it is so diverse and it's so wide ranging. There's so many components to the role. There's the aspect about running the school. And all the demands that come with that in terms of, uh, curriculum and policies and operational matters. And then you have the role as the principal from the Department's point of view. You are the representative of the department at the school. And with that comes obligations in relation to implementing policy and supporting policy and guidelines. You have the demands of the community. And as a community leader, you need to be there supporting, and listening and linking in with, um, the key stakeholders, the parents, um, students and staff. And what we are finding is because the role is so diverse and it's so complex and it's so challenging, you have so many aspects that come across your desk, that if you don't give things due diligence, you may do something with all good intent in purpose but it can be against policy. And that is not necessarily, um, an intentful and purpose action that you fail to implement policy. It can be because of time constraints and so on. So we find the basis of most complaints and particularly those that are upheld are when policy has not been followed because when you have to answer to something the first thing the independent arbitrator will do is look at what this policy stipulates. What did you do? What did you say? How did you act and does that comply with policy. Now sitting alongside of that is the, is the values and the conduct that is becoming of a person of that stature and that position. And too often, sometimes people may fail in meeting those obligations because they may not be aware of it. How many people actually know about ministerial order 1068? Used to be ministerial order 199? And how many of us as school leaders actually unpack that with our staff? So when we deviate from policy and when we don't attend to those matters, that's when we can find ourselves getting into a little bit of hot water. And the main areas we're talking about is, you know, and that's been big for the Department, particularly of late, given IBAC findings relate to conflict of interest. So managing and disclosing conflict of interest. And sometimes acting in a manner, particularly in custodial situations and challenges between families where one parent may be aggrieved because the parent has deemed the principal to act with, um, a particular bias to the or the other, um, parent, they tend to be two major forms of complaints that arise from members of the public and the immediate school community. So we always say to principals, if you follow policy, if and when the time comes that you may be questioned about a decision or a particular act, then you are backed up and you can be supported to say, this is what the Department requires you to do, this is what I did to the best of my knowledge and intentions. And that's fundamental. You just, you can't know it all. You just need to demonstrate an awareness and a commitment, and that you acted with the intent purpose and impartiality. If we can stick to those things, I think, you know, um, we  well to support members, to, to navigate those challenges of complaints and investigations.

L: With the conflict of interest now, every principal every year, uh, gets on the website and fills in all the, you know, the required areas and to demonstrate how they mitigate any potential or perceived or real conflict. Now, how many principals actually don't fill that out?

T: So if there's a really good question, um, I would say given the training and the professional learning around this very few, maybe five years ago, it was an evolving landscape. It was new to many of us. And, um, probably a large proportion didn't feel it applied to them. So they didn't proceed. However, given where we are, you know, five, seven years later from when all this came out through IBAC, um, there is so much in the way of resources. There is so much professional development that has happened in, particularly from the employee conduct branch as well. They've gone out to network meetings. Um, if someone did not. Adhere or the policy requirements around conflict of interest. It would be really hard to plead ignorance in this space at this very moment where people get themselves into trouble in this area is they may feel that there is a conflict of interest and often what happens is you may go to a trusted colleague to get support and information because either exists. Because often when you pick up the phone and you ring a colleague, you know, they're there, they answer immediately. You don't have to go through the switchboard, you know, the 1800 number and so on. But sometimes that can work against you because a colleague might tell you what you want to hear. But also a colleague may not know the information as well. So we always say it is best to get the advice and support either from regional staff or the department, and always make note of it. The date and time and who you spoke to because one of the things about the Department is they've put increased resources and supports for principals in particular, whether you take the, um, the Principal Support Unit that, uh, Brian Wheeler heads and Frank Sal, um, you know, they're there to provide that advocacy and support on a needs basis, um, and we have seen a reluctance in the past for principals to reach out to the Department. And that's the space that we fill as well. Or we get many calls around this area and we support people, navigate them through, you know, conflict of interest, um, and, and other matters. So we also provide professional learning in this area to networks and individual schools and things. So going back to your question, more and more people are filling out the requirements as per edupay and through your declaration of private interests. Whereas rewind to five, six years ago, we were required to do that. And it was like, what's this? Why do I need to do it? And probably didn't give it the due diligence it needed.

L: What are some of the issues that you represent principals on?

T: Look the greatest issue and the greatest concern is when you have fractured relationships at the school level and the staff, are, pitted against the leadership of the school. And sometimes that can get really, really nasty. Sometimes the strategic campaign can be launched by staff in particular, the sub branch to out the principal or assistant principal. And when those things happen, it can be career ending. It can be damaging to one's reputation. No principal goes to school to make life difficult for their staff. The principals we deal with and support in this space have good intent and they have good purpose, but for whatever reason, some people, some teachers in particular are reluctant to change, to grow, to move and develop. And when they are challenged outside their comfort zone they bring other people on board and they take umbrage to the challenges brought upon by the school, the leadership. They misinterpret that as bullying, they lodge complaints. They lodge harassments. And they’re becoming very, very clever and astute and aware of where they can lodge those complaints. They don't always go to the region. Sometimes they go to the Institute. Sometimes they go to the Auditor General's office. So we're seeing more and more complaints coming against principals from stakeholders outside of education. Sometimes it's the Commission of, um, the Children's Youth Commissioner and things like that. And obviously when these complaints come and particularly those that come from the minister's office, it is a very top down approach that puts undue pressure on the individual and they have to answer to a lot of claims, often false and unsubstantiated yet the professional integrity, the commitment and, you know, um, the day-to-day work and decision-making is questioned. And as I said, at the beginning, it often comes from aggrieved staff, not just parents. And that is a really, really difficult situation when you have such fractured relationships in schools that result in these sorts of matters. So we're seeing increased staff opposition and complaints being lodged against principals in particular and that really concerns us because we know, we know that the way to, you know, for schools to function and effectively and be the best is to have a strong culture that's built on mutual respect and trust. And when that is broken, then when that is fractured and people become aggrieved, there are no winners in that. And the biggest losers are not just people who can have life-ending career moments, but most importantly, the kids.

L: Hmm. I've had two investigations against me. The first one was because I had a disgruntled staff member who was very, very unhappy because I did question he's teaching and he felt that I was targeting him unnecessarily and bullying him. And that went to region a couple of times and turned into quite a big investigation. And the second one, which I must admit, I can't begin Tina, to tell you how that affected me, but a student and a parent made an allegation. Um, and it was a very serious allegation, a very serious allegation, and that went to the police and that was a police matter for about six to eight months. And when I look back on it, I think, I don't know how I went to school every day. Continued to do my job with a smile on my face. My confidence was completely gone. And I had to pretend that everything was okay when in actual fact it wasn't. How don't we, as, as principals reconcile, something like that, knowing that we're effectively sitting ducks?

T: To be truthful and honest, Loretta, we can't reconcile something like that. And, and like yourself, I've been the subject of an anonymous complaint, um, which I deemed to be vexatious at the time, but nonetheless still had to go through the process and the process is timely. Even though there are the principles of natural justice that says this will be done within a particular timeframe, um, it can take up to 18 months. And during that time, you front up to school every day, you put a smile on your face and because people see you at school, they think, oh, she's doing okay. It's fine. Whereas inside it's still there. You're not, it is still there. It's at the back of your at it's always at the back of your mind, it is that sickly feeling in your stomach. And unfortunately that's why we're seeing more and more people taking leave. Accessing, um, medical intervention and support, and at times work cover, prolonged work cover. Um, we have individuals who have been subject to the nature of complaints that you just talked about similarly to you. And they've had to step aside from their role. They've had to enjoy months and months, if not years of medical intervention and support and counselling, and then go through the arduous process of work cover, having to explain themselves to seek a work cover claim. Um, and it's taking an undue toll on people. There is a problem with our process that allows it to go on for so long and doesn't allow for the system to call it out as unsubstantial unsubstantiated and vexatious from the onset. And I've had principals say to me, I will never go down the path of taking a teacher through the performance review process because it is there to challenge and grow people who are not performing to the expected levels. But often what happens is when you start a process with a teacher, it ends up in a complaint against you. You're deemed to be a bully. You're been to be unfair. You're deemed to be unreasonable. And your expectations do not marry with the perception of how the person is performing and they take umbrage to that. And it can, it's, it's, it's a tool of deflection. It's a strategy that a lot of teachers use, um, and it's costly and it's taking a personal toll upon our leaders. There's absolutely no doubt about that. So how you managed to front to school after the subject of two intense investigations would have come at a personal cost and would have come at come at a personal price. And I bet you to this day, you're still carrying those scars.

L: Look, I am. And even though I can honestly say I've had a lot of great support from colleagues and the APF, because the APF was very, very, um, supportive and provided me with all the advice and the information that I needed in a very timely manner. As my SEIL, my senior education instructional leader said to me, as he sat down with me because he visited to make sure I was okay, he said, Loretta, I could sit here and provide you with, you know, help and, and whatever. But he said, I'm going to walk out the door. You know, you're the one at three o'clock in the morning who wakes up and can't go back to sleep because all these things are still on your mind. And that is absolutely right. So that takes me to my next point. Tina, it's something that comes up a lot with principals where they say, why can't the Education Department be more supportive? I wonder though, what sort of support do we, as principals expect and want, compared to the support that the Department believes it's providing us?

T: So that's, uh, that's a really good question. And I think the best analogy I can make to you about this is, think about when you were a principal and you had a complaint about, against a teacher. Now, I don't know about you, but I always say to my staff, I will support you 110%, but when you get it wrong, I'm going to tell you, and I want you to fix it. So when I had that parent meeting and people were heard, I would sit there and back the teacher, but when it was just him or her and myself, I would say you got that wrong because we all have, we all have times when we get things wrong and no one, you know, for the vast majority of the profession and you know, our school leaders, you do not make intentional decisions or exclusions and things like that to cause harm or hurt or neglect and things like that. So when we're dealing with complaints against teachers, we have a tight timeframe that we work alongside of. Unfortunately when complaints come against principal class members, they are not afforded the same privilege of having it dealt in an expedient and timely manner and particularly investigations, they can go on and on and on and on. And we know there have been some inroads in this space because when external investigators are bought in, they actually now tell you when they aim to have their process of the, um, investigation concluded. But problem we have is when the investigator finishes their report, it goes back to the Regional Director who sends it to Employee Conduct, who sends it to the Legal Unit. It gets thrown around within DET before it finally lands back with the Regional Director with an outcome that then is provided to the person, you know, under investigation. So what we hear is when these matters arise, principals want to know they have the support of the department. And in your case, you had a SEIL who came to you, who asked you how you are, um, how are you going, who checked in with you. That doesn't always happen. And the other thing they want is to be heard and for it to be resolved in a timely manner as per the principles of natural justice. And unfortunately those two elements don't always happen. So they want to know they've got the support of the employer. They'll accept, and I know people will accept when they've done something wrong because this is let's not forget when you go through a complaints process and an investigation process, if there's an element of your conduct or the way you've executed your role and responsibilities that needs attention or needs enhancement, um, you know, that's a positive and you know, um, you take that onboard. You learn from it, you grow from, from it and you make sure it doesn't happen again, but you want to hear those people that represent you, ie, the employer are there to back you up. And sometimes simple words like, Loretta or Tina, we know this isn't you. However, we got to go through this process because we've got to validate, you know, and, um, and hear the complainants concerns and reach a point of resolution. We get all that. But you often felt alone. You've isolated. And you're told that this matter is confidential and you can't discuss it with anyone. So that even precludes you from picking up the phone and talking about it with your colleagues and often you vent to your partner or your loved ones who bear the brunt of it all. Or that's where we have a key role to play, where you ring us up and say, this is going on. And, um, and I've often had calls from people on a Sunday night who are sick to the stomach because they're going through an investigation process and have to front up at school the next day and pretend everything is okay when they're dealing with this in the background. So we need, we need a process that is fairer, is probably a little bit more transparent, a lot more support of principals and I'm in a process that lets principals know that they have the backing of the employer.

L: I wonder if we do have the backing of our employer, even though the Department says, no, no, we're very supportive, we're providing you with these resources. They say, go look at these, read about that. Go there. Look up… I think we're grateful for the Principal Health and Wellbeing initiative that is now available to everyone where principals can tap into psychological service, get, um, medical health checks and so on. Is that a band-aid though Tina? Is that just the government saying, oh, yeah, no, we're, we're supporting our principals, just in case someone decides to take it further in terms of, um, you know, making it a legal matter?

T: Yeah. Look, I think we're part of a big system. There's no doubt about that. And I truly believe in, I've seen this stepping into this role, the intent of the Department, the employer is a positive intent, it truly is. And I think we're fortunate in Victoria in particular, we have greater supports in any state across Australia. There's no doubt about that. And if you look at the Phil Riley survey results, that was actually acknowledged the inroads that we've made in Victoria. Is it a band-aid? The issues are very vast and, um, and the need varies. So what we need to do more is listen to our leaders and, you know, they often have the answers. They often have the answers and the solution isn't necessarily one that requires money, um, and more funds to be poured in the area. The, um, if there was time taken for individuals to actually sit down with the professionals and have some open conversation and discourse around this as school leaders will tell you what's needed. So to hear that and take that on board, rather than having people in the centre, thinking this is what our school leaders need. And, and I guess that's the critical role the stakeholders like ourselves have to play in those stakeholder meetings and conversations with the various department heads and bodies, because we listen to our school leaders. We know what they need, we know what they want. And we funnel that information up to the powers to be. I just wish there was a little bit more, uh, round table discussions. Um, not with a selected few, but, you know, from cross representation, um, across our state. Of principals and assistant principals who can sit down, share their stories, tell what they need and hear the roaring motion that has come from not just work debates, but situations around complaints and investigations as well.

L: If you were to sit down with some young, inexperienced principals, what advice would you give them about what not to do and how to look after themselves to make sure that say in 10, 15 years, they're still on top of their game?

T: Oh, well, um, when you step into the role as a leader and you're, you're newly appointed, there's a lot you don't know. And sometimes it's a good thing because you can plead ignorance particularly in your first five years. Um, but we talk about shielding and buffering staff and you need to shield and buffer yourself because the workload is relentless. Your accountability is immense to so many stakeholders and groups, and you really need to be on ball and on top of your game and you can't do it alone. You simply cannot do it alone. And it's fundamental you establish, and, and I know there are factors that prohibit some schools from doing this, um, because of financial resources or sometimes staff opposition, but it's really, really important that you establish a team around you, a trusted team around you within your school that has that distributed leadership model that spreads the workload and, um, you know, makes it sustainable because you cannot do it alone. The other thing I would say is you need to connect with your colleagues. You may be in a community of practice or a professional learning community because your network has put you into that. But alongside of that, gravitate to people who you trust, other principals, other APS, who you trust and you feel a connection with, because I can tell you in my leadership, the most valuable experiences of support I received was from my trusted colleagues who I could pick up the phone and I could say, I am struggling with this. I need help with this. How did you do that? And they share with openness, they share with trust. And most importantly, they share with no judgment.

L: That is really, really good advice. I suppose it's easy for us isn't it Tina because we've been principals for a very, very long time. I hope this message makes it to the less experienced principals. So having that support and that advice and those trusted colleagues around them to guide them and just even sometimes to lend an ear is absolutely vital.

T: It’s very hard as a young leader to sometimes push back. And, um, and sometimes that strength comes from talking to others that you have a really trustful and professional relationship with, because sometimes you just need the okay from someone to push back and then that could be your SEIL for example, there's nothing wrong with saying, look, I'm being inundated, I'm swamped. I cannot do this at this stage. I will get to it. Um, one of my Um, well, wouldn’t say favorite, but one of my strategies, whenever I was asked to do something and I may have missed a deadline or a timeline, or maybe I didn't see need or purpose to do this within the school and put it on the. And you'd often get the phone calls from town saying, oh, you haven't done this survey, or we've asked you to be involved in this pilot. And we haven't heard from you. And I'd say, yeah, look, I did see your email, but thank you. I don't wish to pursue it, but there was this inadvert pressure to participate and I'd always finished the phone call by saying, are you instructing me or are you advising me? And of course they can’t instruct you. It was always advice. And I would finish off by saying, well, thank you for the advice. I've taken it upon consideration and I've chosen not to participate. So never be fearful of pushing back respectfully. And if you really feel it's in the best interest of how you manage your own workload and that of your staff don't hesitate to respectfully push back.

L: What gold nugget, Tina, are you instructing me or are you advising me? That is gold.

T: And it’s served me in good stead for many years, and I still have a job with the Department, even though I am on leave of absence.

L: Tina. Thank you very much. Your role as APF president and the presidents before you are so important, you give so much advice, so much support and you stand beside your colleagues and that's, what's really important at the end of the day. Having someone there with you, you can't ask for more than that, that that's what's needed. And I think over the years I have survived because of the APF and because of the wonderful colleagues, trusted colleagues that I've had. So hopefully all our less experienced principals and APs will form those very strong connections and those strong collegiate groups, because these are the people who will be there when they need them the most.

T: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, um, you know, as we said earlier, it's really important to feel that people can reach out for support and with no judgment or recourse.

L: Tina, thank you for your time.

T: Pleasure, 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.