#9 I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me. Part 1.

#9 I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me Part 1.

I love being a principal, but I think it might be killing me Part 1.

'Under-resourced, mistreated and overburdened with red tape, principals report that, compared to the general population, their job demands are 1.5 times higher, and they experience 1.7 times more stress, 2.2 times more difficulty sleeping and 1.3 times more depressive symptoms.' The findings of The Australian Principal Occupational, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey.



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



I don't think there's one principal in Australia who hasn't heard of the Principal Health and Wellbeing survey. Given that it's been around for more than 10 years, every principal I know completes a survey every year. What makes this survey particularly valuable is the fact that each participant receives in depth feedback in relation to their own personal health and wellbeing immediately after completing the survey. Professor Phil Riley, the initiator of this survey is my guest today and he shares insights into how he began his career in education, then transitioned into the field of psychology. We also discuss how the survey came into being and the impact of the principals’ work on health and wellbeing.


Loretta: Hello, Phil, welcome to Talking out of school. All right. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Phil: Well, I was a teacher for a long time. And then I was a principal for quite a long time. And then, well, let's step back. When I was a teacher, after about four or five years teaching, I realized I didn't know anything about how kids learned. I knew I did this sort of dance. At some point, they did these other movements at some point. And then one day, they would know something that they didn't know the day before. And I kept thinking, What is going on here, I don't really understand? So I went back and trained as a psychologist, if not, in between, you know, all the other things I was doing, and realized that I'd learned a whole lot of things in my psychology undergraduate degree that I should have been taught as a undergraduate teacher. And, and then sort of that led to leadership positions and became a principal, and had a big falling out with a school I was at, and decided that I was ready for a career change. I was probably actually a bit burnt out, I think, too.

L: At the time, how long were you a principal for?

P: I was principal for about five years, sort of acting, and yeah, be about five years. And the school that I was at, was going through a lot of turbulence at the time, as a lot of schools do, of course. Anyway, the opportunity arose to take a break, and I had been starting my PhD. A year or so before that all happened, actually, probably a couple of years before that happened. And was offered some teaching at the university. And I thought, Okay, it's time for a change, and then went and did that, and really like that. And one thing led to another around that when the PhD kind of really focused me on the teacher student relationship, and how crucial that is to the functioning of schools and then sort of looked at it, that expanded to staff, to staff relationships, leadership too, you know, when there's power imbalance, all of those sorts of things, and just got fascinated by all that. And we won a contract. I was at Monash at the time, and we won a contract to do, provide mentoring support for all the newly appointed principals in Victoria. And I had been developing this mentoring program through my PhD and had got to know a lot of principals around Victoria through that program, because they'd all come to and these were very experienced principals. I think the average age of the average level of experience, but the people who I'd worked with previously in this program called mentoring matters, was 27 years experience. So you know, working the kind of the cream of the cream in the sense in Victoria, and got them back to do the mentoring of the new principals when we won this contract at Monash. And we got them all together in because it was people from all over the state. We all met in a hotel in Brighton on a Sunday, and they were going to start their mentoring on the Monday so that the way we're going to do some run through stuff And then their their new principals who they were going to mentor. Were going to arrive for dinner on Sunday night, we'd start the whole program on Monday morning. Anyway, in the breaks, all of these principles were talking about, Oh, am I that person I'm kind of mentor is so young I don't think lasted, that, you know, the job is so hard now there was really a kind of outpouring in all the breaks between our sessions of how tough the job had become. And this was 2008, I think, yeah, would have would have been 2008. And I was really, you know, because I've been out of schools for a while at that stage. And at thought, you know, I knew things were tough, but things seem to be a lot worse. And when I started digging into it, of course, I'd turned up that the report that the Victorian Department had done called The Privilege and the Price.

L: That's on my list to talk to you about actually,

P: Yeah, well, that was an absolutely eye watering document. And I thought, why is nobody done anything about this, and in fact, you know, four or five years later, the situation seems to be worse rather than better. And yet, nobody's done anything about it. And I was chatting to various academics and other people, and they said, look, the only way you're going to get this out and acted on is to get it into the media. And the only way you can do that is to have it researched independently. And roundabout, that time, I went to what they call the research accelerator award at Monash, which was, you know, they picked their, what they thought were their up and coming good researchers and gave them a head start in terms of money to do a substantial research project. And so that's how the principle of Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing survey started. So it was funded by Monash and we, you know, the rest lead from there, all those years ago.

L: So the first Principal Health and Wellbeing survey was in 2011?

P: So it took me a year to work out all the principal organizations. I didn't realize him, there were 63, I think, at the time, principal organizations around the country, and just getting to know everybody and introducing myself and all those sorts of things, that took a year and it took a year to design the questions and consult with people from around the country, and in fact, also from overseas, about what sort of things we should ask. And so just discovering all that in between, you know, was full time teaching at the time as well. Took a couple of years. So yeah, the first rollout was 2011. And it's still going,

L: I suppose to maintain the integrity of the survey, has it undergone any changes between 2011 and now?

P: Yes, we've added and subtracted Look, it's a very long survey. And that's one of the criticisms, of course of it is principals are busy and you're asking them to spend probably nearly an hour completing at least the first time that is survey and probably 40 minutes or so for subsequent years. But we've been really careful to use the most robust instruments that are generally accepted around the world as being the best self report measures of occupational health and safety. And that has been a bone of contention amongst the research team, because really, we, you know, we'd all much rather ask far less questions to get significant answers. But of course, then the veracity of the of the research is so good, where we're branching at the moment into the area of artificial intelligence to mine through all of the answers that we've got through so many people's responses, various countries now and multiple years of responses to try and see if we can come up with ways of with using modern technology to help us ask less questions, but still be confident in the answers that we were getting back, which will make it easier for principals. And yeah, you know, so it's, this is early days, but I've got a very smart set of researchers who I'm working with them very keyed up into in this area, and they're looking at that. Despite being a fairly lengthy survey there is a very high participation rate. Yes. And there's a very very high return rate, which is sort of extraordinary. In general research turns we get, you know, 90 plus percent return rate. And that's unheard of in in ordinary research where you're using surveys people go, Yeah, I've done it once that'll do that, because we give very detailed feedback. And that was one of the things that I was very keen on when we first started that the individual should get something for their time. So everybody who fills out the survey gets a very detailed report about their own personal health and well being and their occupational safety. Yes.

L: Now, you mentioned The Privilege and the Price. Now that was released in 2004. And I remember doing that survey. And I also remember, remember having a conversation with my colleagues, and asking, where the hell has that survey and the results gone? We haven't heard anything. And then we heard on the grapevine that the results were so damning, that the department decided not to release the results for some time. Yeah. So they came out in 2004. And,

P: and they went up on their website for about 10 minutes, I think. And then they took it down again. So they said they could release it. But luckily, I was able to get a copy of it.

L: Yeah, I've actually got a copy of it too, because I used it for my own research. But I think something like 50% of the principals who filled out that survey said that they'd had a medical diagnosis attributable to their work. Yeah, so it was either, I don't know, headaches or, you know, whatever it was. And the other really interesting thing that I thought that came out of that survey was that 93% of principals considered themselves to be educational leaders. But in reality, 80% said that they were managers. Yeah. So what's changed from 2004 to now?

P: Very little. The problem with Department of Education, and probably departments of all sorts of things, transport, health, all of those is that they're full of people who don't understand necessarily what the job involves. And you wouldn't expect them to, clearly but they don't tend to be people who are inquisitive and want to listen about how the job works, and how we could make things better. They tend to be more command and control type people. They're often lawyers, because they're dealing with legislation and policy, you know, at a high level. And there's nothing wrong with it, except that you need some educators to explain what the ramifications of these policies and changes to legislation mean. So, in some sense, things haven't changed much, because of the way the whole departmental system works. I mean, to do very well, in the public service, you need to spend your time in education, transport and health, to get to Treasury. And Treasury is where, you know, the big game. And there, there was a time in Victoria, where there were a lot of school-based people in the department at pretty senior levels. And in one sense, that was a good thing in another sense, you know, that's led to all sorts of other difficulties, because they probably weren't as skilled as they could have been in other areas that are important to running a Department of Education. But in terms of what it's like on the ground, I think things have gotten worse, because parents particularly are far more aware of their rights, but they're not nearly as willing to own up to their responsibility for bringing up the kids

L: nicely said.

P: And so it creates a lot of conflicts that we've just seen, basically exponential growth in offensive behavior over time. So and that's really sad. I mean, it was I was shocked at the level of it when I first got the first year's results, and it's got continually worse since then.

L: And I think social media does not help here.

P: Absolutely, and we I mean, that's one of the changes in the survey over time is we, we've added questions in about social media to see what's happening there. And at a very kind of light touch level. But yes, it's terrible. And so, you know, social media is terrible in all sorts of ways. I mean, extraordinarily difficult for parents, very difficult for kids. It's affecting in Australia, particularly it's affecting teenagers sleep hugely. That's like it you know, when teachers go on camp, they sort of stay with an ear open in case, a reason to intervene. Well, apparently teenagers doing something similar with their phones, they sort of keep an ear out in case their phone goes off. And they feel like they need to answer it doesn't matter when the message comes through. So yeah, there are there are a number of issues that have made life more difficult. But I think the kind of key elements of Canada, the Department really trusts the principal, to run the school with some sense of autonomy. I don't think that's changed much. And until that changes, I don't think many of the other things will change.

L: I was interested in the number of, well, actually three out of 10 principals received a red flag email. What's all that about?

P: The red flags, we developed a system of basically, an early warning system for people that look like their health was under serious threat. And that was the red flag. Now, there's sort of technical aspects to that one of them was, we've simply asked a question that came from the Australian Quality of Life Survey, which is sort of the gold standard of that type of, you know, quality of life instruments, and that is if you felt like harming yourself in the last week. And then at what level? No, I haven't thought about it at all. It's crossed my mind, right up to I think about it all the time. And if people are saying, I think about it often, or I think about it all the time, that's a red flag straightaway. And we, we then generate an automatic email and the system that goes out to that participant to say, you know, some of your responses indicate that you may need to seek some help. And you know, and we give web links and all sorts of things, and people can look at it and do it rather than a phone call, which would be you know, very invasive. Then there are calculations from suites of answers, which is, you know, maybe 30 or 40 answers, we calculate a total for that, and then say, this person is showing serious risk. And that would generate a red flag as well. And when we started doing those ones, people would get back to me and say, I must have made a mistake. So I must have ticked the wrong box, you know, don't worry about it, I'm fine. And I got suspicious about that. And so the Australian Quality of Life Survey had been normed against a number of top clinical populations, as well as the general population. So one of those populations were women with postnatal depression, and Vietnam veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, and various other ones. And the pattern of responding for those two groups, particularly women with personality, depression, and Vietnam vets with PTSD was exactly the same pattern of responding as these principals who are saying, don't no, no, it's not me, everything's fine. Just change my answers, which means they're in denial about how bad things were, or, you know, potentially. And so we've probably, over the years become more proactive about saying, you know, we strongly recommend that you take these results and discuss them with your GP. And I've had lots of feedback over the years from people, often they would get a red flag and say, actually, I knew I was in trouble, I'm going to do something about it. Thank you very much, or I didn't know I was in trouble, but thank you, I will go and discuss this with my GP. So I think it has been useful in that sense for people but the percentage is pretty scary. And in the, in the, the qualitative part of the survey, where we just ask people, you know, is there anything else you want to tell us or sometimes principals will email me with a story about, you know, why their results are like they are. And they are often describing sort of classic symptoms of PTSD. So an incident has happened at school, which has probably not been huge, but that's just been the straw that's broken the camel's back and they, they kind of can't do their, or they can't perform in this in the way that they'd been performing. Every time they go passed their school they break out in a cold sweat or whatever. So it's pretty nerve wracking stuff.

L: Some of the areas that you look at in the survey for principals is burnout, sleeping troubles, stress depressive symptoms, and so on. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a principal who didn't have any of those symptoms, even at a very, very low level.

P: Well, it's a stressful job. And that, you know, even if the departments around the country in the world supported principles, absolutely, as well as they could enjoy a very stressful job, because of the human interaction, and the very high levels of emotional engagement with both parents and kids that are just a normal part of the job. And I think principals sign on for that. I don't think that's a great surprise or anything, I think, other great surprises that what surprises them is the amount of sort of administrative workload or the level of threats that they supposed to deal with, without a lot of support, and things like that, but I think, you know, people choose that job, relatively speaking with their eyes open, and they do it because they love it in the same way that, you know, nurses choose to be nurses and police choose to be police and whatever, you know, they kind of know what they're getting in for so. So that's okay. So I think, and there's, there's pretty good evidence in the, the literature about people who choose the helping professions are a little bit more vulnerable to these things anyway. And you know, the more you care, the more you can be kind of vicariously hurt by what you see around. There wouldn't be a principal in the country that hasn't heard terrible stories of kids lives outside of school and things and who feel for them and want to do more to help them. And yet, you, you know, you can undo so much. So you're right, that that I think there would be some elements of that.

L: Why is it that experienced principals and you know, we're looking at 21 plus years’ experience, they've actually got lower levels of burnout and stress. What's going on there?

P: That's actually reflected in the population at large, too, that happens to everybody. It's a function of age, you get to a certain point where you think, Well, I actually don't care that much about what other people think about me, I believe the good life or I haven't, or whatever.

L: Old age is really liberating!

P: Exactly. So I think that is probably what's going on here, too. So it's just a normal part of the aging process where you you basically just get a bit more comfortable in your own skin, I think.

L: And I think one of the things that you looked at in one of the last report was around the number of principals who plan on retiring.

P: Yeah. And I mean, it's always hard to know, because the economic circumstances change quickly, you know, COVID, comes along, whatever. So what people's intentions are, and what they actually do is often two quite different things. But certainly, anecdotally, COVID, has been an interesting one in that a number of principals have said to me, I'm going to get the school through this and get them going again. That's it. I've had enough, I'm going. I've done my bit can't do any more. And that would make a lot of sense to me, because they've been treated pretty badly. And I mean, so have a lot of people don't get me wrong, but you know, it's like, a week's warning to take a national education system online. And then offline, online, you know, with very little warning, and then, oh, well, you can just do hybrid classes. And, you know, half your kids will be at home, isolating and half will be in the room, and you'll be able to just manage all at once.

L: The hardest thing with all of that getting a week's notice was the fact that you're a principal in a very low socio economic school and more than half of your kids don't even have computers.

P: Yeah. And I heard I mean, there was I heard about a school in New South Wales, where I think it was very high indigenous population, maybe 90% indigenous population. And the principal had said to the Department, I don't have a single family with a computer or internet access at home and you're expecting me to go online and they said, Don't worry, we'll supply every family with something. Well, that stuff the equipment arrived after the lockdown was over. Yes, true. The equipment arriving is not enough. You've got to set it up and make sure it works and you know, help with technical help and all that sort of stuff. So


Phil's interview is so informative and special, that it deserves to be listened to in its entirety. Tune in next week as we go deeper with Phil into the Principal Health and Wellbeing survey, what it says about principals and a pathway to better health.

Thanks for listening to this latest episode of Talking out of school, where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs and even the downright curious of the school leaders’ job. Want to know more? Then visit me at shaping leaders.com.au. But for now, here’s to staying ahead of the game.

Resources and points of interest

The Privilege and the Price was the Department of Education and Training survey for principals and assistant principals conducted in 2003, but not released until 2004 due to the damning nature of the results.  As Professor Riley mentions in our interview, the survey results 'disappeared' from view very quickly.  See the survey results here. The Privilege and the Price_2004

The Principal Health and Wellbeing Surveys from Australia and other countries can be accessed from this link: https://www.principalhealth.org/au/