Miner, commercial fisherman, firefighter, school principal. Would you have placed your local school head among the ranks of such dangerous jobs? Most likely you would not.
However, a survey released this week makes the case that our school heads are suffering greatly.
The findings are damning and should serve as a wake-up call to action for our policymakers, education departments and those who educate and support our school principals.
Citing mounting demands, a lack of time and little support, principals are struggling to meet the requirements of the job.
Principals are the victims of stress at a rate 1.7 times higher than the population in general. And things are only getting worse. Findings show that school leaders’ thoughts of self-harm and poor quality-of-life concerns were double that of previous years.
The survey found that 41% of principals have experienced threats of physical violence on the job in the past year, mainly from parents. And more than a third have suffered physical violence - mostly at the hands of their own students.
How did we find ourselves in this place?
A report from the US suggests that the job of principal has expanded and become “overloaded” during the past decade as schools are being asked to mitigate many of society’s issues.
In a nation where the gap between rich and poor is growing, and the academic achievement gap remains quite large, school heads are being scrutinised and vilified based on test scores. Inspiring classrooms and innovative curricula are giving way to test preparation.
Couple this hyper-accountability with the hopelessness of generational unemployment in some communities and the effects of parents passing all academic responsibilities on to their child’s school, and principals are left with a Sisyphean task.
What can be done?
Stop asking schools to do everything to “fix” society
Schools reflect society’s issues for better and worse. Principals have undertaken the brunt of the burden in recent years to address academic, social and societal pressures inside the few hours of the day set aside for learning.
Parents expect schools to be caregivers early till late, to be tolerant of misbehaviour, meet student needs and teach children well. We must support and allow schools to pursue their core mission as learning centres.
Fix society by integrating services to families
Families under stress are best served in an integrated fashion by the private and public sector.
The Family Action Centre and other similar resources are doing this, as are places like Broadmeadow Primary in Melbourne.
Improve principal preparation programs and professional development
Most school leader preparation programs link theory to practice very well.
However, these programs must equip school leaders for the serious challenges and threats that they face every day. From addressing mental health issues of families and teachers to managing conflict in the classroom, and from creating demanding engaging classroom lessons to ensuring that all students meet their full potential, the talents of an effective principal in 2016 are far more than ever expected.
Mitigate a culture of excessive use of drugs/alcohol
In some suburbs of Australia, the drug ice can be cheaper to buy than a pint of beer or bottled water.
Behaviours in school are a reflection of behaviours at home. For many families in Australia, the abuse of alcohol and drugs precipitates bullying and violence across the socioeconomic spectrum. Policymakers must double-down on prevention and treatment programs and provide in-school supports for dealing with this epidemic.
Change the model of schooling
Around Australia and the world, new models of schooling are emerging that focus on the learner, families and learning. These include the Big Picture School concept, which places student passions front and centre, the AVID program, which targets students who have great unrealised potential but who often sit idly in school and may lack the study skills or the academic toolkit of their more successful peers, and the Early College High School movement from the US, which makes university a reality for disadvantaged students.
Scrapping the 20th-century model of schooling may be part of the solution to diminish stress and school violence.
This newest survey screams for a reaction from policymakers. But we will find our schools and our principals little changed if the reaction is not comprehensive.
We must rethink the way we view and support schools, principals and communities to create healthy and engaging learning environments for our nation’s children.