Death of Melbourne principal highlights lack of support for school leaders, grieving son says
The death of a well-respected Melbourne principal highlights the isolation school leaders can feel when dealing with difficult issues, his son says.
Victorian primary school principal Dr Mark Thompson took his own life in early December and his son, Matt Thompson, believes work stress played a role in his death.
Matt Thompson described his father's work as inspirational but said he had been let down by education officials.
"I knew he'd had a particular issue in the weeks leading up to his death but he dealt with issues all the times," he said.
Matt Thompson said in hindsight there should have been more focus on his father's well-being.
"It had crossed my mind before that he wasn't getting support for himself, he was going off doing so much stuff, it was all consuming," he said.
Meadowglen Primary School principal Loretta Piazza had been helping her colleague Dr Thompson deal with a parent complaint.
"The allegation was Mark had discriminated against a child. This was the straw that broke the camel's back," she said.
"When that happens, it decimates you. You feel really worthless because the department does not support us."
Ms Piazza said when she needed support to deal with a critical incident at her own school in Melbourne's north, she was put through to education department staff in the Bendigo office who were unfamiliar with her school community.
"In fact had I followed their advice, I would've inflamed the situation more, so I went ahead and hired security guards and managed the whole situation myself," she said.
Matt Thompson said his father was best known for his work during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
"He was there or on the phone to the [Strathewen] principal of that day pretty much every day for almost two years because he was so deeply affected by one of most enormous tragedies in this state's history," he said.
"If he wasn't there to help I don't know who would have."
Principals face growing burnout: study
A recent study from the Australian Catholic University found principals around Australia were facing growing pressure to deal with aggressive parents and demanding workloads with a lack of emotional support.
Principals who had experienced parents threatening violence had increased from 19 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2014, the study found.
The study also found violent threats made by students had increased from 17 per cent to 24 per cent over the same period, with one in four principals reporting physical assault from a student.
The principal of Kings Park Primary School in Melbourne's west, Doug Conway, said he has noticed a trend of entitled parents causing school staff grief.
"There's an example of a principal who had death threats and had a very difficult time and was told by the regional advisor to toughen up," he said.
"We're not here to hold your hand, you're the leader, you sort it out. It seems to be an unbalanced relationship."
He said principals can feel enormous isolation.
"I think the department is negligent in its duty of care towards its principals," Mr Conway said.
The Australian Principals' Federation's president Chris Cotching said he hoped the new State Government would address these problems.
"I am keenly optimistic. We've had many examples of principals suffering and struggling to cope," he said.
"But this [Education] Minister has made it clear he wants more authority, support for principals, more assistance, more advice, more authority if you like."
A personal view
I don't necessarily think it is fair to hurl too much blame at Regional Office. The amalgamation of regions under the last government was an unmitigated mess in many respects but as far as the Department's duty of care to its school leaders it was a disaster. Our 'line managers' our old RNLs went from overseeing 20 schools to overseeing more than double that. They also seemed under a lot of pressure to 'act the heavy' when it came to the new staff performance plans which were an added unnecessary burden on staff and principals given it's ridiculous time frame for implementation.
My RNL ( now retired and her new acronym is SARPP) was always supportive of me and was constantly nagging me about my welfare but she hadn't visited my school in 2 years ( maybe longer) Like all of us she was over worked and over stretched.
One of my colleagues from a small school ( my size) had issues with staff and a parent that caused her great concern. She turned to us in the Moorabool Network for the support she didn't believe she was getting from Region. Sadly that is not an isolated incident. Small schools in our region have closed due to lack of support and timely on site assistance when a critical incident has got out of control.
This is not new of course. When my last Regional Director retired I had been at Glen Park for 15 years. he had only visited twice (both times to renew my contract) and I received only one visit each from two assistant Regional Directors. ( One on a fact finding mission when new to the job and the other when he came to take some grant money away from me!) Im not unreasonable, I know they are busy people but you should be able to visit every school in your region once a year.
As far as no support or limited support in difficult situations our regional office has always been petrified of bad media coverage and they tend to want to sweep issues away and as the story stated tell principals to 'deal with it themselves' while at the same time doing very little or nothing to get out there and promote state education.
Many of my colleagues have problems with out of control children and unreasonable and often aggressive parents. There are actually too many stories to retell. This along with staffing and budget issues could easily push someone over the edge.I have had some challenging students over the years and when you're dealing with them alone it can be overwhelming.
Luckily I haven't had any real parent problems at Glen Park but the story about hiring security guards and having a 'hotline' to the local police station is not uncommon. it is an issue small school principals have been vocal about in the past. ( I remember advocating for panic buttons , the need for a small school principal association like they have in South Australia and for schools to have at least 2 full time staff years ago but it came to nothing. Maybe it is time now that we have a more responsive government to push for these matters again?)
Some principals bring on problems themselves. There is little if any vetting procedure for applicants ( some people just aren't suited to the role and in small schools in particular can cause huge problems. Region had tended to put inexperienced people into small schools, secondary teachers or anyone who applies) Poor decision making, poor leadership and an arrogant attitude to parents and staff is not restricted of course to small schools, far from it. Region has proved to be 'hit and miss' at best in removing incompetent principals. In some cases I know of they've acted decisively but a better vetting procedure and more proactive monitoring would have avoided problems altogether.The RNLs didn't get past the principals office even when they only had 20 schools which was part of the problem.
Let's hope the new government has a a more 'people friendly' approach to supporting principals and striking an appropriate balance between responsibility and workload.
Short visit today
I popped up to school for a few hours today and organised learning for the grade 1-3 kids for the first month. I couldn't work on the iPads because they were flat so I plugged them in and will work on those tomorrow.
Below are a few panorama photos from around the school. As you can see it's very dry.
Happy New Year to everyone. I exceeded last year's posts by 100 and hope to do more next....sorry this year. hopefully lots of good news stories.It would also be good to get up 35 000 site visits for 2015.