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Rethinking the role of the school principal

21 March 2018

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

There has been a lot of coverage in recent years on the growing number of stressed out school principals. It is pretty clear that leading a school community is not only demanding but can also be lonely work.

Nowadays, principals are not only leading the learning but dealing with the complexity of child protection issues, managing and responding to standardised testing and international rankings, and implementing ever-increasing accountability measures. And, of course, parents are expecting schools to deliver more.

Like many other professions, principals are often on-call seven days a week. Add to this the fact that they are also responsible for overseeing the financial operation of schools and you can understand why some teachers are reluctant to take on the top job.

The good news is that principal and teacher well-being is now being seen as important as student well-being. It’s a simple proposition: healthy principals and teachers means healthy school communities. Many principals now draw on the support of coaches and mentors. They are also part of a wider network of school leaders who are able to share common experiences and exchange ideas.

Like many things in schooling, we get good at treating the symptoms instead of searching for cures. If we are serious about reversing the trend of stressed-out principals, we need to be clear about their role in a contemporary school. Given the many demands placed on them and their competing priorities, schools need to operate on a distributive and collaborative leadership model. While principals have ultimate responsibility for the school, the expectation should not be that principals do everything themselves. In today’s world, teachers, staff and parents need to share in the collective responsibility of contributing to and leading school communities. The role of the principal in today’s world is to tap into the wisdom of the school tribe using it to transform learning and teaching.

We often talk about ensuring students have 21st century skills like collaboration, critical thinking and communication. These are also necessary skills for principals. The leaders of the most innovative companies in the world foster cultures of excellence, and then work to ensure that everyone is focused on the things that really matter while minimising the distractors and background noise. In schools, the things that really matter are the quality of relationships and the quality of learning and teaching.

Greg Whitby AM

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

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