Wednesday 27th September 2017

Archives for Tuesday 5th September 2017

15 Years Ago & Now. 2017.104.

15 Years Ago & Now. 2017.104.

Fifteen Years Ago.

As I have written before, and is part of my bio, I was a K-6 School Principal in a N.S.W. Public School from 1999-2003. Before then I had been a relieving principal in two schools from 1994-1998. In 1999 I was appointed, by merit selection, to this school. The brief, once I was appointed, from my boss, the District Superintendent was “Denyse, I want you to bring this school into the 21st Century.” He was correct in that. It certainly was stuck back in probably an era two decades earlier. When I began in January 1999, replacing the former principal who died in the September school holidays earlier, I literally had to start the school’s organisation and planning from scratch. Why? Because the person I replaced trusted no-one and kept all leadership matters to himself,  and died with all the school passwords and information for getting things up and running. I took over a mess.

But I love a challenge and there were some good people who wanted to come along on this journey into the century we were on the cusp of entering. The school executive team was keen and wanted to learn more and  I could definitely help them with this and we formed a good group. Until the end of that first year. It really was a change that I could not stop and is part of what happens in school systems anyway but it made my job more challenging for sure. The school was unique in the area at that time with: mainstream classes, a special education unit of 3 classes, 2 O.C. (gifted and talented) classes and an Autism Satellite Class. Two of the people who were part of the executive team sought and got promotions elsewhere. Yes. I would encourage that of course. However, it left a hole for a bit which I was able to carry myself until I could get some new staff appointed.

Over the next 2 years however, this plan started to waiver. I had appointed a person to an executive role who was not up to the role. I take responsibility for that but it was a most unpleasant time as his continued absence from school due to ‘illness’ meant I had parents (and some teachers) calling for action. In the end, my district superintendent moved this person on and I could fill the role internally. I was relieved for a little while but then my best and most competent person in my team had to leave to have her first child. This was lovely for her and her husband and I wished her well. The remaining executive member who was my age decided to take Long Service Leave for the remainder of the year.

This meant I had NO fully qualified person holding an executive role in my very busy and varied school community.  But what did I do? I appointed people who were staff members who said they would like to learn more about the role and support the school  by taking on relieving roles for the remainder of 2002. This worked in some ways but I needed to take on more of their responsibilities myself or guide them step by step. It was as if I was doing multiple roles. I could sense how much I had taken on in June that year when I ended up writing a casual teacher’s class reports!

 

I did not know what this was doing to my mental health although I probably should have read the signs. I sought time out from the school to attend meetings and to meet with colleagues but at NO TIME did I actually tell my boss what it was like for me. In fact, I had said farewell to the District Superintendent who’d appointed me at his retirement and he was replaced by someone in an acting position. And, it still is the same now, a principal is meant to handle anything and everything that comes up. Well. Maybe in 2017 there might be greater awareness of principals’ mental health but not when I was becoming unwell. Even though I did not know it. I can look back now and see I was quick to anger and showed my displeasure when people did not comply because of their own incompetencies or my ‘view’ of how they should behave in the role. This led to….the following:

On a September evening in 2002 I received a telephone call at home from one of my relieving executive staff. She told me that there would be a delegation of staff coming to me the next day to make a complaint about my manner and behaviour. She said they had contacted our union and that person would be at the school. She also said that there was a rumour it was because of me that the school population was declining and that as that would mean at least one staff member would have to be transferred then I needed to step up. I could and did dispute this as the reason as schools’ populations change for a variety of reasons but instead I reacted personally.

This sure was a bolt out of the blue. But then again, I actually could see how my behaviour had changed and recognised that I was fast losing my grip on being a leader. Within moments of the conversation ending, and letting my husband know what had occurred I broke down. In tears and physical distress I knew I had to protect my health/self and I could NOT face such a meeting. I could not reach my boss and had to wait till the next day. I did not sleep and went to my G.P. as soon as I could that morning. It was very unlike me not to continue to be at work.

That day, 4th September 2002, she declared that I was suffering from anxiety and depression  due to work overload and that she would start the process of a work cover application.

I never went back to that school, that role or saw anyone other than my boss and the local district HR staff again. It was final and I NEVER  could have seen me, a competent and dedicated teacher, finishing my career JUST.LIKE.THAT.

Now.

So much time has passed and yet this time of 15 years ago remains very clear. It is imprinted upon my mind as ‘the time when I failed to do the job I was appointed for‘. Then again  as was  the culture of the time it meant I could not share how I was managing with anyone. Mental health management  in the workplace is hopefully becoming more recognised but there is still a huge stigma attached and shame as well. My shame is decreasing each time I tell my story. It did take courage for me to start to tell my story a few years ago because I did not want to admit my so-called ‘failings‘ as a school principal. I am the one who labelled these, no-0ne else.

The upshot of what happened to me impacts me still in some ways. I did have the claim for workcover met and was paid accordingly. However, as in all workcover matters many steps need to be followed as the recipient and these include ‘return to work’ plans. I simply could not do that. My GP was adamant that I NEVER return to that school nor to the role of principal. Interestingly when I was first on leave I could not even attend my grandchild’s school without a great deal of fear and anxiety.

I was treated by more than my GP. I had to attend meetings with my employer and work cover and to see a psychiatrist and psychologist but what they all wanted me to do I could not. I could not even drive on the road that would lead me to my old school. I was scared!

If I knew what I know now about myself I think I may have been prepared to expose myself to the experience of coming to work at the local district office instead of refusing (avoiding) because I felt such fear and shame. I also think with the knowledge I have now about my mental toughness and resilience that I could have stayed employed.

But no, as I found in early 2003, I HAD to resign my role and give up any rights so that I could, hopefully gain my superannuation lump sum. I was in a scheme which did not medically retire (sadly I had taken myself out of that scheme when we were first married) so the action was to leave under circumstances that were never envisaged by me. Then came an even tougher time when the Superannuation people interrogated me and tested me and declared I was fit and able to return to work. This was disputed by my medical team and it took the lawyers from my union (free for me) to gain my benefit.

For all of 2003 I took time out to explore my creative side, I volunteered at the Smith Family and I met with friends for coffee. I had many appointments to continue my self-styled rehabilitation after I declined to take part in any more of the WorkCover requirements. In early 2004 I needed more. I needed to be with people again and to teach!

There was much more that was good to happen to me from May 2004 onwards which I did for myself by returning to a teaching role in friend’s school and having no executive responsibilities. I was happily engaged in that work from 2004-2009 and had to be careful to not take on too much as I was only to work part-time. But I got my sense of being a teacher again.

So why tell this story?

The stories relating to stress, work overload and anxiety in the workplace need to be shared widely. I now know my personality  type and management style is that I need to be sure of things and want things to be done well and correctly. This was not happening in 2002 but I also held onto the notion that a principal deals with everything without telling the boss how it actually is. I have wondered how it may have worked if I had had the courage to tell someone. I did not even tell my husband.  I became unwell mentally and emotionally because I did not reach out to others and when I was finally diagnosed I was not to return to the workplace. I wonder now, if maybe things could have worked out better for me if I had the resilience I have today.

But we shall never know. I hope that by telling this story I could encourage others to speak up and share if the workload is too much. Tell someone. I know I should have.

Does anything here ring true for you or someone you know?

Denyse.

Joining in with Kylie Purtell here for I Blog On Tuesdays and with Leanne here for her Lovin’ Life Linky on Thursdays.

 

 

 

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