Tuesday 24th September 2019

September Stories. #3. 2018.95.

September Stories. #3. 2018.95.

This is the third story telling some aspects of what it was like for me as a K-6 School Principal in a medium-sized New South Wales public school from 1999 until the beginning of 2003.

The first story is here and the second here for those who want to understand “how I got to the day I never went back as principal in September 2002.”

What was different in the beginning of the 2002 school year?

It was my fourth year as principal. Naturally much changes within the education system and in schools themselves. Families may move on due to work changes, sometimes those families are not replaced by new ones so a school population can begin heading downwards.

School staff (teacher and executive staff) may need to take leave for reasons of: family needs, maternity and long service leave as well as sick leave.

The other change heralding 2002 was the need to upgrades of maintenance (big cost jobs) to the school as it was one that was first occupied in the 1940s. Back in 2002 it was up to the principal to make the contacts with contracted companies to get in suppliers who could quote for major works. Then the principal, with enough funds in the school account, could give a project a green light. I was trained to teach but there I was, like all principals still, being a site manager and a financial manager as well as HR manager. Sigh.

Systemic Changes.

More and more, I noted as did my principal colleagues that schools were being expected (rightly too) to ensure that Codes of Conduct for staff were not only understood and agreed upon by them but if behavioural issues arose, then the principal would be the first person to begin making an action plan when the code was violated.

There always had been the mandatory notification to the Department back then called Family and Community Services where if a child was deemed by a mandatory reporter (all school staff are) to be ‘at risk’ then a first notification was to be made by telephone. This saw me, often waiting for a person to answer, locked into a phone call because of issues which may look trivial on the outside but may be clues to more. One such event could be repeatedly coming to school with no food. Other times it could be the child letting her/his teacher know that a parent may be unwell or even violent and it was never our role to investigate but we did need to reassure the child, then make the reports. Over the years I have sat in with a child in my role as a support person (if the child requested that from me) and it is heart-aching to be witness.

Our system, the N.S.W. Department of Education, was updating its role in terms of staff compliance and behaviour. This was nothing new and in fact teachers have had annual reviews in a conversation form for decades. Since I left teaching, this has become a joint venture between the schools and the overseeing body of school governance. Returning to my principal days. IF there was a reported incident told to me by a student, parent or staff member where a staff member’s behaviour (spoken, actions or in written form) was not within the Code of Conduct (signed off annually as part of mandatory training) then the principal had to act upon it. I dealt with the Officers from the Conduct Unit first who listened to what had been reported to me and then I was given advice that it could be managed at school level (guess by whom?) or it could be escalated, with the staff member’s knowledge to a higher authority. I had to do this on one occasion and the fallout for me came later. The temporary staff member who brought along a permanent staff member as a support person as the complaint was told to her from my account given to me was aghast at the inference. In fact, there was nothing I had done wrong at all….but remember way back “your role will be to bring this school into the next century” comment by MY boss…this matter was a prime example of how staff thought they could still behave but it was not compliant with the Code of Conduct.

And, Everyone Who Was An Executive Member of the School Went on Leave.

Not at all related to the above in two instances: one was to have a baby and the other because of longevity of service took her rightful allocation of leave…both for the remainder of 2002. But wait, there was one more. Yes, this person ‘broke me’ in so many subtle then obvious ways. And whilst I cannot say much, the continued leave based on medical certificates over and over did cause alarm for the parents of that class as it did me because the year had started well but then, as it was expected of me that this Assistant Principal would perform other executive duties (as do all teaching executive) this person refused and did not return after many months. Oh, yes, one day there was a return, after hours to access my office and computer telling the only person on site, the cleaner, that “I” had given him permission. Following that, he was disciplined and placed in a different school.

How Did That Affect Me?

In some ways it was a relief but in many more, as we geared up for the mid year reports, parent-teacher interviews and then Education¬† Week along with concerts and fund raisers, it was the beginning of my end. Sadly I did not see it for sometime. I kept on working even harder. Yes. I was doing the roles of the appointed executive who were on leave. I know that I did have three teachers put their hands up to do the relieving roles but without the experience and knowledge beyond their classroom teaching, I was giving more and more of myself to duties that were not mine. I was even writing reports for a class teacher with little experience. I will say now that I know I was over-doing things but I could see no way out. I was under pressure to perform well for the school’s sake and also to answer to my ‘bosses.’ My lovely boss actually retired at the end of Term One (sadly) and he was replaced by someone I knew well but was nothing like the people-person my old boss was.

Schools have a culture of their own. I can now walk into a school and get a feeling of how things are. In my school, as Winter took hold I know that my mood was also one of worry and concern. That was for the school and its staffing into the next year. When school populations decrease in the NSW public system, the principal will be asked to nominate a teacher to leave. In the majority of cases, teachers are very comfortable in their current school and rarely does anyone volunteer. So then it becomes a matter of ‘asking’ and ‘hoping’. The staff were getting the idea that with the school’s drop in population, which occurred when the Special Needs unit was disbanded and there was a reduction of families moving to the area, that “I” had something to do with the reduction. I was told this by telephone on the night (4th September 2002) I heard staff were arranging a delegation to my office the next day. They were going to tell me it was my manner with parents that was the cause. This may have had one essence of truth after I was threatened by a violent father who I had to get removed from the grounds, but generally I had a suppotive P&C and was a principal who was active and even did playground duty. But people like someone to blame. Of course, and that was me.

The Night I Was Told.

Before I go on, I was feeling emotions of overwhelm from the role. I remember with clarity coming back from yet another principals’ meeting where they was MORE that we needed to take responsibility for. I wondered how I could possibly manage more. In the meantime, I became probably hyper vigilant after another meeting about my responsibilities for Work Health and Safety. The school was OLD in many parts and I knew that there was much that did not comply, so I contacted my properties’ manager (the centralised one, not a personal one!) and for a fee, he came out and condemned or ok-ed parts I was concerned about. One such area was deemed so risky I had to tape it off before demolition and in doing so, incurred the wrath of the teachers who had been there forever. I could not take a trick. I stood for what was right because that is who I am. I knew I needed to have a timeout but it happened to be an official one to attend a meeting for a day and then a personal one to accompany my husband to a vital medical appointment.

Schools: I love them. But I Could Not Return To Mine.

Two days away from school…..then I was rung the night before I was to return. Wednesday 4th September. By one of my relieving Executive who I always thought was both compassionate and brave to tell me that some staff were getting a delegation ready along with a Teachers Federation Organiser to meet with me to discuss their issues. Initially I listened with interest and then with surprise/shock at what was apparently my fault: declining numbers, meaning one of them would be asked to transfer. Once I had talked (and been upset a bit) with her, I had successive phone calls from the remaining two relieving executive and it was then I said “I will be speaking to…(my boss) in the morning and will not be returning to school until I have”. They implored me not to but I had the sense not to act upon a threat like this.

I broke. I broke down. I was ill. I couldn’t contact my boss: left a message that I would be going to my GP in the morning.

That would be the start of pretty horrible days but also some days of relief and release. Yet, nothing ever has helped me get over the fact that I loved being a principal but one day I never went back.

There was so much shame in me for that and it has almost all faded now some 16 years later.

It’s been hard to learn THIS….

Next and last story will be about, sadly, how poorly my then employer treated me, but how my own return to wellness was all because of my inner capacity aided by a loving husband, a supportive family and friends network along with..some years later, an inclusive blogging community.

Thank you for your kind words having read these stories. I have not told them in as much detail for many years but I am glad I could have the chance again.

It really helps to write our stories! That is why I blog!

Denyse.

Joining with Leanne for Lovin Life Linky here on Thursdays.

 

 

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Comments

  1. That’s a lot to take on in one role. And I relate to far more than I thought I would in this!!

  2. Sadly a story that’s a tad too familiar – different industry similar outcome. A school sounds as if it is, in many ways, just like a company with targets and gate-openers & politics.

    • Isn’t that sad? Whatever we are doing as humans to heap much responsibility onto someone and then call them out when it becomes too much. I often thought my role as principal required me to have ‘super-human’ characteristics.

      Denyse x

  3. Thanks for sharing such personal and stressful experiences from your professional life, Denyse. It must be painful to have to recall everything and write it all down. I hope this process is cathartic and healing for you as much as it is inspiring for us as readers.

    SSG xxx

    • Thank you SSG. Way back as it was all unfolding I wrote and wrote about it and that needed to be done for my sake AND to keep the facts together for when I had to see “so many people” to determine my status. The first person I saw was a psychologist from the workcover people who stopped after what he heard and just went “wow, no wonder you had this happen to you, yes it IS overwork”. I also went to a psychologist of my choice to unravel some of what happened in the lead up and I was so hell-bent on getting through (before my health suffered) that I had NO idea I was burnt-out.

      Next story will be the after-effects and how I literally had to resign to get my super…and then it was a fight.

      Denyse x

  4. I understand these pressures well, Denyse. The worry about roll numbers! This always unsettles staff.

    In my latter teaching days there was always a very stern executive officer to take charge of all the property issues.

    I was never in that high an admin role but can still identify with all your issues here. They are human organisation issues that hit over-responsible people like us hard.

    • Thank you Maureen, I genuinely am glad we can share these experiences together as I probably have not come across another person who has admitted to having a similar time.

      You really have hit the nail on the head: ‘we are the ones who do the RIGHT thing and we TAKE huge personal responsibility’ and who lost? We did.

      Never mind, life is good to us both now (relatively anyway) and we have connected. Great news.

      Denyse x

  5. So many similarities to my own story Denyse. Hopefully the process of writing it all out and sharing helps to heal any lingering niggles. It also helps others going through (or like me, who have been through) similar situations to not feel so alone. xo #TeamLovinLife

    • Thanks Min, yes we do share those not-so great times and we both know we did work very hard and then look what happened. Now, however, is good that I can share with like-minds who may feel they too can come forward to share their stories.

      Denyse x

  6. Oh Denyse, so much of that I can also relate to as a retired Principal. I know the tendency to be hupervigilant and the working harder and longer – nevertheless I now can look back and say I did my best!

    • Like- minded professional women who connect here and through our mandalas. I do agree I did my best at the time but what made it hard (and still is for many) is the way in which mental health issues are dealt with by the employer . “Last” chapter next week!!

      Thank you for understanding.

      Denyse x

  7. That whole “child at risk” thing was interesting to read. I kind of figured it had always been there. Interesting to hear how mandatory stuff only came along later.

    • The official ‘child at risk’ became that for us in education in the mid 1980s. What developed further on, was the teacher code of conduct…around the early 2000s. It was/is mandatory for each teacher and staff member to sign their code of conduct annually. Trouble was (and can be still) is a teacher or staff member’s understanding of where their responsibilities lie and in the instance I referred to, this teacher could not “see” how she had been behaving towards a child (in words as well as deed) so this became “my fault” even though it was not. Sigh.

      Denyse x