Sunday 27th September 2020

8/51 #LifeThisWeek. Telling My Story. Chapter Fourteen. 2001-2002. 16/2020.

Dear Bloggers: I have made some changes to the link-up rules based on some recent experiences. For most of my regular linkers, this is not an issue but as I am getting some newer people come on board, I have added some rules. Thank you. Denyse Whelan.

8/51 #LifeThisWeek. Telling My Story. Chapter Fourteen. 2001-2002.  16/2020.

The story behind Telling My Story is this: I began in May 2017 and then was diagnosed with cancer. I had a lengthy break and returned to the plan to keep on documenting my life, one blog post at a time. Here is the link to the page where they all are now. This too, like the post 2 weeks ago has been a mix of what I wrote back in 2018 over 4 weeks about the challenges and more of being a principal from 1998 – 2003. Today’s post has much of the second two years in it, and the next one, in a few weeks, will outline how challenging (read: hard and stressful) it was to leave the role I had loved. I also shared this as My Woman of Courage story here.

Onward: New Decade and Century. 2001.

This year started in a wonderful way. After one of the hottest, awful January days in Sydney in 2001 this young man became our 3rd grandchild and our first grandson. I wrote something about his birth here and this is a recent photo of US.

My year as a grandmother was very full-on and combined with my role as a principal somewhat precariously – only because I wanted to do both well. Sometime into 2001 I took leave every Wednesday to do a “grandma-daycare” at our place for this young man and his older sister because “I” felt like I needed to help with this kind of care as I had with granddaughter number one. I was trying “not to let school” into my life on those days but it was inevitable with phone calls and catching up the next day with the assistant principal that I acknowledged I could not do both well. Lucky for me my family understood and as already explained they had a great family day care setting to go to.

We were living at Glenwood. My husband was reasonably well but still faced health challenges after his second neck surgery to fuse his spine. He was now working in a high school full-time. Our adult son was living at home. Life was BUSY and my life was full-on. I do recall some minor socialisation happened for me when I might meet a friend for coffee. My educational leadership role was, for a conscientious and practical person like me, all consuming. Very hard to switch off.

We did try, when we could to attend events at school or pre-school for our grandchildren. I recall, taking a day’s half long service leave to attend this young one’s first Athletics Carnival.

My Day as a Principal Started and Ended Like This. Mostly.

I attempted to have a relaxed morning at home, eating my breakfast along with reading the front page of the paper before setting off for school. It was about 30-40 minutes drive and I had a ‘cut off’ point where I could ‘leave home’ behind and the reverse happened on my way home! I was usually the 2nd to arrive at school and generally the last to leave. I did try to leave before the cleaners locked up at 5.30 as much as I could.

I admit I did not self-care well. Sometimes because of the day itself I would not have eaten anything until on my way home. That is the way to ill-health so I took myself in hand, and with the office staff, we had lunch before the school lunch times and that ensured I “ate” better.

I cannot recall specifics of this year at the school as I guess one change lead to another. I do know I dealt with some major difficulties in terms of one parent who berated and threatened me because (I found out later) he hated women and teachers. He was going through a difficult separation from his teacher wife. Sadly my office and the school became the butt of his anger and I had to get an order for him not to enter school grounds. These things are not great for anyone.

As the only non-teaching executive staff member I often had to do much alone in terms of policy making and decisions based on the current school’s needs and demands. This does not mean I was not a team player! However, I was conscious of the fact that teaching executive had dual roles. Therefore I made fewer meeting times and hoped that would suffice for my care of their needs. It did not always play out that way and by the time I got to 2002 the challenges I faced to lead the school well increased.

What Was Different in 2002 School Year?

It was my fourth year as principal. There were many changes within the education system, via the NSW government policies of the day, 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.

Executive Members of Staff  Were All On Leave.

Not at all related to the above in were two instances where my school staff allocation of experienced executive became diminished’. Apart from me, there were 3 other executive staff at the school by 2002: 2 Assistant Principals and 1 Executive Teacher. They all taught classes too.

The executive teacher was to have a baby and so went on maternity leave, the other, an assistant principal took extended long service leave both for the remainder of 2002 from early in the year.

But wait, there was one more. Yes, this one person who was an assistant principal ‘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. As it was expected of him by me, 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 some time.

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 supportive 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 Which Wounded My Career.

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. One of my relieving Executive who I always thought was both compassionate and brave to rang 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 17 years later. Lifeline: 13 11 14

It’s been hard to learn THIS….

Thank you for reading. At least I hope you did.

Denyse.

 

Next Chapter Will Be About The Outcome for Me Personally and Us Financially.

Life This Week #177

Link Up #177. Life This Week.

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Comments

  1. Oh, that’s awful. I didn’t realise. On a different point, in view of recent events, doesn’t that man who hated women and teachers because of his separation make you see him a little differently? Pontentially far more dangerous than you realised? We have a real problem in this country that we’re only just waking up to. (I also hope writing this stuff down is freeing and bringing peace not trigging old stress. Take care.xx)

    • Thanks Lydia. Writing it out, in a way for public consumption here, has been good. I did have to acknowledge though that is is hard.

      The next post, “the year after” will share more of what effects it had on me but also, like my cancer, what good it did.

      I wrote many many angry (and sad) letters to the people who had accused me …teachers! And of course, over time they went in the shredder. Writing (and talking) is a very powerful tool for healing.

      So true about the not-so-silent epidemic re DV…..The man who was threatening was ‘scary’ but also appeared as quite the coward too. What I did, in getting him barred from school access was within my jurisdiction. I did feel unsafe with him and his words wounded me. But the most physically I even felt threatened was when a young boy back from suspension and in my office for the resolution meeting with his Mum, turned over the coffee table in the area where we spoke..and then “that” too became a behaviour challenge to deal with. Yes. The role of principal is varied.

      Denyse.

  2. Oh Denyse! What a stressful job being a principal is at the best of times and how much more stressful are the circumstances you describe above.

    • Thanks Ingrid. I admit I am someone who was affected by it more than some. My personality I guess is a contributor as I wanted everyone in the school to do well.

      Such a shame when people cannot see others’ needs too isn’t it? Those teachers were actually scared for their jobs (which it turned out was OK) so I became the ‘easy target.’

      Denyse.

  3. This must have been one of the hardest chapters you’ve had to write. I can feel with you that tummy dropping sensation when you got the call about the delegation and then to have to sit there and listen. I guess that’s one of the issues with the education system – they reward great teachers with head teacher ie principal roles which are business management roles rather than teaching roles. I’m yet to meet anyone (and I know that we’ve only met virtually) who is as passionate about education and teaching as you.

    • I am glad to have written it and yes, it was one if not THE hardest.

      There is an element of shame and failure in not completing the ‘job’ to the standards I wanted.
      It was a horrible time to know I couldn’t return – for my health’s sake. Next time, I will do a wrap up as the year “off” had its benefits and hard times.

      Yes, stomach churning for sure. Having to deal with those people who were actually “trying” to ease the path back to school the next day was hard. My husband said that night, when I was very much “broken” that I had even hidden from him how hard it was.

      Thanks for your lovely and kind words.

      Denyse.

  4. Oh, I forgot to say, yay for your reminder of bloggy linky etiquette.

  5. Hi Denyse, what a very sad experience for you and such a difficult time. It is especially hurtful when you put your heart and soul into something and then are used as a ‘scape goat’. I can imagine how mentally challenging this time was for you and agree with Jo Tracey that usually the best teachers are taken out of the frontline and given management roles. I don’t know anyone who has been as dedicated during and after your career in matters of education. Take care and have a beautiful week. #lifethisweek

    • Thank you so much Sue for your kind and understanding words.

      I did slightly hesitate about becoming a principal as I have written before but I also knew that I would forever regret “not giving the role a go.”

      I was proud of my achievements in leadership of schools and enjoyed the fact that I could mentor others. All of my promotions were based on evidence of my hard work, dedication, knowledge and skills.

      What was hard..and still can be is for anyone in a school leadership position such as principal. is to put their hand up and say “I need some help”.

      Next post, in a few weeks, will be about that and how no-one did realise how a role can break a person but also that no-one in authority knew how to help me in my recovery.

      It became a workcover matter from the start as my employer did admit to overload being the trigger.

      Denyse.

  6. Oh Denyse, what a difficult time for you. When I read about the father who was taking his anger out on you and the teachers at the school, I thought that would be the worst thing I read in this post. Sadly, it wasn’t.
    We put so much pressure on schools, teachers, and principals, as if it is their sole duty to raise and teach our children. And the fact that the Department had principals calling contractors, getting quotes, and being site managers is appalling on top of the rest of their responsibilities.
    I’m so sorry that you were under so much stress and pressure. I hope you can see the whole situation for what it was – a serious of unfortunate events, bolstered by upset or angry people looking to blame someone other than themselves.

    • Thank you Katherine.

      Honestly, schools are “supposed” to fix all ills aren’t they? I remember the groans we all had at conferences about items that we would need to cover (road safety, manners, and more) which are family-based.

      There has been in the past 20 years a huge shift from respecting schools and their teachers to “entitlement” from parents and sadly, students.

      I will write a bit more about what happened the year after I stopped and then my return to teaching.

      Oh yes, the management of school’s resources. That is another story. In my role I paid a contractor a deposit then he went broke. Imagine how I felt after that.

      I no longer get worried nor feel ashamed as I did for about 14 years.. I now do take the time to support others in education, especially principals, in a way of caring and letting them know I understand the load.

      Denyse.

  7. Denyse

    This must have been such a trying and painful time professionally it must have tempered the joy and happiness of being grandparents at the time.

    The hard thing is when work is usually such a pleasure and source of strength only to have it turn into a place of unpleasantness. It’s very unsettling and stressful.

    SSG xxx

    PS – did I get this week’s topic right? I wrote about ‘unusual’.

    • Thanks SSG. I did try to be the ‘best’ grandma I could be in those years. At least I have some memories of taking time in school holidays. But it did take the shine off my life…!

      You work in a high pressure setting too and I know we could probably swap some stories. I really don’t have any wise words but I know my personality and people-pleasing ways (I am learning to be less so now) probably contributed to my breakdown.

      Yes you got the prompt right.

      I am just taking the chance to go off prompt when it suits as I have the Women of Courage posts each Wednesday.

      Thank you!

      Denyse.

  8. Denyse, This was such a difficult and stressful time for you. You put in so much effort to try to improve the school. I’m glad to read some days of relief and release were to follow. #lifethisweek

    • Thanks so much Natalie.

      It was good to finally get this chapter posted.

      I look forward to sharing more..of the not so good and much better days that followed.

      Denyse.

  9. Denyse I hadn’t realised things got so bad for you. I totally understand how hurt you must have felt, and must still be feeling.i hope it’s helped you to get your thoughts out of your head and in writing. I hadn’t realised how stressful life can be for principals.

    • Thank you so much Jennifer.

      I am so much more accepting of what happened these days and prepared to share it “warts and all” so no-one ever needs to feel they are alone.

      I sure did feel that way, and ashamed too but we are talking 2002 and these days, I hope things are a little better.

      I do find writing about all kinds of things helpful – this and my cancer, along with how much I was affected emotionally by our move here have been examples of these.

      Denyse.

  10. Denyse you have such an amazing memory for all these events that happened so many years ago. Mind you, the stress and over-work/overwhelm would probably indelibly etch it in anyone’s memory! I’m so glad you survived it all and have come out the other side with a positivity to inspire the rest of us who have faced their own work demons xx

    • Thank you so much Leanne.

      Yes, that is said about very emotional events in our lives, good and bad, that they are indelibly in our memories.

      I am more accepting now than ever and know my writing here helps others (maybe!) who might also be struggling with a workplace that is not health-friendly.

      Denyse.

  11. One of my least favourite things to hear is “becuase that’s how we’ve always done it”. Enforcing cultural change and progression is WAY undervalued.

    • Yes, I walked right back into last century when I arrived at that school as my boss had told me.

      The community there is still, to a certain degree, exactly the same.

      So, yes, a change-agent who was appreciated by some but not by those “who wanted to do it all as it was”. One of those leading the ‘delegation’ that never happened had only ever taught there..for 25 years.

      I did some things well for the future of that school but I was the one who took the fall.

      Thank you for your insight and kind words.

      Denyse.

  12. Denyse, thank you for sharing. It can’t have been easy for you. What a horrible time you had. It reminds me so much of the incident that saw me walk out of my workplace never to return (though I didn’t know at the time that I’d never return). I hope you feel better having written this and got it out! xo

    • Yes Min, I do appreciate we have walked a similar path.

      Our employers lost loyal and hard workers when we could no longer work there didn’t they?

      I know you get it.

      I admit, writing it out this time is the final version and has felt good to be done and dusted.

      The next part, in a few weeks, is still hard to write but after that some peace for a while.

      Denyse.

  13. I am enjoying reading about the different phases of your life, Denyse. It is fun and educational to look back. I think there were times in my life while I was still working that I was not very good at self-care either. I taught full time, was running marathons, and my three grandsons were born. Now I have more time to devote to the little guys and I love it.

    I loved teaching but I would not go back for all the tea in China! It was time to move on.

    What an awful way to leave school. I can imagine the stress and heartache it must have caused you. I think your attitude about it now is a good one – a lesson to learn from. You are brave to write about it.

    • Thanks Laurie, we sure have clicked on a number of topics here haven’t we?

      Yes, whilst I love teaching little kids especially, life has moved on for me too and no going back into the classroom, except as Grandma visiting her grandkids!

      Whilst it was an awful way to finish my principal’s career, I did end up back in schools. More in future chapters.

      Denyse

  14. Thank you for sharing your story. I can only imagine how stressful a principal role would be and I don’t envy you!

  15. I didn’t know the extent of your issues as a Principal Denyse and I really feel for you. You’ve had a very hard time but are still a committed and passionate teacher, I’m very proud to read your story and think you’re amazing!

    The system can be so hard sometimes and takes everything. I am so glad you’ve written this part out and can imagine how hard it was to do so.

  16. Thanks so much, fellow teacher and TF member (back then).

    Next story is about how I was helped and NSW Teachers Federation played a role.

    Nevertheless it is and has never been what I wanted to happen as a school principal. It did and I own that but I remain, as always, a supporter of all who teach!

    Sharing in words, on the blog, is good therapy. I sure did a lot of writing back then that was “not for publication” and has long been shredded.

    Denyse.

  17. That sounds like a trying phase in your life in many ways, especially as a principal. I know we’ve talked about the public system many times and this is a good example. I’m hoping by writing it out, it’s therapeutic for you and serving its purpose.

    • Thanks Sanch, it was huge yet I have memories of some of ‘the good’ that I contributed as well.

      The public systems being essentially run by whichever government is in favour will always be trying times. I know I felt helpless about some of the responsibilities I had yet they were not ones I felt comfortable enforcing.

      Writing is good for me via this blog. Helped me get thoughts down and then to see what others make of them is a true reward from being a blogger.

      Denyse.

  18. I hope sharing your experiences is proving cathartic Denyse. What a horrible, horrible time. Xx

    • Yes,it does help. I have probably moved through the disappointment and stress concerned with this not-so-great time in my life but it needed to be included here as part of Telling My Story.

      Thank you Sandra.

      Denyse.

  19. Wow,
    I was a student at the school from 1997-2003 and you were my principal. I remember you clearly! I am now a primary teacher myself and although things have very much changed since then, I can still look back and see the ways in which some parts of my primary education were very backwards. Implementing change is difficult especially when people who have been in the one place for a long time are set in their ways, I have learnt this over the past few years. Thank you for doing so, I know I would have greatly benefited at the time as would hundreds of other students.
    I am sorry your experience here was so negative. Thank you for sharing!

    • Oh wow, right back at you. Nancy, thank you so much. I do remember your name. This is the first time someone from RPS has made the connection – other than the time way after my early retirement thanks to the situation I outlined. It’s only been in the past few years I have given the school’s identity.I did feel a great deal of shame about what happened to me and why, but over time this has gone for all the reasons I have outlined. I am so very pleased to know you are a teacher. Thank you for sharing now how you can reflect on RPS as it was. I am 100% advocate for public education even in my latter years and do appreciate the immense workload these days on all who continue to do the best for kids. Denyse.