Prior to being appointed as a principal, Susan’s background was a bit unusual. Throughout her career she had spent long periods in schools, in both teaching and leadership positions but in between had stepped out to take support roles in the Education Department. She used this experience to her advantage in her appointment as the first, and therefore establishing, principal of a southern suburbs R-10 School. She knew how schools worked, but she also knew how school support worked, and how to negotiate staff and facilities, which was critical.
At the beginning she had two big challenges. The first was establishing a relationship with the School Council. Although the school had not opened when she was appointed, the School Council had been in existence for two years and had made decisions such as what the school uniform would be. To some extent the Council saw itself as the only decision making body. As staff were appointed, and enrolments began this would have to change.
Her second challenge related to the nature of a new R-10 school. The school was in an area of new housing and high population growth. It would begin with primary enrolments and expand to Year 10 as these students moved through the school. It was important to conceptualise and plan the school as R-10 but the initial staff would be primary. Susan’s secondary school background challenged many of the assumptions of some initial staff.
In an appointment like this Susan had no precedents. There had not been a principal to follow and very few examples of similar schools to learn from. It was very hard work. She drew on her experience from both previous schools and from her knowledge of the Department to get things done but she also had to balance the demands and assumptions of primary, and particularly junior primary, teachers with the need to shape the school for secondary students. There was not, at the time, a large number of female principals of secondary schools and few primary school principals with a secondary school background. She had a lot to prove, and no ready-made support structures.
The community of the new school was different from communities where she had previously served. These had been either poor or established middle class. In this new housing area there were parents who were highly ambitious for their children and looking to education to improve their future. They were determined their children would do well.
Growing in the job
You largely had to find your own way. There were no principal training courses; no mentoring programs. You assumed if you had not got something right it was your fault.
Enrolment proved to be a continuing challenge. The school constantly outstripped its enrolment predictions. Enrolment would be predicted at 100 and 400 would enrol. There was always a large number of contract teachers. At the end of the year they would leave and permanent teachers be appointed based on predicted numbers for the following year. When school re-opened more teachers would be needed.
What Susan describes as “the in and out nature” of her career (meaning her history of moving between school and support role positions) enabled her to describe vacancies and plan staffing so she could reappoint the best of the contract teachers and be as efficient as possible in getting the extra equipment – desks, chairs, classrooms – that she was constantly needing. She understood the school’s needs only too well, but she also understood the constraints and pressures of the resource arms of the Department, and how to work within their constraints and pressures. She found herself defending either side to the other. Both had a point of view and both were right. She often had to duck, and many in the Department felt she haunted them – but she needed to and knew how to do it effectively.
The most exciting thing was that she was there! She had wanted to be a principal but her chances as a female secondary teacher had not been great. She had also wanted to start a new school. And here she was. She never got over the excitement and appreciation of it. Every morning when she drove around the corner and saw the school and students for whom she had to ensure an education she was energised. She had trouble believing it and thrived on it.
There were a few challenging incidents. One day Channel 7 reporters and cameras appeared outside the school for what turned out to be an issue about school zoning. Susan rang the Area Office and followed procedure.
Incidents like this were insignificant in comparison to the daily challenges of getting appropriate teachers and resources to ensure every child in the ever-expanding school had a space, a desk, a chair, books, a library and a learning program that would take them to Year 10. She was constantly preoccupied with intake, builders and staffing. The impact of getting any of this wrong constantly dragged her away from teaching and learning matters.
Then there were the layered views about curriculum within the school. There were three distinct views from the R-2 teachers, the 3-7 teachers and the 8-10 teachers that had to be thrashed out and reconciled. She recalls a staff meeting that some junior primary teachers declared a waste of time while secondary teachers declared it the best staff meeting they had ever attended!
There were behaviour management issues, not just of students, but of some staff appointed with warnings of problems. Performance management was stressful because there was not, at the time, a clear set of procedures for dealing with it. The fluid nature of staff numbers and contract appointments added to the uncertainty and stress.
Financial management was a challenge. Because the school began with primary enrolment, the financial officer was not a qualified bursar and funding was constantly fluctuating. While there was an establishment grant, the unpredictability of enrolments – and the fact that they constantly grew faster than forecasts – meant constant financial challenges with little expert help. There were no financial training programs for schools at that time.
What Susan most needed was someone of whom she could confidentially ask stupid questions. She remembers early on in the job ringing a trusted principal colleague to ask how you got the school bins emptied. She used to go home, pour herself a drink, cry or laugh, then get on the phone to her friends who were also new principals to talk over the day.
It was as much as anything an issue of confidence. Where do you get the confidence to know you’ve got it right?
Advice and Comments
With hindsight and added experience Susan would do it all differently today and would have much greater confidence. She decries the lack of training for principals at the time. She would take every training opportunity, drawing energy from the students and the privilege of delivering their education.