Repositioning Teachers by Reframing the ‘Failing Schools’ Narrative
24 April 2023

Recent months have seen something of an explosion of media interest in what are undoubtedly the mounting workplace and community pressures on schools, teachers, and school leaders. In particular, the associated impact of teacher shortages and the increasingly complex landscape of school life with respect to issues of heightened accountability and expectations for student achievement have appeared as key factors affecting the wellbeing of many teachers and principals.

Evidence for this can be found in the latest research into the occupational health, safety and wellbeing of principals conducted by the Institute for Positive Psychology in Education at the Australian Catholic University. Since 2011, this longitudinal study has been collecting detailed data relating to school leaders from the independent, Catholic and government sectors. Of concern are the latest findings, which reveal some disturbing trends with respect to the challenges facing school leaders. An alarming 47.8 per cent of principals triggered “red flag” alerts in 2022 meaning that almost one in two school leaders are at risk of serious mental health concerns including burnout and stress. Additionally, the number of principals wanting to quit or retire early has tripled in one year.

At the same time, managing the health and wellbeing of students and staff has emerged as a greater concern than in previous surveys. All schools are experiencing an increase in emotional, social, and behavioural issues among students and an increase in teacher concerns related to workload. Recent reports cite teachers leaving the profession in record numbers. Against a background of what continues to be, in some cases, quite unsustainable demands on a principal’s time and inner resources, the authors of the current report have recommended strategies aimed at reducing hours of work and improving work-life balance, thus enabling principals to better manage their health and wellbeing by prioritising tasks and drawing on support systems already available through professional associations and other employment provided services. How this plays out at a policy and individual school level remains to be seen.

For me, completing the principal wellbeing survey was an interesting experience. Much of my working life has been spent in schools, both government and independent, and so my perspective on leadership and its responsibilities encompasses a broad landscape. Yes, being a principal in a large and growing independent school is a huge undertaking, one that has become significantly more demanding over the years. It is also incredibly rewarding. In an environment as dynamic and forward-thinking as the one that currently exists at Westbourne, the opportunities are very exciting. To be able to realise a contemporary vision for teaching and learning, to be involved in bringing to fruition Westbourne’s new Masterplan, to implement a wide range of opportunities for our staff to engage in professional development and to interact daily with students more than compensates for what some would see as the less positive aspects of the role.

I spoke with our Westbourne staff at the end of last term about how proud I was of their work. I spoke about how teachers are individuals, and as individuals, we all bring with us to the profession a complicated assemblage of experiences, beliefs, motivations, and life stories. Every teacher has a story. And many teachers are working through issues in their own lives outside of their work that remain invisible to others. I spoke about the importance of treating ourselves and each other with kindness and how I know that each individual teacher at Westbourne is doing the very best job they can. And I must say that the work they do is exceptional.

However, the impact of externalities like politics and the media continue to have a negative and detrimental effect on the teaching profession and a teacher’s sense of self. We see and hear daily from a range of sources that ‘schools are failing.’ We hear that Australian children are falling behind the rest of the world. And we are sent explicit and tacit messages that convey a perception that the teaching profession is one of low status. It would be enough to get anyone down and I have no doubt that this is contributing to the way both teachers and principals are feeling.

We need counter-narratives to the dominant discourse about teachers and schools. Most teachers and schools that I know are doing a great job. The ‘schools are failing’ rhetoric of the past two decades is alarmist, inaccurate, incomplete, and has been described by some as an enduring myth and a politically manufactured crisis. With teacher workload a pertinent issue, there may be policies implemented over time that seek to reduce teacher workload. But as a profession we need to view these policies critically and bear in mind the political agenda that is attached to them. On one hand policy may seem to provide solutions, while on the other simultaneously strip teachers of their autonomy and further de-professionalise the profession.

As a profession we need to continue to be critical consumers of research and understand that there is no panacea. The ideal of ‘what works’ in a classroom is largely contextual – contextual to the teacher, the school, and the students. Any attempt at standardisation runs in opposition to notions of individuality and personalisation. We should hold at a distance the increasing quantification of education that reduces everything to a number. These numbers can then be used to compare students, schools, and education systems, whilst neglecting the qualitative, relational, pastoral, cultural, and non-tangible elements of schools as complex human-centred organisations. And as schools let’s look inwardly at what we do and look for better ways of going about our work.

One way we are moving the conversation forward at Westbourne is by focussing on our people. We are providing our staff with opportunities to further their careers, to engage in professional learning, to participate in post-graduate study, and to have a say in what matters to them. We are creating efficiencies in our systems, structures, and processes. We are reviewing all tasks for teachers that are time consuming and removing those that add little or no value to the student experience. We are looking at ways to improve assessment and reporting processes to create more time and less workload for teachers and are also investigating ways we can be more intentional and meaningful with the feedback we provide to students and parents. These are only small steps, but by providing teachers with a psychologically safe workplace, we can buffer much of the external noise, and ensure that Westbourne is seen as a great place to work where teachers are not only supported and valued, but enabled to see themselves as valuable contributors to the world today.

Adrian Camm | Principal
‘On Bunurong Country’