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‘Breaking point’: Principal’s wellbeing at an all-time low

The number of principals wanting to quit or retire early has tripled since 2019, with teacher shortages, heavy workloads and lack of time as sources of stress for school leaders, a new survey shows.

A survey of 2500 Australian school principals by the Australian Catholic University showed 65 principals planned to quit or retire early in 2022 due to declining wellbeing.

ACU co-lead investigator and leading school wellbeing expert Associate Professor Theresa Dicke said while the number can seem low, they represent how "unbearable" work has become for principals.

"Principals are often the forgotten group in the school because they have to stand strong and are the cliff for the other peoples, "Associate Professor Dicke told Education Review.

"But this only works until they reach breaking point, and that's where we are now."

The annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, to be released in full by the end of March, showed that since 2011 teacher shortages have been a growing concern for principals.

"Stress associated with the teacher shortages has steadily increased over the years, and it is worrisome for the future as it doesn't reach a plateau," she said.

"The figures show that so far, nothing has worked."

Additionally, principals reported heavy workloads and a lack of time to be the main sources of their stress.

Principals said being worried about staff and students also increased their stress levels.

The survey showed 98 per cent of school leaders have been worried about staff burnout with 94.5 per cent reported concern about educators' stress.

Principals reported being concerned about teachers' anxiety and depression, with growing concerns towards colleagues turning to drug and alcohol to cope.

Students' school anxiety, school refusal, depression, and self-harm were also leading causes of principal's worry.

Associate Professor Dicke said principals, teachers and students' wellbeing are intertwined and feed off each other.

"Schools are a systemic or holistic complex, and everybody influences each other; you cannot look at principals, teachers, or students in an isolated way.

"If students' and teachers' wellbeing are in decline, principal wellbeing will be too; they are mutually reinforcing each other."

She said that principals' and teachers' wellbeing had been linked to students' performances and learning capabilities, with students getting better results on national and international tests in a positive, non-stressed school culture.

Associate Professor Dicke said more research needs to be done to monitor principals' state of mind.

"We need processes that show how the status quo evolves as they will be valuable information when policies or interventions are discussed."

The National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, which a draft was released last year, will target principal's wellbeing by reducing their administrative workload by 20 per cent.

Multiple programs will also be implemented by the action plan to reduce stress and workload in all staff, which would in turn help reduce school leaders stress levels.

"We have seen how education experts and political leaders can work collaboratively on solutions to the teacher shortage, and now we need to support our principals by heeding their serious and valid concerns," she said.

"What we need is more individualised support, where the principals can say 'yes' that works for me personally, and I'm able to do my work better right now."

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One comment

  1. Well if the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan is targeting principal’s wellbeing by reducing their administrative workload by 20%, I’m left wondering what programs might be implemented by this plan to reduce stress and workload for classroom teachers such as myself.

    I will have been teaching for fifty years by the end of this year and I couldn’t recommend teaching as a career to any of my students. Work intensification has been an issue for the best part of thirty years, but as a profession we are too weak to address the problem.

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