Article: Crisis Leadership, Absurd Workloads and Unacceptable Violence

Crisis leadership, absurd workloads and 'unacceptable' violence: Expert speaks out for principals

By Sarah Duggan
Published March 24, 2022


Dr Paul Kidson believes it’s not just time to call out the monstrous workloads, intense emotional demands and unacceptable rates of bullying and violence that we know are grinding down the psychological health of Australian school leaders – it’s time for positive, collective action.


Dr Paul Kidson is calling for systemic change to better address the growing demands school leaders face in their roles.

A former independent school principal, Kidson has found himself at the investigative end of the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health & Wellbeing Survey, a report which provides one of the most comprehensive longitudinal data sets of school leader health and wellbeing in the world.

Since 2011, the survey has unearthed waves of concerning figures – numerical brushstrokes which have cast a bleak picture of the internal state of those running our schools.

'Crisis level management' 

The 2021 report was no exception, finding principals are more stressed and burnt out than ever, with nearly a third flagged as being at significant risk of serious ill-health.

Kidson says some school leaders are now well into their third year of operating under “crisis level management” after catastrophic fires, floods and the COVID pandemic upended their communities.

“…it's kind of reasonable at that stage, just at a human level, that you go, 'Oh man, I can’t do this,'” the senior lecturer of educational leadership from Australian Catholic University (ACU) says.

“And yet, on the contrary, that commitment to their work, the value they find in it, their engagement with parents, has stayed either stable and/or increased.”

This latest research wanted to go beyond statistics to illuminate the actual voices of principals and deputy leaders, Kidson adds.

Personal accounts of their thorniest challenges and professional dilemmas are littered throughout the report.

One Territorian principal wrote:

“I choose to live and work where I do because I am passionate about equity of education for all, but COVID and other demands on Educational Leaders result in exhaustion and not a lot of ways to refill the bucket. I know a lot of my colleagues are running on less than empty and merely surviving (I often feel this way myself). The new normal needs to see the letting go of obsolete, repetitive, time wasting demands made on educational leaders and educators, or we will see good people leaving the profession in droves. Recruitment and retention are going to be challenging going forward (they already are in our location, but I predict it is going to be worse across the country and world).”

Kidson says there is “something inherent” in the nature of people who want to become a school principal; they are driven to serve and to care.

“And that's what has consistently come through, not only in that hard quantitative data but the qualitative comments as well…

“They consistently say, ‘I really love my community, I really want good things for it’, and I do think that's integral to the nature of people who seek school principal leadership – most people don’t go into education to make a million dollars.

"The heart and soul of a community is what attracts and maintains their contribution and commitment to it, and that absolutely should be celebrated because [that’s exactly what] they've done.”

Nevertheless, the researcher indicates this need to ‘do good’ might actually compel school leaders to sacrifice their own health and wellbeing for that of their staff and students. On this front Kidson says he and his colleagues are “very concerned”.

“There's no question about it, if you get that number of red flags that is a real concern about the sustainability of this work.

“There are a couple of aspects to this that I think we really need to be clear about: crisis leadership is tough work. And the types of crisis leadership that principals and deputy principals have shown has been sustained.

“In Victoria and New South Wales, for example, some of those school leaders were running communities in remote mode for in excess of 10 weeks … That's really major, emotionally draining work.

"So in one regard, it's not acceptable, but it's understandable because that DNA of leadership that wants to be serving and generously so, has been given at the expense of their own health. That's both to be applauded and [of real worry].”

Workload pressures mount

The report found school leaders work an average of 55.6 hours per week, with 74.7 per cent clocking up more than 50 hours and 25.7 per cent working more than 60 hours per week.

The number one source of stress for school leaders was the sheer quantity of work they face, with notable frustration over the intensifying amount of compliance tasks that do not improve student learning.

The report flags the need for a “national conversation with system and school leaders to develop comprehensive reform of the role” to address this.

“We see in those those qualitative comments time and time again: administrative and bureaucratic tasks that have little or no direct student focus and impact, that's the main source of stress for them,” Kidson says.

“We also rank 19 sources of stress and the one that jumped highest, it jumped five ranking positions, was teacher shortages.”

recent report from libertarian think thank The Centre for Independent studies concluded there is no overall teacher shortage in Australia.

The report angered the Australian Education Union (AEU), with federal president Correna Haythorpe arguing that facts had been “cherry-picked and misrepresented to suit personal narratives throughout”.

Kidson says the teacher shortage crisis upon us is “unambiguous”.

“It astounds me that ministers on the one hand say, ‘We've got a teacher workforce strategy that we're looking to and we want better outcomes, but no, there's not teacher shortages’.

“I don't know what world [they’re in], because it's unambiguous … and the NSW Government has already got a document showing that they’ve got teacher shortages – Queanbeyan High School has been having to close because they literally cannot get teachers.

“…if you can't even get people to be [at school], that is a major source of stress and it’s no wonder it’s gone up so highly in terms of the ranking.”

Red Flags aplenty 

The report found 29 per cent of school leaders received a ‘Red Flag’ notification last year – an immediate alert sent to those whose survey responses indicated their health and wellbeing was at risk.

Kidson says a number of “triggers” had to line up before a Red Flag was sent.

“It's a warning sign. Like anything in your car, you're better off to pay attention to the red light on your dashboard rather than not. You're not necessarily going to have your engine blow up today, but if don't do anything about it, it probably will –  and that's the purpose of those red flag triggers.

“That they are as high as they are, it is absolutely a concern. Understandable, but still a concern. What we can do about it, however, goes to the core of this issue of what lies underneath the COVID crisis management.

“COVID will go, it will resolve, but some of the stresses that they are reporting are systemic and have been here for a few years and they are not reducing…”

Interestingly, the biggest risk factor for school leaders was found to be age, with 40 per cent of those aged between 31 and 40 receiving a Red Flag, double the rate of their colleagues aged 61 and over.

Experience appeared to have much less impact, with 34 per cent of school leaders with under five years’ experience receiving a Red Flag, compared to 25 per cent of those with 21 or more years’ experience.

Kidson says that from his own professional experience, the reason why younger school leaders might be at greater risk of ill-health is due to the fact that they want to “show they can do it well”.

“And they are working so hard to do that, and they haven’t got enough 'runs on the board' to ease up a bit.”

The researcher notes “downward pressure” from government adds fuel to the fire.

“If I’m a principal in my second year of trying to turn a school around that might have been struggling, already underperforming, I'm so driven because what happens if you don't get [those positive outcomes]? I'm going to get sacked. And that kind of unilateral policy divestment is really stretching principals.”

'We should be calling it out': violence and offensive behaviour

The survey showed minor declines in adult-on-adult bullying, threats of violence, and actual violence experienced by school leaders – but rates remain high and significantly more than those of the general population.

Eighty-four per cent of school leaders reported being exposed to at least one form of offensive behaviour last year, including sexual harassment, threats of violence, bullying, unpleasant teasing, conflicts and quarrels, gossip and slander and cyber bullying.

“Government policies to support principals are only part of the solution. Some wider community members need to change personal and online behaviour towards principals,” the report warns.

Kidson wants to set a few points straight here.

“One of the one of the things that we've been wanting to say, is that's absolutely unacceptable behaviour in any workplace – it doesn't matter what the workplace is. Schools are communities who are open, inclusive, and welcoming. And unfortunately, some people take advantage of that in ways that you can't do anywhere else in our society.

“I can't go and order a beer at an RSL club and speak to someone (offensively) like that. We just don't, and we should be calling it out and saying it's unacceptable…”

“We've just got to break this notion. Parents and caregivers are passionate and committed and dedicated to the needs and wants and desires of the kids, we get that strongly, but that is not the excuse to be able to then mistreat, to be disrespectful, to lack curtesy.  

“What type of example does actually set for children and young people? A pretty poor one.”

The researcher says that during his time as a school principal he had to have parents physically removed from campus.

“I've physically been intimidated to the point where one of my senior executives thought I was literally going [to get punched out].

“I've had people banging on my desk, thumping the desk in my office, and again I just kind of go 'Well, I understand why I'm having some challenges with your kids.'”

Kidson is pleased the survey has been able to highlight and affirm just how valuable school leaders are to our nation.

“Our data says principals are getting low in a tank. That's why I say our concern is not that they've done this great leadership, but it's for how long can they sustain that…”

“One of the major [changes] we would love to see is a genuine, active, open engagement with school leaders and politicians and bureaucrats. The consistent call that comes out … is they are saying they just feel as if it's a one-way flow of information.

“If things need to change in schools, who are some of the best placed people to give advice about that? The people that run them.

“There are too many instances of that being done downwards, unilaterally from the department to schools, and schools just have to implement [the policy].

“The principalship is a significant community resource and we need to protect and care and nurture them so that they can continue to do [their important work] for many years to come.”