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Bullying – it’s not just limited to students

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Authors: Jo Earp
Bullying – it’s not just limited to students

Stress, long hours, risk of burnout, threats of violence and physical assault – it’s all part of being a principal, according to an Australian study.

Compared to the general population, school leaders experience a higher prevalence of violence (seven times higher), threats of violence (five times) and bullying (four times). And, things are getting worse.

The number of principals who have been threatened with violence by parents increased from 19 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2014; and violent threats made by students increased from 17 per cent to 24 per cent over the same period.

The shocking figures are revealed in the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, carried out by Associate Professor Philip Riley and colleagues at Australian Catholic University.

Despite the dangers and challenges, Dr Riley says principals remain largely positive about the role and report higher levels of job satisfaction than the general population.

Indeed, the latest Staff in Australian Schools study found that 90 per cent of leaders in primary and secondary schools were either satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs (although the ratings were lower than in 2010).

Gabrielle Leigh was a member of the 2014 Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey consultative committee. ‘I believe it can be the best job in the world to be a principal,’ she tells Teacher, ‘but there are so many extra parts to it now that make it a really difficult job - and that hasn't been acknowledged, I don't think, at any level.'

Leigh is President of the Victorian Principals Association and Australian Government Primary Principals Association. She says, sadly, the statistics on adult-adult bullying, threats and violence came as no surprise.

'That's the frightening part. We sat round [on the committee] as government, Catholic, and independent principals [and as association presidents] and we said we all know of lots of instances of this.

'I don't think there's a magic wand to fix it but we need our governments to actually put the supports in there to help us cope and deal with it.

'We have about 10 phone calls a day with members ringing up for help with these sort of issues; we're really talking about a huge increase. It's being also supported anecdotally by the stories that principals are telling me.

In the last the four years, Riley and colleagues have collected responses from 2621 principals and 1024 deputy principals working across Australia and in all sectors.

The latest survey report, released this month, says school leaders and teachers have to ‘deal daily with parents’ greatest hopes and deepest fears: the lives and potential futures of their children’.

It adds that leaders have to learn how to deal with these high levels of emotion on the job. ‘This can be particularly difficult for principals and [deputy principals] who must communicate the way education policy is both developed and practiced to teachers, parents and students, sometimes in emotionally charged situations.’

Leigh would like to see principals given specific training on how to deal with violent and ‘tricky’ situations. ‘We have teacher training, we don’t have training to deal with crisis management, and some of it is crisis management.’

She says some schools are adopting wellbeing programs, but others don't have enough funds to implement them.

The survey report makes several recommendations to education policymakers. They include increasing support networks for school leaders, setting up an independent 'task force' to investigate offensive behaviours, and offering targeted professional learning.

Stay tuned: In Term 1, Teacher will be reporting on how one primary school is tackling some of the issues raised in the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey.

Does your school have policies in place to deal with offensive behaviour?

As a school leader, do you access professional support from colleagues and association networks?

Rachelle 02 August 2016

  I have rad the code of conduct and contacted the workplace well-being office of DET in regards to bullying by another staff member in a Kindergarten.
I found the service friendly approachable and helpful, only to find out later on their jurisdiction does not cover Pre-schools and have not managed to gain support through the service. As they only manage risk to the children, not the Teacher, my workplace is in disarray because of the bullying and i feel powerless to do anything about it. Kindergarten is the foundation to education teaching children important social skills. The safer school program could work a lot better if kindergarten regulators took on the program and gave Teacher support , along with parent run committees.

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