A Letter to a Teacher

By Michelle Green, Chief Executive, Independent Schools Victoria

The nine-year-old girl came home from school two weeks ago and announced to her parents: ‘I’m devastated.’ The cause of her devastation was the news that one of her favourite teachers had taken a job at another school and would be leaving at the end of term.

He was her science teacher. Let’s call him Mr Miller. That night the girl sat down and, unprompted by her parents, wrote a Christmas card. It began: ‘Dear fabulous Mr Miller.’

She went on to thank him for being ‘a wonderful teacher, a friend to everyone, a smiling face, a shining star, and a great team leader’. She concluded: ‘I will miss you so very much and I will never forget you.’

It’s a nice story, related to me by her father. Everyone deserves at least one great teacher that they will remember forever. Chances are, this girl will have more great teachers in the school years that lie ahead of her.

I also hope that fabulous Mr Miller has more great students, who will take time to express their appreciation. Maybe he will go on to become a great principal who will have a positive impact not only on his students but on his staff, on grateful parents and on the wider community as well.

So that’s the good news, an optimistic end note to another school year.

But the same week I head about Mr Miller, my optimism was tempered by a new report on the stresses facing school principals and their deputies.

The report is the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, conducted by Associate Professor Philip Riley of Australian Catholic University. The report, supported by all national principals’ associations, has surveyed approximately 40 per cent of the nation’s principals (4386 principals from Independent, government and Catholic primary and secondary schools) over a five-year period.

It contains disturbing findings about the growing incidence of offensive behaviour directed at principals.

It found that 41 per cent of principals have experienced threats of violence and 36 per cent experienced some form of bullying. The findings are even more troubling when you read that parents are the worst offenders, making up 42 per cent of reported bullying and 41 per cent of threats against principals. The level of threats against principals is more than five times higher than that experienced by the rest of the population.

More than one in three principals experience actual violence, eight times that experienced by the general population, with students the most common perpetrators.

The report doesn’t say why some parents think they can threaten violence against school leaders, and why some students inflict violence on people who are dedicated to their care and education.

As the report says, this offensive behaviour ‘simply must stop’. How we achieve that is a more complicated question, given it’s an issue that’s not just confined to schools. As the report notes, rising violence is occurring ‘in all frontline professions, while domestic violence is a cause of national shame’. The report says that Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the causes of the violence and set about addressing it at every level of society.

As for the principals, the report says that they must be encouraged and supported so that they can ‘respectfully speak back’ when confronted with harassment.

As I said, this makes for disturbing reading. This harassment is not only taking a toll on the individuals targeted; if the growing stress leads to high rates of turnover among our principals, and their jobs become harder to fill, then our education system is at risk.

Despite the increases in offensive behaviour, principals still rate their biggest contributors to stress as the sheer quantity of work and lack of time to focus on teaching and learning.

There is, however, some good news. More principals are taking control of their work-life balance, and overall they are reporting growing levels of job satisfaction, which are significantly higher than the general population. From my perspective, it was encouraging to read that Independent primary school leaders report the highest average levels of job satisfaction.

Parents and the wider community have to ensure that we don’t impose unreasonable demands on our educators. We and our children can’t afford to lose great teachers and great principals.

If everyone deserves at least one great teacher in their lives, every good teacher, like the fabulous Mr Miller, needs more than one student who recognises the good that they do. As school ends for the year, it’s never too late to say ‘thank you’ to a teacher and a principal.