Are you Humpty Dumpty waiting for a fall?

Quite often Principal’s can feel like Humpty Dumpty “just waiting for the fall”.

When you think of how many “clients” you serve (students, their parents and then the wider community) even a middle size school of 500 would add up to over 1,000 clients (including staff if you define a client as a person using the organisation). This number of clients makes it difficult at times to keep everyone moving in tune with the organisation’s goals.

Then, in Victoria at least, there are two reporting and accountability bodies for Principals, your employer (Department of Education and Training if you’re in the State Education System) and your local school board or council. It would be fair to say that these two bodies don’t always align in goals or actions so the principal as the CEO to the board and senior government officer is usually on the tightrope where its easy to fall.

Having over 20 years experience as a Principal I can say I had a few falls most of which can be bandaged with the help of colleagues, family and friends.

However when you are dealing with parents greatest hopes and deepest fears (their children) (or at times staff) it’s usually an emotionally charged decision and the damage from a fall can scar.


  • not being able to account for a child’s whereabouts when you are telephoned by the parent around 5.00 pm and the class roll hasn’t been marked after an excursion to the city,
  • or, picture a child wielding a knife or out of control in the classroom and the class teacher who is pinned near the blackboard needs your help to exit the child,
  • or, a child isn’t picked up from after school care and you have to ring the community police to arrange accommodation,
  • or, taking a parent to court (for a restraining order) for stalking you and your family,
  • or, confronting an angry parent in the school yard who has just abused the duty teacher and wants to get aggressive when you tell him the police are on the way,
  • or, you get rung up at night to be informed that one of your teachers has been attacked by her husband who later shot himself.

These incidents all happened (and more) and perhaps surprisingly they are not the incidents that cause the falls with the lasting scars. Stress Yes! A few sleepless nights and the odd bottle of wine – to be sure. These incidents are not covered in pre principalship training manuals, how could they be for yours will be different to mine but of one thing you can be certain of – they will happen.

So what incidents do cause falls that scar – well it’s generally those around specific emotions – or the capacity not to show emotions.

Let me deal with the second issue (that of not showing emotions). Despite “doing” the increasingly expected day-to-day management / leadership stuff of schools it’s having to hide one’s emotions when dealing with conflicts and quarrels that really tests us as humans beings. I can often recall going home to break open a scotch and yell “I’m mad as hell” at that but on the surface at school appear calm. The appearance of calmness generally settles the emotional tides at school. Then at night (too busy during the day) we process how to discuss that incident with the person or persons involved using facts gathered (yes its one of those tossing and turning sleepless nights again).

PS on this point: After having reading Dr Phil Riley’s latest report on Principal health and well-being I’m going to offer in my new consultancy a no agenda meeting (a key recommendation of Phil’s) for Principal’s where they can blow off the steam (in confidence) to an experienced and retired principal before or upon reaching home. More about that later on my business site: learning

Side fact: it has taken me almost 12 months since I retired to relearn how to sleep well again at night!

For me it was “betrayal” the silent, behind one’s back, sometimes publicly confronting acts and words that caused my greatest scar. Not that I could name this emotion then, you see we were doing the business of schooling at the time and also working on not showing emotions.

After much reflection I’m now writing a paper on this “betrayal” as I think others may identify with some or all of the surrounding details and hopefully learn to name key elements before it happens to them.

What I am interested in is starting discussions with school leaders on incidents that cause stress or falls or even scars in the hope that through sharing principals can get support. If you are interested send me an email (

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