School principal

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Sue, 50

What does a school principal do?

Sue is busy and forthright as she ushers me into her office while talking briskly about "the dead possum". "Can you smell it?" she asks. "We had a possum die in the sub-floor cavity of the heritage-listed building," she says gesturing around the inner-city primary school at which she is head honcho. "I've been talking to a possum-catcher to sort it out."

A huge part of Sue's job is leading the teaching staff and students, dealing with student welfare issues and implementing student-driven programs and policies that are aligned to the education curriculum.

She comments that the role of a school principal is broadening and that "we're constantly having to deal with tasks that don't specifically relate to education" such as building maintenance, seeking government funding and dead possums!

What does a typical working day involve?

"It's unpredictable," Sue says of her average day. "It's fraught with enquiries from children, teachers, parents and psychologists - and other medicos checking with me about child welfare matters - as well as computer technicians, community members, the Department of Education. You name it," she says. "Being the school principal means you're the public profile of the school. It's mainly me that people seek out."

Some days, Sue is "reacting and responding to dramas and glitches" but she also focuses on the bigger picture such as "building the culture of the school, developing educational policies and working with kids and staff to bring about positive outcomes in learning".

Currently, it's report time so Sue is assessing all the students' reports. She also interviews people for teaching positions and trials them to see if they fit with the school culture. "It's disappointing if they don't work out," she says.

Sue works a minimum of 60 hours a week. Meetings are often held at night and then on the weekend she'll catch up on planning and paperwork.

How did you become a school principal?

Sue was 20 when she started teaching. "I was full of passion for teaching. And that hasn't changed," she enthuses. "I had no ambition to be a principal but I worked with some outstanding role models who encouraged me aspire to leadership." She secured an assistant principal position at age 35, and a principal position at age 39. "It was young. And it was a lot of good luck," she says modestly. Throughout her career Sue has completed over 20 years of tertiary study in education.

What are some of the pros and cons of the job?

"Working with kids and teachers gives you a lot of joy," Sue says. "And being part of the kids' learning process and watching the way they think." Other highs for Sue are directing and encouraging her staff to develop their teaching skills.

Lows are when you have a bad day: "Yesterday a child threw up on the steps. It's no-one's job description to clean up vomit, so I did it. The sewer was blocked, which means that all the effluent came back out. A parent backed into the basketball hoop. There's the possum smell." None of these issues specifically relate to education, but they are related to the role of being a school principal. "It's a stupendous workload," she says, "and it can be very stressful. So you have to be able to deal with that."

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

"Time management skills. Perseverance. Excellent interpersonal skills. And a passion for teaching and learning," says Sue. She also mentions being a confident public speaker, having a capacity for hard work, being resourceful, having a sense of humour and "knowing when to pack up and go home".

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).