Engagement vs entitlement

Dr Mark Merry

20 March 2018

There are 9,500 schools in Australia, and just about as many principals. Recent media reports of school leaders under siege from parents, students and alumni would have many Heads wondering what they might do in similar circumstances and how they might guide their school out of such situations.

Those of us who lead independent schools will have either directly experienced or have heard ‘war stories’ of the challenge of taking on the Headship after the retirement of a long-serving and extremely popular Head. Related challenges for a new Head can be leading in new directions those staff members who have been with the school so long they have come to represent all that is familiar and ‘safe’, or encouraging alumni or parents to embrace a vision of schooling for the future that can seem very alien to what they know or treasure from the past.

These challenges are by no means new, but the recent experiences of our colleagues signal that there has been a dramatic shift in the context in which we find ourselves responding to them. The change has been so swift that its depth and breadth and capacity for personal and institutional damage have caught us unawares.

At the core of this change is a rising demand for personalised services, delivered at lightning speed. In schools, this is distorting what is commonly termed ‘school engagement’.

Encouraging student and community engagement is so well recognised as a school leader’s responsibility that it is embedded in the Australian Professional Standard for Principals. But there is no caution in the Standard that the school engagement principals have worked so hard and long to nurture has developed an unpredictable, unruly and dangerous alter ego that is characterised by a sense of entitlement.

We are fast discovering that the sense of belonging that evidence shows supports student attendance and achievement at school can morph quickly into a sense of personal ownership. The sacrifice of personal convenience and delayed gratification that community building and participation demand hold no allure when ‘me’ and ‘now’ trump ‘us’ and ‘when’.

I have yet to see tips for managing this phenomenon in the school leadership journals, possibly because what is now evident in schools is not unique to the education sector but a reflection of wider social change – change that is happening so fast, some are tempted to discard their values like unnecessary baggage in the race to keep up.

What to do?

In this new world of leadership and followership, as we have seen in federal politics, changing leaders does not address the complex social issues at play.

In the education sector, where schools have the important task of developing the nation’s young people, it is vital that we resolve differences with respect, moderation and mediation. Our students look to us not just for outcomes but also for the methods we use to reach them. Any response must be values-based, and a values-based response takes time. In particular, school leaders need time to reflect on their own values before they can replenish and draw on the personal authority that allows them to lead their communities in work so deep that it defies being summarised in a hashtag.

The values that guide us through difficult places are not disposable, they don’t come in microwavable packs and you can’t acquire them as a drive-through takeaway. The values that create a pathway from ‘me’ to ‘us’, from a difficult present to a brighter future, are generosity, respect and empathy – gently brewed in a rich broth of attentive listening, topped up with more and more listening as required.  

Even communities that run on push polls still hunger for leadership, so while communities must be free to express their desires, dissatisfactions and concerns, they must also be mindful they have a responsibility to create the time and space for leaders to lead. They must make it safe for leaders to lead. As the 2017 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey notes, bullying and violence against schools leaders is rising significantly, with adult-to-adult bullying of school leaders now four times higher than for the general population and threats of violence over five times higher.

As for Heads, we must tell ourselves daily just how important is the work that we do, that it can positively influence the lives of hundreds or thousands of young people and therefore has national and even global significance. Sometimes we need a colleague to remind us of that. And we must not resile from challenging our habits of mind and heart or reviewing our decisions and actions. But as someone once wrote, ‘When in deep water, become a diver’. Diving deep into our values and our faith must come first. 

Dr Mark Merry is National Chair of AHISA. He is Principal of Yarra Valley Grammar School, Victoria.

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