Change school priorities in challenging times

Planning ahead to meet the professional learning needs of staff to improve the effectiveness of teaching at your school is an important aspect of a school principal’s job. But what happens when events overtake these plans?

At St. John’s Catholic Parish Primary School in northeast Melbourne, the focus is on wellbeing and resilience in the school’s philosophy and practice. But 2020 brought unexpected challenges and required a quick turn to new strategies.

Thanks to the existing support structures, the management team was able to identify the changed personnel requirements at an early stage. When Melbourne was banned, the team continued to support the scheduled staff meetings. During these meetings, teachers were able to conduct well-being surveys; The leadership team reviewed the results and used this data to schedule meetings to address both wellbeing and professional learning needs at the time, with an emphasis on technology.

In addition, the leadership team has been in contact with staff via phone calls and Google Meets to support their wellbeing and ability to deliver high quality instruction in an uncertain and changing teaching and learning environment.

“We knew from our regular check-ins with the staff that our teachers felt overwhelmed. As a management team, we discussed how we could best support them, ”says headmistress Maureen Stella Teacher.

That meant a change of plan. “We chose to put their existing professional learning goals on hold and instead faced pressing challenges: we provided supportive wellbeing, technical and professional learning opportunities to equip teachers with the skills and strategies they need to do a good job need.”

Stella and Assistant Principal and Welfare Director Elizabeth Whiting explain the leadership team’s response based on professional reading Natural disasters and pandemics (Cahill et al., 2020). “This approach has improved teachers’ understanding of the impact and trauma of students, families and staff and enabled them to provide supportive social and emotional learning in their capacity as teachers. Examples include maintaining routines, staying connected and positive interactions (albeit often online) with students and staff, self-care, and positive coping skills. Teachers continued to collect data through Google forms and anecdotal records, as well as communication with parents, to ensure that our students ‘social and emotional needs were being monitored.’

Managers actively listened to the staff and the need to change the routine became clear to students and staff. In response to this need, the Student Wellbeing Team at St. John’s a Better be Buddies Day with the theme of gratitude. “The main focus of the day was on ensuring that all students develop positive relationships within the school and strengthen their sense of belonging and connectedness. The day celebrated our Essential Workers as superheroes with a focus on the values ​​of “respect” and “care for others,” add Stella and Whiting.

The school partnered with the National Excellence in School Leadership Institute (NESLI) – Stella and Whiting were both participants in NESLI programs. Dr. Janet Smith, Program Director at NESLI, says the past 18 months have been particularly challenging for school principals across Australia.

“The pandemic has made significant changes in the way educators teach, lead, and adapt, and this has required an incredible level of resilience. We know that school principals often take on the emotional work of caring for staff and students, which puts a heavy strain on their wellbeing and energy levels. ‘

Smith says investing in educator wellbeing and resilience not only enables teachers and school principals to better cope with the challenges of their jobs, but also benefits students and the wider school community.

Whiting agrees, adding that educators must first ensure their own well-being in order to support their students. “You need to take care of your well-being in order to function in your role at school and to have a healthy balance at home.

“It’s about building a great culture – we all contribute. As school principals, we are aware of the need to model reflective practice, growth mentality and gratitude. And we see that with our students too – for example, recently some children thanked our school management for their new playground. “

Smith says supporting health and wellbeing in addition to helping staff through challenging times (like the lockdown and the ongoing impact of the pandemic on schooling) is also beneficial in the longer term. “Personal and professional resilience is not just about strength through adversity – especially during a pandemic – but the ability to grow and adapt from disruption.”

Wellbeing and resilience tips for school leaders

Here Maureen Stella and Elizabeth Whiting share their tips for fellow school principals:

  • Remember to get “off the dance floor” and “onto the balcony” for a holistic view of your current environment and challenges.
  • Build your own professional network and rely on it if you need advice, a different perspective or a trustworthy sounding board;
  • Carry out a “temperature check” survey to get a feel for the most important questions of well-being and resilience for employees and parents;
  • Use the Community Conversations process using the Melbourne Archdicese Catholic Schools (MACS) framework, based on the Family School Partnership Initiative (2010-2013), in collaboration with Dr. George Otero of the Center for Relational Learning, New Mexico. This process enables conscious and inclusive conversations between teachers, students and parents;
  • Look beyond school to find ways to build a sense of community – for example, St. John’s students sent personalized thank you cards to Austin Hospital, Heidelberg Victoria that were distributed throughout the hospital, especially those specializing in COVID – 19th
  • Think about what you can do to support other leaders inside or outside your school.


Cahill, H., Dadvand, B., Shlezinger, K., Romei, K. & Farrelly, A. (2020). Natural Disasters and Pandemics: Supporting the wellbeing of students and teachers after an emergency. Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

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