School Principal and Teaching Profession Challenges

School Principal and Teaching Profession Challenges

In a recent talk to the Australian Primary Principals Association, Australian Insititute for Teaching and School Leadership CEO, Lisa Rodgers, outlined the challenges ahead.

This is her speech at Australian Parliament House:


Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you tonight in Parliament and at such an occasion.

I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to the Elders, past and present. I also extend my respects to the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleagues, educators, staff and students who are present today.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • The Minister for Education and Training, the Honourable Simon Birmingham
  • The Honourable Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education and Training
  • Parliamentarians
  • Co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Primary – Nicolle Flint and Andrew Giles
  • APPA President Dennis Yarrington
  • members of the APPA National Advisory Council
  • And invited guests


One of my very best friends and colleagues was the Principal of the largest schools in Australasia.  One day he suffered a stroke.  It was fairly significant and he spent some time in hospital.  He suffered loss of function, particularly to his right of his body, and to this day he rarely writes because of this loss of function.

The day after he got back from the hospital, surprisingly, he didn’t remain at home convalescing…..he walked back into school.  He told me, he kept his hand in his pocket, he went to assembly, he said good morning to his staff as he passed them and made his way to his office.  Most of his staff and the children never knew what had happened to him.

I tell you this story not to highlight a hero leader, but to acknowledge that first and foremost Principals have a unity of purpose that drives them, paired with a conviction and an emotional bond to their purpose.   They are leaders of learning, they are leaders of people, and within a community and leaders of change.

They are people who are intelligent, hardworking and committed, they are people who sing in the shower, who have bad moods, who laugh uncontrollably at rude jokes and have a few beers while watching the footy.


Principals in Australia are also people who:

  • Make the call others are afraid to make;
  • Get up earlier than they want to;
  • Care a lot about other people’s children;
  • Lead when no one else is following……YET;
  • Meet deadlines that are unreasonable, deliver results that are unparalleled and change the path of almost every person’s life;
  • They are kind to people who have been cruel or who have hurt them;
  • They watch other people’s children play sport on a Saturday morning; and
  • They run fast at school cross country, even though they are gasping for breath.


Given what I have just recounted, is it unsurprising then when asked, very few teacher aspire to be principals and less than 10% of principals intended to be school principals when they first started teaching!

What is surprising though is that we have over 9,000 principals currently active in our schools, we have 6234 primary schools and, of course, that means over 6,000 Primary Principals.

The average principal is 54 and over half of our Principals have either Honours, Masters or Doctoral degrees.

They tend to stay in the job once they become principals and 90% of them report that they are happy in their role.

Principals report significantly higher job satisfaction that the general population and, I think it is fair to say that school Principals are some of Australia’s smartest and happiest community leaders of change.

So principalship is a great job, but it can be a pretty gruelling apprenticeship and a bit sink or swim; it’s tough and I would suggest it is going to get harder and it is globally recognised that the principal role has changed substantially over the last twenty years.

It has shifted from a managerial job to a profession that has a sharper focus on student outcomes, heightened community expectations and a significant role in the implementation of policy reforms.

Also, the role of the principal in influencing student outcomes is acknowledged as being second only to teaching among recognised school influences on student improvement.

Where are we in terms of improvement?

Australia has laid the foundations to have a truly world-class approach to improving teaching and school leadership.

Australia has implemented reforms aimed at improving what teachers do and how leaders support the teaching process and build a culture of learning.

These reforms complement work that is on going across States and Territories, but achieving national agreement on many matters related to teaching and principalship, has been a significant breakthrough.

One of the key initiatives have included the development of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and the Australian Professional Standard for Principals. These documents provide clear, detailed, nationally agreed definitions of what it means to be an outstanding teacher or leader, and a road map in each case for getting there. A rich body of resources has been developed to provide examples of best practice, as well as to support teachers and school leaders to improve their on-going practice.

Current, aspiring and emerging leaders have been the focus of substantial resource development and support, many of you in this room would have worked with AITSL on many of these developments.

Both sets of standards and their accompanying resources have been taken up by education agencies and schools across Australia. These are the foundations on which a better understanding of the profession is being built and this is a big step in the right direction.

But we are not done yet!


  1. I think one of the challenges for teachers, and therefore Principals, is the vocational nature of the profession.  It is a vocation and a profession yet I find it interesting that in the UK, the teacher unions still refer to themselves as ‘trade’ unions.  We need to esteem the profession, we need the profession to talk well and professionally of themselves and we need to change the way we talk about teaching as a profession.
  2. Most Principals see themselves as transformational leaders; they may well be, but the research suggests that this approach is much less effective than instructional leadership (as per the definition in all of the OECD literature)  – or in other words  – leadership that is directly related to student learning and the quality of instruction is the top priority.

Think about the last time you have walked someone through a school – what conversation did you have?  What were the things you noticed? And where in the school did you go and who did you talk to?

While every leader may well be transformational, the instructional leader will be focused on impact of teaching and the numbers, names and needs of students in their care.

Yes, they will attend to resourcing, property and all the other demands on their time.  But they will create a safe and orderly environment, and they will resource strategically and essentially to maximise learning.

As you walk through their school they will focus on the impact the staff are having on student outcomes, they will see assessment as feedback on the adult’s actions and a guide as to what to do next, and they will be involved in professional learning and supporting the evaluation of each teacher’s impact on student learning.

There will be a culture of trust and collaboration and environment in which everyone can learn from errors without losing face. Teachers will want and expect feedback.

You might also see collective efficacy.  Teaching is a vocation and profession and the evidence is clear leaders and teachers working together on the achievement challenge they face is the most effective for of professional development there is, and makes a difference to students.

This professional collaboration, needs no programmes, no outside influence, no so called éxpert’; it is facilitated by Principal leaders that lead teachers to collaborate on curriculum and assessment and causing learning to happen.

Principals are responsible for the culture, disposition and thought leadership to enable teachers to do this.

They need to make the call that others won’t, we need them to have the courage to stop what isn’t working and to focus only on those things that will make a difference for the students.

Next steps

It’s a high bar and what is required from school leaders has changed.

We need to build on what has been put in place and the next national reform agenda must firstly, focus on leadership development; those currently leading in our schools and those that aspire to do so and build from the standards the notion of instructional leadership.

We must:

  • support the development of a national, coherent strategic approach to school leadership development in Australia
  • recognise and promote expertise in high-quality school leadership – there is high-quality leadership in Australian schools, it is just in pockets;
  • put in place a nationally consistent standards-based professional learning experience for aspiring and experienced leaders
  • assure potential candidates have been involved in a range of preparation experiences and are suitably equipped for the principal role
  • develop opportunities for experienced principals to understand, experience, reflect on and develop their leadership practice;
  • learn from and promote the expertise of retired and experienced principals;
  • and we must build on the collective efficacy of the profession and grow it – collaborativeexpertise..


The stakes are high.

Our achievement profile continues to decline in absolute and in relative terms.  We have high levels of stratification and inequity.  We have fewer students reaching top benchmarks (cruising)

We do have a profession that has a unity of purpose that drives them, they do lead with conviction.  We need to identify schools and find out what are the conditions for success.

It is essential that we identify talent and better equip teachers for principalship.

I say this as we all stand in parliament, I reflected on all the Ministers of Education I have so far met.  What strikes me is that while they might differ on many things, they all want the very best teachers and leaders in schools and to maximise student outcomes.

There is bi-partisan support for the things like professional standards and all parties have supported the work of AITSL, which fundamentally brings together principals and teachers as the experts they are to play a central role in education reform; shaping aspirations, designing reform, and putting in place the conditions to support reform.  This is what professionals do; they define the profession through practice; it is the moment by moment decisions that teachers make in class that make a difference to student achievement and principals can affect change.

We are also standing in parliament at a significant moment in time.  The Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians was signed in 2008, setting out educational goals for all Australians. There have been other national reform efforts articulated since, with different commitments and obligations.

Right now, the Australian Government is proposing a new national agreement (the Australian Schools Agreement) to replace all these existing approaches. This will be the first time since 2008 that we, nation-wide, potentially get on the same page with shared objectives, reforms and targets for school education in Australia.

So, we have an opportunity.  The identification, nurturing and development of talent must be a part of the reform agenda.

We must do this alongside supporting our current school leaders to work together nationally, to make the hard call, to lead learning and impact in their schools and to take some time off to watch the footy.

I am sure APPA, like AITSL, will be a part of that shaping what that looks like, and I look forward to working with the profession on this.




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