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How principals can navigate staff disobedience


How principals can navigate staff disobedience

In schools across Australia, one of the biggest challenges for school leaders is managing staff relationships, especially due to poor communication about expectations and inadequate training for difficult conversations.

Failure to address these issues often leads to misunderstandings or, worse, outright hostility that may result in disciplinary action. Indeed, identifying the boundaries in these situations can be particularly challenging.

Last week, The Educator spoke to Megan Kavanagh, a partner in Colin Biggers & Paisley’s employment and safety team, and her colleague Joel Beveridge, about what school staff can and can’t say about their principals on public forums.

“If an employee has a concern, they should raise it through the school’s complaint management or whistleblower process. The court of public opinion is unlikely to be the right place to voice a personal view,” Kavanagh and Beveridge told The Educator.

If a person feels strongly that they need to speak out they might not only face termination of employment but could be subject of defamation proceedings, they noted.

“For these reasons employees need to carefully weigh up the cost and benefit of speaking up outside of the school. Employers should seek advice when addressing public comments by staff to manage likely legal risk.”

‘Obedience remains a fundamental workplace obligation’

Paul O’Halloran, an Accredited Specialist in Workplace Relations and partner at Dentons Australia advises many independent schools and frequently deals with issues of teacher disobedience.

“While we might like to think we have moved away from a master/servant type relationship in schools, concepts such as obedience continue to be fundamental obligations in the context of the employment relationship,” O’Halloran told The Educator.

“A school’s power to give orders to its staff and expect them to be obeyed is a fundamental feature of the employment relationship. This duty of obedience is implied by law into every employment contract whether it is contained in the written employment contract or not.”

O’Halloran said a failure to obey amounts to breach of contract, and depending on the facts, may often be a valid reason for dismissal, subject to other industrial rights.

“The fact is, an employee cannot do whatever they want in the workplace,” he said.

“The Downtown Abbey notion of master and servant still pervades the employment relationship today, and teachers must obey all lawful and reasonable instructions. We saw this during the Covid-19 pandemic with directions to comply with vaccination policies”.

O’Halloran said schools face many challenges when dealing with teacher misconduct, but it is important for schools to rely on well drafted and broad codes of conduct which set out the expectations and values required of staff, and ensure ongoing internal education on the need to comply with such codes, and policies.

“Schools should factor disobedience of lawful and reasonable directions into disciplinary processes, which may include reliance on verbal directions, as well as clear directions contained in policies and codes of conduct.”

A strong whistleblowing policy can avoid disaster

Nathan Luker is the CEO of Your Call, Australia’s largest independent whistleblowing provider. Luker says a complex situation that can arise when navigating allegations of misconduct is that staff can experience false and/or unfair reporting.

Luker pointed to the “conflicting priorities and motives” of the many different groups that schools have a duty of care towards – namely parents, students and teachers.

“Schools’ whistleblowing or speak up programs need to be rigorous enough to ensure that all complaints are heard and appropriately handled, but also that students and staff don’t fall victim to false reporting which may arise because of personal grievances,” he explained.

“Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all response that schools can roll out”.

Luker pointed out that when schools don’t create speak up cultures, individuals, including students, teachers, contractors, and parents, don’t feel safe or heard reporting misconduct.

“They may fear that speaking up means that they will be negatively targeted, or that they will be ignored. Therefore, they’re more likely to not say anything, which can have devastating consequences,” he said.

Luker said a trauma-informed approach means the whole school community – including teachers, principals, administrative and other staff – is educated to recognise and respond in an empathetic and consistent way to children and young people who have experienced trauma.

“This approach can be formalised in policy, but it also needs to be supported with training, tools, resources and a commitment to building a trust culture in the school,” Luker said.

Luker said schools must take all allegations of misconduct seriously and protect and support students so that they feel safe and can recover from being a victim or a bystander.

“Offering ongoing support in the form of counselling is also critical, as is referring to external agencies when needed,” he said.

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