While most principals are adept at managing the many risks that their schools face on a day-to-day basis, the last three years have shown just how complex this responsibility can become.
Catastrophic natural disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic, a burgeoning mental health crisis and a marked increase in cybercrime have created so much upheaval for school communities that it may not be years until we truly understand how great of an impact this historic period had on those living through it.
One profession that has been at the coalface of this upheaval is principalship. As community and school leaders, principals have had to navigate these crisis from multiple vantage points – as business managers, community spokespersons, educators, and perhaps most unfortunately, as grief counsellors.
Santa Maria College principal Jennifer Oaten understands this juggling act all too well. For more than 20 years, spanning roles including principal, deputy principal, lecturer at Notre Dame University and Curriculum Consultant for Catholic Education WA, Oaten has navigated the dizzying changes that have ultimately shaped what education has become today.
Through this time, she has also learned the importance of managing the many risks that leaders must confront from time to time.
In an interview with The Educator, Oaten shares her views on what constitutes best practice in risk management and school leadership, and how principals can overcome challenging times to stay at the top of their game.
Clearly communicate policies and procedures
In discussing how schools can effectively manage potential risks, Oaten emphasised the significance of thorough preparation and regular updates for staff and students.
“Clear policies and procedures and continual staff training is the key to best practice risk management. It is important to ensure that all staff can assess and manage situations to mitigate risk and comply with the legal requirements,” Oaten told The Educator.
“It is crucial to invest in staff training and ensure that policies and procedures are updated regularly. Schools need to clearly communicate the importance of risk awareness, expectations for risk management, supported by an efficient and effective risk register.”
Involve the school community in your decisions and actions
According to Oaten, the foundation for effective school leadership lies with a clear mission and vision and defining the school’s values.
“Collectively these all need to underpin your decisions and actions. When developing your mission, vision and values, a consultative process is essential, ensuring staff, student and parent voices are incorporated,” she said.
“Clear communication with staff is vital. This will assist staff in the understanding of their role in enacting and promoting the school’s mission, vision and values and will help support the building of a positive culture.”
Oaten said principals need to lead with strength while also showing compassion.
“Each employee brings their personal story with them that may influence their behaviour, performance, or choices.”
Care for yourself (so you can care for others)
“When times are challenging as a leader, it is vital to believe in yourself to determine the process, seek information, evaluate and decide on the way forward,” Oaten said.
“Ensuring you have a strong and diverse leadership team who are experts in their areas and bring inspiration, positivity, and innovation to situations is essential.”
Oaten also highlighted the importance of leaders looking after their wellbeing, exercising, scheduling lunch breaks, and blocking out time in their calendar to focus on strategic discussions and responding to emails.
“Get out of your office and visit classrooms or student activities to see the amazing learning going on in your school. This is the greatest way to be energised and see the value of the work that you do.”