When staff, union sub-branch and leadership are all on the same page, schools have their best shot at maintaining healthy lines of communication.
Seona Murnane, principal of Mount Rowan Secondary School, prides herself on a firm, fair and fun approach. Encouraging constructive dialogue is built into the school’s culture.
“On every recruitment panel, we’re looking for people who will challenge students in a healthy and refreshing way, and who will also take that on board when working with their colleagues,” says Seona.
“I try to create that culture where we have a positive relationship around wellbeing, keeping ourselves in check, and the work we do.”
It’s a point of principle. “We all have different responsibilities, but we see each other as equal.”
Mount Rowan music teacher and sub-branch rep David Allen appreciates Seona’s focus on fairness and respect, and how it fits with the AEU’s goals.
“There’s a long history of union activism and high levels of membership at the school,” he says. “Not just amongst the teaching staff, but the leadership team as well.”
While a possibly old-fashioned idea that leadership should not be a part of the union’s work may linger in some corners, as far as David is concerned it is much easier to get things done when staff and leadership are communicating clearly.
“When leadership are union members as well, then you get the ‘we’re all in this together’ scenario. As a starting point, that means with any negotiations between the staff, the sub-branch and Seona, you’re always off to a good start. Everyone plays a part, and all the voices are heard.”
Seona says those strong lines of communication were handy when implementing the new Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA).
“You’ve got to keep talking things through,” she says. “When the new agreement came out this year, I made sure I read it several times and didn’t make assumptions. If Dave came back with a different interpretation, we could both seek clarity from the union.
“I’m not just here to win with a big stick. We’ll work together to build a safe environment.”
With a nod to David’s passion for music, Seona adds: “We’re all singing from the same song sheet.”
“We all have different responsibilities, but we see each other as equal.”
No knee-jerk reactions
At Buckley Park College, classroom teacher Daniel Crosbie says the sub-branch executive prides itself on being non-hierarchical and sharing the load interchangeably.
It’s this focus on teamwork that bolsters their belief that it’s good news that principal Harold Cheung is also a proud union member. “That symbolic gesture always helps,” Daniel says.
As Daniel sees it, the principal class at Buckley Park do a lot to protect their staff. “They are the barrier between us and abusive parents or very difficult to manage students. They’re the gatekeepers.”
Leadership will also step out of the room if the rest of the staff needs some privacy during union discussions. This mutual respect ensures that even when wrinkles crop up, there’s never any animosity.
“We know Harold is reasonable, rational, and also self-assured in the way that he wants the school to run,” Daniel says. “If you suggest something that’s 100% not what his vision of the school is, he’ll tell you that it’s not going to happen.”
Everything else is up for discussion. A recent example was the all-school professional practice days (PPDs) last term. “Once Harold named the day, I asked if we could work from home on that day and he said, ‘Let me think about it?’ I always like that response. It’s not a knee-jerk ‘no’. I don’t care if it takes a week or two for him to get back to us, as long as he considers it.”
“In a school like ours, where we’re not huge, open and honest communication about what can and can’t be done is really important.”
In the end, Harold agreed there was no reason for all staff to be onsite with no students in attendance.
“In a school like ours, where we’re not huge, open and honest communication about what can and can’t be done is really important,” Harold says.
“It’s about consistency and setting good expectations, being transparent about challenges, but also about the things that are going well. This is the first step in having a constructive relationship.”
He’s happy to listen to all viewpoints. “Considering does not mean that everything is a ‘yes’, or a ‘no’, but having that open-mindedness allows the opportunity, at least, to consult and maybe look at a better way of doing business.”
Harold is also a big believer in staff accessing independent opinions and advocacy from the AEU. If any issue crops up, he’ll flag it as soon as possible.
“I’m active in the union myself, and I believe it’s important to give the sub-branch the heads up and situational awareness early so they can anticipate a response, because no one likes surprises,” he says. “It’s also being honest about why certain things have happened. Hindsight is wonderful, but it’s also about acknowledging the unknowns and working through them together.”
“If we have happy staff, we have happy students, and happy students learn.”
Working through the wishy-washy
Lisa Holt, principal at Rosebud Secondary College, says it doesn’t have to be an ‘us-and-them’ approach for leadership and staff in her dealings with the sub-branch.
“It’s about removing the perception that it needs to be combative,” she says. “I’m really keen that all of our decisions are, as much as possible, ultimately about our students.”
AEU membership is a valuable tool for Lisa, who says that AEU communication on significant changes is usually much clearer than information coming from the department. “The union’s a bit more down the line, whereas DET can be a bit wishy-washy. So I feel much more comfortable asking the union to give me feedback.”
She is always happy to hear news from the sub-branch, too. “I’m pretty open. I’ll sit in a space and say if I feel cranky or worried about something. It takes the anxiety away if you’re open about situations being difficult because, at the end of the day, we’re all just human. Let’s take the drama out of it.”
Keetah Evans, the sub-branch president at Rosebud SC, says Lisa works hard to support strong union leadership at the school. “Our prin team consults with the union and wants to do the right thing, making my job a lot easier. I imagine it would be difficult in other schools where the prins don’t do that. We’re really lucky that staff working conditions are very much front and centre here.”
Looking after staff is key to retaining them, Keetah argues, and that all goes to the bigger picture. “If we have happy staff, we have happy students, and happy students learn.”