I’ve had it with ‘why me?’ school principals

There is pure joy in leading a school, as well as frustration. Our leaders should reflect this

Peter Gunning, a former principal, says representative bodies should be careful not to paint an overly negative picture of teaching.

Peter Gunning, a former principal, says representative bodies should be careful not to paint an overly negative picture of teaching.


On my list of “things I really miss as a retiree”, I think I can happily omit online discussion forums for principals. In theory, they offer school leaders the opportunity to network ideas on best practice and share the collective expertise of thousands of members.

Practice often saw this theory realised and we lesser souls were all the wiser for spending 20 minutes a day soaking up the advice of that better-read Solomon family who kept on giving.

Updated advice on touchscreen white-board technology, where to buy a decent flagpole or how to publish an enrolment policy without the prerequisite of senior council access - they were all but a click away.

Sometimes, however, the posts came from principals who would gladly march under the “why me?” banner.

‘Why me?’

“Why me?” network posters vent outrage at their unacceptable work overload, the dreaded weight of always-increasing paper work and their rising stress levels which no amount of strong coffee could ever over-ride. These posts often create a tsunami of fellow “Why me?” responses.

Soon the mailing list morphs into a uniform “Why us?” with rocket scientists in NASA grateful for their eternal sunshine.

I was reminded of my former glass half empty colleagues when reading of the National Principals’ Forum recent submission to the Oireachtas. The requests of the Forum were both reasonable and feasible.

For example few could argue against teaching principals requiring additional administrative leave. It is also an absolute nonsense that any principal of a school with special classes attached should continue to have teaching duties. Principals need personal support such as the new coaching/counselling scheme introduced by the Department two years ago of which to date only a handful of principals have availed.

It would be an almost effortless governmental response to introduce these improvements without delay and with limited negotiation.

However the idea that 84 per cent of all principals interviewed had considered stepping down and that 89 per cent experienced health issues can only be read as a self-diagnosed Principal Traumatic Stress Disorder for which the prescription may entail a healthy dose of some serious self-reflection.


Any manager in any responsible field if asked if he or she had ever considered stepping down would likely say “yes”.

Not unlike all managerial roles, principalship can cause stress. A family history of high blood pressure more easily explains my daily dose of Valtan rather than linking it to my chairing of regular multi-disciplinary family conferences. As a principal I often lay awake enduring the darkness before the dawn, worrying about a problem child, a difficult parent or a staff meeting where I should have said X but screwed up when Y popped into my head. I would have directly correlated my insomnia with my role as a school principal.

However, now that I have retired with little enough one would think to worry me, I still wake regularly at 3am and count the sheep on my wife’s back until darkness turns to dawn. Principals may experience insomnia but not exclusively.

Unlike other managerial roles principalship can deliver so much joy. At the risk of rose-tinted perspective accusations, I always saw my role as a privilege and one that afforded me so much pleasure.

At the risk of submitting to cliché, the principal can make a difference in children’s lives which is probably the very reason most of us entered training colleges in the first place. Principals can and continue to make a difference.

In 2006, we opened a special class for two little girls with autism. At the time I was a teaching principal in a six teacher mainstream school with three support teachers with a school building plan under way.

Since then the school has been through a second building project and now has a teaching staff of 30 with 24 children attending An Cuan our attached unit for children on the autism spectrum. To lead a school where all children are included non-judgementally supersedes all negative misgivings.


It is important that all involved in education support the demands of the National Principals’ Forum, the IPPN and the INTO and other bodies seeking to improve the well-being of those in charge of our schools.

However, it is also incumbent on these bodies to promote the role of school principal as one where teachers may discover the pure joy of the role. The fact that there are fewer applicants for principal positions may be correlated to the negative overtones of well-intended campaigns.

Last week I visited the school for the first time since retiring. I looked out the window and stared at the cows chewing the cud in the adjacent farm. This is what I did on days of stress. A coffee break alone and watch the cows. Sure, not a care in the world.

Peter Gunning is the former principal of Scartleigh National School