Publishers of books that change lives

As a school principal, I was a bully

Winner of the 2015 Finch Memoir PrizeAs a principal I was a bully. If you were a student of mine and you didn’t fit into a centre of sports excellence or an academic stream, you were just Mr or Ms Mediocre. No special privileges, no exciting programs. Everything you were offered had BLAND written all over it. I didn’t nurture a sense of self-esteem and worth in you. Instead, I showed you how important other people were compared to you. If there was a ladder, you were planted on the bottom rung and there was no climbing allowed.

In essence I was a quiet bully who designed a system to feed the economic rationalism and league ladders of the time. The top kids counted the most. The other kids counted less. Let’s face it, there are too many bullies in the world. The ones you see coming are one thing. They’re hard enough to deal with. But what about those you don’t even know are there, designing ways to make your life’s journey even harder? The quiet, hidden bullies are the worst. I was one of them.

When my young son Greg came to my school I placed him in the lowest stream class. The big decider in this allocation was data given to us by the one-day-in-the-year-test, Naplan. At that stage some of the kids were already referring to it as the Numbnuts test or the Napalm test. It was probably named by kids like Greg, who had been branded by the test the day they walked inside the school gates for the first time. Like some of my colleagues, instead of seeing the Naplan data as one small piece of the cake, I considered it the whole cake, with cream on top.

For some ,test results had become an all-powerful determinant of student and school status. As a principal I was quick to give out test scores but failed to use test data like Naplan the right way.I failed to insist my teachers understood the data and gave quality feedback based on this data. I failed to insist my teachers understood clearly there are multiple intelligences and test scores could usually only pick up one of these. As a result if you were a student that received a low score, you were considered dumb. Get yourself to the Veggies class.

As a principal I was oblivious to the deep effect the misuse of testing data had on a student’s psyche. Once children reach adolescence, a great many of them start to lose the primary connection to their parents and begin to tie themselves strongly to their peer groups. If an adult treats you as a lesser being it’s one thing, but if your peers see you as dumb, you travel a very thorny road. Peer pressure can be an ugly monster at this impressionable age, a monster that tears away at every ounce of self-esteem. I had inadvertently let the monster out of the cage, and it was on the rampage in my school.

Greg faced bullies on all fronts, peers and adults, who gazed at him in disdain, as well as his Principal who designed school structures to divide rather than unify. His options were flight or fight. He decided to fight. And, as Greg found out, wearing the rebellious tag took away attention from being branded dumb.

Many kids like Greg face similar options in our education systems. They become scared of the future and what it holds. They are made, unintentionally, to feel like lesser humans. It wasn’t until I started to see the impact of this branding through the eyes of a student ,who was also my son ,that I began to wake up to myself.

The correlation between self-esteem and student behaviour is irrefutable. If we really want to address behaviour problems in schools, we need to first look at our school culture to determine if every student has a place in the sun, or if we keep the non-academics and non-sports stars in the shadows. What if every student who entered the school gates was unafraid because they knew that their school, the place they went to every day, promoted equity and excellence, cooperation and creativity? Perhaps then our world would be a better place.

As a principal it’s not an easy task suspending your own son from school. Perhaps it should have been me who got suspended.


Alan Sampson is a Queensland Public School Executive Principal and the author of Schools Of Fish, an honest and intriguing memoir about what happens when a teacher and father is forced to re-evaluate everything he believes in.