The 2016 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, which released its findings in February this year, found that Australian school principals are increasingly under stress due to their workloads. YouthCARE, a WA organisation providing chaplaincy in our public schools, is looking to address this problem through its new pilot program aimed at providing chaplaincy to principals.
There are currently two School Principal’s Chaplains employed in this program, both in regional areas of WA. Jill Clements is one such chaplain, working in the mid-west region; the other is based in the Great Southern. The pilot program began in term three of 2016 and will run until the end of2017, when it will be reassessed.
After a long involvement with YouthCARE in the past, and having recently completed a Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction, Jill was keen to explore the new role in her vast community. She was commissioned into the part-time position in January this year.
Originally trained as a primary school teacher, Jill spent time in her early career working relief roles in rural schools followed by some volunteer work delivering youth education for the then WA Department for Conservation and Land Management (CALM).
In the 1990s, Jill began working as the Field Officer for Christian Religious Education (CRE) at YouthCARE. At the time, there were only three people on staff and her role was to recruit and train new CRE teachers into the program. In 1999, she travelled to England on a Churchill Scholarship to undergo specialist training, which she used to help modify YouthCARE’s CRE program.
After seven years in that role, Jill then moved into a position managing YouthCARE School Chaplains.
Even though she originally retired from work a number of years ago, Jill still chairs the YouthCARE Council in her hometown of Dongara, as well as having a huge involvement in the leadership team at Dongara Uniting Church.
She has extensive experience working in the education system, which alongside her history with YouthCARE has helped her to settle into the role. Many of the principals she currently works with already knew her from her previous work, making it easier to build relationships.
“Someone who knows the region has an advantage in getting started,” she said. “There were a number of principals who I’d already met when I was working as an Area Chaplain, so that made it easier.
“Principals were happy to endorse my role. It was nice to hear that they appreciate the work that I do and that people would relate. That endorsement was quite encouraging for me.”
Jill said the role involves listening to people and being a safe person the school principals can share their joys and struggles with. While the majority of the time people are not in a crisis, having already built a relationship means that when something does arise, Jill is a trusted person to talk to – and there have already been some instances where Jill has offered ongoing support and hope.
“I travel to the schools to visit them; spend time having a chat and a coffee, listening to them. It could be school stuff, it could be personal stuff, what makes them happy and what slows them down, that kind of thing,” she said.
“I’m not a counsellor and I’m not a problem solver, but in talking to someone they usually find some hope in what is troubling them.
“I enjoy meeting the people. Most people are not in crisis when you first meet them, but they do admit that there are times when things are over-the-top and that they really are under the pump. Particularly in the small communities, there may not be anyone else they can let their hair down with.
“It’s entirely confidential and a safe place,” she said.
A large portion of Jill’s time is actually taken up with trying to make appointments. As she said, school principals are very, very busy. She also spends a lot of time on the road.
“A fair proportion of my time is on the road getting to where I need to be and then some time with the principal,” she said. “If it’s in the country areas, the roads are long.
“In the mid-west region there are 50 schools. I haven’t visited all of them; I’ve caught up with about 30 to 35. The ones I haven’t visited, the far out ones, I’ve had contact by email with people there. And then there are about six remote Indigenous schools I haven’t gotten to.”
For her first three school terms on the job, that’s not a pretty bad feat. As well as being a support to those in crisis, and a listening ear, Jill has also had a few requests for Christian resources. For some principals, being Christian in a small town with no church can be part of the challenge. Jill researched devotional materials she felt they might relate to and passed them on.
“I hope that they found it inspiring and thought provoking,” she said.
Normally, however, the role does not involve talking about the Gospel or religion.
“If somebody touches on it, I’m happy to talk about God and Jesus, but most times it’s about them and their personal space and demonstrating that they are loved and important.”
She said part of the role is similar to that of the YouthCARE School Chaplains: being Christ in the community, so that people can experience God’s love.
“The love of God that we experience as people of God can be and needs to be taken much broader than the confines of the church. Sometimes it’s just the one little thing that has a profound impact. Make the phone call, send the card.
“That thoughtfulness is what this road in chaplaincy is about. I can’t be there every day, but I do try to send a note. Doing those little things mean I can assure them that they’re not alone and they’re not forgotten.
“For someone to travel 125kms just to see them, you know you’re cared about.”
Jill explained that school principals, even those of small schools, are under a lot of pressure in the workplace.
“The demands on the principal’s role from increasing bureaucracy is huge. Even in a small school, the principals say they have to do the same paperwork as someone who’s in a huge school because that’s what the role entails.
“Some of them teach as well. So they carry a huge load and they’re very, very focussed.
“The Department [of Education WA] have been focussed on leadership and I’ve found that very encouraging; the way that schools are focussing on relationship building in teachers.
“They do support each other as professionals. So work related stuff, they support each other and they will do that as much as they can, but sometimes they don’t want to talk about personal stuff to a colleague.”
Having grown up in Perth as a member of the Methodist Church of Australasia, being Christian has always been a key part of Jill’s life. On topof her work with YouthCARE, she is also Secretary of the Dongara UnitingChurch Council, and is an active member of the worship leadership team.
The congregation is well-known around town. “We don’t want to sit around getting bored,” she said. “We try and keep the community alive; most of the people are up to their eyeballs with other stuff in the [wider] community as well.
“They know that if you want community you have to actually build it yourself, so they do that. “I really like small community living. I really like the small town community where people know you and trust you and you can do as much or as little as you want. “Everyone is so co-operative and we have good support.”
Jill is grateful to the people who have worked as Rural Ministry Coordinators for the Uniting Church WA who helped the congregation to set-up a model of informal leadership where members are encouraged to share their gifts and skills among the congregation.
Among her colleagues in the local schools, Jill said it has been really rewarding to walk alongside people and watch them grow through personal crisis. Being welcomed into the community with warm reception has been one of the perks of her job.
“The buzz when they show me around their school – which might only have 20 kids – is great. To have that level of acceptance where they want to show me their kids and their staff is really cool,” she said.
“And to invite me back! They like the support well enough to invite me back and to see me more. When they do that you feel they see you as a friend and someone who is a valuable part of their world and that is rewarding.”
For more information about YouthCARE and the work they do in WA schools, visit youthcare.org.au.
Top image: Jill Clements, YouthCARE School Principal’s Chaplain on the road in the Midland Region.