It was 2018, and Tracy Tully was only at the doctors to get a script filled when they decided to check her blood pressure while she was there.
“This can’t be right, are you a bit stressed?” the doctor asked, after seeing the sky-high reading on the screen.
“Yeah… a bit,” Tracy said with a laugh. A bit stressed was an understatement, to say the least. She’d been stressed for decades.
Not believing the number before their eyes, the doctor did the test again. He then walked out of the room and called an ambulance.
“Left unattended, I would have had a stroke,” Tracy told Mamamia. “The heart specialist said to me, ‘we see this all the time in the education department. You need to resign now or it will kill you’.”
After 38 years as a Queensland principal, Tracy did just that.
WATCH: Half of Australian principals have been threatened with violence. Post continues after video.
She’d spent her career working in tough state schools – both primary and secondary – in regional and rural Queensland, and as the 59-year-old tells Mamamia, “There’s nothing I haven’t seen at a school.”
Research released this week from the Australian Catholic University and Deakin University found that one in three Australian principals have experienced physical violence and threats from parents and students.
This comes as no surprise to Tracy. She’s lived it.
“It has been so bad that I couldn’t go to the local pub, I had a savage dog chained to the base of my stairs, and I owned a gun,” she said.
“There’s nothing I haven’t heard in terms of bullying, threats, pedophilia, fetishes, suicides, murder, corruption, extreme violence… it’s damaging and a lot of principals won’t talk about it even years later purely because they don’t want to relive it psychologically.”
Tracy Tully was a QLD principal for 38 years, before resigning in 2018
For Tracy, there's one particular incident that sticks out. She had cancelled the enrolment of one of her students who had instigated yet another violent school fight while under the influence of drugs. His mother arrived at the school, threatening to send her husband to "bash me, shoot my dogs and burn my house down." The pupil, meanwhile, had gathered a large angry mob who were "headed up the road towards school".
Tracy retreated to a far corner of the school oval and called the police, who eventually came to her rescue.
Then her phone rang - it was her 10-year-old son who had only recently returned to school after recovering from meningitis. He'd been bashed up at the school gate as "revenge", and as Tracy writes in her soon-to-be-released book FEARLess: "Not one single adult came to his rescue for fear of getting involved with the parents that had driven the kids to the school gate to bash the principal's kid."
This is an extreme example of what can and does happen in some of our country's schools. But most of the time the abuse is a lot more subtle.
The survey found at least half of school leaders have been the subject of gossip and slander, and 37 per cent have experienced bullying.
Another teacher, who has worked in some of the most affluent NSW schools, told Mamamia: "I have been threatened by parents, both in person and in writing, numerous times. Mainly the threats have been about stopping a whole school change (like a uniform change). They threaten via email and share it among their larger group of friends so lots of people in the community join in. I once had a ringleader parent say she'd 'make it stop as I'm very influential' if I did what she wanted me to."
Tracy says most of the community don't realise just how many "balls" a principal is juggling at any one time.
School leaders self-reported working an average of 55 hours a week during the school term, according to the recent research. Tracy says she routinely worked seven days a week.
Political interference from the department took up a lot of the day-to-day, as did coaching and counselling not just students but parents.
"If you had a child with something wrong with them you could bet your bottom dollar something bad is going on at home. My office was a safe space where parents would come and have a cup of tea and tell me about how they were being abused by their husband in front of the kids," she told Mamamia.
Aside from dealing with parents, students, and the department, the principal is also responsible for a cohort of teaching staff and as Tracy explains, one of the hardest parts of her job was watching young, excited, brilliant teachers straight out of university being sent to "do their time" at country schools like hers.
"They would disintegrate before my eyes," she said. They weren't given the training or support to be able to deal with troubled kids who were sent to schools that didn’t have plentiful teacher to student ratios.
In the end, being a principal wore Tracy down. It affected her marriage, her children (who still suffer anxiety from what they witnessed and were subjected to during Tracy's career), and her health.
Tracy is working in a different field now, one that doesn't leave her so depleted. But she wants it known that she did adore it.
"I got great reward out of it. I think of it like a police officer or a nurse - you have lots of tragedies happen around you - but that's just part of your world. It doesn't stop you from always wanting the best for the kids and your school," she told Mamamia.
She does think in 2020, it's about time the education departments in our country start prioritising staff wellbeing. In fact Tracy thinks there's a lot that needs to change in our current "archaic" public education systems.
Pre-order Tracy Tully's book on being a principal in the Queensland education system here.