Grasping the Extent of the Problem

Queen and Schumacher (Principal Magazine) found that “As many as 75 percent of principals experience stress-related symptoms that include fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, irritability, heartburn, headache, trouble sleeping, and depression.”

Additionally, Van der Merwe et al. found that “school principals experience high levels of stress that hamper their self-efficacy and inhibit their executive control capacities.”

The Center for Creative Leadership found that, “Eighty-eight percent of leaders report that work is a primary source of stress in their lives and that having a leadership role increases the level of stress. More than 60 percent of surveyed leaders cite their organizations as failing to provide them with the tools they need to manage stress.”

Unfortunately, the level of stress on school leaders is spiraling out of control and is cause for great concern for all of us. This is not to say we should worry less about the mental health of teachers. However, whereas some countless resources and organizations focus on helping teachers with their stress, stress on principals is not highlighted to the same degree. And because of this, there are fewer places for them to turn.

Why Don’t We Hear More About it?

So the obvious question is if the problem is so serious, why don’t we hear more about it? Perhaps the best place to look is at the administrators themselves. Below are some of their reasons:

  1. We are leaders—others look to us as strong, positive role models. It is difficult to admit our struggles and vulnerabilities as they will be understood as a weakness.
  2. We would feel like a failure or that we are just whining.
  3. Because what are we going to do? It’s not going away, and we are responsible for everything.
  4. We are solution-focused and feel like focusing on stress is counterproductive.
  5. I believe that no one will listen; the expectation is that we have all the answers.
  6. You are on an island daily. You don’t have many people to share your stress with. When you go home, you want to leave work at work and not talk about your day.
  7. We are told it’s our job. We must set the tone—so we have to fake it. The upper level, school boards, parents, and other community members don’t want to hear what we deal with.
  8. We are too busy taking on the burdens of everyone else to let ourselves be vulnerable, as that vulnerability will cause certain devastation and collapse of teachers who are hanging on by a thread.

Look out, They’re Heading for the Exits

Without a doubt, both the physical and emotional strain of COVID-19 are exacting a steep toll on America’s principals. And as a result, a large share of them are saying that they are speeding up plans to retire or otherwise leave the profession.

A recent survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) found that forty-five percent of principals said that pandemic conditions are prompting them to leave the job sooner than previously planned. The prospect of a sudden and widespread turnover in school leadership would complicate even further the problems facing an education system already in disarray due to the pandemic. And the shocks would be felt through the entire profession carrying its unknown consequences.

A report from NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute earlier this year found that nearly 1 in 5 principals turn over each year, largely driven by challenging working conditions, too little support and professional development, among other factors.

Within the group of leaders who said they are now weighing leaving the profession, 22.8 percent said the working conditions in the pandemic sparked their thoughts of leaving the job for the first time. Slightly more than 17 percent said the pandemic has moved up their plans to leave within 1 to 2 years. And 5 percent said they would leave the job as soon as possible. Those findings were consistent across leaders in elementary, middle, and high schools.

Some of the reasons the respondents gave as to why they were leaving included:

  • A lack of leadership and support for carrying out their responsibilities in such chaotic conditions
  • Health concerns of their teachers, staff, and students
  • Worries about their health or the health of their spouses, who may have underlying conditions
  • The constantly changing guidelines and policies adding more stress to an already stressful job
  • Worries about liability — will they be held personally responsible if a student or employee gets sick

“There is enough stress running a school every day,” Ernest Logan, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, a national union for principals, said. “What you are starting to see is that people who would have worked until their 60s are saying, ‘You know what, I don’t need this aggravation.’ ”

In its survey of 1,020 principals in mid-August, NASSP also asked what conditions specifically were pushing school leaders to rethink their time in the job. Many cited the chaos of operating their schools in a pandemic amid confusing, often contradictory guidance that is constantly shifting.

The conditions, said one principal, make it “near impossible to plan for the year. Parents and community members are frustrated and blame us for the constant changes being communicated.” Others said the responsibility of making decisions that can put their staff members at risk of illness or death weighs heavily.

Among the many other overwhelming problems engendered by COVID-19, these unprecedented school leadership challenges that the pandemic presents are highly likely to further erode a talent pool that’s already plagued with growing instability. Nearly half of new principals leave their schools after three years. Almost 20 percent leave every year.

And though they may move on to another school, many leave the job entirely, according to recent research on a large set of school leaders in Texas. When principal talent moves on or is lost altogether, it’s a blow to districts and states that invest millions of dollars to prepare and hire new leaders every year.

Such an exodus of experienced principals who carry within themselves so much institutional knowledge and so many important connections, together with the loss of expert mentors for a younger generation of school leaders, is of significant concern.

“Older principals often run district professional development and have spent years building up trust in the community, getting to know parents, students, local power brokers, and others who help with everything from budgets to donations. All of that could disappear when older principals leave in droves,” Logan said. “You can’t regain that,” he said. “It takes a long time to build that up.”

A Practically Impossible Job

To understand the root of the problem, it is necessary to take a closer look at the heavy load our principals are carrying. School leaders are seen as the boss, the administrator, the person in charge. Many principals, including their assistant principals, are consistently supporting their teachers, students, and everyone else in the school community. And during the pandemic, they are often looked to for all of the answers.

It’s a nearly impossible job!

The Center for Creative Leadership, as well as the NASSP, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and other national organizations have found that the demands on school principals have been steadily increasing over the past 15 years. And those studies from these national and international organizations were all completed before the advent of COVID-19.

Aside from dealing with COVID cases, whether they are in person or remote, principals are diligently working to find novel and creative ways to ensure that disadvantaged students will have access to the computer technology and Wi-Fi needed for remote learning.

What’s more, they are working together with staff to provide those students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch with the meals they need to avoid walking around hungry and to feel healthy and nourished enough to learn.

Some of these administrators are responsible for children who live together with multiple families in the same home. Others are chasing down students who aren’t attending remote learning or in-person learning. And some need to deal with new attendance codes, like that of California’s SB98 delineating five distinctions to attendance. According to this code, what worked for the same student for one course is different for another course.

These responsibilities are tacked onto other important duties such as: having multiple meetings (i.e., building admin, district admin, IEP, etc.), completing virtual or in-person walk-throughs to keep abreast with students and teachers, planning for professional learning opportunities so their teachers can stay up to date in these days of constant change during which they need help matching technology tools with pedagogical practices.

As if the statistics that focused on the changing role of principals were not bad enough before COVID, they are probably only getting worse now. Is it any wonder that many principals are now at their breaking point? Or that their mental health is under relentless assault?

Is there Any Hope?

And yet as bleak as the situation may appear, there is ample reason for hope. That hope is predicated upon finding and implementing effective solutions to fortify and embolden the mental health of our school administrators, which must begin immediately. Some ideas to alleviate this growing problem include:

1. Making Mental Health a Priority

Talking about the mental health of our school leaders must not be taboo. It is no cause for humiliation or shame, but rather is a full acknowledgment of their humanity and the severity of the multi-tiered challenges they face.

As a result, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to take actionable steps to help make sure that they get the help they need. As a keen observer of the problem quipped, “If you want to burn your principals out, keep doing what you’re doing. If you want to foster the same type of growth that we say we care about for our students, then we need to make some changes.”

2. Counseling

Provide principals with free, easy access to excellent mental health professionals. Endeavor to find the right match and type of therapy that is best suited for each one.

3. Mindfulness

There is a great deal of research showing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Educate principals as to the benefits and provide training to impart these tools so that school leaders will be empowered to own their self-care.

4. Collective-leader efficacy (CLE)

CLE is the arrangement of leadership teams working together. Guide in helping principals to collaborate and work as a group, whether this is within their school, with others in the district, or online with other principals struggling with the same challenges.

5. Social-Media Communities

Encourage principals to develop healthy social-media relationships such as can be formed on the Principal Life Facebook page, where school leaders are posting, sharing, and supporting one another. These pages can help leaders see that they are not alone, which helps build resilience in dealing with their stress.