School & District Management

Citing Safety and Challenges Serving Marginalized Students, Principals Eye the Exit Door

By Denisa R. Superville — August 16, 2022 4 min read
Woman standing in front of exit door.
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Stressful working conditions—including staff shortages and threats to students’ and educators’ safety and well-being—are prompting secondary school leaders to think about leaving the job.

Nearly 40 percent said in a survey released today by the National Association of Secondary School Principals that they planned to quit in the next three years, with 14 percent saying they intended to do so in the next year.

There have been projections of a mass educator exodus, including among teachers and superintendents as well as principals, since the pandemic started. But those exits are yet to materialize—even as other industries see an increase in resignations and job-switching.

Still, Ronn Nozoe, the chief executive officer of the NASSP, said the nation should be bracing for some school leaders to exit. But it should also be concerned about the underlying working conditions that are causing principals stress and leading them to consider quitting.

Seventy-three percent of school leaders said in the survey that staffing shortages were a problem at their schools last school year, and 27 percent were spending between three to five hours a week on tasks unrelated to their jobs, such as doing custodial duties or driving the school bus.

Some of those conditions predated the pandemic, Nozoe said.

“We’ve contemplated these staffing shortages at the teacher and principal level for years now, decades now,” he said. “The writing is on the wall; it’s just a matter of when, not if.”

Not meeting all students’ needs

The annual survey to check the pulse of school leaders included students’ input for the first time. The results are chock full of insights into the challenges of being a student and school leader during the pandemic and a period of rapid social and political change. But they also capture why principals and students show up to school every day.

One eye-popping revelation was school leaders’ frankness about their inability to meet those students’ needs.

Just 26 percent of school leaders answered “strongly agree” to whether they were meeting the needs of non-native English speakers. For other categories of students, the figures were slightly higher—28 percent for LGBTQ students, 37 percent for students from low-income households, and nearly 40 percent for students of color. But overall the numbers remained low.

Those answers were “painful,” but not surprising, Nozoe said.

The gaps between the needs of historically underserved students and the resources needed to assist them were present before the pandemic, he said. But the health crisis caused by the pandemic and increasingly polarized politics have exacerbated the challenges.

“No profession would say that ‘I don’t believe that I am meeting the needs of kids,’ knowing that it’s going to look bad,” he said. “But [school leaders] are saying it because they are concerned about the kids they serve.”

Shared safety concerns

School safety and the mental health and well-being of both school leaders and students also figured prominently in the survey results, with the majority of both school leaders and students saying they’d been subjected to verbal and physical threats last school year.

Schools have become the major staging grounds for political fights—from debates about masking and other pandemic safety protocols, to the supposed presence of critical race theory in the classroom and about how to teach about America’s racist past and present.

Just a little more than half of students and 70 percent of school leaders said they had experienced verbal threats or attacks last school year. And 47 percent of school leaders said they had been verbally attacked in person, while 42 percent said they had been attacked online.
(A recent EdWeek Research Center survey also found that more than 4 in 10 teachers said they’d been physically assaulted or attacked by parents or students in the past year.)

And school leaders say that student behavior has worsened during the pandemic—echoing a federal survey of principals this spring.

More than half of school leaders said student behavior had gotten worse during the pandemic, and they expressed major concerns about bullying and drug use among students.

The toll of the pandemic, both mental and social, continues to weigh heavily on school leaders and students.

Nearly 3 in 4 school leaders and students said they needed mental or emotional support last year, and 67 percent of school leaders and 53 percent of students who sought help were able to get it.

Principals still like their jobs

With all those challenges, how do school leaders rate their jobs? Quite well, actually.

Job satisfaction is still high, with many saying they had the resources to do their jobs. Eighty-eight percent said they’re satisfied with being a school leader. Only 12 percent disagreed.

“What they love about their work is giving every kid what they need so they can be successful—getting every educator, every teacher, and every staff member on the campus what they need so that they can be successful,” Nozoe said. “Any dynamic that gets in the way of that—that interrupts it or prevents it—causes additional stress. That’s why you see it manifested [as] ‘My job satisfaction is high, but I am really stressed out.’”

School leaders are stressed “because they know it’s going to be increasingly harder to meet the needs of kids who were already struggling before [the pandemic] and are struggling even more, especially the underrepresented and disproportionately affected groups,” he said. “That’s why principals exist: to make sure every kid gets what they need.”

The survey of 1,000 high school and middle school principals; school leaders, which include assistant principals and vice principals; and 1,008 high school students—a nationally representative sample—was conducted online between June 5 and June 23.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as Citing Safety and Challenges Serving Marginalized Students, Principals Eye the Exit Door

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