School & District Management

Many Principals Say They Want to Quit. Will They?

By Denisa R. Superville — December 08, 2021 3 min read
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Is a principal exodus coming in the next several years?

A new survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals of principals at all levels shows that school leaders are feeling the weight of nearly two years of the pandemic, and that those pressures and other factors are forcing many to think about leaving in the near future.

Among their top reasons: the stress and workload from dealing with COVID-19, staffing shortages, bureaucratic demands from above, and—a newer concern—threats from parents and community members over COVID mitigation measures.

A quarter of principals said they plan to leave in two to three years, according to the survey results released Wednesday, while 33 percent of principals said they plan to exit the profession in four to six years. And among those who said they were considering leaving, 92 percent said the pandemic factored to some degree into their thinking.

On the flip side, nearly 70 percent said that would continue in school leadership until a better opportunity emerged, while nearly 3 in 4 disagreed with the statement that they planned to leave the principalship as soon as they could.

The survey included the responses of 503 school leaders from pre-K through high school, from traditional district, charter, and private schools. It was conducted between Oct. 25 and Nov. 12.

“This survey shows that the principal pipeline is becoming increasingly fractured at all levels, in every region of the country and in all school types,” Gregg Wieczorek, the NASSP president said in a statement.

“Recruiting and retaining school leaders will become even more difficult, if more is not done to support educators in our schools.”

Warning signs from those early in their careers and overall

A cause for concern is the share of new and early-career school leaders who say they may not be in the profession for the long run.

Just over half of new principals—those with four or fewer years on the job—said they did not intend to remain in school leadership until they retired.

Overall, 35 percent of principals responding said they’d leave education as soon possible if they got a higher paying job, with early-career principals, veterans, men, and those working in high schools more likely to agree with that statement.

Thirty-seven percent agreed that the stress and disappointment of being a principal wasn’t worth it, with a higher percentage of those agreeing with that statement coming from principals with four or fewer years on the job. More principals, though, 63 percent, disagreed with that statement.

In a 2020 NASSP survey , 45 percent of principals said school conditions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic were forcing them to push up their retirement plans.

But it’s unclear that many principals have actually followed through. A RAND Education survey of superintendents, released in August 2021, showed that both principal and teacher turnover were on par with previous years.

Coping with pandemic changes

The pandemic has changed the principal’s job, with most reporting that they were working harder and putting in more hours.

And many were worried during the 2021-22 school year—the first in the pandemic when most students were in school for in-person classes—about mask mandates and vaccine requirements.

Teacher shortages and hiring qualified teachers during the pandemic were also big concerns for school leaders, with nearly 70 percent saying they were concerned about both.

The possibility of contracting COVID-19 at school and bringing it home was not a huge source of anxiety for principals. Just 11 percent of those who responded said they were “very worried” about that likelihood.

Principals also had to deal with a new stressor: threats about COVID-19 mitigation measures. (It was the first time the NASSP has included questions about threats educators faced on the job.)

Thirty-four percent of principals said they had received online threats from students’ parents and guardians. Nearly 30 percent also said they they had received threats in person.

About 30 percent said they had received online threats from the community and 26 percent had received such threats in person.

Most principals—81 percent—agreed that they had enough resources from central office to help students.

Principals in regular district schools rather than than in charter schools—41 percent to 22 percent—were more likely to say they didn’t have enough student services staff, such as nurses and school counselors, to help students.

Implementing state and district policies was the most difficult part of the job, followed by working with district administrators, and addressing parents’ concerns and students’ needs. The least stressful thing seemed to be supporting teachers and staff.

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