Despite the long list of challenges school and district leaders have faced over the past few years, 80 percent say they are satisfied with their job, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.
Since the onset of the pandemic, principals and superintendents have been tasked with not only leading students and staff through unprecedented learning disruptions, but also addressing declines in students’ academic achievement, heightened mental health challenges among both students and staff, an increase in behavioral problems, and, at times, intense scrutiny and criticism from parents on topics ranging from the pandemic response to teaching about race and gender.
Still, the vast majority of district and school leaders who responded to the EdWeek Research Center’s survey between March 29 and April 11, said they’re satisfied with their job, and nearly two-thirds said they’d still advise their younger self to pursue a career in education leadership. Some 277 district leaders and 185 school leaders participated in the survey.
Arthur DiBenedetto, the superintendent in Hopatcong, N.J., said he’s not surprised that so many education leaders are still happy in their roles.
“I believe that people who take the leadership positions understand that it’s going to be filled with valleys and peaks, and I believe that, most often, the idea of working with educators and kids overcomes the circumstances that would lead people to leave the profession,” said DiBenedetto, who participated in the survey.
Kevin McGowan, superintendent of Brighton Central Schools in New York and the 2023 national Superintendent of the Year, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the survey results.
In the past few years, superintendent turnover has increased—from 14.2 percent between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years to 17.1 percent between 2021-22 and 2022-23, according to one study—and it’s possible that those who were the most dissatisfied with their jobs resigned, McGowan said.
“So, perhaps, the people who are continuing to do the work are newer, or were coming at it in a way that left them excited about the future,” he said.
And as more time separates districts from the stressors of the height of the pandemic, there’s more optimism about the future, McGowan said. There’s also plenty of opportunity for innovation as schools work to help students catch up academically, which can counteract the pressure and stress.
“There’s this wide open space to think a little bit differently about the work, and couple that with emerging from a really dark period, I think that folks could feel encouraged by that,” McGowan said. “It can feel good to be back into a new normal, and to see opportunities to grow and work differently with kids and families.”
Seventy percent of respondents said it’s either not at all likely or not too likely that they will leave the education profession in the next two years.
Meanwhile, 24 percent of respondents said they plan to leave their current leadership job in 2023 or 2024. Of those, 41 percent said they plan to retire.
Nearly all respondents said they feel they are respected and seen as a professional by others within their school (93 percent), by students’ parents (90 percent), and by the general public (87 percent).
Those results may seem surprising, as so much media and public attention has focused in recent years on conflicts between community members and school leaders. Though at times they may be the loudest, DiBenedetto said, he feels the detractors are in the minority.
“What happens is that the naysayers are often magnified by social media, because they have a problem and they put it on Facebook or Instagram and it seems like the school is doing a huge, terrible thing,” he said. “But that’s really such a small number of people. The majority actually does respect the school and the majority tends to respect the leadership.”
It’s possible that staff are generally happy within their own communities, but regional and national issues are what’s weighing on morale, added Jon Cerny, superintendent of Nebraska’s Bancroft-Rosalie Public Schools, who participated in the EdWeek Research Center survey.
“Public education has kind of taken a beating in recent years, so if you ask folks how they feel about the direction of education in general on the national level, that’s where some of those negative feelings might come in, but in their own communities, things are going well and people are satisfied,” Cerny said.
The results of EdWeek’s survey were consistent across the board, regardless of school and district leaders’ gender, and whether the schools they oversee have high or low percentages of students eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to an analysis by the EdWeek Research Center.
The only notable exception was that principals and district leaders in rural areas or towns were far less likely than their suburban and urban counterparts to report they plan to leave their current jobs in 2023 or 2024.
Eighteen percent of respondents in rural areas said they plan to leave their positions, compared to 27 percent in suburban districts and 33 percent in urban districts.
Principals’ and superintendents’ high rates of job satisfaction are particularly notable as teachers across the country report high rates of burnout. Last year, the Merrimack College Teacher Survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center found that only about half of teachers reported they are satisfied with their jobs.
The 2023 Voice of the Superintendent Survey, released in February by the education consulting firm EAB, showed that concerns about employee morale and burnout are top-of-mind concerns for district leaders.
“We realized there was a significant impact on kids, but we may have missed the boat a little by not realizing the impact on staff, and that has made the life of the average teacher much more difficult,” DiBenedetto, in New Jersey, said of schools’ pandemic response. “We propped up the kids as best we could, but we probably didn’t do enough for teachers and we’re seeing the results of that now.”
In New York, McGowan said districts can start repairing relationships with and boosting morale for teachers by finding the right balance between strategy and culture.
Administrators should routinely initiate conversations with staff about how they’re feeling and what they need, then actually respond to those needs as best they can, he said.
A supportive school culture and strong, but compassionate, leadership are “really, really important right now,” McGowan said.
“I would suggest being thoughtful and patient around our expectations,” he said. “We want to remain consistently rigorous regarding student performance and giving kids the best that we can each and every day, but we can only do that if we’re creating an environment where teachers feel supported as opposed to managed.”
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