School & District Management

New Survey: How the Pandemic Has Made School Leadership More Stressful

By Denisa R. Superville — January 26, 2022 6 min read
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Just how widely and deeply has stress from the pandemic affected secondary school principals?

A new analysis of data gathered last spring found job-related stress falling most heavily on female principals and those leading high-poverty schools. It also found that worries about social-emotional well-being of staff and students was a top concern for school leaders.

“The results are really striking that 8 in 10 principals [said they were] experiencing job-related stress,” said Ashley Woo, the lead author of the new report from the RAND Corporation brief and an assistant researcher at RAND. “This demonstrates that there needs to be more supports for principals as well as teachers.”

The survey took the pulse of of 1,686 secondary school principals serving grades 6th to 12th grade during March and April 2021. At that time, school districts were offering a range of learning options, with about 57 percent of students attending school in-person, full time; 10 percent fully remote; and the rest using hybrid models, according to RAND.

It found that 83 percent of the secondary school principals surveyed said they experienced “frequent job-related stress” during the last school year.

About 42 percent of principals serving schools with large numbers of students of color said they experienced “constant job-related stress.” In contrast, only 26 percent of their peers in schools with small nonwhite student enrollment reported the same.

That gap remained, albeit a narrower one, between principals in low-poverty and high-poverty schools. Thirty-six percent of principals leading schools with large numbers of students experiencing poverty while 26 percent of those leading wealthier schools reported “constant job-related stress.”

Women were also more likely to report experiencing more stress than their male colleagues. Thirty-six percent of female principals and 38 percent of leaders of color reported “constant job-related stress.” Only about a quarter of male and white principals reported the same.

(RAND defined “frequent job-related stress” as those who selected “often” and “always” in response to questions and “constant job-related stress” as those who selected “always.”)

“This is a systemic issue,” Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said about the experiences of principals of color, those serving low-income schools and schools with high enrollment of students of color, where principal and teacher turnover are high.

The pandemic “just fully exacerbated it,” he said. “This is a call for systemic reform.”

Strain on staff and students puts a strain on principals

Regardless of the type of school they led during the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 percent of the principals surveyed said they had difficulty coping with job-related stress. The biggest trigger for principals was their teachers’ and students’ social-emotional well-being.

Eighty-six percent of principals cited supporting teachers’ mental health and well-being as a source of stress, while 59 ranked it among the top three stressors.

Despite the age of the data, Woo said she sees the results as relevant especially because recent disruptions from the omicron variant of the coronavirus have injected a new level of uncertainty into schooling and forced many schools and districts to shift temporarily to remote learning as staff and students fall ill. Staff shortages are also taking a toll on principals, she said.

“What this really shows is that to also support principals, we need to also support teachers in addressing their sources of job-related stress, alleviating their stress and supporting their mental health and wellness,” Woo said. “And because so many principals are saying that one of their top sources of stress is worrying about their teachers, we think that addressing teacher wellness can not only support teachers but also principals.”

Nozoe said the uncertainty during the current stage of the pandemic is adding additional stress to the job.

“It’s that coming into school and going back out due to COVID, quarantine, and isolation issues,” he said.

He agreed with Woo that addressing staff and student well-being would go a long way toward alleviating stress on school leaders.

“That would be a huge pressure valve to relieve pressure on principals— if we had better and more access to quality mental health services for every, single kid who needs it. Same for teachers,” he said.

Nozoe worries that this level of stress is unsustainable in the long-run. “This is a national emergency…and we need to treat it as such,” he said.

In addition to worrying about teacher and student well-being and mental health, principals felt stressed by pandemic-specific challenges such as switching instructional models from in-person to remote or hybrid; implementing COVID-19 safety measures; staffing challenges; student attendance; and figuring out class schedules.

Remote principals reported being the most stressed

Secondary school principals leading remote schools reported more “constant job-related stress” than their colleagues in full-time, in-person schools and hybrid. They were also more likely to struggle with coping with job-induced stress.

And school leaders who led fully remote schools had a different set of triggers. They were more likely to report as stressors child care for their children, developing class schedules, changing instructional models, and worries about whether teachers had the requisite technology, and the health of family members.

Top stressors for principals who were operating in-person schools were implementing COVID-safety protocols, staffing, and student behavior. Hybrid principals worried more about tracking student attendance and getting materials and resources than their colleagues in remote schools or those who were fully in-person. Job security was a big concern for both in-person and hybrid principals.

While schools serving large numbers of students in poverty were more likely to offer remote schooling in spring 2021, Woo and her colleagues found that even accounting for that and other factors, remote principals still reported experiencing more stress.

That was a bit of a surprise to Woo, given teacher complaints about the difficulty of hybrid schooling—especially in cases where teachers taught both in-person and remote classes—and the fact that principals were affected by teacher stress.

It’s possible, Woo said, that principals’ “at-home responsibilities are crowding out time that they would have to do their work associated with their jobs.”

From mentoring to management supports, here’s what principals need

RAND recommends ramping up mental health and other support for principals’ well being, especially for those who hail from historically marginalized backgrounds or lead schools with large populations of students of color or students affected by poverty.

Mentoring, induction, and other support programs can also alleviate pressure on principals, according to the RAND brief. Allocating financial resources and additional assistance to help principals address staff and student mental health needs can also help.

And providing guidance and assistance to principals to help them manage the operational portions of the job could lift some of the burden, according to RAND. For example, it suggests districts use funds from the American Rescue Plan to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures to eliminate a major source of worry for principals.

Woo also said the survey results offer an opportunity for districts and policymakers to learn more about school leaders’ experiences in order to provide relevant and appropriate support.

“It speaks to the need for districts to collect data around their principals who come from these historically marginalized backgrounds to better understand their particular stressors and, especially, even how their identity characteristics may be playing into the stressors they are experiencing,” Woo said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as New Survey: How the Pandemic Has Made School Leadership More Stressful

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