Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

A Good Principal Knows When It’s Time to Leave

How to end this chapter of your career gracefully
By Matthew Ebert — March 26, 2024 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of someone handing off a baton to someone else over a completed puzzle.
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When I left my role as a principal after 10 years, people asked me the same questions over and over.

Burnout? Tired of the kids? Pandemic? Can’t take the district anymore?

The questions made sense, but none of them spoke to my experience. I didn’t leave my job because of exhaustion or frustration. I stepped away from being a school leader because it was in my and my school’s best interest.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

We had built the place that I envisioned. We had created the environment that I wanted for our children and adults. We had turned around, restructured, and reinspired. We pushed through new ideas and strengthened old ones.

There was nothing left for me to do, but there would always be more work to do. For that growth to occur, I had to get out of the way. That was how I could best take care of my colleagues, my students, and myself.

I began feeling like I was ready to leave the year before. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t excited like I had been before. I could have stayed and managed our school, but it would have been management, not leadership. Good leaders know when their work is done. During my professional career, I learned that I enjoy and excel at creating, not the maintenance.

This wasn’t burnout. This was the end of a chapter.

It was important to me to ensure a smooth transition, so I announced my exit to my school team in December. This early announcement allowed our school to have plenty of runway to find its next principal.

I let our team know my what and my why. I reminded them that we were a powerful group. I reminded them that I had always shared that it was in our school’s best interest for each of us to be moving toward our personal goals and that I had reached mine. The school needed someone with a fresh perspective.

Soon after I told the team, I communicated my plan to families and students. This way, everyone had time to adjust to the news. As the principal of a small school, I was very close with kids and families. I knew my announcement would be difficult for many of them.

It was helpful that we could all discuss the upcoming transition while I was still with them. This allowed everyone to understand my reasons and that the school would continue to exist as it always had.

I spent the remainder of the school year being present for my staff and students. I continued my individual staff meetings. I observed classes and gave feedback. I spent time with kids.

What I did not do was get in the way of the hiring team. I promised to onboard the incoming principal when the team had made its decision. It would be easy for me to want to be involved in choosing the new principal, but that wouldn’t have been wise. When people asked my opinion of candidates, I shared that my thoughts didn’t matter and that the hiring team would make the right decision. My upcoming resignation meant that I relinquished authority on our school’s future.

We don’t get to control our legacy.

When the team did hire a new principal, I met with her several times. I shared every document I had. The handbooks. The flyers. The memos.

I told her about what we had built, where we had success, and where we had struggles. I let her know who to go to with questions and that she would be able to depend on the team from the very beginning.

I let her know that they would care for her because that’s what this place does. I answered every question she asked. I gave her everything that she needed to continue to run the school the same way—but assured her that she would create something all her own.

And, then, I left.

Over the subsequent months, I took time to focus on myself and my family. I spent mornings with my kids and took them to school. We went on a family vacation in September. I started a consultancy to support and work alongside school leaders to help them build a culture like the one our team had. And to make their jobs feel less lonely.

I did all the things that I could never have done as a school principal. I focused on the things I was now ready for. The things I now wanted to build. In many ways, how I exited my school community was more important than how I joined. Leaving provided me a new chance to live my values. To show our team that we take care of each other by taking care of ourselves. That wellness and care are paramount to making a lasting impact.

I’ll admit, being away from my school has been hard. I miss the community. I miss the people. However, with a little distance, I get to look back at the work we did and be proud of it. I get to reflect on what our team did together. Thankfully, I still have opportunities to connect with the school.

Recently, one of the principals I’m now coaching was looking for ways to improve schoolwide communication and culture. I connected with my old school to ask if morning meeting, a tradition that I started when I first arrived as a principal, was still occurring and if someone could come observe. They said yes to both. Strong structures outlast their builders.

After I sent my principal client to visit my old school to observe that morning meeting, I asked her if she was surprised by anything that she saw during the meeting. She mentioned that I didn’t tell her about the music at the end of it. It really added a burst of excitement to the start of the day, she told me.

I smiled. Then I thought, “Music at the end of morning meeting? I never would have thought of that.”

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