Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Commentary

How to Combat Principal Churn

By Mary Grassa O'Neill — November 10, 2015 2 min read

Great schools require great principals, and the most effective principals create the right conditions for teachers and students to flourish.

Many principals find joy and satisfaction in their work. But according to the 2014 report “Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover,” by the School Leaders Network, approximately 50 percent of principals leave their jobs after only three years. Why is there such high turnover?

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The job of the principal is increasingly demanding. First and foremost, principals must ensure that the students in their schools are achieving at high levels and becoming kind, compassionate, well-rounded citizens prepared to thrive in an unknown future. Principals are publicly accountable to their teachers, their districts, and their parents. Each day brings with it innovations to implement, limited resources to manage, and crises to navigate.

How can we turn this situation around to get school leaders to love their jobs?

The challenges and rewards of being a principal are many. But we need to reimagine the instructional, managerial, and personal leadership roles that the position entails. We need to prepare principals to lead the kinds of schools we want our children to attend. And we need to provide these school leaders with the career support they need to succeed at their jobs and persist over time.

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Education Week Commentary invited school leaders from across the country to write about their biggest professional challenges and how they manage them. The package also includes audio slideshows, in which each of the four principals discusses what he or she would most like policymakers to know about the job.

This special section is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.

Read more from the package.

For principals to be true instructional leaders, they need to be in classrooms. This is difficult when the role also demands a wide range of managerial tasks that call for immediate attention. But if principals are to be accountable for teaching and learning, they need time for teacher observation and feedback.

We must use principal preparation as the vehicle for attracting and retaining outstanding school leaders with top-notch skills. Professional development must be ongoing, engaging, and transformative. Given the solitary nature of the position, principals need professional networks through which they can engage with fellow practitioners across public, charter, independent, and faith-based schools. Collegiality among leaders offers a rich source of learning and access to the multiple sources of strength and perspective needed to be successful.

Where we have state and federal policies and public-private initiatives that support principal development, we must seek to expand their reach. We can extend partnerships with colleges, universities, and the business community to strengthen professional-development efforts. This can all be accomplished. But we must also raise the funds to make these opportunities accessible.

“Leadership,” Bill Bradley—former U.S. senator, basketball hall-of-famer, and Rhodes Scholar—is quoted as saying, “is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” Principals hold this very key and also shoulder the responsibility. Leadership is a daunting task, but an essential one, well worth the investment it requires.

We can rekindle the joy of being a principal—one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever love.

Ultimately, it’s our nation’s children who will benefit.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as How Do We Keep Good Principals?

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