Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

‘I Was Ready to Walk Away’: The Silent Scream of School Leaders

Leaders feel crushed and are in need of care
By NaTasha Woody-Wideman — March 14, 2023 4 min read
Conceptual image of a leader lost in thought.
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In my 16 years in education, I can tell you that the job is not always a walk in the park. Sometimes, it can be a barefoot walk on a sharp tightrope. Education is hard. Serving kids is hard. Being open to scrutiny is hard. This is the angst that weighs on the shoulders of educators, but this weight is unfathomably heavier for school leaders. When leading a school, we manage families, politics, the mental and emotional status of students, and the socio-emotional needs of staff in the building. It can be daunting and overwhelming on a good day.

I want to warn you, this is in no way a “think piece” that is going to provide step-by-step tools to manage this condition. I have no answers or magic pill as I’m a leader that raggedly attempts to piece together my well-being daily. This is written to provide a peek into the concerns I hear from my fellow school leaders navigating the maze of this once-noble profession:

“I opened my inbox to 565 emails (from two days) and burst into tears.” School leaders answer to everyone and are expected to do so perfectly and immediately. The emails never cease. The knocks on the door don’t stop. The phones ring. Leaders answer to the board, parents, staff, students, and the larger community. There is literally pressure from all directions and no manageable way to deal with all the constant tugs.

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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.

“I was ready to walk away. It isn’t even worth it anymore.” Unrealistic workloads and accountability measures have school leaders running for the hills at an alarming rate. Remember when the principal of a school was able to serve an entire family of kids throughout the years? No more. The national average tenure of school leaders is about four years. That’s hardly long enough to engage in consistent school improvement efforts but long enough to make a leader feel like the effort, 70-hour work weeks, and the accompanying stress aren’t worth it, especially when the salary doesn’t align with the work.

If you don’t believe me, Salary.com estimates that the average school principal salary nationally is $114,835. This places the average hourly rate of a principal at roughly 80 dollars for an eight-hour day. That may sound pretty good, until you start factoring in all the after-school meetings, Saturday hiring fairs, fine arts programs, athletic events, PTA meetings, overnight school field trips, and additional summer work. What about the evening and weekend emails that must be responded to right then or the emergency meetings with the school board? Not compensated. If you’re a numbers person, this is a no-brainer, as leaders aim to improve the quality of our lives by any means necessary, including leaving the field we love altogether.

“I was tired of ungrateful parents, lazy teachers, the mental gymnastics required to navigate politics. ...” School leaders are expected to be superheroes and on the front lines at all times. Many stakeholder groups depend on the action and reactions of the school leader, and that amount of accountability can be daunting and crushing to both mental and physical health. (Trust me, I know.) Leaders have to reassure parents and community stakeholders during a time when they just don’t trust the schools. They also must focus on providing intentional focus on support or replacement of staff who simply aren’t cutting it. All this must be done while making it look easy and seamless. How is a real-life human expected to keep up with these demands?

“My vision was clouded with the very loud clanging cymbals that were the few disgruntled parents that couldn’t control me, the staff members that didn’t earn their paychecks, the board members that had already checked out. ...” As leaders, we are never trained to deal with the outright disrespect and disregard of those we vow to serve. How do leaders manage when parents, students, or even staff fire off obscenities mere inches from our faces? What do we say to our spouses and children when we can’t make it home because the job is calling? How can we truly care for ourselves amid the chaos? How are we to set and model the vision of the district and school when we encounter so many detractors?

More importantly, how do we manage whole schools and then return home to be parents, caregivers, spouses, partners who are emotionally safe and whole people? These questions go unanswered for the vast majority of school leaders.

It isn’t as simple as asking people to give leaders a break. We signed up for the job knowing that would never happen. It also isn’t even as easy as asking for higher compensation, which is far less than what folks expect and what school leaders deserve. As one leader I know said, “District leadership might show us empathy, but we really need care.”

Leaders need care. This includes (but is not limited to) built-in mental health absences, increased pay, dedicated mental health staffing, and professional learning for the district leaders who are supposed to support these leaders. We deserve it—and the schools that we serve deserve cared-for leaders. What district leaders and external stakeholders don’t quite understand is that a leader’s tenure has a direct impact on school success.

It has to happen! There has to be a real focus on managing the needs and expectations of those in the trenches. We need work at both the district and national levels to offer leaders care and not just empathy. We have individuals in place at the national level who are brilliant enough to address our screams. We as leaders serve those with the most, as well as those with the least. Who will serve us? Without an overhaul in how school leaders are prepared, regarded, and supported, the leaders might hurt, but it is our children who will hurt the most.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Silent Scream of School Leaders

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