At last year’s conference of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, in Dublin, I was surprised to find myself still awake at 3 a.m., as more than 300 of the 1,200 attendees socialized in the hotel lounge, drinking Guinness, chatting, laughing, singing, and enjoying themselves. At principals’ conferences in the United States, I’ve never known anywhere near a quarter of the attendees to be up so late—or to sing. Clearly, Irish principals are different. Does this mean that they’re happy and healthy? Alas, no.
I had discovered this earlier that day when Australian researcher Philip Riley presented a survey on Irish principals’ well-being. The survey collected responses from more than 800 principals and assistant principals. The grim results—which matched those of nearly 4,000 school leaders in Australia whom Riley had previously studied—cast into bold relief similar issues for their American counterparts.
The Irish principals scored very low on all positive measures of well-being (health, happiness, mental health, coping, relationships, and self-worth), and very high on all negative measures (burnout, sleep troubles, depression, and stress). Roughly half work at least 56 hours per week; many average 66. During vacations, most work more than 25 hours per week. Compared to the general population, they experience much more frequent bullying, threats of violence, and actual violence.
I was struck by how accurately most of this would fit American principals. But it got worse. To nods of recognition throughout the hall, Riley explained that these high stress levels would likely cause the principals to produce damagingly high amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which inhibits healthy sleep patterns and rapid recovery after a difficult day. Then he added, “Stress indicators this high are also associated with a shortened life span.” Everything went quiet. Dead quiet. We were all stunned.
I thought of all the gallows humor, the this-job-is-killing-me stories and jokes I hear in the sessions and hallways where American principals gather. Suddenly, these didn’t seem like just hyperbole. I thought of the 2012 MetLife Foundation survey of U.S. principals, in which 75 percent of the respondents said the job had become too complex, and nearly 50 percent said they felt great stress.
I also thought of my conversations with retired principals, most of whom say: My blood pressure’s down; I’m sleeping better; I’m exercising more; I’m spending more time with my spouse. They sometimes miss school, especially the students, but there’s much they don’t miss, and their well-being has improved. When they look back, many say that, over their careers, the major change in education—or more precisely, the major consequence of changes in education—was the declining quality of their lives.
For both the Irish and the Australian principals in Riley’s surveys, just as for their American peers, the key stressor is “the sheer quantity of work, closely followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning.” (Only 42 percent of U.S. principals told MetLife they had significant influence over curriculum and instruction.)
In his address at the 2014 conference, Seán Cottrell, the CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, bluntly identified “the initiative fatigue that is draining morale from teachers and principals” as the biggest threat to educational quality. “If a principal treated staff in this way,” he added, “it could justifiably be called bullying.”
Ireland’s economy and its schools’ budgets have been hit harder than ours. But for far too many U.S. principals, things are bleak. Initiative fatigue is ubiquitous. Even assuming good intentions on the part of the critics, policymakers, and politicians who have subjected our schools to relentless increases in expectations, regulation, and testing, the effect of these pressures—accompanied, as they are, by blame and threat—does verge on bullying. No wonder so many principals have been retiring early; no wonder the applicant pools for their positions are dwindling.
Here’s a questionnaire I now ask audiences of principals. Score yourself from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree):
If we truly wanted to attract, retain, and support the best and brightest principals, we would focus on making their jobs more doable.
1. I generally sleep soundly.
2. I spend enough time with family and friends.
3. I’m not worried about my health.
4. I don’t feel guilty about missing school for my own professional growth.
5. I take my full vacation and don’t work during it.
6. Most weeks I receive at least one professional compliment.
7. Someone above me cares about my development.
8. Each day I get to do what I’m best at and care most about.
The best score is 8—the worst, 40. As I ask the questions, uneasy laughter builds. As people total their results, which tend to cluster in the 30s, the room grows quiet. Invariably, some principals won’t reveal their scores.
Needless to say, this questionnaire is not scientific. Its purpose is to dramatize a point: The pressures and expectations placed on principals are increasingly untenable. If we truly wanted to attract, retain, and support the best and brightest principals, we would focus on making their jobs more doable.
In this regard, the last two items in my questionnaire have a specific source. As Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, has reported in these pages, voluminous research shows that the two key elements for success in work and life are “having someone who cares about your development and having an opportunity to do what you do best every day.”
This is especially true, he argues, for students and teachers—and, I would add, for principals. Rather than concentrate on correcting weaknesses, Busteed says, “the most successful people focus primarily on building on what they’re naturally good at and turning those talents into strengths.”
This finding appears repeatedly in the management literature—and is just as repeatedly ignored by policymakers and regulators, who continue to foster initiative fatigue, fixate on deficits in schools’ performance, dismiss the crucial impact of negative out-of-school influences on students, and make even the principals of high-performing schools feel like targets.
If, as seems likely, these trends continue, principals will need all the stress relief they can get. Sadly, they seem to be availing themselves of this less. State associations of principals and other professional organizations report that attendance at their conferences is declining. Principals feel too harried to take time away, to devote themselves to precisely what they need: renewal.
Stress is almost always intensified by isolation, and almost always reduced by connection and support. This is especially true when one has little control over the sources of stress. Connection and support are not just niceties: They are life-sustaining and competence-enhancing.
In Dublin, the Guinness, the socializing, and the singing weren’t responses to Riley’s findings, but they certainly made sense in light of those findings. So long as American principals remain under siege, they would do well to get their Irish on.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Principals, Get Your Irish On