I sat in the cold conference room with my fellow administrators, and the tears began to fill my eyes. Luckily, we were all masked and spaced apart. Few likely knew I was crying. Leaders aren’t supposed to fall apart, and here I was doing just that. I couldn’t help myself and let the tears drop. Without realizing it, I did one of those ugly sniffles to keep my nose from running. My colleagues asked me if I needed to talk. I mumbled something about being OK and quickly exited the room. By the time I was back in my office, I had figured out how to stuff the feelings back down to the pit of my stomach. I carried on with the work in front of me.
I’ve been suppressing those suffocating feelings of inadequacy since the school year began. My entire career, I have seen my work in education as a calling, more than just a job. I’ve always felt thankful to be an educator. However, this year is the most difficult I have faced in 29 years.
It turns out I am not alone. A recent poll by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and Learning Policy Institute (LPI) revealed that “42% of principals across the country said the pandemic has accelerated their plans to leave the profession.” That’s too many of our school leaders feeling as if there is nowhere to turn but away!
What has happened within the last two years has created more damage to our schools than what COVID did on its own. Yes, COVID-19 forced us to adjust student and teacher schedules. Busing routes were expanded to allow for more spacing on buses. Wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart in line became routine. Delivering hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes to classrooms was standard practice. Contact tracing became a principal’s side hustle as every call from an equally overworked nurse about a possible exposure required a review of a student’s schedule and every seating chart to determine who else might be considered a contact. In addition, schools held vaccine clinics and coordinated testing sites. That all took time, but those tasks eventually became manageable.
But here’s what hasn’t become feasible. We are not only in a COVID pandemic, but we are also struggling to survive in an emotionally devoid epidemic. Grace and forgiveness are scarce. The stresses and mental health of students, teachers, and leaders are high. We can’t rely on routine as there isn’t much of one left, and our hopes about finally returning to a typical school year this year have evaporated. Staff shortages are rampant in many fields, and schools are not alone in being unable to fill vacancies. Teachers are covering classes when substitutes can’t be found and giving up prep time to do so. Students, who have not physically interacted day to day for the better part of 18 months, are now back in school trying to remember the social and academic organizational skills they once had. Understandable worry is pervasive as families deal with the trauma and fallout from the COVID pandemic. Students can’t help but bear that hurt on their backs. Whatever our students carry, our teachers, support staff, and even office staff feel it, too, and carry their equal weight. It’s so much for everyone. Schools are losing in the social media court of public opinion every day.
There are both academic and emotional losses to be overcome in our schools. Meanwhile, an equally significant loss is pending in our schools—loss of people. Teachers are tired, and so are their principals. Empathy and appreciation are missing. Grace, forgiveness, patience, stick-with-it-ness, and a willingness to work together will be what is needed to get all of us through this school year. Should you have the chance to offer grace or support to an educator in your community, I hope you will. You may be surprised by how just a few words of encouragement will make a difference. Everybody needs somebody, sometimes.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Principal Reflects on Two Years Of Loss