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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

We Should Be Concerned About the Mental Health of Principals

By Peter DeWitt — August 22, 2020 7 min read
Illustration of a figure under duress.
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The other day I was working remotely with some school principals and their administrative teams that I coach. Their faces showed the stress they feel. Some of the principals were in tears during our conversation, and many spoke to how tired they feel due to all of the present pressures of the job on top of the ones that they have been experiencing for years.

Keep in mind it’s only the second week of school.

The debate over going back to school or not is palpable and politically charged. Those in favor of going back to school in person argue that parents need to get back to work, students need social interaction with their peers, and everyone needs to get back to a schedule that will bring some sense of normalcy. Others believe that students should remain remote, because we are only in the second phase of COVID, and outbreaks abound.

The truth is either decision, to go back to school or to remain remote, isn’t a day in the park. If COVID is not enough on the plates of leaders, teachers, families, and students, there are states like California where wildfires are forcing evacuations of people, who are also dealing with extreme heat, power outages, and dangerous air quality. Other states like Iowa are dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes where homes and schools have been ravaged, and the south and southwest are under constant hurricane threats and storms that also cause evacuations.

When hearing about all of the issues, and reading all of the social-media posts, there are a lot of resources for teachers who are bending under the weight of the stress of teaching remotely or those who are charged with keeping students 6 feet apart (or 2 meters for our international colleagues) in-person. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many resources out there for school leaders, and the absence of mental health resources just for them are a sign of the unconscious messages that leaders hear, which is, “Do your job. Don’t complain.”

The Job

School leaders are seen as the boss, the administrator, the person in charge. Many school leaders, including their assistant principals are consistently offering support to their teachers, students, and the rest of the school community. During this time of COVID, they are often looked to for all of the answers, and it’s nearly an impossible job.

The Center for Creative Leadership, as well as the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and other national organizations have found that there have been consistently increasing demands put on school principals over the last 15 years. And those studies from these national and international organizations were all completed prior to COVID-19.

As we have heard over and over again, these are unprecedented times. Master schedules change, regardless of whether students are remote or in person are taking place, because of changes to the number of COVID cases in their schools that force them to go back to remote learning or the guidance of state education departments that put out policies and regulations while they balance between educating students and walking the political fine line.

Besides the fact that principals are dealing with COVID cases, regardless of whether they are in person or remote, they are trying to find new and creative ways to make sure disadvantaged students are getting access to technology and the Wi-Fi needed to learn remotely. Additionally, they are working with staff to make sure students who qualify for free and reduced -price lunch are still getting the meals they need in order to feel healthy enough to learn.

Leaders have students in their care who have multiple families in the same home, are chasing down students who have not signed online for remote learning or shown up for in-person learning, and in doing that, they are dealing with new attendance codes, like that of California’s SB98 that has five distinctions to attendance, and the code that worked for a student in one class may need to be changed due to how the same student logged on in their next course.

At the same time, they are completing all of these important duties: They are having multiple meetings (i.e., building admin, district admin, IEP, etc.), completing virtual or in-person walk-throughs to check in on students and teachers, and planning for professional learning opportunities so their teachers can keep up during these constantly changing times in which they need help matching technology tools with pedagogical practices.

Unfortunately, many principals are now at their breaking point. And the statistics focusing on the changing role of principal were not supportive prior to COVID, and they are probably only getting worse now.

The Statistics

In the United States, 42 percent of principals indicated they were considering leaving their position (NASSP, EPI). According to the Learning Policy Institute, “Nationally, the average tenure of a principal is about four years, and nearly one in five principals, approximately 18 percent, turn over annually. Often the schools that need the most capable principals, those serving students from low-income families, have even greater principal turnover.”

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey shows that, “1 in 3 school principals are in serious distress and 1 in 3 principals have actually been exposed to physical violence.”

The Center for Creative Leadership found that, “Eighty-eight percent of leaders report that work is a primary source of stress in their lives and that having a leadership role increases the level of stress. More than 60 percent of surveyed leaders cite their organizations as failing to provide them with the tools they need to manage stress.”

Queen and Schumacher (Principal Magazine) found that, “As many as 75 percent of principals experience stress-related symptoms that include fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, irritability, heartburn, headache, trouble sleeping, sexual dysfunction, and depression.”

Additionally, Van der Merwe et. al (2011) found that, “school principals experience high levels of stress that hamper their self-efficacy and inhibit their executive control capacities.”

What Can We Do?

I worry about the stress and mental health of school leaders. This is not to say we should worry less about the mental health of teachers. There are countless resources and organizations that focus on helping teachers. The principalship is a demanding job right now due to the pandemic, and it sometimes seems to be nearly an impossible one. And yet knowing that, there are thousands of principals who not only show up to school every day, they put everyone else before themselves. Given all of that, principals have fewer resources when it comes to dealing with their own mental health.

It’s important for leaders to try to alleviate the stress by taking some of the following actions:

Work together as a team of leaders - Lately, I have been completing research focusing on collective-leader efficacy. Collective-leader efficacy (CLE) takes place when the leadership team works together, understands the complexities of working as a group, and has confidence in each other’s ability to improve learning conditions for students (DeWitt. 2020). In other words, “many hands make light work.” Don’t go it alone.

Social-Media Communities - I have always found comfort in healthy social-media relationships. Lately, I have been gravitating to the Principal Life Facebook page. School leaders are posting, sharing, and supporting one another. These pages can help leaders see that they are not alone.

Counseling - Seek help from a professional. Find a good match, meaning someone who fits your style of listening and offers suggestions for improvement.

Mindfulness - I wrote about this a couple of years ago here, because I deal with anxiety and stress and found that mindfulness was a way to try to calm my thoughts. What began as 10 minutes a day of practice transferred into other parts of my day that I found stressful. There is a great deal of research showing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.

Friends/Family - Plan some nights away to have dinner (outside, with masks from a social distance, of course) with friends and or family. If your family and friends aren’t in the education profession, that may be better because you can engage in conversations other than education.

Exercise - Walk, run/jog, or ride your bike. Get outside to breathe. Read here for more benefits about the benefits of exercise during COVID.

What districts can do:

Job Duties - Researchers (i.e. Leithwood) found that the job duties of leaders can make or break them in their position. Stop piling work on top of leaders and start looking at what can take the backseat right now.

Decisionmaking power - Leithwood also found that leaders with increased decisionmaking power felt that they had more agency in the job and felt less like they were stuck in the middle of teachers and the district office.

Make mental health a priority - We must not be embarrassed to talk about the mental health of leaders, nor should we be ashamed to take actionable steps to help make sure that they get the help they need. As I told a district once, “If you want to burn your principals out, keep doing what you’re doing. If you want to foster the same type of growth that we say we care about for our students, then we need to make some changes.”

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.