School & District Management Opinion

We’re Facing a Looming Crisis of Principal Burnout

School leaders are besieged by the pandemic and political battles
By David E. DeMatthews — October 21, 2021 4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of burnt-out leader.
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As an education researcher and professor of education leadership, I frequently ask the principals I work with: “How’s everything going?” Lately, I’ve been getting disheartening responses and sometimes tears. Most principals I talk to tell me they are doing everything they can to support students and teachers. They are proud of the results they are getting under very difficult conditions and they should be. But that’s not all they have to say.

Some have expressed anger at shifting district or state policies, especially when policies do not align with prior decisions or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Others voiced concern for their health or the health of immunocompromised family members. A principal who was also a mother in a state without a mask and vaccine mandate asked me, “What if I bring COVID to my 2-year-old?” She said, “I am in a position where I can be a good parent or a good principal but not both, because of the law.”

Another principal vowed to continue to promote equity-oriented reforms regardless of any backlash but also described how teacher vacancies and absenteeism were disrupting those initiatives. Several principals told me they were upset that their students with disabilities have been underserved during the pandemic. These school leaders are still struggling to provide support to their students. Many principals feel they cannot express their concerns with their supervisors out of fear of reprisals.

I hear that fear, concern, and a sense of powerlessness when these principals speak to me. They are experiencing work and stress overload, which can have serious health implications. The pervasiveness of their mental and physical exhaustion portends a likely wave of principal turnover.

Even before the pandemic, policymakers should have seen the writing on the wall with nearly 20 percent of principals leaving their schools each year. Principals leave for many reasons. And turnover can be healthy, particularly if a struggling principal exits and a district has groomed a promising successor.

But principal turnover also jeopardizes school improvement, fractures school-community relationships, and erases institutional memory. Inclusive and culturally responsive reforms require time, coordination, and sustained leadership efforts to be successful, so historically marginalized student groups are disproportionally harmed by turnover.

The sudden removal or a departure to take a position at another school or district is the kind of turnover that hurts the education community the most. Given the central role they play between districts, classrooms, and communities, principals are integral to their schools. Yet being a principal amid the pandemic and tense partisan policy battles has been harrowing. Many of our nation’s best school leaders will sour on the profession as a result, especially if policymakers do not dial down the rhetoric and protect educators from political attacks.

At this critical moment, when schools are working to keep students safe and continuously learning, many principals are positioned in a “lose-lose” situation.

For one, many principals now work in states with laws that do not align with their values. Principals have a sacred duty—protecting all students and personnel—yet nine states have banned districts from adopting universal mask mandates that could save lives. Principals also value their instructional-leadership role and recognize that inclusive and culturally responsive schools promote academic achievement for all students, but eight states have passed laws that limit how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization, with many other states attempting similar measures.

The working conditions for school leaders, which were already tough before the pandemic, have only gotten worse.

The working conditions for school leaders, which were already tough before the pandemic, have only gotten worse. Many principals have watched the political battles waged in statehouses and school board meetings and concluded that their communities do not respect their health and safety. In August, hundreds of parents attended the Williamson County school board meeting in Tennessee to protest a temporary mask mandate. In Loudon County, Va., a raucous crowd and heated debate on transgender student rights led to dueling parking lot protests. And there are many, many more examples from across the country of rancorous debates over masks, vaccines, and critical race theory.

Some principals have even found themselves physically threatened or under attack by parents and school boards. For example, three men in Arizona were charged with trespassing after threatening to “arrest” an elementary school principal with zip ties in a dispute over COVID-19 rules. Last month, Texas Principal James Whitfield—the first African American principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth area—was initially placed on administrative leave and subsequently nonrenewed by the school board following complaints from community members alleging the “implementation of critical race theory” and “extreme views on race.”

Support starts with elevating principal voices in policy decisions at national, state, and local levels. Support starts with state and district policymakers having empathy for principals and their staffs. Policymakers need to allow this empathy to guide them in dialing down the rhetoric, enacting evidence-based public-health measures, and protecting principals from political attacks from school boards and disgruntled parents.

The good news is that when students succeed, principals experience significant intrinsic rewards. And this helps to balance job-related stress. Unfortunately, among other challenges, the pandemic has significantly stymied student achievement and social and emotional well-being. Increased turnover during the pandemic could prove disastrous for public schools across the nation. Principals need more support immediately.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Looming Crisis of Principal Turnover


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