Donna Hayward, the principal of Haddam Killingworth High School, in Higganum, Conn., spent a portion of her school’s district-allocated COVID relief funds last year to hire a new social worker to help about 85 students dealing with serious depression and anxiety.
With the grant unavailable this year, Hayward no longer has the clinician in the building, and the existing mental health staff is “maxed out.”
“There is no room for one more thing,” Hayward said.
In Dave Steckler’s district in Mandan, N.D., one school leader heading a high-poverty school is replacing staff on a weekly basis.
“Educators are tired,” he said. “It’s affecting teachers, it’s affecting [paraeducators], it’s affecting administration.”
Hayward and Steckler are among the hundreds of principals and assistant principals from across the country who are in Washington this week to meet with federal officials in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to discuss ways to address critical challenges educators are facing.
Among them: the ongoing mental health needs of students and staff; student loan forgiveness; educator pipeline and preparation; and funding for high-need schools and educators who work in them.
This year’s three-day advocacy conference is the first one held jointly by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Principals will get a crash course in advocacy before heading to Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten, the former San Diego superintendent, is expected to meet with the school leaders on Tuesday.
L. Earl Franks, the executive director of the NAESP, said the combined efforts of the two groups help pack a powerful punch.
“Advocacy for principals is not specific to elementary or secondary [schools],” Franks said. “There are many common problems that exist in schools. They share many of the same concerns.”
While there might be some slight differences in emphasis on policy issues—secondary leaders, for example, may be more attuned to career-and-technical education than their peers in elementary schools—“pre-K-12 principals … are all in this together—and that’s supporting the students that they serve,” Franks said.
Steckler, the NAESP president and principal of Red Trail Elementary in North Dakota, agreed.
He plans to share personal stories with legislators, along with solutions. He’ll talk about improving mental health and well-being supports and boosting federal funding for professional development for teachers and principals.
“I think we bring some inclusiveness when we are together,” Steckler said. “Those [elementary] kids move on to middle and high school, and we have to send the same message.”
Focusing on mental health, loan forgiveness, and educator pipelines
Three years into the pandemic, school leaders are hoping that congressional leaders address issues that were mounting long before the health crisis brought them into sharper focus.
Ronn Nozoe, the NASSP CEO, said lawmakers need to hear directly from principals who have “unique experiences and wisdom” in order to make effective policies.
Principals are hoping to get congressional leaders behind a number of pending bills:
- the Loan Forgiveness Act for Educators, which would include early-childhood educators and directors among those who qualify for loan forgiveness and broaden the types of student loans that would be eligible for debt relief;
- the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, which would provide grants to help schools hire additional mental health staff; and
- the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals Act, which would expand principal and teacher-residency programs, broaden the definition of high-needs schools to encompass those experiencing shortages, and boost aid for minority-serving institutions that prepare teachers and leaders from diverse backgrounds.
David Griffith, NAESP’s associate executive director of policy and advocacy, said the advocacy days are instrumental in elevating school-level issues that may not always get the attention they deserve.
Griffith pointed to the early days of the pandemic when the primary focus was on unfinished learning—rightly so, he said. But advocacy from school leaders helped direct attention to an issue that warranted equal focus: mental health and well-being.
The goals are also to get principals to establish relationships with their congressional representatives, so those lawmakers can visit the local schools in the future and rely on their expertise, and to train principals to continue their advocacy on the state and local level.
“The power the principals have [in] coming here and going up to Capitol Hill is making those policies real,” Griffith said. “They are the ones who can provide the details and the specifics of: What is the impact of the teacher shortage in a school? How are we scrambling to make the classrooms recover? What is the impact then on the rest of the school program? How are students coming back to school? What are the social and mental [health] issues they are wrestling with? How does that manifest itself either with discipline or behavioral issues?”
It’s also about “encouraging them [lawmakers] to act and help address and solve these issues,” he said.
Hayward, the Connecticut principal and the 2023 NASSP Principal of the Year, plans to meet with her congressional delegation: Sen. Richard Blumenthal; Sen. Chris Murphy; Rep. John Larson; and Rep. Jahana Hayes. Hayes is a former Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
“I love it,” Hayward said about meeting the former teacher. “I have hope that our folks would listen to us.”
Hayward plans to share the staffing issues she’s experienced and heard from colleagues, including those of competitive bidding among school districts for employees and the secondary trauma that staff members are experiencing as they help students and others cope with loss and grief.
Hayward also plans to introduce the idea of implementing protections for educators who are increasingly coming under attack on social media and in public comments at public meetings.
Some of the language aimed at educators—teachers and principals—is concerning and it is also driving people away from the profession, Hayward said.
Hayward said she’ll consider the trip successful if she left the meetings with a commitment from the legislators to follow up—and there’s an actual follow-up.
“In an ideal world, I leave here already having arranged for follow-up conversations with some of these government officials, who actually then reach out to follow up,” she said. “I’ll take whatever time they’d like to take … to tell the story and advocate for what we need.”
But, she said, schools need money and staff to address many of the challenges they’re facing.
“It’s both things,” she said. “It starts with the funding. We have to be able to afford more, and it can’t come out of the budget for someone else. I can’t hire another clinician at the expense of the English teaching position that I also need. It’s not an either/or; it’s both.”