Stress is a universal part of superintendents’ jobs, and nearly all cite political issues as one of their biggest stressors, according to a recent survey.
In the survey, conducted in March and April by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, nearly 80 percent of superintendents said the job is “often” or “always” stressful. Of those, about 25 percent said the job is always stressful. Each of the 150 superintendents who responded to the survey said the job is at least “sometimes” stressful.
Superintendents reported high stress levels, regardless of their gender, race, years of experience, and district size, according to the report, but superintendents of color “almost universally said their work was ‘often’ or ‘always’ stressful.”
Kenny Rodrequez, a superintendent in Grandview, Mo., near Kansas City, said the job carries a lot of weight, simply because the work affects so many people. But, most importantly, every piece of the job concerns children’s futures.
“Every single day, we have kids that are counting on us and that’s something you feel,” he said in an interview with EdWeek. “And everything that’s happening in the community is happening or affecting your school, so you’re constantly in a unique situation.”
The survey results come as district leaders continue to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic and social-emotional needs and increased polarization on education issues like social studies curricula and LGBTQ-inclusive materials.
That polarization, often fueled by politicians and activist groups, is likely driving a significant chunk of superintendents’ stress, according to the RAND report. Eighty-eight percent of respondents cited “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” as a source of stress in their job, the highest percentage for the stressors cited. The percentage of superintendents reporting politics as a stressor was highest among leaders in urban districts (98 percent).
The survey did not define the term “political issues” because “we wanted to capture any type of divisive topic that a superintendent and his or her district may face,” the report said.
However, that does leave some ambiguity, as superintendents could have been thinking about national issues that have dominated headlines or more localized examples, the report said.
Rodrequez said political issues at every level affect schools and weigh on the minds of district leaders. When a new president is sworn in, they bring with them a new set of priorities and federal education leaders. Often, that means new guidance for schools to implement, and those processes can be controversial, Rodrequez said.
At the local level, anything from pandemic precautions to LGBTQ+ inclusive books can become political hotbeds, which all demand district leaders’ attention, he added.
“At the end of the day, we have to manage it all and deal with it and have the answers, when really all we want is for kids to feel safe at school, be educated, and be welcomed when they walk through the door,” Rodrequez said. “I have to check my political views at the door and focus on the kids, but all of that does play out in our schools.”
After politics, superintendents most commonly cited educators’ and students’ mental health, staffing shortages, and budget constraints as sources of stress. About 66 percent of district leaders selected at least one of the factors as a stressor.
Early career superintendents (defined in the survey as having one to three years of experience) were more likely to say state accountability requirements were a source of job stress, and were more likely to feel that district goals and expectations are “unattainable.”
Despite the high and frequent stress, more than half of the respondents (59 percent) said their job is worth it, and 50 percent said they’re coping with the stress “well” or “very well.” Just 2 percent said they’re “not coping well at all.”
Superintendents in urban districts (86 percent) were much more likely than district leaders in suburban (58 percent) and rural districts (57 percent) to feel the job is worth the stress and disappointments.
While the survey didn’t ask for more insight about the responses, the researchers hypothesized that urban district leaders may report higher satisfaction because they generally lead the largest districts and receive higher pay. Urban superintendents also “might feel an especially strong sense of mission from serving in historically challenging learning environments that typically serve a large number of children,” the report said.
Despite the stress and demands of the job, Rodrequez said the satisfaction of knowing the work is positively affecting students’ lives makes all of the long days worthwhile.
“That’s why I do what I do and go through all of these things,” he said. “These kids are counting on us to get it right and to make sure that they can move on and be educated and prepared for what’s next, and take a piece of us with them.”