Principals are the central nervous system of the school body. They are often sandwiched between the rapid changes that their district leaders want to make and the teachers who may not be quite as receptive to them.
It can be a lonely job where few people in your school—and sometimes even your district—empathize with you.
That’s how Adam Clemons felt when he moved to a new principal job at Piedmont High School, in Piedmont, Ala., from a school in Georgia.
“I was in a silo as the only high school principal in my district. There were a lot of issues I had to deal with alone,” Clemons said.
Clemons said these leadership pressures eased when he joined two principal groups, one state-based and one national association of principals. They offer safe spaces for Clemons to bring up problems but also “celebrate” with an extended family. “I am on our high school principals group chat every three weeks,” said Clemons.
In a nationally representative survey conducted by RAND in January 2022, 85 percent of principals indicated they suffered from “job-related stresses,” and a smaller number reported feelings of burnout and symptoms of depression. These pressures seem to have contributed to a small uptick in the principal attrition rate. The RAND survey also indicated that principals felt less resilient against pressures to fix deep-seated problems like teacher shortages and student absenteeism, both of which have extended beyond the pandemic.
Chris Young, a high school principal from Newport, Vt., also turns to a state group, the Vermont Principals Association, to build resilience against recurring problems. Connecting with principals from other schools makes him feel less alone.
“The association holds weekly drop-in meetings for principals. It’s great to connect and validate our work with each other. It’s great to get positive feedback from other principals,” said Young.
On top of like-minded peers, principals follow other daily practices to help them unwind. Clemons enjoys historical books and movies.
“It helps me escape [the present], and transports my mind to another place,” he said.
Young said participating in student activities helps him blow off steam. “I was part of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ school production as a 6-foot munchkin,” said Young.
Starting well is better self-care
Bebi Davis, the vice-principal of the Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu, said she takes little steps to start her day well.
“I dress nice for work. It makes me feel better,” said Davis. Her day ends with cooking or picking vegetables from her yard. It’s important to build a supportive community within the school too, Davis said, of teachers to share a laugh with.
On EdWeek’s social media pages, school leaders shared some additional ideas to improve their attitudes—and the schools they are part of.
“Having great routines to relieve stress is important as well. A great cup of coffee in the morning, taking commute time to get ready for and then decompressing from work, pets, family, mountains, and finding social connections that allow you to shift your focus from education for a minute. Developing yourself with as much effort as you put into developing your school is a good first step.”
“I start my workday with yoga or yoga sculpt with weights before school. It settles my mind and energizes my body for the day ahead so I can arrive for staff and students focused and ready for the day!! No better place to leave it all then on my “mat.”
Shorter meetings, more delegation
Better mental health is also a function of lightening the load on your shoulders. In addition to his comment on self-care, Christensen said: “You have to trust your team to accomplish the work. Distributed leadership helps to decrease the stress of the position while strengthening the school.”
Satindra Deo, a principal from the Pacific nation of Fiji, emphasized how shorter and efficient meetings could help both principals and teachers have less stressful days at school. Deo has it down to the minute: “Meetings shouldn’t be more than 30 minutes. School assemblies, 45 minutes.”
Some principals, though, have given up the pressures of the job altogether.