Monica Asher has unfinished business.
Students are facing pandemic-related mental health challenges. There are academic gaps to close. Teachers are overwhelmed. Political battles from outside are seeping past the front gates and into schools.
“This is such a crucial and critical moment in our society,” said Asher, the principal of Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, about 20 miles north of Columbus. “My biggest thing is that I don’t want to look back at this moment and regret not meeting it.”
The profession is observing National Principals Month at a stressful time for those in that frontline role. About 40 percent of secondary school principals said in a survey this summer that they planned to quit in the next three years and another 14 percent said they intended to do so in the next school year.
Asher isn’t one of them.
“No—in case that was a question,” Asher, an administrator for 14 years, six of them as a high school principal, said emphatically. “This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
But Asher truly gets why her colleagues are stressed out and why the weight of the last three years—an unending pandemic, changing instructional modes, racial discord, and distrust—is leading so many of them to say they’re thinking about packing it in.
“This work is hard; it’s really difficult,” she said. “In recent years, it has become increasingly more difficult. ... Schools do not exist in a vacuum. We are reflections of our communities. So when you see these large divisions in the community, we often get the brunt of that, and have to figure out how to manage.”
My biggest thing is that I don’t want to look back at this moment and regret not meeting it.
Add to that, many administrators were just not prepared for some of the challenges they’re currently facing, and it’s easy to see why many feel they’ve reached their limit, Asher said.
“It is definitely overwhelming,” said Asher. “You often feel like you’re not succeeding. It can be difficult to want to kind of pick up and keep going.”
‘This generation gives me a lot of hope’
The thing is: Many of the factors that are nudging principals towards the exits are the same ones keeping Asher firmly rooted in the principal’s office.
“I see so many kids in crisis,” Asher said, adding that she wants to “provide a space where they can have support, where you can empower their voice, where you teach them how to communicate, how to disagree.”
“This generation gives me a lot of hope,” she continued. “When I see them struggle, I want to help them not struggle because I see so much kindness in them. I see compassion. I see innovation. I see a lot of wonderful things in them.”
Asher wants to be a role model for students, in general, at a time when national leaders don’t always offer the best examples, she said. But she also wants to be a beacon for girls, in particular, who don’t often see women in the secondary school principal’s office. (Although the number of female high school principals has been increasing, only 54 percent were female in the 2017-18 school year, according to federal data.)
Focusing on staff’s, students’, and families’ needs
Asher joined the Olentangy, Ohio, district this summer as Orange High School’s principal, having spent the last six years leading Chagrin Falls High School, just outside of Cleveland.
She started her education career as a teacher in Las Vegas, before moving back to Ohio for graduate school. Though sports played a big role in shaping her outlook as a student, her first school leadership job—as an athletic director—was not the right fit.
“I hated that job,” Asher said. But once she made the move to an assistant principal position, Asher knew that she’d found a home.
In her new position, she’s taking time to learn about the school community and its needs before barreling ahead with grand plans.
But one area she’s already focused on is strengthening the school’s MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) to ensure that students and families do not to fall through the cracks when they are facing difficult times.
This generation gives me a lot of hope. I see compassion. I see innovation. I see a lot of wonderful things in them.
The societal and political divisions of the last few years have made school-community partnerships more difficult even as the need for those bonds became more apparent, she said.
“What has been interesting in the last couple of years is that parents have definitely been more open about when they are struggling, and they’ll call and want to know what they should be doing to help their kids,” Asher said. “Because kids don’t come with manuals, and parents are learning this like we are. I think that school systems can figure out a better way to provide wraparound services for families.”
Principals should heed their emotional limits
Asher is not staying solely for the students, but also for the teachers who are their trusty guides.
At Chagrin Falls, she worked with staff to ensure that teachers were able to recognize and address secondary trauma in themselves.
“When you are with people all day long who are in crisis, it’s hard to take care of your own mental health,” Asher said.
The job can extract a heavy toll, and she urged principals and teachers to know their emotional, physical, and mental bandwidths and prioritize their well-being. Networks and mentors can help principals find the right balance, she said.
While a significant percentage of principals have been saying they’ll quit throughout the pandemic, many are not following through. That means that there are lots of stressed out and overworked principals continuing to lead the nation’s public schools.
“I’ve had to really work with myself and my staff about understanding boundaries with empathy and compassion, so that they aren’t impacted to the point where they also need that support,” Asher said. “Because if somebody is struggling, and you are so involved in that struggle, and you begin to struggle as well, then we are saving two people instead of one.”
As someone who has put a lot of pressure on herself to hide her weaknesses and imperfections, Asher said she’s been intentional about showing a “human side” of herself to staff and students to let them know that everyone goes through hard times and it’s OK to seek assistance.
“I have to model that, and I’ve gotten much better at being OK with having moments when I am not OK,” she said.
Still, Asher said, she’s never had illusions that school leadership was going to be without hurdles.
“If you have a meaningful pursuit in life, if you have something that you believe in, it’s never going to be easy, and that’s just the way that it is,” she said. “We change the trajectory of a child’s life. That’s an awesome responsibility. But the idea that you have the ability to help make somebody’s life better than it would have been if you weren’t there is incredibly rewarding.”