The move from standout teacher to administrative leader may seem like a no brainer: better pay, a private office, more influence. But not everyone sees it that way.
“Ever since my second year of teaching, people have been talking to me about making the jump to administration. I always find it incredibly flattering,” said John Arthur, the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year who teaches 6th grade at Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City. “But,” he adds, “it makes no sense to me.”
On average, public school principals come to the job with an average of 12.2 years of teaching experience, according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. But fewer teachers may choose to go into administration as they bear witness to the work-related stress affecting school leaders—85 percent of school leaders report frequent job-related stress and 48 percent report burnout, according to a 2022 nationwide RAND survey of 1,540 principals. The RAND survey results show principals’ stress stems primarily from filling open teaching and non-teaching positions, supporting teachers’ and staff’s mental health and well-being as well as students’ academic learning in the face of lost instructional time, and implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Even as the stress of working in a pandemic may be easing, experts suggest the residual fallout may continue to adversely affect the morale of K-12 leaders and, by extension, teachers weighing career moves.
“Especially with the pandemic, people are being a little more thoughtful about what they really want. It may not be money or titles,” said Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, a national non-union professional educators association. “It wouldn’t surprise me if moving into administration roles becomes even less appealing for those educators who have remained in the classroom.”
A recent post on the “Teacher community” section of Reddit validates Sharkey’s suggestion. The post, “Has anyone regretted a move to administration?” was met with some strong responses, including this one: “I have created with my family and friends a special code. According to the code, any mention I make of interest in an admin job translates to ‘please confine me to an insane asylum at once.’”
Why effective teachers stay in the classroom
Like Arthur, 23-year veteran teacher Kareem Neal has been asked plenty of times over the years about considering a move to administration. “Especially when I started winning some big awards, the superintendent of schools tried to convince me to throw my hat in the ring for administrative positions,” said Neal, 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year who works as a special education teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District.
His response to the inquiries? “It’s not really my jam.”
Neal says he can’t imagine working at a school and not interacting with students all day. But if a leadership job would provide him with flexibility to continue routine contact with students and forming relationships with them, it might make him think twice. For instance, Neal runs a social justice club on campus and says that being able to continue that role as an administrator could be enough to convince him to make the switch. But given the demands he sees placed on school leaders, Neal says, he can’t see it happening.
Others agree. Of school administrative positions, AAE’s Sharkey said: “I think it’s more of ‘Let’s hang on and get through it—I can’t find a bus driver, there’s a new variant.’ There’s no time to make the job more appealing.”
Envisioning expanded roles for classroom teachers
Despite being flattered by suggestions that he move into a leadership position, Arthur, the 6th grade teacher, takes a strong stance against persuading effective teachers to become administrators.
“You’re doing a horrible disservice to our children by taking someone who can really impact students’ lives and putting them behind a desk in a central office,” he said. “In the classroom, I feel most effective.”
But that hasn’t stopped Arthur from taking on additional work-related responsibilities outside the classroom. Being awarded 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year came with opportunities to extend his reach, including speaking engagements for the National Association for Multicultural Education, the Utah Education Association, and others. Arthur also has chaired the social justice committee for the Salt Lake Education Association and represented the Asian community on the Utah State Board of Education’s advisory committee on equity.
“The only way to broaden my impact is to serve in different capacities—as an advocate for children and a representative for teachers,” Arthur said. “Once you know better, you have to do better.”
As a classroom teacher, Arthur knows first-hand what could benefit his and other students. But he’s had to get out of his classroom to advocate for them. For instance, as a representative of the Asian community on the Utah State Board of Education’s advisory committee on equity, Arthur helped enact policies that opened opportunities for a broader student body to enroll in highly regarded academic programs, including the International Baccalaureate and advanced placement courses.
“I’d love to see teachers stay in the classroom and have new types of teacher leadership roles created,” Arthur said. “By elevating the profession, it makes everybody around us better.”
Apparently, lots of teachers feel similarly. A 2013 MetLife report found that over half of teachers are at least somewhat interested in combining their classroom duties with other roles in their school or district, and nearly a quarter of teachers are “very interested” in this option. In recent years, states have responded to teachers’ desire to balance their classroom duties with leadership opportunities. As of 2019, 35 states had developed formal teacher leadership policies, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, thereby making it increasingly likely for individual districts to create “teacher leader” pathways.
Then there are those like Neal, who are satisfied with their role as classroom teacher and would like to see others in the profession value it more. Standing seven feet tall, Neal recalls when he first started teaching more than 20 years ago and people would ask him if he was a basketball player.
“I would say, no, I’m a teacher. It would be a big deal. I felt like it was really valued 24 years ago,” Neal said. “Now you’re not hearing that anymore. I wish people would tell you how great it was to be in the classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as Thanks, But No Thanks: Why Teachers Don’t Want to Be Administrators