Principals warn they are burned out as demands shift during two years of crisis

'Principals have hit a breaking point,' new report warns. 'There’s not a feel of community anymore'
By: | December 17, 2021
Some principals say academic achievement and equity initiatives have taken a backseat to enforcing COVID rules over the last two years.(AdobeStock)Some principals say academic achievement and equity initiatives have taken a backseat to enforcing COVID rules over the last two years. (AdobeStock)

Add community-wide crisis management and communicating regularly over social media to the long list of new priorities that are leaving principals burned out after two years of crisis.

“Frontline services” such as contact tracing and COVID-19 mitigation and providing social-emotional learning have taken precedence over equity, cultural responsiveness, school improvement and other pre-COVID priorities, according to an “Evolution of the Principalship” research brief released this week by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Unless principals get more support and more resources, there could be a wave of resignations and leadership shortages as schools grapple with the ongoing pandemic and national reckoning with racial injustice, warns L. Earl Franks, the association’s executive director.

“This important research echoes what we’ve been hearing from our members from across the country for months: Principals don’t have the necessary training, capacity, nor support to handle these new priorities,” Franks says. “Principals have hit a breaking point.”

The principals surveyed reported working about the same number of hours per week—an average of 60.5—as they did prior to COVID but said the nature of their work had shifted in several key ways:

  1. They spent more time contending with COVID-related demands, such as contact tracing, covering classrooms for quarantined teachers and enforcing mask rules and social distancing.
  2. They spent more time learning to communicate with families digitally, via websites, email and social media when in-person meetings were untenable.
  3. They spent less time focused on instructional improvement, staff professional development, equity and cultural responsiveness.
  4. Work boundaries blurred between home and school as principals worked online from home for long periods of time and spent more time at night on e-mail, social media and phone calls that replaced in-school interactions. Principals often felt urgently needed for logistical and emotional support at all hours.
  5. Principals also reported moving from one urgent task to another “like a smokejumper at a forest fire,” leading many to feel burnt out and exhausted.

What principals want, what they worry about

Of course, the roles of principals have evolved constantly over the last several decades. Rather than giving in, they are asking for opportunities to learn to improve their capacity to:

  1. Provide social-emotional support for teachers, families, and students experiencing trauma.
  2. Manage stress and engage in self-care under conditions of uncertainty.
  3. Work with community members and government agencies on crisis management.
  4. Build school and community partnerships based on trust, understanding, and mutual support.
  5. Use social media to effectively and proactively communicate, particularly across multiple platforms.

But the report found that the increased demands in principals may only grow in the coming months. Some in the survey worried that community members, legislators, and central office administrators will have unreasonable expectations for how quickly students can recover from lost learning. Other principals said they intend to revisit and revise equity and inclusion policies after the pandemic exposed disparities in the services and instruction provided to students.

More from DA: ‘Mass exodus’—COVID, politics may spark wave of principals quitting

The study also found a drop in interest among teacher leaders and others in pursuing principals’ jobs.

“I had a few teacher-leaders say [to me] before the pandemic, ‘Wow, I want to get into the pipeline and do what you all are doing,'” one principal told the researchers. “[Now] they’re like, ‘Wow, I do not want to do what you’re doing. Let’s see what other job I can find. Something has to be out there.’”

Finally, principals also lamented how school decision-making had become deeply politicized over the last two years. Many felt they had to use social media to correct misinformation and mediate conflicts that affected their schools.

“I think the biggest challenge for me in leading this school this year has been relationships, and how divided opinion seems to be,” one principal said. “There’s not a feeling of community anymore or a sense that ‘I can disagree with you but I can accept [a decision] for the greater good and we’ll go down this path.’”