Principal problems: How stressful is it to be a building leader these days?

'Principals in every state are facing enormous challenges resulting in significant stress with no end in sight,' one K12 leader told researchers

The mounting challenges our principals face are producing some conflicting numbers. In one survey, 94% said they were generally satisfied with being their school’s principal, but in another poll, half of building leaders said their stress level is so high they might just change careers or retire.

Either way, superintendents know the pressures are mounting on their principals. In a third analysis, more than 80% of superintendents said they were concerned about falling morale and burnout among their principals, and two-thirds worried about being able to hire qualified candidates for vacant building leadership positions. About half are doubtful about their ability to retain their principals.

“Principals in every state are facing enormous challenges resulting in significant stress with no end in sight,” Ryan Merriwether, principal of North Junior High School in Evansville, Indiana, noted in the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ most recent survey of school leaders and high school students. “While we love working with students and teachers, our conditions are unsustainable and, if left unaddressed, could result in principal shortages that will be difficult to overcome.”

The same National Center for Education Statistics survey that found widespread job satisfaction also revealed that one-third of principals were less enthusiastic about their jobs than when they were first hired and that a quarter would leave the profession “as soon as possible” for a better-paying job. Principals who participated in the NASSP poll said a better work-life balance, higher salaries and more “societal respect” were the top three things that would prevent them from quitting.

What’s causing the problems for principals?

Political conflict and efforts by parents and others to limit what schools can teach are the leading sources of stress. Principals in many schools said parents have sought to block LGBTQ+ student rights, instruction on race and racism, access to library books and social-emotional learning, according to the “Educating for a Diverse Democracy” report by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

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The situation is most severe in what the report calls politically divided “purple communities.” Political groups, some from outside the targeted districts, have concentrated their efforts on these communities that aren’t strictly liberal or conservative. One organization criticized by many building leaders is Moms for Liberty, an aggressive far-right organization that seeks to ban books, limit the rights of transgender students and stifle instruction on racism.

“At times, principals said that parents and community members employed anti-democratic practices such as spreading misinformation and employing threatening, denigrating, and violent rhetoric,” UCLA’s report says. “A North Carolina principal described these advocates as ‘small clusters of hate.'” This divisiveness is trickling into classrooms. Almost seven in 10 principals reported students making derogatory remarks to liberal or conservative classmates, another problem that is more common in purple communities.

As a consequence, building leaders are struggling to maintain their own mental well-being. A large majority of building leaders felt they needed help with their emotional and mental health, the NASSP survey found. Only a little more than half reported getting the assistance they needed. Just as troubling is that 70% of school leaders said they have been threatened or attacked either physically or verbally. A majority of principals are also worried about online and in-person bullying, drug use, sexual violence between students, gun violence, and attacks from the larger community.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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