The Pressures and Pains of Principalship

As a former administrator, I recall the long days and weeks to make the urban school experience meaningful to my students.  My workday began at 7 a.m. and I didn’t leave until 5:20 p.m.  Then I would work from home for another 3-4 hours.  Oh don’t let there be a game, meeting, or other after school activities.  Did I mention Saturday mornings from 4am-9am so I can still be a father to my own daughters.  
The wild thing about it is that I am not complaining.  I loved it.  In fact, one day I will run my own boarding school. But that is for a later conversation.
As a principal, I enjoyed serving as the school’s ambassador. As the ambassador the principal has to support and lead all stakeholders: students, parents, partners, district level leaders, teachers, counselors, and so on.  Supporting and leading these stakeholders required an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and paperwork.  Principals, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2008, typically work 10 hour days and 8 hours per week on school related activities that occurred in the evenings.   
Susanna Loeb shows that principals spend 53% of their time on administrative tasks.  And only 11% of their day is on day-to-day instruction.  This has to change.  But what she documents is what many school administrators already know and experience.  Not to mention that high needs schools face even greater challenges requiring even more time, energy, paperwork.  
In the Accountability Age, a good thing in my opinion, paperwork, stakeholder concerns, test scores, changes in special education are not going to change.  But this very same thing leads to teacher and principal burnout.  Principals are leaving at high rates. A 2003 article stated that Georgia principal attrition rates were at 15.2% annually.  
Just like a cruise liner, a school does not turn on a dime.  So principal attrition shortchanges a school improvement program.  School improvement requires quality administration.  A quality principal does the following and more:  1) communicates and supports the school’s vision and 2) provides effective management of the school to ensure that a school environment is conducive to student learning. (2008, The Council of Chief State School Officers)   Completing this work is more than a notion and can be overwhelming.  To do it right, one has to eat, sleep, and drink school.  Whether successful or not, the work can burn a person out consequently increasing attrition.  Principal turnover or overworked administrators can render management ineffective thereby reducing the impact of quality practices’ on student outcomes. 
So What Contributes to Principal Attrition and Burnout!
Outside of salary, the top 4 reasons for principal dissatisfaction include: ambassadorship, time, abundance of paperwork, and challenging students.

1.  Ambassadorship 

Ambassadorship means I have to be everything to everyone.  The administrator has to be a situational leader that focuses on student safety and achievement while balancing everyone else’s sometimes competing needs, wants, etc. all while not alienating any one person.  We will delve deeper into what being a situational leader requires but suffice it to say it ain’t easy.  Unlike any other industry, all aspects of our business are humans.  Think about it our product is several hundred different complex changing humans; our machinery is also overworked and outnumbered humans; parents are our customers; and finally middle management is also humans.  Between and within each group there are any number of needs that have to be addressed to create an environment conducive for student learning.  

2.  Time (or the lack thereof) 

I am quite sure you have heard the saying so much to do and so little time.  Although all the other problems include time issues, I think it is worth addressing as its own entity. If we don’t master time, then we are slaves to everything and everyone.  With everything and everyone pulling on you, it is easy to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  The pressure of having a maximum of 180 days to take children who could be one to three grade levels behind is in itself overwhelming.  Those same children may be facing other issues like hunger, neglect, etc. that prevent learning from occurring.  With this in mind now let’s discuss meetings, hall duty, addressing disruptive behavior, involving parents as partners in learning, emergency drills, classroom observations, professional learning communities, and more. 
Leading and Learning

3.  The Paperwork Tiger

The abundance of paperwork, emails, and the bureaucracy it represents can steal days from a principal if he/she let it.  Again don’t get me wrong, I believe in due process and documentation.  Prior to accountability, schools abused suspensions, didn’t pay appropriate attention to subgroups, and mis-assigned students to special education classes.  Everything a school does there is an attached workflow of paperwork.  Just to name a few, here goes:  faculty meetings, special education, teacher tenure, professional development, budget, parental engagement, response to intervention/multitiered system of supports, data protocols, chronic disruptive students, behavior management, teacher and student absenteeism, student failure and remediation, gifted students, English Language Learners, and we can continue.  As you can see paperwork is necessary and comes from everywhere.

4.  Student Challenges

Academic and behavior challenges present issues for school administrators.  As previously stated addressing these issues comes with paperwork and time. Principals work to create a supportive environment to teach all students while enriching and remediating those who need it.  Creating, monitoring, and inspecting quality tier 1 instruction and climate, RTI programs, flex schedules, SEL programs, and more to address the whole child are just a sentence worth of what we do as administrators. Principals are responsible for everyone’s learning and social emotional well being.  If the other adults in the building don’t grow or are stressed out too then things can quickly go awry.
To be a principal we have to love our students despite the pain. The sacrifice it takes to be a principal says that we are committed to a cause greater than ourselves.  

Administrators, thank you for your service!



Clifford, Matthew, PhD.  The Ripple Effect, by American Institutes for Research, May 2012
The Council of Chief State School Officers.  Education Leadership Policy Standards 2008
Loeb, Susanna.  “Leading and Learning in California Schools:  Preparing and Supporting Effective School Leaders”, September, 2009
Tennille, Cartha, Ed.D.  Factors contributing to high school principal attrition, La Sierra University, 2008