Becoming a principal was a goal and dream of mine. I started as a classroom teacher, and a few years later, I returned to graduate school to receive a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Educational Leadership. Afterward, a principal job was a few years away, but I quickly found an assistant principal position. It was a great stepping stone to understand the day-to-day operations of a school. Some years later, an opportunity dropped in my lap. One day, the phone rang, and I discovered that I was the new principal of a Pre-K through eighth-grade school.
How exciting it is to receive the keys to one’s very own school. I thought of all the fantastic and amazing things that were going to happen while I was the principal. My dreams and hopes for the students, staff, and families outweighed the realities that laid in waiting.
In reality, all principals have a difficult and challenging job. It is a 24-hour gig. There is no downtime, either physically or emotionally. Whether a principal is in an urban, suburban, or rural district, the job is tough. The never-ending demands are based on demographics, socio-economics, politics, and more. Like me, some principals are not prepared for the toll on one’s health, wellness, and personal life. Soon, the weight becomes too heavy, and a decision must be made. Should I stay or go? Statistics show many decide to leave.
The Learning Institute and National Association of Secondary Schools Principals released a study in 2019, Principal Turnover: Insights from Current Principals. The study states, “Principal turnover is a serious issue across the country. A 2017 national survey of public school principals found that, overall, approximately 18 percent of principals had left their position since the year before. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. When I became a principal, I had no idea that I would become a part of the turnover statistics. Let’s explore five reasons why I and other principals leave their school.
As a principal, I can genuinely say that I was not prepared for all of the social-emotional issues of my students. Educators train to teach not to be psychologists or social workers. However, I had to adapt and learn quickly. Despite adapting, the weight of dealing with social ills that enter into the school classrooms becomes too much to handle at times. Eventually, I began to suffer from secondary trauma and a few health issues. I always joke that I did not have gray hair until I became a principal.
Whether a school is in a rural, urban, or suburban area, issues of violence, drugs, homelessness, joblessness, and mental health issues make teaching and learning more difficult. When my teachers and students were stressed, I had stress also. I wanted to alleviate the difficulties or problems that they experienced. Sometimes, it was possible to make their lives easier, but often that was not the case. It is a harsh reality, but I could not fix everything nor save them all.
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Lack of Funding and Resources
A second reason principals leave is the lack of funding and resources. Unfortunately, many schools do not receive adequate funding from local, state, and federal government agencies. I was a principal for seven years. Each year I watched my school budget decrease by $100,000 or more. One year, my budget lost $500,000. I had to close teaching and aide positions, including shutting down the school library. In a seven-year period, our budget lost approximately $1.3 million. The loss of funds caused major damage to our growth, personnel numbers, and programming.
When funding is minimal, a principal cannot purchase sufficient amounts of materials, technology hardware, or software or provide extracurricular activities. Yet, the expectations of raising test scores remained despite not being able to give the students necessary programs and resources. I felt like I was continually robbing Peter to pay Paul. Teachers and I scraped to make ends meet and persistently looked for grants and other means of funding. Occasionally a few helpful colleagues shared or donated used materials or resources.
Politics and Pressure
Next, I did not expect the amount of politics and pressure from outside sources. Some days I felt like there were too many demands to answer. Pressure came from the district, politicians, and micromanagers. Central office administrators wanted to see data every quarter for attendance, on-track grades, behavior, and suspension numbers. Then, the same people wanted to make unannounced or announced visits to complete walk-throughs and observations. Next, they tried to unpack the data and tell all the negative things they observed. Unfortunately, the central office administrators hardly ever said anything positive. The staff, students, parents and I worked hard and deserved some praise about the academic gains our students made. I learned that you could not please everyone or hardly anyone.
My school building served as the hub of the community, so many neighborhood agencies wanted to be partners. Some offered after school tutoring, sports programs, chess teams, etc. Many were easy to work with, but some were difficult and did not like to be told, “no.” My decisions were always on what was best for the students and staff, not the politics. Eventually, politics won, and I was pushed out and left the job.
Micromanagement and Intervention
The fourth reason is surely something relatable to many principals. My responsibilities as a school principal were many. I always looked at the job of being the CEO of the school. First and foremost, I was an instructional leader. I hired teachers, aides, and other staff members.
It was my responsibility to follow all directives and policies, balance the budget, implement new programs, and handle day-to-day operations. Do not forget that I met with parents, students, staff members, community members, and vendors. The days were spent putting out fires, handling emergencies, disciplining students, and communicating with district liaisons and reading too many emails with last-minute requests or directives.
What I was not ready for is the amount of micromanagement that came from the district level. I just wanted to run my school based on the needs of students, culture, and inner workings. District mandates and directives usually had a one size fits all approach that did not work well for my students. Micromanagement and interventions did not account for the social-emotional issues and trauma that my students experienced. No one cared because it was all about the data and not the humans. At some point, it becomes a losing and stressful battle.
Stress and Burnout
Lastly, leading a school is extremely stressful. Principals and teachers absorb the shock and stress of their students. Secondary trauma becomes a reality for many educators, including myself. Eventually, my health began to deteriorate. I developed high blood pressure and cholesterol. My weight increased because I did not eat healthy foods, nor did I take the time to exercise. Workdays were 10-12 hours at the school, along with long rush-hour drives home. I could not sleep at night, and the doctor diagnosed insomnia. Then one day, the stress pushed my blood pressure to 199/120. I was very close to having a stroke. It was a wake-up call for me.
Stress leads to burnout. A fourth of principals leave their schools each year. Again, high poverty schools have the highest percentage of principals leaving the profession. It is unfortunate because students and schools need consistency in leadership, support, and relationships.
Before I left my job as a principal, I was determined to stay for the students. They needed someone to always fight for their needs and rights. That is what I told myself whenever I would apply for other jobs or fill out the retirement papers. I was willing to go to war with whomever to make sure my students had all available opportunities for their education. What I had to realize was that I was not physically or mentally invincible. The five reasons why this principal left her school were, l social issues, lack of funding, micromanagement, politics, and stress, and burnout. These five issues beat me down and pushed me out of the profession. I had to save myself and walk away.
Learning Policy Institute. 2019. Principal Turnover: Insights from Current Principals. [ONLINE] Available at: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/nassp-principal-turnover-insights-brief. [Accessed 16 May 2020].
Goldring, R., & Taie, S. (2018). Principal attrition and mobility: Results from the 2016–17 Principal Follow-up Survey First Look (NCES 2018-066). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Levin, S., & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and addressing principal turnover: A review of the research. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Cassandra Washington is a Chicago-based educator. She worked as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Currently she is semi-retired and works as a part-time Instructional Coach and Professional Learning Consultant. Cassandra promotes her book, Teach and Take Time for You: Strategies and Tips to Reduce Stress and Burnout. She wrote the book to bring awareness to teacher burnout. She also wants to support educators in finding a balance between the school, classroom, and home. Cassandra also publishes the blog,www.teachandtaketime4u.com, and she speaks at national conferences about teacher and principal wellness. Cassandra Washington graduated from Rockford University with a B.A. In Political Science. She obtained an M.A. In Teaching and a C.A.S. In Educational Leadership from National-Louis University.