How K-12 leaders can help principals overcome stress and resist burnout

Extensive reports and research have warned that a substantial number of principals may leave the profession.

Meetings for principals in Stafford County Public Schools are now virtual, optional and shorter—lasting about 30 minutes rather than four hours. The Virginia district also holds quarterly appreciation events, Superintendent Thomas Taylor says.

Principals in Michigan’s Comstock Public Schools are regularly surprised with a serving of their favorite drinks, courtesy of Superintendent Jeff Thoenes.

“I collected data on their favorite non-alcoholic drinks at the beginning of the year,” says Thoenes. He and his leadership also remain in constant contact with principals in an effort to properly building-level needs. “Since the pandemic began, we also allow our principals to work from home on snow days since all of them have home computers,” he says.

The challenges and stresses experienced by students and teachers have been well documented, and more recently, education leaders have turned their attention to principals who are also working to regain their footing amid COVID’s ongoing disruptions.

“The year has been challenging in ways I was not able to predict,” says Melissa Pearlman, principal of Pittsburgh CAPA, a creative and performing arts high school in Pittsburgh Public Schools. “As leaders, we’re always hardest on ourselves but we need to be authentic right now and recognize that we all need a fresh start and we have to listen to one another and be respectful and kind.”

What principals never say

Countless reports and research have warned that a substantial number of principals may leave the profession due to the mounting stress of COVID, the contentious political climate and other pressures.

Two factors are working against principals right now and both should concern district administrators, says David E. DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. “When I talked with principals, before the pandemic and now, and asked how they cope with stress, they’ve never said there’s district support,” DeMatthews says. “And they never say they’ve been prepared to engage in self-care in any teaching or leadership preparation programs. They never say they have learned to manage stress or be reflective or mental health.”

The solutions start with providing principals with more information about the signs of burnout and emotional exhaustion, followed by guidance on coping strategies. They will also benefit from knowing there’s someone—such as a coach rather than a supervisor—who they can reach out to when they are struggling. “They can be reluctant to go to a supervisor who is also evaluating them or holding them accountable,” DeMatthews says.

Administrators and counselors can also encourage principals to create self-care plans and also provide time to participate in wellness activities with other building learners. DeMatthews points out that it’s common for emergency room doctors to spend wellness days together.

District leaders can also try to reduce distraction by, for instance, limiting the number of central office staff who can email principals. Administrators can also reduce pressure on principals by raising pay for teachers and substitutes to ensure schools have sufficient staff

“It’s hard to take work off people’s plates because there are not enough bodies in a lot of places now,” DeMatthews notes.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Weekly meetings with principals are how Superintendent Christopher Parker and his executive team at The Public Schools of Petoskey are showing support for business leaders. Those conversations generally focus on what principals and their school needs, and how administrators can help principals recharge.

“We try to make sure they can keep their headspace as clear as possible so they can focus on the kids and health of staff without a lot of administrative stuff thrown in their way by the central office,” Parker says.

Still, some see a near future of continued uncertainty, considering that many K-12 leaders in summer 2021 were expecting a return to normalcy this school year only to have to contend with the delta and omicron variants. Continued staffing shortages across districts, and an evaporating teacher pipeline, will continue to leave districts without the number of people they need, says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA-The School Superintendents Association.

Superintendents are creating supports groups for principals, hosting stress reduction sessions and working one-on-one with principals who need the most assistance. “We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel—if we see a light, it’s an oncoming train,” Domenech says. “Until enough people get vaccinated and enough people wear masks so everything can be brought under control, this situation is just going to keep repeating itself.”