According to a poll conducted August 14–19 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), 45 percent of principals report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession. The departures will exacerbate an already challenging principal attrition crisis.
In total, 46.3 percent of principals—the largest percentage of the 1,020 respondents—indicated that pandemic conditions had no effect on their plans to remain in or leave the principalship. But an equally large percentage is split among those whose thoughts of leaving have been sparked for the first time by their working conditions during the pandemic (22.8 percent), those who have sped up their plans to leave in one to two years (17.2 percent), and those who have decided to leave as soon as possible (5 percent). Percentages remain generally consistent across elementary, middle, and high school levels, and across urban, suburban, and rural communities.
“These new findings on principals’ departure plans should frighten the entire education community,” said NASSP Executive Director and CEO JoAnn Bartoletti. “Our schools are already strained by principal turnover, and the school conditions policymakers have created will only intensify that turnover. Couple that reality with a shallowed pool of future principals caused by teacher layoffs and attrition, and we have a full-blown crisis in finding talented educators to lead our schools. We must make it a priority to attend to the needs of current principals and continue efforts to deepen the bench of leadership talent.”
Many respondents attribute their pending departure to chaos and inconsistency emerging from a toxic political environment. “The lack of leadership during this pandemic is extremely disheartening,” one respondent shared. “The failure to plan and the politicizing of both teachers’ and students’ health has really changed how I feel about the profession.” The conditions lead to “almost daily policy and guidance changes that make it near impossible to plan for the year. Parents and community members are frustrated and blame us for the constant changes being communicated.”
Others cite health concerns—their own, their staffs, and their students. “The plan to bring all students back into the classroom is leading my teachers into danger,” a respondent said. “I can’t do that. I feel that we are not in a position to say that anyone is safe.” Others called such plans “contrary to science” and “morally unsustainable.” By extension, some principals expressed their unsuitability to make literal life-or-death decisions: “I fear my decisions to delegate certain tasks—checking health at entry, monitoring health isolation areas, etc.—could unwittingly put people at risk.” Another respondent corroborated: “I love education and working with kids, but the pressure I feel to keep everyone safe and the perspective some teachers have that I am responsible to keep them safe is overwhelming.” The stress is creating “mental strain” and is “deteriorating strong relationships and has divided people to a point that will take years to repair.”
All the while, principals feel their needs are being ignored: “This task feels nearly insurmountable, and the lack of support from district office is weighing on me,” a respondent shared. “Everyone talks about supporting students and teachers, but principals and assistant principals are being overlooked. I’ve never felt so burned out and unappreciated.”
Many of these concerns echo the findings of a comprehensive report on principal turnover issued earlier this year by NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute. The report identified that nearly 1 in 5 principals turn over each year, driven by inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, insufficient salaries, lack of decision-making authority, and high-stakes accountability policies. Some poll respondents recognized that the pandemic is only intensifying challenges we’re already aware of: “The work has always been strenuous, and I love it. But the pandemic has made the work untenable. …Resources are scarce, solutions are few, and all eyes are on principals to deliver. The career I love has become overwhelming and exhausting.”
“Principals’ comments refer to more than just this challenging moment in time,” Bartoletti said. “The pandemic crisis is pulling to the surface the persistent realities of how principals are treated and regarded. The toxic political climate has been there for some time. But the chaotic decision-making it engenders, which is usually at least manageable at the ground level, has now become untenable.”
Still, a not insignificant 8.8 percent of principals responded that pandemic conditions served to recommit them to the principalship. A principal shared that, “Despite the challenges, this experience has shown me again the vital role schools and school leaders play in the lives of students, families, teachers, and school staff. I want to be a part of that.” Another stated the case more bluntly: “My staff needs a strong leader right now. I can’t leave them.”