I was told by a supervisor: The principal stands alone. She was giving me that blunt reality check, and it’s so true. And that’s what I’m not sure is sustainable, because I don’t know how to continue to be creative and how to continue to be passionate if I have to keep worrying about my own financial sustainability—if I have to worry about taking a risk and then losing my job, and then if I don’t take a risk, I’m going to lose my job because we’re not making gains. So, you just always feel like you’re on the run, and you always feel like you’re on the chopping block.

—Marissa H., principal*

The small public high school where Marissa is starting her fourth year as principal enrolls 83 percent Latino and 13 percent black students. Nearly 90 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch, and 28 percent of students are English-language learners. Marissa is in her 12th year as an educator in this district, having taught in the same district before rising through the ranks to become a principal. As a former peer, she has built a trusting relationship with her staff. In 2015, Marissa was identified as one of the Top 25 Inspirational Teachers in her city, and her school is making significant gains. Yet her words speak volumes—she is struggling amid conditions that are increasingly pressurized and distressing.

Center on Principal Well-Being

Marissa is not alone. According to a recent review of the research on principal churn published by NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), turnover is a serious issue across the country. Nationally in 2016–17, the average tenure of principals in their schools was four years, a number that “masks considerable variation, with 35 percent of principals being at their school for less than two years, and only 11 percent of principals being at their school for 10 years or more.” The most recent national study of public school principals found that approximately 18 percent of principals were no longer in the same position one year later—and in high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent.

When I was involved in a principal preparation program in 2002–03, I read an article called “The Myth of the Superprincipal” by Michael A. Copland, which made an impression on me. Consider Copland’s opening paragraph:

Position Opening: School Principal, Anytown School District. Qualifications: Wisdom of a sage, vision of a CEO, intellect of a scholar, leadership of a point guard, compassion of a counselor, moral strength of a nun, courage of a firefighter, craft knowledge of a surgeon, political savvy of a senator, toughness of a solider, listening skills of a blind man, humility of a saint, collaborative skills of an entrepreneur, certitude of a civil rights activist, charisma of a stage performer, and patience of Job. Salary lower than you might expect. Credentials required.

My anxiety rose as I considered my new position as a founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco. Here’s the rub: Copland’s piece was written in 2001, just before the No Child Left Behind Act emerged as federal policy and changed the landscape of public education. In the ensuing 15 years, the role of the principal became even more demanding—a reality mirrored by the churn data.

Structurally, the principal is an isolated figure—mediating demands, often with little support. For leaders like Marissa, who have transitioned from the teacher to principal inside the same school, the pressures can feel insurmountable. The very setup of the role can make principals feel as if they have to choose between being student-centered or adult-centered. Let’s change the narrative and begin to think about the whole leader as a corollary to the whole child. We must center principal well-being in our conversations about how to improve schools, particularly high-poverty schools, and consider how to retain—and sustain—healthy, effective, thriving principals.

California Case Study: Principal Churn as an Equity Issue

A recently published brief on California’s K–12 education system, Getting Down to Facts II, explored the development and distribution of school leadership in the state. The report found that principal turnover in California hovered around 25 percent annually from 2010 to 2016. It also found striking data on the decreasing tenure of school principals. In 2004–05, the typical California principal had been at their current school for almost 10 years; by 2016–17, this number had dropped to four years.

Perhaps even more startling is a closer look at the equity implications of principal turnover. When comparing high-poverty, urban schools like Marissa’s, the report found a data chasm: Fifty-three percent of schools in the bottom quintile have novice principals in their first three years on the job, versus 26 percent of schools in the top quintile. And consider this: A principal in a high-poverty urban school is 50 percent more likely to leave than one in a low-poverty suburban school. Principal leadership is second only to teacher quality when it comes to student learning, and the data shows that schools with a high proportion of low-income students and students of color are far more likely to have an inexperienced or short-lasting principal. In summary, principal churn—and by extension, well-being—is a critical and underrecognized equity issue.

Conditions for Principal Well-Being

We began with a hypothesis about the overlooked role of principal well-being in a healthy school system that attends to the social, emotional, and academic needs of students. By focusing on this issue, we stand a chance of impacting other change levers—from the equity gap in principal mobility to teacher retention, school climate, and student outcomes.

In January 2019, I helped to facilitate a California statewide convening on the principalship and issues of well-being and sustainability. The Stuart Foundation hosted this meeting, and we engaged principals from across the state as well as researchers, leaders of principal preparation programs, and leadership development professional learning providers. The gathering generated deep learning, dialogue, and insight, echoing many of the themes in this article around the intense pressures of the job and the missing—but necessary—conditions to support and sustain principals.

Building off the data gathered from this convening—and my own experience as a principal and principal coach for the past 16 years—I propose a set of six conditions that could make a significant difference in supporting and sustaining quality principals.

  1. Bottom-up accountability: We need to turn our notions of accountability upside down and begin to position states and districts as accountable to principals, teachers, students, and the community rather than the other way around. One principal at our meeting observed that he has never once been asked by a district leader, “What can we do to better support you in leading your school?” This simple shift from telling and issuing mandates to inquiring and listening for insight would be monumental; the inquiry model would trickle down to principals’ communication with teachers and teachers’ communication with students.
  2. Equitable and viable compensation: Given the surge in the complexity of the principalship, it is time that we compensate the role adequately and at levels commensurable with central office leadership roles. We also need to work toward more equitable models of funding to ensure that a principal in an urban high-​poverty district is not earning significantly less than a principal in an affluent suburban district. Structural pay gaps disincentivize good principals from accepting the opportunity to lead an urban school.
  3. Robust principal coaching models: Instructional coaching models have begun to proliferate across the country, yet there are not many systematized models of principal coaching. While induction programs are a positive step in this direction, they are often overly technical, focused on operational leadership, and lack an emphasis on the social-emotional dimensions of the job. Districts and states need to build the infrastructure for robust, quality coaching models for principals. Ideally, this support system would be available through a leader’s first three years.
  4. High-quality, “whole leader” principal professional learning: The more we understand the root causes of principal churn and the impact of enduring school leadership, the more we can begin to reimagine our current systems of professional learning. Far too many school districts provide professional learning in which principals come to the central office for sit-down informational sessions. Instead, let’s redesign principal professional learning around the whole leader, creating spaces for peer collaboration, deep listening, emotional support, and dialogue around authentic problems of practice. Such learning can take place in intra- or interdistrict principal networks, facilitated by former school leaders who bring credibility and insight to the learning.
  5. Deep community engagement: We can support principals by emphasizing and valuing the role of community engagement in their work. The national movement for community schools offers a beacon in this regard, defining such a school as “the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators, and community partners to provide all students with top-quality academics, enrichment, health and social services, and opportunities to succeed in school and in life.” Leyda Garcia, principal of the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, relishes the engagement of her families and community members. In her words, “What a privilege it is to be a principal. I get all these gifts every day. That’s what makes it sustainable.”
  6. Agency, autonomy, and distributed leadership: Principals crave decision-making authority. They want a sense of agency to assess conditions at their site and develop a responsive, local plan of action. By contrast, many principals are given the keys to the building but are stripped of the authority to run it. According to the recent NASSP/LPI report on principal turnover, “Principals are less likely to leave their positions when they believe they have greater control of their work environment and the ability to make decisions across a range of issues such as spending, teacher hiring and evaluation, and student discipline.”

Designing for Well-Being

We are at a pivotal point in the national story of public education. With the end of No Child Left Behind and the birth of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states and districts are searching for an improvement model that works. My advice is to start looking more closely at principals as change levers who can “lead from the middle,” as author/educator Michael Fullan writes, in powerful and transformative ways. To drive positive change and stay the course over time, principals need support, equitable compensation, coaching, quality learning experiences, and a district culture that conveys, “I see you. I value you. I want to listen to you.”

Shane Safir was the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco and currently consults with schools, districts, and organizations across the country on issues of equity and educational leadership. She is a senior program officer for Educator Leadership at the Stuart Foundation, and is the author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation.

*Note: The actual names of the principal and her school have been changed to protect her anonymity.

Sidebar: Why Do Principals Leave?

Five reasons that principals leave their jobs, aside from retirement or dismissal:

  1. Inadequate preparation and professional development
  2. Poor working conditions
  3. Insufficient salaries
  4. Lack of decision-making authority
  5. High-stakes accountability policies

Source: NASSP/LPI joint report, “Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover: A Review of the Research”