The job of a school leader is relentless. A typical school principal needs to be skilled in instructional leadership, human resources, conflict resolution, child development, and psychology, while also needing to be able to play the role of inspirational cheerleader. Not only does the job of a school leader come with long hours and high stress, but it’s also often a job that is misunderstood. 

It’s no wonder that a December 2021 survey by NASSP signals a looming exodus of principals. According to the survey, job satisfaction is at an ultimate low, with almost 4 out of 10 principals (38%) expecting to leave the profession in the next three years. Principals cited the lingering effects of the pandemic, political tensions, and limited guidance and resources as major factors. How can we reverse the trajectory? 

Focusing on Support

School leaders consistently cite a lack of support and development as a top concern, with many saying they are unable to access high-quality professional development (PD) that meets their needs due to the quality of the PD, time constraints, and/or cost of programming. However, almost all principals indicate a desire to grow as leaders. Given these unmet needs, we must design learning opportunities with school leaders in mind and remove the top three barriers to professional development that they cite:

Relevance: Just as the needs of students are unique, so are the professional needs of adult learners. Therefore, the professional support for school leaders must be differentiated and personalized. PD must move beyond frameworks and toward content that significantly impacts the ability of leaders to adapt and grow. Focusing PD on behavior and mindset will not only improve well-being and effectiveness but will also be more relevant and timely. 

Accessibility and frequency: Ask school leaders about the last conference or speaker who inspired them, and they will likely have a story ready to share. However, ask them what transformations occurred as a result, and many will struggle to answer. Once school leaders step back into their current work context, the same challenges remain. Contrast that with a leader who has monthly, personalized support to help them set goals with built-in accountability. School leaders’ ability to commit to sustained improvement is directly linked to the accessibility and frequency of the support provided. Virtual platforms can be leveraged for PD to eliminate the burden and cost of travel.

Affordability: School leaders are often reluctant to invest in themselves given that budgets are tight. Yet, research indicates a highly effective school leader is a key driver of school and student achievement. School leaders eager to invest in personal leadership development find themselves exploring costly PD programs, groups, or graduate degrees. Fortunately, more nonprofit organizations and foundations are becoming involved in PD. 

School leaders need such support to impact student outcomes and preserve their well-being and longevity in the job. Traditionally, most principal PD has focused on instructional leadership or mentoring through retired school principals. But this mentoring is often only available to novice school leaders. Both instructional leadership and mentorship are important, yet neither alone is adequate. 

Principals and assistant principals also need opportunities to develop and hone their leadership skills. This work may require school leaders to develop more empathy, learn to empower others, embrace a diversity of thinking, or work to be more inclusive in how they lead—all essential mindsets and skills that are rarely developed in traditional school leader PD. 

Exploring Executive-Level Coaching

Couldn’t the answer to this dilemma be leadership coaching of the same quality and frequency as coaching for corporate executives? After all, the demands of a school leader are just as complex as those for a Fortune 500 executive. According to the Institute of Coaching, over 70% of individuals who participate in coaching report “improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills,” and 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. School leaders should be taking advantage of the same tools that make all leaders better.

However, executive-level coaching hasn’t often been available to school leaders. It has been expensive, hard to access, and even harder to scale. Fortunately, the landscape of coaching services for school leaders is changing, at least internationally. During the pandemic, Scotland recruited coaches to support school leaders and exhausted teachers. In Australia, school leaders affected by the devastating brushfires were afforded coaching opportunities. Although COVID-19 and wildfires highlight extreme situations, almost all school leaders now find themselves leading through crisis and uncertainty. 

One Canadian school district’s investment in the wake of the pandemic holds particular promise. A superintendent in British Columbia implemented a tailored coaching program using a virtual coaching model to support leaders in shifting and developing new mindsets around personal resilience, values, work-life balance, and engaging others. With the flexibility that coaching provides, the program used a combination of group and individual coaching to address school leaders’ intense feelings of isolation and to focus on each person’s needs. Confidentiality and objectivity were added benefits since coaches were not direct supervisors, colleagues, or even retired members of the school district. Principals and vice principals not only needed—but valued—having a space for professional support where vulnerability was welcomed as a part of growth. 

This approach to supporting leadership development has paid off. In the school district, survey data among school leaders receiving coaching showed a significant increase in their personal resilience and effectiveness while leading in stressful situations. Their confidence in having difficult conversations and managing energy-sapping relationships also increased. One principal shared this about their experience, “I am so grateful for this process. Being coached helped me discover behaviors that were holding me back and provided me with concrete strategies to overcome them.” School district officials are now finding additional ways to use coaching to support leaders at all levels, as well as using it to move school initiatives forward. 

In a post-COVID world, school leaders will continue to be under intense pressure that is unlikely to disappear or decrease. Just like their students, educators need continual opportunities to grow and learn. Investing in the personal development and well-being of school leaders can ultimately help solve the looming school leadership crisis. 

Alyssa Gallagher is head of education, North America (Programs) for BTS Spark, as well as an education author, leader, and speaker. Tara O’Brien is a founding partner with BTS Spark.