Though I sat in the high school principal’s chair as recently as 2018, it may as well have been 50 years ago, given all that has changed since then. In the four years that followed, I served in a position that does not exist in most school districts—as a director overseeing several schools, able to spend a good portion of my time directly supporting and coaching school leaders. I experienced this honor because I worked for the largest school district in Northern California—Elk Grove Unified. My career prior to that experience was set in small and mid-sized districts where that level of support was simply impossible, as resources were stretched thin and every person wore countless hats.
I’ve had the joy of hiring and supporting many new school leaders since 2020 and can barely comprehend the challenges they have faced. Even for experienced school leaders, the complexity has increased significantly, and nearly every site administrator I know has seriously questioned their ability and desire to continue in these roles. They have faced heightened community tension, increased student behavior issues, staffing shortages, public scrutiny, employee morale concerns—the list goes on. If you are currently living this reality, I would like to extend to you my deepest gratitude.
As someone who has orchestrated the hiring processes of many principals and other site administrators in recent years, I have seen firsthand the decimation of our candidate pools. Of course, this is true for all positions in our field—particularly at the school site level—but without excellent leadership, we know the entire system will collapse.
There’s a great deal of doom and gloom in the zeitgeist around this topic, but we educational leaders are problem solvers. We cannot and will not throw in the towel, as the future of our society depends on it. Which leads us to the questions of how: “How do we attract our best people to leadership positions? If we can convince them to jump into the fray, how do we support them well enough that they can be successful? How do we make site leadership meaningful and rewarding?”
I submit to you that there are three things that can help school leaders find success, value, joy, and connection in their work:
- Every school leader needs a coach.
If you are a school leader, you probably have someone you can call at the district office—someone who can guide you through sticky situations, help you navigate crises, and assist you with the day-to-day operational aspects of your work. I hope you also have your fellow principal colleagues on speed dial. They are truly the only people who really understand what you are experiencing.
But what about your development as a leader? How are you growing in your communication, strategic planning, team development, and employee engagement skills? You need someone you can call and tell the things you’re afraid to say to your supervisor (especially in those moments when you are really questioning yourself or feeling inept in some way). If your district does not currently provide a structure for one-on-one coaching, I recommend that you ask for that. Your district leaders understand the staffing challenges they are facing and are motivated to ensure that you are supported and successful. If you ask for a coach, you just might spark their thinking that providing this added layer of support would pay off tenfold. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
- Investing in the development of your budding leaders is absolutely necessary.
If your district is like those I have experienced, it’s a struggle to attract people to school leadership positions like assistant/vice principals and deans. When we do find people who are eager and willing, they are often lacking much leadership experience at all. Increasingly, teachers may give site administration a try only to determine rather quickly that it is not for them.
For your school to be successful, it is critical that you attract and retain the right people to these crucial roles. And if you are one of these new school leaders, you need and deserve more support, coaching, and leadership development than you are currently receiving. Your district needs to invest in the leadership development and support of your emerging leaders, which can look like one-on-one coaching, a mentoring system that leverages internal resources in the form of more experienced school leaders, or a training series that engages new administrators in leadership development work.
- You need help building an effective team.
One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is bringing the team together. If you are fortunate, your team is composed of bright, talented people whose skill sets are complementary. Even in that perfect scenario, few of us have really been trained in how to bring a team together and make it effective. Do you know how to create a shared vision and engage people in a decision-making process? Are you clear about each team member’s strengths and weaknesses and how to maximize everyone’s contributions and support their growth? Are you in perfect alignment with your protocols and processes, truly running like a well-oiled machine? If not, you need outside support in creating that structure and building upon your collective strengths. Your district needs to invest in this work, and you can advocate for that support.
You may be thinking, “Yes, of course! I agree with all of this … But what am I supposed to do? I don’t get to make these big-picture decisions…” Know that your voice is powerful, especially now. Your district leaders are highly concerned about attracting and retaining great leaders and preparing them for the next level. They may just need a little nudge from you to give this immense need its due attention. If you have a mechanism through your organization that would allow you to activate the expertise of more seasoned school leaders in coaching those who are learning the ropes, that can help. And you may even have site budget resources that could be allocated toward these efforts.
Ultimately, happy and successful school leaders are the engine that makes schools hum, and they need and deserve every support available, now more than ever. You may just want to highlight that last sentence and share this article with your boss, who is well aware of your value and understands how inordinately complex your work has become. One thing I know for sure is that you cannot do this work in isolation; you need support, guidance, tools, encouragement, and structure to find success and fulfillment in your incredibly challenging work.
Amy L. Besler, EdD, is the founder of Beverly Leadership Group and the former director of secondary education for Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, CA.