Stressed Out and Fed Up: What’s Eating School Principals?

Being a principal is a tough job, and one that does not get much recognition.

Frustration is a common emotion felt by principals in America. (Photo: Tony Wacker)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

America’s principals are so stressed out that many of them do not expect to be in the same job in five years.

The 29th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher paints a dire picture of the people in charge of leading this country’s public schools. The survey of 1,000 K-12 public school teachers and 500 principals shows principals under stress from budget constraints, Common Core directives, and underperforming students.

“Three-quarters of all principals say that the job has become too complex, and nearly half report feeling under great stress several days a week or more,” the survey states.

Perhaps, that’s no surprise.

Nine in ten principals said that they have ultimate responsibility for what happens in their schools. A majority of them also said their job responsibilities are vastly different than they were just five years ago. That’s all very likely because they have a lot less control over curriculum and firing teachers than they once did. They are also working with equally stressed teachers who often suffer from low morale.

“What’s troubling in this report is the finding that although principals recognize the centrality of instructional leadership (using data about student performance to improve instruction was ranked as ‘very important’ by the greatest share of the principals surveyed), fewer than half of the principals felt they had great control over matters pertaining to curriculum and instruction,” Jerusha Conner, an education professor at Villanova University, told TakePart. “Principals accept accountability, and yet, without decision-making authority and autonomy in areas of key importance to student learning, they may feel that their hands are tied.”

The report showed that the top three key challenges for principals—and teachers—are managing resources when there aren’t enough to meet a school’s needs; addressing individual needs of “diverse learners”; and engaging the parents and a community in improving students’ education.

If that weren’t enough, principals listed three more issues as very challenging:

* Implementing the Common Core State Standards

* Creating and maintaining an academically rigorous learning environment

* Evaluating teacher effectiveness

There is bit of good news in the report, however. This year, a majority of principals and teachers in the survey are reporting decreased budgets, but it’s a smaller proportion than it was a year ago. That could change for the next school year depending on sequestration, which would mean drastic education cuts in schools around the country.

“Teachers who report that their school’s budget has decreased in the past 12 months are three times as likely as others to report that there have been decreases in time to collaborate with other teachers (35 percent vs. 11 percent) and in professional development opportunities (27 percent vs. 8 percent),” the report states.

In January, another report by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd echoed the MetLife survey, pointing out that similar stresses were making the job of principal “untenable.”

With so much focus on the job of principals, the National Association of Secondary Principals offers some pointers to help principals with stress. “Two strategies—building trusting relationships and creating a caring community—can substantially reduce stress for all and better allow them to attend to meeting the needs of students,” it states.

Regardless, principals are forced to juggle students with a variety of needs and figure out how to implement the new Common Core Standards.

“Educators who have begun to implement the Common Core are confident that they have the knowledge and skills to meet the challenge, but are less confident in the potential of the new standards to benefit students’ academic achievement and readiness for college and careers,” the report states. “Strong leadership from the principal and high teacher satisfaction may be important resources closely tied to successful implementation of the Common Core.”

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