Pausing To Reflect On A Stressful School Year

The Albert Shanker Institute has long prioritized research on improving conditions for teaching and learning. We committed to compile and share the ideas and actions of accomplished educators and education leaders while seeing the impact of the pandemic on our schools. Knowing that research also points to the importance of principal leadership in our school communities, we were troubled to read the concerning results of the survey the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) released earlier this month. We knew we needed to share the results. We are very fortunate that, amidst the whirlwind of her school and leadership duties, NASSP Principal of the Year, Beth Houf shared her reflections on her experiences, the NASSP survey results, and suggestions for a path forward with the Shanker blog. Please take some time to read and reflect on Beth’s experience and commit to advocating in 2022 for the insightful and productive ideas she offers. Thank you. - Mary Cathryn Ricker

Winter break has officially started for our school, and I finally have time to reflect on the first half of the school year. It has truly been a whirlwind.

Being a principal has never been an easy job. But there have been more days this year that have delivered impossible situations and that have left me overwhelmed, overstressed, and completely empty. Everything is urgent. We all know that when everything is important, nothing can be important. My school is understaffed daily. Everyone is doing their own job and then the job of others. Those who need to take a day off carry the guilt of their absence. Student behaviors are over the top. Fuses are short and tempers flare. Social media has only added fuel to the fire. All I can do is react. There’s simply no time to be the proactive leader that I strive to be. It shouldn’t be this way.

NASSP recently shared the results of a survey of principals around the country. Among the findings was that job satisfaction among school leaders is at an ultimate low, with 38 percent of principals expecting to leave the profession in the next three years. School leaders cited the pandemic, political tensions, and limited guidance and resources as major factors contributing to their discontent.

The survey results are alarming but unfortunately not surprising. This is the reality that I live every day. I’ve moved past the idea that schools will return to any kind of pre-COVID normalcy. To be honest, some past practices shouldn’t resurface.

We must now focus all our energy on the present moment. It is time to come together to find solutions before we lose more educators. It is time to use our voices to advocate for change.

It is time to move past brainstorming ideas to acting on them.

It is time to overhaul K-12 accountability systems that do not truly show the gifts, talents, and growth of our students. Colleges and universities are waiving standardized tests and diversifying admittance procedures. Let’s follow their lead.

It is time to pay close attention to the empathy gap. When teachers, parents, students, and principals say they are struggling, we must listen to understand them–and not answer with excuses.

No one can thrive in times of prolonged stress. And we must recognize that each person we serve deals with these stresses differently. No one-size-fits-all approach exists to help navigate the feelings and emotions that we experience and that are presented to us.

It is time to loudly object to practices that are detrimental to our students, staff, and families. It is time to recognize that we cannot continue to expect more and more with less and less.

It is time to put our own mental and physical health first. As principals, we give of ourselves freely and often. In order to have the energy, patience, and positivity to serve others, we must prioritize our own rest and well-being each day.

I absolutely love my job and the community that I serve. I can’t succeed without being surrounded by quality educators and support staff. In order to do what is best for our students, we must set up systems of success and support for all educators.

After the trauma of the past two years, we must recognize that we need time to heal. To ensure that we will recover, give us this school year to truly focus on the things that matter most–building relationships, ensuring a positive school culture, and creating relevant and engaging learning experiences to help our students (and staff) re-adjust to school amid the pandemic.

Honestly, it will take more than a year to come back stronger. We need a multi-year plan for our students and staff to heal–and for school leaders to recover, too.

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