Principal Stress at an All-time High

Dr. Scott Seaman
May 21, 2020
image of a rope about to snap


Thanks to a great relationship between the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), we are the benefactors of frontline research about what it is like to be a principal or assistant principal. LPI just released its latest wave of research highlighting what we've been saying for years...school leadership matters, but it is one of the most demanding jobs in the professional world. So demanding that, according to their research findings, 42% of school leaders surveyed indicated a desire to leave the profession.

I know I'm a broken record, but I should probably say it again. Every time a principal or assistant principal leaves a building it is bad for the entire school community. It's bad for kids. Bad for the staffulty. Bad for relationships. Bad for consistency. Bad for progress. Bad for dismantling historically entrenched inequitable systems. Just plain bad. There, I said it. Now, I know there are times when a leadership change is necessary, but that's the small percentage of the big picture.

Prior to COVID19, the pressure building in the system landing on the shoulders of school leaders was growing exponentially and near a breaking point. Thanks to our own research at AWSP through member surveys and focus groups, we were seeing alarming rates of stress, job dissatisfaction, negative health impacts, work-family imbalance, and a decrease in both interested and qualified candidates for open positions. That was all before the world shut down.

What does it look and feel like to be a school leader now? Thanks to our constant connection to principals via various platforms, I can personally report I'm very worried about our school leaders. Besides the dark circles under their eyes, the looks of stress, fatigue, and anxiety, I also see a constant state of mourning. Mourning the loss of daily in-person interactions with students and staffulty. Mourning the loss of events, activities, and simple things like counting smiles in the hallways. Mourning the loss of knowing it is even harder to dig deep into the hearts of kids who are hurting. Mourning that relationships take time and trust and are best built by many, many daily interactions in a brick and mortar setting.

Principals spend most of their days now zooming (literally) from one virtual meeting or classroom to another. From morning to night, principals are doing their best to be everywhere for everyone even though they recognize it is not enough. It's not enough because there are only so many hours in the day one can be scheduled virtually for meetings. So how does the day end for principals? 200+ emails and/or voicemails waiting for their immediate attention.

Got a question about what's happening in your child's class? Email the principal. Have a question about your grade? Email the principal. Wondering about the schedule next week? Email the principal. Will there be a kindergarten graduation ceremony? Email the principal. Can the soccer team use the fields tonight? Email the principal. How will we get student belongings out of the school and back to families? Email the principal. Do you have any idea what school will look like in the fall? Email the principal. The teachers are assigning too much work. Email the principal. The teachers aren't assigning enough work. Email the principal. Why haven't you responded to my other emails? Email the principal.

To quote a high school principal this week, "I have never worked harder in my life than what I'm doing every day right now." For those of you in education, you understand the power and context of that statement. His comment can be concurred by K-12 principals across the state and country. The job was beyond demanding before and even more exhausting now. So why do you do it?

You do it because it's also the best job in the world. Seeing the impact of leadership on an entire school system is invaluable. Changing the course of a student's life through unconditional love and sacrifice is priceless. Creating a positive hope-filled school culture and systems to support to culture is what drives school leaders. You can't put a price on that kind of impact. However, I fear principals are paying the price (physically, emotionally, and physiologically) and potentially losing that loving feeling. 

Which brings me right back to the research. If we kill the will of our principals by not addressing the workload, stress, and increasing demands, then our kids and schools will suffer the consequences through a constant turnover of school leaders. LPI's research highlights the obvious, principals are fighting to survive. But their research also recommends some action we can all take to breathe hope into the system for one of our most precious resources - principals and assistant principals.

At AWSP, you can count on us to keep fighting for you. Our mission has long been to support principals and the principalship in the education of all kids. We won't rest unless you are supported fully to be your best. Keep fighting, because you matter.


  • advocacy
  • assistant principals
  • COVID-19
  • Creating a Culture
  • Distance Learning
  • Mental Health
  • Pandemic
  • Positive Leadership
  • School Reform
  • SEL
  • Virtual Learning
  • Video Conferencing
  • wellness
  • Advocacy & Legislation
  • Elementary
  • Middle Level
  • High School

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