Grace is Gone; Our School Leaders Might Be Next

Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director, AWSP
Dec 10, 2021

Downward trending data

We are all tired. Everyone is exhausted and barely hanging on. Last year was tough, and this year has been twice the challenge. It’s no secret that patience, perseverance, and persistence are wearing thin. It’s also no secret that grace is gone.

Schools used to be a place where students and adults would use the lessons learned from mistakes or failure to move forward and improve, but not anymore. The new normal is to no longer have grace, assume best intentions in others, or respect those placed in leadership positions. What does that mean for school principals and assistant principals? An already nearly impossible job becoming even more impossible.

As we crawl into a much-needed Winter Break, I worry about our leaders and how much more they can endure. I field nightly calls from principals and assistant principals throughout the state, quietly seeking advice about leaving the profession. They all say enough is enough and that they simply cannot continue. Their feelings and emotions match recent survey results conducted nationally by both NASSP and NAESP. The emotional, physical, and spiritual toll of the work is impacting their health and personal lives, and far too many are at a breaking point. This should be concerning to everyone.

During the last two years, the demands placed on school leaders have been overwhelming and unbearable. And if you consider decades of unfunded mandates piled on top of the plates of principals, the job was already untenable and increasingly unrealistic. Covid just exposed even more the daunting world our school leaders have faced for years. 

I’m not downplaying the strife everyone has faced during the last two years. I get it. Everyone has suffered. What I’m stressing is that those in leadership positions have been pushed to the brink, and something has to change. In addition to serving their schools as Chief Covid Officers, they’ve attempted to rebuild positive school culture, navigate and deescalate societal conflict, reteach school-appropriate behavior to students who’ve been de-socialized for the last two years, and press to quickly close massive gaps in learning despite daily staffing shortages. It’s been brutal.

Despite the challenges, they press on. There have been amazing stories of resilience, persistence, and success because that’s what principals do. They step into leadership positions to lead and have an immediate and lasting impact. They sacrifice everything in the name of serving others to create the best possible hope-filled schools for our students. They are dying as they fight for each and every student, which explains the dark circles under their eyes and the uptick in calls to AWSP for help. We must do something.

Parents have decided that if you don’t like the principal or a decision made by the building administration, you can just create a Facebook page, storm board meetings, and stir up community pressure. Students have decided to stage sit-ins, walkouts, or skip days if they don’t like a decision. They are also masters at leveraging the power of social media to ruin the name and career of a school leader. Staff decided that filing grievances or conducting votes of no confidence are easy ways to remove a principal. Somehow, someway, in the last few years, it has become blatantly acceptable to defame, destroy, and remove a school leader without just cause or a presumption of good intent. Guilty until proven innocent is the new norm. So, why again would someone want to be a school leader?

That answer is easy. People choose school leadership to have an impact on an entire school community. They understand the sacrifices they will make and the bullseye on their back when assuming a leadership position, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve grace. They take on the challenge because they want to make a difference in the lives of students, staff, and the community. What I’m asking for today is for all of us to stand together to protect these valuable heroes in the system. Let’s bring grace back. Let’s enter into collective problem solving, seek to understand, and authentically engage student and parent voices with positive intent and in a proactive manner. Let’s take this moment in time as we learn to live in an endemic to redefine what we expect of our school leaders. Let’s hit reset on the unrealistic demands of the job, the workload, expectations, etc. Let’s think about redesigning our schools so that one school principal doesn’t carry the burden of the entire school community.

While our state transitioned to the Prototypical School Funding Model in 2011, that doesn’t mean we’ve significantly changed the number of adults in schools. In fact, WASA’s 2022 Legislative Platform says of the new funding model, “original staffing allocations were funded at artificially low ratios based on historical staffing levels that had been in place since the late 1980s to ensure the conversion was cost-neutral.” The world has changed immensely; so has what we expect our teachers and administrators to accomplish every day. Yet, we haven’t made significant changes to staffing levels in decades. We cannot continue to apply the same thinking about the number of adults or traditionally defined roles as a solution to addressing the looming leadership crisis.

As I work with leaders across the country, the common concern is the same. There are not enough leaders in the pipeline to fill our schools' current or future demands. We are sitting on the verge of a massive crisis. School leadership is far too important for this not to be elevated as a high priority for everyone. Our students and staffulty deserve the best leaders possible, so we must act now. 

Let’s bring grace back, support our leaders, and work to build a new set of realistic expectations before we are all standing around looking at each other, wondering why no one wants to be a school principal. If you are a principal reading this right now, continue sharing with us the realities of your work (both good and bad). If you are a district leader or school board member, consider what you can do at the local level to alleviate the relentless pressure on your principals. If you are a policymaker, please prioritize and consider both short and long-term solutions that might save our principals.

Got creative ideas? Email is best because I’m doing principal therapy phone calls at night. Grace is gone, and our leaders might be next. 

  • COVID-19
  • mental health
  • covid-19
  • Advocacy & Legislation
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