Another school year is well under way, and we can’t imagine getting through the trials and tribulations of the last twenty months without our principals. School leaders have always been incredibly committed to ensuring that our students grow, learn and play in a safe, nurturing space—not to mention their support of the entire staff, faculty, parents and larger school community. While they deserve recognition every day for their commitment and hard work, we are delighted to join in the celebration of National Principals Month this October.
To get a clearer picture of principals’ challenges and successes right now, as well as insights into how they can best be supported, we spoke with Beverly Hutton, chief programs officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP,) along with Gracie Branch, associate executive director, professional learning, and Danny Carlson, associate executive director, policy and advocacy, both of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).
Principals Need Support, Inclusion and Encouragement
“To address principals’ various needs, they need support from a myriad of sources in a myriad of ways,” says Carlson. He points to research from the just-released report, Leaders We Need Now, which indicates that the pandemic has changed the profession.
“Principals have become mail deliverers, bus drivers, contract tracers and more,” Hutton says. “Things are changing every single day. They need some grace and real support.”
One such support noted in the report is long-term funding, including funding to support in-school mental and physical health for students. While incoming American Rescue Plan funding is crucial in the short-term, many of the issues principals are facing are here for the long-term. Investing in the principal and teacher workforce infrastructure can help principals confront any underlying systemic challenges. Additionally, educator shortages due to low morale and early retirements continue to be a problem.
Hutton noted that principals also need to be included in important conversations about American Rescue Plan funding, as they will need to strategically manage those funds when they come in.
“Principals know their schools better than anyone,” Carlson says. “They have unique insight into what will be the most beneficial resources for their school communities.”
The Role of Principal Supervisors
Principal supervisors play an important role in providing the support that many principals need,so Hutton urges them to be present with their principals. “Be on the front lines with them to see what they really need,” she says.
Branch, too, encourages principal supervisors to make it clear to their principals that their physical and mental well-being is being prioritized. Supervisors must remember that principals can’t do everything, she notes. As new initiatives emerge or are passed down from the state level, responsibilities must be delegated.
“The job cannot be bigger than the person asked to do the job,” she says.
Principals need access to preparation and professional learning, and that learning must be up to date. Moreover as their role shifts and they are forced to confront a neverending parade of new challenges, principals can only step up to the plate if they are equipped and empowered to do so. Because principals often feel tied to their school buildings, they need encouragement from their supervisors to not only find opportunities for ongoing learning but also to engage with those opportunities.
Principals are Leading Communities into the Future
All three people we spoke to said that principals have used the challenges of the last 20 months as opportunities to innovate. Many principals have secured access to digital hardware and broadband internet for their students. They've also encouraged creative approaches to teaching in the classroom and online to transform students’ learning experiences.
“We’re blazing trails that will make school much more inclusive, equitable and relevant moving forward,” says Hutton.
Principals are building out their communities as well. According to Branch, they are eager to connect with their peers and learn from each other, using social media platforms, book groups and other venues to understand how others are coping with the fallout from the pandemic.
Branch also points to new roles that principals are creating within their school community that may have never existed before. They include attendance liaisons, wellness coaches for adults and students, instructional coaches, SEL coaches and more.
“Principals know they need extra supports,” says Branch. “They currently have the funding to put people resources in place. However, principals also fear these critical positions will go away when their funding goes away.”
Research can help support a school’s or district’s advocacy for additional funds. It can also help amplify best practices and provide exemplars of infrastructure and programs that effectively support principals, so they, in turn, can be more effective at their jobs. Just as importantly, these findings can also help districts and schools improve principal retention.
“The research is clear about the impact of school leaders on the school environment,” says Hutton. “Any investment should be considered a highly cost-effective approach to school improvement.”
While it’s only October, Branch told us that principals are reporting feeling as exhausted as they usually do in March during a typical school year. That’s why pausing to acknowledge and appreciate their work now—and on a regular basis—is important.
“Principals are on the front lines,” Branch says. “They are the ‘boots on the ground’ for their school, and many are at the lowest points in their careers [right now]…people stay where they are cared about and appreciated.”
Hutton vehemently agrees, stating that celebrating principals could help with the burnout she is seeing in the profession across the country: “We have to recognize that school leaders, along with hospital workers and educators, have taken us through this pandemic on their shoulders. Buildings closed but schooling continued. That alone is a reason to celebrate principals this year in particular.”
Branch hopes that through all they’ve weathered, principals will remain hopeful.
“They are part of the most amazing profession,” she says. “And the country desperately needs their expertise, their courage, their resilience and their compassion.” Principals, too, do not need to go through their journey alone, she says, reminding them that national associations like NAESP and state organizations are here to help.
Hutton adds that NASSP is also here for principals, to help provide safe spaces for school leaders to connect with each other regularly. “Get the emotional support that you can, so you can get through this,” she urges all principals. “And hang in there.”
Photo by Claire Holt. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 2018.