How to Avoid Principal Burnout and Love the Job Again

Remember why you became a principal in the first place.

When you first started your grad school program, you had a clear image of what your role as a principal would be like. You would create a staff environment where teachers would collaborate, work hard, and have fun. Students in your school would feel safe and experience a joyful atmosphere where learning is embraced and transformative. PTA meetings would be the highlight of each month because you know the amazing work that can be accomplished when parents are involved in school. Even being a part of a district leadership team committed to exceptional learning was exciting. You got into this work because you knew the importance of school leadership and were finally ready take on the role of principal. 

Then one of your new teachers showed up to your office crying because a veteran teacher has been putting her down. For the fourth time in a month, you’ve been contacted by parents about their kid being bullied in your hallways. Parents aren’t showing up for PTA meetings. Teachers are sending emails asking someone to replace them on a committee because they are sick of it. District leadership only wants to talk about test scores and budget concerns. Throw in the fact that you are constantly having to heighten school safety and bear the pressure of keeping your entire campus protected.

This is not what you expected, and frankly, it’s not much fun anymore.

Research has shown that about half of all new principals leave their job within five years. Between the stress, pressure, and demands of the work, principals are searching for better opportunities. Schools suffer in the process. No one in your ed leadership program taught you how to avoid principal burnout or how to hold on to that idealism that got you into this profession in the first place. Every job has challenges, but the demands of a principal often seem unbearable. 

It’s in these moments of high stress you have to remember why you got into this profession in the first place. Here are some reminders.

You believe in education.

Of course there is plenty wrong. Your teachers are not paid enough. There is never enough funding. Many of your students are dealing with issues beyond your school’s control. There’s a lot broken in education.

But there is also a lot that is working. Set aside time daily to reflect on those positive things happening under your leadership. Celebrate even minor bumps in school performance. Ask teachers to send you weekly successes that are happening in their classrooms. Stop kids in the hall and ask them what about school has them excited. You became a principal to see these successes. Just because they are often overshadowed by the negative things that occur does not mean they are not happening—or aren’t worth celebrating.

You have the skills to bring a staff together.

Collaboration is messy work. The idea that you would have a team of teachers who always gets along was never realistic. In fact, a little conflict among the teaching staff is not a bad thing. The trick is to find ways to make that conflict healthy. If you are a leader, chances are you are skilled at bringing people together. So maybe you have to shift your focus from being disappointed in your imperfect staff culture to finding ways to improve it. This growth mindset can do wonders on improving your outlook. It can also help you celebrate the positive aspects of your staff culture and also identify ways to make it better.

You know parents are really important.

I vividly remember the first time a parent chewed me out at a brand-new school I was starting at. She accused me of bias against her son, being inept at my job, and being a terrible leader. Her words were crushing and also infuriating because I hardly knew her son and wouldn’t have had time to form a bias even if I wanted to. My attitude at the moment was, “Parents in this district are unbearable. They are the worst part of my job.”

The next day I received an email from a different parent thanking me for my work and asking if there was anything she could do to make my life easier. I’m not sure if she was standing outside my window when I was being berated or if this was divine intervention, but it was exactly what I needed. Although there will always be unhelpful parents, most are not. And I’ve learned not to take negative feedback from parents personally and that most upset parents are really just worried about their kids. When I acknowledge that and make them aware that I support them, they almost always then support me.

I still get negative calls all the time. But I now see those as opportunities to win over new advocates for our school. And I recognize that I have super volunteers: parents who set up student conferences, chaperone dances, and speak up at board meetings. They have my back. 

You have the endurance for hard work.

Being a principal is not a sprint, but a marathon. You got into this work because you wanted to make difference. Well making a difference takes time, and you have to give yourself some. Sometimes in our attempt to make an impact, we go all out on our ideas and try everything at once. If you’ve been an educator for a while, you know this doesn’t work. Change needs to happen in increments. When we introduce a new curriculum, technology, or behavior plan with little warning or all at once, it often fails. Too many of these failures can lead to burnout. 

Instead you might need to scale back your goals a bit. Still push, talk about, and advocate for changes that will improve your school. But don’t try to do it all at once. Maybe introduce one piece of a new curriculum this year. Test out a new LMS in one department before using it in the entire school. Maybe shelve the plans for going 1:1 laptops for a year so you can get some quality PD to make sure staff and students are ready. 

The role of principal has the potential to be highly stressful and cause burnout. However, it also has the chance to be one of the most satisfying jobs there is. Not long ago, USA Today even named it the “happiest job in America.” This job gives us the chance to positively change the lives of students, staff, and community. It’s this potential that made you enroll in grad school in the first place. So perhaps the secret to avoiding principal burnout and finding joy in the work of a school leader is realizing that potential.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus check out The Effect of a Great Principal on School Culture.

Posted by Trevor Muir

Trevor is an editor with School Leaders Now and author of The Epic Classroom. He believes life should not be boring; school either.

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