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June 3, 2022
ASCD Blog

How the Pandemic Has Changed Principals’ Jobs—and Needs

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A new study on resource shortages during the pandemic highlights key drivers of principal job dissatisfaction. 
Leadership
June Ingram principal blog header image
Credit: skynesher/istock
At the beginning of the pandemic, principals faced a range of complex challenges while steering schools through the transition to remote learning. A new study from the RAND Corporation shows that during this time, principals reported higher needs for a wide array of resources—from training on remote instruction to materials on social-emotional learning. These resource needs, along with teacher and substitute shortages, correlated with higher principal stress and stronger intentions to leave their jobs.  
The study focuses on the first year of the pandemic, but it shares new and critical insight into the close connection between school resources and principals’ job satisfaction—and offers valuable data on what might help support leaders today. 
To quantify the challenges facing principals during the pandemic, researchers investigated two questions:  
  1. What job resources and demands did U.S. principals report during the pandemic, and how did reported resources change over time? 
  2. To what extent were principals’ perceived job resources and demands related to their self-reported dissatisfaction and intention to leave their job by the end of the 2020–2021 school year? 
To find answers, the research team drew data from two nationally representative RAND surveys of principals across the country, administered in 2020. The first, conducted between April 27 and May 11, asked participants to rank a list of six resource needs from “no need” to “very major need.” The resource types included:  
  • Materials to support academic instruction. 
  • Materials to support social-emotional learning. 
  • Tools and resources to enable student engagement with counselors or school psychologists. 
  • Training to support teachers to deliver remote instruction. 
  • Opportunities to network and learn from other principals. 
  • Strategies or resources to address the loss of students’ opportunities to engage in hands-on learning. 
In a second survey, conducted in October 2020, principals again reported their perceived resource needs (about 43 percent of responses in the fall survey were principals who had also participated in the spring). But in addition to questions on resources, the fall survey asked principals new questions about their budgets; cost-cutting measures; and reported teacher, substitute, and administrator shortages. 
The fall survey also asked participants to grade their job satisfaction, general stress, and intention to leave. Both surveys received around 1,000 responses and controlled for school characteristics such as urbanicity and poverty level.  

Fewer Resources, More Stress 

The first finding from the study may not come as a surprise: On average, principals reported higher needs for all resource areas in the fall of 2020. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all principals suffered the same deficit of instructional materials or training, but it does indicate that they generally felt a lack of preparation and access to key resources. In addition, while only 17 percent of principals reported a shortage of qualified teachers, nearly three quarters reported shortages of substitute teachers, and 40 percent reported shortages of administration or support staff. 
All told, according to the study, these perceived needs correlated with substantial increases in stress. In the fall of 2020, half of principals “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they did not have as much enthusiasm as they did when they began their current job, and 43 percent said that they would leave if they could get a higher paying job. 
Stress and dissatisfaction, even when they don’t always translate to turnover, are worth serious attention and consideration, Julia H. Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND, said in an interview with ASCD. 
“We shouldn't just be worried about turnover. . . . If principals are more stressed, they're probably not able to do their job as well,” said Kaufman.  

Lessons on Turnover  

Those resource needs, along with teacher and substitute shortages, also correlated with principals reporting a stronger desire to leave their jobs. Other factors, like budgetary constraints and shortages of school administrators, didn’t correlate with the same intention to leave. But principals who reported resource needs as “very major” in fall 2020 were about four times as likely to express an intention to leave by the end of the school year than those who reported “very minor” needs in the same period.  
One major takeaway, said Kaufman, is the continued necessity of more comprehensive support for school leaders, particularly those who are new to the job.  
“Really intensive mentoring and supports have always needed to be there, but have perhaps become even more necessary during the pandemic,” Kaufman said. Kaufman noted that many districts have begun to invest in principal pipeline programs in part to foster stronger retention among leadership.  
Facilitating principal pipelines may not immediately address the resource needs the study participants reported, but it could help guide them through making difficult leadership decisions related to those needs.  
Another critical lesson from the research, Kaufman noted, is the correlation between teacher and principal retention. The findings suggest that when teachers are more likely to turn over, principals are as well. Therefore, finding comprehensive solutions to keep talented teachers in their jobs may also keep principals in their schools for longer.  
“They're all sort of bundled together,” said Kaufman. “If we focus on well-being initiatives in schools that could stem teacher shortages, they could also be supporting principals’ well-being and potentially keeping them in schools.” 
Painting a complete picture of the pandemic’s effect on principal stress and retention takes time, and this study doesn’t extend into 2021 or 2022. But these findings confirm a truth many leaders already know well: principals need intentional resource- and personnel-based support. Whether or not they receive it will likely have an immense impact on schools’ ability to move forward today.

Noble Ingram is an Editor with Educational Leadership magazine.

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