Rethinking the "Superhero" Principal Narrative - ASCD
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April 1, 2021

Rethinking the "Superhero" Principal Narrative

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Leadership
School Culture
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It is well known that many principals report feeling isolated since they are ultimately the person held accountable for high-stakes decisions that have real consequences for students and schools. What may be less recognized is the mental toll that this stressor takes on school leaders and the increasingly high rates of burnout and principal turnover that result. Unfortunately, a common narrative is that "superhero" principals can overcome the odds of systemic inequalities as well as the day-to-day challenges of their many roles by just summoning greater internal strength, coping skills, and resilience.

Is there an alternative model that can better serve leaders, one that builds upon resilience, but approaches it from a critical and collective standpoint? To deepen our understanding of school leader retention, the Principal Leadership Institute at UC Berkeley piloted Change Makers, an administrator support network where principals from across California were invited to work together to build physical, cognitive, and social resilience for themselves while collectively seeking solutions for their schools.

Leader Burnout

The work of a principal is filled with challenges that can result in early career burnout. Research has shown in recent years that the high turnover rate for school leaders is becoming a nationwide phenomenon. Goldring & Taie (2018) found that approximately 18 percent of high school principals were no longer in the same position one year later. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. In a study conducted by the Learning Policy Institute, Levin, Bradley, and Scott (2019) found that factors such as "inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, insufficient salaries, lack of decision-making authority, and high-stakes accountability policies" all contribute to high principal turnover rates, which have a ripple effect on school communities. While equitable schools are the product of many elements, consistent school leadership plays a central role in establishing and maintaining school culture, climate, and student outcomes.

In response to these trends, the Change Makers project, with support from the Stuart Foundation, convened a statewide network of equity-focused leaders to examine issues of resilience and work toward leader sustainability. Our focus has been on school principals, recognizing that the role brings with it an increased level of responsibility, job-related stress, and potential for making lasting change in schools. We also have paid specific attention to when leader burnout typically occurs: In the 2016–2017 school year, the national average tenure of a principal was four years. Thirty-five percent of principals had worked at their current site for two years and only 11 percent of principals served the same school for more than 10 years (Goldring & Taie, 2018; Levin, Bradley, & Scott, 2019). As a result, we recruited leaders who had been administrators between four and 10 years and had experience as site principals in urban school districts.

The school leaders in our initial pilot came from a variety of backgrounds: the group included six women and four men, three of whom identify as Latinx, three as African American, and four as white. During 2019–20, the first year of the three-year grant cycle, these principals met in person monthly for a total of six sessions. Sessions were held after work hours and outside of school workspaces. At these meetings, the principals engaged in facilitated dialogue and problem-solving conversations about the challenges they were facing at their schools, participated in reflective writing centered around literature related to leadership dilemmas, and practiced self-care techniques such as mindfulness.

After the completion of year one, we invited additional leaders to join the Change Makers group. Early in 2020, the Change Makers transitioned to virtual meetings due to the pandemic. Through our work with these leaders, we have discovered common themes of leader burnout and the power of a collective network as one way to support principal resilience.

Critical Resilience: Beyond Individualism

Our work revealed important shifts in how best to support education leaders who face unrelenting systemic challenges. First, resilience is not only an internal, individual endeavor. According to Traynor (2018), who studies resilience in nursing, the trope of "you can't often choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you react" is unhelpful for people in high-stress professions and positions. He notes that while developing personal coping mechanisms may come from a place of good intentions, resilience theory "is a purely individualistic attempt to mitigate systemic problems." We agree with Traynor's critique, noting that when principals approach their own sustainability from a collective and critical standpoint, leaders contribute to each other's resilience while also critiquing systemic inequalities.

Change Makers provided a space for principals to rethink what resilience can look like and drew from researchers like Campa (2010), whose work with first-generation community college students helped to coin the concept of critical resilience. Campa frames critical resilience as a collective action defined by context as well as historical and systemic inequality. Her work inspired the Change Makers project to avoid self-help platitudes or simple quick fixes. We acknowledge that the challenges school leaders face cannot be whisked away under a rug of personal grit and determination while also recognizing that there are actions individuals can take that may lead to greater agency and control over their circumstances.

True to Campa's findings that resilience looks and feels different for every person, the Change Maker principals each defined resilience in their own terms. For some, it was about vulnerability and leaning on trusted peers to share personal and professional challenges. For others, developing critical resilience required finding a sense of balance and purpose by simultaneously appreciating incremental gains while keeping systemic change as an ultimate goal.

Across the board we found that resilience was not merely an internal act of "pulling oneself up by their bootstraps" but rather utilizing different sets of strategies, dispositions, and relationships that create a mutually supportive network. The strategies described below include both individual acts (physical and cognitive) as well as collective efforts (social and cognitive).

Three Dimensions of Resilience

In identifying what works for building critical resilience in leaders, we grouped strategies into three dimensions: physical, cognitive, and social.

Physical: One aspect of leader resilience involves attending to physical well-being. Participants reported that their work-related stress resulted in a variety of physical ailments, including high blood pressure, anxiety, alcoholism, and even miscarriages. They noted that being a principal requires neglecting basic needs such as eating regularly, getting enough sleep, and even stopping to breathe.

Through Change Makers, participants engaged in activities such as mindfulness, meditation, and regular exercise. These activities occurred during the monthly meetings, and participants were similarly encouraged to incorporate mindful practices into their daily routines. Although the physical dimension of resilience is inherently individual, practicing activities such as mindfulness alongside their principal colleagues contributed to community building and a sense of collective resilience. Toward the beginning of the Change Maker meetings, one leader recalled, "I kind of chuckled when we were doing a lot of mindfulness. I was like, ‘Oh my god, is this going to be it?’" This leader realized that by making even a small shift in their daily routine to include mindfulness practice (deep breathing, meditation, and visualization exercises), they could use these activities for decompression and self-regulation, such as between phone calls or on the drive home.

Another leader attested to how mindfulness interrupted the "workaholic culture that you could so easily get wrapped into" while another shared that they practiced it in their "office prior to dealing with really hard situations or post having dealt with something." Hearing fellow principals describe how self-care practices helped to increase their resilience encouraged other leaders to dedicate time to their own physical well-being.

Attending to physical well-being required these principals to prioritize self-care activities and deal with the guilt that many of them felt when taking even a few minutes out of their workday for themselves. One participant recalled pride in maintaining a literal "open door policy," but after being continually "ambushed" every morning, felt guilty about the urge to take a moment for themselves. These reflections remind us that resilience requires not only physical changes but shifts in leader mindsets as well.

Cognitive: Principals are tasked with making hundreds of life-altering decisions daily, and are often the sole recipients of confidential, traumatic information. They are responsible for enacting district mandates that may challenge their sense of social justice and are often required to carry out those mandates without sufficient resources. They must do this all while ensuring the physical and social-emotional safety of the children and adults at their schools. Understandably, many principals end up experiencing cognitive overload and begin to operate on "autopilot."

The Change Maker participants found that using various forms of reflective writing to process their leadership challenges contributed greatly to their resilience. Writing took the form of habitual journaling, forecasting and visualizing professional goals, and naming aspects of the job which seem impossible at times. One leader used journaling as a "visioning exercise of where I want to be, my aspirations, and what I'm leading toward." Another noted that reflective writing helped them realize that building resilience "was not just external," and that writing was a form of "social-emotional learning and self-awareness" for leaders.

Participants reported that documenting the weight they hold served as a release valve and a safe space to sort out their most challenging leader dilemmas. As social-emotional learning curricula have gained popularity as a way for students to process trauma, these responses suggest that leaders may benefit from these practices as well. The community of practice provided leaders an opportunity to engage in individual reflective writing, as well as a collective space to share that writing with colleagues.

Social: The social aspect of leader resilience emerged as one of the most important dimensions of the framework. Given the isolating nature of the principalship and the fact that there are no job-alike counterparts on a given school campus, the principal holds responsibility as the one in charge. Even when districts provide space for principals to work in a professional learning community, that time is not necessarily designed as a safe space for leaders to air their frustrations, problem-solve their issues, and admit where they might be feeling less than effective in their role.

Participants highly valued engaging in dialogue with other principals who were experiencing similar job-related challenges. As one participant noted, the network "reminded me that we're all part of this bigger thing we're trying to do, which is helpful." Another saw value in being "able to make connections across districts and across roles in terms of the ways that we were doing the work," something they felt was both "safe" and "probing." Still another jokingly referred to Change Makers as "Principals Anonymous" in that it provided them with clarity regarding the harsh impacts of the principalship and a place to begin to change unhealthy coping behaviors. In short, they found solace in hearing and sharing stories as a way to meet in solidarity, provide thought-partnership, and support each other to work toward sustainability and solutions.

Ongoing Networks of Support

The Change Makers initiative revealed several important considerations and questions regarding networks of support. Aligned with research around high-quality professional learning, this project confirmed that networks of support are most valuable when they occur on a regular basis, over a sustained period of time, with a consistent group of leaders, and when they provide a space to engage in collaborative problem-solving. The principals we worked with developed trusting relationships through dyad discussions and by reading each other's writing about the challenges and triumphs of the principalship.

One participant noted "the more we shared, the more I felt as if I was not alone in this position." Another felt that "… some of the simplest things we did were most effective in supporting each other. Talking [and] identifying common struggles … helped [me] to know that other people whom I respect are going through such similar challenges." The connections that were fostered over time fueled the collective resilience of these administrators in ways that could not be achieved individually or in a one-time workshop.

Participants reported having to pretend in their own district meetings that they had everything under control in order to preserve their professional identity in front of their district colleagues and supervisors. However, meeting with colleagues who work in different schools and districts—in a space that held confidentiality as a norm—allowed the principals to freely share stories of challenges, frustrations, and insecurities.

Connecting around challenges and engaging in problem-solving with principals who work in entirely different contexts than their own proved to be a powerful aspect of the network of support. In this way, the Change Makers project functioned as a way to combat leader isolation, a documented risk factor for leader burnout (Bauer & Silver, 2018). Participants took solace in recognizing that other principals who shared their values of equity and social justice were also struggling to make change at their sites and sometimes even struggling just to get up in the morning and go to work each day.

Are Networks of Support Enough?

A question that was repeatedly raised during the Change Maker meetings is whether building individual and collective resilience (through writing, dialogue, and mindfulness) is enough to address the systemic inequalities that make the job of school leaders so difficult. While we designed activities that were meant to encourage healthy personal habits as well as collective spaces to share, mentor, and network, we also intentionally included discussions about the root causes of their stress. In our first session geared toward practicing meditative breathing exercises, one participant began to question the efficacy of these interventions, stating "Yes, but my response in isolation doesn't change the system or the continual [emotional and professional] attacks." A colleague joined with her, reflecting on what felt like insurmountable systemic inequalities at her district, adding, "I'm supposed to be a change maker. I'm supposed to make a difference."

This tension speaks to the complex nature of resilience and change making in the high-stress environment of school leadership: Resilience is strengthened through individual and collective work, but resilience alone does not necessarily lead to change. School leaders who are committed to change must also engage in a critical analysis of the unjust systems that shape inequitable outcomes at their sites in order to sharpen their equity lens and sustain themselves in the work of social justice leadership. Critical and collective resilience is a key ingredient for leaders who seek systemic change.

Systemic Shifts for True Sustainability

Approaching individual principal resilience from a critical and collective perspective is one way to reimagine the type of support that school leaders need in order to stay in the work. Analyzing their own resilience from a cognitive, physical, and social perspective caused many of these leaders to abandon the autopilot mentality that encouraged them to just keep going. Instead, they paused long enough to consider what they needed to support their sustainability.

While a leader support network serves a necessary function as a release valve to help principals manage their high stress levels, the participants also acknowledged that systemic factors related to the sometimes-unrealistic expectations of the principal role, inadequate resources, and increasing social inequities that impact schools could not be entirely ameliorated. If long-term leader retention is truly a goal, district officials and policymakers will need to reimagine how principals engage in their work and what systemic shifts are necessary to make the work sustainable over time.

References

Bauer, S. C., & Silver, L. (2018). The impact of job isolation on new principals' sense of efficacy, job satisfaction, burnout, and persistence. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(3), 315–331.

Campa, B. (2010). Critical resilience, schooling processes, and the academic success of Mexican Americans in a community college. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 32(3), 429–455.

Goldring, R., & Taie, S. (2018). Principal attrition and mobility: Results from the 2016–17 principal follow up survey first look (NCES 2018-066). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Levin, S., Bradley, K., & Scott, C. (2019). Principal turnover: Insights from current principals. Learning Policy Institute.

Traynor, M. (2018). Guest editorial: What's wrong with resilience. Journal of Research in Nursing, 23(1), 5–8.

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