What Drives Turnover Among School Principals?

Source: Virginia Principal Retention, Attrition and Mobility Study

by James A. Bacon

Most principals of Virginia public schools — 70% — are “generally satisfied” with their jobs, although half work 60 or more hours and two-thirds feel like they spend most of their time solving immediate problems rather than creating great schools. Those are some of the findings of a survey of 467 public school principals by the Virginia Foundation for Educational leadership.

However, one in seven (14%) responded that “the stress and disappointments involved in being a principal at this school aren’t really worth it,” and one out of four (26%) said they did not have as much enthusiasm for the job as when they began. Remarkably, one in ten (11%) answered, “I think about staying home from school because I’m just too tired to go.”

A significant issue for many principals is school discipline. Four out of five (81%) reported the necessity of dealing with student acts of disrespect for teachers at least once a month, and more than half (53%) deal with physical conflicts among students at least monthly. Large percentages also reported student bullying and verbal abuse of teachers.

However, only six percent said their schools had experienced “widespread disorder in classrooms.”

The purpose of the study, “Virginia Principal Retention, Attrition and Mobility Study,” was to gain insight into “why excessive turnover exists and the relationship between principal turnover and various features of the principalship; which principals are most likely to leave; and which schools are more vulnerable to principal turnover.”

The study highlighted several influences on principal burnout and turnover. Twenty-three percent of principles were concerned by high turnover in central office staff in their division, and 28% said there is not enough central office staff to support them in their role. Likewise, 41% of high school principals, 49% of middle school principals and 57% of elementary principals stated they do not have adequate student services personnel at their school — a finding the study authors found “significant.”

While there has been some movement to increase the number of counselors and support personnel, the evidence continues to demonstrate that our young people are challenged in many different ways. Trauma-informed care, mental health support, conflict resolution, and direct and virtual bullying intervention are areas in which students consistently need help. Requiring teachers and principals to take a course or complete a module cannot sufficiently prepare them to deal with students who are facing these types of serious issues. Students in crisis need trained personnel.

The report also found that roughly a third of principals say their administrative teams are inadequate to support faculty and staff. “A deeper analysis,” the study suggested, “could reveal the need for higher ratios of assistant principals per school [and] additional counselors, social workers, and school psychologists.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The study generated considerable useful information, although it strikes me that follow-up analysis could provide even more insight. For instance, the study did not correlate the principals’ responses with different categories of schools, either by the size of the school; urban, rural, suburban classification of the school district; racial or socioeconomic composition of the school; or level of spending either in the school or district. Likewise, the study provided no sense of whether the principals’ perceptions have changed over time. Is morale getting better or worse? Are the staffing or disciplinary problems easing or intensifying?

I hypothesize that there is a meaningful correlation between principal morale, turnover and retention on the one hand and the composition of the student body on the other; schools with higher percentages of low-income “disadvantaged” students, blacks and Hispanics, and students with disabilities suffer more disruption requiring principals to spend more of their time dealing with disciplinary issues.

It appears that schools suffer from a severe case of mission creep. Once upon a time, the mission of schools was to instruct students in English, math, science, and history. There was a clear focus. Students who didn’t get with the program were expelled from class, suspended, or even referred to law enforcement. Teachers spent more time teaching. Now schools have become vehicles for social justice. Not only do teachers teach the willing, in the quest for equal outcomes between ethnic/racial groups they are required to teach the unwilling. Schools are expected to remedy behavioral issues arising from dysfunctional families and neighborhood environments.

Principals and teachers have spent their careers learning how to teach, not solve broader societal issues stemming from poverty, familial breakdown and social injustice. It is a testament to their dedication that burnout and turnover isn’t worse.

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14 responses to “What Drives Turnover Among School Principals?

  1. How’s it compare with other professions? I mean look at suicides in dentists.

  2. It’s my sense that in return for the thankless jobs they do, principals are at least given some pretty good job protection. If something goes awry at their schools, they always seem to land in some undefined, hastily created position in the school system administration where they are given time to “re-invent” themselves. After the smoke has cleared, they usually find a job in another school system, fresh with new ideas to “fix” a school, install a new culture, or otherwise give hope that this time it will be different.

    I see the same tendency in other local government positions–most notably county administrators and police chiefs. Once you’re in the “club,” you’re golden. You seldom stay anywhere long enough to see your plans given time to be fairly evaluated or to face accountability. You’re always in the hunt when the inevitable “nationwide” search is conducted.

    To be fair, it’s not much different than the CEO Club in the private sector.

  3. I see many Principals more as equivalents of COOs, rather than instructors. They seem to pretty much run the school – not just the instructional side but operations like the cafeteria, library, custodians,. substitute teachers, paras, etc.

    They surely need to have roots as classroom teachers. One that I was familiar with was particularly good in that he would sit down with each teacher and go over each kid’s performance in his/her class and if they were on the edge – take actions (like getting additional reading help, etc).

    That Principal increased the SOL scores at that school by 20 points and of course got transferred to another school with low SOL scores to do the same there, then got booted to a District Administrator for “Instruction” position.

    I also know principals that failed at that job and went back to classroom and one of them ran for BOS while another who remained a principal also ran for BOS and got elected – which has led to some interesting discussions at the BOS level over school issues and funding!

  4. ” need for higher ratios of assistant principals per school [and] additional counselors, social workers, and school psychologists.” Exactly what the GOP said last spring that we need. They won’t fund that,, though

  5. The study may have delved into this data, but there is no indication here of what is the turnover rate. And not just the rate that principals leave, but analysis of where they go. Do they transfer to higher-paying jurisdictions? Do they get bumped upstairs to a position in the central administration? Is there a large group that happens hit retirement age about the same time?

    Finally, you state a hypothesis and then, with no evidence, announce a conclusion: “Schools with higher percentages of low-income “disadvantaged” students, blacks and Hispanics, and students with disabilities suffer more disruption requiring principals to spend more of their time dealing with disciplinary issues”, thus leading to turnover.

    • yeah, saw that… it’s a familiar theme in BR

      All these poor and brown disadvantaged kids that cause all sorts of problems.

      One other thing that most principals do – most work 12 months …

      Teachers come back in the fall (usually) and POOF! they got an assigned class of kids – presto magic !

    • What you interpret as a conclusion is a continuation of my hypothesis. Perhaps I should have used a semicolon instead of a period between the two sentences.

      • Just a quick observation. Burnout is usually predicated on boredom and frustration. I would guess the antithesis is true. That Principals in the intercities are the last to burnout. They have the greatest opportunity to make a difference. Look at the medical fields. Lots of burnouts there. Gotta be tough looking at the same body parts over and over.

        Here’s to the colorectal surgeon
        Misunderstood and much maligned
        Slaving away in the heart of darkness
        Working where the sun don’t shine.

        When he was in med school, and thinking of the future when he could take time to get in 18 holes, you just know he must’ve had golf in mind.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Elementary principals have a tough job, but when the last bell rings they get to go home. Middle school principals have some additional responsibilities due to a limited number of after school events.

    High school principals. The best ones live the job. They are always there. There are so many events that occur at the high school level and administrators have to provide coverage, supervision, and be ready to deal with issues. Athletics, band, drama, clubs, and events of all kinds. On call Saturday and Sunday too. It becomes a marriage. Summers give the principals about 8 weeks to recharge with quiet business hours. I have worked for some great leaders and I don’t know where they find the energy to do what must be done. The stress of dealing with hundreds of teachers and thousands of parents/students is mind boggling. When you get that many people under one roof crazy things happen and the principal is the fixer. That is their number one job.

    • Actually, I know many middle and elementary principals that live at their schools. Keep in mind that elementary principals follow much more data much more closely. 300 students, 300 different paths to reading on grade level. Middle school principals spend most of their day with students and after school they have the same district reports as high schools principals.

    • James, as a special ed teacher, I left secondary after eleven years and moved to elementary. I was in shock when I saw the principal cleaning lunch tables. . The principal, best ever, made sure all teachers had an unencumbered lunch by supervising our students at lunch from 11 to 1. She came in at 6 am and never left before 8. We never saw the top of her desk, the exterminator complained it was a rats nest. She supervised breakfast so we could have an unencumbered planning time. She even killed a 5 ft copperhead with a hoe laying in wait at the kindergarten door right before the students left for lunch. We had no maintenance person until 3:00, but we had a school nurse and counselor. Guess who helped with cleaning up messes during flu season? 100 percent free lunch, not reduced in Petersburg. School sits between two projects behind an adult book store with live peep shows. Tough. If we needed something, we got it. She made sure someone came to our room for any needed bathroom break. I learned more about instruction from her leadership than I did throughout my education ending in a doctorate from the College of William and Msry, her alma mater. After nine years with her, she retired. I went back to high school. I was nine years older too and needed a break! Inspiring principal.

  7. Clearly, there’s only one solution, ritalin in the lemonade, or maybe a little bourbon in the coffee.

  8. The follow-up white paper will provide the details you asked for. We looked specifically at what those who are satisfied said as compared to those that are not. We did look at poverty and superintendent turnover. What is most alarming to me is number of principals that are aging out. I will keep you posted. There is a public link to all data as well. Thanks for your comments!!

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