Despite vaccinations being distributed in record-breaking time, the COVID surge continues to be a wearisome reality for the third consecutive school year. The ongoing pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis evoking strong and divisive emotions and disrupting PreK-12 education. A school principal leading in these demanding and chaotic circumstances faces relentless pressures, limited options, and sleepless nights.
Emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue have eroded school leaders’ job satisfaction, as evidenced by 42% of U.S. principals indicating they were considering leaving their position and 70% stating they had felt close to their breaking point (NASSP & LPI, 2020). A veteran Iowa school principal lamented, “I have been a principal for 20 years, and this was, by far, the most taxing year on me professionally, emotionally, and physically. I would have to change things in all three categories in order to survive another year in a pandemic.”
School leaders have carried the weighty responsibility for adhering to pandemic responses, processes, procedures, and protocols, many of which have changed overnight. Principal leadership has been critical to guiding school teams while avoiding professional burnout. To learn more, we administered a survey, which was completed by over 350 Iowa administrators, which found that leaders who not only thrive in uncertainty but retain positive job satisfaction demonstrate four vital leadership traits: purpose-driven, self-care, self-awareness, and self-efficacy.
To withstand adversity, leaders must hold firmly to their WHY. Effective school leaders are in the field due to their genuine care for students and belief in education as a lever for a better future. To quote one school principal from our survey, “Remember why you are in this profession…to serve students and see them grow and flourish through good times and bad times…to make a positive difference and impact on the lives of those we serve daily.”
School leaders are encouraged to visit classrooms, interact with students, and play alongside early learners. These brief moments with students can be meaningful reminders to leaders for why they got into education in the first place. Principals need to “Keep your eyes on the prize… Learning/growth opportunities exist within any problem or challenge presented.” Disruptions to the school year may require school leaders to find new ways to measure progress versus traditional attendance monitoring practices and standardized assessment results.
School leaders credit job satisfaction through the pandemic to “Mindfulness and wellness professional development.” Mental well-being practices can be enhanced through investing in meditation, focusing on gratitude, and participating in counseling or therapy. One school principal shared, “I have picked up reading again. Both for enjoyment and professionally, it has fulfilled my learning desire and stress relief.” Physical health is maintained through exercise; multiple principals even suggested walking to work as a great time to reflect and destress.
Efforts to establish work-life balance include: “I now close my door for lunch and sit by myself – not available to my staff for 30 minutes…” At home, establish boundaries and disconnect whenever possible; no laptop, no phone, no decision-making, allowing for more time with family and to feel more present. One administrator shared, “ I have…stopped reading emails past 8:00 p.m. on the weekdays. I also don’t read them from Friday at 5:00 (p.m.) until Sunday at 8:00 (p.m.). This ensured that an email did not ruin my weekend or my sleep.”
Self-awareness encompasses knowing your own strengths and areas for growth as well as how others perceive you. Heightened self awareness improves self regulation, which allows us to thrive in community and relationships. A school leader explained, “I have also began to journal on a regular basis; getting the emotions of the day out on paper helps me to let the situations go.” Administrators who recognize their strengths and weaknesses while acknowledging their thoughts and feelings can make better quality decisions than those who do not.
Reflection, journaling, and practicing mindfulness allow leaders to both recharge and flourish in the face of seemingly never-ending to-do lists, approaching deadlines, and moments of contention that require an administrator’s decision. A school leader advised, “Take time to reflect and not to be so reactionary” as critical to leading through difficult change. Another administrator shared the benefit of his commitment to appreciating the good things in life during challenging times, “I keep a gratitude journal which I write in daily.”
Administrators’ belief in their ability to be effective emboldened them to persevere when leading through a pandemic. One school principal shared, “I feel confident in what I am doing….The pandemic really hasn’t been a huge issue. I think we navigated the challenges quite well.” This optimism was echoed by other principals, stating they felt self-assured in their work during the pandemic. Simply stated, if leaders hold self-efficacy, they are more satisfied in their job and less emotionally exhausted (Meyer & Schermuly, 2011).
Leaders are encouraged to invest in collective efficacy, shared with stakeholders and centered around student and staff success. In reference to the pandemic, a school leader recommended: “Everybody is talking about the word ‘unprecedented,’ but you have been through many trials and tribulations. Focus on your precedents. Lean on your experiences. Combine them. The knowledge you gained from them will be more than sufficient to help you lead during the pandemic. Trust them.”
As school administrators continue to navigate uncertain times, being purpose-driven, self-care, self-awareness, and self-efficacy will be critical to effectively support the communities they serve while maintaining high job satisfaction.
National Association of Secondary School Principals, Learning Policy Institute. (2020).
Meyer, B. & Schermuly, C. (2011). Effects of vice-principals’ psychological empowerment on
job satisfaction and burnout. International Journal of Educational Management. 25. 252-264. 10.1108/09513541111120097.
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