The Learning Accelerator Blog/Help Your School Leaders Succeed (And Retain Them for the Long Haul)

adult wellbeing professional development deploying and developing experts

Help Your School Leaders Succeed (And Retain Them for the Long Haul)

by Ashley Fellows on August 15 2022

For the last three years, I led my school’s pandemic response — from drafting and rolling out COVID protocols to implementing building health and safety measures — all while leading a community of 600 students and educators through a full return to in-person learning. It was the honor of my professional career but came at a cost to my mental and physical health, and I ultimately reached level-four burnout. I know from firsthand experience that the folks who continue to lead schools are passionate, fiercely hard-working, and tired. They’re also not totally burned out — yet. Retaining these school leaders is perhaps the most urgent need in schools today.

Schools across the country are currently kicking off the 2022-23 school year. For most, it is the fourth year and version of pandemic learning; between virtual, hybrid, and traditional in-person learning, educators have experienced a historic amount of change in their work. The first two years saw tireless efforts to adapt content virtually and engage students through a computer screen. The following school year brought epic battles against absenteeism, mental health, unfinished learning, and challenging behavior — for staff and students alike. As we continue to learn about the pandemic’s impact on students and teachers, we also know with near certainty that more work will be required from schools and those who lead them in the upcoming school year. Throughout these struggles, there has been a lot of focus on how to support students and, more recently, teachers. But one group remains underrepresented in these conversations: school leaders.

Unprecedented levels of stress, work, and, in many cases, failure have led to large numbers of administrators thinking about or actually leaving the profession. As one of them, I have recommendations for those who lead, coach, and work closely with school leaders — not only to help them succeed but to retain them for the long haul. Our school leaders need:

Empathy and an Unwavering Belief in Their Ability To Succeed

Overnight, the pandemic fundamentally shifted the role of a school across the country. School leaders became responsible for ensuring their students were not only academically successful but also fed, connected, safe, and healthy. Presently, they are working around the clock to fill unprecedented vacancies while still leading effective professional development and infusing hope and optimism into their teams for the upcoming year. Critical for school leaders’ longevity and retention, we must ensure they are affirmed, celebrated, and cared for.

How you can help:

  • Check on how your leaders are doing: the parts of their work that are going well, the biggest challenges they face, and how they feel about the state of their school. If you aren’t sure, ask — empathy interviews are a great tool to expand your understanding of the school context. Deepening your understanding of what’s on their “plate” is a humbling experience and will enhance your ability to connect.

  • Value adult wellbeing to the same degree as student wellbeing, if it isn’t already, and consider how you include school leaders as participants, not facilitators, in this process. Leaders desperately need opportunities to monitor and tend to their own mental, physical, and emotional health, and the opportunity to simply engage in this work (versus develop and roll out) is a necessary first step.

Easier Access to Training, Resources, and Partner Organizations

Often school leaders are tasked with doing and knowing it all, but they certainly aren’t alone. When I joined The Learning Accelerator, I was blown away by the programming and funding in the field! In my previous role, I just never had the time to look. Districts can alleviate this pain point by investing time to research, vet, and share resources and professional development related to schools’ needs. This saves time and increases the capacity and effectiveness of school leaders while also deepening the expertise of the district.

How you can help:

  • Invest in high-quality training for school leaders. The pandemic required a brand new set of crisis management skills most leaders had to learn on the fly. Districts should intentionally invest time and finances toward their school leaders’ development to help codify and expand on that learning. Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act can be used for principal training and could strategically address needs and opportunities for the growth of school leaders and their schools. When development is intentional and prioritized, leaders are likely to feel (and be) a lot more successful in their development and management of others.

  • Seek out and connect school leaders with resources and partnerships that could meet their needs, rather than leaving this for leaders to tackle in silos. While it’s true that leaders are likely best positioned to apply and implement in their buildings, that doesn’t mean they need to do the legwork to identify ideas and options. Designate research committees, innovation point people, or networking leads to foster and facilitate best-practice seeking (and sharing).

More People and Partnerships in Buildings

An additional adult presence can infuse new ideas and energy into various parts of the school system. Volunteers and partners can also free up capacity, create momentum, and multiply the effectiveness of school leaders' ideas and initiatives. This has the added benefit of showing our leaders that they are not alone and that there’s a community of folks out there who support them and are willing to help.

How you can help:

  • Consider new ways to engage and include community members, then systemically help your schools organize. Parents and local organizations are deeply invested in helping schools with their immediate needs, and for every “jackhammer parent,” there are many parents who want nothing more than to support their schools in any way needed. Whether hosting or supporting annual events, recruiting volunteers, serving as mentors to students, or leading a guest-speaker series, the community is well-situated to mobilize resources for the non-instructional needs of a school. Districts can often help foster or even systematize this support for schools through working groups or developing community engagement roles.

  • The number of teacher vacancies means that, at least early on, school leaders will need more background-checked adults in their buildings, and in-person presence from district personnel can go a long way to meeting those needs. One extra person at lunch duty, subbing a class, or providing an adult presence in the halls means the school leader doesn’t have to do it themselves and can focus instead on hiring and coaching teachers. Non-academic time on campus (e.g., transitions, before/after school, lunch) is also an opportunity to gain valuable insight into a school’s culture and community — conditions that also impact academic success.

If we want to retain the talented, deeply committed, and experienced folks still in the education community, a top priority should be to act urgently to support school leaders. Those who directly work with principals and other administrators are perhaps best positioned to provide the support needed to protect their limited capacity and allow space to tend to their well-being. They are our best bet at rebuilding and reshaping the post-pandemic world of K-12 education, and we should go to great lengths to take care of and retain them.

About the Author

Ashley Fellows is the Partner, Practitioner of Learning at The Learning Accelerator. She brings over a decade of experience in teaching, coaching, and school leadership in service of equitable outcomes for all children.