Let’s Talk About Urban School Principal Mental Health

By Lumar Vargas

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The competing demands of public education in high-paced environments have left many urban school principals at risk of burnout. This becomes more than just a personal issue because their mental and emotional health also impacts the well- being of teachers and ultimately students. In addition, principals are the visionary leaders responsible for transforming urban schools by influencing school culture, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, and cultivating academic growth in students. When teacher burnout is discussed and researched, school leaders are often overlooked. How we invest in school leaders now and in the future could answer questions about their longevity and success in public education.

At-Risk Urban School Principals

A results-driven culture often does not stop to check on the mental health and well-being of its leaders, the ones who ultimately determine the quality of their schools. One factor affecting the mental and emotional health of school leaders is a shortage of personnel (Persson et al., 2021). According to RAND, one in four teachers surveyed in 2021 said they were likely to quit their jobs (Steiner & Woo, 2021). The crisis of teachers leaving education can be traced in part to the problems continually faced by those urban principals who are themselves at risk of work overload, chronic stress, and exhaustion disorder. A principal’s ­inability to lead with strong emotional competency while working under anxiety-inducing circumstances can cause secondary effects on their staff and students (Persson et al., 2021). Teachers are more likely to leave the field and the experience of workplace abuse when under the leadership of an emotionally and mentally exhausted school leader (Al-Mahdy et al., 2016). 

A cross-sectional study of principals from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and the United States found that one-third of the principals met the exhaustion criteria and that one out of four principals showed severe stress signs (Persson et al., 2021). The exhaustion and stress stem from unrealistic expectations and increased pressures, requiring principals to function at high-stress peaks for extended periods with little rest. To counter this, human resource departments—along with the assistance and support of school boards and district personnel—should implement mental health policies and programs to help protect employee well-being and proactively intervene against principal burnout (Rajgopal, 2010).

Why Are Urban Principals Mentally Exhausted?

An urban school leader often has an exhausting to-do list of operational management tasks, usually with an early start and late finish to each day. Principals have to manage conflicting priorities with multiple stakeholders, instructional demands, and staff absenteeism, all of which may be exacerbated by systemic racism and poverty within the school’s district. 

There are also pressures felt by principals from beyond the school, as they are the face of the school in the public eye (Crawford & Earley, 2011). A principal’s name is attached to public data measures that determine school perception, school funding, and school closures. Beyond report cards and test scores, the professional development and human resource allocation of their school’s workforce is contingent upon their overall leadership competency. Even when a school has a complete cohort of assistant principals, deans, and support staff, the responsibility for managing the full range of the school’s internal and public-facing activities rests on the shoulders of its principal. 

Urban school administrators are often high-achieving, self-driven, and ambitious individuals. Like many transformational leaders, they promote change in individuals and systems, but in doing so, they may forget themselves in the process. To ensure sustainable long-term performance for an administrator serving in a public education leadership role, a first step may be practicing a better work-life balance and prioritizing a culture of mental health (Al-Mahdy et al., 2016).

Ignoring Mental Health Is Costly

While mental health coverage can be costly, research indicates the benefits outweigh the costs (Greenfield et al., 2004). Investing in mental health care proactively can increase overall productivity, retention, and employee satisfaction (Porter et al., 2019). When employers do not directly invest in mental health proactively, they could see increased staff absenteeism and additional medical costs for mental health disorders (Porter et al., 2019). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of adults suffer from mental illness and 16.2 million adults had at least one depressive episode in 2016 (Lehoczky, 2018). Keep in mind that these numbers were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated mental and emotional health needs and made it necessary for organizations to prioritize wellness in their company culture (Lehoczky, 2018). 

Not only does poor mental health take a toll on workplace performance, employee satisfaction, and increased turnover, but it can also cause physical health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular concerns, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, and psychological dis­orders (Rajgopal, 2010). These conditions, in turn, can lead to an increase in teachers using sick time as well as taking mental health days to recover from the stressful environments in which they work. When teachers call in sick, schools must then locate and pay substitute teachers who may not carry the appropriate credentials to teach a subject area. Some districts could end up paying their teachers on staff to cover additional classes, causing them to overextend their capacity. School leaders may also be called on to cover classes for unavailable teachers while continuing to manage the instructional, operational, and administrative demands of the school, adding hours and additional stress to their day.

Principals are mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, and citizens who need to exist with balance and care in a myriad of other circles outside of their school responsibilities. Organizations across the country are exploring the impact of employee mental health on productivity and quality of life and implementing policies to ensure their retention and well-being. In theory, schools are operated by, resourced by, serviced by, and designed for individuals (Cerit, 2009), yet they seem to operate as places where goods and services are exchanged and that are continuously fast paced, results driven, and centered on outcomes that measure growth. These growth measures are necessary for accountability, but in ensuring that organizations achieve appropriate SMART goals, the mental and emotional health of their employees should be in the forefront as well (Rajgopal, 2010). The tug-of-war between ensuring the longevity of quality school leaders and the need to meet production no matter the cost needs to be closely monitored.

Surveying Urban School Principals About Their Mental Health

The mental wellness of educators has been explored in K–12 schools in the United States as part of ongoing efforts to establish a positive school culture, but it may be time to name what such a culture requires: mental and emotional energy. Districts invest considerable resources, such as time and money, in academic programs to overcome the barriers impacting public education. However, school leaders and teachers have the most influence in terms of the quality of education students receive (Cerit, 2009). Why not then also invest in their mental and emotional energy? 

Asking school leaders what their needs are would be a first step. With this in mind, we conducted a survey (Vargas, 2022). It was not intended to be one of strict scientific design—elements were not systematically varied nor were principals randomly assigned to experimental and control groups. Instead, the survey’s purpose was to identify any trends that emerged as they related to the mental health of the principals. Because of these conditions, and considering the small sample size, rival interpretations of conclusions are open to debate.

What the Survey Revealed

The survey link was emailed to approximately 50 urban school leaders with varying levels of experience in Ohio public and charter schools. This survey was an attempt to help better understand the urban school leaders’ experience and what their mental health needs might be in order to better support them as they navigate the demands of public education. Six themes emerged from the survey:

  1. Principals actively supported by mentors were more likely to experience satisfaction with work-life balance.
  2. In addition to being the lead visionaries of public schools, urban principals held a minimum of four leadership identities simultaneously that required time outside of school. These identities included spouse, parent, graduate student, spiritual or church leader, and caretaker of a family member.
  3. Most urban school principals have lost the art of resting and recharging. Fifty percent of the principals surveyed were unable to remember the last time they went on vacation, or they had not taken a vacation in the last three years. 
  4. Of those surveyed, 75 percent of respondents worked over 60 hours a week at their school. Note that this did not reflect the amount of time required for any additional leadership roles in their community. 
  5. In response to a survey question regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, 75 percent of the principals reported that their district proactively shared information about employee mental health benefits (including employee counseling services, mental health education services, emotional health partnerships for staff, or discounted mental health prescription coverage). 
  6. Mental exhaustion was experienced occasionally to daily for 83 percent of the urban school leaders.

Supporting School Leaders

While more in-depth studies using larger data pools are needed, some steps have been offered to provide help to urban principals. Superville (2021) suggests starting with simple changes such as establishing support groups made up of urban principals and school districts offering professional development and resources geared toward principals. There are personal steps principals can take, too, including planning events with family and friends outside of the school, practicing mindfulness and meditation, or engaging in activities as simple as walking or jogging to get some exercise (DeWitt, 2020).

Incorporating social and emotional learning techniques can provide support for principals and open communication lines with staff. For example, installing Morning Meeting practices in staff meetings offers opportunities for teachers and administrators to talk with one another and build relationships (Korab & Douglas, 2022).

It is important to note that while social and emotional learning can support positive mental health, it is not used to diagnose or deliver mental health services:

By promoting responsive relationships, emotionally safe environments, and skills development, SEL cultivates important “protective factors” to buffer against mental health risks. In this way, SEL is an indispensable part of student mental health and wellness, helping to improve attitudes about self and others while decreasing emotional distress and risky behaviors. SEL should be implemented as part of a system of mental wellness supports and resources that include promotion, prevention, early intervention, and treatment. (CASEL, n.d.)

Summary

Principals are lead visionaries who have an impact on teacher success and ultimately the quality of education students will receive (Cerit, 2009). The mental exhaustion and stress felt by a principal can result in teacher turnover and an inconsistent quality of leadership. Because principals are managers of human resources, their mental health is a key factor in retaining and developing effective teachers. 

There has been extensive research on teacher burnout, but urban principals have for the most part been overlooked. Schools invest in professional development to increase student outcomes, and districts provide teachers with ongoing professional development. However, a deeper exploration of urban principal mental health and burnout is as crucial as the research on teacher burnout has been. We need to talk about urban principal mental health, formally and informally, and explore the growing needs of our leaders. We cannot afford to continue to forget them.

See articles references here.

Lumar Vargas

Lumar Vargas is the managing director of leadership and development for Teach for America, coaching teachers in Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, Ohio. She is currently working on a PhD in urban educational leadership. Lumar holds an MEd in educational administration and principal license, a BA in education, and a certificate in theology. She has served as a middle school and high school teacher and as a school leader. Lumar is a licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene.

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