For Whom the Bell Tolls: Principal Burnout
We all know the curve well. A new principal begins the school year in a new job and, if successful, the change is felt almost immediately. Fresh ideas, innovative programs, and novel solutions to old problems all contribute to an aura of positive energy which sweeps through the hallways and uplifts the school community. So why the reasons for such high principal burnout, leading to such high principal turnover rates?
The initial euphoric situation usually lasts from one to three years. And then the bell takes its toll. The upward curve starts to flatten out and soon after begins to dip. The curve then continues its downward trend, creating the bell curve of principal burnout, or in some cases of principal replacement. The stats on principal turnover tell us that a principal is usually replaced within five years. When a new principal takes his/her place, the curve begins anew.
While the above situation is all too common in educational institutions, it is not the norm in other environments. In the business world, for example, the upward curve usually continues to rise, albeit at a less steep rate, for many years. Top level administration does not suffer anywhere near the high rate of turnover we have with school principal turnover rates. The question is why and what can we do about it?
While a principal in Detroit, I had the great pleasure of working with Fred Leibowitz, an educational consultant who had been the superintendent of Southfield Schools. He had an insightful explanation for the above phenomenon. He claimed — and much of my experience has borne this out — that the difference between the business and education models is not the result of the styles or quality of the leadership, but a symptom of the environments. The business model encourages the continued success of its top level leadership, while the educational model unwittingly ‘punishes’ successful leaders and contributes to their ultimate failure. The principal burnout, and consequent principal turnover rate, reflect this.
The above is true because leaders are by nature visionaries and reformers. They do their best when they are challenged to uplift their institutions and communities and allowed to be creative and innovative. In the business world, when the leader is successful, the business begins to flourish and revenues grow. The curve starts to climb. The infusion of revenue then allows the leader to hire middle management to manage his creative and innovative programs, which, in turn, allows the leader to continue to be creative and innovative. The motto of successful business, ‘Invent, Reinvent, Repeat’, is consistently implemented. The upward curve continues unabated.
However, this does not happen in educational institutions. There is one obvious difference. While the initial success of the educational leader also helps the school grow and flourish, it does not necessarily guarantee an infusion of revenue. Frequently the creative programs initiated by the principal cost the school money, and while they help the school fulfill its mission, they do not help the school make more money. The principal himself or herself must then become the middle manager of his or her successful programs, denying the school a creative and innovative leader. The curve flattens, as the principal, in effect, becomes the victim of his own success. It is now only a question of time until the principal who never really wanted to be a middle manager suffers burnout, or until the principal who isn’t a very good middle manager, is fired. The curve hits bottom.
Now that the source of the problem is clear, solutions are possible. Principals must be fully cognizant of the facts outlined above and plan accordingly. For example, when initiating new programs think ahead as to who will manage the program. Scale back the program if the answer is you. Look at your current staff and try to identify and nurture current employees who could excel in the management role, while costing your school minimal additional expenditure. Most of all, make sure you leave yourself enough time and strength to continue in the role you love and do best and ensure that the only bell you hear is the one that starts the next class. Implementing these ideas can hopefully lead to much lower principal burnout, thereby lowering principal turnover rates.