Principals, Get Your Irish On
Robert Evans, Ed.D.
At last year’s conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network, in Dublin, I had three surprises. The third was that at 3:00 a.m. more than 300 of the 1,200 attendees were in the hotel lounge, drinking Guinness, chatting, laughing, and enjoying themselves. The second had occurred earlier at a reception where we sang old Irish tunes for an hour. At principals conferences in the U.S. I’ve never known anywhere near 25% of the attendees to be up so late—or to sing. Clearly, Irish principals are different. Does this mean that they’re happy and healthy? Alas, no.
I had discovered this earlier that day when an Australian researcher, Philip Riley, presented a survey of the Irish principals’ well-being1 and delivered the first—and biggest—surprise. 831 principals and assistant principals completed the survey. Their results, which are more than grim, match those of nearly 4,000 school leaders in Australia whom Riley has studied2 and cast into bold relief similar issues for their American counterparts.
The Irish principals scored very low on all positive measures of well-being (health, happiness, mental health, coping, relationships, self-worth), and very high on all negative measures (burnout, sleep troubles, depression, stress). Roughly half work at least 56 hours per week; many average 66. During vacations, most work more than 25 hours per week. Compared to the general population they experience much more frequent bullying, threats of violence, and actual violence.
I was struck by how accurately most of this would fit American principals. But the shock came after Riley told the audience that the stress levels they reported were consistent with producing high amounts of the damaging stress hormone cortisol, which meant that they were unlikely to be sleeping well or to recover rapidly after a difficult day (heads were nodding throughout the hall) when he added, “Stress indicators this high are also associated with a shortened life span.” Everything went quiet. Dead quiet. We were all stunned.
I thought of all the gallows humor, the this-job-is-killing-me stories and jokes I hear in the sessions and hallways when American principals gather. Suddenly these didn’t seem like just hyperbole. I thought of the 2012 Metlife Survey of U.S. principals, where 75% said the job has become too complex and nearly 50% said they feel under great stress.3
I also thought of my conversations with retired principals, most of whom say: My blood pressure’s down; I’m sleeping better; I’m exercising more; I’m spending more time with my spouse, and so on. They sometimes miss school, especially the students, but there’s much they don’t miss and their well-being has improved. When they look back many say that, over their career, the major change in education—more precisely, the major consequence of changes in education—was the declining quality of their lives.
For Riley’s Irish and Australian principals, just as for their American peers, the key stressor is “the sheer quantity of work, closely followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning.” (Only 42% of U.S. principals told Metlife they had significant influence over curriculum and instruction.) In his address at the previous year’s Dublin conference, Sean Cottrell, the Executive Director of the Principals Network, had bluntly told Ireland’s Minister of Education that “the biggest threat to the quality of children’s learning [is] the initiative fatigue that is draining morale from teachers and principals.” He noted that even the most competent leaders will eventually buckle if their workload keeps increasing, adding, “if a principal treated staff in this way, it could justifiably be called bullying.”4
Ireland’s economy and its schools’ budgets have been hit harder than ours. But for far too many U.S. principals things are bleak. Initiative fatigue is ubiquitous. Even assuming good intentions on the part of the critics, policymakers, and politicians who have subjected our schools to relentless increases in expectation, regulation, and testing, the effect of these pressures—accompanied, as they are, by blame and threat—does verge on bullying. No wonder so many principals have been retiring early; no wonder the applicant pools for their positions are dwindling.
Here’s a questionnaire I now ask audiences of principals. Score yourself from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree).
- I generally sleep soundly.
- I spend enough time with family and friends.
- I’m not worried about my health.
- I don’t feel guilty about missing school for my own professional growth.
- I take my full vacation and don’t work during it.
- Most weeks I receive at least one professional compliment.
- Someone above me cares about my development.
- Each day I get to do what I’m best at and care most about.
The best score is 8, the worst, 40. As I ask the questions uneasy laughter builds. As people total their results, which tend to cluster in the 30’s, the room grows quiet. Invariably, some principals won’t reveal their scores.
Needless to say, this questionnaire is not scientific. Its purpose is to dramatize a point: the job of principal is increasingly undoable. If we truly wanted to attract and retain the best and brightest principals and insure their success we would focus on making their jobs more doable.
In this regard, the last two items in the questionnaire have a specific source. As Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, has reported in these pages, voluminous research shows that the two key elements for success in work and life are “having someone who cares about your development and having an opportunity to do what you do best every day.” This is especially true, he argues, for students and teachers—and, I would add, for principals. Rather than concentrating on correcting weaknesses, Busteed says, “the most successful people focus primarily on building on what they're naturally good at and turning those talents into strengths.”5
This finding appears repeatedly in the management literature—and is just as repeatedly ignored by policymakers and regulators who continue to foster initiative fatigue, to emphasize deficits in schools’ performance, to minimize the crucial impact of negative non-school influences on students, and to make even the principals of high-performing schools feel like targets.
If, as seems likely, these trends continue, principals will need all the stress relief they can get. Sadly, they seem to be availing themselves of this less. State associations of principals and other professional organizations report that attendance at their conferences is declining. Principals feel too harried to take time away, to devote themselves to precisely what they need: renewal.
Stress is almost always intensified by isolation, and almost always reduced by connection and support (not to mention Guinness and singing). This is especially true when one has little control over the sources of stress. Connection and support are not just niceties: they are life-sustaining and competence-enhancing.
In Dublin, the Guinness, the socializing, and the singing weren’t responses to Philip Riley’s findings—they are regular features of the conference—but they certainly made sense in light of those findings. So long as American principals remain under siege, they would do well to get their Irish on.
This essay appeared, in slightly different form, in the March 30, 2016, issue of Education Week. Robert Evans, a psychologist and school consultant, is the Executive Director of the Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass. He can be reached at www.robevans.org.
1 Riley, Philip, “Irish Principals & Deputy Principals Occupational Health, Safety & Wellbeing Survey.” January, 2015. http://www.principalhealth.org/ie/2015_Final_Report_Ireland.pdf
2 Riley, Philip, “Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety & Wellbeing Survey.” December 4, 2014. http://www.principalhealth.org/au/2011-14%20Report_FINAL.pdf.
3 The Metlife Survey of The American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership.” February, 2013. https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf.
4 Cottrell, Sean, Address to the 2014 Conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network. Personal communication.
5 Busteed, Brandon, “Show Students You Care: It Makes a Difference." September 30, 2014. Education Week, pp. 26, 32.