Staying In The Game: Preventing Principal Burnout

According to this report from School Leaders Network, replacing a single principal can cost a total of $75,000—or more.

Isn’t that a staggering figure? Keep in mind that the $75,000 figure doesn’t include salary…those are just the costs of replacing a principal who doesn’t stay.

If you consider the cost of:

  • Recruitment
  • Hiring
  • Onboarding
  • Training
  • Mentoring
  • New principal professional development

and more, it’s easy to see how the total could reach $75,000 or more (the report, which offers its own breakdown, places the high end of the range at $303,000).

More importantly, it matters for student achievement if principals stay for the long haul.

Student Achievement and Principal Longevity

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Berkeley professor David Kirp about his book Improbable Scholars.

Kirp studied a high-poverty district in NJ that has remarkably high student achievement, considering the challenges its students face in life.

Despite poverty, limited English proficiency, and other challenges, the students in Union City, NJ do as well as their middle-class peers across the state.

What makes the difference in this district?

What struck me most clearly was Union City’s leadership stability—extremely low turnover among principals and senior leaders.

School Culture and Momentum

A strong school culture can withstand a bit of leadership turnover. The more instructional leadership is “distributed” across multiple staff, the more resilient the school will be during times of stress and transition.

But to become a resilient school with strong, distributed leadership…you need leadership stability in the first place. To build the kind of culture that can endure, you need a principal who stays long enough to build momentum.

Why Don’t We Invest In Turnover Prevention?

A lot of districts don’t invest in reducing principal turnover because it’s not a single direct cost.

No invoice marked “principal turnover expenses” ever arrives in the mail.

But that doesn’t make the costs of losing principals any less real.

It matters for the financial bottom line. It matters for students. And it matters for school culture.

Are You Preventing Turnover for Yourself?

But let’s go a step further: rather than wait for your employer to invest in keeping you around, let me ask a more personal question: what are you doing to keep yourself in your current position?

If you’re looking for a new challenge, or if life’s changes move you somewhere new, that’s another matter.

But if you’re burning out—if your job is weighing too heavily on your body, your mind, and your heart—take action.

We’ve all seen what happens when leaders fail to see the warning signs, and are forced by their health to step down.

And we’ve seen what happens when people pull back and disengage to preserve their sanity. It’s pretty obvious when leaders are phoning it in. It might feel like a necessary adjustment, but it’s not fair to students.

If you’re in the game, stay in it 100% by taking care of yourself.

The Stress Equation: Strategies for High-Performance Instructional Leadership

If you need to get your stress level under control, I want to invite you to join me for a free webinar next Wednesday, March 11 at 11am CDT.

The Stress Equation: Strategies for High-Performance Instructional Leadership
9am Pacific
10am Mountain
11am Central
12pm Eastern

In this webinar, you’ll learn how to keep your stress level under control while maximizing your impact on student learning. We’ll explore:

  • Why stress is a choice—and how you can optimize your stress level to help you get more done without burning out.
  • The three factors that create high performance, and how you can put them to work for you.
  • The leadership tool that high-performance principals use for making every decision
  • How to build the overall level of leadership capacity in your school, so you’re not acting alone
  • The research on principal stress and turnover, and what you can do to keep yourself—and other leaders in your district—in the game

Click Here to Register

Seeing Is Believing: The Johari Window & Professional Growth


Know Thyself.

—Ancient Greek proverb, attributed to Socrates

If we’re to improve our practice as educators, we need to know how we’re currently doing, and honestly assess what we need to change.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds, because it’s pretty hard to know yourself.

Heck, I can’t even tell if my shirt’s tag is sticking up, much less identify all of my best opportunities for professional growth.

Plenty of people made fun of Donald Rumsfeld for talking about “known knowns” and “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” but there’s something to all this.

The Johari Window helps us map out the blind spots:

Johari Window Diagram

Feedback from Others

Right away, we can see why getting feedback from others is helpful:

  • It prompts us to take action on “open” areas of growth, that we might already know about but not yet have acted on
  • It gives us a chance to learn about growth edges that we’ve been “blind” to

But opportunities to get feedback from peers are pretty rare in most schools.

Seeking Signals From The Unknown

So how can we peer into our “unknown” areas of practice, if they’re invisible to us and to others who observe us?

Simple: through seeing, firsthand.

If we sit around a table in the library and merely tell each other what goes on in our classrooms, there’s going to be a fair amount of both self-deception and posturing.

And if we just tell ourselves we’re doing great, without ever seeing our own practice—without looking in the mirror—we’re hanging out in the “blind” quadrant.

But if, on the other hand, we actually see ourselves in action, on video, the impact is immediate and dramatic.

We see.

And seeing is believing.

Seeing Is Believing

If you see what I’m actually doing in the classroom, your feedback isn’t just idle opinion.

If I film myself, watch the video, and reflect for a bit on what I actually see, my capacity for self-deception will be diminished, and my opportunities for real growth will increase dramatically.

If I then get your input, and show you the same video, I’m going to blow out the Johari Window. I’m going to have far fewer blind spots and unknowns in my practice—at least, in the aspects of practice that can show up on video.

Note: We Don’t Do This

I’m not saying anything new, here. But I’m advocating for practices that are almost never…well, practiced.

It’s easy to understand why—getting feedback from a peer can be intimidating, not to mention a logistical challenge.

Arranging schedules, finding substitutes, creating a climate of trust—it’s no wonder that virtually everyone believes we should see each other teach, yet virtually no one ever does it.

That’s why we created the Professional Collaboration Challenge—to help you gain greater insights into your own practice, and give and receive helpful feedback around your most important instructional priorities.

Register for the Professional Collaboration Challenge, and we’ll share powerful strategies, tools, and techniques for making collaboration part of your practice, without disrupting your schedule or taking more time out of your day.


Lessons for School Leaders from the Corporate World

It’s been four years since common core burst onto the scene — and tossed the U.S. educational system on its ear.

The standards ushered in an era of reform, marked by increased accountability, new forms of instruction, a change in roles for students and teachers, and new demands for school leaders.

Today’s schools now have to teach all students to high standards. School leaders must now adjust their operations and adopt new practices in order to support emerging pedagogies and ensure deeper learning.

School leaders are responsible to champion and oversee this transition within their buildings.

They must be proficient in educational best practices and adept in finding ways to ensure that their teachers also continue to grow and better meet student needs.

They are no longer simply managers.

The days of principals focusing mainly on the functional aspects of their jobs — staffing, scheduling, discipline and the like — are effectively over.

So how do school leaders achieve this?

I suggest that they borrow a few pages from the business playbook.

1. Articulate clear expectations.

Effective leaders don’t leave success to chance. Know what needs to get done and communicate expectations to employees.

Outline what success looks like and offer examples to ensure that staff members channel their energies effectively towards the right ends.

2. Hold others accountable.

Smart leaders demand accountability. Track projects to ensure they’re staying on schedule and budget. Quickly troubleshoot issues then steer everyone back on track.

For long term projects, ask for regular evidence of progress to avoid missed deadlines and unpleasant surprises.

3. Lead from behind.

The best business leaders engage in servant leadership. Position staff for success by supporting their growth and achievement. Take little to no credit. Instead, focus the spotlight on others and bask in their success.

4. Keep learning.

Today’s business leaders know that they must continue to learn new skills if they are to remain one step ahead.

School leaders must keep learning. New demands and educational paradigms mean that yesterday’s training is not enough to stay current on new research and educational tools.

5. Understand Generation Y.

Millennials represent a very different kind of worker than the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers that preceded them. Business leaders are grappling with this new reality, trying to figure out how best to work with this shifting labor pool.

Millennials have different skill sets, values and professional expectations. They will walk – or not start – if they do not like the work environment or value its mission. If principals are to recruit and retain younger teachers, they must understand the needs and wants of these Gen-Y teachers so they can get the most out of them.

6. Embrace — or at least develop a working knowledge of — all aspects of school function.

Successful business leaders may not have intimate knowledge of every aspect of their company, but they understand that basic fluency of all its components — production, R&D, IT support, etc — is necessary for them to provide focused leadership.

So often, school leaders fall into the mindset of being instructional leaders only, to the exclusion of the other aspects of school function. School leaders must be institutional leaders as well as instructional leaders (though instructional leadership is still their primary task) in order to help their schools succeed in a competitive era with growing constituent expectations.

7. Be results oriented.

The educational landscape is more about results than ever before. This is similar to the corporate world, in which the bottom line serves as the ultimate arbiter of success.

While schools are not businesses and should never become profit-centric institutions, there does need to be more willingness to hold personnel — including leaders — more accountable for results.

8. Invest in success.

Business leaders must invest in their success and the success of their teams. This needs to become a central component of our schools.

School boards must be willing to invest in their leaders, to provide leadership training and coaching to help them successfully achieve their many tasks. This should be targeted, goal-oriented professional development, not simply the “one size fits none” perfunctory training that has become commonplace in schools today.

Without question, this new way of thinking bucks the culture of traditional education and can be difficult for veteran educators to embrace. Schools operate with a unique culture and mission that can be far different than what is found in the business place. A school culture is a protective culture, one that emphasizes longevity — as in tenure — and can oftentimes be resistant to change.

To help foster change, school leaders should take advantage of the readiness of their All-Stars and new teachers, who enter the field with fewer inhibitions that their more seasoned colleagues. Celebrate their successes through memos, congratulate them at faculty meetings or reward them with new authority and other related perks.

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