Some educators are behaving badly. Here’s how to help them out

A connection can perhaps be made to surging stress levels caused by pandemics and politics.

There has been a string of principal and superintendent arrests over the last few months.

One principal is seen on video aggressively shoving a California elementary school student onto a cafeteria floor. The former administrator, Brian Vollhardt, was fired and charged with willful cruelty to a minor, officials said.

Earlier this summer, Douglas J. Petty, the superintendent of Lodi Public Schools in New Jersey, was arrested and charged with assault after multiple reports alleged that he punched a woman during a late-night altercation at the Jersey Shore.

In early September, James Callane resigned from the superintendent’s post at Maconaquah School Corporation after he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and leaving the scene of a single-vehicle crash according to multiple media reports.

Then there’s the Utah bus driver who was caught on video threatening to shoot students if they kept complaining about her missing a turn. The driver was placed on leave but, as of last week, was not facing any criminal charges.

While educators across the country are grappling with a sharp increase in problematic student behavior, there’s been a disturbing number of cases where administrators and other K-12 staff are also running into trouble. A connection could arguably be made to the surging stress levels reported by many educators as the pandemic dragged on and political battles erupted over masks and vaccines, race issues, and LGBTQ rights, among others.

One in two principals is now considering a career change or retirement, according to an August survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Principals expressed that they’d like to spend more time with students and supporting teachers but too often get caught up in “paperwork.”

The solutions start with providing principals with more information about the signs of burnout and emotional exhaustion, followed by guidance on coping strategies. “They can be reluctant to go to a supervisor who is also evaluating them or holding them accountable,” said David E. DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. They will also benefit from knowing there’s someone—such as a coach rather than a supervisor—to whom they can reach out when they are struggling.

Central office administrators should also encourage principals to create self-care plans and participate in wellness activities with other building learners. District leaders can also try to reduce distraction by, for instance, limiting the number of central office staff who can email principals. Administrators can also reduce pressure on principals by raising pay for teachers and substitutes to ensure schools have sufficient staff.

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District leaders should also give principals the resources and autonomy to support the well-being of teachers and students, such as by hiring more counseling and mental health staff. Leaders should also consider hiring such staff to support principals, a report by the RAND Corporation research think tank suggested earlier this year.

Weekly meetings with principals are how Superintendent Christopher Parker and his executive team at The Public Schools of Petoskey in Michigan are showing support for building leaders. The conversations generally focus on what principals and their schools need and how administrators can help principals recharge. “We try to make sure they can keep their headspace as clear as possible so they can focus on the kids and health of staff without a lot of administrative stuff thrown in their way by the central office,” he says.

Superintendent arrests and stress

Nearly all of the superintendents surveyed by the RAND Corporation this spring said their work had gotten harder, but most of them–85%–also said they are satisfied with their jobs. However, they also cited job-related stress and community politics as reasons they would consider leaving their position.

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Currently, there appear to be fewer candidates for more open superintendents’ positions than there have been in the past. The twin pressures of the pandemic and sharp political divisiveness are among the key reasons veterans and less experienced leaders alike are choosing to abandon their posts, creating “as tight a labor market as I have ever witnessed,” says Paul Gausman, who started as superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska after leading Sioux City Community Schools in Iowa for 14 years.

“This is a tricky time in education,” he says. “The service to students has become more politicized, and many boards have shown the same political divisiveness that we see in the rest of the country.”

And yet, superintendents’ level of contentment has far exceeded that of the wider workforce, where 45% to 60% of workers said they are satisfied with their jobs in polls conducted over the last two decades, according to RAND’s analysis.

Still, school boards and K-12 leader preparation programs recommit to developing strong, collaborative senior teams that can take some of the administrative load off superintendents, RAND suggested. Education associations and superintendent certification programs should also be scrutinizing superintendent pipelines to determine how attractive the job remains, the specific reasons that superintendents leave, and whether there are enough candidates to replace leaders as they retire.

“The high rate of job satisfaction among current sitting superintendents is reassuring and makes us less concerned about a possible mass exodus,” the researchers wrote. “But there are still concerns about the long-term health of the superintendency.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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