Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting.

In 2011, the LA School Board took over Henry Clay Middle School on 122nd and Western Avenue in South L.A., one of the most historically troubled schools in the city, with chronically low test scores and continual issues on campus of absenteeism, fighting and chaos. The board turned the school over to the Green Dot charter system. Green Dot divided the school into two separate, smaller schools, renamed them and gave each its own principal. Nat was asked to be principal of one of them.

Now, after three years as Principal of Animo Phillis Wheatley, he’s leaving the job to go back to being a classroom teacher. By all accounts, his stint at the school has been successful. Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job?

Amidst the boxes, in the empty office, he reflects on his three years at the school. “The first year was a shock,” he says frankly. “In retrospect, we were a little naïve about what we were getting into.” Unlike many schools in South Los Angeles, Animo Phillis Wheatley has a large percentage of parents who themselves attended the school back when it was Henry Clay. “Henry Clay used to be synonymous with getting your ass kicked. ‘I survived Henry Clay’ is a saying around here among some of the parents. Older members of the community remember it from the sixties, they were fond of the programs and things that were happening, but it was never an amazing place. My vision was that this neighborhood deserves a great school as much as any neighborhood.”

Despite his vision and optimism, change was not easy, especially the first year. “The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.” Nat was taken aback to find that 18% of the students were in Special Ed. “We thought they were overidentified. Turns out they were underidentified.” When I ask why there were so many kids with special needs, he’s not sure. Part of it, he thinks, is that the number of kids in foster care may be a factor, because foster kids are often moved from school to school, not staying long enough for their issues to be identified. “It’s just conjecture, but kids in foster care, they’re often in foster care because their parents were on drugs or couldn’t take care of them, well, are you more likely to be unable to take care of a kid with special needs and behavior problems?”

Whatever the cause, he says, “this is a neighborhood that’s been neglected in all capacities.”   The community was in continual flux. “We average losing a kid or gaining a kid every single day. In October, 25% of our kids weren’t there at the beginning of the year, and the later they come in, the higher the odds that they have problems” due to having been dumped by another school or transferred by frantic parents.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socioemotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.”

The school’s scores have slowly improved. After the first year, the staff at the high school next door came over to thank Nat and his team. “They said, just the safety, you don’t understand the impact you’ve had. We used to have kids jumping the fence, there used to be ‘fight Friday.’” A girl took him aside to tell him the school was much better. “We haven’t had a trash can fire all year,” she told him.

But the deeper issues of the community remained, and fighting them was an ongoing, exhausting battle. “What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].”

On top of that were the non-emergency stresses of everyday staff management. “In the night when you’re sleeping, a teacher’s kid gets sick, other people have gotten sick and you get a call at five in the morning saying they’re not coming in that day. You have to preserve a part of your brain for wondering what bad things are gonna happen.” Still, no matter how much he planned, “a lot of the job is showing up and being punched in the stomach.”

For all the successes, after three years, he couldn’t face another year of non-stop work and stress, with no time for family, hobbies or any outside interests including basic home maintenance. “It was like trying to turn around the Titanic. The cynical side of me says you either burn out or you close yourself off. Sure, you can take time for yourself, but if you do, here’s a list of 17 things that are not happening at your school.” A stint as an instructor for a Saturday remedial class reminded him of how much he enjoyed simply working with kids.  At the end of the year, he left his job and applied for teaching positions within Green Dot, ending up back at his original school (and mine), where he will be an English teacher.

He’s proud of what he’s accomplished in three years but has no regrets about leaving. “I will never, I will never do this again,” he says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t take care of myself right or there wasn’t enough of a system to keep me mentored. There’s no playbook for this.” But if he could name one thing that would make the job more sustainable, he instantly says “money”–not for himself, but for the school. “If we weren’t held back by trying to squeeze as much out of every dollar as possible, then maybe that would have been a little more manageable.”

I’m happy for Nat and for his students, who will be lucky to have him as a teacher. Not every talented educator needs to be an administrator. But his observations cut deep into one of the most serious issues in education, which is attracting and retaining strong principals. As I said in an earlier post, one of my biggest takeaways this year is that what we call “effective instruction” is meaningless in the absence of effective leadership. But if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?

If attracting and retaining effective principals is our core problem, how are we trying to solve it?

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17 thoughts on “Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped”

  1. In trying to attract and retain effective principals, the answer that’s getting more popular in the ed policy world seems to be on…wait for it…holding those ineffective principals more accountable! (Sounds familiar!)

    I don’t have as many problems with having more robust teacher and principal evaluation systems as some others do, but I believe it’s distracting policy makers from the root cause as you describe in this post. Does anyone actually have a clue how to educate at scale students who face such challenging circumstances without providing more resources? If the answer is that the system needs more accountability not more money (which a lot of think tanks, policy makers, politicians, and for profit education consultants argue) then I think you haven’t been in a classroom, which is usually the case.

  2. Nat is a class guy and one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known, in education or anywhere. I had the pleasure of working with him at Locke when it was an LAUSD school and he seemed to be involved in every school effort to provide students with extracurricular experiences as well as being a great classroom English teacher. I have no trouble believing he worked as effectively and as hard as any principal and I know he had a tremendously beneficial impact on the school. I am also not surprised he burned out. That’s just a Green Dot core issue and they don’t seem to be addressing it very effectively

  3. I am a principal, and I am at the same crossroads. I feel bad that I want to give up my job. The school has made great progress but at cost to myself and my family. Everyone wants great principals, but they do not realize what it means. Looking around, I see too many divorced, depressed, people who barely have time for their kids, personal pursuits, or even a vacation to recharge. Thank you for noticing.

    1. Thanks so much for responding, Principal. I’m very sorry to hear that you, too, are feeling the strain of a job that all too often is unsustainable. I continue to think that professional working conditions are the most important issue in education today. I hope you can find a path that is both meaningful and sustainable.

  4. I WAS a principal, too. For exactly 3 years, the length of my contact, and then I went back to the classroom. The problems? A relentless pace – every day filled with unpredictable events that side track you from being the “instructional leader/supporter” that you intended to be when you made the leap…When there’s been a fight at recess, when there’s a kid who won’t get off the bus due to school phobia, when a parent comes in to tell you about the restraining order, you must stop what you were planning to do and respond to the crisis in front of you. There goes that read aloud you planned to do in the kindergarten class. Put away that article in Ed Leadership on best practices for teaching ELL students…I was warned before I became an administrator that the position had become “middle management” — meaning, you are told from above what to tell the people “below” you — leaving little chance to innovate or implement a creative idea that you and your staff came up with together. This was true. I had to direct our staff to implement tests and teaching programs that I did not believe in. I began my stint as a principal right as the recession hit. I had gone through an amazing training program and felt equipped for the job. But no one had prepared me for what it would feel like to lay off teachers whom you respected and cared for, like family. The hardest was the teacher who had just beat breast cancer and was carrying her family’s health insurance. The job can be done, IF there is enough support staff in the school — guidance counselors, social workers, vice principals, adequate custodial staff, and full time secretaries (who deserve a special place in heaven). If those elements are in place, the principal might have a shot.

    1. Thank you for commenting–but of course, I’m sorry to hear about your experience, which sadly, I hear echoed by others. Over the course of my yearlong search (recorded in this blog) I witnessed over and over that a school can only be as great as its principal. Unfortunately, our system currently treats principals the same way it treats teachers: like widgets, replaceable and expendable. You sound like a great principal. I’m sad to hear that you were driven out of the profession–like so many others.

  5. Wow! This is the first post I have read that addresses the plight of the principal. Too often we have become the scapegoats which further complicates our work and worst of all puts us in the middle of the us versus them arguments. Thank you for bringing our challenges to light and to all who have responded. For a while know I have felt so alone and on many days incompetent for not having the time to do all that I believe is most important . And to attempt to do so are at great cost to me and my family.

  6. Happened across your blog, thanks to Larry Ferlazzo promoting it on Twitter. As a current principal in my fourth year, I can empathize with everything shared here. What has helped me immensely in my position is becoming more connected. I am a part of some excellent communities of practice on Google+, Twitter, and Voxer. Having a support system consisting of other administrators offsets much of the loneliness that can be inherent with the principalship. It may not “fix” a challenging learning environment, but it can certainly help.

    1. Hi Cliff. Sorry for the late reply.

      I initially got connected on Twitter, through a recommendation by some other principals at an administrator convention. From there, I built a solid group of educators to follow. This led to forming more topic-specific communities of practice on Voxer and Google+.

      So…get on Twitter if you are not already. Follow lots of educators using the #cpchat (connected principals) hashtag. Reply to their tweets and leave comments on their blog posts. From there, I think you will find a nice group of educators that will keep you off “admin island”.

  7. As a second year director of student services (equivalent to a vice principal role) in a private elementary school, I found it so refreshing not only to read the article above but also to read through all of the comments. I personally have found it to extremely taxing to keep up with the demands and expectations of our governing board who seems to constantly be questioning our practices and interventions though our surveys have shown great satisfaction in this area, our teaching staff never being quite satisfied with the level of support we can offer them though we are available at the drop of a hat to respond to any and every need they may express, and, most challenging, our parent body who can oftentimes treat our student services team (social workers, special educators, social development experts, early intervention soecialits) as unworthy, unqualified “things” they can treat with utter disrespect. How can we teach our students the importance of respect, empathy and kindness if their parents do not lead by example?

    Kudos to each and every person who experiences this type of work environment. They say you don’t go into this type of field for money and that is surely not the case. We do this for the kids we interact with on a daily basis and for the opportunity to teach our future leaders as much as we can. I just wish those around us decided to jump on board…

  8. I’m an Aussie Principal. I too was in shock for at least the first 18 months of being appointed to a difficult under achieving school. I felt abandoned by the system, and still do really. At face value I have changed many things however the biggest obstacle is the very system that made me. Why can’t my government, most of whom have never been educated by our fantastic public system and not send their children there, just stand up and loudly say they want the best education system possible for all of our people and we CAN afford the price??? They are me. They are my students. My students deserve the best, most innovative, most fantastic life. Where are you so- called leaders ? I send a wish to all the billionaires out there to help. Where are you ? Throw me a spare million and lobby my government. My kids can change the world.

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