The media is filled almost every day with reports of increased stress and mental health issues that schools are facing in the wake of the current pandemic crisis. Most focus on concerns about the wellbeing of children and young people, while a smaller number seek to highlight the issues surrounding teacher stress. Very few pay attention to the increasing challenges of the school leader’s role and the impact that school leader burnout may have not just on schools but also on society.
Why is School Leader Wellbeing Important?
For many parents, school leader wellbeing may seem a peripheral issue that does not concern them. The principal often seems removed from the daily experience of their children in the classroom. However, research tells us that the success of schools depends upon effective and stable leadership at the principal level. The influence of the school principal on student outcomes is second in importance only to the quality of teacher instruction. Principals set the direction and establish the culture of the school, influence the curriculum and teaching methods and crucially appoint, develop and appraise teaching staff. Studies from the USA show that when a principal leaves a school, there is a higher chance that teachers will resign too and that student outcomes will decline. A school with a long-serving principal is also more likely to successfully implement school improvement measures.
What parents should want, therefore, are schools with stable and effective leadership where the potential of their child can be maximised. To the contrary, we are currently witnessing a global crisis of recruitment and retention of school leaders as principals leave the profession in droves due to poor working conditions and overwhelming levels of stress. In a recent study by the National Association of Headteachers in the UK, 70% of headteachers said they were thinking of leaving the profession in the next 2-3 years. The recruitment situation may not be quite so dire in many international schools, where principal vacancies routinely attract 50-100 applications but others, in less attractive locations, struggle to find high quality candidates. International schools also have much higher rates of turnover of senior leaders than other schools. This should be of concern to parents.
Causes of International School Leader Stress
Since 2013, I have been researching the link between leadership recruitment and retention issues in international schools and principal working conditions. It is clear that the highly challenging nature of leading in the international school context and the stress this brings plays a significant role in leaders resigning or being let go from their posts after only one or two contracts and sometimes earlier. While school leadership is always demanding, the leading of international schools comes with its own specific challenges that include the following.
- Understanding the cultural context and leading a culturally diverse community.
- Leading a community that is in constant transition with students, their families and staff constantly departing and arriving.
- Leading without the logistical support of central/local government and the social support of principal networks that is the norm in the domestic market, causing structural isolation for leaders.
- Providing practical and emotional support to a large community for which the school is their focal point, replacing normal networks of families and friends.
Since the start of the pandemic, these challenges have become magnified for international school leaders around the world. I am contacted daily by overwhelmed principals who are considering resigning their posts and returning to their home countries or seeking postings in less demanding contexts. In October 2020, I conducted a study of school leaders worldwide on the demands of leading through the pandemic. 71 international school leaders took part in a 37 question survey into their current wellbeing. 87% of respondents reported increased stress levels since the start of the pandemic, while 77% described their current stress levels as between high and extremely high. 50% said they currently experienced stressful events or situations on at least a daily basis.
Causes of Increased Stress
While we know that the experience of school leaders varies enormously across different contexts, a number of common themes emerged from the study in relation to the causes of current stress. These included the following.
- The sheer volume of logistical problems to be solved on a daily and weekly basis. Included were the challenges of implementing an effective online learning programme, particularly for Early Years students; the complex health and safety procedures necessary to bring students and staff back to school, combined with challenges of staff absences and the juggling of blended learning models.
- Dealing with the sometimes unrealistic and contradictory expectations of different stakeholder groups. Respondents described the challenges of balancing parent expectations with what overwhelmed staff can realistically offer and trying to encourage unsympathetic boards to understand the limitations of what can be achieved with an exhausted staff. Sadly, many reported a level of hostility among some parents, with one describing “judgement, critique and sometimes threatening behaviour that our teachers have been subjected to from frustrated, and often desperate families.”
- Managing the emotional needs of others. 84% of leaders said they were supporting others’ emotional needs more since the start of the pandemic, with parents and teaching staff representing by far the most needy groups. Addressing parental anxieties about the safe return to school and supporting distressed parents who were juggling working from home and home learning for their children was a common stressor. Others referred to the challenge of supporting educators’ needs, describing staff as “distressed”, “overwhelmed”, “burnt out” and “drained.”
When asked about how they were coping with the increased demands, few leaders felt they were coping well, describing the workload as “relentless and completely unsustainable” with “no down time to recover.” 50% reported they did not have enough time to attend to their own needs. The struggle of balancing their own and their families’ needs with those of school came through strongly, with many feeling they were unable to do both well.
45% of leaders felt their current stress levels were impacting their health negatively, while 55% reported a negative impact on their personal life. Only 20% felt they were getting enough sleep. It is clear from the findings that leaders feel unsupported. Only 38% reported receiving sufficient practical support in school, while even less (29%) felt they had adequate emotional support. Only 41% of leaders said their training had prepared them for the current crisis.
While an end to the pandemic may finally be in sight, with the development of effective vaccines, it is likely to be many months before the world returns to normal. School leaders need more support and regular opportunities to recover if they are to sustain effective leadership until then. In the longer term, schools need to place more emphasis upon the wellbeing of their leaders if they are to avoid burning them out. It may be surprising to some that as many as 55% of leaders said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020. However, this represents only a 7% increase in respondents who reported the same in a similar study I conducted in 2015. COVID 19 is no doubt increasing the demands and stress levels experienced by international school leaders but the problem will not disappear once the pandemic is over. International schools have always been at the cutting edge of educational practice. International school communities need to start thinking of their school leaders as a valuable asset that needs to be properly taken care of and lead the charge in supporting them to ensure their leadership can be as effective and stable as possible.
About the Author
Helen Kelly is a former international school principal, now independent researcher, writer and speaker. She is known for her work in the field of school wellbeing with a special focus on school leader stress.
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