Growing responsibilities, dwindling resources are driving school administrators out the door

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2022 1:09:34 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 1:09:16 AM

Turnover among public school administrators has Twin States education experts warning that the demands of the job are becoming unsustainable in some communities — especially economically disadvantaged communities with high social needs — and there is not an adequate pipeline of future education leaders to serve as principals and superintendents.

In recent months, nearly a dozen principals and at least two superintendents in the Upper Valley have announced they don’t plan to be back when the next school year begins.

Some, like Stevens High School Principal Patricia Barry, are retiring. Barry, who is in early 60s, has led Claremont’s high school for eight years. Others, like Enfield Village School Principal Harrison Little, just want to take a break.

“I don’t want to become another jaded link in the chain,” Little said in an interview, after announcing earlier this month that he was stepping down at the end of the current school year. “I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I don't want to give less to this school or this community.”

Before taking the helm of Enfield’s elementary school four years ago, Little served as an assistant principal at Indian River Middle School in West Canaan.

Educators at all levels, including teachers, support staff and principals, were already taking on more of a social services role before the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last two years, those responsibilities have expanded further into areas of public health and mental health. Along the way, a breakdown in civil discourse has put more pressure on school leaders.

While there has always been churn among school leadership in many communities, education observers say administrators are leaving jobs at a higher rate.

“Educator turnover is not a new issue. School leadership, and being an educator in general, has always been a demanding and challenging job,” Page Tompkins, executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, wrote in an email. “However, those challenges appear to have accelerated in recent years as a result of the pandemic, the related mental health impacts on students and staff, the emergence of schools as a central battleground of a polarized political environment and, in some communities, wavering support for public schools.”

The combination of all these factors have created the most challenging climate in decades for education leaders.

“The pressure on every part of the system is something we’ve never seen in generations,” said Val Gardner, co-director of the Snelling Center for Government, which includes a program for educators called the Vermont School Leadership Project. “Education is like the canary in the mine in that you’re seeing all of the wonders, the joys and the trials and tribulations of what’s happening in communities playing out in schools.”

Changing roles of principals

Prior to the 1990s, the role of a principal was often was summed up in four alliterative words: Buses, behavior, boilers and budgets.

“Principals were mostly managers of schools,” said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.

Around three decades ago, that shifted:  Principals became more involved in instructional leadership, meaning they took on a more direct role in developing curricula and working with teachers to build a school culture. They became more visible to students outside the role of disciplinarian and making the buses run on time.

“The problem is that it’s basically one person trying to do two jobs,” Nichols said, adding that some districts have hired assistant or co-principals to divide those responsibilities. “It’s hard to do that in small rural communities.”

In addition to the pronounced focus more on kids’ social and emotional needs, principals now help address the needs of whole families, said Kathleen Murphy, an assistant principal at Clark-Wilkins Elementary School in Amherst, N.H., who is doing her doctoral research at Plymouth State University on the changing role of principals.

“You’re supporting both the adults and the kids in this capacity,” Murphy said.

In lower socioeconomic districts, those needs can be even greater.

Brendan Minnihan, the Newport superintendent who announced his resignation earlier this year — he cited tension with the certain School Board members on his way out — repeated a phrase said often by other administrators: You can’t expect a hungry child to learn. Kids who aren’t having their basic needs met at home are going to struggle more.

“All of that, some kids can overcome it, but it’s a lot,” said Minnihan, who will become the interim superintendent at the Fall Mountain Regional School District, which includes the Upper Valley town of Charlestown. “The effect of poverty on students and student outcomes is, A: What drew me to it at the time, and B: also hard to overcome long-term.”

Emilie Knisley, superintendent for the Orange East Supervisory Union in Vermont, announced in January that she was taking early retirement but changed her plans last month to become principal at the district’s Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River.

Knisley’s move to principal is part of a bit of musical chairs in the district administration, with Randy Gawel, currently OESU’s assistant superintendent, taking over take over as superintendent, and John Barone, Blue Mountain’s current middle and high school principal, moving up to assistant superintendent.

Mental health and wellness needs

Every decade, the National Association of Elementary School Principals surveys principals on their top concerns. In 2008, those were accountability, instruction and test scores. By 2018, mental health and student wellness — including poverty and lack of adult supervision at home — had moved the top concerns.

“I think it’s important to note that happened pre-COVID,” Murphy said.

The pandemic made those issues worse. Some students struggled to engage with teachers remotely. Then when they returned to the classroom, some students struggled in a more social setting.

“That was a challenge for students, teachers and staff,” Murphy said.

While there has been additional state and federal funding available to help address mental health needs, many districts do not have the resources to get every student the exact help that they need, said Bridey Bellemare, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of School Principals.

“As a result of the pandemic you can have money to bring in more mental health specialists, but there are not enough mental health specialists in the field coming into their positions, so there’s a domino effect to address that need at the local level,” Bellemare said.

In the meantime, those students who are put on wait lists for mental health services are largely still in the classroom and behavioral challenges have emerged.

“The difference is a school can’t turn a kid away,” Nichols said.

As a result of remote learning and pandemic-related absences after the return to the classroom, emotional growth has also become stunted. For example, seventh graders may be displaying a maturity level more common in fifth graders.

“That’s not their fault. It’s because they had two years of not having schools in a normalized way,” Nichols said, referring to mental health in schools as a crisis. Some kids are feeling more anxious and struggling with feeling like they belong. “That’s a situation where more behaviors come out.”

That has led to teachers — and by extension, administrators — to focus more on classroom management than direct teaching.

“Schools are really the extension of the mental health system, and they were never intended to be. They are now,” Nichols said.

Public pressure

By its nature, school administration jobs are public roles. Administrators attend school board meetings as well as school functions such as plays and games. Parents and community members always have always given feedback to administrators, said Minnihan, who became an administrator about 20 years ago after starting out in education as a computer science, math and science teacher.

“You have that now; it’s just now sometimes their complaints — instead of going through a process — go straight to the internet,” Minnihan said. “I think what has changed is the use of social media as a platform to air your concerns, and they may be true or they may not be true, but in any event they sort of take on a life of their own.”

As with many other hurdles for legislators, the pandemic exacerbated friction with parents. Administrators took on additional responsibilities like contact tracing and creating social distancing policies, which sometimes put them at odds with parents.

“A principal is a very public figure in a community and you don’t have to be beloved, but you need to be respected,” Gardner said. “There was a civility in how people approached the work, and you tried to collectively deal with issues. Now people believe they have the right to stand on what they believe and have a platform that they can take everyone else down and complain about it and make it very public.”

Sometimes parental grievances manifest beyond social media or in-person shouting matches. The New Hampshire Legislature has proposed or passed a number of bills limiting schools’ decision-making. Those policies reach into administrative decisions — a bill to prohibit schools from implementing mask mandates was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu just last week — or into curricula, including a so-called “divisive concepts” law that limits how teachers can address race, gender or other topics and allows parents to sue teachers directly and the state to discipline them. The state Department of Education even created a form to make it easier for parents to lodge complaints.

It all adds up to educators feeling they must be on the defensive rather than on the same team as parents and policymakers.

“These are ridiculous practices and they create fear and they create anxiety and they certainly don’t create trust or a sense of belonging and connectedness to a profession that once was really coveted,” Bellemare said.

Education freedom accounts, essentially a voucher system that takes the state per-pupil expenditure from school coffers and gives it to parents to spend on private or home schooling, have also added to administrators’ stress.

“It’s money being taken away from the public sector, and that’s kind of the trend we’ve been on the past few years,” she said. “It’s very defeating for people in the field who are rubbing dimes together to make sure their educators, their students, their families are getting educational resources other schools are getting. And it’s not equitable across the state.”

Rising school taxes don’t help, and the stress can be greater for people in towns with lower property values that have larger rates. Minnihan completely understands.

“They’re trying to make ends meet, as they say, and it’s very stressful on them,” he said.

Murphy, who will become principal at Clark-Wilkins Elementary School in July, said principals, especially in smaller, more rural districts, also do not have a strong network of support. They might not have an assistant principal to bounce ideas off of or to better address the increasing number of challenges. That’s contributed to the exodus and openings in educational administration.

“That’s hard if you’re feeling like you’re on an island when you need to make some of these tough decisions on your own,” Murphy said.

Building the pipeline

The increased stressors of school administration have led people in those roles to question whether they want to stay in the field. With more openings, current administrators who have already been considering a change have more jobs to choose from.

“I’ve heard people say that their health has been impacted due to the stress of managing and juggling all the balls in the air,” Bellemare said. “It’s sad because these are some really talented, committed, dedicated professionals that we’re losing because it’s just so stressful.”

People who become teachers and administrators tend to be drawn to the field because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. Minnihan said he went from teaching to administration so that he could help more students outside his classroom.

“I just have this belief and hopefully it’s right that kids that we’re dealing with today, we really need them to have a great education because that’s who we rely on in the future, all of us,” he said. “This sense of purpose has always been pretty important to me.”

People who go into education recognize they can make more in the business world and as public education becomes a more challenging field, prospective educators may rethink their decision.

“When it’s not considered important and when it’s not considered valued, why would you take a job when you’re going to make $10,000, $20,000 less to start?” Minnihan said.

Teachers are still training to become principals, but instead of moving up are choosing to stay in the classroom instead, Nichols said, and in the past year, two superintendents in Vermont left jobs for the private sector. That has led him and others to be concerned about the administration pipeline, especially as more administrators approach retirement.

“It keeps me awake every night,” he said. “That’s one of my biggest concerns.”

Current administrators and those in other leadership roles can take a more active role in recruiting. Bellemare has been exploring different incentives to bring people into the field including strengthening mentorship programs and loan forgiveness.

“It’s important to add, these very same challenges mean that it has never been more important for us as a field to attract passionate and skilled leaders, and that schools and communities support them,” said Tompkins, of UVEI. “Even as there is turnover, many leaders that leave untenable and unsupportive situations don’t leave the field, they seek out settings where they feel like their work will be appreciated and valued.”

In New Hampshire, support varies by district, Murphy said. Some will pay for master’s degree programs and certification classes. Others don’t have funding for it. There is no statewide support — or funding — for teachers who want to take that next step.

“There isn’t a concentrated effort for this,” Murphy said.

The state could partner with universities in New Hampshire to provide better training and mentorship programs. Smaller districts can come together to work on pipeline programs together.

In the meantime, the stressors remain and the responsibilities continue to increase. In a perfect world, “schools would focus 99% on instruction and social emotional growth when they’re at school and then parents and the rest of the community would take care of the rest,” Nichols said.

Instead, schools require more resources to meet communities’ needs.

“The resources are not just money. They’re also time and people,” he said. “If the schools don’t do it, nobody else will.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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