Posted February 22, 2022 by Mark Perna
It’s not just teachers who are reeling from two years of pandemic learning. School leaders and counselors are facing extreme burnout, too—and they need their communities to rally. Mark’s article, “America’s Education Crisis Is Costing Us Our School Leadership. What Are We Going To Do About It?,” published at Forbes.com on February 15, 2022.
For two years now, America’s teachers have coped with virtual/hybrid pandemic school, Covid learning slide, societal unrest and deep political polarities, alongside their own personal challenges. As a result, a significant number are about to call it quits and leave the profession for good.
Education is heading for a crisis of epic proportions—and in many places, it’s already started. Teachers clearly need their community’s support, but they’re not the only ones struggling with the extreme strain of these times. Counselors and school leaders—administrators, superintendents and principals—are facing their own set of challenges. An October survey found that 63% have considered quitting as a result of the high-stress, no-win stakes of leading education today.
I was honored to connect with Dr. Shawn Bishop, superintendent of Harbor Beach Community Schools in Michigan, to talk about it from the perspective of a school leader in the trenches. Here’s what he had to share.
Dr. Bishop, whose career in education spans more than 25 years, says he’s never seen such universal levels of exhaustion—and never dreamed he would. “For almost two full years now, administrators have been caught in the crosshairs of political, social, emotional, ethical and academic battles that were brought to their doorstep,” he says.
So just how bad is it? In January Dr. Bishop asked his supervisory and administrative staff to rate their current level of social-emotional need from 1 (low) to 5 (high). The survey found:
Unfortunately, the issues raised by the pandemic are just the tip of the iceberg. “The pandemic was a catalyst that increased the rate and intensity of enormously important and often controversial issues in our communities,” Dr. Bishop says. “Because our schools are a direct reflection of the communities they serve, these topics were very literally brought into our offices, halls, school boardrooms and classrooms.
“School administrators are expected to ‘make everyone happy,’ and at the same time make sure all needs are met so learning can take place for all regardless of belief. They are expected to sew together all these various groups, with their variety of stances, into a cohesive student body and a cohesive staff. They must do all of that while being public figureheads who are directly in the public eye.”
It’s little wonder that so many of them are quitting. But stress isn’t the only reason.
Most educators chose their profession because they wanted to make a positive difference in the world. It’s what drives them to give so much, every day, even when they don’t see an immediate return. But the past two years are taking their toll.
The long hours. The mental and physical exhaustion. The enormous scrutiny and public criticism. Teachers and administrators alike are starting to wonder if it’s all worth it.
It wasn’t that way when the pandemic started. “At the beginning, the thought was ‘you don’t leave your children/community when the storm starts,’” says Dr. Bishop. “I for one felt the very real obligation to stay and not abandon my kids.”
But the pandemic has dragged on for longer than anyone expected and now, says Dr. Bishop, there is a very real feeling that fulfilling a higher purpose through education is no longer worth the fight. “Like the dogs in the 1960s Martin Seligman experiment, they’ve reached a level of ‘learned helplessness,’” he says.
And then, there’s the constant barrage of communication. “The expectation that as a school leader you should be accessible 24 hours a day every day adds to the pressure and inability to pause to regroup or re-energize,” says Dr. Bishop, who’s taken just two vacation days during the past two years. “I personally receive phone calls, texts, instant messages and emails from 4am to midnight during holiday breaks and weekends.
“The expectation is that you answer and respond. And if you don’t, there’ll be communication to those who hold your job security in their hands.”
As school leaders exit the profession, there’s concern about a “trickle-up” effect on those replacing them. “There is strong data to support less quantity and less quality of candidates moving into teaching,” Dr. Bishop says. “Thus, from a much smaller and potentially less qualified pool, schools attempt to draw their next leaders.
“Teachers see firsthand the pressure, hours and lack of positive feedback their leaders experience. As a result, these potential school leaders see low resources and high levels of critique and wonder if a change to school leadership is worth it.”
What’s the trickle-up result of all this? “Well-intended people will be taking positions that they are not qualified or experienced enough to hold,” explains Dr. Bishop. “When that happens, the organization can no longer move forward. Visionary, forward-thinking projects and programs cannot form under leaders that don’t possess the skills to rally people, resources and energy.
“Progress becomes a thing of the past, and survival of the moment is what’s left.”
In some organizations, the constantly changing demands of the pandemic have shattered trust among the different departments. When I asked Dr. Bishop how administrators, counselors and teachers could rebuild it, he gently pushed back against the assumption that all such partnerships are lacking trust. “As with any agency/business, some run with more conflict and some with great trust and cohesiveness,” he says.
But where trust has been compromised, Dr. Bishop believes the first thing needed is time to recover. “Teachers, school leaders, counselors, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, food service workers and others—we all need time to regroup and recenter,” he says. “Nothing in my past has been to the same level as we have now, however it’s been my experience that working with what we have in common is the place to begin.”
Dr. Bishop believes that the keys to future success are founded in four critical attitudes:
“If the person on the receiving end can assume positive intent, then they could step back and realize the administrator bringing up self-care is truly trying to help,” he continues. “Most school leaders want all the best things for their staff and the students they work with each day. Perhaps at the moment they are just trying to survive. Many leaders gladly follow the Maya Angelou saying: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’”
In light of all these challenges, I wanted to know what communities and individuals can do to support their schools and educational leadership. Dr. Bishop shared four phrases that everyone, from every side of the education system, can implement to start moving forward together.
What else do superintendents need right now? Time, training and funding—and for funding, not another round of competitive grants, notes Dr. Bishop. “There simply isn’t time for this in a day already overloaded.”
As the stresses of the past two years bleed into yet another school year, visionary leadership in our education system has never been more critical. And yet, such leaders have never been so embattled. As communities and individuals, we need to rally around the counselors, superintendents, principals and administrators who remain at their post even when things seem darkest.
Let’s be part of the solution, not the problem. Let’s assume positive intent, treat others as we’d like to be treated and seek to understand what the education community is facing. For everyone with a stake in the future of education in America, there’s common ground to find and build on—if we look for it.