Ask a teacher how they feel about their school’s principal and watch their reaction. You may see their eyes well up with tears of gratitude. They may put a hand over their heart and whisper reverently, “My principal is amazing.”
They may do one of those wobble motions with their hand, frown slightly, and say, “Eh. They’re OK.”
Or they may sigh, close their eyes, and check their pulse to see exactly how much stress this question put on their cardiac functions.
I know. I’ve worked under all three. (Get exactly half a margarita in me and I’ll divulge stories about the worst ones that will make you gasp.)
Several years ago, a Forbes article brought to the forefront a notion that had long been circulating: people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. As teachers, this makes perfect sense to us. We not only receive leadership from others, we provide it to our students. We understand—better than a lot of professions, I’d argue—the personal responsibility we carry in shaping an environment for our “employees.”
There are countless books and articles about what the best leaders and managers do to retain teachers. But sometimes knowing what not to do goes a long way, too.
It’s more important than ever for principals to know how to keep their talent instead of driving them out. Feel free to send this article to your principal today with their biggest areas for improvement highlighted! (No, no. Please don’t do that.)
7 Ways Principals Drive Their Teachers Out
1. They’re out of touch with the demands facing teachers.
A few leaders I’ve met have made me wonder if there’s a conveyor belt for teachers moving into leadership roles where their memories get wiped of the time, energy, and talent required of good teachers. Before long, they find themselves saying, “I don’t get it. Why are these teachers so opposed to taking an hour every week to color-code data manually when I could have done it myself in Excel?” However, the amount of time away from the classroom is not always inversely proportionate to quality of leadership. One of my best principals had been out of the classroom long before computers were even in schools.
2. It’s clear they don’t actually want to be a school leader.
It happens all the time: a teacher realizes it’s time to leave the classroom but wants to stay in education, so they move into a school leadership role. Sometimes this person wants to lead and is well-suited for management, and it’s a great fit. Other times, the person might not want to lead or be good at it but feels stuck. Maybe their family depends on the higher salary of school leadership. Maybe they need to put in a certain number of years of school leadership to be a candidate for another job they actually want.
Though I completely sympathize with the conditions that might motivate a teacher to leave the classroom, it’s a disservice to kids and teachers to hold a leadership position you’re not qualified for or don’t want to hold. In the way that it’s easy to spot a teacher who doesn’t want to be there, it’s easy to spot a leader who doesn’t want to be there, too.
3. They have trouble communicating.
As teachers, we all know that it’s hard work to develop a communication style that works for a wide range of people. But the key word is “developed.” Effective communication is a skill that has to be constantly sharpened and honed, not an checklist item you can mark off and then ignore. Personal pet peeve here: If you find that a surprising number of people didn’t understood something you communicated, it’s not that you mysteriously work with a disproportionate number of dummies, it’s that you didn’t communicate as effectively as you thought you did.
4. They don’t understand the importance of boundaries.
Recognizing the above-and-beyond commitments of teachers is important (sports and debate coaches, drama and music teachers, I see you). But often in teaching, the narrative glorifies those who sacrifice the most of themselves. Principals should be careful not only to communicate the importance of self-care to their staff, but to put practices into place that support teachers. Honoring our planning time, holding the line with parents, typing up a staff meeting as an email in a particularly demanding week—all of these go a long way. In a similar vein, I’ve heard the phrase “We do what’s best for kids” wielded almost as a threat for teachers to commit to beyond what’s reasonable. You can still do what’s best for kids in the context of healthy, balanced teachers.
5. They try to dodge conflict and/or criticism.
The best principal I’ve ever worked for would often talk about the importance of embracing conflict for growth. Hearing this was illuminating for me because I’d never heard conflict talked about positively from a school leader, let alone as something requisite for healthy teams. In fact, many principals I’d worked for in the past had been very clear that our school was a positivity-only zone (that is, a zone of toxic positivity). Embracing critical feedback is equally important. The same principal I just mentioned was extremely diligent about regularly gathering ways she could improve, responding to them, and following up. I’m not saying it’s easy to embrace conflict and criticism—I’ve received many a student feedback form with insults I still admire years later for their creativity—but it’s necessary. Oftentimes, the Venn-diagram of the principals who demand good vibes and the principals who don’t ever ask for feedback from staff is a circle.
6. They don’t know how to build and maintain a safe and collaborative working environment.
When teachers are trusted and empowered to do their jobs, they will flourish. Conversely, when teachers’ efforts are undermined by micromanagement and draconian rules, they will flounder. The best principals can find the sweet spot between holding teachers accountable while allowing them the freedom and flexibility to do their jobs. (Side note: I’m begging you, please don’t tell your staff “This isn’t a gotcha” when introducing a new punitive measure. We all know it is, in fact, a gotcha.)
7. They forget to lead by example.
As a teacher, it’s frustrating to be told one thing and shown another. For instance, we’ll be asked to sit in silence through a two-hour presentation read directly off a PowerPoint … on dynamic and engaging teaching. Or we’re told the importance of giving students grace for submitting late projects or having excessive tardies, but then we’re penalized if we arrive late. Obviously expectations for students are different from expectations for adults, but I think it’s fair for leaders to model the kind of drive, heart, and attitude that they expect from their teachers. Be the change you wish to see, folks.
To any principal reading this: I cannot imagine how hard your job is, especially in recent years. You have my respect for every minute you’re not crying under your desk with your door locked. If you find yourself reading these and thinking, “Yikes. That’s an area where I can improve,” that’s a good thing! (The ones teachers worry about most are those who think they don’t need to change.)
On behalf of teachers everywhere: We see you. Managing people is hard.
We know. We can’t fire ours.
What are some other ways principals drive their teachers out? Let us know in the comments.
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I loved this article. I didn’t love it for the checklist because as I read it I said to myself “had that done to me, that’s been done to me, yes he did that one too, etc…) and it brought back “nightmares” of a former principal I prefer to forget. I loved it for the call to action you put at the end encouraging principals to identify whether or not they can improve on any of these areas.
I have only been driven away from one school by the aforementioned principal. He joined our school in January of his first year there, and he said to the faculty in his first meeting with us, “I don’t plan on being here very long. This position is just a stepping stone for me to get to a superintendent position.” Yes, he really said that. To everyone. Yikes! That’s the kind of principal we were dealing with. Definitely not a good first impression he made on the teachers, and it didn’t get any better from there.
I am a good teacher. I love teaching, and I have always loved it. That principal sucked the life out of me and I stopped teaching for five years. I am in my third year in my return to the profession, and I am so glad to be far removed from my previous experience. I love the students at my last school, and they were the ones that kept me coming to school each day. I am sad that a dictator principal was able to drive me and many other good teachers out the doors because of his lack of leadership. I am grateful that it is all behind me, and that it showed me what kind of school I don’t want to be at.
Have you taught under these circumstances before under a principal like this? If so, how did you handle it? I made the choice to hide in my classroom and avoid him as much as I could. I focused on my students and did what I thought was best for them. That worked for a while, but it got to the point where I just couldn’t take that principal’s authority anymore. I am curious as to what other teachers have done in this situation. I worked with wonderful students there, and I had an amazing team of teachers I worked with. I didn’t want to leave, but what else can teachers do when a principal like this comes to town?
Would love your thoughts on your ideas of how to work with this kind of principal. And, this isn’t a gotcha. 🙂 (yes, that principal said that all the time).