National study highlights challenges faced by school leaders
The job of school principal is almost as rewarding as it is impossible.
That’s a tongue-in-cheek twist on the findings of a new national study into the challenges faced by Canada’s school principals. These school leaders are facing heavier and heavier workloads due to an overload of sometimes conflicting demands created by a range of factors that include increasingly diverse student populations, heightened accountability measures, the proliferation of digital technology and unrealistic parental demands.
“The school has become the venue to be all things to all students. We are the parents, doctors, nurses, social workers and educators. The responsibility is becoming too much,” said one Alberta principal who participated in the study.
Undertaken by the Alberta Teachers’ Association in partnership with the Canadian Association of Principals, the Future of the Principalship in Canada project conducted 40 focus groups with 500 principals from across Canada over a two-year period.
The study found that 90 per cent of principals view their work as very fulfilling, but 95 per cent say they face a growing, unsustainable workload and complexity in their schools. Principals work an average of 58 to 60 hours a week, time that is increasingly spent doing business management functions as well as reporting and documentation.
A vast majority of principals—95 per cent—want to spend more time in classrooms working with teachers yet typically manage to devote only 4.7 hours per week to this activity.
Beyond the administrative and managerial roles that they are expected to master, principals are also expected to be innovators and agents of change in a culture that increasingly challenges traditional conceptions of leadership, the report states.
“The principal’s work often involves navigating myriad seemingly irreconcilable government policies and community expectations while trying live up to an idealized vision of instructional leadership. Moreover, the work of a school principal demands meeting heightened expectations while mediating multiple and often seemingly conflicting roles,” writes J-C Couture, lead author of the study and associate coordinator of research with the ATA.
The study included a broad sample of Alberta principals.
These administrators reported many of the same concerns as their national counterparts, but they stood out by noting that they work within a “culture of consumerism” in which students and parents do “comparison shopping” before choosing a school.
“Much of what we do each day is done to market ourselves. We need to keep parents happy so we have good accountability pillar results. I have become, in many ways, more of a marketing manager than an educator,” stated one principal.
Fifteen per cent of Alberta administrators commented specifically on high parental expectations as a source of stress, matching the 15 per cent national average.
Alberta principals also noted that teachers lack the preparation they need to manage the complexities they face in the classroom. This was attributed to an influx of new teachers to the province in last five years, ineffective preservice education and “disconnects between schools, districts and postsecondary institutes in aligning the supports and training needed to build teacher capacity.”
Like administrators nationally, Alberta principals are struggling to find the funding and resources they need to support teachers.
The report highlights three overlapping sources of diverse student needs that are especially apparent: immigrant and aboriginal students who are not achieving academically; students who fit the traditional definition of “special needs” due to learning and physical disabilities; and the exploding number of children with undiagnosed difficulties described by administrators and teachers as “anxiety,” “depression,” “mental health issues” and “behavioural issues.”
Integrating immigrant students and their families was a prominent concern for Alberta school leaders, as was the impact of technology on education, which was cited as both a challenge and an opportunity.
“Challenges include teacher professional learning, meaningful implementation and the costs of devices and maintenance. Opportunities include increased engagement in learning that reflects the current realities of our students and the world they live in,” said one participant.
Alberta administrators are seeking relief from accountability demands, reduced and clarified expectations and the resources they need in their schools to meet an increasingly complex array of student needs.
“I have to be the doctor, counsellor, advisor, and psychologist,” one said. “I have to be whatever my families need, and we are increasingly asked to provide it for our students and their families without systemic change.”
The study’s findings will come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent time in a principal’s chair, said ATA president Mark Ramsankar.
“I’ve been in the position of acting principal before, and I’ve supported my principal as an assistant principal—I know it’s an extremely demanding job,” Ramsankar said.
“These results should be a wake-up call to school boards and government that our school leaders need a fully resourced system, including mentorship, collaboration time, professional development and reduced managerial obligations. Principals aspire to educational leadership, not management, so they can truly lead Alberta’s teaching force.” ❚
Researchers summarized their findings into five themes, or “ways forward,” in the hope of providing a template for practitioners and policymakers to improve school leadership in their home communities.
- Teach and learn for diversity
- Support new Canadian families, particularly in English language learning.
- Strategically engage and teach aboriginal students and develop better partnerships with families.
- Strategically address growing mental health issues in children and young adults.
- Collaborate and build professional capacities in school staff
- Implement mentorship programs.
- Foster leadership development to encourage school principals to draw on the strengths and talents of their teaching staff, moving toward distributive leadership models.
- Build family and community relationships
- In the short term, support professional development that will help school leaders with negotiations, dispute resolutions and boundary setting.
- In the long run, work to build community-level partnerships.
- Advocate for integrated service models that house an array of family services in the school to benefit students and families directly, as well as to strengthen relationships in the community.
- Use technology for creative learning and good citizenship
- Recognize and assume a significant leadership role in teaching children and young people to use technology responsibly and thoughtfully.
- Continue professional development for school leaders and staff regarding technology in the classroom.
- Balance technical skills with sensitivity to the pedagogical and social consequences of technology for students’ learning, social development and well-being.
- Promote continuous leadership learning
- Continue articulating leadership frameworks and competencies for school principals.
- Advocate for conditions that will not crowd out leadership learning with managerial competencies.
In their words – Canadian principals speak their minds
“Increasingly, school is becoming a social agency that must parent students, and parent parents.”
“After 20 years as a principal I appreciate the fact that there will always be a lineup of people outside of my office door — but it is the growing number of bureaucrats, consultants and other ‘experts’ hovering outside the school yard telling me how to do my job that I find most frustrating.”
“Schools are expected to be all things to all people.”
“Increasing government demands to quantify student achievement forces a schoolwide focus on numbers, not learning.”
“Paperwork keeps us from doing the right work.”
“Everyone feels they have the right to tell us how to do our jobs.”
“The time required to understand and absorb policy is beyond 24 hours a day.”
Read the full report and an executive summary.