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Why are more and more public school principals quitting their jobs?

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An educator with long blonde hair in a ponytail and cream-beige sweater wears a mask and looks off to the left. She stands near a yellow school bus. A student with a blue jacket and backpack stands on the steps of the bus while a crossing guard in a neon vest stands nearby.

School principals have increasingly been at the center of polarizing debates over issues like masking. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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You may have heard that more and more teachers are leaving their jobs these days. But also of note: More of those teachers’ bosses are leaving their jobs too.

Sixteen percent of public school principals retired or quit in the 2021-22 school year, according to a new survey from the Rand Corp. That’s more than double the rate from the year before. One reason seems to be that it ain’t easy being a boss these days — especially at a school.

Beth Lehr didn’t want to be that person. “That person who everybody’s worked with where you’re like, ‘Oof, you should have retired a few years ago.'”

Lehr’s leaving her role as the assistant principal of Sahuarita High School in southern Arizona. She said that she’s still good at her job. She’s not that person yet, but the past few years have been tiring because her students have needed a lot more emotional support.

“While that is something that I very much enjoy doing, what that means is that there’s very little left for my children when I get home,” Lehr said.

Lehr’s children are 10 and 12, and she often doesn’t get home until after a 12-hour day.

That new research from Rand found that lots of principals are leaving. Principals play a lot of different roles, said Heather Schwartz, one of the report’s authors.

“They’re sort of the everything. They’re the CEOs of the building, in a sense,” she said. “They’re in charge of hiring, retaining and guiding their teachers. They’re often financial leaders.”

Schwartz said that principals also have been in the thick of polarizing debates over things like masking and identity politics. 

And there’s not enough research about school leaders and whether increased pay or more support would help them stay, she added, even though they’re critical to the functioning of a school.

“When they leave, oftentimes the direction of the school can change, and so they can kind of create a whipsaw of reforms,” Schwartz said.

In Shelby, a town in northern Ohio, John Gies has been the principal of the high school for 16 years. He said he spends more time than he’d like on nonacademic matters.

One thing that’s kept him going is sitting in on a class — when he has a moment.

“You’d be amazed how after a half hour of just sitting in a few classrooms, that it just kind of gets your mindset back,” he said.

But Gies is worried that not enough people want to go into teaching, which means there will be even fewer teachers who want to become principals. 

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