California principals are facing shrinking budgets and mounting responsibilities to lead teachers and keep schools running — creating competing pressures that may make the job untenable, a study has found.
Principals reported working 60 and sometimes 70 hours a week. As budget cuts thinned the ranks of support staff, they juggled roles as teachers, community liaisons, nurses, athletic directors, crisis managers and budget gurus.
“The consensus was that even if a principal can do each of several things well, it is tremendously difficult to do them all well at the same time,” said a recent report from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, a San Francisco nonprofit group.
As part of its research, the group surveyed 600 principals throughout California and followed up with phone interviews with principals, veteran teachers and other administrators. One-third of principals said a lack of time created barriers to improving teacher quality.
Meanwhile, the state has an increasingly veteran teacher workforce and a relatively inexperienced corps of principals, the study said. Half of the state’s principals have been in the job for five or fewer years, based on survey results.
“I think it’s a trend you’re going to see accelerating,” said Dan Stepenosky, deputy superintendent in the Las Virgenes Unified School District in Calabasas. A lot of administrators in the state are close to retirement age, he said.
Officials at the Center for the Future of Teaching recommend providing formal mentoring for principals. Other recommendations included creating professional learning communities for principals to allow them to collaborate and developing strategies to support principal retention.
While principals have to take on more responsibilities because of several years of budget cuts, so does everyone else in public schools, said Kelsie Sims-Schneider, principal of Sunset School in Oak View.
“We’re all feeling that crunch, from the classroom teachers to our classified staff to our maintenance staff,” Sims-Schneider said.
Getting into classrooms is her top priority, she said. “If it’s not made a priority and not built into my daily schedule, it can be hard to get into classrooms.”
California schools have an average of about 300 students to every administrative staff member — the fifth highest ratio in the nation, according to 2009-10 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
It can lead to a trade-off between crisis management and instructional leadership, said Stepenosky, who was 32 when he became principal at Beverly Hills High School. Trying to move some of his clerical work out of the school day, he would answer email when he woke up in the morning and after he got home at night.
“I wanted to be present during the day, available for staff, available for students, and to maximize my chances for getting into the classrooms,” Stepenosky said.
The most important thing is the relationship between teacher and student, he said. “If the principal is there, monitoring and supporting the relationship ... it’s just a win-win for everyone.”
Cheri Carlson is a reporter for the Ventura County Star.