Home Education Policy The challenge of being a principal during Covid

The challenge of being a principal during Covid

In the midst of a pandemic that has been hard for teachers, parents and students, principals are burdened with keeping the whole thing together, maintaining functioning schools amid chaos and constant change.

In this episode, we hear from principals across the state who participated in a recent roundtable with EdSource. They share how they’re coping and what they think would help them and their teachers stay in the profession.

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. Talk about a pressure cooker. The roles of school principles have always been a juggling act, but the pressures of a pandemic that’s now approaching two years has truly tested their limits.

Vito Chiala:

So I used to be really good at giving tests like an exit exam or the SAT. And now I’m really good at COVID testing.

Anne:

Recent research shows that one in five principles quit every year. Almost all say they experience some form of job stress. Students are dealing with hardships, some new, some exacerbated by the pandemic. Families are asking for help and understanding, while districts in the state are making their own demands of schools. How are these California education leaders responding to these unprecedented times? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee Stavely:

When I brought my daughter back to her school in person this fall mid-pandemic, one of the first changes I noticed was the principal. The principal out on the street, directing traffic to make sure drop offs and pickups go okay. The principal personally testing students for COVID when they return from winter break. The principal sending out message after message about how many students or staff tested positive, doing the contact tracing herself. The pandemic has been a lot for teachers, parents, and students. But principles, too, have borne the burden of keeping the whole thing together. Maintaining functioning schools amid the chaos and constant change of the pandemic. And while we’ve heard a lot about the challenges families and teachers have faced during the pandemic, the experience of school principles often goes unspoken. Edsource recently held a roundtable for principals to share what this school year has been like for them. Julie Giannin-Previde is a principal at Dallas Prairie Elementary School in McKinleyville in Humboldt County. She says that things that she usually faces at the beginning of a typical school year just keep coming up as COVID circumstances change again and again.

Julie Giannini-Previde:

I sort of feel like it’s Groundhog Day, August all the time. I’m replanning and redoing my year, throwing out schedules and redoing them. A lot of the problems that I’m solving aren’t problems that will exist in a month.

Zaidee Stavely:

One of our principal’s responsibilities is making sure the school is fully staffed. A teacher gets sick, they bring in a sub. During the pandemic, especially during surges like Omicron, it’s a daily struggle. Greg Moffitt is the principal at Fairmont Charter Elementary School in Vacaville.

Greg Moffitt:

You know, your day starts at eight. It acts actually starts hours before that, right. You know, your cell phone starts buzzing, emails start coming in. You might make the mistake of opening up the online absence management system and realizing that you have 10 to 20 staff members out. And really it’s solving the staffing rubiks cube all day long.

Zaidee Stavely:

And sometimes there simply aren’t enough subs. When that happens a principal might become a teacher, a nurse, or well, anything.

Greg Moffitt:

I might be the crossing guard. I might be a para-educator for a one-on-one student. I might be out on the playground. I’m a always out on the playground because we just haven’t been able to fill our two student monitor positions since the beginning of the year. I might be in a classroom teaching. I might be serving lunch in the cafeteria.

Zaidee Stavely:

So the pandemic has made all the old familiar jobs of a principal much harder and more complicated. But on top of that principles have been burdened with entirely new responsibilities that they’ve never faced before.

Vito Chiala:

So I used to be really good at giving tests like an exit exam or the SAT. And now I’m really good at COVID testing.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Vito Chiala, principal at Overfelt High School in San Jose.

Vito Chiala:

My day now, although it starts at 6:30, by 7:30 I am a COVID tester. And so I spend the first of the day testing students who are coming back to school from quarantine or testing staff were coming back from quarantine.

Zaidee Stavely:

And when a student tests positive, it sets off a whole cascade of notifications, and contact tracing, and quarantines.

Vito Chiala:

We have to identify all the people in all of their classes. We have a pretty good system for that, but for a high school student that’s 150 students. On one day we had 35 students test positive. That’s that’s the whole school times several times.

Zaidee Stavely:

Then when students come back to class after quarantine or isolation, there’s another job for principals. Here’s Kilian Betlach, principal of Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland.

Kilian Betlach:

Now there’s like this added tension of like so and so says they’re clear, did they show anyone a negative test? I don’t see them on the list. And it just like ramps up that anxiety that like actually should be like, we should be building the opposite. And you know, don’t wanna let someone into the room that like isn’t clear. So I think that we’ve all been on the situation of, you know, in the same few moments, getting yelled at for having a dirty school, that passed COVID to somebody, and then also being yelled at because you told someone’s kid that they couldn’t come to school for 10 days, right? And so you’re getting both of it at the same time. And that’s always a joy.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. This week, the challenge of being a principal during COVID times. I’m Zaidee Stavely. And I’m talking with my colleague, John Fensterwald this week. He moderated EdSource’s recent roundtable discussion with principals.

Zaidee:

Hi John.

John:

Hey Zaidee. Pleasure to be back.

Zaidee Stavely:

What stood out to you most about the roundtable with the principles?

John:

Well, one of the things that stood out was, the only thing that’s predictable about their day is how unpredictable it is. This is not what they signed up for. I mean, the ones we talked to were veterans. I was surprised how they were ready to do it. Whatever is needed for the cause they do. But it’s taken dominance over the things that make their job, which is to lead the school and inspire teachers and work with kids and talk with parents. All this gets shoved aside by the daily immediate needs.

Zaidee Stavely:

So John, I know you looked into the research on principals and stress, and there was a study that just came out out of the Rand corporation, I think.

John:

Yes, one by Rand, one by The Learning Policy Institute. And Rand found that there’s just a lot of stress among principles. And that 75% or so just feel stressed in their job. One quarter of principles are thinking about, you know, just leaving. And the data shows about one in five per year do leave. So you know, I was thinking, well, we had five principles. One of those may not return. But those are veterans, you know, they’re in it because they’re, they’re used to crises. And I think they’re really committed to the students. But I think some of the perhaps newer principals may not be able to deal with these overwhelming circumstances. And older principles may be saying, you know it’s time to retire.

Zaidee Stavely:

So John, this might seem like a silly question, but why does this matter? How does it affect a school? You know, students and teachers when principals are being pulled in all these different directions and are stressed or don’t actually enjoy their job?

John:

Because their job is really essential. We know how important teachers are with regard to making connections with students. But principals, in fact, work with all the teachers. And there’s research that a good principal can have as much effect on learning as individual teachers because of his or her collective effect on all of them. Also, it’s really key when you hear why teachers left a school, it’s not money. It’s often the leadership that they had and the conflicts that they had, or it didn’t feel like the principal had his or her interest at heart. And that’s really important because the principal sets the culture of the school and really determines whether or not teachers want to remain in the school.

Zaidee Stavely:

And then, some of the principals discussed that in addition to the stress and anxiety, they are experiencing, there’s all the stress and anxiety that families and children are experiencing. I know Julie Giannini-Previde talked about the kinds of behaviors she’s seeing in elementary school children.

Julie Giannini-Previde:

Some of them were three and four when the pandemic started. And so they really sort of extended “toddler land” for a while, you know. And until they got to first grade. So it’s a huge leap for them to go from, you know, this six years of really being in the home with mom and dad and, you know, having all of their basic needs met and now first grade. And we need to learn to read, and we need to do all the things that we need to do in first grade. So we’re seeing that. And then we’re seeing a lot of struggle with peers because they haven’t had those opportunities.

John:

Well that affects every level of schooling and Vito talked about it in high school. They haven’t been around other students for a year and a half. And Vito said, we all felt that we were gonna come back from remote learning in a couple months, we were going to reestablish the culture, and here it is five months into it, how difficult it has been because of just the fragility of some of the students and the mental health issues that they’re dealing with. And just little simple things like you have to show up on time to class. And don’t be late for class. These are sort of things you take for granted, but all of a sudden they’re relearning these kinds of habits that have been lost over the last two years.

Zaidee Stavely:

We seem to be hearing from teachers and from principals that this year is hard partly because of all the added stressors, but also partly because people are having to relearn what it’s like to be in school. And Kilian Betlach spoke to that.

Kilian Betlach:

Adults didn’t have their, pick your metaphor, didn’t have their sea legs, lost their callouses, whatever it was. I remember like some kids were barking at each other. And I was kind of standing there just like being like, oh, wait, what do I say? There’s a thing I say in this moment. And you’re like, oh right. I haven’t had to say it in 18 months. And that just also means that you’re working harder.

Zaidee Stavely:

So, John, I know you asked the principles about the one-time funding for COVID relief. And we’ve called it a huge windfall for schools. This COVID relief funding is gonna make a huge difference. What did they have to say?

John:

Well, all of them said, we’re not ingrates. We thank you for the one-time money, but that’s not going to solve the kinds of inequities and problems that we had, that existed before the pandemic and will continue once the pandemic is over.

Zaidee Stavely:

Here’s Vito Chiala and Julie Giannin-Previde talking about how the biggest problem with the one-time funding is that it’s going to end.

Vito Chiala:

One-term dollars are great, and we’ve done some really amazing things with them. And we’ve been able to create summer school programs and enrichment programs where we’re able to bring students back to school and get them outta their houses after being isolated for so long. But at the end of the day, those dollars are gone. And then we’re left with the same problems we had before. Except stress on staff means that even the staff we used to depend on is like, what can we do next? Where should we go?

Julie Giannini-Previde:

So I make class sizes really small for one year, and we’re magically gonna fix every kid’s problems in a single year, from the entire pandemic. And from before the pandemic. And now we’re gonna let all these teachers go. I mean, the one-time funding is really not effective. It’s great. It was great to have smaller class sizes this year. And to have that extra support. I’m a huge proponent of the fact that we need to get in the business of training teachers. Not this idea that somehow teachers are gonna learn everything they need to know in a year before they’ve ever really been in a classroom. And then that’s over. That’s not how it happens.

Zaidee Stavely:

Okay, John, so training teachers. This is a huge deal in California. It’s really needed, not only training, but also, you know, keeping and retaining teachers. I know the principals also mentioned and talked about that.

John:

Yeah, they did. Many of them felt that the state has not done a good job both attracting and training and retaining teachers. It’s true. Now California’s thrown a lot of money at this problem in the last several years. We do now have residencies where teachers can come and actually work under the guidance of a good teacher for a year. We have the Golden State Fellowships that basically fund their time in school. As long as they commit to teaching in a low income or high need school for three, four years. We also have programs to encourage hourly workers to have become teachers. There are lots of programs. One of the questions we have to look at is will people in this time when they look around and they hear how unhappy schools are, whether they’re willing to go into this profession.

Zaidee Stavely:

Here’s Vito Chiala.

Vito Chiala:

For years, we’ve depended on the heroism of educators to make schools work. And at some point being a hero day in, day out is not sustainable. And if we want people to choose the profession and stay in the profession, we have to make the job work sustainable day in, day out.

Leyda Garcia:

I also think we just have to be honest and offer whatever, you know, teachers may need at the time.

Zaidee Stavely:

Leyda Garcia is the principal of UCLA Community School in Los Angeles.

Leyda Garcia:

And if they need a day, even though we know there’s not gonna be a sub, you know, I know that sometimes you just need to go or your child’s sick or your partner’s sick. And all we say is, yeah, go take care of it. That’s the most important thing.

Zaidee Stavely:

And here’s Killian Betlach again.

Kilian Betlach:

You shouldn’t have to go into debt to be a teacher. It shouldn’t be this expensive to be a teacher. Shouldn’t be this hard to be a teacher. When we think about just like our complete lack of like a state initiative around how to access the huge number of after school program staff we have, who are much more likely than the average teacher to look like the community in which they work. There’s a huge percenage, you talk about being bi or trilingual. All skills that we’re desperately in need of. I think about those things a lot. It just really seems like there’s a lot of hand wringing around where are the teachers gonna come from? And it’s like, well, what’s our work, right? And like where are loan forgiveness programs? Where’s that zero money down mortgage housing support for teachers? Where’s some like real critical thinking on how we’re gonna reform compensation so that it matches like, you know, when you’re 27, you wanna start adulting. And your step in column system is just not getting you there.

Zaidee Stavely:

John, what about keeping principals? So we talked about how many principals are thinking about leaving their job. And there’s so much stress that perhaps that’s getting worse?

John:

California traditionally has had the largest ratio of students to teachers and to principals in a school. There just aren’t a lot of administrators. You always hear cut the budget, cut the administration, but in fact, many of these principals are really going solo. That’s why they’re pulled in so many different directions. The other factor that Learning Policy Institute mentioned was salaries. Many principles aren’t paid that much more than highest paid teachers. And when you consider that the hours that they have and the stress that they go on, and all of the responsibilities, then that additional money is not enough to keep them in that position. So if salaries is an issue, then you’re gonna have to face that reality and raise them. The other thing that was mentioned repeatedly is they need time to meet with others, to have networks. As Leyda said, I’d like to do all this, but every day I’m solving problems. I just don’t have time for the kinds of trainings and step aside, and do the kind of professional development, which are key to a principal’s job. They’ve all gone by the wayside lately.

Leyda Garcia:

Offering some time, right? Like a sabbatical to be able to do some other work or just renew yourself, right? Like things that you wanna do or study. I think that would be ideal. I think as principals there are so many pieces to our job and a lot of times we wish we just had more time, more energy to be able to pursue things or set things up for our school. Because sometimes the day to day just makes it really hard for you to pursue those other things or partnerships when you’re just caught up, you know, 12 hours a day, just putting out fires.

Zaidee Stavely:

Leyda Garcia also spoke about needing to keep a connection with some of what she loves about the job. So it’s not all COVID testing and contact tracing.

Leyda Garcia:

I think for me personally, even with everything that’s going on, I still have to have direct connection to students, for example. So whether I go into a classroom once a week, or I tutor certain subjects or do certain subgroups of students, or I organize students in the elementary level, you know, some leadership kind of things, I have to have something that keeps me rooted, and that I can really speak to when it comes to teachers.

Zaidee Stavely:

There anything else you’d like to add, John?

John:

All these principles reaffirm that despite all these troubles, they’re really committed. They considered education something that is their life. But also that they hope that we will look at school differently than we did before. Then we can learn how to address and change the culture of a school and some of our goals.

Vito Chiala:

I still Love working with young people. I still love working with students. I still believe education is the answer to creating a more equitable society. The frustration really comes from not being able to spend as much time focused on those things and a lot more time focused on things that honestly in the big picture, just aren’t as important right now. Or maybe they’re more important. And that’s why we do ’em. That’s robbing, maybe robs us of joy in the moment. But I guess at least for me, I hold out hope that at some point we’ll be able to get back to just really doing the work that that schools were created to do.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Cobe McDonald. Special,thanks to Kilian Betlach, Vito Chiala, Leyda Garcia, Julie Giannini-Previde, Greg Moffitt, John Fensterwald, and our director, Ann Vasquez. And a shout out to my daughter’s principal, Brianne Zika, and all the other principals out there keeping things together. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week.

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