Evolution of the Principalship: Leaders Explain How the Profession Is Changing Through a Most Difficult Year

In the second of three briefs in the Leaders We Need Now research series, principals explain how the pandemic and social injustice in 2021-2021 forced schools—and school leaders—to shift priorities to meet new demands.

What We Learned

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Principals’ responsibilities expanded and shifted in unprecedented ways, which have significant implications for the profession and how principals lead schools. Utilizing the Professional Standards for Education Leaders (PSEL), researchers learned that certain priorities, such as engaging in frontline services (e.g., contact tracing, COVID-19 mitigation strategies, etc.) and providing social-emotional learning, demanded more of principals’ time, while other priorities, such as equity, cultural responsiveness, and school improvement, were put on the “backburner.”

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Principals identified two new areas of work that they believed were not fully represented in the PSEL standards. In addition to a shift in demands of the profession, the latest brief surfaces new demands as well: Many of the principals recognized that their roles had expanded to include crisis management and social media and communications management, through multiple social media channels, among families and communities within a highly politicized environment.

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The pandemic has caused a “layering effect” of elementary school principals’ responsibilities, as they took on more roles without corresponding support to meet those additional demands. These new insights help to surface the frustration some principals have been feeling about their job during this tumultuous period and might help explain why increasing numbers of principals have indicated they may leave the profession.

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