Principals resignations have soared in Chicago schools and across Illinois as educators face burnout. (Credit: Pixabay/Canva)
Principals resignations have soared in Chicago schools and across Illinois as educators face burnout. (Credit: Pixabay/Canva)

The number of principals in Chicago Public Schools and across the state resigning from their jobs increased dramatically last year, records show, as the pressures of leading schools intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing burnout among educators.

In 2021,103 principals throughout the state resigned, according to State Board of Education data. The following year, that number shot up to 198. Likewise in Chicago Public Schools, the number of resigning principals went from 15 to 27, according to CPS data. The state figures are lower than the actual number of resignations since schools are not required to report that data but do so voluntarily.

While some turnover is normal, the surging number of principals leaving — and the declining number of teachers interested in moving up — worry state education leaders about the disruption it can cause schools and communities. 

The state saw 2.5% of its principals resign in 2018, while that number shot up to 5% in 2022, according to state data.

Many principals say they are leaving their jobs because they lack the support, time and resources to do their work effectively and avoid burnout. Those pressures only increased during the pandemic.

“When people are really hurting they look to somebody in a leadership position to help them, and that puts more pressure and more pain onto you [the principal],” said Seth Lavin, the principal at Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy on the Northwest Side. In 2022, Lavin wrote an op-ed about the challenges of being a principal that gained local and national attention.

Principals establish the vision that all staff and students try to achieve academically and socially. But for these changes to happen, principals typically need to stay at a school from five to 10 years, said Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association. 

But current statistics reveal, Illinois schools on average have two principals every six years.

According to state data, from 2016 to 2022, schools such as Algonquin Middle School in northwestern suburban Des Plaines have seen six principals. Three interim principals were hired during the 2019 to 2020 school year due to a principal vacancy, school officials said. 

Midwest Central Primary School in downstate Manito has seen two principals and Carl Sandburg High School in southwest suburban Orland Park has seen three new leaders, school officials said. 

Nationally, the numbers reflect the same realities that Illinois is experiencing. Nearly four out of 10 or 38% of surveyed principals intend on leaving their jobs within the next three years, according to a 2021 report by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The survey also finds that principals’ job satisfaction dropped from 63% in 2019 to 35% in 2021. 

State Board officials said they are concerned that the number of applicants completing principal programs, a required step in gaining the administrator license, has dropped more than 75% from 2011 to 2020. 

To boost interest and increase retention, Illinois has used Elementary and Secondary School Relief Funds, also known as ESSER funds, to create a mentorship program. A recruitment program has also been created with different state money. 

‘Everything to everybody’

Michelle Thompson, a former Elmhurst elementary principal, oversaw 450 students and worked without an assistant principal for nearly two years before resigning from the job. As a principal and mother of two at the time, Thompson said she “struggled to be everything to everybody.” 

“It’s such an important job (principal) but it’s also such a hard job, and a job that never ends,” she said.

As the person responsible for decisions that influence hundreds to thousands of students, teachers, support staff, parents and overall communities, many principals crave support.

Support can look like many things – from being able to bounce solutions off colleagues, to having a central office and adequate resources to filling teacher and support staff positions quickly. 

Ronn Nozoe, chief executive officer of National Association of Secondary School Principals, says he has been talking to school leaders across the country about their needs. 

“It’s a humongous task, but we keep thinking that ‘Well, the principal and a couple of assistant principals should be able to figure it out.’ These folks run multimillion dollar organizations,” Nozoe said.

Increases in federal funds and principal support need to become a higher priority in not only addressing principals’ concerns but also all educational positions as shortages in teachers and support staff continue, he said.  

“We need to really consider these investments in the workforce in ways that perhaps we haven’t as a country because we’ve not grappled with the magnitude of this kind of shortage all together at once,” Nozoe said.

Teacher retention is directly related to principal retention, Lavin said. 

Teachers can be discouraged from becoming principals when they see what their school leaders go through. What’s more, the teacher shortage already is limiting the supply of potential principals and later potential superintendents. 

“As a principal, I need to be a good person to work for, so I can keep the staff I have in place and hopefully attract other good teachers,” said Craig Beals, a middle school principal at Nuttall Middle School in rural Illinois. 

In Chicago, when vacant positions arise, whether  a school has a succession plan can be critical for its continued success, said Lauren Sartain, a former University of Chicago researcher and now assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

A report she co-authored, published in January, examines the effectiveness and equity of leadership distribution of Chicago Public School principals. 

“There’s pretty consistent evidence that, on average, after a school experiences a leadership transition, you see declines in things like test scores and/or see increases in teacher attrition,” she said. 

“If we use those to proxy both the student and teacher experience, it’s definitely disruptive both to learning and indirectly to learning because you end up having more staff turnover from that year than you would normally at the school.” 

Schools that can plan a smooth transition of school leaders often are those in affluent locations compared to schools with fewer resources.

“The flip side of that coin is that schools that really need consistent strong leadership are the ones that are actually least likely to be able to get that,” she said. “For me that’s kind of the problem; not every school is equally likely to have a smooth leadership transition.”

Searching for candidates

Even before the pandemic, shrinking pools of principal candidates have long been a concern.

Daniel Booth, a district superintendent for Carbondale Community High School, said his district of more than 1,000 students had trouble filling three principal positions. 

“I worked in three principal searches, and applicant pools were very, very low,” Booth said about the searches that occurred in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Booth said two of the former principals returned to teaching while the third moved to a different district. 

Leahy said he also has been hearing from hiring managers across the state that candidate pools have been shrinking the past six years. 

“You only need one, of course, but you sure like it when you can talk to your board and your community about the fact that we picked this one out of this pool of 15, 20, 30 plus people that all were really good,” Leahy said. 

To address early career development, the state has created a mentorship program for new principals, paid for with $1.2 million of ESSER funds. 

Under the program, new principals can pick mentors from anywhere in the state, not just part of their local community. 

Martin McGreal, director of school leadership for the state board, said the program has been instrumental in navigating early career fears. 

“When I mentor people the first thing I say is, ‘it slows down,’” McGreal said about the responsibility of handling multiple tasks as a principal. 

To address a shrinking pipeline, the state has created a recruitment program that allows candidates to get their principal license with financial support.

McGreal said it is important the program recruited diverse candidates that reflect the state’s population. 

Currently, the program has 211 individuals who have completed their first year. McGreal said he also believes that the program will help to create and reinforce positive experiences of being a principal that may motivate teachers to stay longer. 

“Teachers stay longer when the principal or school leaders look like them and they have shared experiences,” he said. 

Of the program’s first cohort, Black candidates make up the majority with 35%, followed by Hispanic candidates at 32% and white candidates at 25%.  

Operating strengths

At Roxana High School, located in the St. Louis metro area on the Illinois side, principal Jason Dandurand, and his assistant principal, Mike Rumsey, have created a partnership to better handle the responsibilities of leading a school. 

“As the high school principal Jason focuses on a lot of things but one of his main focuses is campus life. As an assistant principal, as opposed to the traditional role, I’ve been positioned as focusing on instructional leadership, which is my passion and where I’ve spent the most of my postgraduate research,” Rumsey said.

When they were hired almost a decade ago, Rumsey said the district sought to highlight the strengths of what they enjoy rather than limiting them to the traditional expectations of their titles. 

According to a 2022 NASSP survey, 70% of principals said they spend six or more hours on administrative paperwork but when asked what they want to spend six or more hours on, 72% answered “time with students.” 

“If a teacher has an issue with a student they’ll primarily go to Jason. If the teacher is having an issue with being effective in the classroom or not feeling like they’re being as successful as they want to be, then they normally will initially make contact with me,” Rumsey said. 

Dandurand said he has his fair share of administrative work with conferences, district level meetings and day-to-day operations but within those obligations, he is able to easily “roll up his sleeves” and become accessible to students. 

Rumsey, who was headed into retirement before accepting this position, said the unique opportunity allowed him to stay longer in education. 

“I don’t need to be the principal but I need to be significant,” he said. “I need to be in a position where I know I can operate out of my strengths and make the biggest difference for the sake of our teachers and our kids.” 

Both agreed their partnership is possible because of the support of their superintendent and district. 

“When professionals get to operate out of their primary strength, then there’s less anxiety, there’s less skepticism about motivations,” Rumsey said. 

Reporting on equity issues by the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, president of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.

Jewél Jackson is a multimedia investigative reporter who focuses on K-12 and higher education for the Illinois Answers Project. She has covered higher education for El Paso Matters in El Paso, Texas and various social justice movements in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Jackson has produced numerous radio segments for local National Public Radio stations and is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.