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School principals under pressure to navigate politics and pandemic policies in the classroom

Posted at 12:56 PM, Aug 26, 2022

DENVER, Colo. — The stressors of being a school administrator are only getting more intense as the new school year begins. The National Association of Secondary School Principals surveyed principals across the country and found 40% of school principals said they will likely leave their jobs in the next three years.

Over the last couple of years, especially, schools have become a place for great debate over pandemic policies and politics. That can lead to a lot of stress for educators and school leaders. But some educators say that stress is a great opportunity for positive change.

“The pressure is there. Every day you feel it,” said Executive Director Eric Rowe, who currently is the head of Empower Community High School in Aurora, Colorado. “This is year 28 for me in education."

Rowe says this year, that pressure is changing. The stakes are higher than ever to keep students safe and healthy and to balance the politics of the outside world in the classroom.

“We have to shift and maybe think of a new normal and how we do school differently and really prioritize sort of relationships and human connection over sort of the transactional pieces around test scores and the data,” said Rowe.

Rowe says the first step in making a better "new normal" is to face the tough conversations around race, gender and equity head-on.

“Teaching is a political act. It can't be divorced from, you know, the current reality and the current state of things, because part of it is how are you helping prepare students to navigate a different future?” he said.

Rowe is not alone in thinking that. The Rand Corporation surveyed principals and teachers across the country this year and found 54% percent believed there should not be legal limits on classroom conversations about racism and other contentious topics, while about 20% of teachers and principals believed there should be.

“My job is not to help folks feel comfortable because if you're comfortable, we don't get change. We’ll still get the same outcomes that we've always gotten,” said Rowe.

However, deeply engaging with students often comes with a price.

“One thing that just has not really been talked about or studied really is the sort of stress and trauma and particularly secondary trauma that happens for educators,” said Rowe.

For some, that trauma comes from the community. Sixty-one percent of principals say they were harassed because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism, or bias last school year.

For Rowe, he carries trauma from watching his students of color struggle to find their place in the world.

“Michael Brown was a student of mine as an administrator. So, that the day he was murdered, I was living in, I was living in Ferguson. This is not just what happens in the schoolhouse, and the stakes are really very high, literally life and death. I think it's just a reminder to folk about what it is we really need to be doing as educators,” said Rowe.

Rowe says that work is using the division and pressure they feel as a lesson to help students grow as people—hoping it will prepare students for the bigger tests life will throw them outside the classroom.

“We deal with the human endeavor here. That's the work. That's what we do here. That's what I've been doing for the last 28 years,” he said.