A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Why principals stay
Understanding the motivators that inspire principal longevity
By Dustin R. Gacherieu | May | June 2024
The principal’s role is complex, demanding and ever changing (Reid, 2021; Tulowitzki, 2019; Van Vooren, 2018). Effective principals profoundly impact the schools they lead (Parson & Hunter, 2019). Principals have a positive impact on student achievement, teacher effectiveness, parent engagement and the inclusiveness of schools (DeMatthews et al., 2021; Grissom et al., 2021; Hitt et al., 2018; Liebowitz & Porter, 2019; Reid, 2021).
Due to the increasing demands of the principalship, school principals are leaving their posts at alarming rates (Alenezi, 2020; Yan, 2020). Levin and Bradley (2019) stated that 18 percent of principals leave their positions after one year. Furthermore, half of all new principals leave the principalship within their first three years of service (Alenezi, 2020; Van Vooren, 2018). While studies show principals can take five to seven years to implement meaningful change in schools, the national average tenure of a principal is four years (Donley et al., 2020; Pendola & Fuller, 2018; Rangel, 2018). Furthermore, principals in schools serving ethnically and socially economically diverse populations are 60 percent to 70 percent more likely to leave (Yan, 2020). Principal turnover in California is relatively higher than in other states (Sutcher et al., 2018); nearly 25 percent of California principals leave their schools each year (Sutcher et al., 2018). California school district superintendents have difficulty filling principal positions due to the shortage of qualified principal candidates applying for the principalship (Sutcher et al., 2018).
Principal turnover and longevity both impact the schoolhouse. Principal turnover has a negative effect on school climate, teacher retention and student achievement, and costs U.S. school districts over $163 million annually (Alenezi, 2020; Donley et al., 2020; Levin & Bradley, 2019; Rangel, 2018). Conversely, research has demonstrated the positive influence of a principal’s length of service on academic achievement (Babo & Postma, 2017; Donley et al., 2020).
Understanding the work motivation of principals can aid public school districts in improving principal retention, yet few studies examining administrator motivation exist. Therefore, as I began my doctoral studies, I set out to find what motivates principals to persevere through the challenges of the job and remain in the principalship. To accomplish this, I conducted a qualitative phenomenological study to exam the extrinsic, intrinsic and district-provided motivators that inspired the longevity of suburban public elementary principals in the San Francisco Bay Area. My study consisted of 14 interviews of public elementary school principals who served as the principal of their school for at least five years to learn the motivators that inspired their longevity. The results of this study were used to generate the findings and recommendations that follow.
Extrinsic motivators
Principals were extrinsically motivated by (a) interpersonal relationships and (b) observing students and student learning.
Interpersonal relationships: When asked about extrinsic motivators, all 14 principals stated they were motivated by interpersonal relationships. The most motivating interpersonal relationships were those with teachers, parents, students and principal colleagues. Principals shared that these interpersonal relationships brought them great joy, were satisfying and recharging, were the real reward of the job and the primary reason why they stay. Effective principals also shared how they leverage their relationships to accomplish a task or solve a problem, which further increased both their extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
Observing students and student learning: The principals I interviewed genuinely loved being around students. They found great joy visiting classrooms, greeting students in the morning and seeing students learning something new. Observing students and student learning were described as the best parts of the job. The love of being around students prevented some principals from leaving their school to pursue district office leadership roles.
Intrinsic motivators
Principals were intrinsically motivated by (a) achievements, (b) the work itself, (c) responsibility, (d) the ability to serve others and (e) opportunities for growth.
Achievements: All principals interviewed were motivated by achievements. The achievements principals shared included creating or improving a program, developing teachers, improving school climate and culture, solving complex problems, improving student learning and leading physical improvements to the school campus.
The work itself: Principals motivated by the work itself were motivated by the actual job tasks, assignments and complexity of the job. They liked the wide variety of tasks principals must complete in a day and that no two days are ever the same. Principals were motivated by completing tasks, creating systems to plan and prioritize their tasks, and the feeling that the work is never done.
Responsibility: Principals were motivated by the responsibility they hold. They like having the authority to make decisions and run their school. Additionally, they shared they love knowing that others depend on their leadership. The decisions principals were most motivated to make included those related to personnel, safety, facilities, budget, school goals and professional development.
The ability to serve others: The principals interviewed viewed their role as being a servant to others. They shared that serving as a principal made them a better person and was their opportunity to give back to others. One principal eloquently defined their work as a moral imperative.
Opportunities for growth: Principals were motivated by opportunities for continued growth. They defined themselves as lifelong learners who desired to continue to grow to improve as a principal. Several principals had to find their own opportunities for growth and discussed how ACSA has been a great source of professional development.
District-provided motivators
Principals were motivated by the following district-provided factors: (a) their total compensation package, (b) support from district leaders and (c) the ability to participate in district decisions.
Total compensation package: While principals were quick to discuss how motivated they were by relationships and being around students, they were generally more reserved about discussing how salary influenced their motivation. However, 11 of the 14 principals eventually stated during their interview that total compensation was a motivator. Salary was important to the principals because they were the primary breadwinners for their families or had children in college. Compensation was the primary reason some principals remained in their positions rather than returning to teaching positions. Principals also stated the salary increase was their primary motivation for entering a principal position in the first place. Three principals shared that their district provided fully paid health benefits, which motivated them to remain in their positions. Principals also discussed being motivated to remain in their district because the district provided a longevity bonus for continuous service or had shorter principal work years than other neighboring districts. While total compensation was a motivating factor for principals, no principal explicitly discussed a desire to have salary increases or to change positions to increase salary. Instead, principals desired to make enough money to have financial stability and maintain a desired standard of living for the San Francisco Bay Area.
Support from district leaders: While principals were motivated by the responsibility of the principalship, they also wanted to know that district leaders would support them when needed. For principals, this meant that district leaders were available to principals, usually by simply answering the phone when the principal called. For example, one principal shared they were comforted because the moment they needed something, all they needed to do was send a text, and a district leader was on it. Principals also felt supported through campus visits by district leaders. Principals were quick to distinguish between support and evaluation. When providing support, district leaders are not necessarily questioning why a principal is doing things, but are just supporting how they are doing it. Finally, principals felt supported when district leaders treated them as part of the leadership team versus as an employee. District leaders also show support by randomly checking in with principals to see how they are doing.
Ability to participate in district decisions: Principals were motivated by the ability to participate in key district decisions. When asked why, principals shared that it allowed them to contribute on a larger scale. Principals were motivated when districts used collaborative decision-making approaches and more horizontal organizational structures. Additionally, principals were motivated when district leaders actually heard and valued their feedback before making critical district decisions.
District leaders can use the following recommendations to increase principal longevity:
1. Assess specific motivators that inspire longevity during the recruitment, selection and hiring process. District leaders can increase the probability a principal will remain at their school by assessing principal candidates’ (a) ability to build relationships with teachers, students, parents and colleagues, (b) level of motivation to observe students and their learning, (c) interest in working through various complex daily tasks, (d) desire to be servant leaders and (e) aspirations to continue to grow as a principal.
2. Hire principals who have existing relationships within the school or district. Thirteen of the 14 principals in my study had relationships in their school or district before becoming the principal. Principals with existing relationships used their established connections to have a smoother and more successful start to their principalship, attributing to their longevity.
3. Help principals build and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. As new principals begin, district leaders should help them establish positive relationships with teachers, parents, colleagues, students and community members. New principal mentors and supervisors should help principals develop a plan to build these relationships as soon as new principals begin their principalship. Relationship building strategies should also be incorporated into new principal training and mentoring sessions. Principal supervisors should monitor the relationships principals have with their stakeholders. Intervention and support should be provided if the relationship between the principal and a stakeholder group deteriorates.
4. Ensure principals take time to observe students and student learning regularly. These observations helped principals improve the instructional program and brought the principal joy that sustained them through challenging or stressful activities. Principal mentors and supervisors should ensure principals have time to observe students and the learning process.
5. Provide a competitive total compensation package. District leaders should provide a competitive total compensation package that allows principals to maintain a standard of living in the school district’s geographic area commensurate with their level of education. Districts should also consider the number of required principal workdays when examining their principal compensation package.
6. Provide opportunities for principals to reflect on their achievements. Principal mentors and supervisors should provide ample opportunities for principals to identify and reflect upon their achievements and their positive impact on their students, staff and community. Additionally, district leaders should seek opportunities for principals to implement programs and lead physical improvements to their schools.
7. Provide opportunities for principals to make decisions. District leaders should ensure principals have adequate autonomy to make decisions at their school site. District leaders should consider increasing the level of autonomy for experienced principals. Additionally, district leaders should seek opportunities for principals to provide input on significant district-wide decisions that impact school sites.
8. Ensure district leader support is readily available. Principals interviewed did not ask for formal supervision or mentoring programs when describing district leader support. Instead, they mostly desired district leaders to simply pick up the phone when the principal called. District leaders should prioritize responding to phone calls from principals. Principals should have a mechanism to quickly contact key district leaders, especially the directors of student services and human resources when needed.
9. Provide opportunities for continued growth. District leaders should provide opportunities for principals to continue to grow as principals by offering training, mentoring and opportunities to learn from other principals.
The principalship is a special, complex, challenging and rewarding job. A principal’s influence is vast. One participant compared the principal to being a band director, sharing a principal’s job is to try to bring out the best in everyone while trying to create something together that you cannot do by yourself. Principals can unite people to positively impact the lives of all school community members. To help students reach their full potential and close the opportunity gap, schools need principals motivated to persevere through the challenges of the job and who will remain in their school long enough to create meaningful change and truly make a difference.
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Dustin R. Gacherieu, Ph.D., has been a teacher, assistant principal, elementary principal, and district administrator with the Castro Valley Unified School District for 20 years. He currently serves as the district’s director of Human Resources.