Fall 2020

Teacher Perception of Principal Support Amid the Covid-19 Spring School Closures

The demand of principal and vice-principal workload on their health, well-being, performance, and job satisfaction has been documented to some extent. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research conducted in Ontario suggests that elementary school principals’ work is becoming increasingly demanding, which can negatively impact their well-being and health (Armstrong, 2014; Pollock, Wang, & Houseman, 2014). 

They are subject to increased workloads, a greater variety of demands, new technology, and are required to adhere to stringent policy standards to improve student achievement. As a result, elementary school principals and vice principals are working longer hours, with many averaging 55 hours per week. The research revealed that 86.5% of principals reported that they never seem to have enough time to get their work done, 72.1% feel pressured to work long hours, but 98.1% believe that their job makes a difference in the school community (Pollock, Wang, & Hauseman, 2014). Before the pandemic, approximately 72% of Ontario vice-principals reported their work often or always put them in emotionally draining situations (Pollock, Wang, & Hauseman, 2017). Much less is known about the emotional labour required of principals to do their jobs. One study of 1320 full-time Australian school principals discovered that they displayed significantly higher scores for emotionally demanding work, burnout and job satisfaction, and significantly lower wellbeing scores than those of the general population. The study pointed out that emotional labour is an essential component of the school principal’s role. Given its potential to interfere with both individual and school functioning, the authors called for more research into it (Maxwell & Riley, 2017). Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, an Ontario study recommended that school districts implement practices that support personal and professional wellness and life balance among principals as a prevention for early burnout, physical illness, and mental break-down (Armstrong, 2014).

The emergency, three-month school closures in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to emergency remote learning has the potential to have significant impact on principal workload, emotional well-being and health. This article reports on a study of teacher and occasional teacher perceptions of elementary principal and vice-principal support during Ontario’s Learn at Home remote teaching initiative (April to June 2020). A potentially important finding from this research is the value that teachers place on emotional support during the pandemic. It is a small step in the direction of expanding understanding the emotional labour of school principals. An anonymous, online survey of 1380 contract and 715 occasional (substitute) demographically varied teachers in one mid-sized Ontario school district documented some of the extensive work principals and vice-principals were doing on their behalf during the COVID-19 emergency school closures. A small sample of 72 teacher participants gave their leadership considerable praise for their support in certain specific areas. The survey was posted on two private teacher Facebook groups in May 2020. Although the survey sample is small, its margin of error is +/-11.35% with a confidence level of 95%. A second sample survey of 214 teachers and occasional teachers in June in the same school district on the same Facebook groups recorded their concerns about teaching in the era of COVID-19. The margin of error for the second survey is +/-6.35% with a confidence level of 95%.

Demographic Information of the Participants

Approximately two thirds of the survey participants had 10 or more years of job experience. The respondents were relatively evenly distributed by years of experience; There were slightly more experienced and mid-career teachers than those in their first decade of their career. Approximately 40% of them were divided evenly between the Junior (Grade 4 to 6) and Intermediate divisions (Grade 7 to 8). Almost 60% of the survey participants were Kindergarten (21.75%) or Grade 1 to 3 teachers (35.5%). The vast majority of the survey respondents had an undergraduate degree (83.3%) and were full-time contract teachers (86.1%). (See Table 1.)

Study Findings

Elementary educators faced challenges of learning new technology, providing technology for students, finding online resources, overcoming no internet or poor internet, learning how to teach online, and maintaining contact with children as they problem solved their way through the challenges of Ontario’s emergency distance learning plan. The survey reveals that support from principals and vice principals came in the form of resources and supplies for families and students, emotional support to educators, language and mathematics resources, equipment, technical support and advice, online learning platforms, professional development about online tools and planning and delivering lessons, engaging students, providing student feedback, assessment, and reporting to parents. Approximately half of the teachers and occasional teachers who participated in the survey agreed that they value principals work providing them with equipment (40.2%), technical advice and support (47.2%), and information about online learning platforms and tools (59.7%). Approximately one third of them indicated that their principals provided sufficient information about developing report cards (30.6%) and support and resources to them to help the families of students (38.9%). It is noteworthy to point out that slightly more than one third of the participants in the study (34.7%) agreed that their principal provided sufficient “emotional support” during this uncertain time. (See Table 2.) All of the survey participants took the opportunity provided by an optional, open response, write-in section to write about the most important types of support during online teaching. Twenty-six (26) of the 72 respondents or 36.1% added a positive comment about school leadership. Ten (10) of the comments or 13.89% specifically used the words “emotional support,” “moral support,” “compassion,” or “supportive message.” A few of the comments are below:

  1. Principal report card support, emotional support for myself and my students, engaging learners
  2. Principal emotional support and help with communicating and reaching parent
  3. Compassion from principal, connecting families with food insecurity to community and school programs to get them food
  4. Daily morning message video from principal which always contains supportive message
  5. Mental health check-ins by principal
  6. Moral support from principal that we are doing a great job
  7. Principal Support for emotional needs, encouragement

The quantitative survey responses about emotional support were analyzed by grade level and years of experience. There was no evidence suggesting that any of the demographic groups valued and therefore possibly needed emotional support more than any of the other groups.

Valuing emotional support from their principal would not be surprising given some of the issues faced by teachers and occasional teachers during the school closure period. Approximately 84% of Ontario elementary teachers are women (Statistics Canada, 2014). A second anonymous online survey in June about teacher and occasional teacher concerns revealed that among those surveyed:

  • almost all of them (92.8%) were feeling stressed about working in schools in September
  • 84.8% were feeling stressed as a result of remote teaching
  • 49.6% were worried about contracting COVID-19 but were otherwise healthy and 
  • 39.5% were worried about their own children falling ill from coronavirus. 

Many of them faced additional challenges while working at home. They were running households while working long hours. More than half (51.6%) of them cared for at least one school-aged child, 38% cared for 2 or more children and 34.5% found it extremely challenging to care for children while working from home. Some teachers, 9.91%, were the principal caregivers for family members who were immunocompromised or had an existing medical condition that might make them vulnerable to coronavirus. Some of the survey participants, 28.9%, lived with an essential worker suspected to be at greater risk of. Another segment of this population, 26.2%, considered themselves to be immunocompromised. Occasional teachers, largely sidelined in the spring, earned no teaching income during the school closures. One fifth of them (21.2%), were concerned about the potential for insufficient work and income in the near future. Another 14.3% were worried about the risk of exposure to COVID-19 from working at multiple schools. (See Table 3.)


The evolving school reopening plans for September in the era of COVID-19 will no doubt have further significant impact on the elementary principal and vice principal workload, well-being and health. In the case of the specific Ontario school district discussed in this article, elementary principals and vice principals had to reorganize classes, change teacher assignments, and identify surplus staff as a result of families opting for online learning. By August 19, 2020, approximately 16% of the 20,000 elementary students in the district, more than 4000, had registered for Virtual Elementary School (VES). At last count, the VES had 162 virtual classes (129 English, 29 French Immersion or Extended French, and 4 Learning and Life Skills classes) with 170 online elementary teachers including 6 Special Education Resource Teachers (SERT), 2 principals, and 3 vice-principals (anonymized personal communication, September 1, 2020). On September 2, the principals and vice principals of this particular school district began leading their staffs through three Professional Activity days of health and safety training, new procedures for physical classroom set up, recess and nutrition breaks (anonymized personal correspondence, September 2, 2020). One principal reported getting five hours of sleep per night (anonymized personal communication, September 4, 2020). Another reported that it took a two-hour meeting to determine whether it would be possible for duty teachers to safely supervise 240 primary students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 wash their hands, eat, dress, and go outside for recess in small, staggered groups or whether it would work better for the children to go out for recess first, enter after recess in small, staggered groups, wash their hands and then eat (anonymized personal communication, September 4, 2020). 


This limited study has shed some light on the role that principals play in providing emotional support to their teachers during a crisis. It provides a starting point for further exploration of the emotional labour involved in being a principal or vice principal and the toll that it and their workload may take on them. It seems that providing a positive outcome for principals and vice-principals requires considerably more research on this topic. A link to a questionnaire about workload and well-being during the September school reopening period was emailed to 88 principals and vice principals, all of whom work for one Ontario school district, on August 26. No responses to The Impact of Re-opening Schools During the Covid-19 Pandemic on Elementary Principals and Vice-Principals survey were received as of September 5, 2020, possibly due to the demands of their job during school reopening. Despite the lack of current information, it is possible to extrapolate from research prior to the COVID-19 era. It suggests that the conditions under which school leaders work is taking a toll on them and provides numerous solutions (Armstrong, 2014; Pollock, Wang, & Houseman, 2014; Stelmach & O’Connor, 2019). Therefore, senior district administrators should be extremely careful not to overlook but to take steps to nurture and sustain the health of their school principals and vice principals for the duration of the pandemic. 

Education researcher Edward Schroeter invites Canadian principals and vice principals to participate in the development of an article for the Canadian Association of Principals’ CAP Journal about school leadership workload and emotional labour during COVID-19. The article will be based on the results of an anonymous survey, The Impact of Re-opening Schools During the Covid-19 Pandemic on Canadian Elementary Principals and Vice-Principals. 

Fill out the survey at the following link:  http://bit.ly/CdnPrincipalWorkloadSurvey

He hopes to publish the results in other professional publications and academic journals, as well as present them at conferences alone or jointly. Read one of his previous articles at the following link:

There is no direct benefit of participating in this project to you. There is only the indirect benefit to you of contributing to the advancement of knowledge about principal workload and well-being during a national crisis. It will take 30 minutes to fill out the survey. 

Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, has worked for Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board since 1992. A Kindergarten Teacher specializing in early geometry, spatial sense, and coding, he is the author of 55 Activities Promoting Spatial Visualization and Orientation (2019) and Nelson Math Grade K (2018). Edward has led multiple collaborative inquiries.

Alexandra Youmans, OCT, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. She is an advocate of high-quality teaching and learning practices that promote student achievement. Alexandra has had the privilege of documenting successful collaborative inquiries.

Armstrong, D. (2014). Transition to the role of principal and vice principal study. Toronto, ON.: The Ontario Institute for Educational Leadership. Retrieved from the Ontario Institute of Educational Leadership website: https://www.education-leadership-ontario.ca/application/files/1914/9452/4574/Principal_and_Vice_Principal_Transition_to_the_Role.pdf
Maxwell, A., & Riley, P. (2015). Emotional demands, emotional labour and occupational outcomes in school principals: Modelling the relationships. Educational Management Administration and Leadership. DOI: 10.1177/1741143215607878).
Pollock, K., Wang, F., & Hauseman, C. (2014). The Changing Nature of Principals’ Work: Final Report. Toronto, ON.: Ontario Principals’ Council.
Pollock, K., & Wang, F., & Hauseman, C. (2017). The Changing Nature of Vice-Principals’ Work: Final Report. Toronto, ON.: Ontario Principals’ Council.
Statistics Canada (2014). Back to School … by the Numbers. The Daily. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/dai/smr08/2014/smr08_190_2014
Stelmach, B., & O’Connor, B. (2019). Moral Distress Among School Leaders: An Argument for Considering them in Comprehensive School Health Programs. CAP Journal, Fall, p 33.
Walker, A. (2019). The Impact of Principals’ Work on Their Well-Being. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, (190), 57-63.

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