Spring 2018

The Principalship and Running the Risk of a Work / Family-Life, Imbalance

The challenges in maintaining a healthy work / life balance can be a strong deterrent to a teachers ambitions for a Principalship.

A recent Doctoral dissertation completed in Prince Edward Island identified many factors that influence teachers’ decisions about aspiring to the position of school principal. The majority of these were categorized as reluctance factors and one of the most often cited was work-life balance.

Educational researchers have repeated for decades that, after classroom teachers, principals are the next important contributors to the success of schools (Day, Harris, & Hadfield, 2001; Fullan, 2001, Leithwood, Patten & Jantzi, 2010; Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012). Over these same decades, the work of school administrators has changed dramatically as a restructured system of governance and increased calls for accountability have resulted in constant pressure to innovate, change, and work with community stakeholders (Horng, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2010; Leithwood & Jantzi, 2006; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001).

The purpose of the study was to investigate the factors that impact on the principalship aspirations of teachers in PEI schools. The data provided in this investigation identified a significant list of factors relating to and affecting the decisions PEI teachers make in their principalship aspirations.

The qualitative methods for data collection employed in this intrinsic case study included focus group interviews, one-on-one interviews with key respondents, information from relevant documents, and reflections drawn from the author’s experiences. Data were collected from teachers, school administrators and district leadership team members and were organized in three categories: motivational, experiential and reluctance factors. This paper highlights the reluctance factor commonly referred to as work-life balance.

This theme was top of mind in all three focus groups. It was most often a passionate topic for the female teachers but discussed by the male respondents as well. It centered on concerns that the principalship, because of the anticipated increased workload and resulting time commitment, would take away from their time spent with family, would change their roles within the family in terms of the time available to spend with young children, and would make it difficult to balance their work and family commitments even to the point of being unmanageable. One junior high school teacher noted:

But I guess with my children, that would be my biggest concern; just that balance of the family time with the work commitment of the administrative duties. I’m sure that especially during the first few years that you’d really want to dive in there and make a connection and positive impact and that might possibly take over your life in the beginning.

A high school teacher with experience at the junior high level as well, felt that this was the key or most significant reason for her reluctance. “I could never take on that extra role as administrator because I’m already the administrator of my family and I wouldn’t want to give that up.” Another teacher in the same focus group added this comment quickly afterward. “Right now is a time in my life with my young kids that would keep me from doing anything in administration.” Another teacher added. “It’s [principalship commitment] hard with a family to balance things.”

The administrators in this study also weighed in on this work-life balance theme. In their discussions with teachers they noted that when faced with the choice of putting family or work first, many aspirants did not see a possible compromise and were not willing to make the sacrifices anticipated in the principalship at the expense of their family or were struggling with seeing how a balance could be possible. Most teachers indicated to their administrators that their lives were already very busy and added responsibilities from work would not or could not be fitted in. One high school principal noted, “They’re more interested in their families right now than they would be about work.”  An elementary principal added, “I see a lot of good leaders in the system now but they are raising children and they are choosing family first and that’s what I would highly recommend.”

We see in these comments that administrators feel that, faced with a choice, most aspirants, in particular mothers, are reluctant to make what are seen as necessary sacrifices of family time to commit to the principalship. A principal who has had many conversations with potential leaders on his staff added this summary of those conversations:

They come in every day and do a great job of teaching and many have lots of leadership skills. But they didn’t want the headaches. They didn’t want to make the difficult calls and didn’t want to go home each night and have to take all that baggage with them. They have a busy family life. Their evenings were full with their kids or whatever they had planned.

The data collected during the District Leadership focus group was also dominated by comments around this theme. It noted the difficulty aspirants have in anticipating finding a balance between their work responsibilities and family commitments. Many of the conversations involved the frustration on the part of the aspirants to foresee a compromise between their potentially increased time commitment in a principalship and their responsibilities as a parent.

A focus group member noted that both in the conversations that she initiated and ones that teachers initiated, she tried to ensure that this theme was part of their dialogue. She shared, “A big part of it for me is talking to them about work-life balance. The job can consume you and you need to make sure you have a life outside the building.”  Another member added, “Some of it is family-related. If they have young children they don’t want to be on the road for that extra time. They need to be available for their family.”

This comment attracted unanimous support from the group and summarized the discussion for them:

Time is a big factor. A lot of people I talk to have to look at how much time can they commit to it. Where’s the time for their family and all the other interests they have? They know that the principalship is no longer a 10 month position like teaching is. There are responsibilities for the full 12 months of the year and although it may not be full-time in July and August, more and more we see the workload creeping into the summer months. So that’s a big one with people. “Do I have the time to do the job the way it has got to be done?”

The teachers, administrators and district leadership team who contributed to this project were concerned about the ability of new and current administrators to establish and maintain a work-life balance. They felt that this was a very important topic to discuss with aspirants to the principalship and noted that was a major factor in many potential school leaders not pursuing the top job in our schools. The acknowledgement by all the contributors to this study that the principalship is a time consuming position indicates their awareness of the time commitment their current principals make to the job. The vast majority of teachers in PEI schools does not see the possibility of a work-life balance in the principalship and, as such, are reluctant to aspire to the top job.

Day, C., Harris, A., & Hadfield, M. (2001). Challenging the orthodoxy of effective school leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(1), 39-56.
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Horng, E.L., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2010). Principal preferences and the unequal distribution of principals across schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis32(2), 205-229.
Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2006). Transformational school leadership for large-scale reform: Effects on students, teachers, and their classroom practices. School Effectiveness and School Improvement (17) 2, 201-227.
Leithwood, K., Patten, S., & Jantzi, D. (2010). Testing a Conception of How School Leadership Influences Student Learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(5), 671-706.
McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Sebastian, J., & Allensworth, E. (2012). The influence of principal leadership on classroom instruction and student learning: A study of mediated pathways to learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(4), 626–663.

Dale McIsaac is currently the vice-principal of Queen Charlotte Intermediate School in Charlottetown PEI. His dissertation, completed through UNB in 2015, is entitled “Teachers’ Aspirations to the Principalship in PEI Schools”.

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