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Principals Tell Politicians on Capitol Hill: We’re Burning Out

It took Stacy Monette under three seconds to list the priorities she wanted her Massachusetts legislators to tackle.

“Mental health. Teacher pipeline. More funding,” Monette said, framed against the looming Capitol building in Washington. Monette, the principal of Charlton Middle School in Charlton, Mass., was in town. with 400 other K-12 principals to lobby their states’ representatives for increased funding and support to the nation’s schools.

As she walked towards Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office, Monette added one more priority to her list. “Principals need support, too. At least three of my principal friends have burnt out and quit [the profession] in the last few years. The pressure on us is intense. This trickles down to teachers and students.”

Principals across the nation have turned into advocates to protect the interests of their schools. Principals must defend against uncertain funding, protect their staff from political attacks, and find sufficient resources to deal with poor mental health in their schools.

“I don’t think people realize that schools are now the number one providers of mental health support to kids,” said Gordon Klasna, a former principal and executive director of secondary education at the Billings Public School District in Billings, Mont.

Klasna and Monette might have reason to celebrate this week. Lawmakers appropriated a modest $20 million increase in Title I funds for the financial year 2024 in the newly passed federal spending bill and avoided proposed cuts to Title II, which funds teacher and principal professional development, and other programs. The $20 million, said Klasna, will allow schools to support students who need the most support to make up learning gaps, like more interventionists or tutoring.

In a statement, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Ronn Nozoe, hailed this funding announcement as a “victory” for principal advocates, who will now have more funds to carry on their rebuilding efforts after the pandemic.

The principals also had a chance to advocate for several pieces of federal legislation they think would make a difference—although with Congress and passing a record low number of laws, none of them are likely to advance anytime soon.

Klasna was happy that Congress “didn’t take away any funding,” but also struck a cautionary note. “This [money] isn’t enough to bridge the gaps we’re facing.”

People over programs for mental health support

Seated in Sen. Warren’s office, Monette advocated for more funding for mental health support, telling a story about her own school.

“At the beginning of this year, I advertised for a Spanish teacher position six different times. I couldn’t get any good applications,” she said. “I also had to choose between keeping a Spanish teacher and a school counselor. That’s telling.”

School leaders said they often must rely on a single psychologist for a whole district, while simultaneously letting go of paraprofessionals who help school psychologists.

“We are going to lose an interventionist and aide for our guidance counselor. Counselors have a crazy amount of work. Aides look after the administrative tasks. Teachers already have a full plate, and now we’re going to lose our interventionist. It’s not about buying another program, but finding the right people,” said Tracy Hilliard, the principal of Urbana Elementary School in Frederick, Md.

Principals said that when they do find psychologists, they often lose them quickly to better-paying opportunities. Hilliard added that the pool of psychologists that schools have to choose from aren’t often familiar with specific issues that students face in school.

There’s a lack of continuity, Hilliard added, when psychologists are shared between schools.

“We don’t get the opportunity to build the kind of relationships [with them] that we normally have with guidance counselors. This person is just giving a report. They don’t actually know what’s going on with the kids,” Hilliard said.

Dan Jenkins, the principal of the high school in Clinton, Tenn., said there needs to be time in the schedule to work on students’ mental health.

“We do student assemblies once a month where we award students for good attendance and good behavior. We do a common lunch where kids can catch up [with their studies]. We have 7,000 kids and one counselor. I took all other administrative tasks off our counselor. They just do check-ins with the kids,” Jenkins said. He stressed the need for fewer state-mandated tests till the mental health problem is in check.

Most principals threw their weight behind bills like the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, introduced in Congress in 2023, which requires social media platforms to verify users’ ages and limits access to children under 13 who try to create accounts. The bill has bipartisan support.

This act will help if it’s enforceable, said Andy Jacks, the principal of The Nokesville School in Prince William County, Va.“Kids can just lie about their age. We need to have a national movement [to curb social media use], like the need for seatbelts. Parents must share the responsibility, too. We need to be clear about things the school can’t do,” he said.

Principals also lobbied on behalf of their teachers, who are often the first adults to respond to a student’s mental health crisis in school. They sought support for the proposed Mental Health of Educators and Staff Act, introduced in the Senate in July 2023, which would identify and disseminate best practices for preventing suicide and building resiliency in school staff. Educators are under pressure, principals said, and their own mental health is in jeopardy as they try to respond to students’ growing needs.

“I don’t want to put more on my teachers’ plates. If teachers need to be trained to deal with mental health challenges in school, something else has go to go. Let’s be careful about what this dialogue on training teachers [for mental health support] looks like,” said Jenkins.

Educators need respect and respite

Most principals who attended meetings on Capitol Hill came away with the hope that stories from the ground would coax their representatives into action. Chris LaBreck, who was part of the Massachusetts contingent that met Warren’s aide, talked about how an investment by the Worcester Public School department helped him get a degree in education.

LaBreck, now a principal in the same school system, emphasized that new teachers needed financial support to join the workforce. “I struggle to find math and science teachers… they come out of school $120,000 in debt but are offered $40,000 to start teaching. We also need support for parents who can become educators, but don’t have the money to do it,” LaBreck said.

He supports the Loan Forgiveness for Educators Act, introduced in the Senate in March 2023, which incentivizes educators to work in early education and schools with a large high-need population. The proposed act would remove the $17,500 ceiling on federal loan forgiveness at the end of five years of qualifying service, and extend it to school leaders.

The focus on mental health and educator pipelines, for principals, all boils down to making schools an easier, more welcoming place for students and teachers.

“Teachers were our heroes during the pandemic. Now they’ve turned into punching bags,” said Klasna.

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