Why we stay: 3 Massachusetts principals on striking a balance between pressure, progress
Sacha Garcia-Mailloux is principal of Lt. Clayre P. Sullivan K-8 School. Lori McKenna is principal of Holyoke High School North Campus. Steven Moguel is principal of William G. Morgan Elementary School.
It’s a moment when many principals are leaving the profession. According to one survey conducted in December 2021 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, nearly four out of 10 principals plan to do so in the next three years.
We are three principals who teach in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for a public school district that has been in receivership since 2015. Our student body is nearly 87% students of color. We are proud to serve a diverse, beautiful community that, like similar communities, has been subject to systemic inequities that were only made worse by the pandemic. Even though this year has been our toughest year, tougher even than 2020, we’re planning to stay.
Like our colleagues, we care deeply about our students and the adults we serve. We’re compelled to level the playing field for marginalized youth and students of color. And we know that the work of schools, and of improving the lives of students, is about incremental progress.
At the same time, we understand why so many of us are leaving the profession. Long hours, competing priorities, and complex, emotionally exhausting work make this job not for the faint of heart. Principals tend to be highly motivated — all three of us have been called workaholics — and even so, each of us has been challenged with taking on even more during the last few years.
Principals are often like the captain of a ship that is being tossed about in a deeply churning ocean. Some things, like the pandemic, cannot be avoided. It is our job to chart a course when the winds are uncertain. But there are also often other destabilizing factors — frequent leadership and policy changes, shifting goalposts for success, and lack of support for us as leaders — that make the task even more difficult.
We stay because we feel fortunate that during this challenging time, our district has narrowed its focus, allowing us to double down on what we all agree matters most for our students. For Holyoke, that’s meant sharpening our focus on literacy and increasing our support for diverse learners.
Our district leadership has supported us in ways that have increased the quantity of time we spend as instructional leaders. They have ensured we have the tools and conditions we need to succeed through increased operational support, targeted development, and ongoing, authentic thought partnership. We are all participants in leadership programs run by Relay Graduate School of Education, which give us opportunities to identify and work through challenges guided by experienced leadership coaches and alongside a network of peers from across the country.
For example, in one of our schools, one of us noticed that teachers were not regularly providing students enough time to practice what they were learning. Our coaches helped us refine how we conveyed that feedback, modeled best practices and followed up with teachers. Now, students’ independent work time has measurably increased, and our teachers feel better about feedback and regularly ask us for more.
We stay because we can see and feel that we and our staff are getting better at our jobs. This is motivational and impactful for students.
We also know there’s a desperate need for emotional intelligence in our schools — on our part as school leaders supporting teachers and students who have experienced ongoing and new trauma over the past few years, and for those who supervise and support us in our roles. We’re happy to say we feel known and trusted by our district, and we know it’s OK not to have all the answers right away.
This is the kind of environment that allows school leaders to stay the course during a tumultuous year: deep relationships based on trust and respect, ambitious goals that help us sharpen our focus, permission to lead for learning, and ongoing support that reminds us to celebrate the small wins, because we know these can eventually add up and have a lasting impact on our students’ lives.
When we walk through our buildings, we see students learning — and smiling. That makes us feel good about the vision we have forged with our teams and continue to work on every day. This is what keeps us here. This is why we stay.