The Principal Effect

It’s the start of a new school year, which means ‘tis the season for media coverage about teacher shortages and all sorts of speculation about why it’s happening.  However, there is a key factor that is oddly absent from the analysis and introspections about why teachers are leaving the profession – The Principal Effect.  A building Principal and by extension, the school district leaders, have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the teachers in the classroom.  It makes sense, right?  In other industries people understand that a bad manager directly affects their employees and their ability to be happy and productive workers.  However, this same principle is not often applied to Principals because teachers are too afraid of retribution if they speak publicly about what is really going on in those school buildings. When teachers leave they will cite reasons such as “dissatisfaction,” or “personal,” because to come out and say they are being harassed and bullied by their administrators makes them sound crazy and could negatively impact their ability to get another job as a teacher.

Most teachers are in the classroom because they love their students and are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to make sure that those kids are provided with the best education possible.  However, you sometimes must make some really tough choices when faced with the effects that a toxic work environment can have on your own mental health.  If you get stuck with a narcissistic and manipulative principal, your only option is the quit the profession or move to another town.  If you try to transfer to another school, the principals talk to each other and you are set up as a “troublemaker” to your new boss before you ever even meet them, so you are potentially doomed to have another poisonous working experience and if you speak publicly about how you are being treated, it could mean your career is obliterated by the school’s leaders.

My Early Years

Early in my career I had a principal who was great!  He was nurturing and motivated me to learn more and be better teacher. He had created a school environment where teachers and students were excited to come to school.  Then he retired and a new principal was assigned to my school.  She had political aspirations and was willing to mow down anyone in her way.  She told me to change a student’s grade because the kid’s parents had political ties that were important to her.  I told her no and reported it to my union reps.  What followed was six months of harassment, followed by termination.  Some of the harassment was so insane that no one would believe it actually happened; like the time she accused me of passing out pornographic material to my students or when she ordered an assistant principal to falsify a classroom evaluation of me or when I was punished for picking up my own child from the school for a dentist appointment while I was on administrative leave.  Even though I had the support of the parents and students, it didn’t matter because I was a young teacher, and she was an administrator, and it was her word against mine.    I had a fantastic lawyer who believed in me and worked pro-bono and several years later I won my case. I was awarded the 3 years of back pay owed to me. I could not sue them for damages because the state is a “right to work” state, meaning employers have the right to terminate any employee for any reason and employees cannot seek “wrongful termination” lawsuits.  That Principal did rise through the political ranks, moved from district to district whenever things got too hot, and eventually landed a gig as a district superintendent. She was eventually caught stealing funds, was arrested, tried in court and found guilty and it was shown that she had been doing it for years in multiple school districts.

I think of all of the teachers, and by extension, all of the students that were negatively impacted by her over the years because she wasn’t stopped when she should have been twenty years earlier.  In addition, it didn’t really matter that I had won.  I still couldn’t go into a job interview for a teaching position without having to discuss the situation because my name and reputation had been dragged through the mud because of the principal’s false accusations that were repeated in news outlets.  Plus, it was always apparent that there would be small doubts and concerns in the minds of any potential employer. I didn’t return to teach in a classroom for over 7 years following this event.

Thousands of Teachers Experience a Toxic Workplace

This situation is not unique to me.  Thousands of teachers go through this every year, and I believe it is a much bigger reason for teachers quitting the profession than is reported by the media.  Karen Horowitz, Founder of NAPTA (National Association to Prevent Teacher Abuse) has hundreds of stories like mine on her website endteacherabuse.org. And for every teacher that stands up, there are hundreds that stay silent for fear of retribution because when a teacher does the ethical thing and reports the wrong-doing, they are harassed and driven out by district leadership.  Here is a quote from a teacher in Nebraska “The leadership in this district is embracing a book by Jim Collins called, Good to Great. In the book, Collins tells administrators that they need to get the “right” people on the bus and the “wrong” people off the bus.  Since, in the social sector it is hard to get rid of the “wrong” people, Collins suggests making the work environment so uncomfortable for them that they will want to retire or go somewhere else. Apparently, people like me who challenge and ask questions of the status quo are the “wrong” people and are being subjected to bullying tactics to force them off the bus.”

A teacher from California was disabled due to the trauma intentionally inflicted upon her by her school and district administrators. “In ten months of working for a despot my 20-year career, my life, and my health were completely unraveled. I was targeted because I am ethical, outspoken, knowledgeable of school finance, and married to an accountant. I consider myself to be a whistleblower and I don’t hold much hope for present public educational system in my country. When I left work in March of 1995, I was diagnosed as having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder with conversion to psychogenic myoclonus (involuntary contractions of voluntary muscles).”

Narcissistic Principals Left Unchecked Cause Systematic Damage

In a recent teachers strike in Seattle, one of their demands was a need to focus on teacher mental health.  Many people assume this is due to the overwhelming toll that Covid has had on our children and teachers and while that is certainly true, there is also the truth that teachers have been experiencing mental health stress due to gaslighting administrators for a very long time. 

Yes, teachers are quitting because they can’t afford housing on their salaries.  They are also quitting because they are being demonized by politicians and they are quitting because the workload has become completely unmanageable.  But there is also a reason that no one ever talks about and that is the political nature of an education industry that allows building principals to harass and mentally abuse their teachers. 

The Final Straw

I left the teaching profession after 25 years.  I could have and would have taught for at least another 20, but in my last position I experienced, for a second time in my career, a narcissistic administrator.  The first time was devasting and really took on toll on my family, my career and my mental health, and I simply could not go through that again.  After selling my home, leaving a good job at a school I loved, I moved to another state to take a position as the Department Chair of a large conservatory in a performing arts school.  I knew there were red flags because dozens of teachers had come and gone from that specific conservatory, there had been teachers arrested for sexually abusing students, and the principal had been in the news for allowing students to show up to school in KKK costumes.  But I also knew what it was like to be falsely accused of things in the media and the principal was charming and seemed to sincerely want me to make changes and get the conservatory back on track to be nationally recognized for its brilliance once again, so after being courted and sought out, I accepted the position. I should have known better, but I was so excited to work with this institution and dreamed of the outstanding work that would be accomplished there.

Within an hour of pulling the U-Haul into the driveway of my new home, I was asked to come into the school and solve a problem.  Thus began my two-year hell with the school.  I tolerated it when I found out the principal had been meeting with parents behind my back to discuss my “performance,” and I tolerated it when he screamed at me in front of colleagues.  I even put up with it when my prep period was sacrificed, and I was asked to teach classes that I wasn’t contracted for.  I often questioned my own sanity because he would tell me things like the students and parents all hated me and then deny that he ever said it. I didn’t know what gaslighting was, or how common it was in education until my experience with this principal. So finally, when he said to me, “I can make you do anything I want and there is nothing you can do about it;” I knew it was time to go.  It was the straw that broke my back, because he was right.  Union representatives and district administrators would not listen.  In the summer of 2020, a petition was created on Choose.org (not by me) to have this principal fired and 2700 people signed it. There are multitudes of stories about racism, sexual abuses, misogynism, and the overall toxicity of the environment for teachers and students. But instead of any type of investigation into the allegations, the district chooses to ignore the complaints and keeps him and his entire all-white administrative team in place.

I loved teaching.  I felt tremendous joy guiding students on a path to success.  I loved it so much that I would spend 12 – 14 hours a day working, even through the summer, teaching camps and preparing for the next year.  I loved it so much that I would spend at least $10,000 every year of my meager earnings to pay for things that were needed at school because there was no budget for the arts.  I loved it so much that I took on an enormous amount of student loan debt to become a teacher and get a Masters (as it is required to continue your teacher certification).  I have numerous former students that write me or keep in touch through Facebook.  I know I was a great teacher, and I know I had a tremendously positive impact on thousands of students over the years.  All I asked for in return was to be treated with respect.

It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

Sadly, I think that as the political divide in our country worsens, public education will decline, and the Principal Effect will become more prominent.  I hope that someday, this problem will finally be brought to light in the mainstream media, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.  Diane Ravitch, a noted education historian, has written several books on the subject of politics and its impacts on the American educational system.  I recommend reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System for a more in-depth look about that subject.  There are a lot of statistics being thrown around that about 90% of teachers are feeling “burnout” and considering leaving the profession.  Burnout is another code word for mental health stress, and I believe that much of that stress is due to the working environments created by egotistical and demanding building Principals.  Until we are able to take a deeper look at how the leadership affects the teachers, which in turn affects the students, the American educational system will continue in a downward spiral.  Teachers need to be allowed to speak the truth without fear of retribution and students deserve a learning environment that is safe and free from toxicity. 

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Jeana Whitaker

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