Cover: The Well-Being of Secondary School Principals One Year into the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Well-Being of Secondary School Principals One Year into the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published Jan 26, 2022

by Ashley Woo, Elizabeth D. Steiner

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Research Questions

  1. What is the state of secondary principals' well-being nationally?
  2. Does principal well-being differ across principal characteristics and school contexts, such as years of experience, race, locale, or population of students served?
  3. What are principals' major job-related stressors, and do principals' sources of stress differ depending on demographic characteristics or school contexts?

Effective principals are critical for improving student achievement, but they face numerous challenges in their jobs. Research suggests that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has likely exacerbated the job-related stress that principals experience.

Thus, there is an urgent need to understand the job-related stressors that principals face. Understanding principals' views on this topic at a national level can help policymakers and education leaders identify ways to support principal wellness; reduce job-related stress; and improve job satisfaction, performance, and retention.

In this Data Note, the authors use nationally representative data from the 2021 Learn Together Surveys (LTS) to examine the state of secondary principals' well-being and job-related stressors one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Twice as many principals as employed U.S. adults experienced frequent job-related stress during this time.

Drawing on LTS responses from 1,686 secondary principals, the authors explore how the frequency of job-related stress varies across different principal characteristics, such as experience, race/ethnicity, and gender, and school contexts, such as student populations served, school size, and locale (city, suburban, and town/rural). The authors also examine how principals' job-related stressors are associated with their schools' mode of instruction. They recommend strategies to encourage state and local policymakers to consider principals' well-being and take steps to mitigate job-related stressors now and in the long term.

Key Findings

  • Four out of five secondary principals experienced frequent job-related stress during the 2020–2021 school year.
  • Secondary principals of color, female principals, principals serving high-poverty schools, and principals serving schools with high enrollment of students of color were especially likely to experience constant job-related stress.
  • Secondary principals' top job-related stressors included supporting teachers' well-being and students' social and emotional learning, as well as navigating pandemic-related challenges.
  • Secondary principals whose schools provided fully remote instruction were more likely to experience constant job-related stress than principals whose schools provided hybrid or in-person instruction; sources of job-related stressors varied by mode of instruction.


  • Support the well-being and mental health of principals, especially principals from historically marginalized groups and principals who lead schools with large proportions of students of color and students living in poverty.
  • Help principals support and improve teachers' and students' well-being.
  • Provide guidance and resources to help principals manage the operational aspects of their jobs.

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The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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