People leave for different reasons. Every year is up or down. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. We’ll just have to see where the dominoes fall.
When it comes to principal vacancies, this sort of thinking is common within school districts. As a result, they’re often caught off guard by the number of people who leave these critically important roles.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Even using simple ways to forecast vacancies can help districts proactively grow aspiring leaders and ensure there’s a great leader in every school.
Through working closely with districts to build best-in-class talent management systems, Holdsworth’s District Support Team has demonstrated that it’s not only possible to predict the number of vacancies in any given year – it’s imperative.
As of December, job satisfaction among pre-K-12 principals had fallen to an all-time low, with almost four out of 10 principals expecting to leave the profession in the next three years, according to a nationwide survey of pre-K principals by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“In a moment where public schools across the nation are struggling to staff schools, districts cannot afford to wait for the dominoes to fall,” said Jason Sierra, Holdsworth’s Managing Director of District Support.
A trend line
In many organizations, the work of predicting vacancies can be complex, taking many different factors and data sources into consideration.
After working with districts for many years, Holdsworth has learned it’s possible to get a good picture by simply counting the number of vacancies over the last five years and calculating the average. In general, Holdsworth’s predictions have either been spot on or off by only one or two vacancies.
“There is a trend line. Not only can we predict how many, but we can also typically get a good sense for where the vacancies might occur,” Sierra said.
For many district leaders, seeing that number is enough to spark a mind shift that leads to action, said Sarah Hobson Vafaie, a Holdsworth District Support Consultant.
“When you’re starting to get momentum, you want the team to stay,” said Hobson Vafaie. “But the reality is turnover happens for various reasons, and not all are within your control. Predicting potential vacancies is a great way to increase stability for schools and students by preparing leaders early.”
Why people leave
It helps to know why people leave. Are they leaving because of retirement or promotion, or for some other reason? If it’s something within the district’s control, it’s good to know so leaders can take steps to fix it.
According to 2019 research by the Learning Policy Institute, one of the most common reasons principals leave is inadequate preparation and professional development: “Better-prepared principals, including those who have had internships and/or mentors, are less stressed and stay longer, even if they are in high-need schools.”
Predicting vacancies in advance – ideally three to five years – gives districts time to prepare potential successors and set them up for success.
Getting more ‘at-bats’
Mesquite ISD is a district of around 38,000 students east of Dallas. In 2019, Holdsworth predicted the district would have seven principal openings. District leaders hoped it would be fewer. The real number was eight.
Knowing the principal roles were coming open, Mesquite began leveraging existing development programs for aspiring principals (often sitting assistant principals) to give them more targeted coaching and job-embedded experiences.
“They really started thinking ‘How can we get our assistant principals ready now while they have someone coaching them?’ Ideally, the first time leading a data meeting, for instance, should not be as a principal. The more at-bats they can get before they are the person in charge, the better,” said Hobson Vafaie.
Ready from Day One
This year, Mesquite is doubling down on their predictive analysis, digging into which schools are most likely to experience vacancies and identifying which assistant principals are ready to step into those roles. They’re also identifying which aspiring leaders need a year or two more of development and providing them with targeted learning opportunities.
Drilling down into the data this way allows districts to be more intentional about the right fit for each campus, said Hobson Vafaie.
“An elementary school and a specialty high school are totally different. What’s the school community like? What’s the history? Is the teaching staff mostly new or tenured? There’s so much to consider.”
To ensure that this work is prioritized, Mesquite has made leading it part of a job description –the assistant superintendent for leadership and strategic initiatives, a role currently held by Dr. Leslie Feinglas. Principal supervisors and human resources are also vital to the discussion.
“With opening new schools each year, internal promotions and retirements, we need a ready group of assistant principals who can thrive in the principalship from Day One,” Feinglas said. “Holdsworth helped us predict the campuses that would have openings so we could prepare our assistant principals to take on the exact challenges they might face.”
Impact on students
Though the work of predicting vacancies can seem like one more thing to pile onto a giant list of priorities, there are few things with greater impact on student learning than having an effective principal leading a school.
“Often when a principal leaves, other staff leave too, so it’s not just one person, there’s a ripple effect. If you are constantly churning through people, you are not getting long-term results for kids,” said Hobson Vafaie.
Being able to predict vacancies and fill roles with aspiring leaders who are already familiar with the school, its vision and the district’s culture can help smooth the transition so that leaders are building on progress already made rather than starting from scratch.
For Mesquite, planning for vacancies has been invaluable. Combined with the work they’ve done to define the skills and characteristics of a good leader, they’re seeing a rise in the quality of applicants, and aspiring leaders who were given more runway for development have performed better in their first year.
“We’ve given people the tools to plan and guide their own development, with coaching support from the district to help them reach their goals,” said Dr. Angel Rivera, superintendent at Mesquite ISD. “It’s been empowering for our up-and-coming leaders, and great for the staff and students they lead.”