Stressors and Stress Management Mechanisms among First-Year School Principals

Stressors and Stress Management Mechanisms among First-Year School Principals

Ernestine Young


Tutor’s Name

23th, December, 2011


This study particularly aimed at investigating the primary causes of stress among first-year high school principals as well as the main stress coping mechanisms employed by first-year high school principals. The study did not differentiate between the principals and their assistants in the investigation on coping mechanisms but causes of stress were investigated differently for principals and their assistants. The study found out that some of the major causes of stress among first-year high school principals were the pressure to meet their new obligations, establishing trust and confidence with new staff members, adapting to new set of code of conducts and institutional culture. Particularly, assistant principals found discipline restoration as one of the major stress factors since most of high schools delegate disciplinary department to the assistant principal.


School administration is increasingly becoming more important and challenging at the same time due to the increasing demand for higher academic standards globally. Highly qualified and able personalities are needed for these positions in order to facilitate meeting of these rising academic standards. This calls for promotion, reshuffling, and transfer of principals from one institution to another. The transition period is quite sensitive and deserves careful attention in order to ensure that the new principles are adequately prepared to handle the transition period and therefore able to establish a strong base for leadership (White 166). The best way to address this situation is to investigate the major stress factors and possible ways in which various principles address this causes of stress. A way forward is then suggested to enable future principles and people at similar challenging situations handle similar challenges in a more efficient way. The purpose of this research is to investigate the following: 1. What are the major stress factors that first year principals experience? 2. What are the possible ways in which various principles address these causes of stress? 3. What are some of the suggested ways to enable future principles to handle similar challenges in a more efficient way?

Literature Review

This study was conducted based on knowledge and experience brought forward by previous authors and researchers. To gain a wholesome understanding of the whole stress phenomenon, the literature review was conducted in threefold. Firstly, literature review on stressors among first-year principals was investigated. Secondly, studies on effects of stressors were evaluated in the lens of burnout theory. Finally, different ways of stress management options were considered.

There is overwhelming evidence that first-year principals and assistant principals are predisposed to various stressors. Young did an elaborate study on some of the major causes of stress among school principals. He concluded, “The obvious problem of juggling multiple issues that vary in priority requires a blend of wisdom and maturity. New people are unlikely to poses these qualities at the start of their careers in administration” (Young 516). In another independent study on stressors on school principals Brock and Grady came up with a finding that “Some administrators feel overburdened with stress at work. They struggle to maintain high productivity despite the stress. Reluctant to ask for assistance and fearing being perceived as weak or lacking leadership ability (Brock and Grady 60).

Whereas evidence points to presence of stressing conditions among first-year principals and assistant principals, it was reported that the condition could even be much worse for principals taking their first-year roles in institutions of special education. This is because these institutions need special attention and profound leadership due to its sensitivity in nature. Johnson claims, “Special educators are at the highest risk for stress and burnout, when compared to other human service providers” (Johnson 33). The same can be inferred to principals in these schools since the leadership role in these institutions is much more likely to be more stressful. This is worth consideration though the study did not include a special education institution in the study.

Schibler in conjunction with University of La Verne conducted an exclusive study that focused on an interesting but important stressor among first-year school principals. The study claimed that “First–year principals quite simply don’t know what to do in many situations because they have not gained enough experience and competence to make sound decisions. Making sound decisions lessens the impact of stress of the job. This leads first-year principals to experience high levels of stress and burnout as a result” (Schibler 4). Sugrue focused on understanding of personal life experiences as illustrated by the principals themselves. According to her report, one of Norwegian principal “has problems limiting her activities, as there is so much she wants to engage in. After her very first-year as school principal she experienced burn-out which sent her on sick leave for a period” (Sugrue 100). The list of authors and researchers who have done studies on causes of stress among school principals is limitless. However, the literature review also considered works done regarding stress management mechanisms preferred by first-year principals and their assistants. It was also claimed “school administrators who try to live up to others’ expectation and standards become emotionally exhausted and prone to burnout” (Brock and Grady 60).

According to a study conducted by Victorian Education Department Commission, found nearly half the principals reported stress-related illnesses such as heart problems and severe headaches” (Green 162). Green also argued that, “worry causes health problems, raises stress levels, and can turn you into a hateful and depressed person” (Green 165). Several studies focusing on stress management mechanisms for school administrators were investigated.

Sorenson and Goldsmith did one such study and came up with viable stress management options. They proposed, “Humor often allows a school principal to deal with important issues and people in a nonthreatening manner. Humor further enables a leader to better handle those aspects of school administration that are irritating, distasteful, and sometimes quite stressful, if not painful” (Sorenson and Goldsmith 63).

Interestingly, mentorship was highlighted as one of the available options for dealing with stress for first-year school principals. A study done by Young indicated, “27% participated in formal induction programs for new administrators. Additionally, 60% received mentoring as part of their induction” (Young 521). From the study, it was found out that participation in induction mentorship programs considerably reduced the stress levels associated with first-year principals. Robbins and Alvy claimed “principals should prepare for this eventuality by planning ahead and having some healthy food” (Robbins and Alvy 225). Green suggested a “praise file” as a viable stress management option for school administrators. First-year principals should keep a record of all compliments and go through it when coping becomes unbearable (Green 164). It was also recommended for first-year principals to avoid worrying over matters beyond their immediate control as this causes worry. Hayes appreciated the importance of vacations for principals struggling with their first-year term. He suggested that it was important for principals to take time to vent during the allocated vacation time (Hayes 162).

Theoretical Framework

Humans just like any other living things use energy to perform various tasks. However, humans arguably use more energy due to their involvement physically, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. When involvement in activities runs out of control, people are often left used up with no energy to effectively expedite the necessary duties of life (Greer 180). Vandenberghe and Huberman define burnout as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced accomplishment that may occur among individuals who do “people work”” (Vandenberghe and Huberman 239). The burnout theory has been developing for the last several years. Although it first got heightened attention and application among specialized fields such as medical practitioners and social workers, it has found appreciable application to academic fields. This theory is of utmost importance in the study and investigation of stressors and stress management patterns among first-year principles since this group exhibits similar stress factors (Donahoo 354).

First-year principles and assistant principals are faced with a phenomenon that demands excessive mental, emotional, and psychological involvement in order to meet the demands and challenges of the new positions (Juneja 177). Burn out theory is so much applicable to this study since the school principals and their assistants offer “community” service to students, teachers, parents, community, and the school administration. In the endeavor to meet the needs of all the participants especially in a new environment, they end up being stressed up, or rather burnt out (Haines 31). It is however worth noting that the level of burn out may vary from mild to severe conditions depending on stress management ability of the person.

More often than not, reshuffling in school administration posts occurs on two occasions. First, it may occur when retiring principal or assistant principal creates a vacant position. Secondly, it may occur when there is poor leadership and the school has reported appreciable deterioration in performance and discipline. When the latter case happens, the principals or assistant principals filling up these positions are much more likely to experience higher levels of burnouts due to the magnitude of stressors (Angus 182-86). According to Maslach Burnout Inventory, there are three classifications of burnout constructs. The first and the most important is the emotional exhaustion. In this light, the emotional impact of stressors on first-year school principals is considered by looking at the correlation between the stressors and the corresponding emotional impact as done by Calhoun (Calhoun 38). The second construct considers the effect or the impact of the stressors to depersonalization of the school principals. The last one will look at the correlation between the stressors and their effect on personal accomplishment. The combination of the three above will then constitute a wholesome view of the stressors and their overall effect on first-year principals. As previously mentioned, the effect of stressors is not a discrete phenomenon but rather a continuum whose magnitude depends on the magnitude of the stressor and the ability of the individual to manage the stress.


The use of questionnaires is one of the most widely used methods of conducting research. This study appreciates the usability and viability of questionnaires to obtain results especially when the field of study involves asking a variety of questions in order to come up with a conclusion. Forty principals including 20 first-year assistant principals and 20 first-year assistant principals were subjected to the questionnaire interviews. The survey was distributed to principals in surrounding districts. Specifically, the survey was conducted on Georgetown, Horry, Berkeley, Florence 1, 2 & 3, Charleston, Clarendon 1, 2, & 3, and Sumter Co. the questionnaires were performed through a brief discussion with the interviewees and the results recorded during the process of the interview.

Result Discussions

The first set of questions was all oriented towards confirming the causes of stress among the first-year principals and their assistants. From the survey across the field of study, it was found out that the primary stressor among the participants is the adjustments to the new environment. Most of the participants claimed that adjustment to a new institution with different codes of conduct and institutional culture was most stressful. Some claimed that they had to compromise their personal beliefs and preferences in order to adjust and be acceptable to the new institutional environment.

High expectation levels in performance levels were the second most stress factor. Most of the respondents reported that they found themselves in a phenomenon where they were expected to deliver more than continuing or already serving principals. The principals who had been transferred to institutions that had been recording poor academic performances and low levels of discipline mostly reported high stress levels. This is because the school fraternity, society, school administration, and education department viewed them as mediums of change for the better. The fact that such changes cannot occur overnight as expected caused a lot of stress among the principals.

Conflicts with teachers, principals, or assistant principals were third cause of stress. It was reported that many were the times when principals or assistant principals found themselves in conflict with teachers as they tried to inject new set of leadership style. They claimed that at times, they had to deal with uncooperative principals or assistant principals who were either envious of the position especially for the case of principals.

The fourth stressor that was common across the survey was the unmet need to establish trust, support, and confidence from all the stakeholders. It is undeniable that principals cannot make any meaningful progress on their new roles without support, confidence, and trust from the school fraternity. The most common stress management mechanisms across the board were found to be relaxation, entertainment, mentorship, discussion and most importantly, use of humor. Most of the interviewees claimed that they opted to ease difficult moments by making fun out of the situation to make it more manageable. It was also surprising that some shared their predicaments and challenges in their new positions as principals with their discrete friends, families, and close relatives. Others found it imperative to seek for advice from other principals from other schools who had gone through the same difficulties.


To say that the results of this study agreed with the works of previous authors is an understatement. The results confirmed similar previous works done under relatively similar conditions and frames of study. The major stressor was found to be high expectation from all stakeholders especially when the principal encountered a school with discipline and performance issues. The inability to make profound decisions due to lack of experience in the new environment was a major stressor among many of the principals. Overwhelming activities associated with the position was reported to be quite a challenge particularly for principals taking the position for the first time. Effects of stress were common among all the subjects of study. Stress manifested itself physically and psychologically. However, stress management mechanisms varied widely from one principal to another though there was considerable overlap of the same. It is therefore important that the results of this study were taken seriously by anyone considering making further progress in this matter. It has been found that stress among first-year principals and their assistants is a reality. It is also important to note that there exists several stress management mechanisms that can be used by first-year principals to ensure that their integration on the new positions takes place effectively. The results of the study are not exclusive for first-year principals only but can be applied across a wide variety of other related disciplines.


Angus, Lawrence. Education, inequality, and social identity. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Brock, Barbara and Grady, Marilyn. Avoiding burnout: a principal’s guide to keeping the fire alive. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2002. Print.

Calhoun, Susan. When good people are happy people: Looking at emotional expressivity of student-centered junior high school teachers. New York: ProQuest, 2007. Print.

Donahoo, Saran and Hunter, Richard. Teaching leaders to lead teachers: educational administration in the era of constant crisis. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007. Print.

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Appendix 1


Question Asked Positive Response from Principals Positive Response from Assistant principals

Overwhelming demand on time 19 18

Uncooperative Principals, Assistant Principal, Teachers 12 14

Uncooperative school board, society, parents 14 15

Conflicting codes of conduct and Institutional culture 18 17

Issues with past discipline and performance record of the school 11 16

Personal factors such as incompetence and lack of experience 9 10

Personal attitude such as being workaholic or over ambition 17 17

Appendix 2

Effects of Stressors

Question Asked Positive Response from Principals Positive Response from Assistant principals

Emotional exhaustion 17 17

Consumption of personal and family time 19 18

Physical exhaustion 17 15

Change in personality 13 11

Psychological effect such as sickness, headaches and migraines 11 10

Depression 6 4

Appendix 3

Stress Management Mechanisms

Question Asked Positive Response from Principals Positive Response from Assistant principals

Use of Humor 19 18

Relaxation 17 16

Sharing with friends, family, and relatives 16 16

Taking time off 12 9

Mentorship programs 7 6

Seek help and advice from other Principals or assistant principals 14 9

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