Education

Student mental health needs, ‘unsustainable’ jobs overwhelm Minnesota school principals

The halls of Como Park High School
A newly released University of Minnesota report on Minnesota K-12 school principals found school leaders struggling to deal with student mental health.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

It can be hard to predict what St. Paul Central High School principal Cherise Ayers will encounter when she walks through the doors each day.

“I would describe a day in the life of a principal as everything everywhere all at once,” Ayers said. “I am like the mayor of a small town. There are so many things happening, and Central is actually larger than some small towns.”

Principals like Ayers have an outsized impact on their schools. Research shows effective school leaders have a big impact on student achievement, teacher retention and other outcomes important for kids. 

Many, though, are overwhelmed. A newly released University of Minnesota report on Minnesota K-12 school principals found school leaders struggling for traction on instructional leadership and community engagement as they deal with their single greatest challenge, student mental health.

“The principal really, really matters, and they’re overwhelmed,” said Katie Pekel, executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota. “If you’ve got a good principal, you get lower student absenteeism rates and you have better student academic outcomes. So we do need to be concerned about our principals.”

‘More students needing more intense support’

The report from the U’s College of Education and Human Development is based on a statewide survey of thousands of Minnesota principals conducted in November with a strong enough response that the college considers the findings conclusive. 

Among those findings, 94 percent agreed that student mental health challenges are a significant barrier to student learning. 

For Ayers, social media and technology are major contributors to the anxiety and emotional outbursts she sees students struggling with.

“We can all be everywhere from our living room … you’ve got this device in your hand that takes you everywhere. And you can either experience everyone’s pain and trauma, or you can experience a lot of people’s joy,” Ayers said. “It impacts our students, because they start to internalize all of those things that they’re seeing.”

woman in school hallways
“I would describe a day in the life of a principal as everything everywhere all at once,” says Cherise Ayers, who took over St. Paul Central High in 2022. A newly released statewide survey reveals the increasing stress principals face.
Courtesy of Cherise Ayers

The effects are not limited to high school students. 

Emily Casselius, principal at Goodview Elementary in southeastern Minnesota, said she sees her students struggling with anxiety, depression and friend relationships, making it hard to focus on school work.  

“I’m fortunate enough to have a counselor and a school social worker in my building. Both are part time and they’re spread very thin. And we’re just seeing more students needing a more intense level of support than what we can offer within a school day,” Casselius said. 

Beyond Goodview’s doors, Casselius said it’s hard to get assistance from providers since there’s a shortage of practitioners. 

Mountains of meetings, mandates, demands

Similar to responses recorded in a 2021 survey, principals remain overwhelmed with the amount of work they’re required to do. Many said their job responsibilities far exceed the time they have to fulfill them. 

For Cassellius, her job as principal is layered. 

“My day is very unpredictable. I come into my day with kind of a plan of these are the things I need to work on, this is going to be maybe time in my office, this is time I’m going to be in a classroom. But then throughout the day, there might be a student with maybe a behavior that needs support, or we have a (substitute) shortage … and maybe I need to sub instead of do the principal tasks that I had planned for the day.”

In addition to last-minute disruptions, Casselius said her goal of instructional leadership is thwarted by a mountain of administrative tasks, district meetings, budget management, timesheet approval and emails. 

Over the last 12 months, another mountain of work has been added to the plates of school leaders: dozens of new laws from the Legislature regarding things like reading instruction and non-exclusionary discipline. 

“It’s a lot,” Casselius said. “It took a lot of time just to read and digest and truly understand what they were expecting.”

Principals across the state voiced widespread concern that many of the mandates passed in 2023 were not fully funded or supported. Many reported needing more information and guidance to implement the changes as well as time to plan and train staff.

Ben Bakeberg leads Jordan Middle School and also serves in the Minnesota House as a Republican representative from Jordan.

“We passed over 65 mandates on schools last year, and some of them are really good ones. But then if we’re going to do that, we need to make sure that we're very, very explicit in what is expected,” said Bakeberg. 

“That’s the biggest thing when I looked at the survey,” he added. “There was all this pent up stuff, especially around discipline, that people wanted to get done because of a political win. And it’s negatively impacting kids right now.”

Many principals reported doing less work now than they were in 2021 on culturally responsive leadership. That’s likely due to a lack of time and a fear about the “potential divisiveness within communities,” Pekel said. 

Despite the many concerns raised in the 2023 survey, many school leaders are generally satisfied with their jobs and say they are working slightly less now than in 2021, although they’re still averaging 57 hours per week.

“People that choose to go into education, they do it because they want to love and serve kids. No other reason. People are not going into education to indoctrinate kids … to push their political agenda,” Bakeberg said. “We need to get back to respecting educators.”

Pekel wants to see school systems try a different approach to developing principals, including paid internships and continuing professional development on topics like culturally responsive pedagogy and instructional leadership.

She also wants to see the job itself change to spread the responsibilities that fall squarely on principals. 

“The problem with that,” she acknowledged, “is we never want to spend more money on administration.”

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