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Why School Leaders Are Considering an Early Exit: One Principal's Take

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Diana Rea, the principal of Du Quoin Elementary School in Du Quoin, Ill., had planned to retire in four years, when she'll be 58.

And while she hasn't officially changed her mind about the timing of her retirement, the coronavirus pandemic has "kind of made me wonder if I want to wait another four years," Rea said.

"I do reach that magic age this spring when I can retire," said Rea, who will be 55 next April. "And it does put the question in my mind, 'Can I keep this up for another three years or have I kind of reached my end? Is this where I finish and let someone else take over?' Because it's huge."

Rea has many peers who share this sentiment. In a survey earlier this month by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 45 percent of school leaders said that the conditions spawned by the coronavirus pandemic are forcing them to move up plans to leave the profession. The largest share of respondents—46 percent—said pandemic conditions have not altered their retirement plans.

Rea has been in public education for more than three decades and she's led Du Quoin Elementary School since 2014. The school's enrollment is generally around 500, but since classes resumed this month with a hybrid model where students are in school for about five hours two days a week, the enrollment has fallen to about 440. Some parents have enrolled their children in private schools with full-day instruction five days a week.

Rea does not want to leave. She knows her staff and students need her, particularly as everyone tries to adapt to a new way of schooling. She worries about whether her elementary students would be able to get all the assistance to prepare them for the next level; whether younger students just learning how to read will be able to get the necessary support; whether gifted students will have access to the challenging programs they'd had previously; and whether students who are struggling will also have all the support programs they need.

"I worry about our students being able to get what they need or getting all of the supports or challenges they should have in order to continue learning," she said.

The looming uncertainty about how to catch students up once the pandemic is over and whether the resources will be there to help them also weigh heavily on her.

"My younger elementary students who are just learning to read, our supports are not there so that they are going to be successful readers," Rea said. "It's going to take two or three years to get the reading ability not only because of the gap in the spring but also how we're having school now."

The school has always prized strong relationships with students and families, and Rae worries, too, about how those relationships will be affected during the pandemic. And the addition of protective measures like Plexiglas barriers to separate students and teachers, while necessary, are affecting school culture, she said.

"There's no way to put that in when we have students in for nine hours a week," she said.

'There Are No Work Hours'

Rea described the summer months preparing for the new school year as "never-ending" and a "marathon." She took only five to seven days off, and even on those vacation days, she worked from home: emailing parents and teachers, setting up training for teachers, creating schedules, and doing other school-related work for the August reopening.

"There are no 'work hours,' " she said. "In this new environment, we have families who are reaching out by email at all hours, in the evenings, on the weekends, and as the school leader if the parent is contacting me, I am going to respond."

But, she said, "I don't want to discourage that" because parents are also overwhelmed and also juggling multiple hats and they are reaching out for answers when they have the time to do so.

And how school would start and under what policies were constantly moving targets, forcing the district and school teams to return to the drawing board several times to modify existing plans or come up with new ones, she said.

"Every three weeks, we would get some sort of new guidance—here's how you're going to have school, these are the things you need to be thinking about, these are the policies you need to have  in place," she said. "It's like in the circus, having all of these plates spinning on the top of the needle. I felt like I could not keep all of the plates spinning—something was going to fall. I have never felt that way."

"Just having that moving target all summer long was incredibly stressful," she said.

A principal whose leadership is built on coaching teachers and matching instruction to students' needs—whether they are gifted students and need challenging or additional classes or struggling learners and need additional support—Rea said it's difficult to offer those supports in the current environment.

"That's a huge stress on me," she said. "I am used to removing the roadblocks for my teachers. I feel like that's my job as the instructional leader—remove the roadblocks, be the problem-solver. The roadblocks are things that I just don't know how to get rid of this year."

And while she constantly checks with her teachers about their needs, they are also in unchartered territory.

"They don't even know what kind of help they need to navigate this type of learning," she said.  

Still, Rea said she's committed to her staff, students, and families as they navigate this new reality. She doesn't think it's the right environment to make a decision after devoting so many years to public education.

"I know I can make a difference in the lives of my students, and I can help my teachers be the successful teachers that they want to be," she said. "Our community is depending on us to do our jobs. I want to be here in order do that for my community ... They trust me. I've had parents tell me that— 'I trust you. I know that what you're doing is what's best for our students.'

For them to reach out and say, 'I trust you, you are doing the right thing for our kids,' that helps. That helps me to know I've got support from the parents in my community.

But I'll be honest, when my birthday comes around in April, and I reach that magic age that I really can say I'm done—it's tempting. It's very tempting just because I know the huge upheaval we're going to have over the next few years."

Caption: Diana Rea, principal of Du Quoin Elementary School in Du Quoin, Ill., is questioning if she'll be able to stay on the job to retire in four years as she had planned. (Whitney Curtis for Education Week)

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