Principal wants help summoning courage to leave job 

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Q: I’m a high school principal and am good at my job in most — but not all — regards. I’ve been at this a long time and I like my students, like steering the ship, and enjoy getting to know the families. In other words, I like the substance of my job. But I do not like working at my school. Every year there is more negativity, more mean-spiritedness among my staff. I don’t think I’m the solution. Every year, I try something new. Better and more professional development. More incentives. Mentoring programs. Asking the troublemakers to help me turn things around. Asking everyone but the troublemakers to brainstorm solutions. Penalizing the backstabbers. Taking everyone roller-skating. Making them pancakes. Rotating who runs staff meetings. Convincing the morale-crushers that the school is a poor fit for them. Bringing in new teachers who share my philosophy. Emphasizing gratitude. Rewarding teamwork. Bringing in motivational speakers. Giving my own speeches. Sending around articles on school climate. Writing copious personal thank-you notes to quell the competitiveness . . . 

The list goes on, but it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s an undercurrent of aggression that runs through the veins of my school, and a few underhanded offenders. They’re too smart to take me on directly, but they’re cruel to others, and I know they bad-mouth me behind my back. (More on that in a minute.) I don’t want to spend any time with them, let alone five days a week. I approached my immediate supervisor and superintendent about switching schools within my district for next year and was told I have to stay put. When I pushed for a reason, I was told that a few of my own employees have been complaining about me and my lack of leadership skills. The superintendent said he doesn’t necessarily think they’re fair complaints, but he wants me to demonstrate improvement before the system will consider moving me to another school. In other words, if the few people who seem to have it in for everyone, including me, suddenly deem me worthy, then I can interview for other jobs in my district. Put a fork in me — I‘m done and want out. I think it’s time to work for another system. The problem is that I have golden handcuffs. I’m less than a decade from retirement and can’t afford the financial sacrifice, but I’m completely miserable and recognize I only live once. I’m desperate to work in a happier place but still want to be a principal. Please help me rationalize starting over somewhere else, despite the fact that I’ll receive fewer benefits and less money in a different district.  

A: wasn’t expecting that last line, but it strikes me as remarkably hopeful. I can tell you’re an optimist. It sounds like you’ve made up your mind at the cellular level and want some help summoning the courage to execute on your escape plan. In some ways, you’re asking me to make the easier argument. First, understand the psychology at play. You think you know exactly what you’ll get if you stay, and exactly what you’ll sacrifice if you leave. But your logic is faulty and neither is true. Let me explain. You can stay and make it to the finish line with the expected pension and benefits. Or your misery could interfere with your mental health and you could end up on medical leave. Or you could unexpectedly land a job at another school because your superintendent changes his mind, or your subordinates change their tune, or your district’s leadership changes. You could leave and make less money, but feel so energized by the change that you get involved in side projects that yield extra income. Or you could leave and quickly get promoted to a position with better pay. Or perhaps you wouldn’t have to take a pay cut at all because you were able to negotiate a good package. There are endless permutations, so you might as well apply for jobs. As you gather information, start saving and networking. If you do make the leap, you want to increase the odds that you’ll land in calmer waters. 

Let’s take the argument to a higher level. Do some soul searching. We all have limited time on this planet. How do you want to spend your life? What brings you joy? What challenges do you find energizing and which ones do you find draining? If you died tomorrow, what would you wish you had done differently? Survey your closest friends and loved ones. What do they think you should do? If they were in charge, how would they direct you? They’re an important source of support; lean on them for courage and perspective. You might find that they’re relieved to hear you’re considering a shift because you’ve been miserable for a long time, or because it’s changed your personality or affected your physical health. Ask yourself what you’ll regret more, leaving or staying. As you set the gears in motion, do some self-reflection. Use this year to work on your growth edges so you decrease the likelihood of experiencing the same problems in a new environment. For better and for worse, you take yourself wherever you go. 

For more Career Confidential:

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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