I feel burnt out after just four years of working as school principal. What can I do?

While there are supports out there, the growing number of roles and responsibilities involved in leading a school are increasingly unsustainable

I was appointed a school principal four years ago. The idea of leading teaching and learning in the school was exhilarating – but the reality is very different. I often feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of tasks and roles which confront me. The focus on teaching or learning – which I love – is sorely lacking. I am seriously considering returning to classroom teaching. Is this possible?

The position of school principal in the majority of Irish schools is, in my view, beyond the capacity of any person to manage on their own.

What other chief executive has to respond 24/7, 365 days a year, if the alarm goes off in their place of work at 4am? Who else has to spend their summers overseeing “summer works” where contractors upgrade some part of the building? And is it feasible to have one person spending much of the summer seeking teachers to fill vital subjects on the curriculum, often to find at the end of an interview process that the successful candidate withdraws? Not to mind the time spent managing fundraising events organised by parents to help keep the school open and heated

Can principals step down? Yes, absolutely. It happens. Are there supports? Yes

As a teacher for more than 40 years, I had a defined set of duties including those relating to my assistant principal post of responsibility. My working year on site was primarily confined to the days when the school was open.


When I left the building at weekends or during the holiday periods, I could leave the concerns of work behind. As a young teacher in the era when the religious staffed our schools in considerable numbers, the model by which Ireland’s education system operated worked well. Although a member of the religious community tended to hold the position of principal, the job of managing the school was carried out by the members of the community who lived on site.

When the religious orders dwindled in the 1980s, a new infrastructure of management was put in place. It involved boards of trustees at national level and boards of management at local level, along with other initiatives. On paper, everything looked fine.

Religion in schools: What do people really want?

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In reality, all it achieved was to create an infrastructure which you, as principal, have to engage with constantly alongside your main job of managing the school itself.

That means dealing with everything from a blocked toilet, to meeting a parent who is experiencing a family crisis deeply affecting their schoolgoing children, to preparing for a board of management meeting. It’s all down to one person.

Can principals step down? Yes, absolutely. It happens. Are there supports? Yes, you could check out the Centre for School Leadership. What is the longer-term solution? Allowing the State to take over the management of the infrastructure of the country’s schools, maintenance, security, along with many other matters, would surely be more sustainable. In my view, the goodwill of you and your fellow principals has let the State off the hook to date. Burnout is the result.