Finding Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Perspectives from School Leaders


The COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the ongoing social and political movements in the United States,has dramatically impacted the work of school leaders. Over the past year and a half, school leaders have navigated unprecedented challenges of crisis leadership while finding ways to lead schools for equity (Grissom & Condon, 2021). Such immense pressures have put school leaders in jeopardy of burnout and work-related fatigue, which may further escalate the already high turnover of principals. The 21st Century California School Leadership Academy (21CSLA) and the University of California Berkeley Leadership Programs launched the Resilient Leadership Project in the spring of 2021 to investigate individual and contextual factors that influence Californian principals’ resilience and wellbeing. The aim of this longitudinal project is to better understand which groups of principals are most vulnerable to burnout and what factors protect them from burnout or exacerbate their risk of burnout. To examine this, our first wave of data collected information on principals’ personal and school-level demographics, perceptions of self-efficacy in school-level and district-level improvement, perceived connectedness with schools and districts, perceived level of professional support, compassion fatigue, core values for pursuing a career in leadership, and within-school stressors (see sidebar for definitions of each variable). Items and questions were informed by the content from a pilot study that we conducted in the early phase of the pandemic (June 2020). This pilot study was completed with the support of the Stuart Foundation and data were collected from graduates of the UC Berkeley and UCLA Principal Leadership Institutes.

With 234 responses, survey results indicated that principals across demographic groups reported high rates of stress but have different experiences with regard to factors of resilience and wellbeing. Specifically, gender, multilingual status, school location, and longevity are significantly associated with problems with connectedness and efficacy. With regard to stressors experienced by principals, new principals (1–2 years) reported significantly higher levels of school-level stressors compared to mid-career (6–10 years) and later-career (15 or more years) principals. Across all experience levels, principals rated “issues related to the reopening of schools” as the most stressful stressor. Additionally, findings indicated that high levels of connectedness with schools and districts, high levels of efficacy at both school and district levels, and high levels of professional support contributed to lower levels of compassion fatigue among principals. Finally, based on principals’ self-reported core values for pursuing a career in leadership, four distinct profiles of principals were generated. Principals from the four profiles differed from each other with respect to their personal and school characteristics, suggesting the heterogeneity of principals’ core values and setting the stage for further research on the correlations between principals’ core values and well-being. Taken together, the first wave of this study suggests that the experience of stress and burnout, particularly for certain demographic groups, as well as effective support strategies, are areas where critical investigations are needed in order to address the broader issues of supporting the wellbeing and resilience of our leaders as they cope with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meg Stomski
Xueqin Lin
Hua Luo
Chunyan Yang
Publication date: 
March 15, 2022
Publication type: 
21CSLA Brief