Who Cares for the School Principal?

Many ICP colleagues have asked us to re-publish this wonderfully perceptive article by ICP’s former President, the late Alta Van Heerden

The wellbeing of school principals has been the study of Prof. Phil Riley and others for a number of years. Statistics coming out of these studies regularly indicate that school principals experience higher workplace demands, higher burnout, higher stress symptoms, more irregular sleeping patterns, higher depressive symptoms, etc. than the general population.

Adam Fraser in his 2018 article ‘It’s a lonely job: how can we help stressed-out principals?’ indicated that principals “have more than 12 different and distinct areas of work, many of which require different skill sets as well as emotional agility in order to cope while moving from one highly stressful task to another”. He further states that “the risk-adverse nature of our society means they (school principals) have more reporting and compliance to do. This ensures that standards are met, that principals are delivering on expectations of students, parents, staff, community, the department and even themselves.”

In a Monash University study into the experiences of school leaders in 2020, Dr Longmuir reported that “Overall, the strongest message from all participants was just how all-encompassing and important wellbeing became during the pandemic. Leaders reported that the caring and compassionate aspects of their role were the most necessary as they supported their communities.” The Monash University article dated July 26, 2021 goes on to indicate that “School leaders also identified the challenges of extreme workload and emotional drain that they experienced themselves.”

Taking the above into consideration, my question is….


In my experience a lot of effort goes into mentoring and coaching of principals at the beginning of their careers to develop or enhance their performance. Experienced principals are often mentored via a community of practice with the focus on curriculum management, instructional practice, etc. After all, effective leadership is the foundation for successful learning in schools and the principal plays a central role as an agent of pro-active and meaningful change.

Although researchers’ reports indicate a great concern for the mental health and wellbeing of principals, I am not aware of practical steps being taken deliberately by education authorities, schools, communities, etc. to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of principals. While there are many wellness programmes for educators, in general, it does seem as if principals have to devise their own mechanisms to cope with the additional stress that comes with the position. Having a trusted colleague or friend with whom to share your ‘highs and lows’ and be a sounding board from which to reflect…will always lessen the stress levels.

For me…apart from the usual recommendations to avoid ‘professional burn-out’, exercise, healthy eating, hobbies etc….it was also the combination of a less stressful, supportive environment at home, being in a professional association for school leaders, living my calling and the ‘Ivan factor’ at school.

Ivan was a retired principal, who was originally appointed at the school to work with children with academic challenges, but he progressively became more than that in the school environment and to me personally. He became my mentor, counsellor, confidant, shoulder to lean on, etc. etc. He was a wise gentleman, who no longer had the pressures of building a career, but whose life experience and educational knowledge made him a priceless asset to me. His regular ‘check ins’ and ‘chats’ contributed greatly to me thriving as a principal and ensuring my mental wellbeing until the day I retired in April 2021.

The South African Principals’ Association (SAPA) provided me with a safe place where colleagues cared about the well-being of others and created professional growth opportunities in the specific areas of need. I hold the sharing of experiences in a collegial, non-judgmental environment and the subsequent array of ideas coming out of these conversations as another factor that contributed to me thriving regardless of the challenges faced.

I believe every school principal should have a ‘SAPA’ and an ‘Ivan’, who can accompany them on their journey so that they can thrive, be successful and remain pillars of strength for those whom they serve.

I would like to invite you to join this conversation and let us know what your ‘Ivan’ factor is that is helping you not only to survive but thrive as a school principal.

Alta van Heerden

ICP President 2018-2021



Recent Posts

Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

Members of the ICP Student Leaders Forum, composed of student representatives from across the globe, held a facilitated virtual meeting on March 17th 2024 to discuss student wellbeing and mental health. 

The outcomes from this dynamic meeting have been correlated into a position document which we now present to the ICP Executive for their attention and consideration.

read more

Lessons from John Bruton and the Art of Leading with Grace

As I tuned into the funeral of our former Prime Minister, John Bruton, a poignant scene unfolded before me, capturing the essence of leadership and humanity. The gathering of leaders, once divided by their ideologies and policies, now stood united in their respect and...

read more

International Confederation of Principals

Become a member today