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School leaders experiencing moral distress and exhaustion


November 15, 2019 Phil McRae, Associate Co-ordinator of Research, ATA

“We are being asked to do it all with very little and it’s reached a tipping point.”
 ­—Alberta School Leader, 2019

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has conducted many research studies on school leaders (principals, assistant principals and those with jurisdiction-level assignments) to examine key factors that are shaping and influencing their leadership work. These factors have included an increasing focus on change leadership, building and maintaining external relationships, changing approaches to instructional leadership, feelings of being “trapped in the middle,” and decreasing family and personal time due to work intensification and role complexity.

In 2019, the Association continued this important research in partnership with professor Bonnie Stelmach of the University of Alberta, and her research assistant Barbara O’Conner, in a new report that shares the voices of approximately 1,000 Alberta school leaders from across the province. This new study sought information on how school leaders’ roles have been changing, the forces influencing their work, and what kind of supports they need in order to successfully navigate the increasingly complex opportunities and challenges in their schools and communities.

Including school leaders within the teaching profession, as experienced in Alberta, is not to be taken for granted, as past (and potentially future) governments have threatened to turn principals from collaborative school leaders (principal teachers) into managers, in keeping with a narrow and limiting management/labour paradigm. The data in this study also makes it clear that school leaders are interested in maintaining a unified profession, with nine out of 10 Alberta school leaders strongly believing that their ability to fulfill a leadership role is supported and enhanced by being a member of the same professional organization (ATA) as the classroom teachers with whom they work on a daily basis.

Overall, the findings in our research highlight a seismic shift in new areas such as “moral distress,” where school leaders are feeling constrained in their ability to do what they know is the right thing because of factors outside of their control. The data also highlights the growing fault lines within the sustainability of school leadership positions as 61 per cent of the respondents disagreed that their workload is reasonable, and 49 per cent reporting that they feel emotionally exhausted when they think about going to work.

This Association research again highlights the important and strong voices of school leadership in the teaching profession and will be mobilized provincially and nationally in the coming months to advance the work of Alberta’s school leaders within the profession.

Key findings from Alberta School Leadership within the Teaching Profession 2019


  • School leaders are passionate about and committed to being instructional leaders.
  • School leaders philosophically and ethically embrace inclusion as a goal for their schools.
  • School leaders appreciate increased supports and resources to prepare them for supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners and families.
  • School leaders feel prepared to meet the competencies outlined in the Leadership Quality Standard (LQS).
  • School leaders are highly appreciative of the opportunities for professional learning and growth, and crave more pathways for engaging with other school leaders.


  • Student mental health needs are increasing, and exceeding the type and level of supports that are available to school leaders.
  • The psychological complexity of classrooms has taken centre stage in school leaders’ diversity challenges.
  • School leaders are overworked and emotionally exhausted.
  • Technology has material and emotional impacts on students, teachers and school leaders.
  • The “ideal worker” is internalized and normalized.
  • Parenting is intensifying, and expectations for schools to provide for children’s basic needs are increasing.
  • School leaders live in a constant state of diversion and “overwhelm.”
  • School leaders are “under-living” their professional lives.
  • Rural school leaders feel they do not receive sufficient supports from their districts to fulfill their leadership roles.
  • School leaders are torn between loyalties to their school districts and the local needs of their schools, resulting in moral distress.


Contradictions and Ambiguity

  • School leaders report that their districts understand the impact of technology on workload, and yet technology is a burden.
  • School leaders feel trusted by their school districts but also report that their professional autonomy is in question.
  • Women encounter more barriers to pursuing school leadership than men, but it is less clear that they find the job itself more challenging.
  • School leaders frequently feel constrained by factors outside of their control and yet report that they are able to do the right thing.

9 out of 10 school leaders in Alberta strongly believe belonging to the same professional organization (ATA) as classroom teachers supports and enhances their ability to fulfill a leadership role.

61% of school leaders find their workload is unreasonable.

49% of school leaders feel emotionally exhausted when they think about going to work.

The full research monograph is available digitally on the ATA website under Public Education > Education Research > Research Publications.

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