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School Leaders’ Experiences Leading After a Traumatic Event: A Posttraumatic Growth Perspective



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The purpose of this study was to explore school leaders’ experiences of posttraumatic growth following a traumatic event in their schools. Traumatic events sometimes impact schools because of natural and human-made disasters, and various kinds of violence (Webber & Mascari, 2018) and school leaders (principals and vice/assistant principals) are pivotal responders when traumatic events are connected to their schools. They are the known entity in the school building, and necessarily move between responding to district or medical directives, and parent, student, and community needs after an event occurs. While it is expected that principals will experience some negative impacts because of a traumatic event in their school (Brown, 2018, Tarrant, 2011a & 2011b), it was not known whether a positive legacy of trauma (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2013) may also arise for some after a traumatic event. This study used a posttraumatic growth perspective which suggests that some individuals will experience growth after they experience a crisis or traumatic event. The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) has been used with numerous populations, and after a variety of traumatic events. It has five factors which are, an appreciation for life, a changed sense of priorities, more meaningful relationships, a recognition of new paths or life possibilities, and spiritual development (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). This study used an interpretive description approach (Thorne, 2016). Phase one of the study involved an online survey that was sent to approximately 11,000 individuals across Canada and the United States through the North American Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response (NACTATR). On their distribution list were 375 “school administrators”. Based on the demographic questions completed by survey participants, it appeared all who completed the survey were, or had been, school administrators. One-hundred-nineteen participants began the survey, and 96 completed most of the survey. The nine demographic questions were analyzed using SPSS, and the PTGI (21-items in the survey) was summed for an overall score. It was determined that this sample of school leaders indicated limited posttraumatic growth after the traumatic event they identified for the survey. This sample indicated their posttraumatic growth falling between: I experienced this change to a very small degree as a result of my crisis, and I experienced this change to a small degree as a result of my crisis. Phase two of the study involved ten one-on-one interviews with school leaders (five principals and five vice/assistant principals). The participant volunteers were drawn from the survey participants. All interviews were with Canadian school leaders from four provinces in Canada. Interview participants indicated areas of stress and strain, and growth or change as a result of the traumatic event they identified. The interview data were analysed through an in-depth, immersive, interpretive process. Three domains were described: 1) personal and professional transformations, 2) relationship transformations, and 3) school district impacts on school leaders. The study’s findings provide valuable insights into the realities of school leaders’ experiences leading through traumatic events and the personal and professional toll on them in the aftermath. It also provides insight into how leaders may see themselves grow through adversity. Further, it offers understanding about the resources school leaders may depend on to manage through a traumatic event connected to their school. Participants offered recommendations for districts about how they might support school leaders during and after a traumatic event. They also provided recommendations for school leaders who lead through a traumatic event. Findings from this study may assist districts, unions, schools of educational leadership, and those who provide professional development to consider how crisis management, trauma-informed and posttraumatic growth awareness information, and burnout mitigation skills may build capacity in school leaders who are likely to experience a crisis or traumatic event at some point during their administrative career.



School administrators, principals, traumatic events, disaster mental health in schools, Posttraumatic Growth, traumatic events in schools



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Educational Administration


Educational Administration


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