Administration & Leadership

3 Ways School Leaders Can Fight Burnout

A middle school principal shares how she is getting through tough times by focusing on what really matters at her school.

January 26, 2022
Cavan Images / Alamy

Fellow principals, I have a question: How are you? No, seriously—how are you? As a practicing school leader, in January of 2022, I will admit that I feel defeated. March of 2020 feels like more than a decade ago, and pressures seem to keep mounting, both from the pandemic and from outside forces.

Job satisfaction is at an all-time low, with almost four out of 10 principals expecting to leave the profession in the next three years. Leaders cite heavy workload, state accountability measures, and the amount of time and effort needed for compliance requirements as the main drivers behind their desire to leave. Because of the pandemic, principals have spent more and more time on handling operations and management, providing a community of care for students, and fostering a professional community for teachers and staff. 

These forces are directly impacting our confidence in our abilities to both lead well and be well. Faced with an impossible amount of work for one person, school administrators need to learn how to reprioritize in order to focus on what’s really important. Here are three ways to do that.

Do It, Delegate It, or Delete It

Many principals have found themselves trying to be the Covid coordinator, day-to-day sub on call, lunchroom supervisor, daily bus monitor, sole administrator for all the individualized education programs (IEPs), and primary point person for every student in need. It is impossible to do all of these consistently or well.

I’ve begun taking frequent audits of my task list to determine the following: What are responsibilities only I can do as the school leader? Are there responsibilities I’ve taken on that belong to other people? To answer these questions, I write down all of the tasks I need to do on sticky notes and separate them into three columns: must do, could do, and wait to do. Right now, the “could do” and “wait to do” items aren’t given priority.

For each project, report, question, or concern in the “must do” column, I ask myself the following:

  • Am I the one responsible for the outcome? Then do it.
  • Is there someone who has more knowledge, insight, or ability to respond? Then delegate it.
  • Is this relevant to my primary responsibilities, relevant to our current site plan, or within my personal bandwidth? If not, delete it.

Reviewing your responsibilities from the lens of doing it, delegating it, or deleting it will give you the control and clarity necessary to get back on track. Being intentional and really processing what can be done only by you allows you to set firmer boundaries with your time. 

Stop Fixing and Start Empowering

As leaders, we might find it easy to fall into a routine where we are constantly solving problems. In order to maintain your own health and sanity, stop fixing and start empowering. This year, my school, like many others around the country, has experienced a significant sub shortage, and I knew that our campus needed to think creatively to find solutions for the second semester. By working collaboratively with our leadership teams and our teachers, we were able to create a model for hourly substitute coverage.

Because we involved the teachers and leadership in brainstorming solutions to this problem, the process ended up better than I expected. Teachers had the breathing room to plan, and they were relieved to have explicit permission to take days off as needed without worrying about what would happen to the students in their absence.

If we want to create systems of support for our students and teachers, we should give others a voice in the development and implementation of successful strategies. Empowering others, instead of imposing solutions top-down, builds community.

Regaining Our ‘Why’

Educator, speaker, and author Ken Williams says it best: Getting teacher buy-in isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it to see long-term results. The two solutions I suggest above both require asking other people to do more. We have asked educators to go above and beyond so many times in the past few years that you might be worried about asking for another thing. It’s true that leaders need to delegate and empower so that they have the bandwidth to guide their schools in the direction they need to go. It’s also true that everyone is running on fumes right now.

Leaders and teachers alike know that our students need intentional practices that will help us all get back on course academically and socially. Can I ask this: What if we started to work harder to move forward and worry less about the learning loss? At my school, we’ve stopped focusing on the gaps and losses from the past two years, and we’re using our energy to focus on how to move our students forward.

For us, that looks like digging into our benchmark assessments as well as our classroom assessments. We’re going back to our identity as a professional learning community (PLC). We’re remembering the four questions that drive our PLC:

  • What do we want all students to learn?
  • How will we know if and when they have learned it?
  • How will we teach it?
  • How will we respond if some students do not learn or if the students have already learned?

We are ensuring that these questions are asked in a culturally responsive way. Is this work hard? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Will centering our conversations back to student growth, achievement, and engagement support and improve school culture? I certainly believe it will. Regaining our “why” for our work as school leaders means reframing our conversations, our professional development, and our language as leaders to focus on growth, gains, and the great things happening every day.

Principal to principal, I really do get that this is a difficult task we’ve all been given. We are stretched thin and facing a lot of pressures. If we focus on reprioritizing, empowering others in our community, and regaining our sense of purpose, I hope that principals everywhere can find the energy to keep doing their vital work. Once we begin modeling these behaviors, we can also support teachers as they let go of less important responsibilities as well. This will hopefully free up more bandwidth for both teachers and administrators to rediscover their “whys.”

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