How are you doing? No, really. Moving into the 2023–24 school year, leaders are facing teacher shortages, heightened school accountability, and disgruntled parents and community partners, all while preparing to build a positive school climate for students. There can be pressure to perform at an unrealistic speed to try to support all the needs of a school. We do not have the stamina to sustain that pace for the first months of school, let alone the entire year.
The work of a school leader is heart work. Serving others often requires setting aside what you had planned in order to help someone else. Once in a while, this can provide a sense of fulfillment, but when this pattern of serving others over yourself becomes the rule and not the exception, it can lead to burnout and a sense of diminished abilities.
As leaders, we need to get our jobs done during the day and then have energy at home to have a life. I wrote Principal in Balance not only to help administrators get this right, but also for myself so that I can continue to lead at work and have a life outside of it. How can administrators return to the 2023–24 school year ready to lead at work and also live a life outside of school?
AVOIDING administrator BURNOUT
Reports of burnout, stress, and compassion fatigue are on the rise. These issues push many out of the profession, leading to high turnover and suboptimal student outcomes. Even though burnout is often used as a buzzword, it’s worth understanding what it means. Burnout has been defined as exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.
Digging in a little deeper, Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, found that the three components of burnout—emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased sense of accomplishment—are prevalent in professions where people help people, like school leaders. So, how can we take care of the school leaders responsible for taking care of others?
Why do you lead? Perhaps you were called to this role from your own experiences, or a mentor encouraged you to pursue this position. A special student may have caused you to want to lead better. Remembering and revisiting your calling on a regular basis can help when the doubt of “Am I even making a difference?” pops into your head. A recent study showed that integrating a positive psychological intervention such as savoring small positive moments throughout the day can boost an overall sense of happiness and well-being.
Leaders, we have to stop making our own physical health the last priority. Too often we are the ones who not only eat last… but might not eat lunch at all. What if every single day you did the following: eat, sleep, move, and play? During the 2023 National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference “Principal in Balance” session, school leaders assembled for a half day to learn how to better take care of themselves so they could serve others well. Participants brainstormed more than 20 different activities in each category they could implement to ensure that they were checking each box every day.
When you prioritize your own self-care first, you’ll gain the time, energy, and bandwidth you need to support others while decreasing the emotional exhaustion of the job. But let’s be honest, this can be easier said than implemented. We schedule everything else in our day—scheduling your own self-care and sticking to it is one way to ensure that the plans you have turn into action.
Forming a Community
I have worked in buildings where I was the only administrator. No one else held the same title or responsibilities, or felt the guilt of not being everything for everyone and never seeming to be where I needed to be at the right time.
Desperate to find a way to change the narrative that in order to lead well, we had to sacrifice our own wellness, I started to reach out to other leaders. Now, I have monthly dinners with two retired principals. I also participate in networking events through our state and national organization and coaching calls with other school leaders.
This job can be isolating, and too often we don’t take the time to reach out to each other and form relationships that help with the depersonalization—the distance or indifference we start to feel at work and the isolation that can occur when you feel like you are on the island of leadership all by yourself.
If I can offer any advice or a hall pass to start the year, it is this: Please take care of yourself. You have been placed in the position of leadership to challenge the status quo, support staff and students, and change a narrative of selfless educators sacrificing their self-care in order to serve. It can be exciting and exhausting all at the same time.