School leaders are in one of the most precarious balancing acts in the history of public education. They must keep educators focused on providing high-quality learning to kids despite mandatory Covid testing, email notifications of potential exposures, and omnipresent media coverage of the pandemic. This balancing act is complicated further by teacher shortages and the cumulative impact of asking teachers to help cover job vacancies. All of this leads to an incredible amount of stress for administrators and teachers alike, which must be mitigated to avoid burnout.
How School Leaders Can Manage Our Own Stress
As leaders, we are responsible for the health and learning of everyone in our schools. We courageously hazard forward in ways that keep our school communities engaged, give hope, and keep staff believing that things will get better and be better not just for children but for everyone. Leaders must be the face of hope in a school, even when circumstances are far from optimal.
Teachers depend on administrators to ensure that essential functions of school occur consistently. Staying ready to lead requires administrators to fight physical and emotional fatigue. School leaders’ “invisible work” is necessary, though emotionally draining, and few recognize it until something doesn’t happen as it usually does. Do not unintentionally exhaust the emotional energy you need to support those who need you.
Anthony Nunez, a middle school principal in Las Vegas, emphasizes that paying attention to one’s fitness and nutrition and seeking mentoring and coaching can help administrators sustain high-quality leadership.
“Take extra time when needed to put something in your body worth putting in there,” said Nunez.
He also clarified what he sees as the difference between mentoring and coaching and how both keep leaders energized.
“Mentoring and coaching are essential and complementary, but not the same,” said Nunez. “Mentors are collegial thought partners. Coaches hold you accountable for performing better. My mentor might have been in the principal seat 20 years ago, but the ‘principal chair’ is different now. My coach gives me actionable direction. That’s going to lead to results for students.”
Check on your colleagues to make sure they are doing OK and taking care of themselves. School leaders have few people they can confide in about the challenges of their job, and isolation can be debilitating. Energy is finite, and leaders must keep their energy up. A key to this is getting enough sleep. Championship athletes repeatedly say that rest is just as crucial as vigorous activity in getting stronger. Plan to do fun things, so that your mind can periodically disengage from the stress of work.
How School Leaders Can Alleviate Teachers’ Stress
As the core function of schools is teaching and learning, administrators must keep staff encouraged by their students’ progress, even if that progress is not as far or fast as teachers would prefer. Seek to meet staff members’ emotional needs, so they don’t give up on students, the mission of high-quality teaching, or themselves. People emotionally need to feel safe in their health, job, and social environment. The possibility of being infected or quarantined by Covid threatens teachers’ sense of safety and order.
“Some staff members have people getting sick in their families,” said Leosha Giardina, a high school leader in Topeka, Kansas. “It’s about knowing them, what they need, listening, and being there for them. Have those individual conversations when you know someone is overwhelmed or having tough things happen in their families.”
People also have an emotional need to feel a sense of belonging. “Striving for connection is a universal human need,” said Jeremy L. Pearson, a school psychologist in Montgomery County, Maryland. “This need is even more pronounced when teams of people are working toward a common goal like teaching children.”
Teachers leaving the profession or being pulled out of classes to cover vacant teaching positions makes school community-building harder. Regardless, please don’t underestimate how deeply teachers value their grade-level teams, classroom communities, and school communities. Returning to face-to-face learning was as cathartic for many teachers as it was for most students.
The Importance of Listening
As Covid infection rates trend in sometimes concerning directions, school leaders must be ready to listen to teachers, calm their anxieties, and help them stay focused on student learning.
“I take the time to listen to the people about ideas to make their job more efficient,” said Nunez. “We have 180 days to do more than can be done in 180 days. Sometimes I feel like the biggest power I have is making sure we are doing things worth doing.”
During this time of uncertainty, leaders must be more than visible to school communities; we must be vulnerable. Connect with your team on a human level as a caring person and collegial professional.
“It is important to be there for them,” said Rod Laws, an assistant principal in Asheville, North Carolina. “Teachers have told me their emotional bank accounts feel drained, but they can always depend on me being there for them with a smile on my face.”
Finally, give staff members grace when things don’t happen according to plan. Employees’ uncharacteristic behavior may be a response to stress they are experiencing outside of school, rather than a reflection on their teaching or dedication to students. Be patient.
“I tell teachers this is a Crock-Pot process, not a microwave,” said Laws. “We keep the ‘temperature’ low and slow. We have things to do that might seem overwhelming at times. We support teachers in all of it. It’s about leaders knowing the people they serve.”