As school leaders, we are well aware of the ebbs and flows of the school year. September begins with frenzied excitement to take on the new school year and rally our staff and colleagues to strive for new heights of student achievement. After several months, the initial enthusiasm we started each day with starts to give way to stress from long days, skipped lunches to attend parent meetings or return a phone call, and endless weekend to-do lists. When we arrive at school in the morning the sun hasn’t yet come up, and darkness greets us as we walk out of the building at the end of the day. If you’re like me, you’re more susceptible to sickness and emotional and physical exhaustion during these “dark days” (especially during the long stretches between Winter Break and Spring Break!) Ultimately, this impacts our health, performance, and overall ability to maintain the momentum necessary to lead a school.
Leaders are daily exposed to high levels of conflict, personnel issues, and feelings of isolation, all while they’re aware they must meet high performance and evaluation measures. Such stress only compounds as the school year continues. According to a School Leaders Network (2014) study, one-third of the nation's principals leave their role each year. In addition, nearly 50 percent leave their role in their third year. Such studies show that high levels of principal burnout impact teacher retention and student achievement.
This data resonates with many of our personal experiences. In our efforts to display servant leadership, remain accessible to stakeholders, and maintain consistent management routines, we often allow self-care to fall to the wayside. Truth is that our personal self-care habits have a tremendous impact on our staff, and is a crucial component to maintaining the required momentum to meet our professional goals. Consequently, we ought to lead by example, modeling self-care and encouraging all staff to do the same.
Here are some tips to help you reset self-care for yourself and your school.
Schedule your self-care priorities. Identify at least two practices that you will commit to daily. Ensure self-care practices are bite-sized and manageable. Examples of bite-sized self-care commitments include 30 minutes of walking after work or 15 minutes of light reading. Then, schedule a block of time in your daily or weekly calendar to ensure you complete these self-care practices.
Publicly name the importance of self-care. Even our most committed and veteran teachers feel guilty about taking care of themselves. In order to maintain staff engagement and prevent burnout, leaders need to publically name the importance of self-care. One way to do this is via staff professional development. Discuss the connection between self-care and student achievement. Then, complete some mindful breathing activities to equip staff with handy techniques they can apply between classes.
Create routines of revisiting self-care. Develop regular routines to keep self-care a staff priority. Include self-care tips in the principal's memo. Reserve five minutes at the beginning of meetings for deep breathing exercises. Add "self-care check-ins" at the beginning of meeting agendas. Create authentic and logical routines to keep self-care at the forefront.
Safeguard staff lunch and prep time. A Harvard study (2016) directly connects taking breaks throughout the day with mental clarity, low blood pressure, and high levels of productivity. That said, many school staff miss meals and break time because of meetings, making copies, or class coverages. Demonstrate that you care about self-care by making practical adjustments to the staff work day. It won’t be easy, but this sacrifice will reap great rewards in teacher motivation and investment.
Practice gratitude and positivity. When was the last time you said "thank you"? I encourage you to seek and practice gratitude. Visit a classroom—not the rock star, but the first-year teacher. While in the classroom, write up a quick "thank you" note and acknowledge his or her hard work. This isn’t to say that you don't have a high bar for staff performance. Rather, this establishes routines to practice gratitude and thank your staff for giving the students their best every day!
Leaders—take charge. Set a manageable goal by picking one tip from the list above and implement that tip this week. Lead by hitting the reset button on your personal self-care plan first. Then, shift your attention to providing opportunities for staff to practice self-care, remain energized, and stay invested in the number one goal: student achievement.
School Leaders Network (2014). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9813024/Churn_The_High_Cost_of_Principal_Turnover
Sun, Min, and Yongmei Ni. (2016, October 17th). Work Environments and Labor Markets: Explaining Principal Turnover Gap between Charter Schools and Traditional
Retrieved from https://education.uw.edu/sites/default/files/1406/Explaining%20the%20gap%20of%20principal%20turnover%20between%20charter%20schools%20and%20TPSs-%20accepted%20version.pdf
Denninger, J., Lazar, S., & Vago, D. (2016, March 8th). Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health(Power point slides). Retrieved from https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/assets/Harvard%20Now%20and%20Zen%20Reading%20Materials.pdf