These past years, fraught with pandemic and polarized political tensions, have been tough on the people who run schools. Principals everywhere have stepped up to the occasion—putting out fires, coping with unexpected situations, and engaging, informing, and rallying their staff to hold the pandemic’s negative impact at bay.

Many principals admit that they had no idea their careers as school administrators would be so stressful. And many are experiencing the forces that research indicates lead to burnout: work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, unfair treatment, breakdown of community, values conflict, and lack of fit with the job.

Burnout rates are high in the education field, especially among principals. This is almost certainly thanks to unprecedented pressure to meet aggressive student achievement standards, on top of coping with constant change and working harmoniously with diverse stakeholders. Somehow, they are also expected to maintain a positive school environment.

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These job demands can lead to exhaustion, and ultimately burnout syndrome—a state of mental and physical exhaustion any worker can experience when work demands exceed personal resources. In this situation, individuals can become weary to the point of no longer caring because they feel that what they do does not matter, indicating a state of emotional exhaustion. When principals devote too much time and resources to their work and develop a very poor work-life balance, their ability to care about and be kind suffers—a state described as depersonalization. Those who experience depersonalization no longer see people as people, but as problems that must be attended to in some fashion.

In that frame of mind, a principal may allow cynicism and negative feelings to take over, leading to sarcastic, unhelpful responses. As their ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships becomes further compromised, principals may exhibit diminished patience, tolerance, involvement, and caring; emotionally exhausted individuals develop a sense of helplessness that no matter how hard they try, they will never make a difference.

Perhaps even worse, that stress is contagious. If principals do not attend to their own well-being to counteract its negative mental, social, emotional, and physical health effects, their coworkers may be at risk for the same negative effects. Typically, principals who attend to their own well-being are effective leaders who adopt a positive, proactive style and are able to meet others’ needs because they have the resources necessary to meet the challenges of the profession. These school administrators show acceptance, compassion, trust, and patience, and listen to others’ concerns in a nonjudgmental, caring, and empathic way.

However, despite widespread acknowledgment of the importance of promoting social and emotional well-being in K–12 schools, most efforts been directed exclusively toward supporting students’ mental health, with little focus on supporting the well-being of teachers and administrators. So, what can we do to better prepare future school leaders for conditions that are sure to recur—and so promote their well-being? Here are five suggestions.

1. Support self-care

In his 2004 book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Resources to Overloaded Lives, physician Richard Swenson describes the amount of power available beyond that which is needed as “margin”: something held in reserve for unanticipated situations. We all have an amount of “power” that is made up of factors such as skills, time, resources, emotional strength, physical strength, faith, financial support, and knowledge, among others.

On the other hand, the “load” includes internal factors (for example, personal aspirations and expectations) and external factors such as workload, relationship expectations, responsibilities, social involvement, and more. When our power is greater than our load, we have margin. We have enough space to take more or be balanced or handle everyday life.

When our load is greater than our power, we are overloaded, which leads to stress and anxiety. We eventually won’t be able to handle it all. Enduring this “no margin” damages our physical, mental, spiritual, and relational health. So, we need to proactively maintain some margin in order to operate healthily work-wise and life-wise. As principals who feel they need to meet the needs of everyone else first, we have difficulty saying no to people, to simply say, “I have no margin.” Maintaining a margin by sometimes saying “no” may be a sign of health.

Currently, though being “burned out” and “busy” seems to be equated with “productivity” in the field of education, principals who are stressed and overworked are actually less effective. That’s why we should start shifting that culture away from holding our state of stress as a badge of honor to one that honors free time and appreciates calm.

In a new, healthier culture, self-care is not a selfish act. You don’t expect a car to operate without gas. Similarly, you cannot serve from an empty vessel. School districts, school boards, professional associations, colleagues, and staff can support principals’ well-being by sending messages that confirm the importance of self-care for school leadership.

More concretely, we can lower expectations that principals will answer their emails on weekends or after school hours, unless there are true emergencies. This may seem like a small step, but it can be a huge support to principals. Wellness programs for self-care also can help school leader stress, since a work-life balance can increase productivity and positivity while also providing a model for staff and students. Mindfulness can be another effective tool of self-care through development of perspective, being present in the moment, and increased resiliency for effective problem solving. Carving time for connections with people we care about, whether it be through a virtual Zoom call or on a nature hike or over an outing, can help boost mental health, improve our quality of life beyond school or work, and amplify our sense of fulfillment and gratitude.

2. Make principal well-being part of professional development

Almost all professional development programs focus on helping principals improve school performance (curricula, initiatives, pedagogical strategies), but few focus on developing skills to support their own well-being.

In the business world, many corporations provide opportunities for leadership teams to participate in social-emotional learning (SEL) programs; in the field of education, however, most school systems do not provide such opportunities for their leaders. Professional development programs must be developed to cultivate principals’ own social and emotional well-being and help them develop the skills necessary to effectively lead SEL implementation.

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There are examples to follow. The School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver is offering the Prosocial Leader Certificate for school leaders who are interested in a school-wide systemic social and emotional learning implementation. This three-course certificate includes a course that solely focuses on strengthening adult social and emotional competencies as they explore self-care practices and strategies through the integration of the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program within the course.

3. Promote coaching or mentoring models

Although short-term professional development programs may support principals’ social and emotional well-being, the learning-application process requires sustained support over time. It may be helpful to establish local networks for school leaders to help them connect with others who face similar demands and challenges and with mentors they can trust.

Guidance and support from peers may help prevent isolation, which has become more pronounced in recent years as the role of the principal has become more complex. Mentorship programs that partner veteran principals with novice principals may also promote well-being. By providing ongoing professional development opportunities and establishing mentorship programs, schools can help principals attend to their own well-being. 

Again, there are examples to follow. The National Center for Courage & Renewal was established at Wellesley College in 2006 by influential education thinker Parker J. Palmer. For over 20 years, they have worked to create a unique approach to renewing personal identity, vocational vitality, and professional integrity—and the courage to act on those values.

In 2018, they and their partners developed The Soul of Leadership: Courage, Presence, & Integrity (SoL), which combines peer-to-peer connections, embedded coaching, and mentoring models to foster principal well-being. In an evaluation of the program for the cohort of 2020–2021, principals reported that the SoL program reduced their burnout, and measures confirm that both emotional exhaustion and depersonalization fell among participants. They also reported a greater sense of effectiveness and accomplishment.

4. Change policies and standards to support well-being

Principals are key to developing welcoming, caring school environments that enable students to thrive and achieve social, emotional, and academic success. Principals’ well-being must, therefore, be a priority in any system aimed at promoting a healthy school climate and student well-being. States, districts, and schools can embed well-being as a goal in strategic plans, budgets, and curricula, formalizing SEL standards, and making provisions to invest in SEL teams.

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For example, federal Title I funds can be used for non-instructional costs if the costs improve student achievement and can also be spent on comprehensive, school-wide interventions if it improves overall performance. Given research that supports the positive impact of SEL and well-being on academic achievement, Title I funds can help support well-being efforts among staff.

Additionally, we can formalize self-care requirements for school administrators. Professional standards and evaluation tools can include modeling of self-care and support of self-care initiatives as leverage to prioritize well-being initiatives. School improvement goals can ensure well-being gets emphasized in professional development for faculty and leaders.

The National Policy Board for Educational Administration adopted new national professional standards for school leaders in November 2015—but these do not recognize the importance of principals’ social and emotional well-being. When those standards are next revisited, we hope to see them prioritize and formalize proactive self-care.

5. Create greater stability through longer-term principal assignments

Principal turnover is a serious concern, given the critical role school leaders play in implementing long-term school improvement efforts. The numbers of principals and superintendents retiring this past year has skyrocketed with the spread of the pandemic.

However, evidence shows that schools with high turnover exhibit lower commitment to improvement. Moreover, principal turnover can lead to teacher turnover, thereby increasing levels of dissatisfaction and burnout and decreasing the likelihood of cultivating satisfying, caring relationships. In neighborhoods with high levels of student mobility and poverty, principal stability is especially important. Schools can support the creation of environments that promote and prioritize well-being for all school stakeholders by creating greater stability for principals through longer-term assignments.

Many principals respond to highly stressful emotional situations in ways that jeopardize their ability to develop and sustain healthy relationships, lead effectively, build strong ties with the community, and support healthy schools. For the sake of these principals—and indeed our entire educational system—we need to make a collective effort to shift our focus from measurement and testing achievement alone, to promoting well-being. If COVID has taught us anything, it is this: Well-being should be the foundation of all facets of schooling.

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