“I remember very well my years as a principal,” said Principal Ross in an informal conversation. “It felt like a 24-hour-a-day job.” He continued:
I was the first one to arrive at 6 a.m.—leaving the house before my son left for school—and the last one to leave. I attended many socials and events after school, for this is what a “caring” principal does. I remember the rewarding feelings I had when a productive change led to positive outcomes for students, and I remember the days when I went to my private bathroom to cry, letting out all my frustrations so I could return to my responsibilities with a demeanor of positivity and readiness. Very quickly, I began to struggle.
The demands of my job spilled over to my life at home. Soon, I reached the point where I couldn’t handle the load any longer and my body gave up on me, forcing me to quit. I didn’t realize then that I needed to take some time for self-care to survive in the profession and be a productive leader for my buildings.
Ross is not an exception—and rising rates of principal attrition indicate there is a systemic problem. Indeed, in the post-COVID era, many superintendents and principals are saying that they can’t do it anymore and are contemplating leaving their jobs, deciding to retire early, or simply quitting. This may exacerbate learning disruptions and educational inequities, as evidenced by declining test scores and other metrics.
As a result, principals are rethinking their relationships with their jobs, their schools, and the educational environment. In a trend accelerated by the pandemic, they are thinking deeply about what they get from all the work that they do. All too often, this mental exercise leads to dissatisfaction and even despair.
We know what principals want less of, but what are these principals seeking? The conversations from our studies through the Prosocial Leader Lab with principals suggest they want more than a steady paycheck. They are searching for a school culture where they can thrive. They seek a greater sense of connection with teachers, staff, students, parents, and stakeholders, as well as an emphasis on the meaning of their work. They want to contribute more to the communities they love and find satisfaction in their achievements.
In an earlier article for Greater Good, we explored some structural reforms that would support the well-being of school leaders. In this one, we’d like to focus on self-care as a way to help alleviate the stresses of our personal and professional lives. And to take this idea a step further, we propose that proactive self-care should be one of the ethical standards of educational leadership.
In the same way that mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness, nurturing positive emotional states through self-care is not the same as attempting to alleviate harmful, disruptive emotional states that have already taken root. Proactive engagement in self-care can help prevent problems such as burnout.
So, what are these self-care practices that principals can employ? Self-care takes many forms attending to our physical, psychological, emotional, social, spiritual, personal, creative, financial, and professional well-being. Here is a sampling.
1. Practice mindfulness
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a mental state achieved through “awareness, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.
It’s an approach that has long shown great promise in promoting positive leadership practices, and research indicates that mindfulness had particular value during the demands and shifts of COVID-19. Researchers have especially identified breathing practices and the concept of “being the thermostat, and not the thermometer” as particularly helpful to leaders managing pandemic shifts.
Principals can adopt simple breathing practices to center oneself in the present, conduct a brief body scan to center on one’s physical being, or focus on a simple repeated phrase or thought to trigger a mind shift from the deafening clamor of administrative demands. Incorporating simple mindful activities as part of principal preparatory course sessions can provide a repertoire of mindful tools for managing the stressors of the administrative role.
Moreover, the practices of mindfulness will help in cultivating leadership dispositions such as non-judgment, patience, being present, awareness, and calm. One mindful practice a day can provide an ongoing thread to reorient school leaders to mission and purpose.
2. Set intentions
Daily intentions have real potential to motivate, promote feelings of empowerment, support purposeful actions, and increase focus. Though principals are adept at setting goals, intentions are less about tasks or the future and more rooted inwardly and in the present, such as a daily intention to be more present or to laugh that day.
Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, notes that daily intentions should be realistic and consider the big picture in order to avoid implausible ambitions a principal may find difficult to accomplish. Principals can start by reflecting on a daily intention that is specific and either spoken or written down in a quiet and reflective space or time. It can also help to visualize the intention, perhaps even in a drawing.
The physiologic impact of a daily intention continues to be studied with impressive promise on reordering stressful responses. As noted by developmental biologist Bruce Lipton, the connection between healthy intentions and biological changes in the brain involve neuroplasticity and can aid in shaping more adaptive and beneficial patterns.
3. Establish daily healthy habits
Effective self-care also involves adopting positive habits of healthy living, such as exercising regularly, making healthy food choices, getting enough sleep, and reducing time on electronics.
Though most school leaders aspire to have healthy habits, translating these aspirations into routine are the key. Research indicates that healthy choices can become a habit through a process of:
- choosing a goal,
- identifying an action toward that goal that can be enacted routinely,
- planning when/where that action will be adopted,
- adopting that action in that time/place, and
- assuring that you do so over a period of at least ten weeks.
Actions grounded in routine can become habits oriented toward healthy practices. Turning off the television each night after the evening news can become the precursor to going to bed at a regular time and getting more sleep. Establishing a day and time in your weekly schedule to pick up fresh produce can promote healthier snack options.
The key is to pick specific, manageable, and regular actions for the habit that can be tied to a specific time and place. For example, rather than adopting a goal of eating better, decide to eat a piece of fruit every morning before brushing your teeth. The more concrete and tied to routine, the more likely a habit can be formed that will promote healthy outcomes.
4. Practice gratitude
From an evolutionary perspective, feelings of gratitude probably helped bind communities together. When people appreciate the good things in their lives, they feel compelled to give back. This interdependence enables not only individuals, but society as a whole, to survive and prosper.
On an individual level, practicing gratitude increases feelings of happiness, boosts energy levels, provides a greater sense of health and well-being, and increases resilience. When Lea Waters and Helen Stokes studied a group of school leaders writing gratitude diaries and gratitude letters, they found those practices help promote a more balanced perspective, an appreciation for problem solving, increased value of relationships, and positive emotions. The letters encouraged school leaders to invest in others, promoted an appreciation for their own leadership role, and spawned more reciprocal gratitude from staff.
In short, taking time to put pen to paper while focusing on gratitude can have a positive, transformative effect on both school leaders and their schools.
5. Build self-regulation skills
The social-emotional competencies of school leaders are essential to their effectiveness, but fostering self-regulation skills is also an essential aspect of principal survival. Specifically, principals need to be able to control disruptive impulses and think before acting. And, in fact, a leader’s emotional regulation can influence how others react to situations and influence group perceptions and performance. Principals can influence the culture of a school through the trust and integrity that self-regulation supports.
Fostering self-regulation takes practice and directed reinforcement. More than any one practice, self-regulation takes time and must be consistently reinforced to optimize efficacy. Dr. Stuart Shanker provides a five-step method for self-regulation:
- reframing behavior by asking why and why now to reason our feelings and responses,
- recognizing the stressors,
- reducing the stressors by taking agency in not expending our energy on some stressors and engaging in stress-reducing activity,
- reflecting and enhancing stress awareness in order to break the behavior, and
- developing strategies to restore energy and build up reserves in order to return to calm.
School leaders can actively seek practices that will promote their own self-regulation, whether that is setting up a time for reflection, practicing responses to scenarios, setting up a place or routine to calm themselves when agitated, identifying routines that promote positive self-regulation practices, scheduling regular movement breaks, posting visuals that center and calm, or journaling to find an outlet for positively processing emotions.
6. Invest in relationship-building
Being a principal is an isolating job. There are no peers within the building, confidentiality negates opportunities to unpack experiences, and there is a constant expectation to model positive dispositions and an exemplary countenance.
While relationships with stakeholders—families, community, students, faculty or staff—are a key to principal success, the need for balance also requires principals to have positive relationships outside of their role as principal, to reinforce their value outside of their professional role. While many of the practices already mentioned foster positive relationships, such as gratitude and self-regulation, it’s also important to build a network of support outside the world of schooling to sustain one’s well-being.
As school leadership continues to become more stressful, promoting concrete steps for principal self-care is no longer a nice thing to do. In fact, it’s essential to sustaining our leaders.