As I travel around the state facilitating learning at various school districts, I get the opportunity to listen and inquire of principals what their greatest struggles are right now. What always comes up is the number of young children who are in trauma and are acting out. As you know, this means when the traumatized child acts out, the rest of the students in the classroom have to move to an alternate space so he or she can be attended to and gain control. One principal I talked to has determined that one classroom in her school has lost 2000 minutes of instruction since the start of school because of the needs of one child.
You know who is in the classroom attending to the traumatized child! It is the principal! Little ones don’t have good control over their bodies, words, nor feelings. So, hitting, biting, kicking, and spitting are a way to vent, along with angry, hateful words that spew out. Dealing with this type of trauma with children on a daily basis can take an emotional toll on the principal. He or she empathizes with the child and feels bad about the inability to meet the child’s current needs, but the rest of the classroom, the rest of the kids, the school, the classrooms to visit, the parents to call, the feedback to be given, etc. weighs heavily on his or her mind.
These daily occurrences of emotional trauma that the principal observes and participates in takes a toll on his or her psyche. Depression, stress, negativity, and anger may arise and these feelings are often shoved down to create the impression that he or she is in control and has command of every situation. If not dealt with, an unhealthy balance in relationships can occur at school and at home, not to mention one’s own personal physical and emotional health.
In the October 16 Marshall Memo, an article by David Holmes, titled “The Inner Life of School Leaders” defined the struggle that principals face if they don’t deal with their own social-emotional stressors. Holmes outlined how not having someone to talk to and/or the social-emotional skills to deal effectively with stresses can lead to:
- Unhealthy habits – poor sleep patterns, insufficient exercise, alcohol abuse;
- Acting out in anger and frustration;
- Developing a pattern of avoidance;
- Not making good use of sources of emotional sustenance like friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
- Accept what cannot be changed. “You need to do this in order to deter a pattern of complaining that is so easy to begin,” says Holmes. “The discipline of dealing with ‘what is,’ not what you wish things to be, is an important principle.”
- Sometimes you need to vent. This should be done with someone you can trust and who doesn’t have a direct stake in your work. In almost all cases, this is not your spouse or partner.
- Don’t take it personally. It’s easier to handle in-your-face emotional complaints, criticisms, and venting when you believe it’s about the other person, not you.
- Accept that the job is intense. School leadership is uniquely demanding, but try to be as healthy as possible, both physically and psychologically. One strategy is to have a non-school “subplot” to your life – for example, writing, mindfulness, or becoming proficient at a sport.
- Develop friendships with a few trusted colleagues. “There is nothing like a good laugh,” says Holmes. “Friendships, heart-to-heart discussions, and humor can sideline day-to-day stresses and provide emotional sustenance and enjoyment.”
- Engage in professional reading and writing. “Days filled with administrative tasks and problem solving will ultimately wear you down,” says Holmes. The key is to read about what others are doing in the field, put your own stresses and anxieties in a wider frame of reference, and carry those insights into your work.
- Get enough sleep. “Whether it is makeup sleep on Sunday morning or a regular schedule of seven hours,” says Holmes, “leaders must play the ‘long game,’ and sleep is fundamental to longevity.”
- Attend to your family. “If family life is tension-filled or infused with resentment, you carry this with you every day,” says Holmes, “– and it will affect both your family life and your ability to lead the school.”
- Adopt a posture of fearlessness. Rather than allowing yourself to be paralyzed worrying what can go wrong, say to yourself: I am on the right course; there are inherent risks, but the odds are with me; wise people around me agree with what we are doing; and no matter what happens, I can live with the consequences.
- If necessary, get help. Not all problems can be solved alone, and there are times when a leadership coach, a psychologist, a cardiologist, or an addiction counselor is essential.
Todd Whitaker reminds us that we need to treat each person, with respect, EVERY day, EVERY time! You and I both know that there are some people that we work with even on a good day that can try our nerves. If we are in the heat of the moment, it can be very difficult to maintain composure, patience, and understanding, especially when dealing with social-emotional trauma. So what do we do? How do we care for ourselves and manage our personal stress in this lonely position at the top? Here are some of my tips:
§ Eat lunch and snack healthy!- I know many principals who choose not to eat lunch. They feel they are too busy. I was never one of them. A close associate of mine told me to always take a ½ hour lunch, out of the office and away from the fray. It was good advice. Leaving for a brief period of time meant an opportunity to think, adjust attitude if need be and return with a fresh mind. There is a reason that teachers have a duty free lunch. You need one too!
I always kept a fruit basket in the outer office to grab a healthy snack when necessary, instead of grabbing for the stale donut left in the lounge! Other principals I know, would pack carrots in small baggies and leave them near their desk to snack on.
§ Exercise daily! When life is most stressful, we often decide to cut out the one activity that we think will save us time-exercise. Big mistake! As you know, exercise has been shown to raise oxygen levels to the brain, reduce stress, and provide an opportunity for better sleep. Actually making us more productive. Maybe you can’t fit in a full one-hour routine, but a brisk walk, bike ride, or run can really help provide good think time, surface priorities, and allow for creative thinking.
§ Go to the B.A.R.! I learned this acronym years ago at a MEMSPA conference from a presenter. Not to get a drink of course, but to Breathe And Relax! Many companies have taught their employees meditation techniques and calming techniques that have shown to lower heart rate, cortisol levels, and help focus the mind. Daniel Goleman in his new book, FOCUS reminds us instead of always doing, spend some time just being.
§ Talk to your mentor-this work is lonely and there is no one to share the stresses of the work with. Your significant other listens to what you tell them, but they don’t UNDERSTAND! Besides they are tired of hearing about school, because it steals you away from them! If you don’t have a trusted mentor/coach or person to talk with, you need one! Many high level executives meet with a psychotherapist on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to provide perspective and insight.
§ Have a carrot opportunity ready! I live for vacations! My motto is: “Work hard and then play hard.” As a teacher, after progress report time, I would always rent a special movie or something to reward myself for all the extra work. We are motivated by rewards. What can you do for yourself that may help motivate you to endure the social-emotional stresses? A special vacation, massage, time with family? Having a reward can be motivating, put a picture of your reward as your screen saver or frequently visit the bookmark site for motivation.
§ Just say, “NO!”-We are expected to be all things to all people but we have to have the courage to set boundaries for ourselves. Many principals only consider saying yes, if the activity directly relates to the well-being of their students. My friend and co-facilitator of Leadership Matters, Debbie McFalone always says, “Saying NO to something, means saying YES to something else” OR SOMEONE else! Like our family or significant other!
§ Give yourself an out!- Don’t expect to always have an answer- it is okay to tell someone when you are a little off edge that you need to think about what they are asking and you will talk to them later. Cool down time is important, so you don’t say something or do something you don’t mean to do or say. Same with a child, if one is pushing your buttons, find another adult to intervene to give you some time to cool down and assess the situation.
§ It’s about relationships!- Remember what is important-relationships, relationships, relationships! Your students, teachers, and community will remember you for how you acted, how you treated them, and how they felt being around you. Never forget that everyone’s eyes are always on you as the major role model for culture and climate!
Remember the rule about the oxygen mask on an airplane? You need to put the oxygen mask on first and take care of yourself so that you can give your best to others. If you seek to be that pleasant principal, then look about you!