In early May, when what seemed like the worst of the pandemic was behind us, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI), in collaboration with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) in New York City, surveyed to understand how urban school leaders were feeling during the COVID-19 crisis.
Over 1,000 principals, assistant principals, and district-level supervisors from New York—then the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States—participated. Leaders were asked to share the primary emotions they had experienced the most during the prior two weeks of such turmoil.
An overwhelming 95 percent of the feelings they named could be classified as “negative.” Among those negative emotions, they were feeling stress. Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances, especially when we feel we don’t have enough resources to cope.
There’s no doubt that principals have a profoundly stressful career as the leader of a school, responsible for typically dozens of teachers and hundreds of students. However, much of the focus has been put on teacher burnout, but the pressure of long hours and competing priorities typically travels up the ladder and rests squarely on the shoulders of principals as well.
Any principal can tell you that his/her days are filled with myriad issues from a continuous parade of students and adults through the office to dozens of phone calls, emails, and mounds of paperwork. And time management skills are stretched to the max as the stress and anxiety borne of overwhelm become seemingly relentless.
Of all the professionals in the helping fields, school administrators may have the highest stress and burnout rates. Even before the pandemic, all over the world, principals were facing unprecedented levels of accountability pressure and other stressors. Now, for some, the situation may be spiraling out of control.
Unfortunately, the consequences of being stressed out aren’t very pretty. Some of the more common problems people experience are sleep deprivation, health difficulties, terminated or deteriorating relationships, and subpar job performance. When leaders are stressed out, no one is treated very well, neither themselves nor others.
To cope, many school principals and administrators choose to self-medicate, with coffee, colas, and energy drinks by day and a couple of “harder” drinks or some other sleep aid at night. When it comes to eating, they either overeat, don’t eat, or binge on the wrong things. Exercise? It’s often quickly discarded from the to-do list.
So, as a stressed-out administrator what are you supposed to do? To eliminate the harmful and debilitating impacts of stress, you have essentially two choices: Either reduce the strain you are under or increase your resilience to not become crushed by it.
If you can find ways to reduce the external pressures that are causing stress and overload, that would certainly be ideal. But if not, you need to focus your efforts on improving your mental and physical capacity to process the stress so that you can continue your work with energy, enthusiasm, and a lighter, happier heart.
1. Become Familiar with your Stress Responses
Begin by paying careful attention to how your body reacts to stress. Are you experiencing a faster heart rate? Do you get hot? Do you feel your jaw clenching? Are headaches or stomach aches becoming part of your daily life? The quicker you recognize your body’s stress response, the quicker you will be able to engage it by becoming more resilient in some way.
How are your communication and behavior being impacted? While some administrators are essentially able to hold it together, nonetheless their talking becomes louder, harsher, faster, or longer than is helpful or proper. Or they act in unpredictable or uncharacteristic ways. And some become very emotional.
Also, stop to consider the impact you may be having on others. Do teachers and staff feel threatened, left in the dark, or dumped on? Are you ratcheting up the pressure on those who must answer to you? Are you failing to keep your commitments at work, or do you hide your feelings until you come home at night and then dump on your family?
Among the many definitions of self-regulation, the one that is most helpful for educational leaders is that coined by Stuart Shanker, who refers to self-regulation as “how people manage stress, how much energy we expend, and how well we recover.”
a. Reframe Behavior
Asking “why and why now?” can help us stop and understand our feelings and reactions. The goal is to get to a state where we can engage the neocortex or prefrontal cortex, which allows us to think, reason, and plan. It’s helpful to recognize when we are instead acting based on our “reptilian” brain, which takes charge when we feel threatened, or the “mammalian brain,” which makes us focus on strong emotions and urges.
b. Recognize the Stressors
We are often bombarded by stressors from multiple domains simultaneously. Imagine the following scenario. Rushing to an appointment with no time for breakfast (biological stressor) while feeling worried about being late for an appointment (emotional and prosocial stressors), and thinking about feedback for students in a course you’re teaching (cognitive stressor). Recognizing these stressors allows us to make a conscious effort to address them.
c. Reduce Stressors
The goal of reducing stressors is not to eliminate all stress from our lives. Some stress is necessary for us to be engaged and productive. But reducing the stressors we can control restores the energy we would have expended on them and frees it up for coping with other stressors.
d. Reflect and Enhance Stress Awareness
In today’s hyperkinetic society, many people no longer know what calm feels like, or they confuse the mindlessness of screen time with being calm. Sometimes people view their busyness as an indicator of their importance and worth. When you reframe that and become aware of the impact of that busyness, you are more able to find a few minutes to take a self-regulation break and bring yourself closer to a state of calmness.
Develop personal strategies to promote restoration and resilience. Each of us needs to develop our toolbox of self-regulation strategies that help us feel calm and alert. Make sure you consider some restoration strategies that you can use while you’re at work. For example, for many elementary administrators, heading down to the kindergarten room and spending a few minutes with a group of enthusiastic 5-year-olds helps restore their energy.
Regular exercise, aside from being the best way to maintain your physical health, also offers psychological benefits to counteract stress. Exercise increases your sense that you are in control, enhances your self-esteem, and helps you to regulate your emotions.
Exercise provides a healthy distraction from stressful situations while at the same time inducing the relaxation that your body requires to dissipate its stress hormones. And there is an experiential value as well. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.
Regular exercise also leads to improved effectiveness as a leader. It has been found that those who exercise regularly rate significantly higher on leadership effectiveness, as judged by their bosses, peers, and direct reports, than men and women who exercise only sporadically or not at all.
4. Stress Breaks
Build in stress breaks. More than 90% of leaders report that they manage stress by temporarily removing themselves, either physically or mentally, from the source of their stress. One way is by getting up from your desk and walking around or getting out for some fresh air every 90 minutes or so. Do some deep breathing or shoulder shrugs, or even just close your eyes for one minute.
One of the key enemies of Cognitive Resilience, the ability to overcome negative effects of stress on cognitive functioning, is lack of sleep, especially chronic sleep loss, which unfortunately is endemic at senior leadership levels. It’s really important to know how much sleep you need and then to ensure you get that amount each week. Short naps can be a huge help in closing your sleep deficit.
Many successful principals can move beyond feeling overwhelmed because they understand the enormous value of delegating. There are several tangible benefits that delegating provides:
- It shifts the burden of responsibility from the principal onto others, which frees up time to work on other projects.
- Delegating provides the opportunity to strategically make individuals responsible for projects that fit their strengths, and therefore will help build their confidence.
- Finding the right people to whom to delegate reduces the overall workload, which in turn keeps the stress level at a minimum.
Oftentimes when a teacher comes to the principal with an issue, that teacher wants to unload the burden onto the principal because the teacher feels unable to deal with it. Accepting every teacher’s problem will quickly overburden the principal. Instead, it’s better to determine if the teacher could deal with the problem, albeit with assistance. Principals should be geared toward empowering teachers to solve problems.
The protocol could become something like this. When a teacher surfaces an issue, first have that teacher fully describe the issue. Assign either the teacher or someone else to be responsible for dealing with it, along with recommending a course of action. Then follow-up and readjust as needed.
It won’t take too long for administrators to see that, as teachers become more confident and self-reliant, they will waste less time waiting for others to assume responsibility and act. This invariably will reduce the stress of the administrator.
7. When Less is More
Professional athletes understand that it is to their disadvantage to constantly push themselves at 100% of their capacity. If they hope to be successful with any regularity, they need to build into their training routines the time to recharge their batteries.
Recharging can be done in any number of ways. Sometimes this can be done by setting effective boundaries such as turning off your cell phone and your email during family time. Or listening to relaxing music on your ride home. Maybe you need to make time for social activity (even on Zoom) or a hobby.
Relaxing, aside from being enjoyable, is crucial for clear and creative thinking, energizing relationships, and good health. Know that the time and energy you spend away from work isn’t a waste of time; on the contrary, it will enhance your productivity and your capacity to deal with challenges more effectively.
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