When Bill Zimmer got his first school administrator job in 2008, it came with a heavy dose of advice from peers who’d made the transition ahead of him: Don’t let the job consume you, or you’ll burn out.
Zimmer, now the principal of the 550-student Highland High School in upstate New York, took their warnings to heart.
In the last decade, he’s honed both in-school and out-of-school habits that he says allow him to be effective at his job, while keeping his time free enough to attend family functions with his six brothers and sisters and their children and dinners with friends.
“I have seen way too many people get burned out,” said Zimmer, 48. “I do feel strongly that there needs to be a balance between [our] professional and personal lives, and that we are much more effective in each when it’s in balance.”
While that sounds like common sense, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of work, he says. That’s why it’s important for principals to take charge of their schedules.
Still, no system is perfect and many of Zimmer’s work days stretch well past eight hours.
He arrives at school by 7 a.m., earlier than most professionals. And because life as a high school principal can be unpredictable, Zimmer sometimes finds himself in the building past 4:30 p.m.
Here’s how Zimmer strives to strike his work-life balance:
One of the first things he does at school is check his email, before heading out at 7:20 a.m. to greet students as they arrive. His first building walkthrough is around 7:40 a.m., after which he meets with his assistant principal to review what’s coming that day, including upcoming meetings.
Zimmer keeps his to-do list on Post-it notes inside a manila folder on his desk. Immediate tasks are stuck on the left side of the folder, while longer-term tasks are on the right. Though many organizational experts urge principals to get rid of Post-it notes, Zimmer says they have worked well for him for five years. Post-its allow him to re-arrange priorities as tasks are completed and new ones emerge. Important meetings—appointments with the superintendent, his principal supervisor, teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and formal classroom observations—are noted and color-coded in his calendar.
Tame the email beast
When Zimmer is not actively reading email, he shuts off the notifications. He mostly checks his email at three specific points in the workday. Only when he’s expecting an important message does he check his inbox after work hours. Reading late-night emails kept him up at night, worrying about how he would tackle the problem the next day. If there’s an urgent issue that needs his attention, key people can reach him via text or call.
He meets again with his assistant principal for a review and a discussion of the following day. Zimmer returns calls, reorganizes his Post-it notes as needed, and plans for the next day. He checks his email one last time before heading out, generally around 4:30 p.m.
Zimmer tries to do a 45-minute cardio workout at least three days a week. The long days and job stress led him to a neighborhood yoga studio four years ago. He goes to a yoga class once or twice a month, down from twice a week when he first started.
Yoga was Zimmer’s gateway to meditation. He uses the meditation app, Headspace, which guides him through 10 minutes of daily meditation. He meditates at home at the end of the day, but if the school day gets too stressful, Zimmer will step out of the room and spend a few minutes on his breathing exercises. Meditation has improved his ability “to focus on tasks” and has made him more approachable, he said.
“I find that I react to unfavorable news a little better,” he said. “My reactions, in general, are more measured. I don’t overact to anything that happens. I find myself much more grounded, overall, and in touch with what’s going on in my mind.”
Zimmer strives for seven hours of sleep each night. That rest, he said, allows him to be “the best version of myself.”
The former English teacher includes non-education books in his rotation.
Among the titles on his living room shelves this month: “The Ten-Minute In-service: 40 Quick Training Sessions That Build Teacher Effectiveness,” by Todd Whitaker and Annette Breaux, “Talk Like Ted,” by Carmine Gallo,” “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, and “Calypso” by David Sedaris.
Zimmer uses long holiday weekends for getaways to indulge his hobbies. He also tries to visit at least one American city he’s never been to every year.
“I think all these things—the meditation, the exercise, the yoga—they help me not to juggle things in my life. ... I’m handling things well, instead of feeling like it’s a nonstop race.”
“Because I take time for myself, as a result, I have more time for myself,” he said.
Bethany Hill, the principal at Central Elementary School in Cabot, Ark., shuns a formal office in favor of roving around classrooms, hallways, the playground, and the cafeteria, where she can be as close as possible to teachers and students all day:
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Principal Who Conquered Burnout