Student Well-Being Opinion

Leaders: Your Mental Health Matters

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 03, 2015 4 min read
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After reading a Time Magazine article entitled “Life/SUPPORT: Inside The Movement To Save The Mental Health Of America’s Doctors”, our minds could not help but turn to the challenges facing today’s educational leaders.

Doctors, in their training, and for some, in the careers they chose, encounter life and death decisions and suffer sleepless nights regularly. The hours young doctors are required to work are inhumane and yet they do it and they help the rest of us heal and be well. It is with respect and appreciation we acknowledge their willingness to put themselves into those stressful life conditions. In no way do we compare that part of their work with the work of educational leaders. But, we do know a bit about sleepless nights and we do feel the weight of children’s lives and their futures in our hands. And, we know that our decisions, big and little, have lifelong consequences for ourselves and others.

The article noted...”today’s doctors have even more material to learn, more paperwork to fill out and more patients to see.” Certainly, educational leaders are having the same experience. At Stanford, they “put together a program...to promote psychological well-being, physical health and mentoring.” They provide lists of recommended doctors and dentists and stock a refrigerator in the surgery residents’ lounge with healthy foods. They call their program Balance in Life. At SUNY Downstate Medical Center, “senior psychiatry residents give medical students free therapy as well as medication counseling, should they want or need it.” That process comes with a guarantee that the information shared in the counseling session will not reach the dean’s office. Confidentiality is guaranteed. The journey to have balance for those at Stanford includes time to sit in a peer group and share things like “the first time they knew they wanted to be a physician” and “which parts of themselves they don’t want to lose as their work wears them down.” This kind of reflection is valuable for educators as well.

School leaders hold the key to the development or shift of culture within districts and schools. They share the responsibility of cultural development and integrity with the faculty, staff, students, and parents. With the leaders’ responsibilities increasing, their own well-being and life balance are essential for the success of the organization and of the others within it. What is missing in k-12 education leadership preparation is a focused attention on well-being. The 2015 draft of the ISLLC (Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium) Standards now include a stated responsibility of the educational leader to promote well-being.

ISLLC Standard 1: An educational leader promotes the academic success and personal well-being of every student by ensuring the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a child- centered vision of high quality schooling that is shared by all members of the school community.

ISLLC Standard 5: An educational leader promotes the academic success and personal well-being of every student by promoting the development of an inclusive school climate characterized by supportive relationships and a personalized culture of care

ISLLC Standard 6: An educational leader promotes the academic success and personal well-being of every student by promoting professionally-normed communities for teachers and other professional staff.

However, it is our belief, that the capacity to promote well-being can only spring from a leader’s capacity to create and maintain their own well-being.

Taking a cue from the article about physicians, promoting psychological well-being, physical health and confidential coaching for our leaders can make a substantial difference for the leaders themselves and for those they lead. Actually, we think these are of value for leaders in all roles and at all stages of their careers. The daily urgency of our work lives undermines well-being. The term “burnout” is heard more often in our field. The danger of educators burning out is that it ripples out to impact students.

Leaders, themselves, can take responsibility for prioritizing their physical health, holding themselves to a schedule that incorporates exercise as important as meetings. That can be a matter of personal discipline. But psychological and spiritual well-being often calls for the help of another. Wouldn’t our field be well served if each leader had someone who would listen with an open heart to our daily stories, who could tell us the truth in a way we can hear it, who is a trusted and confidential coach or colleague? If you are one of the lucky ones who has this in your life, well done; please share generously. If you are not, we are advocating for you to find this professional support. And, if you think that it is weakness to need this support, please don’t let your cynicism and judgment hold others in our field back from growing. Life doesn’t bring its challenges at the same time to all of us, does it?

“If we want to grow...we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives -- risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.” - Parker Palmer

Oaklander, M. (2015, September) Life/SUPPORT: Inside The Movement to Save the Mental Health of America’s Doctors. TIME Magazine. Vol.186 No.9-10. pp 43-51.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.