School & District Management

Principals and Stress: Strategies for Coping in Difficult Times

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 11, 2021 6 min read
Illustration of calm woman working at desk
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No one takes on the job of principal because it’s easy.

But the pandemic presented challenges that not even the most prepared administrator could have anticipated. Suddenly, on top of an already heavy load, principals faced new tasks like creating and constantly manipulating multiple student schedules, understanding complex health and legal nuances, and making sure students who survived on free or reduced-price lunches had enough to eat at home.

It took a toll. In an August 2020 survey of 1,020 K-principals, 45 percent of respondents reported that pandemic working conditions were “hastening their plans to leave the profession,” according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Of those who reported thinking about leaving the profession, nearly a quarter hadn’t considered that move before the pandemic.

But despite the hardships, countless principals did find ways to cope. Education Week asked some of them to share the strategies they leaned on to help them through the pandemic. Their responses included tweaking, reinforcing, and rediscovering practices—both pragmatic and philosophical.

Resist the urge to (over) use technology

As most schools shut down for at least part of the pandemic, K-12 administrators relied on technology to connect regularly; too regularly, some would argue.

Aaron Eyler, principal of Matawan Regional High School in Aberdeen, N.J., says the ability to schedule multiple back-to-back Zoom meetings quickly made things overwhelming.

“One meeting ends, and another meeting starts the next minute,” he said, observing that because people don’t physically have to move from place to place when they’re meeting over technology platforms, it’s not necessary to build in time in between. But he does—at least 10 minutes.

“I think people believe that since something goes through Zoom, all of a sudden the pace at which people can think deeply about problems can speed up,” said Eyler. He says he tries to give himself time to ruminate on the things discussed during one meeting before moving on to the next one. “It’s paramount to surviving this stuff,” Eyler said.

Jessica Cabeen, principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., agrees. Of her 20-plus years in education, she says this one has been by far the most challenging. A morning-to-night schedule full of meetings wasn’t helping.

“I noticed if I have too many back-to-back meetings, I don’t have time to regulate or regroup,” Cabeen said. During the pandemic, she deliberately worked with her secretary to make sure she had at least two half-hour time slots during the day that were meeting-free.

Eyler mentions another meeting-related strategy he believes in: the power of face-to-face conversations, whenever safely possible. He pivoted to in-person meetings in February, with the mandate that attendees practice social distancing and wear masks.

“I leverage technology as much as anybody. But when it comes to problem-solving, especially macro problems, there’s nothing like meeting in person,” said Eyler, who said connecting online provides too many opportunities for distractions. “There’s no such thing as multitasking,” he said.

Stress Management: Tips for School Leaders

  • Make meetings more effective: Build in time between them, prepare beforehand, and meet in person when it’s safe
  • Connect routinely with other principals
  • Solve the problems you can, and acknowledge that some are beyond your control
  • Make time for yourself
  • Practice gratitude

Double down on time management

Many administrators report working extraordinarily long hours during the pandemic, especially in its earlier phases.

Eyler was no exception. He recalls pulling 17- to 18-hour days in the fall of 2020 as he pressed to stay on top of new and evolving information, guidelines and requirements related to COVID-19. It was unsustainable.

Eventually, Eyler tightened his focus and asked his team members to do the same. He says it means bringing to meetings a “crystal-clear agenda” and potential solutions to problems.

“One thing I hope people have come away [from the pandemic] with is being a little more efficient with their time,” he said.

Choose priorities carefully

Shuffling priorities also helps, say some. Daman Harris, principal of Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville, Md., knows this.

This year, his school system relaxed the number of formal observations required of principals, which normally take up a significant portion of time. “I can still give teachers informal feedback to push their growth,” he said. “But the stakes are lower. It’s better for everybody.”

One initiative Harris could have sidestepped this year but deliberately chose not to was a focus on anti-racism.

“There was a temptation to take that off of our agenda and say: We have enough on our plate, let’s just focus on keeping kids safe and focusing on how to be good instructors,” Harris said. “I decided that’s not what we were going to do. … If we’re preparing our students for the future, we can’t take our eye off this ball.”

Lean on professional networks

Getting through a tough year is even more difficult in isolation. Many principals have reported a greater-than-usual need to connect with other administrators during the pandemic.

“I am talking with some of my friends who are in education. Just sharing stories, emoting,” Harris said.

Formal principal networks support this need. The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently launched The Principals’ Network for K-12 school leaders, an online professional learning network for resources, feedback, and peer relationships. Other groups—some of them formal like state and national principal associations, and some informal, like Facebook groups—serve a similar purpose.

Solving problems is a stress reducer

“Being able to serve in a way that I can change someone’s life immediately lifts my spirits,” Harris said.

When he hits roadblocks, the stress mounts.

Harris describes recognizing during the pandemic the need to increase food distribution to his school’s community members from monthly to weekly.

He spearheaded efforts to make this happen, reaching out to numerous connections until eventually finding a solution.

It didn’t happen quickly or easily. And he’s learned, particularly this year, he’s not going to be able to fix everything.

“Some stuff,” Harris said, “I’ve got to let go.”

Make time for yourself

Many principals during the pandemic acknowledge there are some things they shouldn’t let go of; namely, whatever activity outside of work relaxes them. For many, that’s exercise.

“I ended up working out twice a day,” said Eyler who, like others, found it somewhat easier to fit in exercise while working from home. With fewer recreational opportunities available during lockdowns, some returned to former, forgotten activities.

“I got back into reading, Eyler said. “I feel very refreshed after reading a book.”

Practice gratitude

The pandemic brought with it challenging and unforeseen circumstances beyond the control of even the savviest school leader. But there were still things to celebrate, and some principals found it helpful to acknowledge them.

“I’m trying to find gratitude in every day,” Cabeen said.

During the pandemic she’s kept a daily journal, including two or three positive mentions in each entry. She also makes sure that students and staff are regularly recognized for individual triumphs via phone calls to parents and notes to staff members, respectively.

“We still have jobs. Most of us have been able to maintain our own health,” Cabeen said. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”

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