School & District Management

Principals Are Stressed and Anxious, Especially Now. Here’s 10 Things They Can Do

By Denisa R. Superville — October 29, 2020 5 min read
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Principals and teachers have been focused on students’ social-emotional well-being, but many school leaders have not been making use of the same tools for their own emotional and mental health.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting schools, principals not only have to provide emotional support for their teachers and students, but they need those same kinds of support themselves.

Peter DeWitt, a former principal and an Education Week Opinion contributor, sat down for a virtual conversation this week with a panel of experts to discuss strategies principals can use to manage their anxiety amid the pandemic. Bringing their insights to DeWitt’s “A Seat at the Table With Education Week” online talk show:

• Sharif El-Mekki, a former Philadelphia principal and founder and director of the Center for Black Educator Development,

• Marc Brackett, the founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and

• Mark Greenberg, emeritus Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research and professor of human development and psychology at Penn State.

Principals are anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed during this crisis and its toll on their schools and communities—and their certification programs have largely not equipped them with the skills to manage those emotions.

Their ability to manage their stress is one of the best predictors of how teachers feel and their level of trust in the school during this period, according to Greenberg. Those factors also affect student outcomes.

Part of school leaders’ anxiety is rooted in uncertainty related to the pandemic, but it’s also particularly magnified for principals of color who are leading schools through the pandemic and endemic racism, El-Mekki said.

DeWitt asked principals before his show why school leaders don’t generally talk about their mental health, and with a few exceptions, most of them indicated that school leaders were role models, they may not get support from their supervisors, or they did not want to be judged.

But El-Mekki suggested principals can be a different kind of role model.

“The best leaders are vulnerable at times,” El-Mekki said. “It doesn’t mean that you are just pouring out every single issue that’s going on. But you’re sharing your humanity, which allows other people to share their humanity, which then also impacts children.”

Brackett said: “I think part of the problem we have with the role modeling is that we have a mindset that there are good and bad emotions. That happy is good and anxiety is bad. Emotions are experiences.”

“We have to move away from the judgement about the feeling as the first step,” he added.

When principals demonstrate their vulnerability, it provides an opportunity for teachers to not only acknowledge their own uncertainties, but also feel understood. “And feeling understood is the key to developing trust and relationships in schools,” Greenberg said. That, in addition to spending more time with teachers to get to know them and involving them in decision-making, also helps.

And on the bright side, said Greenberg, principals can help teachers develop gratitude even in this difficult time.

How can principals manage anxiety in these stressful times? Here are some suggestions from the panel:

Try meditation and beathing exercises.

Get enough sleep.

Build breaks and daily quiet time into your schedule. Do not schedule meetings back to back. Read your favorite novelists, watch television, listen to your favorite music, or call a friend. But do take some time for yourself away from work. Principals should learn to be compassionate to themselves, Greenberg said. “It’s not how much time we have, it’s how we use our time,” he said.

Manage time wisely. “It’s a matter of managing your time because being a principal is a 24-hour job,” Greenberg said. "...It’s very important that principals take time for their own self-care. It’s a radical action for them because they believe, as managers, they should be taking care of everyone else. And we know that that leads to burnout.”

Every call does not have to be a Zoom video conference: El-Mekki encourages staff to use the regular conference feature or the audio function on Zoom so that they can walk around or keep moving while they’re having the conversation. “We have to be more creative, if not we’ll get sucked in,” he said.

Practice self-reflection. Carve out time and space to think about how you’re feeling and what you can do about it. It’s important to schedule that time because it should be a priority.

Find your tribe. Find your community and tap into it, El-Mekki said. Even before the pandemic, the principalship was isolating and stressful. It’s even more so now with some school leaders running schools from their homes. El-Mekki said it doesn’t take a lot to reach out and find support. When he became principal in 2003, a group of “elders” were there to provide guidance.

“They need connections with other principals,” Greenberg said. “They need to have people in the same position they are in, that they can share with and learn from.”

Find ways to connect virtually to share what you’re experiencing, but be sure not to turn your support group into a venting session.

Exercise. It can be yoga, or it can be a short walk. Even a tiny bit helps. Think about the regular school day and the time you would have spent walking the hallways or climbing the stairs from class to class.

Eat healthy. It’s easy when you’re feeling anxious to gravitate to high-fat, high-sugar, and alcohol, Brackett said. Healthy options may require additional effort, but will be more beneficial in the long run.

Be aware of that voice in your head. When things are not going well, there’s a tendency to revert to the most unhelpful ways of thinking about the world, said Brackett. It’s not just what you say about yourself, but also what you say about others, he said.

“My suggestion is that people just pause before they say anything to themselves and others, and evaluate it,” Brackett said. “Is what’s coming out going to help me achieve well-being, help me build and maintain positive relationships. help me make decisions that are going to be helpful for me and the people around me, or is it going to be more destructive?”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.