School & District Management

SEL for Principals: How a Professional Development Program Serves Their High-Stress Needs

By Denisa R. Superville — September 24, 2021 10 min read
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Joshua Myler was in his first year as principal at Hildreth Elementary School in Harvard, Mass., about 45 miles northwest of Boston, when he was invited to join a new professional development program offered through the state principals’ association focusing on principals’ social-emotional well-being.

Myler purposely hadn’t signed up for many PD opportunities that year because he knew he’d have a lot on his plate, managing a school construction project on top of his regular duties.

He wasn’t wrong about the workload. He found himself working into the evening hours, and by the end of the year, he was overwhelmed and wondering how to make the job sustainable. That’s what made the invitation to an SEL-based program attractive.

“It just came across as if they were not trying to give me a technical answer,” Myler said of the call to participate in Soul of Leadership: Courage, Presence, and Integrity. The yearlong program centers on self-care and wellness and aims to help principals manage stress, build better relationships with teachers and staff and their school communities, and rediscover joy in their work.

“They were acknowledging the complexity and emotional impact of the job,” said Myler.

For the longest while, social-emotional learning in K-12 was geared toward students, and, to a lesser extent, teachers.

Programs such as Soul of Leadership are trying to fill the SEL knowledge gap for school leaders. They may include mindfulness practices like meditation, journaling, and yoga, in some cases, as well as deep breathing exercises and other wellness skills to help principals slow down and draw clearer lines between their work and personal lives. The goal is to help school leaders—principals as well as assistant principals—become more effective, and also stay on the job.

Principals must find ways to take a breather from the major decisions and challenges that come their way, said Jackie Wilson, the director of the Delaware Academy for School Leadership, which included yoga and mindfulness practices in its weekend summer retreat for assistant principals for the first time this year.

Nearly 100 school leaders, mostly principals, have participated in Soul of Leadership, which was opened to assistant principals last year. They’ve come from urban, suburban and rural districts, according to Rick Rogers, a former principal and the Soul of Leadership program coordinator at the Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association.

“A lot of leadership programs focus on the kinds of theories and ideas and instructional practices that principals have to learn and bring in from the outside,” said Pamela Seigle, the executive director of Courage & Renewal Northeast in Wellesley, Mass., who developed Soul of Leadership. “This is more of an inside-out program. It really focuses on helping principals develop self-awareness, develop the capacity to manage stress—which is a huge part of the job—and to create inclusive, culturally responsive school communities that allow everyone—adults and children—to thrive.”

Courage & Renewal partnered with the principals’ association to offer Soul of Leadership to the state’s principals. The program is funded by the California-based Angell Foundation.

The education sector lags in SEL for adults

Seigle developed SEL programs for students earlier in her career and thinks the education sector is lagging others on highlighting the importance of SEL for adults.

“It’s interesting to me that in other sectors—certainly in the business sector—there’s a recognition of SEL, of emotional intelligence, being a key component of what’s necessary in order to be a successful leader,” Seigle said.

Rogers added: “There is sort of this superhero mentality that you’re supposed to do it all. And you can’t. You won’t be able to sustain yourself at all. You need to have some coping strategies, some ways of managing your emotions, particularly stress, in order to do the important interpersonal work you need to do as a school leader.”

For Myler, Soul of Leadership was one of the few yearlong, cohort-based PD opportunities for principals he’d seen. Before the pandemic, participants met in person four times during the year for retreats, with small-group online meetings during the year.

There is sort of this superhero mentality that you’re supposed to do it all. And you can’t.

But it was different in other ways, too.

Facilitators spend a lot of time helping principals become better listeners—a key school leadership skill, according to Rogers.

The program uses a process called open and honest questioning, where school leaders discuss a dilemma they’re currently facing. But instead of providing solutions or fixing the problem, their peers ask questions to get to the root of an issue or get a clearer picture of the problem at hand.

There are also exercises to help principals to be present in the moment.

During one such exercise, one principal may share for five minutes, while the others in the group listen. Each speaker is followed by silence. At the end of the exercise, they reflect on the conversations and make connections between what they heard.

Seigle, Rogers, and the other facilitators also use poetry, theater improvisations, music, and art as part of the program. Participants are given a guidebook on how to adapt some of the exercises to use in their buildings.

Principals in the program’s third cohort reported improved mindfulness and a 10 percent reduction in emotional exhaustion, according to an evaluation of the program by Julia Mahfouz, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Denver; Kathleen King, an associate professor of education at North Central College; and Stephen Kotok, an assistant professor at St. John’s University.

Participants also reported feeling more hope, optimism, and efficacy, and they appreciated the ability to share with colleagues and adapt what they were learning for their buildings.

They liked the explicit focus on their individual growth and development and the reflection time, King said. A safe, confidential space to share and collaborate was also a draw. The networking component—which the organizers didn’t envision at the outset—was also attractive to principals, she said.

“It was also about their own personal journey and connecting with the passion they had for their occupation, by giving themselves that space and time that’s so difficult in their school day,” King said.

The program is still relatively new, and there isn’t long-term data on how school leaders perform over time, whether they will continue the practices, the effect on principals’ job satisfaction and tenure, and how much the impacts will filter down to students.

Ninety-two percent of the participants in the group evaluated were white, and some principals wanted more attention to equity and culturally responsive practices.

Myler admits Soul of Leadership might not be for everyone. Indeed, he was skeptical at first, and he didn’t care much for the singing. But he decided to stick with it and was one of the first to ask about creating an alumni network when his year ended.

He appreciated the meetings with like-minded educators, who often were more experienced and were facing similar challenges.

“The fact that I was facing these challenges [didn’t] mean that I was doing something wrong,” Myler said. “It was that I was in a job that involved a lot of tricky situations.”

A focus on staff communication

One of the biggest changes Myler made was in communicating with staff.

In the past, he found himself reaching a conclusion before the person seeking his counsel thought they had been heard. People often felt that he wasn’t fully listening, or he did not get the complexity of the situation they were bringing to his attention.

He’s made a much more intentional effort to rectify this, even changing his office to create a sitting area so that when someone walks into the office to discuss an issue, Myler gets up from behind his desk and invites them to sit down.

That adjustment conveys that they have his full attention. Then he follows the protocol of asking open and honest questions.

Myler also thinks the program gave him the tools to reflect and speak frankly about his anxiety and uncertainty during the pandemic with his staff, which also allows teachers permission to do the same.

Without all that, “I would have been in a much worse place … I don’t think I would have been able to weather it as well as I did. I don’t think I would have been able to provide the kind of steadiness,” Myler said.

Jennifer Francisco, the principal of Berkley Community School, a 468-student pre-K school in the southern part of the state, said Soul of Leadership really struck a chord with her.

With nearly 20 years of experience as a principal, Francisco was looking for something that would help energize her over the next decade or so and help her remember why she became a principal in the first place.

She remembers being skeptical of the approach at the beginning. But the “circle of trust,” where school leaders felt comfortable sharing their challenges in school, “became really special to me,” Francisco said.

In the circle of trust exercise, “We don’t give each other advice or try to solve each other’s problems—and that’s such a distinct difference,” she said.

On the self-care side, she learned about meditation, journaling and deep breathing that she’s able to tap into. She might stop to take a few deep breaths to get centered before entering a challenging meeting, Francisco said.

Francisco has used some of the strategies from Soul of Leadership with her staff, especially poetry.

Francisco, who said she was not a poet, was inspired to pen a free verse poem during the pandemic, which she shared with staff and one of the facilitators at Soul of Leadership, who shared it with another cohort.

“I try to share with them everything that I am learning, and everything that I am as a person,” Francisco said.

The program helped Francisco take a braver approach to leading her school and aided difficult conversations she’s had in the past year, including with a parent about the reasons for students to wear masks at school.

She’s also drawn strength from the alumni network and recalls feeling “so relieved and refreshed” at the end of that first meeting of peers.

Going beyond the nuts and bolts of leadership

While she attended a small undergraduate program that included self care, how to be an effective listener, and honing empathy skills, Francisco knows that’s the exception rather than the norm in leadership preparation.

“You are learning a lot about educational leadership, how to budget, how to manage schedules, how to be an instructional leader, but I think ... taking care of yourself so that you can care for others, and learning skills that are beyond the nuts and bolts of educational leadership are important,” she said.

Kevin Burke, the principal of Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass., near the state’s borders with Vermont and New Hampshire, took an interest in the program because he wanted to improve his deeper listening skills.

He liked that the program allowed school leaders to not just talk but to act.

Many professional development opportunities for school leaders center on the technical aspects of the job, Burke said. Soul of Leadership addresses “how to create an environment and lead through example and model what you want— [including] how you want teachers to react to students.”

“I think building a good environment in the school starts with how administration works with the staff, creating a positive atmosphere, which then trickles down to the atmosphere you have with students,” Burke said. “I think this particular type of PD really helps leaders move in that direction.”

Mary Watkins is in her fifth year as principal of the 1,000-student Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Mass., about 35 miles southwest of Boston.

She recalls feeling like she was just treading water in her first year, with challenging decisions popping up daily, when the e-mail about Soul of Leadership popped up.

She was attracted to the tagline “courage, presence, and integrity.” Watkins has used the open and honest questioning protocol heavily with her staff, and she’s gotten better about separating work from personal life.

Now, instead of sending an e-mail at 4 a.m. because she is awake, she schedules emails to go out during normal work hours.

And she thinks the lessons learned from Soul of Leadership have been especially helpful during the pandemic, particularly during a period when information was rapidly changing.

“I felt a lot more comfortable being able to tell people, ‘I don’t have an answer for you,’” Watkins said.

In one of the first faculty meetings of the school year, when she was bombarded with questions, and her answers were variations of “I don’t know, I am uncertain, and I’ll have to find out about that.”

“At the end of the day, I think they accepted those answers,” she said. “It was like, ‘Thank you for letting us know.’”

Watkins added: “I found myself borrowing some of the language from Soul of Leadership, where we are going to have to sit with uncertainty; we are going to have to try and hold it and know it’s there.”

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as SEL for Principals: How a PD Program Addresses Their High-Stress Needs


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