The #1 Rule in School Leadership

School leaders, in the year like none other, remember the most important rule: It begins with me.

Structural and Systemic Overwhelm

Over the past year, I have looked into hundreds of school leaders’ eyes from every corner of North America, from Maine to California and British Columbia to Florida. They are all overwhelmed.

Then, they ask, “How do I help students regulate?” or “The students are just out-of-control.” or “How do I help the teachers?” or “How will my team survive this year?”

But, so often they are overwhelmed. Trust me, I have no judgment.

We are in a system that is overwhelmed. In every way, we can see the ‘barely hanging on.’

There are structural supports that are necessary. We need systemic change. Yes, our entire sector is crying out.

Yet, if District leaders are working 60-70hrs/week, Principals are doing the same, then we shouldn’t wonder why teachers feel so much pressure, and why students are filled with anxiety and depression.

Still, in order to survive, we must do something.

Go First

I assert, you only have control of one thing: you.

“Wellness requires ongoing and long-term schoolwide change and should not be treated as a superficial, siloed, or short-term goal,” says EdResearch for Recovery (2021).

Truly, the change must begin with you. Because in order to integrate wellness throughout your school, you must be cultivating your own wellness. For example, tell the story of your own journey to health and well-being. Don’t be afraid to tell the failures and mere reaches. Your stories will model the way.

Photo by Ian Cumming on Unsplash

A Waning “Sense of Success”

Additionally, teachers report a diminished or decreased ‘sense of success.’ Teachers are working more because of the pandemic and they were already working hard. Now, in new ways, they are facing learning loss, a mental health crisis, and structural racism. The result is a demoralized workforce.

Santoro and Price write in the EdResearch for Recovery Brief (2021), “School leaders who protect teachers’ time and prioritize teacher learning see higher levels of teacher satisfaction.”

Similarly, if we want teachers, and thereby students, to engage in rich and meaningful learning, we must ask ourselves, how much time are we devoting to authentic and significant learning? I don’t mean skimming the headlines of a few Edutopia articles. I mean sustained, rich inquiry, reading, and professional learning.

Begin With You

Ultimately, how can school leaders tell the story of their own wellness journey and their own learning journey?

Because that’s what teachers need…

Because that’s what students need…

The most recent research for recovery in education shows we must “institutionalize, systematize, and structure” both wellness, engagement, and growth for teachers.

For instance, “…mindfulness trainings for teachers that explicitly teach ways to cope with stress have been shown to reduce teachers’ self-reports of emotional exhaustion and increase teaching effectiveness.” Further, school leaders who “prioritize teacher learning see higher teacher satisfaction” (Santoro and Price, 2021).

I contend School leaders who prioritize their own mindfulness, wellness, and professional learning are best positioned to achieve these goals. You can’t give what you don’t have. They won’t do what isn’t modeled.

Together, let’s exchange super-hero for super-real.

It’s Universal

It’s an ancient principle.

  • “Do unto others…” – Hebrew Scriptures
  • “Be the change…” – adapted from Ghandi
  • “We teach who we are…” – Parker Palmer
  • “Our leadership story inhabits our life story.” – adapted from Doug Conant

In less than 15min, here are six steps you could do today to model the way:

  • Leave on time.
  • Take a 15min lunch break, leaving your phone and laptop in another room.
  • Take three, long, slow breaths to signal to your nervous system that you are safe.
  • Engage with a mindfulness experience designed for educators from Take a Breath for Schools.
  • Draft 5 questions you’re considering as a professional inquiry between now and spring break. Choose one.
  • Register (links below) for a Learn Forward™ program to join school leaders intentionally modeling wellness and professional learning, even now, despite the pandemic.

I argue the best thing, possibly the only thing, we can do to open up this next month with a new energy: begin with you.

I’ll begin with me.

It’s leadership.

Karine 🌱

PS Learn Forward™ offers transformative growth opportunities for School Leaders, including monthly Breathe, Visualize, and Connect mindfulness leadership experiences and weekly Better Leaders, Better Schools Mastermind, including specific cohorts just for women.