ASCD California

Focusing on Principal Wellness: 6 Questions for School Leaders

10/26/2022 1:23 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

WALLACE BLOG

Focusing on Principal Wellness: 6 Questions for School Leaders

Four principals reflect on their experiences and share how we can support them during National Principals Month—and throughout the year.

SCHOOL LEADERSHIP

Posted:

October 26, 2022

Author:

Jenna Doleh

​For many, this year has been the start of a return to normalcy. But the overwhelming challenges facing schools, students and principals continue to evolve. According to NASSP’s 2022 Survey of America’s School Leaders and High School Students, one out of two school leaders say their stress level is so high, they are considering a career change or retirement, and three-quarters of school leaders report they needed help with their mental or emotional health last year.

That’s why the focus of this year’s National Principals Month is on principal wellness. Celebrated every October, National Principals Month is an opportunity to honor school principals for their leadership and tireless dedication to their students and schools.

We spoke with four principals—who, together, have more than 30 years of experience as school leaders—about what inspired them to become principals, how they deal with burnout and the impact of the pandemic, among other topics. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Kimberly_Greer_Photo.jpgKimberly Greer started her fifth year as principal at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, this year.

What inspired you to become a principal?

I have been inspired by the need to ensure success for all students. While it is easy to focus on the majority, we must make sure all students are seen, respected and their needs properly addressed. I feel it is my calling to ensure each student is valued and feels a part of their school community.


Reflecting on the past two years, what are some of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on your job?


Being a principal has never been easy. However, since the pandemic, school leaders have had to work on supporting the emotional needs of stakeholders. In addition to meeting the needs of students, we’ve had to address the emotional wellness of staff members. Mental health challenges faced by students are greater. The biggest impact of the pandemic is it has provided opportunities to have conversations regarding mental health. We’ve used the pandemic as a chance to normalize these conversations and to remove the stigma associated with the topic.

There have been many articles circulating about principal burnout. Have you experienced this and if so, how have you dealt with it?

I haven’t experienced burnout, but weariness has been felt at varying times over the past two years. I approach each day as a new opportunity. This has helped me to avoid burnout. Educational leadership isn’t easy. What keeps me going is the recognition that I have thousands of students and their families depending on me, as well as hundreds of staff members. I must provide support to all stakeholders so we are able to remain focused on students and their success.

What do principals need in order to feel supported?

We need first and foremost for our humanity to be recognized. We are people who carry the weight of our schools, divisions and communities on our shoulders. We need people to check on us and make sure we're okay. Concern for our mental and physical wellness goes a long way. We are strong individuals, but we are human.

What advice do you have for aspiring principals?

Build your network. Realize you can’t do it alone. Have fun. The job is tough, but find joy in the work. Young people are incredible, and we’re blessed to be a part of their journeys.

What is the best part about being a principal? What experience will stay with you long after you’ve retired?

The best part is seeing your vision realized. It is incredible to consider that our decisions today will continue to impact our students long after they graduate. The experience that will stay with me is hearing seniors at last year’s graduation recite the sign-off I have used during the morning announcements since I became principal in 2018. This gesture meant they were listening and taking to heart the message I work daily to impart to students: be kind-hearted human beings who take care of yourselves and one another.

Twainna_Fortner_Calhoun_photo.jpgTwainna Calhoun, principal at Good Hope Middle School in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, has been in school administration for 20 years and has been principal at her current school for 17 years.

What inspired you to become a principal?

I think I've always had leadership in me. I have nine siblings, and I was led by awesome principals during my career. Every one of my principals saw something in me that they also thought would make a good leader. The legacy laid out in front of me inspired me to be a principal.

Reflecting on the past two years, what are some of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on your job?

The isolation. The students, teachers and parents had been social distancing. And we’re finally getting back to where we were in March 2020. The isolation had a huge impact on my building and getting everyone motivated again. It seemed like the students post-pandemic lost motivation and had given up, but we just had to make it fun again. For instance, we started having pep rallies and spirit days again. The kids really enjoy that. That’s part of the school experience. The social aspect is important as well as the academics.

There have been many articles circulating about principal burnout. Have you experienced this and if so, how have you dealt with it?

I have, definitely. As a matter of fact, this time last year I was job searching. I just thought I couldn’t do it anymore because one thing after another was compounding. But my principal colleagues—being a part of NASSP, being a part of the Louisiana Association of Principals—have helped me. Listening to their stories and knowing that I’m not alone helped me realize I can get through this. I’m not trying to be cliché, but the first day of school this year was probably the most excited I’ve been because I just put the spirit back into being a principal. I was born to do this. I came back and remembered my purpose. There are going to be roadblocks. My students, my staff and my own children are what inspired me to keep going.

What do principals need in order to feel supported?

Districts can show support by attending our sporting events. It is helpful for district personnel to drop in and visit, not simply when there is a crisis. An "atta girl" goes a long way when you are a building leader.

What advice do you have for aspiring principals?

Be confident. Because you are the building leader. You have to make decisions that are not popular, but you have to be confident in what you do. You have to be intentional, and be a good listener. Listening goes beyond paying attention when other people talk. It’s your response. You have to be a motivator. But I think the most important thing is being confident in what you do. You have to be prepared to be the decision maker. Take the bad and the good. You’re going to get the praise one day, and not so good feedback the next. Be organized. Be balanced, and be a visionary. You have to see beyond tomorrow.

What is the best part about being a principal? What experience will stay with you long after you’ve retired?

The best part of being a principal is building relationships. I was born and raised here, and I’ve been in my building for 17 years. I’ve built relationships with teachers, and even after they’ve retired, I still communicate with them. One of my students is about to be my dentist now. Another student is now a teacher in our building, and he said I inspired him to become a teacher. I’ve actually had three students come back to teach. So just that experience of them coming back and wanting to be part of the process will stay with me long after I’ve retired.

Aaron_Huff_Headshot.jpegAaron Huff, principal at Benjamin Bosse High School in Evansville, Indiana, spent three years working as an assistant principal and has now been a principal for 11 years.

What inspired you to become a principal?

I started working at the YMCA in youth outreach my senior year of high school and continued that work through college as an afterschool care supervisor while attending Ball State University. Upon graduation, I returned to my school district and started working as a site coordinator. During my time at BSU, my mother had become an assistant principal, and I watched her impact generations of children and families. She became a highly recognizable assistant principal and principal. One who garnered the respect of the whole community. People always spoke about the impact she had on their life. Little did I know that my becoming a principal would lead to me replacing my mother as the principal of Bosse High School.

Reflecting on the past two years, what are some of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on your job?

I would say the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on the principalship relate to the mental health of students and staff. Also, I have seen an increase in student apathy. We are now experiencing the ripple effects of a prolonged pause in education. There are economic impacts and prolonged health impacts. The shortage of teachers and administration is a real challenge for the future of education.

There have been many articles circulating about principal burnout. Have you experienced this and if so, how have you dealt with it?

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't. I am just fortunate to have a village around me that is extremely supportive and encouraging. I work with great individuals and students that keep me motivated. Burnout is experienced when I have to deal with the outside noise around education that prevents me from doing the things most important to our children and advancing our school. I also try to find the "balance," literally and figuratively. I have taken up hot yoga, and that time on the mat is precious and is the opportunity for me to hit the reset button.

What do principals need in order to feel supported?

I think principals need to be heard. Their voice then causes decision-makers to reevaluate, reconsider and adjust policy, practice and protocols that negatively impact the principalship. Acknowledge and support the work principals are doing to improve student educational outcomes.

What advice do you have for aspiring principals?

Anyone can put time and energy into a position. As a principal, pour your heart into it, and keep students at the center. Organizations can't grow without great leaders willing to grow the people around them while they grow. Seek out various perspectives and schools of thought. Don't be consumed by maintaining day-to-day operations. Choose to think outside the box, and give permission to the people you lead to think outside the box.

What is the best part about being a principal? What experience will stay with you long after you’ve retired?

The students, families, colleagues and friends you interact with daily. They become your family. I love the ability to alter a young person's life for the better.  I value collaborative leadership and learning from others. Giving space for teachers to become leaders within the building. Creating an environment that students, families and community members love and want to be a part of. I cherish the connections with students and former students. Those are great memories. When you run into former students in the community, and they simply say thank you and share what they are doing now is what will stay with me.

Lawson_Charles_Derrick__Headshot_2022.jpgDerrick Lawson has been principal at Indio High School in Indio, California, for seven years and is in his 37th year of working in education.

What inspired you to become a principal?

During my high school years, I was facing some significant personal life challenges. One of the assistant principals at my high school went the second, third and fourth mile to make a difference in my life and to ensure that the potential he saw in me would come to fruition. He and his wife both invested time and resources to help me stay connected to school and get through the circumstances that could have resulted in my going off in a direction that would have led me to become a very different person from who I am today. I want to do the same for others.

Reflecting on the past two years, what are some of the biggest impacts that the pandemic has had on your job?

First, recalibrating the way I spend my time in order to address the needs of my staff. We’ve had to find a new balance to their own responses to trauma and new energy levels when they are taxed to the point of exhaustion trying to meet the needs of students in this new post-COVID paradigm. The second biggest impact is leading my school family in the reestablishment of our school culture. So many of our kids came back impacted by anxiety, fear and personal trauma, or they have returned with an exuberance and zeal for being back at school. There really is no middle ground and, in reality, only my seniors were truly a part of the school culture that existed prior to the pandemic. It is as if we are having to begin at “ground zero” once again. I am perpetually reminding everyone that we cannot take for granted that all of our staff and students fully remember, understand or embrace all of the traditions, expectations and experiences that make us who we are as a school.

There have been many articles circulating about principal burnout. Have you experienced this and if so, how have you dealt with it?

While burnout has not been something I’ve experienced, I will say yes, I have experienced some exhausting times of stress and have had to take some specific actions to make sure that burnout does not become a potential on my horizon. I make it a point daily to take a break and find my point of joy. When I was an elementary school principal, that was visiting a kindergarten class full of kids hanging on my pant leg and wanting to hang all over me as I read a story to them. That was such a gratifying and fulfilling experience. In my high school, it may be shooting a few hoops at PE with some of my kids, going to the band room and having an impromptu performance on the piano during a practice piece or joining a science lab group as one of the students. My kids keep me level.

What do principals need in order to feel supported?

From parents, principals need patience and grace. We care about their kids, too! But when we are juggling so many things at once, some days it is like drinking water from a firehose. I tell my parents, your issue or concern is not lost or ignored, we just may need time to be able to address it appropriately. From peers, we need one another’s empathy on those challenging days. Brilliance and expertise on days when we need to tap the skill set of others so that we can learn. Being the leader at the top can be a solitary place at times. From the district, we need flexibility in mandates and deadlines. Every day is different as we strive to uplift our staff and students and as we try to address the demands and pressures to provide a “return to normalcy” while also entertaining the changes of a whole new education paradigm. From students, we need their commitment to: experience school—get involved in activities, clubs, sports and career tech pathways; Explore—new learning, stretch yourself, grow; and Exhibit—good character, acceptance of others, making good choices and being a member of our school family.

What advice do you have for aspiring principals?

I feel strongly that as school site administrators, we have the potential to have the greatest impact on shaping the next generation. I recommend my own version of the ‘three R’s’: relationships, reflection and renewal. It is important that we take the time to first build relationships with fellow site administrators and to provide mutual support and inspiration. Second, it is important to end each and every day with a moment of reflection. What would you do differently? Give yourself some kudos and reflect on something you did well or on how you made an impact, and let that be the last thing you think about when you go home for the evening. Make certain that it is not the challenges, but the successes that you bring home with you. Finally, take time for renewal. Refill your emotional bucket with some self-care. Refill your professional bucket by learning something new. And then include time for physical renewal with exercise, meditation, or something else that recharges your battery.

What is the best part about being a principal? What experience will stay with you long after you’ve retired?

The best part about being a principal is the relationships that we build as we seek to guide and develop better talents for the futures of students and staff. I have a folder that I call my “blue folder”. Here I save every card, every story, every email—the smiles, the memories and the treasured moments where I was able to make a difference. While I may not be rich in dollars, I am one of the wealthiest people you will ever meet when it comes to memories and connections. I am blessed daily to cross paths with people who, over my years as a principal, stop to share a smile, a hug, a thank you or a treasured memory. That is pure gold.


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