Spring 2023

School Leaders and Resilience: Beyond Self-Care

Resilience.  If you’ve been involved in education over the last three years in any capacity you have undoubtedly noticed the prominence of the word. Why all the buzz?  It may be useful to start with a definition, and according to Leithwood (2017) resilience is the ability to recover or adjust to misfortune or change. It is also characterized by the ability to “bounce back” from failure and move beyond initial goals (p. 41). Given the current conditions spurred by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that the ability to “bounce back” is a coveted resource.  

The pandemic and ensuing health crisis only exacerbated the need for resilience amongst school leaders. As Pollock (2020) explains, prior to the pandemic, many school leaders were already experiencing work intensification in part due to accountability pressures then the pandemic ushered in concurrent issues including social movements and economic concerns. These have played and will continue to play a role.  Another contributor is staff turnover and attrition rates, as Aguilar (2018) notes, over the last two decades 40% of first-year teachers have left the profession. Combined, these issues have likely contributed to the results of a survey which cited 4 in 10 administrators plan to leave education within the next three years (Stomski et al., 2022b).  

The current educational landscape places a premium on resilience in part because of supporting research which shows that principals with high levels of resilience are better at coping with stress and crisis, and more are effective leaders in general (Schechter et al., 2022). Furthermore, Leithwood (2017) listed resilience as an essential personal leadership resource (PLR). In fact, a study of PLR use during the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders reported resilience as the second highest deployed leadership resource (Ramos-Pla et al., 2021).

Recognizing the significance, Aguilar (2018) wrote about the importance of cultivating personal resilience to educators in fulfilling their purpose. Research has suggested that school divisions require leaders to practice self-care. Recommended strategies include engaging in a healthy lifestyle (ie. eating healthy and exercise), practicing mindfulness, and practicing controlled breathing (Reid, 2022). In spite of the advice, further investigation into principal resilience shows that these strategies result in the suppression of stress and anxiety, and contribute to leaders feeling lonely and withdrawn (Arastaman & Cetinkaya, 2022).  

It can be concluded then, that although essential to overall health and well-being the aforementioned self-care strategies are ineffective on their own as it pertains to school leaders enacting resilience and dealing with the current challenges they face. So, what is the answer?  Perhaps, a view as presented in Ungar (2018) where resilience is largely dependent upon our social ecologies and how well others provide us with what we need to survive and thrive is worth considering. For school leaders, this implies that the quality of relationships built with school staff, senior leaders and staff at the district office, other school leaders within the district, students’ families, and the community determine how well they will recover from challenges and adverse events.

If that is the case, the resilience crisis may be explained by recent research by Stomski et al. (2022b) which found that most principals navigate resilience at the individual level (self-care strategies), while fewer enact support and relationship-based resources such as family, colleagues, and school communities.  Rarer still, are principals that seek more external support from their school district. This finding is important because earlier research by Stomski et al. (2022a) found that principals highly connected to their school and district had lower levels of compassion fatigue which was related to overall levels of resilience.  

If resilience is essential, personal resilience strategies are not of much use, and districts are really interested in supporting the development of resilience in their school leaders, what are practical ways that this can be done?  In turn, how can school leaders nurture it in themselves?  Below are six actionable tactics that district and school leaders can apply to their practice. The first three can be employed by district administrators to support school leaders, while the remaining three strategies can be used by principals to develop a school environment that promotes resilience for themselves and their staff.  

  1. Networks of Principals – Many school divisions host administrator meetings, and although principals often chat and exchange pleasantries, activities and discussions are usually dominated by policy directives and initiatives.  This is not sufficient for principals, especially those new to the role, to develop meaningful relationships.  Separate meetings where principals from similar school types can come together to discuss issues, share ideas, and solve problems that matter to them are ideal.  It may not be ideal for principals to leave their schools to attend the meetings, and geography may be a barrier for some districts, however, the investment in these relationships is an investment in resilience.  
  2. Mentorship/Coaching – All too often, many school administrators’ relationships with their superintendents are strictly supervisory and in some cases even punitive.  This type of relationship would be counterproductive for resilience, so reframing the role of the superintendent is necessary in these instances. Ways to do this is to have monthly meetings where school progress and other issues can be discussed. Spaces where administrators are free to ask questions of their superintendent and receive advice and feedback in a non-judgemental fashion is essential to a resilient school leader.  This same line of thinking can be applied to district-level consultants. Inviting someone to help provide instructional support, without the fear of being judged incompetent, takes pressure off of in-school administrators, allows them to support teachers, and promotes relationships with central office staff.  
  3. Crisis Professional Development – Although Schechter et al. (2022) note that crises vary, they also acknowledge that there is a lack of crisis leadership incorporated into leadership preparation.  This is where a framework such as that created by Drysdale and Gurr (2017) can be used. The framework is general enough to be useful in more specific crisis (and non-crisis) leadership situations. Professional learning focused on leadership strategy can take place during administrator meetings, principal networking days, or coaching/mentoring sessions and would serve to improve leaders’ knowledge and confidence.  As Stomski et al. (2022) found, efficacy beliefs related to division efforts to improve impacts leaders’ resilience.  
  4. Professional Learning Communities (PLC) – Just as it is important for leaders’ resilience to build and sustain relationships with central office staff, it is at least important to do the same with people in their own building.  Although not revolutionary, PLCs are one way to accomplish that task, and many schools already have similar structures in place. The learning community’s emphasis, whether it is literacy, behaviour, math etc., is not important to resilience.  What is important, is a common direction or purpose that allows the group to solve problems that are important to the team.  This is what allows school staff to build relationships and come to understand that they are all facing similar challenges and can depend upon one another.  
  5. Community Partnerships – It has been said it “takes a village to raise a child”, and in the modern context and the complexity of issues facing schools and their leaders, building relationships with community members is paramount.  Partnerships of this nature could include local business/tradespeople, other schools/educational institutions, social services, and parents/families of students.  Everyone in the community has an interest in the success of the students in the school, so the school should not bear the entire responsibility for their achievement.  If school leaders can work cooperatively with the community at largeit could ease pressure of student success on schools and tap into collective resilience.
  6. Community Work – In an article discussing leader resilience and factors affecting the essential leadership resource such as work intensification, accountability measures, pandemics, and burnout,  it likely seems counterintuitive to suggest that leaders do more, but that is just what this last strategy is recommending.  Evidence supports this idea, as Grant (2013) contends, educators are susceptible to burnout because of the amount of time it takes to see the impact of their work.  However, through giving their time to others with activities such as after school clubs, or extra-curricular sports, administrators can potentially notice the influence they are having in a much shorter period. Aside from the obvious benefit this can do for building relationships, the perception of impact can mediate stress and burnout, and help to maintain motivation and performance.  

Final Thoughts

In a time where schools are under constant pressure, school divisions and school staff look to their in-school administrators to provide support and direction. For this reason, leader resilience is essential. Although common personal health practices such as exercise, breathing, and eating healthy are important, they are not effective as resilience strategies. A better investment for school districts is to enable opportunities for their school leaders to build networks and relationships and for leaders to intentionally seek the opportunities on their own.  

Aguilar, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating emotional resilience in educators. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Arastaman, G. & Cetinkaya, A. (2022). Stressors faced by principals, ways of coping with stress and leadership experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Educational Management, 36(7), 1271-1283.
Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: Why helping others drives our success. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Gurr, D & Drysdale, L. (2020). Leadership for challenging times. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(1), 24-30.
Leithwood, K. (2017). The Ontario leadership framework: Successful school leadership practices and personal leadership resources. In Leithwood, K., Pollock, K., & Sun, J.(Eds.), How school leaders contribute to student success: The four paths framework (31-43). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Pollock, K. (2020). School leaders’ work during the COVID-19 pandemic: A two-pronged approach. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(3), 38-44.
Ramos-Pla, A., Tintore, M., & del Arco Bravo, I. (2021). Leadership in times of crisis: School principals facing COVID-19. Hyelion, 7(11), 1-10.
Reid, D. (2022). Suppressing and sharing: How principals manage stress and anxiety during COVID-19. School Leadership and Management, 42(1), 62-78.
Schechter, C., Da’as, R., & Qadach, M. (2022). Crisis leadership: Leading schools in a global pandemic. Management in Education, 0(0), 1-8.
Stomski, M., Lin, X., Luo, H., Cheung, R., & Yang, C. (2022a). Finding resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic: Perspective from school leaders (Project Brief 1). 21st Century California School Leadership Academy.
Stomski, M., Lin, X., Luo, H., Cheung, R., & Yang, C. (2022b). Finding resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic: Perspective from school leaders (Project Brief 2). 21st Century California School Leadership Academy.
Ungar, M (2018). Change your world: The science of resilience and the true path to success. Toronto, ON: Sutherland House.

T.J. Hoogsteen is the principal of Kiskahikan School in Weyakwin, SK.  T.J is also an Associate Faculty member at Royal Roads University for the Faculty of Education, Leadership, and Management. 

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