Fall 2023

School Leadership During a Time of Crisis: Self-Care and Emotional Wellbeing

Introduction

The role of the school principal is in a precarious space. Currently, in record numbers, school principals are leaving their positions. For example, within the United States, nearly 20 percent of principals leave their positions each year; the average tenure of a principal is approximately four years (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2020). Because of the escalating challenges of principalship, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2014) explained that recruitment and retention of strong school leaders is becoming difficult. Findings from their study involving 500 Canadian principals suggested that support related to self-care and wellness embodiment is necessary if many of these leaders are to remain in their role. Constantly providing care for others, without providing care for self, is unsound and unsustainable. Although principals promote and ensure the safety and wellbeing of all others in their school community, what supports were/are available for them? From our seach of the literatures, this question has not been answered. In turn, this research is timely and critical, because it aims to assist public and private schools in creating and supporting strong, healthy, caring, and sustainable school leadership, from which highly successful schools grow and prosper.

Approximately two years ago, Canadian public schools experienced the first Covid-19 related school closures; thereafter, based on location, schools were opened and closed several times. During the pandemic, school principals were charged with safeguarding the health and safety of the school communities while simultaneously maintaining the delivery of high-quality education within unprecedented territory. During this physically, academically, and emotionally demanding time, the wellbeing of the leaders themselves was not taken into consideration. Collecting data about how leaders safeguard the wellbeing of self and others during great turmoil helps define and decipher effective practices for current and future crisis leadership scenarios. Thus, the purpose of this study is to describe how principals on Prince Edward Island (Canada) cared for students, families, community members, and themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other than classroom teachers, school principals play the most influential role in promoting student success (Grissom et al., 2021; Leithwood et al., 2004; Ni et al., 2018). As well, principals greatly influence the effective pedagogy of teachers (Grissom et al., 2021). In turn, promoting the emotional, mental, and overall wellbeing of principals is linked to supporting effective teaching and student learning. Currently, the wellbeing of school principals is threatened by challenging and changing working conditions associated with Covid-19 (Woo & Steiner, 2022), by their extensive responibliites (Beauchamp et al., 2021), and their tendency to meet the needs of others before their own. Although the wellbeing of school leaders is vital for effective school functioning, there is limited research on the topic, making this research significant and justified. Moreover, this study identifies implications for future crisis leadership practice.

Theorectical Framework

An important philosophical concept of this study is self-care. The Merriam-Webster (2023) dictionary described self-care as “care provided by oneself often without the consultation of a medical professional” (para 1). The World Health Organization (2013) defined self-care as, “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider” (p. 15). For us, self-care refers to taking action to maintain or improve one’s health and wellbeing, in particular, during times of stress. Butler et al. (2019) and Lee and Miller (2013) purported that the generally ascribed construct of self-care is in need of a more solid conceptual foundation, which can, in turn, be applied to research and for establishing guidelines for professional practice. We agree with these scholars. The theoretical grounding of this study pertains to self-care as described through Butler et al.’s (2019) six life domains—physical, professional, relational, emotional, psychological, and spiritual (p. 107). These self-care domains were used to contextualize how principals on Prince Edward Island cared for students, families, community members, and themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Methodology

Data collection involved all Prince Edward Island (PEI) school principals in public and private schools. We collected data from school principals in three ways: (a) an invitation to respond to an online  questionnaire was sent to all PEI principals in public and private schools, (b) individual interviews, and (c)  focus groups were conducted from volunteers within this principal group. Questionnaires were sent via Google Forms to 58 principals in the English public and private schools on Prince Edward Island and 31 responded. five individual interviews and three focus groups were conducted. These were audiotaped and transcribed.

Data were analyzed via content analysis (Neuendorf, 2017; Savin-Baden & Major, 2013). To employ this method of analysis, all questionnaire answers and transcripts were read and reread several times, focusing on understanding the content of the information. Guided by the research purpose, the researchers created a list of themes/topics and sub-themes/sub-topics that are repeated within the data. The frequency of similar topics and the overlap in common words were of particular interest. In essence, data were analyzed to uncover similar overarching answers or categories addressing the research purpose and the research questions.

Findings and Interpretation

Overall findings revealed that principals on PEI focused on safety, prioritized caring for others and, despite their increased work-load, adopted a ’ger ‘er done’ attitude, learned new communication modes and performed many roles beyond their duties as principals exuding hope and positivity. While these findings appear to be positive in the sense that students, families and communities received the care they required, principals paid a steep price as very little was done to support their own care and well-being. When principals are positioned to care for everyone else, who cares for them?

As principals talked about their experiences leading schools during the pandemic, a good amount of this discussion surrounded the many ways in which they worked to keep everyone safe. This was an overriding focus and understandable of course given the context in which they were working. One principal commented on how this changed their role as principals stating,

And a lot less focus on what our job really is, is supposed to be. Mm-hmmm. You just had to let it go and you just had to take care of the staff, individual staff. Staff and the students in the building. And that became the focus is just taking care of people.

This focus on safety spoke to the commitment of caring for others amongst these principals. Every strategy shared focused on students, families, and communities. Principals found themselves caring for others’ mental health, addressing food insecurities, and providing respite for students with special needs in their communities as well as ensuring that the needs of staff were met. One principal stated, “We tried to work our school goals around wellness, so anytime we were able to get into the school we tried to incorporate some staff wellness activities. We had a massage therapist come in….we had yoga instruction”. Another principal talked about running a half day program at the school to support students “they were worried about”, the students they didn’t see in online classrooms. Participants spoke of having to devise and learn new modes of communication via online platforms but also reaching out to community by knocking on doors and connecting via social media. The role of principal expanded extraordinarily as they found themselves taking on multiple roles such as attendance counsellors, medical professionals, mask enforcement etc. One principal recalled standing in their school with a temperature-taking instrument and commented that they recall thinking, “What am I even doing right now?” and blocked these memories stating they had “locked all that out”. Regardless of the challenges presented, principals responded with grace, hope, calm, and a tremendous sense of positivity. One elementary principal had this to say about their role during the pandemic.

As the leader of the school, I felt it was important that I demonstrated, through modelling, that if I am calm, other(s) will be too. It comes from leadership down. If the principal is calm, feels positive, and is confident that they are going to get through everything, it trickles down to the staff and into the school population. I think it’s important that leadership be strong, positive, and calm in order to get through things. That is not just for COVID-19. That’s for everything or for any issue that may arise.

According to this principal, leaders hold tremendous responsibility. School leaders must be calm and confident in the face of difficulty. Everyone looks to the leader for this guidance and will follow their example. If the principal exudes positivity, then so too will staff, students and community. What is missing from this explanation of principal responsibility is the how. Just how is the principal to be expected to exude this calm, collected, and positive demeaner at all times when there is no provision for their own well-being?

What is most concerning about these findings however is that principals appeared to have no choice but to take up a ‘get er done’ attitude or approach. Some comments spoke to this approach. One secondary principal stated, “I think part of our job is we just, we address the challenges as they come up and we’re very confident in what we do, and we stay positive, and we just move forward”. Principals had no choice but to accept and engage the challenges before them. Their only focus was to get the job done at whatever cost. No one else was going to do the work necessary to ensure the safety of all staff and students. As a result, when asked what principals did to care for themselves, many principals responded with “Nothing.” An elementary principal admitted their lack of success on this front. “I don’t think I did a very good job of supporting my own well-being during COVID. I kind of felt swamped taking care of my staff and all the work associated with the pandemic, the health protocols, and the meetings.” While some principals indicated that they engaged in various self-care activities of a physical, professional, relational/social, emotional and spiritual nature, the pressures of the job nevertheless took a toll. The same principal later stated, “You do what you have to do, and you worry about your well-being later.”.  It should be noted that principals spoke of these activities surrounding self-care in general terms. It was unclear if they were talking about what they generally do with regards to self-care or if these were activities engaged as a result of the pressures of the pandemic. The fact remains that principals were stretched to limits. They were expected to do more with little support. They were placed in impossible positions. There was absolutely no discussion or efforts made to allow for the care and wellness of school leaders within the system. The attitude that principals will simply have to step up and do what needs to be done negates any consideration of wellness or well-being. Magically, principals persevered despite this lack of support. They continued to lead with hope, care, compassion, and positivity. This speaks to the sheer dedication of the Island’s principals.

Discussion

In a time of crisis, is it enough to rely upon the good will of these principals? Do we not as a society, as educational systems, have the moral and ethical responsibility to make provision for wellness and well-being for school leaders in addition to staff, teachers, students and community? What role do the other leaders in our education system have to play to ensure that everyone is cared for in a time of crisis as well as between crises?

It was humbling for these authors to be part of these conversations and we appreciate the extensive involvement of PEI principals in this project. We look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation on this topic.


By: D. McIsaac, A-M Fitzgerald, J. Preston and K. MacKinnon


References
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