There is an often-unspoken expectation to be the over-worked and over-burdened educator. There is an often-unspoken expectation to be the over-worked and over-burdened educator. It comes out in social media posts and memes highlighting the long hours, the lack of sleep, the uneaten lunches or other relatable vignettes. For some it’s a point of pride to be celebrated, almost an expectation or self-fulling prophecy that educators and school leaders must work themselves into poor mental health or stressed induce physical issues in order to truly be giving it their all. That there is a poor work-life balance required in order to make a difference in the lives of the students we care so much for. While in some ways its commendable to be so selfless, it is also unsustainable and self-harming. The long-term impact of such behavior does not serve educators, leadership, systems or more importantly the students. Principals, at least some, will recognize this issue with their staff and attempt to encourage efforts promoting self-care and balance. Attrition rates and medical leaves will make the point clear that unsustainable commitment has consequences.
Perhaps it is justifiable to not take on that extra extracurricular this semester. While principals may embrace these ideas for those around them as much as circumstance allows during these challenging times, when it comes to their own self-care, they can often be woefully hypocritical. The pandemic, for all its challenges, may finally provide the impetus for us to look at the necessity of self-care and maintaining our own mental well-being. Whether a toll is gradually taken or there is an immediate push, circumstance may finally overcome the deficiencies administrators have in terms of self-care.
The need to pivot and then re-pivot in education before pivoting once again has been a challenge for all of those invested in the educational system. There may not have been a sufficient number of pivots in that last sentence and eventually the word loses all meaning. Leadership has had the challenge and opportunity to embrace a wide variety of hybrid models, asynchronous delivery, online programming, outdoor learning, synchronous lessons, packages, small group possibilities, individual appointments, cohort classes, traditional lessons, online parent team meetings, 1 meter distance desks, 2m distance desks, sometimes no desks and more. Through it all, principals have shown compassion and understanding for student and staff needs. Leadership promoted flexibility and understanding along with safety guidelines. Many leaders looked out for others while ignoring their own developing needs.
Student life circumstances were adapted for to the greatest extent possible. Lack of home stability, digital divides, individual needs and more were vital variables for consideration as teachers offered varied programs in varied ways. For some schools this meant lending technology or delivering nutritious meals to homes. On other occasions it meant forgiveness for late or non-existent assignments or the re-thinking of traditional methodologies. Staff were supported as they made sudden and frequent changes to their teaching styles that could not have been foreseen in prior years. Throughout it all, however, the Principal may have forgotten to focus on their own needs even when encouraged to do so by compassionate and understanding Senior Admin. This is not to say that they forgot, however, their own homes.
Principals and vice principals with children or spouses got to experience the other side of the coin as they navigated their way through challenges related to childcare and homeschooling. They got to experience the stresses and burdens of spouses dealing with their own pandemic related career burdens. For others, socioeconomic stresses may have come into play. Principals as parents or spouses got to see the tears that came with the removal of extracurriculars and daily events such as playdates. Others may have had to contend with a newfound isolation or anxieties. At some point in navigating the needs of their home, the needs of systemic change, the needs of staff, and students, the needs of self had to take greater precedence. If it has not so already, that time may still be coming.
Principals are surely as capable of suffering from pandemic fatigue and trauma as any other individual. They are leading a system undergoing significant challenges and changes while simultaneously dealing with a home life that has been challenged like never before. If they don’t take the time to ensure their own wellness, they lose capacity to continue the flexibility and dynamics needed to successfully lead during systemic change. More importantly they will harm their own health and wellness. Without some thought to self-care, principals will see increasing levels of missed days, leaves, and forced time-off.
The pandemic has given rise to challenge and change. Perhaps it can serve as a reminder of the necessity of walking the dog more often or finding some time for relaxation. Of spending time devoted to family experiences instead of a singular work focus. It may finally serve to get principals to put aside the work-related texts or emails and turn off the cell phone for a purposeful amount of time. By finding a healthier balance during the pandemic, principals and vice-principals may find a way to sustain themselves for long-term educational changes that betters the lives of students. Some short-term self-care can provide the opportunity for long-term leadership.
Andrew J. Collins is a Vice-Principal with Mountain View School Division. He is a married father of 4 children with degrees from Brandon University (MEd), Brock University (BEd), and Queens University (BA).