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March 2, 2023
ASCD Blog

School Leaders, It's Time for a Well-Being Self-Assessment

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If your well-being as an education leader is in crisis—you’re not alone.
Leadership
School Leaders, It's Time for a Well-Being Self-Assessment header Image
Credit: MJgraphics / Shutterstock
Schools these days feel combustible: Students, teachers, and leaders alike are exhausted and prone to eruptions that scald morale, scorch feelings, and singe relationships. If you’re like many school leaders, you might be reaching a boiling point.
Maybe you’re still trying to forget the insinuations, gossip, and staff outbursts you endured this week alone. Maybe a teacher cornered you for 10 minutes to unleash her fury over the in-service day schedule, explaining how you personally wasted her time and robbed students of her talent with a training she found irrelevant. Maybe a parent screamed at you for how your team handled the lunchroom fight his son initiated, threatening everything from legal action to an exposé in the local paper. Then there’s your inbox. A cursory glance reveals barbed one-liners and protracted diatribes, all enumerating your failings as a leader and a human.
You try not to let these things bother you. You know people have been stretched thin, but your own endurance is running out. Work has stopped feeling overwhelming and may more accurately be feeling hostile. Far from trying to innovate, you spend your time attempting to pacify other people’s anger. Every day, you find yourself in a crushing cycle of pushing back against pushback. Is this really what I want for myself? you ask. You’re seriously considering leaving education.

A Crisis in Administration

You're not alone. Administrator attrition currently rivals teacher attrition across the country. According to a 2022 survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, half of all school principals are considering a career change. This phenomenon has received less media attention than teacher turnover, largely because of assumptions about leaders: Some of these assumptions are romanticizing, portraying leaders as stalwart anchors in the storm, weathering slings and arrows so their team can thrive. Other assumptions are more cynical, questioning why administrators, who make decent salaries and have ample authority, would ever leave.
Why? Because a competitive salary can’t pay for what many leaders are losing right now: their sense of stability, efficacy, and personal wellness. An administrator’s job is to drive innovation, yet teachers cannot handle one more new initiative when they’re already burned out. An administrator’s job is to foster improvement, yet teachers need extra grace and wiggle room now, not someone they perceive as out to get them.
As a result, basic job objectives appear impossible—and then there’s the emotional impact. As a school leader, you have plenty of practice staying calm while others lash out at you, and you could write the book on putting teachers’ and students’ well-being before your own. But how’s your stamina? Does every day grind you down a bit more? Have you cried in your car recently?

Administrators’ well-being absolutely matters, not just to themselves, but also to teachers and students.

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With teacher attrition at crisis level, it might seem wrong to focus on administrators’ well-being, but half of principals nationwide are heading for the exit. That’s a crisis, too. Moreover, principal turnover directly leads to teacher turnover: Articles in Education Week and Educational Innovation 360 each illustrate how the unstable environment caused by a revolving door of administrators drives teachers out of a school, even out of the profession. Administrators’ well-being absolutely matters, not just to themselves, but also to teachers and students.

Realistically Assessing Well-Being

Administrators’ well-being is dependent on more than facile “self-care” practices and mindfulness. It also entails more than reflecting on the reasons you became an administrator, since those may not be emotionally stirring to you right now. If your mental and emotional health are in such bad shape that you are considering leaving education, you need strategies for assessing whether and how to repair the damage. To be clear: I am not making any assumptions about whether you will stay in education. Rather, I am trying to provide a logical, coherent framework to help you make that decision, and, if you do stay in education, to help recover your well-being in these tumultuous times.
Ask yourself how your work experience has changed who you are as a person. Maybe your time in leadership has made you more patient, considerate, and wise. For instance, I am now much better at difficult conversations at home than I was before I became an administrator because I regularly have to navigate tough conversations to be a good leader. In that way, my work experience has improved my personal life. However, there are also times when work problems follow me home, take a seat at the dinner table, and make me despondent and short-tempered. Looking panoramically at your career can help you determine whether you’re happy with how work has changed you overall. If you are, you can assume your current plight is temporary and will strengthen you in the long run. If not, maybe it’s time for a change.
I recommend examining the trajectory of your career with someone who knew you before you become an administrator. Ask them candidly how you’ve changed, then talk it over. Maybe they’ll point out that you seem more irritable, pessimistic, and downtrodden than before you took that principal job, or maybe they’ll say you’ve bloomed into a confident, collected leader both inside the office and out. Whatever you hear, it will be one more data point for you as you decide whether you are going through a rough patch or fighting a losing battle. You can also use objective facts to measure how you’ve changed. Do you drink more than you used to? Do you scream at your kids more? Do you have panic attacks? Don’t discount these as “normal” parts of the job. Weigh them along with your own and others’ reflection of how you have changed since becoming a leader.
Look closely at how your work environment impacts your well-being and think concretely about changes you could make to that environment. Is there one specific work relationship giving you endless grief? Try to have one positive interaction every day with that person. Is there a battle that you simply don’t need to fight right now? Drop it. Have you gotten so used to thinking, This is the way we have to do things that you aren’t looking at problems through every available lens? It’s very common for educators to go through our systems blindly, not realizing that other options even exist. Then, when we face resistance to our systems, we operate under the false premise that the system is immutable.
Here’s an example: maybe your district has been running in-service days a certain way for years. You give staff a bunch of information on these days. They hate sitting through it, so they act unprofessionally, talking over presenters and answering emails during trainings. You get frustrated. The cycle continues. Why not change your institute day format? Get a thinking partner and get out of that rut. Changing your MO in response to staff concerns is infinitely easier than carving new, innovative paths; basically, you’re repairing the airplane rather than building it while you’re flying. Finding clear-cut ways to change your environment can improve your well-being by reducing the number of battles you fight each day.
Write down how you feel every Sunday night for a few months. Don’t overthink it—just describe the emotions you experience as you ponder your return to work the next day. There’s no need to analyze the state of the industry or every choice you’ve ever made that led you to this moment. Simply write a few words or sentences, then walk away. When you have maybe 10 or 12 entries racked up, look for common themes. If your list mostly amounts to “Eh, another day, another dollar,” you’re probably fine. Work might not fill you with joy right now, but you’re getting through the rough patches without imploding, and you can treat your job like . . . you know, a job. However, if your list regularly features words like “hopeless,” “trapped,” or “dreading,” think seriously about whether this is the right profession for you. I know you were probably expecting me to tell you to stick it out no matter what, but no job should rob you of your hope for the future, not even one as important as being an educator. There is a difference between not loving your job and desperately hating it. You can thrive in a job you don’t love—in fact, having a bit of emotional detachment may make you more discerning, even skillful—but you cannot thrive at work or in life if your job fills you with constant despair.

Do not let anyone make you feel like a failure—as educators we often feel pressured to love our jobs, but we work in one of the toughest industries in existence.

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It’s no secret that the education industry is in crisis. If you are in crisis as well, try not to let that be a secret either. Talk honestly with your friends and family, who can help you think through ways to improve your environment and evaluate whether you should be in the industry. Do not let anyone make you feel like a failure—as educators we often feel pressured to love our jobs, but we work in one of the toughest industries in existence; sometimes, we just can’t summon up the passion that’s demanded of us. Maybe you will stay and eventually thrive again—or at the very least, work will calm down enough for you to regain work-life balance. And if not: hopefully you have the clarity and composure to make the career choice that is best for your well-being.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at a large unit district in the Chicagoland area. She holds masters degrees in educational leadership and English Literature, and she has authored several print and online articles in Educational Leadership and The Learning Professional.

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