The Mental Balancing Act for School Leaders - ASCD
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December 1, 2020

The Mental Balancing Act for School Leaders

To be an effective leader, you must be intentional and deliberate about taking care of your mental and physical health.

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In my current role as a full-time, self-employed consultant, I'm living a life that is inherently stressful. I stand in TSA lines and sit at airport gates for hours when the inevitable missed connections and cancellations happen. I wait in the freezing cold for rental car facility shuttles, drive for hours into the night, and arrive to hotels without having eaten dinner. There are always unread emails and little sleep, and yet I still have to go into the venue the next morning with the "fire" that the audience expects for a six-hour presentation, knowing that ahead of me is the next state, the next hotel room, and the next presentation.

My previous roles in school leadership were not much easier. I was carrying a great deal of stress, not to mention the effects the long hours and responsibility had on my physical health. There were many days when I forgot to eat, or when my nourishment came only from fast food or the vending machine. I took on a lot of responsibility and wanted to succeed in my goals, regardless of how much time and energy it took. At the time, I was unaware of how much it was impacting my mental health. Although I tried to be intentional about maintaining a balance, it wasn't until I was away from the daily grind of assistant principal and principal positions that I really understood the impact that the situation had on me mentally.

After several wake-up calls, I've learned to be intentional about managing the stress, taking breaks, and having mental balance. But the work of educational leaders is hard and ongoing. I see many education leaders who struggle with the same issues I did, and I am here to tell you from experience that you must strike a balance, you must take time for yourself in order to be an effective leader.

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Baruti Kafele speaks to the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders in January 2020.

A Dangerous Year

After seven years of classroom teaching, I became a middle school assistant principal in 1998 and a middle school principal in 1999. Over my 14 years of school leadership, I led three different middle schools and a high school. As it relates to balancing and sustaining our mental health, I want to focus on one of the three middle schools.

In 2003, I took a position leading my third urban middle school as a principal in northern New Jersey. It was the start of summer vacation, and I had two months to prepare. The achievement levels at this school were very low, which made the job particularly enticing for me. I wanted to demonstrate to that city and the state what the children enrolled in that school were capable of achieving.

I was by now an experienced and successful principal, so I thought I was more than ready for this new challenge. I was excited about the prospects for the implementation of culturally relevant instruction and learning to raise the achievement levels and transform this school.

About five days after my start date, I received a letter from my superintendent via the New Jersey State Department of Education indicating that my school had been designated a "persistently dangerous school" under the No Child Left Behind law. This meant that parents had the option of transferring their children out of my new school to a school that was deemed safer.

In an instant, I went from a feeling of excitement of having started this new job to a feeling of panic: "What have I gotten myself into?" I knew for the sake of the school that I had to work to remove the stigma of being designated a dangerous school. When the local media picked up the story, and it then became a national news story, my anxiety increased. The press called me daily, and parents formed a steady stream at my office door to request transfers for their children.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. But I did not let it defeat me. I needed a plan. I studied all of the data I could get my hands on regarding discipline from the previous five years while considering what we needed to do differently. I came to see that the problem was not behavior and discipline at all. The problem was one of school climate and culture, and that became my focus for the entire summer: How do we completely transform the climate and the culture of the school toward removal from the "persistently dangerous schools" list?

That school year was not only unusual, but also very demanding on me emotionally and physically. It required a wealth of my time and my energy. I felt the pressure daily. Because I was so new, I did not know the staff. I had zero relationships in that building. I questioned my decision to leave my previous school. There was more to do than usual, but I convinced myself that it was in fact doable. I felt I was in it alone, that I was on my own. I consistently reminded myself, "If not me, then who?"

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Baruti Kafele greets a young person at an ASCD conference. He says that remembering the kids who benefit from his work helps him keep a mental balance when things get stressful.

How I Took On the Challenge

I started building my team as soon as I could. I tapped the help of my newly hired assistant principal, my behavioral specialist, and my dropout prevention officer. Our focus was the climate and culture of the school, as opposed to being more stringent on rules and consequences. We needed students to walk into an entirely different experience.

After hundreds of parents inquired and requested transfers in that first week, I sent a letter to every parent of an enrolled student, asking them to hear me out before they made their decisions. They showed up in droves. I told them that their children were in very capable hands and that there was no need to transfer them out. I talked about my leadership principles and how those translated into my commitment to their children. The parents heard me and agreed to keep their children in my school. All but one stayed, and the one that transferred out asked to be re-enrolled a month later.

We were removed from the list by year's end. This could not have been accomplished had I allowed myself to be overwhelmed. I maintained a balance throughout the year by considering these things:

Relationship building. I developed close, professional working relationships with much of my staff and slowly but steadily won their support. They believed in my leadership. As I typically say to leaders in seminars, the best way to get to know staff is to get to know them individually over time. For me, this was typically during prep periods, where I would stop by their classrooms for short but productive conversations that enabled me to get to know many of my teachers and other staff members beyond their job descriptions.

Learning when to say no. As principals, we must always remember that we are not going to please everyone with every decision we make. For example, I've had teachers who ask to take on a full schedule when there is a shortage of staff. The teacher may need the extra money, but taking on that full load may be at the expense of the teacher's physical or mental health. Looking at the bigger picture, I may need to intervene and say no for the teacher's long term mental and physical well-being. "No" is never a popular decision, but it may prove to be the best decision in that moment. Leaders have to develop confidence in saying no while giving maximum attention to the overall leadership-staff relationships in an effort to not lose anyone due to unpopular decisions.

Making time for family and friends. To have a true balance, you must include your personal life. My family was always important, and I never neglected my time with them. I refused to "make the work my entire life." This meant that I had to discipline myself to unplug and reclaim at least part of my weekends. When I first started my career, for example, you'd often find me watching the Sunday football games in the office while I worked. Or, when I used to run a Saturday morning academic academy from 8 a.m. to noon, I'd often work for hours after the students were dismissed. I slowly learned that I was both misusing time and neglecting my family, and I conditioned myself to leave when the students left and give myself time to relax with my family on the weekends, without the burden of work.

Doing the Work of Work/Life Balance

It is widely known that in 2015, I suffered a heart attack while delivering a keynote address at a conference in Miami. That day was a culmination of poor dietary habits as a principal that multiplied as a consultant. I had convinced myself that the pressures of leadership and subsequent pressures of consulting left me little time to eat healthily. My career-long fast-food diet almost sent me to an early death. My main artery was clogged 100 percent!

I was not only suffering physically, however. I was suffering mentally and was completely oblivious to it. I needed to re-examine who I thought I was. Many of us in leadership think we are indestructible "machines" who can and will do it all, but my wake-up call brought me down to earth and reminded me that I have to take care of myself first before I can begin to help others. To have good mental health and overall mental well-being, you must always make yourself your own number one priority.

Since the heart attack, I have found a way to completely change my diet so I eat healthily and to walk about 15 miles per week. But how have I managed the stress? For me, it boils down to my focus and priority, and—as I've stressed in speeches and articles—reminding myself of my "why." My focus and priority are the students who will benefit from what I present to their teachers and administrators. I need to remind myself why I do this work in the first place.

The power of one's "why" cannot be overstated. With the stresses that accompany school leadership that so often lead to burnout, it is very easy to completely lose sight of your "why" and to instead focus on solely on the "work." As important as the work may be, it is more important that you never, ever lose sight of your reason for doing the work. As I always say, when one loses their way, they have probably also lost their will, and in order to retrieve both, they must make a conscious effort to reclaim their why.

After my heart attack (and the Type II diabetes that accompanied it), I had to reexamine my own why. The way I was living physically was a complete contradiction of my why. With my diet and lack of exercise, there was obviously no way I was going to walk in my purpose over the long haul. Refocusing on my purpose was key to transforming myself emotionally, mentally, and physically.

I have also seen the impact of focusing on the why with principal colleagues I train. For example, it is not uncommon for a principal to tell me how empowering the discussion on the why has been to their leadership, toward helping them maintain a focus on what matters most and thereby relieving them of a lot of the stresses they carried previously due to losing their focus.

Yes, the work can be difficult; yes, the work can be challenging; yes, the work can be overwhelming; and yes, the work can be thankless. But at the end of the day, your mindset has to be, "I do this work because the children are my focus and my priority." That is the professional balance that you must maintain toward your own mental wellness in this otherwise challenging leadership role.

Leading in a Time of Upheaval

As I write this, we are in the midst of both a global pandemic and social change, which add an additional set of challenges to the already challenging role of school leadership. I have conducted a plethora of leadership sessions over the past several months on social justice education, maintaining leadership effectiveness through a global pandemic, and managing stress during these abnormal times. Here are some questions you can use to self-reflect on how you're grappling with the pandemic and social change within your school community:

Leading During COVID-19

  1. In what ways am I a support to my staff?

  2. In what ways am I a resource for my staff?

  3. How am I going about maintaining communication with the parents of my students?

  4. How am I maintaining a sense of balance between my professional and personal lives?

Leading During Social Change

  1. What are the reasons social justice education either exists or doesn't exist in my school?

  2. Can my students, particularly my students of color, articulate, beyond emotional reactions, the injustices that surround them?

  3. Do the teachers I supervise have the necessary cultural competence to engage my students in issues of social justice?

  4. What type of PD do I provide staff toward developing a comfort and confidence in engaging students in issues of social justice?

  5. How knowledgeable am I on issues of social justice that directly impact my students of color?

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