Avoiding School Leadership Burnout - ASCD
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June 1, 2018

Avoiding School Leadership Burnout

Pressures on school administrators are now epic. To keep from collapsing, leaders need to keep a grip on their "why."

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It is my strong opinion that we are living through what is probably the toughest era ever to be an educator in the United States—whether as a classroom teacher or a building administrator. In my travels around the country as an education consultant (who led secondary schools for years), teachers and school leaders often engage me in intense discussions about the topic of avoiding burnout. This isn't surprising, considering what educators are now being asked to do. In terms of lifting school achievement, educators are expected to work miracles daily. Whatever the hand that's dealt to the educators of a given school, they are expected to produce—and quickly.

The Squeeze on Teachers …

Pressures on classroom teachers to perform at higher levels and ensure that every student meets highly ambitious achievement goals come from multiple layers—the federal and state government, the district, the local school board, the community, and parents. Every one of these stakeholders is communicating to the teacher, "I expect you to reach our goals," despite the fact that the necessary resources that would make the expected gains a possibility and reality are nonexistent in far too many cases. As this pressure continues to mount, many teachers feel alone with nowhere to turn. They start to question whether or not teaching is something they want to do over the long haul.

… And Leaders

But it's important to keep in mind that school leaders face the same if not greater pressure. A new principal of a low-performing, high-poverty school may be given the keys to the front door and informed that he or she has three to five years to turn the school around.

Of course, we've all heard of scenarios where a principal did, in fact, lead a successful effort to turn around a failing school within several years. These leaders exist, but I put them in the category of special, visionary, and driven people who have devoted their entire lives (perhaps to a fault) to their craft of school leadership. Such people can and do turn low-performing schools into national powerhouses—but I'm not referring to those individuals here. I'm referring to any well-intentioned leader who is doing all that he or she believes he or she can but is struggling to stay afloat. The challenges and demands on even effective leaders are so overwhelming that, just like teachers, they may increasingly question their career decisions, wondering whether or not they can see themselves continuing in this work for the next 5 to 10 years. I know, because during my 14 years as a principal, I definitely hit a career-questioning moment.

My Rough Patch

Over the course of my school leadership career, I was principal at three different middle schools and one high school, all in challenging, urban environments. As much as I loved my principalship, I did go through a rough patch during which I questioned whether I was going to do this work over a long period of time. In 2003, I got to a point where I felt underappreciated and undervalued by my superiors. The challenges that my students and the larger community presented to the school I was then leading, Patrick Healy Middle School in East Orange, New Jersey, were a tall order, and the effort and lack of affirmation were wearing me down.

In July of that year, on literally my fifth day on the job as principal, I learned that the school had been officially designated as a "persistently dangerous" school. I was unprepared for this reality. When I took over the leadership of the school, I was up for the challenge of improving math scores and language arts scores that were alarmingly low. Lifting these scores was going to be my focus for the next three to five years. But when I received the letter from the New Jersey Department of Education that (on top of our achievement issues) the school was considered one of the most dangerous in the state, I immediately felt an unexpected increase in pressure. I now had two miracles to perform.

Principals all over the United States confront comparable challenges regularly. Whether the problems that make their way into the school are academic, behavioral, or community challenges, the weight of resolving them falls on the leadership—with the expectation that any resolution will also increase the probability that all students in the school will succeed.

The Importance of "Why"

Throughout my 14 years as a principal, when such challenges surfaced, I developed a way to confront them head-on in an effort to keep my own sanity while continuing to lead at a high level. I'd like to discuss that approach here, since I know the tendency to burn out isn't unique to me. Let me start by sharing the "opener" I often lead with when I present on leadership burnout:

Remember as a classroom teacher when you were in your element, taking your students to heights previously unimagined? You were the difference maker in their lives. Their trajectories changed because you came into their lives. You gave them hope. You made them believe in themselves. And somewhere in that space, it hit you that you could reach even more students and have a greater impact as a building principal. You decided in that moment that you wanted to be a school leader.When you made that decision, you didn't put a period at the end of the sentence. You didn't say, "I want to be a principal—period." Instead, you inserted a comma and added a reason why. There was a specific reason you wanted to transition into school leadership, to go on to grad school and earn your credentials. Whatever the reason was, it was your purpose for wanting to lead—your "why." But now that you're a school leader, much of what you encounter day-to-day are responsibilities you didn't anticipate when you made the decision to lead. Because you may not have anticipated these realities, you've had to adapt to them, and in adapting to them, you've probably become consumed by them and overwhelmed. It's likely you have lost your initial "why." In other words, because you lost your "why," you subsequently lost your way.

Leaders often accept their positions with a mindset that they're going to change the world through their schools. Then life—with its day-to-day challenges—happens. When life happens, we become inundated by the details of crisis management, and we realize that the reality of the job has absolutely nothing to do with our original intention for assuming the role. So we end up deeply entrenched in work we didn't sign up for—and begin to burn out.

Reconnecting with the Younger You

I remember those days when I lost my "why"—and ultimately my way—vividly. During my first month or so at Patrick Healy, going to school was increasingly becoming a chore.

The good news is, I got a handle on my situation before it was too late. I had to do some serious soul-searching to find my "why," to reclaim it and re-embrace it. For me, that meant reconnecting with my younger, more idealistic self. When I speak about burnout, after the speech-opener I just shared, I remind school leaders that regardless of how naïve the younger version of themselves may have been, back when they were a classroom teacher, the fact of the matter is, that younger person was them in the flesh—and is still a part of them. And a leader can ill-afford to detach her- or himself from that younger iteration, which formulated their "why."

I often tell fellow principals, "That younger you is what gave you your initial leadership life. It was the spark, the impetus, the motivation. Do not allow yourself to proceed another day—another minute—without bringing along that younger version of yourself, because reclaiming your 'why' increases the probability that you'll avoid burnout."

I needed this approach as I led Patrick Healy Middle School after the school received its "dangerous" label. Not only did I have to contend with the state department of education's pressure, but I also had to meet the demands of the district, parents, the community, and the media, which treated this as a major news story. Parents wanted to pull their children out of the school. The community demanded immediate change. I had been in my new assignment for all of one week, but within that time, I had completely lost my "why." I already felt myself burning out.

Then it dawned on me that I had to reconnect with my purpose, to walk in my "why" daily despite the challenges I inherited. In broad terms, my purpose as an educator—my "why"—was to empower every youngster in the building. So I told myself that's where my energy and focus had to go—on empowering my students. Instead of approaching the challenge of getting Patrick Healy removed from the "persistently dangerous" list through a traditional behavior-modification program, I decided to utilize the same strategies I would've used to raise achievement levels in a typical situation. Getting us off the list would happen through building school pride, while simultaneously raising my students' self-esteem. I anchored this approach in three core areas: schoolwide messages, visible leadership, and instructional leadership.

My Monday morning convocation addresses (shared at the brief all-school gathering we had every Monday), coupled with daily morning messages I shared over the public address system, played a significant role in this effort. These messages told students in a different way every morning that "You are somebody!" The intent was to fire students up every morning, knowing that many of them were coming to school from very challenging home and neighborhood environments. I wanted to help them expand their dreams of who and what they could become; in doing so, I knew that the behavior problems would lessen—and they did.

I also made an effort to be visible to students daily. I greeted students in the morning before they entered the building and was in their classrooms throughout the day, so I could talk with them later about their classroom experiences. They interacted with me in the halls, cafeteria, gymnasium, and on the outside grounds before and after school. I got to know my students and they got to know me. Visibility enabled me to lead within my "why" of empowering each youngster.

By exhibiting leadership in ways students could see, a solid foundation for learning was laid—daily. As teachers worked by my side and reinforced the message of empowerment and high expectations for students, they were energized as well. This had a profound calming impact on the school's climate and completely transformed its culture.

Finally, I operated as an instructional leader from the outset. My focus on the overall climate and culture of the school brought positive change quickly, so I wasn't inundated by discipline issues. I held principal's meetings regularly, sometimes with the entire student body, other times with groups of students of the same grade level or gender. My approach was to "stay in their faces" throughout the year as the instructional leader of the school. It worked tremendously because my words served as a steady reminder to all students that the expectations for them were high, and that they were NOT dangerous children. For instance, I might say to a group of 8th graders, "There is absolutely nothing dangerous about you! You are brilliant young people. You are most highly capable, and you were born with the potential to do anything in life you desire to do. Dangerous? No way—you are extraordinary!"

When discipline concerns abated, time for guiding teachers also became a given. I began to feel joy in coming to work and leading every day. Instructional leadership is vital to being an effective principal. When an administrator understands that but cannot engage in instructional leadership, burnout happens.

My approach was successful: At the end of the year, the state department of education sent us a letter informing us that Patrick Healy had been removed from the persistently dangerous list. I used the same strategies going into my second year as school leader.

Walking in

Burnout is inevitable when a leader is overwhelmed with work that doesn't contribute to his or her inner purpose. If you find this becoming your reality, reexamine your "why." Determine if your work as a leader is corresponding with that purpose. If it isn't, it becomes incumbent on you to determine why not—and make whatever adjustments you need to move toward once again walking in your purpose.

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