If I didn’t engage in the self-care practices that I’ve been following for the last 15 years I’ve been a school administrator, I wouldn’t still be in the profession. To do the job and not completely stress out, I simply can’t do without them.

I became principal of Niles West High School in the 2019-20 school year, so I don’t know what the job there is like outside the pandemic. But I do know that I’ve increased my focus on self-care and deepened my practice around a lot of the things I’ve traditionally done. The uncertainty of everything just increases the stress. We start to think things are getting better, then something major—like a new variant—comes along. There’s this ebb and flow of feeling like life is improving, and then it’s not. You take the word “normal” with a grain of salt now.

For my school leader colleagues, I want to share some of the things I do to reduce stress and feel better prepared to tackle the challenges of being a principal.

  • Number one is meditation. I meditate every night before I go to bed, and then to supplement that, I do it in the morning, too. I use an app called Insight Timer, and I can see that I have a streak of 556 consecutive days of meditating right now.
  • Proper breathing is important to minimize stress. One thing I did at school was hire a breathing coach who will do some staff development for our teachers so they can learn breathing strategies to reduce stress. Teachers can then teach this breath work to their students. I also do yoga, which involves breathing exercises as well.
  • Getting enough sleep is a must. Even though I often work into the evenings to catch up with everything, I make sure I go to bed early enough to get at least seven hours of sleep.
  • Every morning, I write in my journal to clear my mind and to focus. I also keep a gratitude journal. Every night, I write three good things that happened that day.
  • Limiting technology use helps. As principals, we are expected to be available 24/7. I have removed social media apps from my phone, set times to respond to emails, and scheduled time to read educational blogs or watch webinars. I have turned off all notifications on my phone besides calls and text messages so I can check my phone when I have time, instead of checking it every time there’s a notification.
  • For my family—my husband and my two kids—I schedule one weekend getaway per month. We do road trips within about a four-hour drive. It’s been nice to see something new, drive with my family, play some games in the car, and spend time away with each other.

Self-care is important for all the staff in our school, and I have promoted it in various ways. When we first pivoted to remote learning, I proposed that my staff take a page from the French. In France, work email on weekends and evenings is limited by law so people can disengage and disconnect. I wanted to give everyone their time back. When you’re working from home, it can feel like you’re working around the clock, and you’re constantly at your computer. I wanted to change that.

I’ve always told my teachers we should practice self-care, but what if they don’t know what to do? I felt it was important to teach some of it in school and model it. If I just say “self-care,” some may wonder “What does that even mean?”

One thing I learned from the teachers is that they needed permission to be a little bit more flexible. I don’t expect them to teach by the book and bell to bell like they used to. It’s a different time, and we have different priorities. If that means not assigning homework every night or changing lessons so as not to bring home a ton of work, then that’s OK. Some of them needed to hear that.

Of course, this year has been especially hard on students. When people don’t feel safe because of the pandemic and they’re worried and stressed out, they start to feel unsafe in other ways. We have a lot of kids saying they don’t have a strong sense of belonging, partly because they didn’t attend school in person last year. When we first returned to the building, we had some kids who were anxious. We’ve been focusing on their social and emotional learning and making sure they know we care. The priority now is to get to know them and build strong relationships, which hopefully will build a strong school culture.

Part of self-care is being kind and compassionate to yourself as well as to others. But I think that’s something that many of us, and especially principals and assistant principals, neglect. We’re so focused on taking care of others and showing them compassion that we don’t practice enough self-compassion and self-kindness.

I hope that the more we practice kindness, positivity, and care for ourselves the less stressed we will all be.

6 Comments

  • Sarah McRoberts says:

    Thank you for this blog post! My first year as a principal was last year and in a new school. What a learning curve! I’m still struggling this year, but I’ve put a few things into motion that are helping me take care of myself better like walking, meal prepping on Sundays, and gratitude journaling. I’m going to try your breathing suggestion next. Thank you for this reminder that we all need this no matter how long we’ve been an administrator! This encourages me to keep making sure I keep up the habit of taking time out to take care of my well-being.

    • Karen Ritter says:

      Those are great self-care strategies! I’ve definitely been walking more too and trying to eat healthy foods. We all need to encourage one another – Keep it up!

  • Julie says:

    Thank you for this! I think it’s also important for staff members to see the principal setting these limits and practicing self-care. If we tell them to do it, but then we don’t model it ourselves, how can we expect them to really take care of themselves. We can’t! We have to model it so they feel permission to do so, too.

    • Karen Ritter says:

      Agreed, Julie. Sometimes our staff just needs permission and some modeling. I am really looking forward to the next school year, after some relaxing time off this summer. I am still going to keep the self-care strategies in place, and add more too! Wishing you a great school year this fall!

  • Ben says:

    Thanks for all the tips Karen! Unfortunately, I did leave the school site leadership space as the demand on my time grew to be too much, even when regularly practicing self-care. My question for the group is, how do you manage your time more effectively? Do you delegate more? Prioritize getting specific “must-do’s” done at the expense of other less time sensitive tasks? I struggled with this immensely and no matter how much self-care I practiced, I just could not take working 7 days a week!

  • Karen Ritter says:

    Hi Ben,
    It’s important to come to terms that there will ALWAYS be work to do, and that you will never feel like you’re done. The best way I manage everything is to create systems for your work. I have to set a “cut off” time for myself, where I do prioritize just a short list of things that I want to get done during a certain time frame, and commit time to that with no interruptions. I do delegate a lot of the daily tasks to my executive assistant and other administrators, so I can focus on long term planning and goals. This was very challenging during the pandemic, because we were reacting to new changes every day. I hope that it will be more possible this year to plan ahead and continue to create systems. I love reading about productivity and task management, and I am always interested in how others do things. One of my favorite books is Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I highly recommend it! Best wishes this school year!

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