A question that I’m asked many times is how I manage the work-life balance of being a principal. I try not to laugh in response because most times I feel like I’m barely keeping it together. Each day is a juggling act, and some days are much more about surviving than thriving. As I reflect on my career during Women’s History Month, these are the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Ask for Help

For most of my life I saw asking for help as a sign of weakness. This is something I’ve also heard from other leaders, too, especially women. There is no way that I can do what I do as a principal or mom without the support of a team. In our school, we have set up a system of first responders to assist with many of the day-to-day tasks. This approach allows me to be less reactive as a leader and more intentional.

People want to help. People feel valued when you share leadership. You do not have to do everything alone to be successful. Of course, I want my presence to be valued, but at the end of the day, my goal is that our school thrives even in my absence.

The same goes for home. I am blessed with a rich support team of friends and family. In my early years of parenting, I had a very similar mentality about help as I did with leadership. I tried to do it all.

Breaking Up With Guilt

I have had a very unhealthy relationship with guilt over the years.

Guilt for not doing enough.
Guilt for doing too much.
Guilt for a way I handled a situation.
Guilt for a way I didn’t handle a situation.

Instead of spending time with guilt, I learned to reflect, make note, and change what I have control over and move on.

Assembling a Crew

In my early days of the principalship, I was very isolated and had no real support system or personal learning network. I’ve learned that you can wish for something, or you can make it happen. I now have an incredible in-person network and a digital learning network that support me through the great days and the not-so-great days. Our building principals in our district communicate daily. We have set up a system of appreciation as well so that we “Adopt-A-Principal” each month (this includes our assistant principals as well). We also plan a social activity monthly.

Being Real

One of my favorite parts of being a middle school principal is taking time to really connect with students. I love hearing their stories and just taking time to listen. What has been interesting is how much students, especially our girls, love hearing about my life as well. In my early years as an educator, I didn’t always share a lot about my own journey. I kept it pretty simple. I’ve learned to lean into my own struggles and trauma and share more openly with students and families. Humanizing the principalship has made such a difference in developing deep, lasting relationships.

Setting Boundaries

There is no badge for busy. I used to think that as a leader if I wasn’t always working, I wasn’t being effective. What I have learned is that when your words are “family first” and your actions are “work always” that people believe what they see. A few practices that have helped me involve email. In the past, I let email have way too much power in my life. But I made some changes that have definitely helped:

  • I don’t have my email notifications on my phone. I have to go check an app if I want to see my email.
  • I do not email the whole staff after 5 p.m. unless it is an emergency or something positive. If I have to type an email, I schedule send it for the morning.
  • I do not check email after 8 p.m. Typically there is not good news coming in after then. Disconnecting from email in the evenings has helped me to better connect with my family and also helped me to sleep.

I have also learned that there are some days that everything just doesn’t get finished. Stepping away can actually bring clarity to the situation.

Homelife for me is similar. Busy has long been the norm for our society in general. How many sports and activities can we sign up for? How many nights and weekends can we fill with events? When everything is important, nothing is important. Setting boundaries and saying no has been hard to learn, but essential to do.

Prioritizing Rest

In order to best serve my school and my family I have to prioritize my own wellness and health. I take time each day to get up first and spend time in reflection for the day ahead. The quiet and calm moments with my cup of coffee helps to set the tone for the day. I end my day in a similar fashion. Taking time to lean into the quiet moments with a break from any distractions helps me to be more productive in the other moments. I used to view rest as something I did on weekends or holidays. I now know that rest is crucial for both my physical and emotional health and actually helps me to better balance the other times of the day.

These are just a few of the ways that I bring some balance to my busy days, especially in our current season of leadership. I hope they work for you as a school leader, too.

Book Recommendations for Women in Leadership

The following books have guided me throughout my leadership journey:

She Leads: The Women’s Guide to a Career in Educational Leadership by Rachael George and Majalise Tolan A tremendous collection of strategies and inspiration, with more than 30 contributions from women in leadership.

How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith A book full of actionable strategies to amplify your leadership skills.

Brave, Not Perfect: How Celebrating Imperfection Helps You Live Your Best, Most Joyful Life by Reshma Saujani A work that helps us embrace being brave instead of striving for only perfection.

About the Author

Beth Houf is the principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO, and the NASSP’s 2022 National Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@BethHouf).

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