If I hadn’t engaged in the self-care practices that I’ve been following for the last 15 years I’ve been a school leader, 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 Skokie, IL, during the 2019–20 school year, so I don’t know what this job is like outside of the pandemic. But I do know that I’ve increased my focus on self-care and deepened my practice around a lot of things. Just as we start to think things are getting better, something major—like a new variant—comes along. There’s this ebb and flow, like life is improving and then it’s not. The uncertainty of everything just increases the stress.

For my school leader colleagues, I want to share some of the things I do to reduce stress and to 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 also important to minimize stress. One thing I did at school was hire a breathing coach to do some staff development for our teachers so they could 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 also helps. As principals, many of us are responsible for what happens in a school, no matter when, and we are expected to be available 24/7. I have limited technology by removing social media apps from my phone, having set times to respond to emails, and scheduling 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.

Promoting Self-Care at School

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 French culture. In France, work email on weekends and evenings is limited by law so people can disengage and disconnect. 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 and give everyone their time back.

I’ve always told my teachers that it’s important to 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 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.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that this school year has been the hardest one we’ve ever experienced. Being a principal is always stressful, but these self-care practices have served me well, not just in stressful times but calm times as well. While I’m unsure what to expect for the next school year, I’m definitely optimistic and hopeful that it will be a calm one.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

One thing we’ve realized is that our school systems need to change. Inequities and injustices have always existed in our schools, but they have been amplified during the pandemic. Now that we recognize that, what are we going to do about it? As leaders, it’s natural that we want to solve problems, but many—like racism and vast economic inequality—aren’t ones we can easily solve.

Self-care starts with self-awareness. With meditation, journaling, and the other practices I follow, I aim to try to remove emotion from how I think about a lot of things that impact schools. I want to have the perspective of an outsider looking in, because if you’re too emotionally involved, it’s hard to see the bigger picture and get a different perspective.

Sometimes, especially when I think of this past year, it’s easy to worry about failure as a school leader. However, we all have small successes that we can celebrate, and it’s important to remind yourself of that. It’s about practicing gratitude, thinking positively, and then motivating others.

Part of self-care is being kind and compassionate to yourself, too. 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.

With the end of the school year approaching, I’m looking forward to some time off. Our administration team spent last summer planning for how we were going to return to school in a time of COVID-19, with masks and social distancing. And even our teachers, who have most of the summer off, have had to face something different and uncertain at the beginning of the last two school years as far as how they teach. I’m hoping that next school year they can come back and feel a greater sense of control.

I’m looking forward to real time away and disconnecting from work this summer. I didn’t have a chance to do that last year. When we all return to school, I hope that we can practice more kindness, positivity, and care for ourselves. The more we do, the less stressed we will be.

Karen Ritter, EdD, is the principal of Niles West High School in Skokie, IL.