As a new school year begins, it’s only fitting that we devote this issue of Principal Leadership to a topic that I hope you remember to focus on in the days and months ahead: taking care of you. Creating communities of support with your colleagues in your district and across the country is crucial to ensuring you have the tools and resources, not to mention the strength and stamina, to lead your schools and help your communities thrive.
For ideas on prioritizing your own mental health and well-being, I encourage you to read the collective wisdom of three principals in the following Q&A. JoVon Rogers, principal of Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, VA; Kathy Walker, principal of East Iredell Middle School in Statesville, NC; and Cristina Libatique, principal of Tehachapi High School in Tehachapi, CA, belong to the Leadership Network for New Principals, which Rogers and Charles Puga, principal of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO, co-facilitate. NASSP currently offers several Leadership Networks, and I’m proud of their success in supporting school leaders personally and professionally.
The role of schools and school leadership is essential to the fabric of our country and our democracy. I’m thrilled and honored to serve an association that supports your exceptional work. Although our society often takes it for granted, there’s a tremendous amount of effort and resources that go into a quality school and a quality school experience. NASSP doesn’t take you for granted—and I urge you not to take yourself or your role for granted either.
As a school leader, you are one of the most trusted public leaders in all of the professions. Your relationships matter when you’re seeking support for initiatives at your school, when you’re reassuring students and families, and when you’re supporting your classroom teachers and staff members. In this age of authenticity and credibility, there are no more authentic and credible people than those who do this work every day.
When it comes down to it, you must take care of yourselves. I know school leaders are tough and “tasked with taking care of everyone else,” as Cristina says. But you can’t be the best that you need to be for kids and families if you’re not the best for yourself.
So, this school year, commit to taking care of your schools—and yourself. Follow the advice of your colleagues in this issue and engage in mindfulness practices, take breaks, reach out to a colleague or friend, and don’t forget to put down your phone. Step away from the emails and step into engaging classrooms and always, always go back to your why. You’re about what’s right for kids, and that’s where your power lies.
Principal Leadership: Why is it so important for a school leader to prioritize their mental health and well-being?
Rogers: It’s really important to model what you’re asking of your staff. You do that by being transparent about ways in which you take care of your own mental health and giving yourself grace. Being transparent about your struggles and how you take care of yourself normalizes it and increases the probability of your staff doing the same. The reality is our job is impossible if we’re not strategic about the way we take care of our own mental health.
Libatique: Time is the biggest challenge. I know that for my elementary school leader colleagues, their days are a little more structured. They kind of have a presumed end time. And oftentimes, we maybe have an hour break between the end of school and the beginning of a sporting event. We have a lot of supervisory things to do then, and if you’re working from 7 a.m. until midnight, when do you schedule that time to prioritize you? Especially, if you’re also trying to raise a family.
Walker: At the risk of misquoting RuPaul, if you can’t take care of yourself, how in the heck are you going to take care of anybody else? I’ve come to realize that as a building leader, the mental health challenges for my kids, for my adults have been real. And I haven’t always prioritized myself and my own mental well-being. In this job, the more you’re intentional about things, the better off you are. It sounds good, but in practice, it’s so much harder to execute. Our spring break last year was early, and I hadn’t made any big vacation plans. It was a staycation. But the one thing I needed to do for me was go to a nearby national park, Stone Mountain, and just take a hike. I was determined to do that.
Principal Leadership: What are some concrete ways that you take care of yourself?
Rogers: Cristina mentioned time in between the end of your day and the beginning of the sports schedules. I am at school three to four days a week until after 9 p.m. My school is over an hour away from my house, so I am not able to go home in between school and after school activities. Therefore, I work out at a gym near my school, go for walks, do exercise videos, and invite my staff to join me. A few staff members have taken me up on that offer, and we really enjoy that time together. The other thing that I really try hard to do is have no-work weekends when possible. I try not to check email until Sunday evening to allow myself a break and recharge.
Libatique: The year before last, when we were virtual, I was having the email problem of checking it at night. Like JoVon said, it stresses you out so much. Sometimes emails are nasty, and people’s emergencies aren’t all that urgent, and now I’m on this spiral. So, I took my work email off my phone. And I clear my email every day before I leave school, and I don’t check it again. Part of my morning routine at school is I have a morning dance party at the gate. I play music to try to start the day off on a good note. My activities director joins me. We dance. We try to get the kids to dance. We have fun, and that’s the goal. After that, I check email, and it doesn’t affect me the same way.
Principal Leadership: Will you do anything differently this school year in terms of prioritizing your time and well-being?
Rogers: I’ll continue to try to work out. I will continue to have boundaries. And that’s really what we’re talking about is having boundaries. For some people, that’s the evenings because they have small children. For others, it’s the weekend. But develop those boundaries and stick to them. I’m not always good at it. I’ll also try to do more meditation and yoga on incredibly stressful days.
Walker: I’ve altered our schedule so that we operate on a slightly different schedule on Fridays. We used to do something like an enrichment/enhancement remediation period every day for 45 minutes, but now we have changed the schedule so that we work in remediation during our regular days, and then on Fridays, we can have a good 90 minutes for everybody to do something that aligns with their passions. So, for my teachers who are passionate about chess, or reading, or whatever, that’s the club that they can head up. And for the kids who want to move, we have intramurals and sports and kickball. Scheduling for mental health and wellness really is about this whole idea of being intentional. I finally figured out that because I’m such a slave to my Gmail calendar, maybe the things that I want to do or need to do—whether it’s my workouts or my mindfulness practice (I keep a yoga mat in my office)—I should just schedule them, so that I actually do them.
Libatique: Where I live, it’s geographically isolated. There aren’t a lot of mental health facilities or practitioners, and it’s a super small town. My health insurance provides a virtual therapist. We have a 20-minute session, every three weeks, during lunch. She’s really helped me identify and handle my triggers; one of them is nasty emails. Every time my blood pressure goes up from email, it’s time to take a break and walk out to classrooms to find joy in the day. That joy is the kids. The rest of it is nonsense. If we don’t have joy in our day, then how do we expect our staff to find the joy in what they do or our kids to find the joy in what they do?
Principal Leadership: Has your district implemented any programs to help principals and assistant principals take care of their own well-being, especially in the wake of the pandemic?
Rogers: We have an employee assistance program, and after everything we’ve gone through in the past couple years, I’ve learned a lot more about it and what they have to offer. The program promotes wellness and offers free counseling sessions and help for organizing your life. If you’re planning a wedding, they offer someone who can help you with that. If you’re going through a divorce, they offer help with that. Most people thought the program was only for significant emotional concerns, but now people understand that it can help with so many different aspects of your life. (Editor’s note: For more on employee assistance programs, see the article here.)
Walker: Our district doesn’t offer anything that formal. We’ve taken steps during our own principals’ PLC where one of us might lead different mindfulness activities or book studies. But there’s nothing specific or intentional.
Libatique: Our district offers nothing official either. As principals, we are tasked with taking care of everyone else.
Principal Leadership: What role do school leaders play in breaking the stigma around mental health, especially for students?
Rogers: A big role. We need to be transparent about our struggles and intentional about the things we’re doing to support mental health and well-being. We have an Our Minds Matter group in our school, a student-led club focused on helping teens feel connected to school and develop coping skills. I meet with several student groups at least monthly and ask for feedback on how we can continue to support them. One of the things that they shared is that students were struggling with their mental well-being and felt that was the reason for some of the disruptive behaviors we saw, as well as an uptick in substance abuse. They also shared that they were not aware of some of the supports we offer, so we developed a student wellness page on our website with resources, contact information, and strategies they might use to help.
Walker: My counselors are a part of my leadership team. We do meet weekly so we can discuss students’ academic learning and social and emotional development. It’s concerning to see just how high the adverse childhood experiences [ACEs] scores are for my kids. No wonder we’re seeing disruptive behaviors. But we have made mental health for everyone a priority. We’ve allotted time for SEL lessons on Wednesdays, and we’ve shared resources with parents. My vision for our school is to teach with passion and lead with heart. I lead by being vulnerable for my staff and for my students and parents. I just cannot imagine even being a middle schooler in this day and age, between social media and everything that’s out there.
Libatique: We have a community that typically struggles with feeling like mental health is real, that there is a need for support. We too have seen a huge increase in substance abuse, but we also saw a huge increase in just whatever kind of divisiveness you can think of. Whether it was you’re pro-mask or you’re anti-mask; you’re gay, I’m straight; I’m Republican, you’re Democrat. During the pandemic, we sent kids home, and they stayed home for 18 months with people who are only like them. We spent a lot of time navigating those waters last year. And it felt like all we did was triage some sort of bigotry or hatred. Our relaxation station came out of the pandemic. It’s an open area with comfortable chairs and puzzles, and it’s for students to use at least every Tuesday at lunch and during finals. But it’s also open when we feel many students need it. Our social worker runs that room. We hired a social worker, which is new for us, but we didn’t get her until January.
Principal Leadership: How has being a part of the Leadership Network for New Principals supported your mental health and well-being?
Libatique: Last school year, I thought, “I’m not going to make it through this year.” I started planning my retirement, which is very far off. It was really hard. I’m the only high school principal here. It’s not like I have another colleague who’s like “Oh, this is what I’m going through, too.” I just started looking online and that’s how I found this group. And I may or may not have cried in some of the meetings. No matter if it’s in a big city, a small town, a rural or urban area, everybody is having problems. Our problems might look a little bit different, but at the root of it all, we have all learned these kids need us, these parents need us. And so how could you not want to come to work the next day knowing that’s how important your job is?
Walker: I’ve thought about, “OK. What else can I be doing?” This is probably my fourth career. I started out in corporate accounting. But when I come into the cafeteria and talk to my students, I’m reminded of just how awesome they are. So yes, I am back this year, and I’m happy to be back, as long as they’ll have me. My kids and my staff are kind of my extended family. I’ve got to be there for them, and they’re here for me.
Rogers: One thing that has helped this principal group is knowing that we aren’t alone in this work. So many of us have experienced very similar challenges. We’ve been able to use this network to find ways to deal with those challenges and connect to the joy of this work. As school principals, we set the tone for our buildings, and it is important that we make a conscious effort to maintain positivity regardless of what is happening. We all accepted this role and the responsibility that comes along with it. It’s not to say we won’t have bad days. It’s not to say that we can’t be human. But we set the tone. If we set the tone of joy, make our interactions positive, and make an intentional effort to identify the positive, then other people will, too.