Effective Strategies to Avoid School Leader Burnout

As a school leader, there’s a lot on your plate. When that pressure spills over, it can lead to burnout. Here are four tips to proactively manage burnout before it begins.
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Blog date
1/30/24
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We won’t deny it: being an educational leader is a tough and often stressful job.

There’s so much you’re responsible for at any given moment. You’re expected to be fiscal managers, HR specialists, experts in change management and community engagement, instructional leaders, lead relationship builders, and so much more. Needless to say, you’re under a lot of pressure.

A baseline of pressure is normal in your role. It’s when the pressure stretches into principal burnout that there’s a larger issue. Burnout—a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress—can be a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and mental health, but that of your team and broader school community.

A baseline of pressure is normal in your role. It’s when the pressure stretches into burnout that there’s a larger issue.

Your leadership matters—and we don’t want any educational leaders to burn out. Research has shown that school principals are the second only to teachers in terms of their impact on student outcomes. That means when you’re not at your best, your students are affected, too. 

While there’s no magic formula for avoiding burnout, there are several proactive strategies that can curb it. Here are four of our favorites. 

Share the load with distributed leadership

When you feel like you’re carrying the weight of your school on your shoulders, it undoubtedly feels like you’ve punched a one-way ticket to Burnout Town. Here’s where we want to remind you of an important truth: You do not have to be a superhero.

When you feel like you’re carrying the weight of your school on your shoulders, it undoubtedly feels like you’ve punched a one-way ticket to Burnout Town. Here’s where we want to remind you of an important truth: You do not have to be a superhero. 

This principal says it best: “As a principal, you do not have to have all of the answers. You need to be able to ask the right question, which guides the thinking of your staff.” He’s right: all effective collaboration begins with a great leader who fosters trust and is committed to bringing out the best in their team.

This is where a distributed leadership approach can be a game changer. Distributed leadership is where a school or distinct leader shares certain leadership work with teachers and staff. More than task delegation, distributed leadership involves school leaders, teachers, and staff working together to perform leadership practices and sharing responsibility for student achievement as well as school culture and professional learning. 

Not only does distributed leadership expand the leadership capacity of your teacher leaders, but it can also put you at ease. When you have a support system in place to help accomplish the work, it can reduce those feelings of overwhelm that inevitably pop up when the work and the responsibility are piling up. 

If you’re new to distributed leadership, a great place to begin is by developing an instructional leadership team (ILTs). Tasked with addressing school-wide instructional practices, an ILT typically includes the principal, assistant principal, a school counselor or social worker, and grade-level teachers or representatives from specific grade bands. 

Focus on building resilience

The term “self-care” has become so mainstream over the past few years that its meaning is often misconstrued. And, it’s too easy for education leaders to overlook their own well-being in times of stress. When school leaders take care of themselves, they’re not only practicing the key tenet of resilient leadership, they’re also setting a tone for the environment in which they lead—creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels safe, valued, cared for, and seen. 

The first step in building resiliency is to establish a baseline of well-being and that requires checking in with yourself on a regular basis. If you’re new to this kind of self-reflection, we have a few questions that can get you started: 

  • What kind of activities do I engage in to re-energize myself from the challenges of school leadership, and how often do I engage in these activities? Paying attention to the moments of flow within your work and leadership can help remind you of the moments of joy and happiness that exist within your role, even when things are stressful. 
  • Do I set aside time for myself, or do I allow it to get scheduled over? We know that the variables of a particular day don’t leave much extra time, but there are ways to reclaim more of your precious hours and minutes. 
  • Do I promote reenergizing activities within my team, so they can also sustain themselves during challenging times? And, do we take the time to do these actions as a group? Building in this kind of self-reflection within your team increases trust, productivity, and satisfaction. 

Questions like these are critical to ask on a regular basis. Not only do they help you keep your own needs and well-being at the forefront, they  also help you to create a culture where your school community recognizes the importance of taking care of themselves. All of which helps to increase teacher retention. 

When school leaders take care of themselves, they’re not only practicing the key tenet of resilient leadership, they’re also setting a tone for the environment in which they lead—creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels safe, valued, cared for, and seen. 

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Reconnect with your “why”

Think back to why you wanted to become a school leader. Perhaps you began as a classroom teacher with the goal to take your students to new heights. Eventually, you started to think about ways that you could have an effect on an even larger group of students. You may have started to think, “I could be a school principal.” The desire to change the trajectory of our schools—and the future of education overall—is why many of us take up the leadership mantle.

It can get harder to remember that bigger picture. As principal and author Baruti Kafele says, “It’s likely you’ve lost your initial ‘why.’ And when you lose your why, you lose your way.”

Even if you’ve prepared mentally for the shift into school leadership, the day-to-day responsibilities get pushed to the forefront quickly. It’s natural to get caught up in these challenges, and even easier to get burned out because of them. It can get harder to remember that bigger picture. As principal and author Baruti Kafele says, “It’s likely you’ve lost your initial ‘why.’ And when you lose your why, you lose your way.”

To recover that why, Kafele suggests getting in touch with your younger, more idealistic self. “That younger you is what gave you your initial leadership life,” Kafele says. “It was the spark, the impetus, the motivation…reclaiming your ‘why’ increases the probability that you’ll avoid burnout.” 

Maria Esponda-Medina, a former principal, district and state administrator, and now Senior Executive Director of Program Implementation at New Leaders, says that when she was a school leader, her “why” was offering “kids like her” a chance. She suggests that leaders not only share their “why” with their teachers when the days are hard and overwhelming, but that they also have conversations about how everyone’s “why” can be achieved. Ask your teams: What is it you’re not getting that you need to make your “why” happen? What can we rethink together? What actions can we take to be better?

Your “why” can act as a powerful shield against burnout—reminding you of the impact you can make as a school leader and propelling you through the tough times.

Lastly, stay connected to your network

Many symptoms of burnout are relational. When we’re overwhelmed and emotionally drained, the first action we often take is to withdraw socially and professionally. It’s actually our social connections and relationships that are imperative to our well-being. 

This is why it’s critical to continue to connect with those who are or have been in our shoes—not only for guidance on solving specific challenges, but for a little emotional support, too. Take time to connect with the people you trust, even when your stress level tells you that you don’t have the time. 

For New Leaders alum and DC Bilingual Public Charter School leader Daniela Anello, this time is critical. “Find a trustworthy network, a community of school leaders who you can be really safe with, where you can be yourself and let your guard down. A space to be heard and not judged,” she says. “It helps you remember that you are not alone. That’s the biggest thing, not being alone.” 

Daniela’s words are a powerful reminder: you are not alone, and you don’t need to lead alone either. The more proactive you can be, the less likely burnout will find you. 

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