Great School Leadership Includes Self-Care

Education leaders need to not only practice self-care but model it for the people they lead. Here are ways to get more confident in strengthening your self-care muscles.
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When school leaders take care of themselves, they set the tone for the environment in which they lead—creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels safe, valued, cared for, and seen.

It is so easy for education leaders to overlook their own well-being in times of stress, especially now as the demands of the pandemic continue to rise. The myth of the superhero leader, a leader who does it all, can also propel us to think that self-care does not need to be a priority. Yet, self-care—the act of paying attention to your own physical and mental health and actively attending to your wellness—can be a key to resilient leadership. Resilient leaders confront challenges head-on and maintain the confidence to take action.

Our schools need resilient leaders, like you. In honor of National Principals Month and New Leaders 20-year anniversary—let’s talk about self-care: why it matters and how to cultivate it to strengthen your leadership and build a school community where everyone thrives.

Lean into your school support system

Self-care can take shape in many ways, one of which is to cultivate meaningful relationships with others you trust. There’s no doubt about it: school leadership can be isolating, especially now.

Between ensuring the academic and social-emotional well-being of students, building relationships with staff and parents, and navigating the ever-changing demands presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, having social-emotional support is more important than ever. Knowing how other school leaders are responding to the challenges, and being able to lean into that support, is critical.

These relationships can exist in a variety of ways, whether it’s connecting in person with other education leaders you admire, or digitally through an online community. Working one-on-one with a leadership coach can also be part of a solid support system. Coaches help uncover what you can’t see on your own, offering real-time problem solving and a safe space for reflection.

Regardless of how you connect, having trusted colleagues and a group that understands your context is crucial, and the insights you glean can strengthen your leadership.

Boost resiliency through consistent reflection

Resilient leadership means demonstrating confidence in yourself and your school, even in the face of adversity. As outlined in New Leaders evidence-based Transformational Leadership Framework™, resilient leaders also engage in continuous self-reflection. They seek feedback and actively pursue opportunities that improve their leadership and student learning.

A foundational step in building resilience is to take the time to check in with yourself. If you’re new to this type of reflection, here are a few questions to help get you started:

  • What kind of activities do I engage in to reenergize myself from the challenges of school leadership? How often do I engage in these activities?
  • When do I set aside time for myself? Does the time I set aside for myself get scheduled over?
  • Is there an example I have of a time where I felt discouraged? How did I refocus myself, and what allowed me to refocus?
  • What actions do I encourage my team to take to build and sustain themselves individually? What actions do we do as a team?

Giving yourself the time and space to ask these questions is a form of self-care, as they help to keep your own needs and wellness at the forefront as you’re leading others.

View your self-care as part of your leadership modeling

A significant part of an education leader’s work is to diagnose your school’s needs and match them to effective actions and school practices that drive student success. One of your school’s needs right now might be to know that its leaders value themselves as well as others. And the most visible way to do this is by modeling your own values and beliefs around well-being and self-care.

Putting systems in place to work on what’s important to you—whether that’s feedback from your staff and peers, time for reflection, or simply a day off—and then actually doing them, will signal to others that they should, and can, do the same. It’s what will also make it possible for you to stay in your role, despite the stress. Your actions, however small they may seem, can set the tone for all student and adult relationships within your building and across the school community.

Think of your commitment to self-care as the mark of a leader who isn’t afraid to do things differently. If you find yourself looking for some guidance as you navigate this new way forward, consider working with a mentor or leadership coach. Coaching can give you the time and space to self-reflect and identify your next steps.

We know that stress and challenges are part of the job. But you are not alone. New Leaders stands with you. As Michelle Pierre-Faird, a New Leaders alum and former district leader, reminds us:  “The road is not easy, but the road cannot be walked’s a collective effort. You have to have a community to make change happen for our children.”

As school leaders, we know it’s important to ensure that your team feels supported and ready to take on the unique challenges this school year brings. Supporting and caring for yourself may be one of the underutilized tools in your leadership toolbox, but it’s too important to overlook.

While everyone has felt the impact of the pandemic, we know school leaders are bearing the brunt of conflicts over masks, quarantines, vaccines, and other highly charged issues. Take action with National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) by sending a message to the federal government to protect school leaders.

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