Harnessing Optimism, Handling Overwhelm: Strategies for the New School Year

Whether you’re a seasoned school leader or a first-time principal, a new school year is a one-of-a-kind mix of optimism and overwhelm. We’ve got some tips to help you manage.
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Blog date
9/13/22
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It doesn’t matter where you are in the timeline of your school leadership career, the beginning of a new school year always seems to be filled with hope and optimism. There’s an electricity in the air as you see students excitedly stream into the hallways, and your teachers and staff reconnecting with one another.

This year, there’s also a big dose of uncertainty—especially given the past two years as well as the staff shortages that continue to affect schools around the country. And, it’s not just you that feels this discomfort. Your teachers, staff, parents, and students most likely feel it too.

As we talk to educators right now, there’s a feeling that this school year will be different, because it simply has to be different. This year may not be a “normal school year,” but leaders still need to channel the optimism a new school year brings and use it to energize your school community and keep overwhelm at bay. Here are a few strategies to use that optimism and excitement to your advantage:

Practice “realistic optimism” in the face of challenges

Given the events of the past few years, and even prior to that, you know that working through challenges is simply part of the job of a school leader. You may not be able to change the number—or the magnitude—of challenging situations you have, but you can change your approach to them. This is known as personal leadership

Acknowledge the challenges ahead by being as transparent as possible with your team. Set the tone for what you might be up against, and be vulnerable about what you know, don’t know, and where you’ll need help. If your school is dealing with staff shortages and you know it’s going to cause a strain on resources for the foreseeable future, be clear with your staff about next steps, brainstorm with them about possible solutions, and assure them that you’re figuring out the challenge together. 

We’re not suggesting that you deny the challenges you and your team face, or resort to forced cheerfulness. Realistic optimism is not toxic positivity. School leaders who can be vulnerable about a specific situation, but have the enthusiasm for figuring out a way forward will ensure their staff feel less overwhelmed and more empowered. 

Acknowledge the challenges ahead by being as transparent as possible with your team. Set the tone for what you might be up against, and be vulnerable about what you know, don’t know, and where you’ll need help. 

Conduct a “responsibilities review”

It happens every year: decisions are made to move forward on a new initiative or program, and things come up that no one planned for. Your staff begins to take on more responsibilities and tasks than they expected to. Fast forward to the end of the year, where everyone’s overly busy, the work is siloed, and despite best intentions, there’s a lack of clarity about who’s responsible for what.

A new school year is a great opportunity to recalibrate, and one way to ensure clarity is to have your instructional leadership team (ILT) perform a responsibilities review. This school team did exactly that—they threw a “post-it note” party where each person listed their responsibilities. They looked at where the gaps and duplications were, made decisions about who was accountable for each task, and then dug deeper to talk about the goal and outcomes of the work being implemented. This reset reduces overwhelm because now, everyone’s clear about their role. 

This kind of review—and the distributed leadership it can create—is helpful because it provides your teachers and staff a sense of community and ownership. Distributed leadership focuses on decision-making as a collective group, and in doing so, elevates more voices. These are the kinds of leadership opportunities that make teachers want to stay in the profession—and in your school.

Distributed leadership focuses on decision-making as a collective group, and in doing so, elevates more voices. These are the kinds of leadership opportunities that make teachers want to stay in the profession—and in your school.

Commit to “lending a hand” with increased teacher support

An overwhelming theme for this school year, confirmed by a recent Education Week article on re-energizing teachers and students, is the need for solid partnerships between teachers and principals. One way to strengthen that partnership and build trust is to focus on broader, systemic change—the kind that gets to the root cause of teacher burnout and anxiety and truly creates an environment for teachers where they can take better care of themselves, and in turn, take better care of their students.

Removing some of the overwhelm in a teacher’s day-to-day—while putting the structures in place to create more long-term changes—shows your staff that their well-being is a priority.

Leaders can take small steps toward changing the school environment by making time to step in and help when a teacher needs a break, or a bit of assistance with a student. Here’s what that can look like: 

  • Making time for more classroom walks, and physically stepping in to a classroom when a teacher needs some support
  • Finding ways to give time back to your teachers that are balancing more classes than usual, or have had to give up their prep periods due to staffing shortages
  • Streamlining communications and meetings
  • Simplifying initiatives and programs
  • Acting as a shield between your teachers and district announcements that aren’t connected to what’s going on in their classrooms

Removing some of the overwhelm in a teacher’s day-to-day—while putting the structures in place to create more long-term changes—shows your staff that their well-being is a priority.

Put student learning and joy at the center 

New Leaders alum Rictor Craig’s reason for optimism this year is simple. “This is going to be our best year yet,” he says. “There will be a billion things that will go wrong, and there are going to be so many things that go right.” As another equally unpredictable school year begins, Craig’s words are a good reminder not to let anything get in the way of your students getting the best possible education. 

To get to the joy, Craig will often pose this question to his teachers and staff. “If learning and love are the only things that matter, how would you act?”

At Craig’s school, the Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys in Washington D.C., the focus on building meaningful relationships and joy is working. Launched in 2018, the school has had 99% student attendance, even in the height of the pandemic and remote learning. Teacher retention is similarly high. 

To get to the joy, Craig will often pose this question to his teachers and staff. “If learning and love are the only things that matter, how would you act?” It’s a great question for a much-needed dose of perspective and an instant mindset shift, and makes it clear that building strong relationships continue to be the catalyst for learning.

Restore, retool, and recommit to another school year

At the beginning of the summer, educators expressed a resounding need to restore the joy in their schools, to retool their approaches and equip their staff with the tools they need to create the conditions for student learning, and to recommit to their passion for education and their students in the school year ahead. 

A new school year serves as a built-in refresh. Channeling the optimism it brings—and holding on to that optimism even as challenges come your way—can be a catalyst that can strengthen and solidify your school community. 

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