Take Care of Yourself


Principals often go through life buying into a guilt concept that If I do something that makes me feel better—either physically or mentally—I’m depriving those I’m responsible for. If you don’t feel good about yourself, you cannot feel good about your faculty or students. Clearly this can be carried to silly extremes. (I once knew a superintendent who spent upwards of $40,000 for a stereo sound system for his office.) There’s a fine line between our emotional and physical well-being. Emotional distress often exhibits itself as physical malady and when we are physically ill, we can easily display emotional dysfunction. Think for a moment about the last time you had a serious backache. It could have been caused by stress. Equally, you may have injured your back. But the pain may have caused you to snap at coworkers. Here are ten concrete suggestions you can do for yourself that carry over for your people.

  1. Get out of the office. It’s easy for principals to develop a “bunker mentality,” sitting in the office day after day tending to reports, dealing with student or faculty discipline, and looking after the mundane details of running a building. If you detect this happening, get up, tell your secretary you’re going for a walk, and head out into the building where all sorts of positive things happen.
  2. Socialize. Loneliness is a big downer. Eat lunch with your faculty. Eat lunch with the students. Join in a pick-up basketball game or a dance class during P.E. Spend time visiting on the playground. Help load the buses. Get out of the rut of meetings.
  3. Don’t Skip the Doctor. If you’re feeling poorly, get a thorough physical. It could be something medical. In today’s world, catching medical conditions early goes a long way toward a cure. Putting off a medical check-up is not only hazardous, it also adds to anxiety.
  4. Teach a class. Taking over a teaching assignment is one of the most positive things I found to do in 20+ years of administration. Early in my administrative career, I started out as a fill-in. Before long, I found that my class was akin to recess from administration. For one hour each day, I was able to focus on young people and their education in history, a field I was devoted to. We always say getting back into the classroom is refreshing, but if it’s an ad hoc procedure, it will always get pushed aside by the latest crisis.
  5. Eat right and exercise. It almost goes without saying that a good physical regime of diet and exercise works wonders for mental attitude. Make it a part of your day to get in a little exercise and be sure to eat well.
  6. Do something old or something new. Find a hobby—either something from your past or something new—to devote your energies to. Perhaps woodworking is your thing, or guitar, or a new language. Your school provides you with unique resources and access to a whole range of support for hobbies you may find interesting.
  7. Act positively. Anytime you find yourself down, do something positive for someone else. This can be writing a letter to a parent about a child’s progress. It can be participating in a support activity with your church. It can be as simple as giving an unexpected gift to someone you love. Every time you do something for someone else, it comes back in warm feelings for you.
  8. Mind the home front. While we’re at it, you need to make sure you’re in a supportive relationship at home. Financial, emotional, or chaotic conditions at home can be destructive to both your health and your leadership. Avoiding denial and seeking solutions is the first step. This step may require professional counseling but, in the words of John Donne, recognize, “No man is an island.” Strong partnerships are the foundation of successful lives.
  9. Finish something every day. On every principal’s desk, there are projects that need to be wrapped up. Make it a goal to finish one thing every day. In this way, you can start to see real progress in your life.
  10. Drop the open-door mentality. The idea that our doors should always be open has been carried to a place where we have no privacy left. Phone calls, emails, texts, and lonely drop-ins keep you from needed focus on your work and well-being. Clearly there are emergencies that must be resolved, but having a clearly defined practice of what those are and when those involve you does two things: 1.) It ensures you a modicum of private space and 2.) It empowers others to make decisions. The idea that we need to “be there” for our staff gets blown way out of proportion when you say, “My door is always open.” Certainly you need be receptive to your people, but some reasonable limits to protect your sanity are important.

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