Education

Principals, please take care of yourselves

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Getting kids back in the classroom to reestablish their social connections and catch up on lost learning is our top priority. Learning blossoms in the right environment, and in a safe and supportive space, students and teachers can thrive.

Principals play a big part of shaping that environment — a part of the job none of us, all current or former principals, take lightly. A school community looks to its principal for guidance and stability, and we work to create a school experience that allows children to navigate social and emotional challenges and achieve greatness.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, that role is especially important. Our students, teachers, and families are all experiencing amplified trauma. Principals are struggling too.

While reworking learning schedules, curriculum, platforms, grading, staff evaluations, and school policies to adapt to fluctuating circumstances, principals are also navigating personal hardship.

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We have listened to heartbreaking stories of fellow principals being hospitalized and taking medical leaves due to illness instigated by chronic stress. Our peers have expressed a great deal of guilt for taking personal days off to care for family when we know our school communities also rely on us to be there. Feeling tethered to technology when there is so much to tend to has also taken a toll. Our colleagues often remark how challenging it is turn away from devices to spend time with their families and make space for mental breaks.

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We are fueled by service to our school community, but sometimes our tank needs a refill to keep powering forward. But there are few structures in place to help principals who are struggling, or to help principals stay on track. Now is a good time for their supervisors to consider how they can offer more support, and for principals to make plans for their own health and wellness for the months ahead.

A well-supported principal has a supervisor who understands and appreciates the many roles we play inside and outside of the school building and checks in on how we’re faring on the whole. At University Prep Schools in Detroit, where one of us is a principal, school leaders are supported by a CEO who listens to understand, encourage, and help in frequent one-on-one meetings. Across the network of schools, principals make a point to check in with one another. These practices extend to our buildings, where staff meets weekly to discuss how people are doing personally.

This is one strategy principals can consider: Seek out a community of like-minded professionals who are committed to personal wellness. These accountability partners can remind you to rest and refuel.

Principals, also consider that when you’re able to commit to working toward your own wellness, it helps your staff and students.

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Local Detroit schools are an example of that. At Denby High School, where one of us is principal, staff members use self-care training that the Detroit Public Schools Community District provides. While these tools have been in place for several years, they were brought to the forefront when the pandemic broke. Principals took a self-care assessment that encompassed body, mind, spirit, work, relationships, and emotions. Using this assessment, the district helped us create plans that have helped us be more mindful and proactive about wellness.

We’ve transferred this practice to our school staffs. All Denby High staff members have taken the assessment and created self-care plans. It has really bonded our team, as we encourage one another and participate together in monthly activities like yoga, art, music therapy, and Zumba. This has helped us endure personal and family hardships and to remain a rock for kids when they need us the most.

Parents and caregivers, you can play a role too. Remind principals that we need them to take care of themselves to best lead our school communities, and extend your support to your children’s principals as they work alongside teachers to create a safe and loving learning environment for students.

At the Skillman Foundation, where one of us now oversees K-12 education grantmaking after a long career in school leadership, we’ve found that supporting principals helps ensure that positive practices spread across a school. (Skillman is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.) After all, a dedicated and effective principal is a champion for their staff and a role model for the youth they serve.

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But it is not enough to show our children that we love them. We must teach them to love themselves, too. That starts with principals.

Tanisha Manningham is the principal of Denby High School. Walter L. Reese is the school director of University Prep Sci & Math Elementary School. Dr. Carmen Kennedy-Rogers is a senior program officer for The Skillman Foundation and a former teacher, high school principal, and district leader.

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