By Andrew Hawk
When a person is in charge, it is easy to get so caught up in taking care of everyone else that they might forget to take care of themself. School leaders need to be especially aware of this potential danger, because as we move higher up the chain of command it becomes more difficult to find substitutes if someone needs to take time off. No matter how experienced a school staff may be, the school runs more smoothly when its leader is present and ready to face the challenges of the day. Here are eight ideas my fellow school leaders can use to help manage their own mental health.
1. Learn to Self-Assess
Knowledge is power, and the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem clearly. Have you been lacking interest in hobbies? Have your sleeping and eating habits recently changed? What about your energy level? If you are not sure where to start when it comes to self-assessing your own mental health, you can find lots of resources online. Be honest and reflect on the results.
2. Set Boundaries
I know how big the job of a school leader is, and I know that sometimes we all work at home. However, it’s essential to establish—and observe—some portion of the day when you do not think about school. Whether it is during dinner, when you are playing with your kids, when you are watching television with your spouse, or when you’re settling down with a book or another pastime, find time not to be a school leader and focus solely on the other parts of your life.
3. Listen to the People Close to You
Does your spouse, a good friend, your administrative assistant, or someone else close to you keep asking you if you are “all right?” It is easy for school leaders to get tunnel vision with work as the focus. Often, those close to us are as aware of our mental strife as we are, if not more so. Do not shrug off those close to you if they are concerned about your well-being. Take their worries seriously and reflect on what may need to change.
4. Research Available Resources
My superintendent has worked this year with one of our local mental health agencies to arrange for no-cost therapy sessions for school employees. We will start this next year. Find out if your school organization does something similar. If you have a resource such as this at your disposal, take advantage of it. In an effort to support mental health, your community may also do something like this. Look into what’s out there and share information about these resources with the people around you. Having this information at your fingertips ahead of time will make it easier to access in times of stress.
5. Identify What You Can and Cannot Control
The fact that the majority of things in our students’ lives are out of our control is something with which school leaders and personnel throughout our country have to grapple. In the process of trying to help students, it is hard to accept when you have done everything you can do. It is easy for both leaders and other staff members to become stressed out worrying about factors that are out of their control.
When you face a situation such as this, reflect on what you can and cannot control. Recognizing that you have done everything in your power is not a cop-out. It is normal to wish you could do more to help students, but knowing where the limits are is something all school leaders have to learn.
6. Do Something Routine Yet Relaxing
After you have spent an entire day concentrating, completing a task that takes little or no concentration can be quite refreshing. Personally, I can clear my mind quickly by mowing my grass or doing the dishes. I have one colleague who feels this way about baking and another colleague who folds laundry. Completing simple household activities offers people a way to rest their minds and also gain tangible rewards like a fresh loaf of bread or a tidy living space.
Let the dopamine and endorphins flow! While these feel-good chemicals are being released, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are also being reduced. It is no secret that exercise is great for both physical and mental health. If I am being honest, I personally find it challenging to find both the time and motivation to exercise regularly, but this is something I continue to work to improve. If you can set aside the time and identify an activity you enjoy the benefits will be worth it.
I often highlight the importance of building and maintaining a network of colleagues, for a wide variety of reasons. Your mental health is yet another aspect of your life that benefits greatly from having a well-established network. If you are struggling with something, chances are good that someone else is too. There is much comfort to be found in sharing thoughts and feelings with other people, as has been proven by the success of numerous support groups. If you and your network could use a support group that doesn’t currently exist, you could form your own—and you do not even have to call it a support group if you don’t like labels. By gathering to talk honestly and offer nonjudgmental support and care to one another, you and your colleagues will bolster each other and safeguard your mental health—something we all need from time to time.
Stay healthy everyone!
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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