Exemplary middle schools focus on health and wellness. While this focus may be primarily on our students' wellness, we also need to focus on the wellness of our faculty and administrators.
It is a fact that, as teachers, we are under a lot of stress. I believe that morale is related to stress, and that the more stress in our lives, the lower our morale in the classroom. The lower our morale the less effective we are as teachers.
In an effort to learn how to deal with stress, I surveyed principals and asked how they deal with stress. In a survey of 47 middle school principals in North Carolina, I found "stress busters" that could help all of us. As a teacher I think that principals and teachers who manage their stress are more positive in their schools and enjoy their work more.
About half of the principals shared that balancing stress is a real challenge for them, so I don't want to give the impression that reducing stress is an easy fix. I do believe, however, that if we begin to look at balancing our lives and are intentional about reducing our stress, we will be better educators.
It is no secret that if we are not intentional about monitoring our stress, it will get away from us. No principal in this study shared that stress did not exist. Of the recommendations from principals the following categories emerged: exercise and other physical outlets, socialization, spiritual, humor, logistics, and learning to balance your professional and personal life. Let's think about them.
Exercise and Physical Outlets
The majority (36%) of the suggestions related to exercise, eating, and participating in physical hobbies. Most talked about individual exercise (zumba, gym, biking) and taking care of their physical needs by eating right. One said, "I play with my kids and dog at home and go to the gym."
The challenge for many principals is finding the time to do this. I hear this all the time, "I don't have time to exercise." I would argue that we don't take time to exercise.
I was at the gas station recently and read a sticker that said, "Do 10 toe touches." Ha, there I was stretching at the pump. One principal shared they get out and walk between school dismissal and the next athletic event. When I lived in South Carolina, one of my teammates started walking around the track after school for about 20 minutes. I joined her. It was a great way to "unwind" before continuing my responsibilities.
Many years ago, I heard a principal share that he walked a mile with his students every morning. I can think of a lot of students and teachers (including me) who could use a little exercise to start their day. I was teaching in Florida and a group of teachers worked out twice a week after school. In another school, the principal and several teachers walked the halls for 10 minutes after the last bell.
One of my colleagues shared that she and a friend started working out at the gym together. She said, "Working out with someone serves as a source of motivation to get to the gym," and that once she finishes she feels better. I find walking even 20 minutes is a good tool for reducing stress.
A second topic was about socializing. Andreyko (2010) surveyed principals to determine what caused or prevented burnout. In her study comments were made about the importance of socializing with family and friends. "Venting to my husband," "Take time to be with my family," and "Friends and family" all appear to help principals reduce stress. Our family and friends are usually the people who have helped us get through storms and who have celebrated successes. It is possible that these people are still our most trusted advocates.
During the first few weeks of school, I would come home on Fridays and want to collapse, never to be seen or heard from until Saturday morning. I was talking to a colleague in Texas who shared, "You have to go out on Friday." I have taken her advice, and while I only hiked about a mile with my dog and husband, I did feel better. Perhaps getting on a chat feature with a colleague who lives in another state could help. Making a play date with your colleague who has children so the two of you can have adult talk time. The dog park is also a great place to socialize. Community events often provide activities for children and adults, and local museums are places where friends can meet. Even if you take one Friday a month to do something with colleagues you can reduce your stress.
The third topic that was shared relates to spiritual balance. Kumar & Pragadeeswaran (2011) created a "spiritual quotient" that examined leaders with low, medium, and high levels of spirituality and compared this to their stress levels. They found leaders with high levels of spirituality had lower levels of stress. In this study, 16% of the principals shared they participated in yoga, prayer, quiet time, and "keeping the end in mind." One principal shared, "Several times a week I just sit on the front steps of the school by myself for five minutes and think about what we are doing right."
The notion of quiet time suggests that in our busiest hours, if we take time to stop, our mind has a chance to stop as well. There is a middle school "mindfulness" program that provides activities for students to practice the art of mindfulness. We know that the art of mindfulness can help us physically and intellectually. Taking time to reflect as a mindfulness activity, reflecting as part of journaling, or letter writing could provide us with insight into the good work we are doing and our vision of what can happen.
A fourth topic relates to how principals view their world. Fields (2011) studied teachers' views of principals to determine the impact of those with humor. What he found was teachers whose principals used humor viewed their leadership more positively, viewed their job satisfaction higher, and had higher levels of personal relationships than did teachers whose principals did not use humor. In this study, 11% of the comments related specifically to having a sense of humor, having a positive attitude, being able "to laugh at yourself," and enjoying the experience.
These are reminders that even when stress comes from many different angles, it is possible to relieve stress with humor and a positive attitude. Perhaps we find humor in books we read, movies we see, and with friends who make us laugh.
A fifth set of suggestions had to do with logistics (11%) and specifically leaving work at work. Grissom, Loeb, and Mitani (2015) conducted a survey of principals in a large school district and found how principals manage their time impacts school outcome and productivity. They described time management strategies that were effective including goal-setting, prioritization, and organization" (p. 775). Additionally, their research supports the notion that time management can reduce stress and reduce the tensions associated with work and family.
Time management has also been shown to decrease stress and increase job performance. I make lists every morning to manage my time and prioritize. I will stay at work as long as I need to, so that when I leave I do not "take it with me." When I go home I leave work-related situations at work. I do of course have to answer emails, but I leave the daily stressors at school. These principals who suggested this have figured out how to prioritize, code their day, and then leave it for tomorrow.
Finally, 16% of the comments were warnings about the difficulty of balancing the stress of being a principal. Some of the principals in this study suggest they have trouble balancing their work and personal lives. One shared, "When I learn this I'll let you know." Another revealed, "I don't. It is an area that I struggle to find balance. I sometimes sleep at my school and sleep five hours or less a night and often work seven days per week and holidays." And another, "I get up and go into work on weekends, or stay even later to get the job done at an A-level. That makes me feel good." "Any principal not working 60+ hour weeks is leaving things undone, but they're probably getting away with it." And, "I have learned over the first two years how to manage it a little more each day. As long as I can go to bed each night saying I did the right things that day in all situations for the right reasons then I can rest easily."
Reilly-Chammat (2008) surveyed principals in Rhode Island to determine "self-efficacy to lead school improvement and health behavior practices" (p. vii). In her study, she too found administrators "struggle to balance school improvement efforts and health practices" (p. 82). "The research clearly illustrated the necessity and value of achieving a balance in work and personal life as evidenced by this principal's quote: 'Frame of mind and physical health weigh in strongly—being in an overwhelming job that will never be complete requires a sound mind and body'" (p. 99).
Several of the principals find their balance inside the school "working with teachers, students, and staff." Another shared, "I engage with the kids constantly from teaching a daily class to being present in the building. The kids ground me in my work and bring me joy."
How do you manage your stress? If we know that our principals are under stress, does that give us more pause to empathize with their world? Does it encourage principals to reach out to one another to find ways to reduce their stress?
I believe principals realize how stressful teaching is. We need to work together to name stress, stressors, and tools for managing stress. If we look back at 30 years of research, we hear the same thing: "The most popular coping techniques used by school administrators are stress management techniques, e.g., keeping a realistic perspective, maintaining a positive attitude, following a good physical health programme, and engaging in activities that support intellectual, social, and spiritual growth" (Allison, 1987, p. 52). We have to take care of ourselves so we can take care of those we advocate for.
Andreyko, T. A. (2010). Principal leadership in the accountability era: Influence of expanding job responsibilities on functional work performance, stress management, and overall job satisfaction (Order No. 3447305). Available from ProQuest Central. (858078818). Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org
Fields, J. P. (2011). Perceptions of teachers: Effects of principals' uses of humor on teacher job satisfaction (Order No. 3462044). Available from ProQuest Central. (875797625). Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/docview/
Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Mitani, H. (2015). Principal time management skills. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(6), 773-793. Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/
Kumar, T., & Pragadeeswaran, S. (2011). Effects of occupational stress on spiritual quotient among executives. International Journal of Trade, Economics and Finance, 2(4), 288. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7763/IJTEF.2011.V2.119
Nancy Ruppert, Ed.D. is a professor at the University of North Carolina - Asheville, and president of the Board of Trustees of the Association for Middle Level Education.
Published February 2018.