“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”Lena Horne in Wisdom for the Soul
When I first took the principal’s seat I remember thinking on quite a few days, “Why did I want to be a principal so badly? This is awful!” I remember, in particular, a conversation with my superintendent. He called to check on me one day, and I said, “Well, let me tell you how great my day was. I had to go to the gynecologist, and that was the highlight of my day.” I think it’s hilarious now that I said that, but oh my gosh…it really was a cry for help… wanting someone to understand what I was going through.
My first two years, I never knew what chaos each day would bring. I was dealing with several very difficult emotional/behavioral situations with students and mental health issues with their parents. Each day I would never know if I would get spit on or kicked by a student, sued, or cussed by a parent, or maybe just be defamed on the local news. (All of these happened way too frequently those first years). I had no assistant principal or behavioral support, so I had to have direct involvement in every behavior escalation while trying to figure out how to lead a school. The intensity and frequency of these situations consumed me and took a toll on my mental and physical health.
After my first two years, I had stopped exercising, found myself “eating my feelings,” drinking a bottle of wine each night, and as a result, gained almost 40 pounds with my cholesterol level skyrocketing to over 300.
So. that was the load–the load of leadership–and how it weighed me down, almost crushing me.
My third year, we had a new special education director who provided “boots on the ground” support for my school through the creation of a Highly Structured Program environment and the allocation additional staff. We hired an incredible special education teacher for our students with moderate to severe disabilities and a new guidance counselor who lead our school in creating MTSS structures and supports. So, we finally had systems in place to both prevent behavior escalation and effectively manage it, if it did happen.
Then that March, just as I was getting my feet under me, with an afternoon’ s notice, we sent all of our students home for what turned out to be the rest of the year because of the Pandemic. It was clear that if it wasn’t one thing, it was going to be something else.
I felt a lot of shame in how I let my health go.
It seems really strange to write that now, but it really was shame…I was very ashamed of myself. I felt like the way I was handling or not handling my stress was on display for everyone. I had “let myself go” and everyone knew it. I could just hear what people were saying about me in all the self-hatred that I inflicted. Even now I am embarrassed about (at least my language is more gentle towards myself–embarassed instead of ashamed, thank you, Brene Brown) how much my appearance mattered to me and still does. I feel very superficial to be so worried about it, but that’s a conversation for another day. Bottom line is the self-judgement needs to stop. I finally recognize that fact.
This shame came out in conversations with a therapist. I started seeing her about midway through my first year. I’ll never forget, our first appointment was the evening that our school was on the local news after a parent felt the need to share a stream of lies regarding our handling of a situation with her child. When asked what I hoped to get out of therapy, I remember sharing that I had to be successful in this job. I couldn’t quit, but I couldn’t continue with the misery I was feeling. I needed help liking my job so that I could continue in it. No matter how I badly I wanted to find ways to deal with the stress that were healthy, like exercising and not consuming junk food and wine, by the end of the day I was spent. I had no room for discipline and just sought comfort. I needed help with carrying the load.
During my time as a principal, I felt like there was very little attention given to the mental and emotional support leaders need. Especially during the pandemic, I felt a sense of responsibility for making sure my teachers were taken care of, but that no one was taking care of me.
“What about the principals?” I wondered, “What about us? Does anyone care how this is affecting us?”
Every once in a while I see something about the importance of supporting school leaders, but it seems like those instances are the exception more than the rule. Now that I am no longer in the principal seat, I want to try to change that. I want to share ideas tools, and strategies that I sought out and learned from a variety of sources. This post kicks off my Leading W.E.L.L series. Today we start with the “W” which, you guessed it, stands for WELLNESS. My next post will dive into this topic, but I’d like to leave you with homework.
If this post resonates with you–if you need strategies and mental tools for “carrying your leadership load”– the first thing I challenge you to do is to identify your spiritual anchor. By anchor, I mean that spiritual element that gives you strength. Is it God? Your higher power? the universe? Jesus? This job is way too hard to go it alone. Personally, I need me some Jesus. every. single. day. So let’s say you are on board with this. You are all in and you have identified your spiritual anchor.
Next, you will want want to figure out a way to anchor yourself every morning. I anchor myself with a devotional. Just doing this may not be enough to get you through your day on those super tough ones when you get kicked in the shins non-stop (metaphorically or literally). It wasn’t enough for me just to have a morning practice, but it provided the foundation (anchor) for dealing with stressful situations. I also found it helpful to include meditation in my anchoring time and found a great resource that incorporated the devotional and guided meditation: First 15. This podcast/app provides a different short devotional each day l followed by a guided meditation/reflection, and even an uplifting song. I would listen to this on my drive to work and then take just a minute or so when I got in the office to write down an intention for the day.
So, go do you your homework. Figure out or identify how you are going to anchor yourself each morning, then meet me back here next week for what to do next.