How to Support Administrators in Stressful Times
In stressful times, administrators are expected to take on more duties in addition to their roles as school leader, informal counselor, mediator, and community liaison, most often without extra support. During the pandemic, many school protocols changed abruptly, and some were discarded out of necessity. Day to day and week to week, administrators were expected to interpret ever-shifting state and federal health requirements. Administrators assessed updates constantly. They needed to advise staff, parents, and students of any new or modified safety protocols.
School administrators are perceived as leaders of their community; others expect their guidance and support. On the other hand, administrators and their work can be taken for granted. Edutopia’s “Leadership That Alleviates Stress” states that “school leaders’ ‘invisible work’ is necessary, though emotionally draining, and few recognize it until something doesn’t happen as it usually does.” So, when day-to-day functions fail, administrators should pause to examine how they are supporting themselves—their own physical, emotional, and mental health. They should likewise meet with their community to review support needs. In this way administrators can confirm that their support structures are functioning well and are prepared for the inevitable stress that emergencies bring. Here are a few places to review.
Building a strong support system takes time for home life and school life to flow smoothly. Administrators can look at each of their spheres to decide where and how they can ask for help. In the office, if day-to-day paperwork is piling up, check if there is a way to budget for part-time help. Even an administrative assistant who works one day a week or even once a month can organize, sort, and review projects. During the week any of the assistant’s tasks can be quickly put aside by the school administrator thus freeing up time. If there is no budget to hire an assistant, consider forming volunteer groups for extraneous events that do not require an administrator’s direct supervision. Considering that “the behavior of a leader–principal is one of the most critical factors in building successful schools” spending time supporting staff and building connections is time better spent than on bureaucratic paperwork.
There are many different communication channels available for addressing families, teachers, students, and the community. During stressful times, decide which groups require daily updates versus monthly and choose a platform that works best for communication (email newsletter, in person meetings, etc.) Some schools posted a weekly or monthly video update about pandemic health regulations for parents to check on their own, rather than burdening administrators with the creation of a separate communication. By devoting certain channels to certain types of communication, administrators can save time through targeted text message groups and categorized email lists. Make a schedule and share it with your staff. Invite staff that either wants or needs to contribute to communication channels. In building staff skills during non-stressful times, administrators will have a strong support staff when new stressors arise.
The vast array of mindfulness techniques on the internet can be overwhelming. But even a few minutes of deep breathing calms the mind and body by activating the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest and relaxation. Hectic school days will find administrators pressed for a quiet moment. Building a practice of short meditations or breathing breaks will over time strengthen your ability to handle stressors. Keep up with the meditations when events are not stressful, as research shows that meditation helps balance emotional reactivity with practice, which is important for school leaders especially during difficult times.
Being a school administrator can be an isolating experience if you’re in a small school with no other supervisors to check in with. In the pandemic, principals were the ones responsible for “leading the school, responding to the changes in the crisis situation, and providing the necessary measures for the school community’s adjustment.” It is therefore critical that administrators connect with each other within professional or community organizations. Make time to meet in person or online with other professionals who share your concerns. Leaders in small support groups can offer each other suggestions and most importantly a sympathetic ear.
Administrators can also strengthen connection to their school community by visiting classrooms informally during the week to check in with students and teachers. This connects school leaders to the ‘why’ of every task and duty involved in their position. Take time to interact with students, families, and teachers when the school is running smoothly; don't wait for the next crisis. Popping into the staff break room or an afterschool class, even just to say “hi,” reinforces a connection to community on a personal level and not simply as a crisis manager.
Self-regulation is an important skill for effective leaders. Increased self-awareness skills can cut anxiety off before it begins. Once a leader recognizes what their stressors are, the more effective frameworks to alleviate and mitigate stressors can be developed. In addition, adopting a social and emotional learning approach (SEL) within the school can build staff and students‘ ability for self-direction. This has the potential to mitigate situations that in the past required an administrator to resolve. Studies show that when schools embed SEL, rather than use it as a piecemeal fix, “academic achievement goes up, distress goes down, and school climate improves.”
The pandemic laid bare areas in education that must be improved, but it also showed the great strength and resilience schools have within staff, especially leaders. When administrators adopt strategies to rectify stress personally and schoolwide, they are being effective leaders who bolster the entire community's strengths to withstand and thrive during stressful times.
About the Author
V. Kulikow is a former Montessori teacher and youth services librarian. She currently works as a UX designer and enjoys content creation both with words and images.