I’ve frequently been told I burn the candle at both ends when it comes to my life. I guess one could say that I work hard and play hard…after all time is limited and things have to get done. Up until this year, I really didn’t give this comment much thought. In fact, I have often interpreted the comment as complimentary because I would translate this into being a hard worker. This fall, I had a solid punch in the face when I heard Eric Jensen talk about the impacts poverty and chronic stress have on people. His words and stories were not just about students but adults experiencing chronic stress, which made me stop and reflect on myself and the role it plays in my day to day life.
As a principal, it sometimes feels like our job is to be everything to everyone and that you have to be “on” all the time. Of course our job is stressful especially when working with challenging parents, handling intense staffing issues, or trying to figure out how to support a student that nothing seems to work with. While Jensen spoke, I started to realize that my stress level was something that I could take control over and it wasn’t something that I just had to accept. There were ways that I could manage it and therefore be more effective for my staff and students. As Kristen Sourers often says, you have to be “healthy enough and safe enough” to help others so you have to make sure to take care of yourself.
Therefore, over the past few months I have been trying to find the balance. Below are my seven strategies that help me find balance when it comes to stress in the workplace.
Be in the moment
Breath. Stop and listen to your surroundings. Often we get so busy that we forget to take in the experience. Our distractions could be responding to an email that an angry parent just sent us, taking pictures so we can post them to social media for families, or just simply being too busy. How often are you putting things down and just enjoying yourself? As a principal, I encourage you to just get out of the office and enjoy the students. Interact with them, listen to them, and be present. You will love it and it will literally change your day.
No really, stop multitasking. As challenging as this might seem, the simple act of focusing on what is in front of you goes a long way. The product that you create or the quality of the conversation you’re having will be so much more satisfying when you aren’t trying to do a handful of other things at the same time.
Turn it off!
This strategy is also known as “Rachael, stop sending crazy work emails on Saturday evening!” One of my teachers actually said this to me my second year in a building and I was quite thankful for it. This comment while meant in fun, really made me stop and think about the impact I was having on others. My lack of balance was pushing others to not have balance by making them feel pressure to respond to me. I know that I must limit the times to when emails are sent to staff by my own restraint or through email management systems that send emails at a pre-scheduled times. By being mindful of this, it forces me to manage my time and preserve time at home while also being supportive of others seeking time with their families.
Reflecting is powerful. Some folks prefer to journal while others would rather talk it out. Whatever method or mode you use to reflect make sure to do it on a regular basis. Personally, I prefer to process things by talking about it. I am sure my husband often wishes that I would just simply record it in a journal but that is not the case. Boy do I like to talk. Over the years, I have found that the simple act of telling the story helps build connections and make sense of my past experience to things I might come across in the future. In addition, by reflecting verbally it gives me an opportunity to process while receiving feedback in the moment. As to journaling, this has been a new one of me. Growing up I hated to write, let alone write in a journal. While this works great for some, it doesn’t hit the spot for everyone. This year I have really pushed myself to reflect and journal a few times a week. While paragraph format seemed overwhelming to me, I decided to keep it simple with bullet points and thoughts. Regardless of the format, the act of sitting down and putting your thoughts on paper really help to center yourself and provide some grounding in your day to day work.
Let others lead
Distributive leadership is key and this has taken me a while to figure out. The more you empower others to step up and lead the stronger your organization becomes. As a leader you don’t need to be the center of attention or the lead contact for all that goes on in your school. Yes, you are the building leader and you need to actively be involved in all that goes on but one must really let others take the lead in order to allow growth to occur. I am continually trying to think of things that I can let go of or train others with which will allow us as a team to grow and better serve our students.
Set time limits
You have to know when to go home! My cell phone alarm goes off at a certain time every work day as a reminder that I am supposed to go home. As silly as it sounds, it really works for me. As many educators find, it is easy to work into the late hours of the night and there is always work to do. For me, it is often hard to leave as folks are always in the building and I enjoy talking with my staff. However, working long hours doesn’t help to put things into balance. In fact, it does quite the opposite. I am at a point right now that when my alarm goes off, staff that are around me know that it is my cue to wrap things up and head home. Set your limits! Decide how to best serve you and your staff while managing the constraints of time.
I believe this is probably my favorite strategy. During one of Jensen’s recent trainings in Oregon he spoke about the importance of hope and the impact expressing gratitude can have on an individual. We have watched this move mountains with our students in the building and I thought I could take some practical advice from the students. I have specifically taken to keeping a gratitude journal focused on expressing gratitude to those around me. The impact has been incredible as we all need a little love and appreciation in our lives.
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.