Principal stress seems to be at an all-time high, as a recent tragic story out of Western Australia illustrates. The West Australian reports:
It was not unusual for Laverton School principal Trish Antulov to stay at work until late at night, even on weekends.
So when she did not come home on Sunday before last her husband, John, did not become too concerned until several phone calls went unanswered.
About 10pm, he went to the school, where he found that his wife of 26 years had died at her desk.
Mr Antulov said the long hours she worked had contributed to her high stress levels.
“She just didn’t have time to look after herself properly,” he said.
“She was under a lot of stress and terrible pressure just to be successful in her job.” link
Now, certainly the sheer number of people who are principals, and the fact that we spend a good portion of our lives at school, means that a certain number of people will, understandably, pass away while at work.
It's jarring—but is it a sign of a troubling pattern in our profession?
Evidence is starting to emerge that stress isn’t just endemic to leadership—it’s an epidemic.
The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, conducted by Associate Professor Philip Riley and his team at Australian Catholic University, recently released a massive report on the state of principal health and wellbeing in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. You can follow @PrinHealth on Twitter to stay abreast of this important work.
The reality is that some jobs are more stressful than others. Some schools are more stressful environments than others.
And within a school and role, we all go through times of varying stress levels.
The societal forces creating stress on the principalship may be beyond our individual control, but we can act to reduce their impact on our health and well-being.
What can we do to protect ourselves from life-threatening levels of stress?
Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First
We’re familiar with the flight attendant’s directions to “put your own oxygen mask on first” in the event of an emergency.
If you want to help others, the reasoning goes, there’s no point in heroically putting others before yourself to such an extreme degree that you lose your own life in the process.
But even if we’re not talking about extreme, life-threatening levels of stress, should we be worried?
Many hard-working educators seem to feel a strong sense of guilt around the idea of self-care, as if a “whatever it takes” attitude toward student learning rules out any effort to limit one’s own stress.
Is there an unselfish reason to limit our own stress, even as we do our best on behalf of students?
To answer this question, we must ask a fundamental question: how do we make a difference in student learning?
At its core, is our work the work of heroes, or the work of professionals?
To explore this question, let’s take a cue from a line of work that has made extraordinary gains in outcomes over the past century: firefighting.
How Firefighters Saved More Lives—and Made Their Own Work Safer In The Process
A century ago, firefighting was largely reactionary. Firefighters saved lives by rushing into burning buildings and carrying people out—and of course, by dousing fires with water.
As you can imagine, this is dangerous work, and since many victims suffer grievous burns or smoke inhalation, even someone who is heroically saved from a fire may ultimately die from their injuries.
Today, how do most firefighters save the most lives?
In a word, prevention.
Steven Pinker writes:
“In the middle of the 20th century, fire departments turned from just fighting fires to preventing them… Fire was designated a nationwide moral emergency in reports from presidential commissions with titles like ‘America Burning.’
The campaign led to the now-ubiquitous sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors, fire escapes, fire drills, fire extinguishers, fire-retardant materials, and fire safety education mascots like Smokey the Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog.
As a result, fire departments are putting themselves out of business. About 96 percent of their calls are for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies, and most of the remainder are small fires. (Contrary to a charming image, they don't rescue kittens from trees.)
A typical firefighter will see just one burning building every other year.
—Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 183
Consider this parallel to our own work: firefighters figured out that it's far better—for everyone, not just themselves—to prevent fires, rather than wait until they break out. And countless lives have been saved as a result.
To accomplish this feat, firefighters had to set aside any fear that they’d be seen as lazy or self-interested by promoting prevention. They had to set aside any pretensions of heroic martyrdom.
In effect, they had to become professionals, demand professional respect, and advocate for policies that would achieve the best possible results.
In every major city today, fire departments are highly professionalized. Firefighters spend most of their time on proactive work, like visiting schools and supervising fire drills, or inspecting sprinkler and alarm systems to ensure that they work.
Does every firefighter get to look like a Hollywood hero, carrying limp-bodied victims to safety, and bringing them back with CPR?
No. That hardly ever happens—and that's a good thing.
Professionalism outperforms heroism, every time. It's not as flashy, but it works far better.
What does a more professional approach look like in our line of work?
Defining and Protecting the Leader’s Work
For school leaders, professionalism means staying focused on a well-defined leadership agenda, and having systems to prevent and deal with distractions.
Who determines your agenda? Who determines what leadership work most deserves your time?
Ultimately, you do. You must decide what actions will make the greatest impact on student learning.
Then, you must protect your time to take those actions, and not allow yourself to be pulled off-course by distractions and minor emergencies.
When the alarm bells ring, of course you can still react. Classroom observations are important, but you can always reschedule them if you get interrupted to deal with an imminent safety situation.
But if you're fighting fires all day, every day, it's time to step back and look at the system you're dealing with.
Do you have a wooden building with no sprinklers, metaphorically speaking? Are you plagued with perpetual emergencies that could and should be prevented by proactive leadership?
For example, numerous stressed-out leaders have written to me to tell me how much time they spend dealing with substitute teachers:
- Calling them in when they're needed
- Dealing with sub shortages by covering classes personally, or otherwise scrambling
If you're dealing with this now, don't just fight the fire. Install a proactive prevention system.
If you’re a principal, your core work should not be worrying about sub coverage every day. You have more important priorities—but if no systems are in place to seamlessly ensure sub coverage, it’s your job to build them.
Could you solve your sub shortage with 10 or 20 hours of really focused work? Could you consult colleagues in other schools and discover how they’ve solved their sub challenges? Could you recruit a good pool of people? Could you train someone else to train them? Could you train your teachers and office staff to secure subs whenever there's an absence?
Yes, you probably could. 90% of schools have already done this, and you can too. I don't have all the answers on solving sub shortages, but I know as a profession, we collectively do.
In fact, we have the knowledge and the ability to solve virtually every problem that's currently stressing principals out.
The key to sharing that knowledge and implementing it everywhere is to drop the pretention of heroism.
We must instead adopt a mindset of professionalism, stop tolerating the endless cycle of burning buildings, and install the “sprinkler systems” we need.
With the right preventative systems in place, we can create boundaries that protect against unhealthy levels of stress. Here’s how.
Create Boundaries with Low Walls
When you've decided what's rightly on your plate as a leader—so you're tackling the right work on behalf of kids—go for it. But how can you protect your focus on that core work?
To be sure, other people's agendas will crowd their way in—if you let them. Our commitment to our core work on behalf of students, plus everyone else's priorities, is a recipe for burnout.
Of course, we can't just ignore everyone. We can't just say “Leave me alone! I'm focused on PLCs this year!”
A wide range of issues will come up, and it’s our job to deal with them. So how can we handle these issues, without distracting us from our core focus, and without working all the time?
As I’ve been immersed in the work of school leadership for the past decade, I’ve noticed that the most overwhelmed and stressed-out principals seem to be in a constant state of emergency.
It’s not just that they’re dealing with a few emergencies. It’s that everything is an emergency, all the time.
Yet in other schools, these same issues aren’t emergencies. They may or may not occur less often—that’s not the real difference.
The difference is that in effective, high-performing schools, systems are in place to deal with those issues, so they don’t become emergencies that warrant constant and immediate intervention from administrators.
Let’s return to the example of substitute teachers. In my school, finding subs was never something that took up my time or caused me stress.
Why? Did I luck into a staff of perfectly healthy teachers who never got sick?
Of course not. In fact, I can’t take any credit at all, because these systems were place when I arrived—a combination of technology, delegated responsibilities, and resources that made subs a permanently solved problem.
Did I occasionally have to become involved when the system failed to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances? Of course—but not very often.
This system for obtaining sub coverage, like other effective systems, created boundaries to protect my time. Think of the stone walls around a pasture.
These walls aren’t especially high, but they’re high enough to deal with 80%-90% of what might otherwise reach us. Instead of taking up our time immediately, these minor issues are directed to what we might think of as the right “gate” or gatekeeper.
For example, teachers who need a sub are directed to our online SubFinder system. If that doesn’t solve their problem, they move onto the next gate, our school office manager, who can work her magic when the automated system doesn’t get the job done.
Can people still leap over the wall and reach me directly? Yes, that’s always an option—and that’s why there’s no real risk of becoming aloof or unresponsive with systems like this. With low walls—modest barriers protecting our time and attention—we can see what’s happening on the other side, and we can ourselves leap over to lend a hand when necessary.
Of course, other problems can’t be permanently solved in the same way, because they’re one-off situations that warrant an individualized response. How can we keep these situations from becoming an onslaught of emergencies?
One of my summer jobs in college was dealing with “exception” mail at a multi-national corporation.
Customers would send in their payments by check to a national payment processing facility in Nevada, and if those payments didn’t contain anything out of the ordinary, the payment facility would process them with mind-numbing efficiency.
But if a customer enclosed a note, such as a change of address or a question, it would be an “exception” to what they normally handled, so it’d come to me and the rest of the “exception mail” team in Houston.
We’d open it, figure out what to do, and solve the problem. Many of these issues, such as address changes, were routine and easily handled, but others required some consultation or even management approval.
What’s the parallel in schools? If the designated point person can’t handle an issue, does it need to go straight to the principal?
Usually, no. The best next step for many kinds of “exceptions” is committees and meetings.
For example, let’s say we’re having a traffic issue around the school at drop-off time. Does this need to immediately go to the principal?
Again, the “wall” protecting our time shouldn’t be so high that we’re fully insulated from every issue. But the wall should gently guide issues to the right “gate.”
This means our traffic issue should probably go to the safety committee first, assuming there’s no immediate emergency.
And even if there is an emergency that requires a rapid admin response, the ultimately task of solving the problem long-term may be best handled by the committee.
“Let's put that on the agenda” is a magical phrase. It shows responsiveness and concern, but also a disciplined, measured response—you're not dropping everything in response to someone else’s issue.
Of course, sometimes we need to drop everything momentarily, but still delegate the solving of the long-term problem to a committee.
Low Walls In Action
Sometimes we’re the first responders to urgent issues, and may bear ultimate responsibility for installing the right preventative systems, but it’s still best to involve a designated team or committee.
For example, if a parent comes to you saying “My kid is being bullied. What are you going to do?” You’re probably going to talk to the students involved, and come up with a short-term resolution.
But if the ultimate solution is implementing a school-wide PBIS system, that's going to be far more work than it was for the parent to report the issue. That may be your real work.
But you may also have situations where you do have a good system in place, and the parent is just having a bad day, or is coming to you because you're an easy target.
So we need a bit of a “wall” to keep people from dumping too many of their issues on us too easily.
Again, think of these as low walls like you might find around a pasture.
Some issues are big enough to get over them—and interrupt you immediately—like if there's a fight, or a serious complaint about a teacher, or some other emergency. But other issues aren't big enough to go over the wall, so you route them to the “gate.” They walk around for a bit, come to a gate, and try to get in.
“Have you spoken with your child's teacher about the bullying you're seeing?”
The gatekeeper may be an individual, or may be a committee with a process. Either way, the issue is handled in due course.
Let’s consider another example, of a parent who comes to you saying “My kid needs to be in the gifted program.”
If I’ve implemented the “low wall” approach, and I’ve decided that I am not going to spend my day worrying or arguing about whether this kid should be in the gifted program, I’m simply going to follow our established system. I'm going to tell them where the gate is, and they can fill out the relevant forms and follow the process according to an established timeline.
As much as possible, that process is not going to take up my time or rely on my judgment—because the more it does, the more people are going to suck up my time by lobbying and haranguing me.
Now, “process” is an idea that a lot of people don't like, because it sounds bureaucratic. And bureaucracy is bad, right?
Actually, no. Inefficient bureaucracies are bad, to be sure. Bureaucracies that don't effectively achieve their intended goals are bad.
But bureaucracies that are well-run are incredibly effective at solving problems at scale, without stressing anyone out.
Take the passport system, for example. Last year, we wanted to get/renew passports for our whole family. A nightmare of red tape, right?
Not at all. We went to Walgreens, got photos taken, and sent off the forms in the mail. A couple weeks later, the passports came in the mail. No drama—the process simply worked.
But imagine if, to get a passport, we had to appeal directly to the Secretary of State—phone calls, emails, trying to stop him in the parking lot or the grocery store. (Sound familiar? 🙂
Right now, too much relies on you, and there's no “low wall” to direct people to the right “gate” to get their issue resolved.
How do I know?
Because there's always an opportunity to become more systematic and professionalized in the way we serve kids.
Does it feel “bureaucratic” sometimes? Well, yes. But it feels bureaucratic when the fire marshal comes and scolds you about using door stops on fire doors, and asks to see your fire drill logs.
Would it look more “heroic” to carry people out of burning buildings? Absolutely. Holding a clipboard looks downright geeky in comparison.
But which saves more lives—the professional process, or the heroic rescue?
So if something is routinely taking up too much of your time, put up a low wall—not a wall so high that it's keeping out issues that should rightly reach you, but a wall that encourages people to use the right process to get their issue handled.
And if you don't have enough of those processes in place, focus some of your attention on developing them.
Did some firefighter sit down one day in Excel and design a form to track school fire drills? Probably so, and it probably didn’t feel like a very heroic day at work.
But that's the work: building systems to do the work.
The Bottleneck Problem
As leaders, we face an asymmetry problem—there's only one of us, and there's a large number—hundreds, if not thousands—of other people who may make claims on our time and attention.
And there's an additional layer to this asymmetry problem—people can very quickly dump their problems on us, giving us work that's not quick to do. One quick email from a stakeholder can lead to days or weeks of work.
Even if we have great systems—low walls, and appropriate gates to send people around to—we’ll still get inundated with other people’s issues. It’s just the nature of leadership.
It’s important to recognize that this work is endless. There is no hope of every being free from this work, or ever finishing it all. Organizations naturally create work for themselves in the never-ending process of improvement, and most of this work will involve leaders in some way.
You’re often the bottleneck in your organization. So how can you keep these pressures from eating you alive?
Here are a few suggestions for specific boundaries to protect your time, attention, and well-being.
Keep Regular Working Hours
It's often said that the principalship is a 24/7 job, and to some extent, that may be true.
But it's only as true as we allow it to be. If you’re willing to stay at school until 9pm every night, your work will oblige you by expanding to fill whatever time you give it.
This phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s Law, and briefly stated, it says “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
Parkinson was an administrator in, and observer of, British bureaucracy in the middle of the 20th century. He noted that bureaucracies have an endless ability to make work for themselves—for example, he noted that the office responsible for managing Britain’s colonies continued to grow, even as the number of colonies in the British empire dwindled down to zero.
Our schools face this same relentless pressure, to make up work for ourselves to do, even as we’ve solved many of our most pressing problems. As leaders, we must ensure that we’re directing this energy toward worthwhile improvement efforts, and not mere busywork.
And just as this is true at the organizational level, it’s true of our work as individual leaders—and protecting our time is even more urgent at the personal level.
Committees can live on forever, and can’t have heart attacks or strokes. People are much more vulnerable to overwork and stress,
So one boundary that you must create for yourself is working hours—and by the same token, non-working hours.
If you feel guilty leaving at 5pm, just remember this: you’re never going to get everything done, and the longer you work, the more time you waste. You’ll approach each additional task with less mental energy, and you’ll be working on less and less important tasks as the evening wears on.
Do the most important work first, and give yourself a hard deadline for going home. You’ll work faster and more efficiently, you’ll prioritize more rigorously, and you’ll be more effective.
Why not get the most important work done, save the rest for another day, and go home happy at 5pm?
But giving yourself a firm quitting time is just one of many steps you can take to establish better boundaries around your work life.
Email, Not Texting
I could list dozens of other tactics for protecting your time, but I’ll close with just one more: don’t allow other people to make requests via text message.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a remarkable rise in texting in a professional context.
This increase in texting has been accompanied by a decrease in reliance on email, even when email is the better communication medium.
Texting is great for quick questions, just as phone calls have been for decades. But text messages are a very poor way to manage work, because:
- They can’t be marked as unread
- They’re difficult to forward or CC people on
- They’re difficult to manage on your computer and other devices
- They don’t integrate well with productivity tools like Outlook and Google Calendar
I'm convinced a lot of our stress—and the perception that we need to be working all the time—is coming from our smartphones.
Do we love them? Absolutely—I'm on my phone all the time. But that convenience comes at a cost.
I'm not suggesting that you get rid of your phone, but do enforce some boundaries. Specifically, don't let people text you at 10pm and expect an immediate response.
Don't let people text you random requests that you'll struggle to keep track of.
Text messaging wasn't built for productivity. Email was, so insist that people email you if they need you to do something. And model this by treating your staff the same way.
For more tips on managing text messages, see this great blog post from Dr. Frank Buck.
Professional Work Has Boundaries, But Only If We Create Them
Boundaries are key to professionalism. If we're martyrs, we don't need boundaries. If this is a profession, and we want to retain professional people to do professional work, the boundaries are essential.
Those boundaries, like the low stone walls around a pasture, don’t build themselves. It’s our job to build them.
I believe we have the same opportunity today that firefighters had in the middle of the 20th century. We can admit that it’s better if we’re not fighting fires all the time, and we can build the preventative systems that not only get better results, but save lives.
Your turn: What are some boundaries that you have put in place to protect your time and your focus on the most important leadership work?
Leave a comment below and let me know.
Awesome Justin. This article is just in time.
Great information, Justin. Very practical advice for people to adhere by, and I’ll definitely be implementing some of these strategies. Thanks.
Love the firefighter analogy – too many leaders think we have to save everyone and this is to the detriment of our core focus as educational leaders. We’re not doing our colleagues any favours if we don’t mentor and model pre-emotive strategies to them. It’s recognised that we have a succession crisis looming with fewer people interested in taking up the principal role – we current principals have to share some of the blame for this as we have spent too much time looking busy, stressed and heroic!