COVID-19’s Hidden Toll on School Administrators

In early May, when what seemed like the worst of the pandemic was behind us, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI), in collaboration with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) in New York City, surveyed to understand how urban school leaders were feeling during the COVID-19 crisis.

Over 1,000 principals, assistant principals, and district-level supervisors from New York—then the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States—participated. Leaders were asked to share the three emotions they had experienced the most during the prior two weeks.

An overwhelming 95 percent of the feelings they named could be classified as “negative.” The most commonly mentioned emotion was anxiety, which stood out glaringly above all others—overwhelmed, sad, stressed, frustrated, uncertain, and worried.

The toll of the coronavirus on our nation’s school leaders is palpable.

Frustration, stress, and anxiety each impact leaders’ motivation, engagement, and physical and mental health—and in some cases can lead to burnout. And although at first, they may seem interchangeable, they are distinct feelings, each with their source and solution.

If we look at what psychologists know about these emotions, we see that frustration arises from something standing in the way (or seeming to stand in the way) of a goal. Stress is a response to adverse or very demanding circumstances, especially when we feel we don’t have enough resources to cope. Anxiety is a feeling of uncertainty and the inability to control the future.

There’s no doubt that principals have a profoundly stressful career as the leader of a school, responsible for typically dozens of teachers and hundreds of students. Much of the focus has been put on teacher burnout, but the pressure of long hours and competing priorities typically travels up the ladder and rests on the shoulders of principals as well.

Any principal can tell you that his/her days are filled with myriad issues from a continuous parade of students and adults through the office to dozens of phone calls, emails, and mounds of paperwork. And time management skills are stretched to the max as the stress and anxiety borne of overwhelm become seemingly relentless.

What Can Help to Defuse the Situation?

1. Engage Your Stress & Anxiety

Of all the professionals in the helping fields, school administrators may have the highest stress and burnout rates. Even before the pandemic, all over the world, principals were facing unprecedented levels of accountability pressure and other stressors. Now, for some, the situation may be spiraling out of control.

Because chronic stress has become a permanent fixture of the modern principalship, they must find healthy and productive strategies to manage this increasing stress load. For some school administrators, stress relief could be as simple as taking a walk and visiting some of the classrooms, listening to music, trying out new educational games, taking an art break, spending time with staff outside of school, or even just planning regular vacations.

But for others, relieving stress and anxiety will require something more involved such as developing self-regulation skills. Those self-regulation skills that have shown to be effective for children are essential for adult resilience as well.

Among many definitions of self-regulation, the one that is most helpful for educational leaders is that coined by Stuart Shanker, who refers to self-regulation as “how people manage stress, how much energy we expend, and how well we recover.”

The 5 Steps of Self-Regulation

Shanker (2016) provides a set of five steps for self-regulation:

  1. Reframe Behavior

Asking “why and why now?” can help us stop and understand our feelings and reactions. The goal is to get to a state where we can engage the neocortex or prefrontal cortex, which allows us to think, reason, and plan. It’s helpful to recognize when we are instead acting based on our “reptilian” brain, which takes charge when we feel threatened, or the “mammalian brain,” which makes us focus on strong emotions and urges.

  1. Recognize the Stressors

We are often bombarded by stressors from multiple domains simultaneously. Imagine the following scenario. Rushing to an appointment with no time for breakfast (biological stressor) while feeling worried about being late for an appointment (emotional and prosocial stressors), and thinking about feedback for students in a course you’re teaching (cognitive stressor). Recognizing these stressors allows us to make a conscious effort to address them.

  1. Reduce Stressors

The goal of reducing stressors is not to eliminate all stress from our lives. Some stress is necessary for us to be engaged and productive. But reducing the stressors we can control restores the energy we would have expended on them, and frees it up for coping with other stressors.

  1. Reflect and Enhance Stress Awareness

In today’s hyperkinetic society, many people no longer know what calm feels like, or they confuse the mindlessness of screen time with being calm. Sometimes people view their busyness as an indicator of their importance and worth. When you reframe that and become aware of the impact of that busyness, you are more able to find a few minutes to take a self-regulation break and bring yourself closer to a state of calmness.

  1. Respond

Develop personal strategies to promote restoration and resilience. Each of us needs to develop our toolbox of self-regulation strategies that help us feel calm and alert. Make sure you consider some restoration strategies that you can use while you’re at work. For example, for many elementary administrators, heading down to the kindergarten room and spending a few minutes with a group of enthusiastic 5-year-olds helps restore their energy.

2. Delegating: The Secret Path to Administrative Success

Being a principal can be overwhelming. But there is a way out. Many successful principals can get beyond feeling overwhelmed because they understand the enormous value in delegating. There are several tangible benefits that delegating provides:

  1. It shifts the burden of responsibility from the principal onto others, which frees up time to work on other projects.
  1. Delegating provides the opportunity to strategically make individuals responsible for projects that fit their strengths, and therefore will help build their confidence.
  1. Finding the right people to whom to delegate reduces the overall workload, which in turn keeps the stress level at a minimum.

Oftentimes when a teacher comes to the principal with an issue, that teacher wants to unload the burden onto the principal because the teacher feels unable to deal with it. Accepting every teacher’s problem will quickly overburden the principal. Instead, it’s better to determine if the teacher could deal with the problem, albeit with assistance. Principals should be geared toward empowering teachers to solve problems.

The protocol could become something like this. When a teacher surfaces an issue, first have that teacher fully describe the issue. Assign either the teacher or someone else to be responsible for dealing with it, along with recommending a course of action. Then follow-up and readjust as needed.

Understand that teachers — as well as students — many times need no more than reassurance before their ‘next moves’ with their problems. That reassurance can often take the form of a recommended action or, where there is enough confidence, the permission to take action with the understanding that there will be eventual accountability regarding outcomes.

It won’t take too long for administrators to see that, as teachers become more confident and self-reliant, they will waste less time waiting for others to assume responsibility and act. This invariably will reduce the stress of the administrator.

Administrators who have embraced this approach have invariably found that, when teachers eventually learn they can effectively deal with whole classes of problems, not only did the administrators’ stress levels decrease, but the productivity of the school dramatically increased as well.

This is because, in addition to the problems being solved (often more quickly by the teachers), administrators were freed up to deal with higher level priorities within the school, which raised the quality of education in a more general and profound way for everyone.

3. Empowering Teachers

Nicholas Orlowski, Director of professional learning, Grand Rapids (Michigan) Public Schools found in investigating research on high-performing organizations that they all have something in common: They are full of thriving employees. According to business professor Gretchen Spreitzer, thriving employees find themselves learning constantly and in ways that improve their performance. They also find that work fills them with vitality and a sense of aliveness during the work day which acts as an antidote to boredom and burnout.

While most of that research on thriving comes from the business world, Orlowski recently conducted a study on thriving among teachers, and it has implications for school leaders as well. He surveyed about 100 middle school teachers and conducted follow-up interviews with a subsample of those who scored high and low on a measure of thriving.

Thriving teachers focused on two major sources of learning and vitality: students and peers. On the learning side, thriving teachers believed they got better at their job because they got to know their students and designed instruction accordingly. They also cited the support provided by peers during collaborative professional learning.

What Orlowski found was that collaboration built camaraderie that spilled over into more informal peer learning conversations. It’s important to realize that school administrators can learn from these findings and pursue similar ways to network with peers and connect with students.

For example, students might be an invaluable resource when administrators need to reimagine policies and procedures that need revamping, particularly during the pandemic.

Another thing that Orlowski discovered was that thriving teachers felt invigorated because of the passions they could pursue in their practice — educating the children. Regularly they were reminded why they chose to become an educator. While administrators are further removed from the students, they may still need to find regular opportunities to be reinvigorated by interacting with those whom they serve.

Directly related to this need to be invigorated is having sufficient energy to do the job. Administrators should monitor their energy levels as a gauge of their vitality. And they should realize that, if their energy levels drop too low, this may be a sign that their work is failing to invigorate them.

Deliberately Seek Joy in the Work

While we all want to be happy, how many of us deliberately seek joy in our work? It seems only natural that, during the most stressful times, administrators find themselves removed from the aspects of the work that provide the greatest inspiration and remind them of why they became school leaders in the first place.

When administrators, or anyone else for that matter, deliberately seek joy in their work, they reconnect with their purpose and can often find a much-needed infusion of inspiration and energy when it is most needed. For most administrators, this will probably mean maintaining direct involvement with the students to whom they are devoting their lives.

While the current situation is probably beyond overwhelming for school administrators, carefully implementing the prescription to rise above it will make for happier students, happier parents, happier teachers and happier administrators. It is the stuff from which true heroes are made!