Principals and assistant principals are pulled in many directions as leaders in their building. They wear many different hats. The principal is the managerial leader who ensures that the building operates as efficiently as possible, the instructional leader who evaluates and coaches staff to improve student achievement, the motivational leader who maintains and improves the culture and climate of the building with staff and students, the political capital leader who is the public face of the school, and the ethical leader who balances their personal life with the multifaceted demands of the job.
While the demands of the principalship can be very rewarding, the job can also take a devastating toll. A 2017 national survey of public school principals entitled “Principal Attrition and Mobility: Results From the 2016–17 Principal Follow-Up Survey First Look (NCES 2018-066)” by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics found that, overall, approximately 18 percent of principals had left their position since the year before. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. Fewer teachers are pursuing the principalship, and school districts are often caught in a revolving door of principals who stay for a short time, then either return to the classroom or leave education altogether. While there are national, state, and local efforts to recruit and retain principals, one often-overlooked strategy is self-care.
With the increasing demands of mental health on students and staff, the principal has also become the mental health leader. This role is especially challenging because building leaders are not trained as mental health professionals. Leaders need to understand and develop a self-care strategy before they actually need one.
As I write this, I am in my fifth year as a building principal. Like everyone else out there, I never received the manual on how to run a building during a pandemic. This year has been a whole adventure in itself, and I’ve earned every bit of my self-care. But my self-care learning journey goes back to the 2017–18 school year.
In the summer of 2018, I sat on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, and reflected on the previous school year. What I really did was sit on the beach and cry. It had been a miserable year and I had let people down. Something had happened to my building in the 2017–18 school year, and I needed to know what. That was my second year at Monett Intermediate School (MIS) in Monett, MO, and it was the hardest of my career. We had “that class” in our building—you know the one I mean. We dealt with things we had never dealt with before, including student trauma, and it felt nonstop. Additionally, I had adults going through their own trauma as I was going through a family trauma of my own. Teachers were crying and frustrated. They were leaving as soon as they could at the end of the day. I even had teachers who left during the day because they couldn’t deal with what was happening within our building. I even contemplated leaving. I went home more than once and told my husband I was quitting. I didn’t know how to fix our school. But it wasn’t until the following summer at a trauma-informed conference that I realized what had happened to us—compassion fatigue.
Charles Figley coined the term “compassion fatigue” in the late 1990s after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The emotional effects on the emergency responders and health professionals who dealt with the aftermath and the trauma of the bombing could be seen. Not to dramatize it, but in 2017–18, MIS was tired. MIS had the very definition of compassion fatigue.
As I sat on that gorgeous beach in Cancun in 2018, I vowed not to let compassion fatigue—or, as I later learned, secondary trauma—take over my staff ever again. The one way to combat this fatigue is self-care. I became a principal on a mission, and nothing was more important to me than teaching my people how to take care of themselves. On our first back-to-school meeting of the 2018–19 school year, I apologized to my staff with tears in my eyes. I told them of my self-discovery summer and apologized for the previous year. I told them that self-care was vital, they could set limits, and they had my full permission to put themselves first.
Self-care became the norm at MIS. I asked everyone what they were doing for self-care. I would point it out, “Hey, way to take care of yourself!” I soon began to get the same question, “Cherie, how are you taking care of yourself?” I had to practice what I was preaching, which isn’t always easy. A principal is about serving, giving to others. It had to be OK for me to set limits and put on the brakes every now and then. I began to use the phrase, “You have to take care of you, so you can take care of others!” But I had to take another introspective look and realize that I wasn’t taking care of myself the way I should. So, I had to learn to exercise my self-care muscle, including setting limits.
These limits look different for everyone. I set a limit on responding to work email in the evenings. I explained to my staff that I had to set that boundary, and they respected that. I have kids at home, so I limit the number of days I stay late. I purposefully make time for the activities I love that make me smile: chips and salsa with friends, pedicures, reading a nonwork-related book, exercising at 5:30 a.m., and listening to true crime and mafia podcasts—I’m a fanatic! I find that if I don’t do these things, my temper gets shorter, my burnout is faster, my energy is nonexistent, and it’s harder for me to deal with all of the questions I get in a day. Self-care is key.
I realized just how important self-care was when my close colleague at Monett Middle School—and my neighbor—experienced not only secondary trauma, but trauma to himself as well.
Just like teaching, the principalship is a position where on-the-job training trumps any coursework taken in one’s preparation programs. In August of 2019, I began my 12th year at Monett Middle School, Monett, MO, as the principal. Prior to that, I served eight years as the assistant principal at Cherokee Middle School in Springfield, MO. In 20 years of administration, I had experienced various scenarios dealing with students, staff, and parents. From working with students through disciplinary issues to defusing angry parents regarding a decision I made to processing a teacher through a dismissal, it seemed as if I had experienced it all. But there was a scenario that I never want to live through again.
Student death by suicide has a devastating impact on any community: the family who mourns the loss of their child, the students who remember their classmate, and the staff who helped the students and their colleagues process through this low point at school. Student death by suicide also has a devastating impact on the building principal. The building principal has a multitude of responsibilities relating to the school community. Being prepared for a variety of scenarios is the norm. When I became a building principal, I wanted to make sure that I did what I could do to ensure the success of our students and staff. I felt morally obligated to protect our students and staff in as many different situations as I could think of. Hearing firsthand from a student who shared a life-ending text from a classmate immediately put me in an unsettled state of mind. I began to say to myself: “I remember talking to the student a couple of days ago. I pray that he is OK. Where might the student be? Is there a way to ping his phone and locate the student? Did he talk to any other students? Will the student answer any phone calls? I hope and pray that I see the student tomorrow. I hope the worst possible scenario doesn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, the worst possible scenario did happen. Our student at Monett Middle School died by suicide. I vividly remember the evening I saw the location where the student was found. I clearly recall the planning that our administrative assistant, our counselor, our dean of students, and I did to prepare our staff and students for the devastating loss. The emergency meeting with staff on September 16 was the most difficult meeting I have had with our team. I tried my best to hold it together, but I remember crying through the announcement and sharing with them the process that would happen at school. I did not sleep much that evening as I was thinking about and praying for our staff and students on the following day.
September 17, 2019 was a truly somber day for students and staff. Students entered the building quietly that morning. Many of them brought flowers to decorate the student’s locker. I remember announcing after the pledge of allegiance that there was a statement to be read by the staff during the first-period class. That statement was difficult for our students to hear. While there was little normalcy in our building that day, our community flooded our school with an outpouring of support. Our district counselors provided grief counseling for our students, a neighboring district provided their therapy dog, and our faith community provided support for our staff. Through our planning, supports were put in place for our students and staff. I wanted to make sure that they were OK. I remember our superintendent and assistant superintendent stopping by multiple times that day to check in with me. Many people asked me if I was OK. I told them that I was unsure and that if I knew, I would tell them. I knew that I was not alone during this tragedy, but there were times that I felt like I was. Cherie, my colleague from across the street, and I were both mourning a student who had been in our buildings for almost four years. She, just like the superintendent and assistant superintendent, came to my side to check on me. They checked on me as I checked on my students and staff.
I struggled to process our student’s death. My counselor shared with me that everyone goes through a grieving process, but the length of the process is different for everyone. I began to second guess myself as the building leader: What could I have done differently? Who might be next? How am I going to protect them? I felt comfort when our students were in the building during the week but became anxious when the weekend came. My anxiety was simply because I could not control what was happening over the weekend.
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership.” Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is a servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” During my tenure at Monett Middle School, I worked hard to fulfill that mantra—to serve others first. I shared with my staff that they do not have to solve problems on their own; that we have a community of colleagues who are willing to collaborate and problem-solve together. The 2019–20 school year took such a toll on me that I had to put Greenleaf’s definition of servant leadership to the side. I needed to take time to put my physical, spiritual, and emotional needs first. I needed to take care of myself.
In order for me to take care of myself, I had to carve out time to make it happen. Exercise at 5:00 a.m. became the norm. During my morning swims, I made every effort to block out the thoughts of school. Swimming became not only a way to exercise but also a way for me to meditate. I was able to focus on breathing and nothing else. I could lose myself in the workout so much that I barely remembered how long I was in the pool. I had been playing acoustic guitar and singing with our church choir for several years, but that year I found the song lyrics comforting as they gained new meaning. Silent prayers became more prevalent. Self-care became a priority. The biggest step toward self-care was when I sought assistance from a therapist to help me process our student’s death. These sessions helped me understand that there are situations that I can and cannot control, and that feeling is OK. I needed to hear from a professional that the only things we control are our own decisions we make for our students and staff. Principals can only be so strong and independent, but must understand how to know when to seek help from a mental health professional.
The Future for Principals
Primary and secondary trauma can come in many forms—our traumas came in the form of compassion fatigue and a student suicide. More recently, principals across the country have experienced a new trauma with the coronavirus. As schools opened for the 2020–21 school year, principals knew of students and staff who had experienced a wide spectrum of loss—from the loss of a job to the loss of a loved one. Decisions that building principals have made to ensure the safety of students and staff in this school year have come under great scrutiny, with the community opinions toward those safeguards ranging from “not doing enough” to “doing too much.” Such a burden is one that can truly add weight on top of the added responsibilities of the principalship. This year, more than ever, leaders must take care of themselves.
Through our journeys, we have learned that self-care is vital and that it is OK to take care of ourselves. Self-care helps stabilize our mental health—we must make it a priority. Self-care will always be a sign of strength, not weakness. It includes setting boundaries between our personal and professional lives. Even though we wear the hat of the principal every day, we must also never forget the hat we wear as spouse, parent, and caregiver. Self-care is about doing things for yourself—no matter how big or small. Even laughter is self-care. As our own staff members begin to see us take care of ourselves, our actions will help model for them the importance of self-care.
For many of us, the principalship was our calling. Thank you for answering that call. While our job is rewarding, the principalship can feel lonely and isolated. We encourage you to reach out to your surrounding principals and create a network of professionals with whom you can talk, encourage, and hold each other accountable for self-care. NASSP has many avenues of support as well. Remember, you must first take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.
Jonathan Apostol, EdD, is the principal of Monett Middle School in Monett, MO, and a middle level representative for the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals. Cherie Austin is the principal of Monett Intermediate School in Monett, MO, and a board member of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals.
Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections
Leading the school community to focus on wellness in all its aspects—social, emotional, physical, and safety. You can draw your school community’s attention to the importance of social-emotional and/or physical wellness. You can promote a school vision and mission that focus on the whole child, and you can continuously hold staff members accountable individually and collectively for attending to students and to their own wellness.
Wellness is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.