Leading From a Full Cup

Self-Care for School Leaders

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: November 02, 2020

Over the past few years, you’ve probably been asked an all-too-familiar question: Are you practicing self-care? You shouldn’t mistake this for just another buzzword or health fad, though. Self-care is anything we do deliberately to take care of our mental, emotional, or physical health. Intentionally practicing self-care is critical for everyone from stay-at-home parents to corporate executives. And it can work for you, too.

According to The Broad Center, the average tenure of an American superintendent is only about six years. We don’t have to tell you why—especially not in 2020. Your job is intense, nonstop, and highly stressful. Taking care of yourself can easily fall by the wayside, but the experts all agree: you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

As a school leader, caring for yourself may feel borderline selfish. Your obligation is to your students, staff, and community, and you don’t have time to worry about getting enough sleep or practicing mindfulness, right? A 2019 survey conducted by The Harris Poll found that one in four Americans feel guilty when practicing self-care. Not only that, but a whopping 44% of those surveyed said self-care is only possible for people with “enough” time.

But effective self-care practices don’t actually take much time. You can easily integrate many strategies into your daily work or home life, and doing so can make all aspects of your life less stressful and more healthy. It’s no surprise The Harris Poll also found that nine out of 10 physicians say you should consider self-care an essential part of your overall health.

So are you taking care of yourself, or are you running on an empty tank?

It’s about you.

It’s important to know exactly what we mean when we use the term self-care. It isn’t one specific activity or practice, and it definitely doesn’t look the same for everyone. According to Psychology Today, self-care includes “a wide variety of tasks tailored to meet your diverse needs. Self-care is subjective.” For example, meditation and yoga may work wonders for your spouse, but not for you—and that’s okay.

With this in mind, developing your own self-care routine should first start with an assessment of your needs: Am I getting enough sleep? Am I taking time for mindfulness? Do I get enough physical activity? When’s the last time I did something for fun that didn’t involve my job? How’s my general attitude?

Asking yourself these questions can help you find the right activities for your personal approach to self-care. “You can’t show up to be a leader and guide others unless you can first take care of yourself,” says Jacob Morgan, TED speaker and best-selling author of The Future Leader. “Whether it’s eating healthy, exercising, meditating, or taking time for yourself—do whatever it is that you need to be your best everyday.”

Morgan breaks self-care down by four key areas of need: mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. “As a leader, you need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself in all four of those areas,” he says. “I think now more than ever, we need to really pay attention to mental well-being, but if you don’t physically feel good, it’s going to be very hard to take care of yourself in those other aspects of your life.”

Get your zzz’s.

Approaching self-care can seem overwhelming if you’ve never taken the time for it. But don’t worry—no one’s expecting you to immediately drop into downward-facing dog or start meditating like a pro on day one. Again, this is about finding what works for you and your specific needs as a leader—it doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes self-care is just getting a few extra hours of sleep a week or taking time to relax and unwind after a stressful workday.

When you’re the leader, it’s all too easy to put self-care on the back-burner in favor of work. “One thing that’s common with leaders operating at the very top of any industry is that we’re so focused on getting the job done that we don’t take the time to make sure we’re operating from a full cup,” says Karima J. Mariama-Arthur, an attorney, author, and the CEO of WordSmithRapport, a boutique professional development consulting firm. “That means, at a very basic level, doing things like making sure you get enough sleep, and that’s more difficult than it would appear.”

The CDC recommends that adults get anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep a night, citing that getting less sleep has been linked to the development of a number of chronic diseases and conditions. “We tell ourselves, Oh, I’m going to get better sleep, but we never have a plan,” Mariama-Arthur says. “But sleep is foundational; it affects your mind, body, and everything.”

Judging from the leaders we’ve spoken to, you probably already know you need more sleep—but actually making that possible is the problem. For practical, science-backed tips on getting your recommended amount of quality sleep, we looked to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Some of their advice is fairly basic, like exercising regularly and waking up at the same time every morning. But we’ve tailored several of their most helpful recommendations into a list we think could be beneficial to school leaders:

Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Whether it’s taking a bath, reading, or maybe even stretching, it’s important to cue your body and mind that it’s time for rest.

Don’t go to bed unless you’re sleepy. If you don’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up. Tossing and turning has never helped anyone, so fold some laundry or do something else simple and relaxed until you’re actually sleepy.

Keep your bedroom cool. You should always try to keep your bedroom dark and at a cool temperature to sleep comfortably. Studies find that most people sleep best in a room at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, though this depends on your preferences.

Be careful what you eat and drink at night. Don’t eat large meals in the evenings and avoid consuming caffeine after 3 or 4 p.m. Also avoid alcohol altogether close to bedtime. That glass of wine may help you unwind, but it will disrupt the quality of your sleep.

Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Because you’re in constant demand, we know it’s tempting to use this time to catch up on emails or check the news. However, the artificial blue light from smartphones, tablets, and televisions can disrupt circadian rhythms and suppress the release of melatonin, which helps you fall asleep.

Take care of your body and mind.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says less than 5% of American adults get their recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Only one in three gets enough physical activity per week. Being physically active is often unfairly associated with a need for weight loss or body transformation, but that’s not what we’re here for. This is about keeping you feeling good and ready to lead, and moving is a big part of that. So any physical activity you choose, be it walking, cycling, swimming, or golf, do it at your own pace and do it your way. There are no rules for taking care of yourself as long as your strategy is working.

Regular physical activity is advantageous for your body and mind—aerobic exercises like walking or cycling reduce stress, lower the risk of heart disease, help manage your blood and insulin levels, improve sleep, and can even keep your cognitive skills sharp as you age. Fitting exercise into your busy day may seem impossible, but it can actually be as simple as an evening stroll with your dog. After all, we don’t want you stressed out about finding time to de-stress.

No matter how much you’re moving, though, your diet can have tremendous effects on your health and daily well-being. We’ve all heard it a million times: You are what you eat. But it turns out it’s truer than previously thought. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that food not only affects our bodies, but our minds as well. Many scientists now argue that diets high in sugar and processed carbohydrates could worsen mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. For optimal health, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends you focus on a “high-quality” diet of unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy sources of protein. We know it doesn’t sound fun, but eating better could pay huge dividends when stress gets out of hand.

Focus on positive self-talk.

“Never default to the negative, because those around you will also default to it,” Morgan advises. As you know, staying focused on the positive even in times of extreme stress can be a lifesaver in a position like yours.

We don’t mean you should pretend everything is sunshine and rainbows when it’s not, but it’s essential to your health to maintain positive emotions like gratitude, and it makes you more helpful to others. To do this, Morgan says to be mindful of your inner voice. “I think it’s really crucial how you talk to yourself,” he says. “Are you constantly beating yourself down? It really matters for a leader.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, negative self-talk can come in many forms:

Filtering. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones.
Example: You had a great, productive day at work. You were even complimented on your performance. But that evening you focus only on a parent complaint and forget the praise.

Personalizing. When something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself.
Example: Your assistant superintendent is in a bad mood, and you assume it’s your fault.

Catastrophizing. You automatically anticipate the worst.
Example: A teacher resigns because she’s too overwhelmed. Your first thought is, What if I lose my entire staff?

Polarizing. You see things only as good or bad. There is no middle ground.
Example: You feel that you have to be a perfect leader or you’re a total failure.

To help you avoid negative self-talk, the Mayo Clinic has some practical tips that we’ve tailored for school leaders:

Check in with yourself. Periodically stop and evaluate how you’re thinking. If your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them.

Look for the humor. Give yourself permission to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Remember that despite our most challenging moments, there are still things to laugh about.

Surround yourself with positive people. Make sure the people in your inner circle are positive and supportive. Negative people may increase stress and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.

Practice positive self-talk. Follow one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself.

Set boundaries.

Sometimes just tuning out the chaos and giving yourself time to think and breathe can work wonders. “The world is full of distractions,” Mariama-Arthur reminds us. “It’s important that we can set boundaries so we’re not distracted by the things that take away from our best work, even if that work is taking care of ourselves.”

It’s impossible these days not to constantly be on our phones or on social media. You also need these tools to execute your job effectively. But as you well know, getting lost in your phone can be incredibly distracting, and also distressing. Morgan has strict rules when it comes to protecting his mental health in these regards. “Pay attention to how much social media you’re using,” he advises. “Go on there maybe once or twice a day to get your updates and be done with it, because it can quickly send you into a spiraling, never-ending, negative rabbit hole.”

Work can be a distraction, too—not just from your home life, but from taking care of yourself. Establishing healthy and reasonable boundaries around when you work and when you don’t work is important. Make sure you block out times when you aren’t checking emails or fielding phone calls, and stick to these boundaries so those you work with know your routines as well.

Rely on your team.

Self-care isn’t always just about what you can do; sometimes it’s about recognizing what you can’t do, especially when things get overwhelming or unpredictable. Mariama-Arthur advises working closely with those you trust or even forming a committee of advisors. “It could be any individual or colleague with a breadth of experience,” she says. “They’re able to give you critical feedback, to guide you, and to give you proper advice so that you can implement and execute your plans competently. I think sometimes people forget that you don’t have to do it all yourself.”

In unpredictable times, trusting your team to take command can be a huge asset. Hollis Milton, superintendent of West Feliciana Parish Schools in Louisiana, has definitely learned the importance of having a strong, collaborative team this year. Not only was he hospitalized with COVID-19 back in March, but he also had heart surgery on the first day of the new school year. “What helped me is I’ve got a great team,” he tells us. “They stepped up for me and made everything work. They took stuff off my plate and said, This doesn’t need to go to him. We can handle this. They’d never admit it, but I know how much they did, and I always want to step up for them, too.”

Practice mindfulness—it works.

The term meditation usually gets an array of reactions, but this can be attributed to a fundamental misunderstanding of mindfulness itself. The people behind the popular meditation app Headspace are working to fix that. The company defines mindfulness as “the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment—free from distraction or judgment, with an open mind and an open heart.” For school leaders, this practice can be a self-care game changer.

Headspace describes meditation as a “training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective.” It’s not about clearing your mind or turning off your thoughts; it’s about observing your thoughts without judgment and hopefully better understanding them.

“By increasing your awareness and compassion in yourself and with others, you’ll be better equipped to note your own thoughts and feelings and the feelings of others,” says Alice Nathoo, Headspace’s Head of Social Impact. “Specifically in education, we see the important role schools play not just in academic learning, but in improving young people’s emotional intelligence, and healthy social connections with each   other.”

Mariama-Arthur swears by the practice. “Taking that time helps with self-care, sure, but it also helps you achieve bigger goals. It’s shocking how many areas can be touched by focusing your thoughts even on the most abstract things. It can change your life.”

Fortunately, Headspace has recently turned its attention to schools, hoping to help combat the anxiety and overall health toll the pandemic is taking on educators. “Headspace is committed to supporting every educator and student in the U.S. through our Headspace for Educators program, which currently offers free access to all K-12 teachers, administrators and supporting staff,” Nathoo tells us. Not only does the company’s signature app have beautifully designed and animated guided meditations, but also offers its users “mindful movement exercises (mindful walks and runs), breathing and wind-down exercises, Sleepcasts, soundscapes, and more.”

Does the app work, though? Well, the proof is in the pudding. “In 25+ published studies in some of the leading mindfulness peer-reviewed journals, Headspace has been shown to have favorable outcomes, including reduced stress, improved focus, increased compassion, and decreased aggression,” says Nathoo.

“During the current global health crisis, our teachers and caretakers are particularly overburdened,” Nathoo says. “We have focused our efforts on supporting this group because of the positive impact they can have on so many young people. Educators are under more pressure than ever, and it’s our small way of supporting this community in their sometimes stressful and crucial role.”

All K-12 educators can sign up at www.headspace.com/educators for free access.

Images: screenshots from Headspace's mobile app, showing an exercises menu and a course called 'Managing Anxiety'.


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