Overcoming Overwhelm: Strategies for School Leaders
The Network for Educator Effectiveness hosted a webinar with Dr. Melissa Maras on Feb. 9, 2022, titled “Self Care? Don’t Care.” This blog is the first in a series of reflections on our learning around staff wellness and self-care for school leaders. Read the second blog in the series: Educators, Never Estimate the Impact of Showing Up.
The following is a fictional scenario. As you’re reading about Eliza, what are you thinking? If you’re like most educators I know, you may find yourself thinking that Eliza’s story is not that different from your own. Maybe there are a few differences in the scenarios you face compared to Eliza, but the volume of crises and decisions to be made is likely not much different.
Eliza is a middle school principal. It’s Friday morning, and the start to her day has been rough. She was hoping for a calmer end to her week, but apparently, that wasn’t meant to be. She has seven teachers out today and only three substitutes. As often happens, she doesn’t have enough people to cover all the classes, so it’s time to scramble to take care of things. She’s going to cover one of the classes herself or at least as much as she can today. With the other classes, she’ll utilize some of the teachers who are available during their planning times. For the classes she can’t cover, she’ll distribute the students to various classrooms. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s about all she can do. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-familiar scenario.
If that wasn’t enough, the substitute shortage isn’t just limited to teachers. There are several bus drivers out today. Two of Eliza’s teachers are qualified to drive buses. So now she must cover their classrooms so they can leave early to complete the afternoon run.
As Eliza is walking to the classroom, she is wondering how she’s going to rearrange things so she can attend the meeting at 1:30 this afternoon to discuss plans for revising curriculum. She doesn’t get too far when the secretary stops her to let her know that she has a parent who wants to discuss a disciplinary matter involving her son that occurred yesterday. The parent does not look happy. As the secretary is showing the parent into her office, Eliza glances at the corner of her desk and sees information she has gathered to work on for her budget submission next week. This just intensifies the slow feeling of sinking deeper and deeper behind.
In addition to her school responsibilities, Eliza has a lot of other things on her mind. Her mother recently was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, the outlook is good, but cancer is still scary, and the treatments are going to be tough on her mother. Eliza also has a doctor’s appointment next week. It’s just a checkup for her hypertension, but the doctor wasn’t exactly pleased with the last checkup and asked Eliza to keep a log of her blood pressures. She’s probably not going like what she sees.
Eliza is overwhelmed. The responsibilities of educators have always been heavy. Honestly, things were tough before the pandemic, but now it just seems like she is running from one emergency to another.
Eliza is not alone in her school. She has had to stack so much work on her teachers and support staff that even though they are committed to helping, it’s beginning to wear them down. She recognizes the tiredness in their eyes. She knows they’re overworked and stressed about all they’re going through. She wishes she had a solution, but she’s barely keeping afloat herself.
A few nights ago, Eliza’s friend came over to visit with Eliza. As Eliza talked about the stress of work, she began to cry. Her friend told her she needed to calm down. But there was no way Eliza was going to calm down at this point. In fact, being told to calm down just made everything worse. All the work, responsibility, and stress came tumbling out. As tough as it was to break down in front of her friend, on some level it felt good to acknowledge what she was feeling.
Running at this pace and all the decisions that must be made have pushed Eliza into a continual heightened state of alert. It’s even affecting her when she goes to bed. Some nights Eliza has trouble getting to sleep. Other nights the exhaustion sends her to sleep immediately, but then she finds herself wide awake at 2 a.m. trying to half-sleep and half-work out all the problems at work and with her personal life.
Eliza’s mind is in emergency mode and is racing to make quick decisions to solve each crisis so she can get to the next one. Let’s have Eliza use what she learned from a recent wellness webinar to help ramp down her anxiety.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness recently hosted “Self-Care? Don’t Care,” a webinar with Dr. Melissa Maras, a research consultant at the Assessment Resource Center in the University of Missouri’s College of Education and Human Development. Dr. Maras, who works with schools to improve mental health capacity, shared a lot of useful information, including one slide that said: “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.”
There are times when we can’t just flip a switch, calm down and think clearly. So, what can we do to help us overcome feelings of overwhelm?
Create a List
Part of the reason for Eliza’s overwhelm may be the constant jumble of tasks she needs to address swimming around in her head. She has a lot of tasks to do and no plan for accomplishing them, and her mind is constantly prodding her to action. One thing Eliza can do to help quiet her mind is to make a list of all her tasks. Although the list will likely be very long, it’s better to organize tasks in a written list than to have a constant running tally in your head.
Now that Eliza has cleared her mind of everything she has to do, it’s important to start prioritizing her own self-care. If Eliza doesn’t take care of herself, it’s difficult for her to take care of others. When we are faced with a crisis, we find our adrenaline kicks in, and we make quick decisions to try to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. That swift action is great in a crisis. However, when we find ourselves constantly in crisis mode, we may see that we are making quick decisions without any deep thinking and our stress levels are continuously rising as we maintain a heightened state of awareness.
This is no way to live for an extended period. It’s not healthy for you, and the heightened awareness interferes with your ability to think deeply and plan for the future.
Self-care will likely look different for different people. It may consist of alone time, reading, exercise, recreational activities, or anything else that one might enjoy outside of their work life.
For Eliza, self-care consists of a couple of categories of activities apart from work. First, she needs periods of alone time where she can read, watch a movie, or sit quietly outside. Honestly, she just needs some time where no one is calling her name or asking her to make decisions. Secondly, she needs periods of family time to interact with her husband and children in something other than running from one thing to another.
Eliza remembers from the NEE webinar that she also needs to set clear boundaries so she has her alone time and her family time where her school responsibilities don’t creep in. Likewise, she has established boundaries when she is working on her school responsibilities, so that her family and friends understand that except for emergencies, they need to give her uninterrupted time for her work duties.
Address Teachers’ Overwhelm
Eliza also wants to address the overload her teachers are experiencing. She decides to be honest. She explains her situation of feeling overwhelmed, how has she has had difficulty keeping up with all of her tasks , and how this has all contributed to some mental health struggles . One by one, the teachers admit their own struggles.
Eliza and her teachers plan for what must be done and what could be left undone, at least for now. They also discuss how they could support one another and how to prioritize self-care into their routines. Eliza makes sure to include encourage staff to reach out to others when they felt they needed help.
It would be great to say that everything is great with Eliza now, but the truth is there are still good days and bad days. There are a lot of decisions to be made, planning to be done and crises to be solved. Eliza is still a work in progress and has determined that’s not likely to change. What has changed is that Eliza is better at recognizing when she needs a break. She is more forgiving to herself and others when things go wrong, and she has learned to adjust when things don’t go well. She understands that she can’t just “calm down” when life gets too rough, and instead, she has learned to plan time for her own care.
Sometimes self-care means seeking help from others. Whether from friends and family or from professional sources, Eliza sometimes needs to talk to someone about all the stress, and she has made a point to share the same thoughts with her teachers.
Even though the story of Eliza is fictional, it really isn’t far from the truth. Education has always been a demanding profession, but the pandemic has caused an explosion of tasks and responsibilities to land on all who are working in education. While educators are busy taking care of all they must do, it’s extremely important to prioritize their own self-care. As you’re reading this, if you find yourself struggling with your mental health, we encourage you to seek help from others.
If you or someone you know has struggled with suicidal thoughts, we encourage you to talk to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you’re not sure if it is time to ask for help, it is time to ask for help.
NEE administrators can watch the recording and access all the resources from Dr. Maras’ webinar, “Self Care? Don’t Care,” in the EdHub Library. Log in to the NEE Data Tool, click on EdHub, then scroll down to “Webinar Library.”
Chuck Mayes is a NEE trainer and field support representative. He retired in 2020 after 30 years in K-12 public education where he served as a teacher, elementary principal, middle school principal, and for eight years as the Sikeston Chief Academic Officer/Assistant Superintendent working with curriculum, assessment, gifted education, and virtual learning.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.