In a study by the University of Texas in February of this year, it was found that over 20% of principals leave their posts due to burnout. This is a staggeringly high number. Catherine O’Farrell, a highly experienced and influential education leader and consultant, explains more about this worrying phenomenon and ways in which we can begin to address it.
‘Burnout is a multidimensional concept defined as a ‘psychological syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which is experienced in response to chronic job stresses’ (Leither & Maslach, 2003, p. 93).
With the new announcements around changes to the working week here in the UAE, principles are faced with the behemoth challenge of reconfiguring their entire school schedule to accommodate the loss of half an instructional day, right on the brink of the ‘holiday’.
‘Principalship is becoming more stressful with increasing demands, duties, and expectations. Burnout is one of several factors that contribute to principal turnover’ (Reyes, P., 2021).
This is typical of the life of any principal – one of the most common responses to the “how are things?” question I hear in leadership circles is “same old same old, fighting fires….”
Principal turnover jeopardises school improvement
The journal of Educational Administration cites emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and the persistent, nay relentless, drive to perform as the main causes of principal burnout. Ultimately, principal turnover jeopardises school improvement, fractures school-community relationships, and erases institutional memory.
Taking Joy in your Daily Accomplishments
Any educational leader realises pretty quickly that the role is relentless; your job will NEVER be complete. Improvements to be made, adjustments to tweak, students to support…it is learning how to take joy in your daily accomplishments that can help us get through the quagmire of tasks.
Robeck speaks of the importance of taking credit for the tasks you have achieved every day. Educational leaders rarely accept praise with ease. The majority of principals spend their time praising their teams, their students, their communities, and shy away from self-praise. This is a missed opportunity and can contribute to this burnout pandemic.
It is estimated that an adult makes around 35,000 decisions a day
Acknowledge the Good
Reflect on your day each evening, taking a moment, not to think of the tasks you have yet to do but on those that you have accomplished that day.
It is estimated that an adult makes around 35,000 decisions a day of which, as a leader, 300 are important or impactful. If you reflect on your day, of approximately 300 impactful decisions, how many had a positive impact…most probably most of them.
By taking the time to truly reflect on the good decisions you have made in a day (instead of the five or 10 not so good ones) it can shift your perception. Focus on the value that you bring to the role, your impact!
Be the leader that you wish you had in your career
Find an Advocate
Being the main decision-maker, it can be difficult to find a balance between friendship and professionalism. No matter what, at the end of the day, the principal is the one making tough decisions, decisions that your team may not like. It is vitally important that, as a leader, you have an ally on your team; someone who will stand firm with you through the battles. This can provide immense emotional scaffolding as you tackle the challenges of those 35,000 decisions every day.
Hire effective educators to your team. Support them and nourish them. Be the leader that you wish you had in your career.
Many of us are lucky enough to have experienced a truly inspirational leader. Think of the characteristics that made that leader stand out – mentorship, encouragement, stability. Weave these traits into your daily practice. Take someone under your wing and focus on that person’s growth and development. Take pride in their growth as a reflection of your own personal growth.
Superwoman (or Man)
This is one of the simplest tools to have in your repertoire as a leader. When you begin using this tool you sometimes feel like…well…a tool! But believe me, it works.
Amy Cuddy talks about the ‘Power Pose’ in her TedTalk and the psychological shift it triggers the moment you assume it.
Before you leave your office; stand up, pause, draw your shoulders back, assume the superwoman pose, take a deep breath and tell yourself “you’ve got this” (or whatever mantra you like). Then walk out with purpose. It takes 20 seconds but it can completely change your demeanour, your presentation and your psyche.
Isolation is a real concern for educational leaders
Isolation is a real concern for educational leaders. It is hugely valuable to reach out to others in similar roles. Find other principals who can truly relate to the post and the mammoth responsibility of principalship. Connect over LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. Reach out to the schools around you and find an ally.
Remember your ‘Why’
Simon Synek speaks about ‘The Golden Circle of Purpose’ with the very core being ‘finding your why’. Just as you wouldn’t get into your car without a map (in your mind, on your phone, whatever) you shouldn’t traverse the career highway without a clear understanding of where you want to go. What is your purpose, your why, the reason you step on campus every day? When things get tough, drawing this to mind can help us look over the barriers we face every day to see that ultimate destination and give us the drive to navigate obstacles and continue the journey.
By implementing simple changes like these you can protect yourself and be a better leader!