Self-Care for (School) Leaders (and anyone reading this)

School administrators regularly engage with students, staff and families who are in crisis, are experiencing depression, anxiety or a host of other mental health ailments. However, the pandemic and recent social unrest have secured trauma and mental health a place at the top of the leaderboard.  As a result, it is more important than ever that school leaders take time to practice self-care.  

The obvious reason this is the case is that if leaders want to help students and staff who are in crisis, they need stability in their lives. If leaders want to help students and staff dealing with depression or anxiety, they need to understand sadness and joy.  And if leaders are going to help students be purposeful learners and help staff find purpose in their work, they need to lead by example and live purposeful lives.

I know that it is much easier said than done.  For people who chose a life of service to others, making one’s own needs a priority feels selfish.  However, the people who depend on leaders for support, direction and encouragement need them to be consistent and present.   And, for the same reasons we are instructed to “put on [our] oxygen mask first” when flying, leaders are worthless if they are not on their game.

The obvious ways leaders can maintain a high level of physical and mental health are to exercise, eat well and rest.  And rather than simply acknowledging and agreeing, leaders need to be deliberate.  Schedule time for exercise.  Make sure meals are balanced and avoid fast food. Take a nap.

But in addition to those things, self-care also involves growing, learning and living with purpose. What’s the point of life itself if survival alone is the objective? 

Here are three  things leaders–or anyone, for that matter–can do to take care of themselves:

  1. Learn something new.  Despite all the disruption around us now, leaders can and should learn new skills.  The neuroplasticity in our minds will atrophy if not constantly challenged.  Learn how to set-up breakout rooms in Zoom.  Or tweet.  Or learn that dance that is going viral on TikTok. Anything that challenges the mind or body.
  2. Do something differently.  Every day, pick a task and handle it differently than in the past.  It could be simple, like responding to an email with a phone call.  Or spend time talking with different people. Or hand-writing notes rather than typing them. Or choosing a different route to work.
  3. Conduct a “purpose check.”  Leaders should regularly reflect on what they are good at…what they like doing…and when it was they last did those things. Research has proven that people who live with purpose–regardless what that is–are happier, more resilient and healthier than those who do not.

If I were coaching a leader right now, I would ask them to write those three things on a piece of paper and tape it next to their workspace. There are a million excuses leaders could use to avoid self-care.  The problem is, it may go unnoticed for a while and then it may be too late.  Leaders should stay ahead of their needs just as they would the needs of the students or staff in their charge.

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