Self-Care Strategies for Learner-Centered Leaders

By Devin Vodicka

“The people who educate our kids are really exhausted. That’s teachers, school counselors, food service workers, and it’s principals and superintendents.”

NPR – Schools will usher in another new year defined by the pandemic

The educational news stories at the end of 2021 are alarming. The situation is so pervasive that EdSurge has created a site called “Survival Mode: Educators Reflect on a Tough 2021 and Brace for the Future” that includes a collection of essays and articles about fatigue and renewal.  

Many of our educational leaders are tapping out.  Newsweek published a story this week on ‘The Great Exodus’: Superintendents Resigned in Droves as Culture Wars Hit Schools in 2021 which documents how “School district administrators across the nation have left public education in droves this year, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, critical race theory issues and school systems already strained by growing staffing shortages.”

Even with rising vaccination rates, COVID variants like Delta and Omicron are contributing to continued uncertainty and we are now facing another massive surge in case rates, leading many universities to announce that they’ll start the winter term with remote instruction.  Debate and speculation about what will happen in K-12 schools is underway as well and President Biden has stated that “We can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

And so here we are, exhausted and still in a state of distress, facing the prospect of continued difficulties, more personnel shortages, declining student enrollment, in the early stages of what will be a very long tail of trauma and recovery for individuals, communities, and society.  So what do we do?

The optimist in me continues to believe that there is great opportunity in this crisis.  We are freed of many of the constraints that have limited our ability to shift to learner-centered education and I feel that now is the time for us to focus on learner agency, collaboration, and problem-solving.  

The pragmatist in me recognizes that change is difficult and can be nearly impossible when we are in survival mode.  With this view in mind, I want to offer suggestions for school leaders to build habits that will help to recharge and sustain the intensive efforts that are ahead.  

To begin with, it is helpful to remember Covey’s “circle of influence” model and to start with a focus on what is directly within the control of the leader, which includes beliefs, actions and decisions.  While we can all influence our environment and learn to accept that there are some complex phenomena that are beyond our control, we must also take responsibility for ourselves and recognize that we are humans who need to take care of ourselves so that we can most effectively serve and support others.  This is not to say that noticing and exerting influence on the wider conditions is not important – I am a big believer that each of us can be servant leaders – but rather to focus this post on the internal dimensions of self-care for leaders.

I previously wrote about the relationship between working memory and self-regulation which is one simple explanation for the widespread fatigue that we are experiencing.  In that post I suggested several ways to promote more effective self-regulation: 

  • Take more breaks: In the words of learning science researcher John Sweller, “the human brain has a pretty limited ability to hold thoughts in working memory … students retain information better if learning sessions are spaced out over time.”
  • Model self care: Bree Goff reminds us that Abraham Lincoln went to the theater more than 100 times during the Civil War as a way to “recharge and keep his anxiety at bay.” In her words, do “whatever else it is in your life that’s worth prioritizing.”  
  • Move: Our brains function more effectively when we are physically active.  As indicated in multiple studies, “When kids have been challenged with cognitive tasks that require lots of concentration and attentional control, individuals with higher aerobic fitness have performed with more accuracy. ” 
  • Provide multi-tiered support systems: There is no way that any of us can succeed in isolation.  Based on the science of learning, these systems should “enable healthy development, respond to student needs, and address learning barriers. These include a multi-tiered system of academic, health, and social supports that provide personalized resources within and beyond the classroom to address and prevent developmental detours, including conditions of trauma and adversity.” 
  • Focus on relationships: At every level, strong relationships provide the foundation for meaningful change.  For example, a recent study from the University of California San Diego revealed that “Increases in student’s perception of their trust with leaders are associated with an average increase of 15% in all eight other areas that make up a student’s school experience.”

To be more specific, here is a list of suggestions for leaders to turn these concepts into actions that can become important habits to contribute to long-term sustainability and success:

  • Set and communicate healthy boundaries
  • Exercise
  • Emotional Check Ins
  • Go outside
  • Meditate
  • Use a gratitude journal
  • Savor a positive memory
  • Share a compliment
  • Chat with a friend
  • Visualize a happy place
  • Spend time in nature
  • Drink water
  • Eat a healthy meal
  • Play a musical instrument
  • Spend time with your pet
  • Stretch
  • Play a game
  • Do a puzzle
  • Do some volunteer work
  • Listen to music
  • Sketch or doodle
  • Garden
  • Take a walk

What are your ideas? What works for you? This is a time to share what works.  After all, if we as leaders do not model the importance of self-care, how can we expect others to understand the value of healthy habits? 

In addition to these self-care ideas, here are some strategies for leaders to create more time.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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