I'm Not "Fine"

Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director, AWSP
Feb 04, 2021
Not Fine


2020 was rough. Pretty sure I’m pointing out the obvious, but it feels good to acknowledge out loud and quite publicly that it was a tough year. What makes a year like 2020 even harder is when we find ourselves in leadership positions. As leaders, we are called to be strong, resilient, stoic, positive, and hopeful through all the peaks and valleys of leadership.

I’ve always told new principals and assistant principals, “Welcome to the world of never being able to have a bad day.” Everyone else in the system is given the space and grace to have a bad day or even a complete meltdown, but not us leaders. If we lose our cool, we could easily find ourselves unemployed and with very bleak prospects.

During my time as a principal, I quickly learned that my physical, emotional, and spiritual health took a backseat to everyone else. I spent most of my days (and nights) monitoring, nurturing, and encouraging all those within my purview. I had no idea about the amount of mental health counseling I would be doing as a principal on a daily basis. Good thing I had all that counseling preparation as a high school Spanish teacher before assuming the role of principal (insert sarcasm). However, despite a super long learning curve about human behavior, I did quickly become an expert at internalizing all of my emotions, struggles, stresses, and anxiety in order to attempt to be a smiling, joyful, and positive face for everyone else. Well, guess what? That’s not healthy and is not realistic.

Principaling was hard prior to COVID and this year’s political strife. We didn’t need those extra layers to make the job even more challenging and demanding. And, when you think about always trying to be that positive, hopeful face of leadership, I don’t think school leaders have ever faced a tougher challenge than this past year and current reality. So, what do we do about it? 

We need to prioritize our own health—just as much, if not more, than those we are serving. And I’m not talking here about another article or blog about “self-care” that just gives lip service to how out-of-balance leadership positions are in the system. I’m actually issuing a challenge to take back your life, create boundaries, prioritize your health, and set reasonable goals that help ensure you can be your best YOU for others. I don’t take these recommendations lightly as I see daily the dark, forlorn, and exhausted faces of our school leaders. We must act now.

Here are a few challenges for you that I am also embracing while leading at AWSP and serving school leaders across the state.

Be Real

    • As school leaders we tend to think of ourselves as invincible superheroes. I know at AWSP we always refer to you as superheroes, because you are. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t also have pain, suffering, need encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, etc. The first thing you need to do is to start acknowledging your feelings and emotions. It starts with creating quiet space in your daily routines to reflect on how the “entire” you is doing. Entire means emotional, physical, and spiritual. It’s a three-legged stool of health. And, to be an effective leader you must pay attention to all three areas.

      1. How is your emotional health? How are you feeling? Call out the emotions and write them down. Sad, stressed, anxious, worried, fearful, hopeful, joyful, etc.

      2. How is your physical health? Are you eating right, sleeping, drinking enough water, and exercising routinely? Have you slipped into unhealthy behaviors like fast food, alcohol, late night Netflix binge watching?

      3. How is your spiritual health? I’m a big believer in quiet, reflection, prayer and alone time. We are surrounded by constant noise, so have you built space for complete silence in your life?

    • You need to build a data dashboard of your health systems to constantly monitor your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Keep track of how you are feeling and when. Track what seems to be contributing to an unbalanced tripod of health.

Find Your Network

    • Who are 2-15 people in your nearest circles of life? Who are people with whom you live, work, network, exercise, socialize, etc.? These are the people in your Network. They are the ones you need to turn to for support, encouragement, guidance, and healing.

    • One of our goals as an association this year is to make sure that every principal and assistant principal is engaged in a professional network. This should be a group of school leaders who can routinely, genuinely, and authentically come together to engage in real talk. Which brings me to the next point, being real again.

Be Real Again

    • Step one of this “Take Back Your Life” challenge is for you to first be real with yourself, then to be real with those around you. In other words, you are no longer allowed to say, “I’m fine.” Stop lying to people. That phrase is banned from here on out. “I’m fine” is an avoidance tactic we’ve allowed to exist for way too long. It gives leaders (and others) an easy get-out-of-jail card to not share what’s truly eroding their passion to lead. No more “I’m fine.”

    • You need to surround yourself with people in your network who you can trust with your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Let’s stop pretending that everything is fine, and truly share with each other how challenging leadership is and how we can better support our individual and collective health.

    • I’m not fine. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m beat to hell and barely hanging on. I feel like I’m not being my best because I’m spread too thin. I miss the kids. I’m considering leaving the profession. I love this job, but it’s killing me. I need help. Those are all statements that you should feel safe in sharing with your network so you can get the love, support, and suggestions you need. But it will only happen if you are willing to be real with yourself and others.

Set, Write and Share Your Goals

    • The experts say that if something isn’t written down then it most likely won’t happen. I’m not an expert, but I’d push even further to say that if it’s not written down in a big, transparent, and visible daily manner, then it definitely won’t happen.

    • What are your goals for improvement in your emotional, physical, and spiritual health as you head into 2021?

      1. How can you improve your emotional health?

      2. What do you need to do to improve your physical health?

      3. Whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, how can you create quiet, prayerful, and/or reflective time in your daily routines?

    • As soon as you’ve brainstormed these three areas of your life, you need to get them written down and put into a shareable format for your network. In order for them to help you help yourself, they need to know your goals.

      1. I plan to walk or run 20-30 minutes a day.

      2. I plan to close my door and sit in silence for 15 minutes twice a day.

      3. I plan to drink 64 ounces of water a day.

      4. I plan to no longer read work email after 5:30pm.

      5. I plan to reduce sugar in my diet.

      6. I plan to no longer read emails while in bed.

      7. I plan to run 20 miles per week.

      8. I plan to make vacation plans this spring and summer.

Set New Boundaries

    • Remember that time you walked into the grocery store and asked for the manager because you needed to make a return? How about when you were upgrading your cell phone and asked for the CEO of the mobile carrier? What about when you were booking that vacation and asked for the CEO of the airlines? You don’t remember because that’s not how it works.

    • For decades and for some reason we have decided that in education we’ve given everyone direct access to the CEO…you. We’ve built and sustained systems that give 24/7 access to you, your cell phone, your email, and your calendar. Have you ever thought about what that does to your ability to breathe and have balance in your life?

    • One of your 2021 health goals should be to take back your life by creating new boundaries. Here are some ideas just to get you thinking. And, before you say, “I can’t do that,” ask yourself why not.

      1. Put a permanent “Out of Office” message on your email that says, “Thanks for reaching out. Instead of sitting in my office, I’m out with kids watching amazing things happen in our school. I only check email once per day. If this is an urgent request, please call the front office. Thank you!” Just ponder what this will eventually do to the amount of email you receive. This is called retraining your entire community.

      2. Block time in your calendar daily as “Busy” or “Out in Classrooms.” Don’t allow yourself to be scheduled from dawn to dusk. You need time to actually get work done. And, in the virtual world we live in right now, it’s way too easy to find ourselves in back-to-back meetings all day. Protect your calendar.

      3. Block time in your calendar to return phone calls but do it while taking a nice walk outside. Vitamin D is important and so is movement. You can take care of both while also responding to calls.

      4. Remove the voicemail feature in your office phone if you haven’t done so already. You must build a system that empowers the people around you to answer and problem-solve issues. If anyone is allowed to leave you a message, then anyone can add more work to your day. Protect yourself by creating a filter system around you. This also eliminates that painful last act of the day when you finally sit down to address the red flashing light and listen to voicemail.

      5. Block time in your calendar for your own professional reading and learning. There is no better way to model being the lead learner of your learning organization than by showing everyone that you too are engaged in ongoing learning. Take it a step further and invite staff to the library to engage in whatever topic you are reading or learning about.

      6. Get rid of your office. Turn it into a conference room. When we all return to our physical schools, I’d recommend creating a new space that inspires collective work and problem-solving but does not become your prison. Your school needs you out and about. Eliminating your official office will certainly force you into the halls and classrooms. And don’t worry, there will always be a space for you to have private conversations. This also prevents those “planning period campers” who love to use your time whining about their problems. They’d have to find you now.

      7. Empower your administrative assistant. Give them full control of your calendar and voicemail. The more empowered your support person is, the more you are protected and able to focus on the work of creating culture, building systems, and leading learning.

Take a Holistic Approach to Your Health

    • Finally, you must understand that your health is not an isolated problem to solve. You are a complex human being that requires a holistic approach to monitoring and tracking your health. You’ve probably noticed over time in your trips to the grocery store that more and more foods have labels like gluten free, vegan, organic, dairy free, etc. These labels are not a new trend or fad, but rather science finally catching up with the food industry. And it is becoming abundantly clear the important role “gut health” plays in your overall health. For decades the answer in our country for health-related issues is to go see a doctor and walk out with a medical prescription. Please understand that I’m not saying seeing a doctor or needing a prescription is bad. I’m only suggesting that if you’ve never stopped long enough to examine what you put in your system and how that impacts your emotional, physical, and spiritual health, then perhaps this is where to start. I continue to run into more and more people who’ve watched life-long physical ailments go away because they discovered they were lactose or gluten intolerant. A simple food allergy has been the root of multiple physical and emotional ongoing problems. As school leaders, we eat on the fly, eat leaning against a wall, eat during abnormal times, eat during virtual meetings, eat walking down the hall, or don’t eat at all. If our health starts in the gut and we know we don’t have the best eating habits, then this needs to be a priority. Coffee and tater tots won’t cut it.

Sorry for the long rant about your health. I worry for you like I worry for the guy I see in the mirror. I know I need to make some intentional changes in 2021 (which is my way of not saying “I’m fine”) and I encourage you to do the same. I will run more, drink more water, drink less wine, build and lean on my network, eat more veggies and lean proteins, spend more time in prayer, reduce my Juanitas chips, and most importantly, stop internalizing my feelings with “I’m fine” as an answer. For me to be fine, I need others to walk alongside me.

  • leadership
  • Mental Health
  • Self Care
  • mental health
  • covid-19

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  1. Ron Byrnes | Feb 05, 2021
    Excellent insights and suggestions. I wonder though, in many cases, if burnout isn't necessarily a result of too many work hours as much as it is a sense of resignation that my too many work hours aren't making the difference I set out to make. Here I am working 60-70 hours/week and my team isn't even nudging the status quo. Still, despite all my efforts, too few students are thriving. In fact, they're even more over scheduled and anxious than previous generations of students. Then the question becomes not just how do I improve my diet, but how do our teams genuinely improve the life prospects of our students? How do we improve schooling?
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