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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6
Optimistic Leadership

The Principal as a Blesser, Not a Stressor

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Emotionally intelligent leaders know how to tune in to teachers’ feelings and needs.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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I must admit, during the pandemic and shortly thereafter, I thought the end of my career was at hand. I had planned to stay in education for at least six more years. But the stress of weekly COVID-19 testing, Zoom-based instruction and meetings, angry parents who wanted their peaceful homes back, failing technology, and helping teachers keep it all together while managing their own families, felt like more than I could handle. 
When I think back to what helped me get through those struggles and stay in K–12 education, I feel like there had to be some miracle along the way. But there wasn’t! What saved me, and many other leaders around the world, was that we were compelled to tune in to the feelings of others, and our own feelings, during this challenging period in our lives. We quickly became cognitively and emotionally empathetic; most of us sensed what others were going through and that we likely felt the same things. Simply put, we tapped into our emotional intelligence.
To survive in the high-stakes world of school leadership, where accountability, school safety, teacher retention, and creating positive school cultures weigh on everyone’s mind, understanding our own and others’ emotions is mandatory. An emotionally intelligent leader is actually most effective when faced with challenging circumstances. You see their skills and toughness during stressful times, but you also see them tune in to others’ emotions and respond sensitively. 

An emotionally intelligent leader is actually most effective when faced with challenging circumstances.

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School leaders can’t avoid the stresses of the job; the hustle and grind are very real. But we have to be sure that stress doesn’t lead to burnout. The key to surviving is becoming more emotionally intelligent—especially building trust, connections, and positive relationships with teachers and staff. 

Trusting Relationships Go a Long Way

Those rock-solid relationships can go a long way toward sustaining a leader. To develop such relationships, leaders need to listen to our teachers and staff and be open to making changes to improve their working ­environment. 
Here’s one small example. Before COVID-19, I was happy to make every Friday a “jeans day” for our faculty and staff. They were excited that I was willing to bend from my “no jeans in school” stance. When we returned to in-person learning after the worst of the pandemic was over, a group of teachers approached me with the idea of making every day of the school week a jeans day. They were tired of having to plan which dresses, shirts, skirts, and pants to wear. That was a tough meeting to get through because I am what the young staff members call “old school.” But by the end of the meeting, I had agreed teachers could wear jeans every day of the week, and staff could wear school- or education-themed T-shirts as well.
Agreeing to become a “jeans every day” school was an emotionally intelligent decision on my part. It hasn’t changed the students’ behavior or the instruction one bit, and teachers feel that I’m in tune with their feelings and needs. They know that I want to bring joy into school each day. 

Bringing the joy back to school is critical for the self-efficacy and morale of school leaders—and for retention.

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Bringing the joy back to school is critical for the self-efficacy and morale of school leaders—and for retention. Teachers and leaders who are struggling with school culture and job satisfaction are leaving the profession at high rates. Helping staff build a sense of joy, collective efficacy, motivation, and empathy gives them hope and a belief that things can change for the better.

Joy-Spreading Strategies

Emotionally intelligent leaders can try these actions to spread joy and mitigate stress:
  • Approach school with a positive attitude each day. Try to spread that joy around the school building by doing things like providing “pick me ups” for staff (such as coffee/tea/hot chocolate carts) or leaving positive notes for teachers. Some leaders have even told me they occasionally dance, sing, or rap in school to bring joy to their buildings. While being joyful, remain thoughtful; remember that your decisions influence every staff member. 
  • Reflect each day on the events of that day that led to stress for teachers and staff—or for you. Consider how you might build problem-solving or conflict-resolution skills—or enact procedural changes—that would make a similar event or situation less stressful next time. Also identify what events during the day made you or others happy.
  • Develop a culture where conflict is not feared but embraced as a tool to learn from. Encourage staff to address conflict immediately. Support them to work through hard issues together.
  • Instead of micromanaging your staff, empower and lift them up. Acknowledge that they are experts in their field; allow them flexibility with things like lesson planning. Invite teachers to plan and provide professional development. Respect your staff’s time and give them leadership roles. This will instill hope and optimism in people.
  • Listen to your staff. Simple listening is healing for some people. When staff complain, they are showing trust in you—and they want to feel seen, heard, and valued. Connect with staff, students, and parents in any way you can.
  • Take care of yourself. Self-care is the key to withstanding the stress and pressures of a job in leadership. When stress becomes distress, it affects your physical and mental health. Once you fall victim to burnout, even a small stressor can lead to emotional exhaustion—and to you leaving your position. Reach out for support from mentors or coaches to avoid unhealthy levels of stress. Make yoga, exercise, meditation, running, or walking an important part of your day or week.

An Important Shift

The problems we face today can’t be solved by people without emotional intelligence skills. So, enhancing leaders’ emotional intelligence could be the most important shift in education we make in years. While we’ve started this work, there’s a ways to go. As I mentioned at the start of this column, the pandemic forced school leaders to rely on our emotional intelligence for survival. It’s my hope that we came out on the other side more empathetic and caring leaders. I definitely know that school cultures anchored in emotional intelligence are home to the most joyful teachers and students. Let’s remember to always be a blesser, not a stressor.

Salome Thomas-EL is the award-winning principal of Thomas Edison Public Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware, and a nationally recognized speaker on education and leadership
issues, particularly in urban and rural schools. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including I Choose to Stay (Kensington, 2004) and Passionate Leadership (Corwin, 2019).

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