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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

No One Ever Tells You How Lonely It Is

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Combating the isolation and disconnection new leaders often experience requires both personal and systemic effort.

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Leadership
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Credit: Gremlin / iStock

Dear New Leaders . . .

As a teacher, you spend Friday afternoons at the local pub with your work buddies, laughing at whatever hijinks ensued that week and joking about your uptight boss. As an administrator, you spend Friday afternoons alone in your office, catching up on emails and worrying over what jokes people are telling about you. On your first day as a teacher, your colleagues assume the best of you, treating you like family and flooding you with support. On your first day as an administrator, the staff might assume the worst of you, treating you like the enemy and waiting for you to destroy everything they loved about their school.
It feels like there’s a wall separating you from teachers: Some people stop talking when you enter a room. Others hoist a fake smile onto their face every time they see you. Some cringingly apologize for nonexistent offenses. Others explode with anger when you enforce rules. The wall starts to feel more like a box, trapping you with your thoughts: You wonder if people are treating you like a monster because you are, in fact, a monster.
And then there’s the politics—forget national politics, I’m talking about the courtly intrigue that makes school administration feel like prime-time drama. Who needs cable when you have a front row seat to more shifty deals, tawdry gossip, and double crossings than Shonda Rhimes could dream up? (And that’s just your Monday meeting!)

You’re constantly surrounded by people. And yet, you feel like you’re alone.

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The leadership lottery may have given you some treats; perhaps your boss provides supportive coaching and feedback, or maybe your officemate is a genuinely wonderful friend. If you’re very lucky, you may have a formal mentor. Or maybe your boss is a bully; and your friends are fleeing for other jobs, as so many administrators are; and your induction ­consisted of some compliance training and a pat on the back.
You’re constantly surrounded by people. And yet, you feel like you’re alone.

Yes, That’s Leadership, But . . .

I can already hear the chorus of jaded remarks from knowing, long-suffering readers. “Welcome to leadership.” “Them’s the breaks.” “That’s what you signed up for—is it not?”
Yes, all of this is, to an extent, part of the deal. Given decades of mistrust between teachers and administration, it’s on leaders to earn teachers’ trust, rather than expect teachers to give it freely. Given, too, the volatile concoction of social pressure and historical wrongs that make up public education, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to navigate the political minefield. But that doesn’t mean the work of leadership isn’t desperately isolating. In fact, I’d like to write the following letter, too:

Dear Supporters of New Leaders . . .

Any effort to address new leaders’ needs must start with an acknowledgment of the loneliness of the job and end by making it less lonely. This isn’t as simple as creating a friendly work environment (although that certainly helps). It requires a combination of cultural and systemic changes, meaning that you, as a veteran leader in your district, can definitely make some changes and possibly make others. Consider these actions:

Regularly Model Vulnerability

The first and most essential way to support new leaders is to acknowledge the isolation inherent to the job. Here’s the tricky part: new leaders feel the need to project strength, confidence, and invulnerability. Let’s be honest, they’re probably getting this impression from district veterans who project toughness and respond angrily when their colleagues express doubt over a plan or fear over a confrontation. Woe betide the new leader who questions a district directive or goes easy on a defiant staff member; retribution will be swift and severe, the leader’s doubts and fears interpreted as weakness. The implied message often is, If you can’t squash doubts and follow orders, you’re not cut out to be a leader. Knowing this, what new administrator would ever come forward and admit to feeling lonely, estranged, or anxious?
The fact is, new leaders will never express their true feelings unless they are 100 percent certain that they will not be ridiculed, berated, or dismissed for doing so. The best way to build such certainty is for veteran leaders to regularly model vulnerability, which Brené Brown (2018) describes as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and ­emotional exposure.” She writes:
Without vulnerability there is no ­creativity or innovation. Why? Because there is nothing more uncertain than the creative process, and there is absolutely no innovation without failure. Show me a culture in which vulnerability is framed as weakness and I’ll show you a culture struggling to come up with fresh ideas and new ­perspectives. (p. 43)
If we want new leaders to grow, innovate, trust, connect, and reflect, veteran leaders must make a practice of vulnerability. Doing so starts with basic emotional connection; if a new administrator hears colleagues, supervisors, and mentors regularly discussing how isolated they felt, particularly in the early days of their leadership journey, the message will be, You’re not alone. This happens to everyone. You can talk about it if you want to.

Support Boundary Setting

Another essential way veteran leaders can acknowledge and confront isolation is by helping protégés establish firmer boundaries between work and home life. This might seem counterintuitive—after all, shouldn’t new administrators want to be as connected to their school as humanly possible? Not if school makes them feel lonely, stressed, and sad. Not if they don’t even feel like themselves when they’re there. Not if being “on the clock” 24/7 eradicates their personal lives.
Workplaces that demand nonstop attention will isolate new leaders even more by disconnecting them from family, friends, and avocations. Fashionable though it is for administrators to be workplace martyrs, answering emails on Saturday and staying in the office until all hours of the night, it’s a truly horrible example to set for new leaders. It teaches them that they are their job and that who they are in the office is all they are ever allowed to be.
So, what can veteran leaders do? Wherever possible, set expectations that encourage new leaders to draw bold boundaries between their work and home life. This might mean stating clearly that no one should call or email colleagues on weekends except in a crisis, or it might mean following up with leaders who are at risk of losing unused vacation days. It could mean reducing the number of ­after-school events leaders have to attend or eliminating “fun” get-togethers to which administrators drag their begrudging spouses in order to be seen as a good team player. It definitely means setting and discussing the boundaries you’ve set for yourself, and explaining how you build time for family, friends, and hobbies into your life.

Build in Mentorship

There are also systemic ways to help new leaders feel connected rather than isolated. If your school or district doesn’t have a formal mentoring program for incoming administrators, start one. It’s that simple. It won’t be perfect right away; at first, you’ll have to ask for volunteers and learn what works through trial and error, but eventually, you will build a cohesive program, and as the program grows, you’ll be able to justify allocating resources to pay mentors.

If your school or district doesn’t have a formal mentoring program for incoming administrators, start one. It’s that simple.

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Crucially, new leaders must be mentored by someone other than their supervisor—after all, they must feel free to ask any question, express any doubt, or share any sentiment, and even the healthiest boss-employee relationship doesn’t engender that level of trust in the first few months.
Find veteran administrators willing to take on a bit of extra responsibility in the name of helping new leaders. Then, establish monthly topics and discussion points that all mentors should use to guide their work with mentees. You might, for instance, have mentors discuss parent partnership in September, teacher evaluation in October, and behavioral support in November. This guarantees a consistent experience to incoming leaders, taking them through district expectations at a reasonable pace.
The best part of an administrative mentoring program is its integration of regular reflection, which, as we know from adult learning theory, is essential to growth. If your district isn’t able to run a mentoring program for new leaders, at least provide structures through which they can debrief and reflect. Perhaps you can establish monthly discussion circles, book studies, or problem-solving teams, all geared toward helping new (and veteran) leaders grow through personal reflection.

Rethink Incentives

Systemically, we should also rethink the way we currently incentivize (or, more realistically, don’t incentivize) leaders to stay with their districts. Tenure rules vary from state to state, but one thing is certain: administrative turnover is shockingly high. Before the pandemic, one in five principals left their position every year (­Harbatkin & Henry, 2019), and now, half of all school leaders are considering a career change (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2022). Administrators notoriously move on to ever more lucrative, prestigious positions with cold-blooded ease. We’ve all done it, myself included.
We know turnover harms student achievement, and yet, what incentive do leaders have to stay in their current job, other than simply liking it? In most districts, ­administrators’ contracts are renewed for one year at a time, probably with a standard raise. That’s it. I wonder if milestone raises, multi-year contracts, or even the possibility of tenure might reduce turnover? Perhaps districts with clear pipelines for internal promotion retain leaders longer, and perhaps those which explicitly reward concrete achievements ­incentivize loyalty. Actions like these would help leaders stay ­connected over the long term.

Fostering Connection

Whether or not all of these efforts will build stronger new leaders remains to be seen. School leadership is, plainly put, a lonely profession, and today’s scalding educational climate only exacerbates the loneliness. The best thing we, as veteran leaders, can do for incoming leaders is to surround them with the right kind of supports: personal efforts to build a culture of vulnerability, openness, and mentoring, as well as systemic efforts to retain leaders who thrive in their roles.
References

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough ­conversations. Whole hearts. Random House.

Harbatkin, E., & Henry, G. (2019). The cascading effects of principal turnover on students and schools. Brookings.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2022). Survey of America’s school leaders and high school students.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at a large unit district in the Chicagoland area. She holds masters degrees in educational leadership and English Literature, and she has authored several print and online articles in Educational Leadership and The Learning Professional.

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