ICYMI: DA’s latest Leadership Institute is all about self-care and branding

With all the attention placed on student mental health, a growing number of district leaders are now looking to their own self-care to better support themselves and their districts. For that reason, health and wellness was front and center at this month’s District Administration Leadership Institute in Nashville.

Ryan Jackson, a former principal who co-founded FitLeaders, gave one of the most inspiring talks of the week, encouraging attendees to take a “21-Day Boycott Average Fitness Challenge” 

“Boycott Average” is a mindset that drives leaders who strive for greatness to make a conscious choice to reject mediocrity, Jackson says.

Self-care was a hot topic for discussion throughout the confeerence. Superintendent Cary Holman said wellness means reminding himself of his “why” as an educator.

“My ‘why’ is to believe all children deserve the right to have an individual to stand in front of them not only to teach them the academics but also to impart life lessons so they can become very productive citizens,” Holman, director of schools at Tennessee’s Franklin County School District.

Cary Holman
Cary Holman

Holman, a 28-year-educator, also stressed the importance of finding a balance in and outside of work: “When I was a classroom teacher, I taught students this phrase: ‘I will not allow any noun—that’s a person, place, thing or idea—to disrupt the climate of my day,'” Holman said. “I believe in protecting my space. When I leave the office, I leave the office.”

Vicki King, superintendent of the Salem School District in Iowa, tied into the 21 Day Challenge with her keynote speech on “The Empathic Leader.” She noted that an empathic leader excels at:

  • Active listening
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Flexibility
  • Compassion
  • Communication
  • Authenticity

But why strive to make empathy a key part of your leadership philosophy? Research shows that nearly 60% of educators cited a lack of empathy as the reason for quitting their jobs. King also noted that current and potential Gen Z employees are looking for workplaces where empathy is emphasized.

Telling your own story

In an era of rising school choice and politicization, branding is more important than ever for public K12 leaders. Renae Bryant, director of plurilingual services at the Anaheim Union High School District, and Lynette White, the district and community relations coordinator at Banning USD, gave attendees some tips on using social media—Instagram and LinkedIn, in particular—to demonstrate value-driven leadership.

They reminded the leaders that if they don’t tell their stories, “someone else will.” In other words, districts must use a variety of communication channels and community outreach to own the narrative around education.

As always, superintendents and other administrators had plenty of time to network and share ideas and challenges, such as staff shortages, student mental health, and political divisiveness in their communities.


Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.