Staying sane: Leaders share the ways they de-stress and decompress

Superintendent Shane McCord finds his moments of self-care zen with his family, fishing and—surprisingly or not—doing yard work. “Honestly, I love to mow my grass—that’s one of the things where from start to finish I actually feel like I’ve accomplished something,” jokes McCord, superintendent of Gilbert Public Schools in Arizona. “Sometimes, in this job, you feel you’re like running in circles.”

Shane McCord
Shane McCord

Another of his maxims for self-care is that you don’t have to be an expert to have hobbies. “I like to do woodworking even though I’m not very good at it,” he notes.

Lori Colbert, principal of the Barack Obama School of Leadership and STEM near Chicago, says she relies on a positive attitude.

“I am a very happy person,” says Colbert, whose building is part of Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163. “That’s a choice I make every day—I’m going to get through this day and have a smile on my face.”

Shying away from self-care?

The student mental health crisis and high turnover in K12 leadership have tilted the spotlight toward the wellness of K12 leaders. This fraught climate has left many superintendents, principals and other administrators seeking to devote more time to self-care. “The job is isolating,” says Daniel L. Frazier, a former longtime superintendent who is now an assistant professor of educational leadership at Midwestern State University in Texas. “At the pinnacle of the organization, you don’t have a peer group. You’ve got your team but they’re subordinates.”

He acknowledges that the growing politicization of education is one of the leading causes of stress. Schools have become a political pawn and some states, such as Texas, are not providing sufficient funding for K12 at a time when student needs are growing and teachers are demanding higher pay. Superintendents often bear the brunt of staff and community discontent, he suggests.

“The blame that is being heaped on superintendents is a real issue right now,” he warns. Frazier, who was a superintendent for 26 years, encourages his educational leadership students to form peer networks and participate in professional organizations. Such groups can make clear to school boards, communities and other stakeholders the challenges faced by superintendents and other administrators.

He also recognizes that leaders are often reluctant to ask for help or make time for themselves for fear of showing vulnerability. Leaders may also have trouble delegating authority as they worry about having subordinates “outshine them,” he contends. “Good team leaders know to shut up and let other people talk,” he adds. “The longer I was in leadership, the more I encouraged team dialogue.”

Sharee Wells Whitehall
Sharee Wells

McCord, of Gilbert Public Schools, follows this strategy and hires “really good people” to share the workload. “I’ve surrounded myself with phenomenal people who know what they’re doing,” he states. “When we have an initiative going on, when things need to get done, I go to sleep at night knowing our district is surrounded by phenomenal adults whose primary concern is kids.”

Sharee Wells, superintendent of Whitehall City Schools in Ohio, says her greatest joy is spending time with her kids. So, she tries to be present and shut out work as best she can when she’s with them. “A lot of times, as a district or school leader, you’re gone all the time,” she concludes. “The last thing I want to do when I’m home is be mentally gone.”

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.