Lessons In Leadership: 4 district leaders share advice for addressing burnout

As several spring resignations nationwide illustrate, the toll of an unprecedented year of disruption is being felt at all levels of K-12.

The social-emotional toll of a year of unprecedented disruption by the coronavirus pandemic is being felt at all levels of K-12 school systems, from students and teachers in classrooms to superintendents in central offices. This is perhaps best evidenced by the spring trifecta of superintendent resignations in the nation’s three largest school districts, a visible reminder that the public health crisis has led educators across districts of all sizes nationwide to consider new jobs or exiting the profession entirely.

With burnout a very clear and tangible concern, we asked four district leaders to share their advice for preventing and addressing mental and emotional strains that come with leading in a tumultuous time.

Marlon Styles
Middletown City School District in Middletown, Ohio

Keep your heart full by spending time with the students. Create your own conditions to stay connected to the youth in your communities. Have a blast eating lunch in the cafeteria, mentoring students, creating a “Kid Superintendent” video, taking a pie in the face from a student, or lifting weights with the football team.

Allow the excitement of serving the students to drown out the stress of the position.

Susan Enfield
Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington

My one piece of advice would be “Don’t fake your funk.” What I mean is, don’t pretend that “you got this” when you really don’t. We have all struggled mightily over the past year-plus, and allowing ourselves to feel all of our feels is not only healthy for us, but comforting to others.

We all need to know we are not alone in the struggle.

Joe Sanfelippo
Fall Creek School District in Fall Creek, Wisconsin

My advice is to be the known entity in an unknown scenario. Consistent messaging with the community, with you leading, helps avoid side conversations about what is going to happen. It may not be the daily grind that burns you out — it may be that when you get home, you can’t let the daily grind go.

Consistently messaging — time, place, platform — helps you shut it down when you leave the office and be present and engaged with those you come home to.

Whatever you do, start and end your day with joy. Start with something that makes you smile so you are in the right mindset for those you lead. End with something that makes you smile so you are present and engaged for those you go home to.

Starting and ending your day with joy isn’t just about the joy, it’s about starting and ending your day. In the 24-hour work world we chose, it is important to find a way to break away or the cycle never ends. Logistically, starting and ending your day with joy makes you smile, but it also breaks that cycle.

Ken Wallace
Maine Township High School District 207 in Des Plaines, Illinois

The superintendency is a hard and complex job in the best of times, but the job became 100 times more complicated and challenging during this pandemic.

Superintendents have to be diligent in all of the elements that are essential to good mental and physical health. This includes making sure that they have trusted friends and families to talk to. Ideally, they have a trusting relationship with their board members and staff, as those are the people that navigate the job with us, and having a shared sense of the journey is crucial. Additionally, making sure that we eat, exercise and sleep properly is crucial. Those things help keep us focused and at our best.

All of this was more challenging this year than ever before. I’ve never seen a year like this in which communities were fractured and the local superintendent had a bullseye on them for months on end, facing daily no-win situations that put pressure on their boards, which always puts pressure right back on the superintendent.