The COVID 19 crisis is increasing the huge levels of stress already experienced by international school leaders. While some are thriving in the face of the challenge, many are overwhelmed and coming close to burnout. There is no hard data yet on the impact of leading through COVID but anecdotal evidence mounts on a daily basis of school leaders resigning, being forced to take sick leave, or finding themselves unable to function at the level required to do the job well.
The causes of heightened stress during this time vary across contexts but commonly experienced triggers include:
- The sheer volume of problems to be solved on a daily and weekly basis, often with insufficient or contradictory guidance from government.
- The unpredictability of the situation, the ever-changing landscape and uncertainty about the future.
- The weight of responsibility for keeping everyone safe when returning to school.
- The pressure to deliver successful online learning that meets the very needs of students, staff, and parents.
- Anxiety about the future viability of the school, resulting from the economic fallout of COVID.
For most, however, it is the pressure of meeting the emotional needs of others during this time that is hardest to bear. International school leaders are first and foremost leaders of communities—communities that are looking to them to make sense of this crisis and provide reassurance, guidance, and protection.
While many individuals are able to draw upon their natural resilience and take the current challenges in their stride, others are more vulnerable to fear, anxiety, and isolation. In schools, we see these vulnerabilities manifesting in unreasonable demands placed on the school by staff or parents, which may develop into hostility when not met. School leaders are easy targets for the anger, frustration, or sheer desperation of those who are finding it hard to cope, yet they receive no training in how to support the emotional needs of others. Furthermore, many leaders are finding themselves increasingly lonely and isolated as campuses remain closed and meetings take place online.
International schools have become increasingly complex organizations to lead in recent years and COVID 19 has rendered them more so. The myth of the hero leader has placed our school principals in a position where they are expected to demonstrate almost superhuman qualities.
The leadership guru John C. Maxwell said that, “nothing of significance was ever achieved by an individual acting alone,” yet many of our school leaders still feel the pressure to be complete and flawless, solving problems single-handedly. It is leaders who find themselves most isolated and lonely who suffer the most when things get hard and it is these individuals who are often at the greatest risk of burnout.
The pressure to fulfill the myth of the hero leader may cause our school leaders to put a brave face on things, shutting down their emotions and pretending to the world that everything is fine. Some see this pretense as demonstrating grit or resilient behavior. However, shutting down our true emotions or exhibiting fake feelings takes its toll, leading to emotional exhaustion and playing a role in burnout.
Real resilience is more likely to be built through acknowledging our vulnerabilities, sharing our fears and anxieties, and asking for help. All resilience experts agree on the importance of the role of social connectedness in resilience-building. Stress overload causes the constant release of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which over time impact our health and longevity. In the short term, they also affect our focus and ability to engage with problem solving effectively. Socializing precipitates the release of the happy hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, which help us feel more relaxed and satisfied while improving our mood, motivation, and focus.
Sharing our fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities helps build strong social connections, makes leaders become more human to others and creates an environment in which others feel able to share too. Strengthening connections across a senior leadership team is key to remaining both effective and sane at this time. This may be challenging for teams where there is no culture of collaboration, where there is already discord or where part or all of the leadership team is working from home. It should, however, be the number one priority of all senior leaders to galvanize relationships with their closest colleagues through:
- Scheduled “agenda free” meetings within the school day to check in. Meetings could provide opportunities for each team member to share what is going well at the moment and what’s not going well.
- Low-key social events, where restrictions allow, with a “no work talk” rule to provide opportunities to get to know each other on a different level. Regular social Zoom sessions can replace face-to-face events where necessary.
- The use of a buddy coaching system to pair leaders with a senior colleague for one-to-one coaching sessions focused on their wellbeing.
- Strategic planning and team building days, off-site where possible, to focus on the post-COVID future and encourage optimism.
- The use of humor, providing opportunities for light relief, encouraging the team to take themselves less seriously.
To some this approach may represent “death by meetings,” taking up more of their precious time. It is, however, more essential now than ever that senior leaders prioritize the time they spend together. This is especially so when working from home, as the nuances that are noticed in tens of casual encounters in the course of a normal day are lost in the single daily meeting by Zoom. In this situation, it is essential that more informal meetings take place each day, even if only short.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable with sharing their fears and anxieties. For some teams this will take time, but it can start with one bold individual taking a risk and admitting “I’m not OK.” This can open the floodgates as a sense of relief washes over those who realize they are not alone in a private hell or in some way deficient because they are not coping well. They are normal human beings, experiencing normal reactions to an unprecedented situation that has placed upon them an unrealistic expectation but which can be overcome by working together with others.
Dr. Helen Kelly is a former international school principal, having led three international schools in Bangkok, Berlin and Hong Kong over 15 years. She retired from work in July 2020 and is now pursuing her passion for vegetable gardening and building a campervan with her husband, while waiting for travel to become accessible again. Helen has a special interest in school leader wellbeing and resilience, which was the subject of her doctoral thesis completed in 2017. She continues to work informally to stay connected to, champion and support the wellbeing of international school leaders. www.drhelenkelly.com