Work being done by the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS), in partnership with WellAhead, aims to increase awareness of the importance of well-being at the highest leadership levels, and to bring systems-wide, comprehensive, collaborative practices for improved levels of wellness in an increasingly stressful job.
The old cliché, “It’s lonely at the top!” can be very true for school principals, superintendent/directors and other educational leaders. And while not all leadership personalities may present themselves as caregivers, in interviews that my colleague, Jim McLellan, and I conducted with more than 45 Superintendents and their teams in Alberta, they made it clear that they care much more about the wellness of their staff, students and communities than about their own personal wellness.
It’s common sense that leaders must be well in order for the organizations they lead to be well, whether that be schools or school systems. The metaphor of putting on the oxygen mask on oneself before others applies! Much work related to student wellness and mental well-being is underway in most Alberta school authorities (boards). What will it take to convince education leaders, school boards, politicians and society in general that education leader and staff wellness is worth making a priority?
As our many baby-boomer leaders near retirement, the supply of quality superintendents is decreasing, while the demand for such leaders, at a time when our schools are facing the highest levels of accountability and greatest standards, is increasing. The reality is that few education leaders are aspiring to principalship and superintendent/director positions. The work is too hard and too stressful. There are so many pressure points that the application pools for education leadership positions are now often very thin. So, what will it take to turn this around?
This is exactly what the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) are hoping to learn. The three main goals of this initiative include:
- To increase the number of school authorities that reflect mental well-being, in the context of wellness, as a key priority.
- To increase the understanding among decision-makers at the system, school and policy-maker levels of key elements to school authority integration of mental well-being.
- To increase understanding among decision-makers at the system, school and policy-maker levels of the importance of workplace wellness in K-12 education.
What is the motivation to be involved in this work?
I was indeed fortunate to be involved in school leadership early in my teaching experience. I certainly did not aspire to such leadership as I considered my career options, while dreaming of making a difference to kids. I suppose leadership came more naturally before I made a decision to learn more about it.
As I moved to division office in Superintendent–type roles, it became clear that leadership was more challenging than ever. Teaching as a noble profession seemed to be on the decline with our society in general. The explosion of the Internet and social media complicated the work rather than simplifying it. Increasing expectations of what services schools should provide further complicated leadership roles at school and at the school authority levels. And more recently, the polarization of perspectives has increasingly added to the stress in educational environments. I have found this to be true in conversations about all kinds of issues, including priorities, budgets, transportation, buildings and education programs.
It can be difficult, for many reasons, to seek help when you need it. There is 360-degree pressure and role overload. You can never keep everyone happy.
In short, while we strive for child-centered and solution-based conversations, high emotions can hijack the agenda. As I also saw friends and family struggle with their own mental health, I wanted to learn more about mental health and wellness, have the autonomy to learn and apply what I learned and to be clear in my purpose to make a positive difference in even a broader way than I could as Superintendent of Schools. Managing key leadership positions, including principals and superintendents, is by its very nature lonely work. It can be difficult, for many reasons, to seek help when you need it. There is 360-degree pressure and role overload. You can never keep everyone happy.
What’s the good news?
The good news is that we know lots about what works and does not work in improving and sustaining mental well-being. There are a number of well-researched frameworks that clearly indicate there is no silver bullet. Rather, systems-wide, comprehensive, collaborative practices are required in order to make a positive difference over time. Knowing this, where does one get started? Personal wellness? Student wellness? Staff wellness? Leadership wellness? Workplace wellness? Organizational wellness? YIKES! Leadership theory 101 makes it clear that those with the issues are in the best position to solve those issues. Thus the importance of systems-wide, comprehensive, collaborative practices, including those partners who can add to the research knowledge and skills-based practices that will lead to improved wellness within any organization.
What are the key practices of the CASS mental well-being initiative?
Some of the strategies of our work include:
- Focus on understanding system and school leaders’ needs for professional learning, peer-to-peer connection and resources on the topic of mental well-being.
- Initiate conversations with all school authorities (boards) across the province of Alberta to learn more about context, successes and challenges to date.
- Embed and align mental well-being strategies in the Professional Practice Standards for Superintendents and School System Education Leaders.
- Connect school system leaders and wellness-related partners and initiatives across Alberta.
Alberta is ripe for such work. There are already many resources available to contribute to such practices. The issue is that these resources and supports are not so well aligned to the perceived needs of the members of the College of Alberta Superintendents. The volume of research and strategies related to student mental well-being can be overwhelming, and there is very little in the research literature related to specific mental well-being practice for leaders. Some very strong support material is not that well known. Another important context is the work related to the fairly new Professional Practice Standards for Superintendents and School System Education Leaders in Alberta. Where the standards come to life for education leaders in the province is in the Leadership Quality Standard Practice Profiles. This is where we hope to embed exemplars of how leaders might best weld wellness and mental well-being with the leadership standards that make up our professional practice.
What can leaders do to ensure their mental well-being?
There are so many storms that leaders and educators in general face in their work each day. In The Dark Side of Educational Leadership,1 Polka and Litchka speak about the storm metaphor as it relates to the Superintendent role. Many of the case studies presented could also be very true for any educational leadership position. Their storm survival guide includes:
- Maintain personal and professional composure.
- Maintain optimism.
- Seek out formal and informal mentorship.
- Stick to one’s principles.
- Be aware – see the storm coming as much as possible.
- Seek support.
As a result of their interviews of 25 education leaders in Canada and the U.S. related to dealing with adversity, Patterson and Kelleher advocate for six practices that their interview data suggest make a significant difference in the mental well-being of leaders.2 There is a good deal of congruency between their findings and Polka and Litchka’s:
- Accurately assess past and current reality.
- Remain realistically optimistic and hopeful.
- Be clear and remain true to personal and professional values.
- Continue to learn and have confidence in one’s abilities and maintain strong networks. Resilient leaders maintain considerable efficacy.
- Invest personal energy wisely.
- Act on the courage of personal convictions.
Granted, these steps sound easy, but are actually more challenging to achieve. I remain very hopeful and optimistic that the pathway to mental well-being lies in the elements of positive psychology. We are well aware of the importance of social, economic and human capital. Although psychological capital3 may be less known, there is much potential in learning and applying practices related to the fairly simple concepts of hope, efficacy, resiliency and optimism.
We generally know what works in improving mental well-being in a context of wellness. Working Together to Support Mental Health in Alberta Schools4 is an important resource that includes a multiple-partner, well-researched framework complete with background information, an assessment tool, six essential conditions of sustainable implementation practices and a basic planning guide to support the work. We also know it takes a minimum of 28 days and a concentrated effort to change practices and habits. Although the issues creating the landscape in which we work each day may be very complex, the practices to improved mental well-being within a culture of wellness can start very simply. If nothing else, start with drinking more water!
The Stresses of Superintendency
In their research with education leaders across North America, Polka and Litchka identified many trends related to decreased wellness, including:
- Compensation not aligned with responsibilities
- The politics of the role
- The role has become more complex with more complex issues
- Too many insignificant demands that detract from purpose and/or student learning
- Legislative reform
- Change of governments
- Loneliness of the position
- It’s difficult to ask for help, for fear of looking incapable
- Role overload leads to a sense of loss of professional identity
photo: iStock and Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, December 2019
- Walter S. Polka and Peter R. Litchka. The Dark Side of Educational Leadership. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education Publishers, Inc., 2008).
- Jerry Patterson and P. Kelleher. Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for turning adversity into achievement. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).
- Luthans, Fred, C. Youssef-Morgan and B. Avolio. Psychological Capital and Beyond (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015).
- Working Together to Support Mental Health in Alberta Schools (Alberta Government: 2017).