“In my 20-plus years working in this district, no one has ever held space for my own SEL skill development like this. I’m so grateful for this work.”
A principal in one of the nation’s largest school districts shared this with us and her colleagues near the end of a year-long commitment to developing leaders’ SEL skills. Investing just 15 minutes each Monday, the leadership team focused on personal reflection prompts, opening themselves up to the vulnerability implicit in examining their CASEL competencies.
We watched as the leaders became increasingly comfortable with themselves and others in the virtual room. Frequently, minutes went silently by. But that silence was often broken by a courageous insight. The persistence implied in waiting for that silence to end was likely the same persistence that contributed to the team’s commitment to consistently doing the work.
We find this consistency rare for most types of professional development, but even rarer concerning leaders’ own SEL development.
This example begs a stark question: why is an investment in leaders’ SEL so unusual?
To start, SEL is not usually part of any leadership model school leaders subscribe to. Instead, the past 40 years of research and policy have focused on instructional leadership as the holy grail for school leaders. This often leaves the role of social and emotional skills as a secondary concern.
Since SEL is typically not contemplated in school leadership models, it is no surprise that time, money, and attention are not given to the intentional development of competencies such as self-awareness or self-management. The cost, however, of failing to attend to these skills is nothing short of staggering.
While the well-being of teachers and students throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been in the spotlight, school leaders’ well-being is relatively much less addressed. The 2021 National Association of Secondary School Principals (2021) survey data illuminated the nature of school leadership:
- Only 24% “strongly agree” that they planned to remain a principal until they retired.
- Of the principals surveyed, 13% “strongly agree” that the stress and disappointments of serving as principal of their school weren’t worth it.
- And a total of 28% “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that they definitely were planning to leave the principalship as soon as possible.
School leaders are well aware of how overwhelming their job can be. Their resilience can derive from a noble morality that accepts the personal and professional sacrifices necessary to walk through the school doors each morning. However, that very same morality may inhibit school leaders from investing in their SEL skill development.
As well-intentioned as their dedication to funneling scarce resources to teachers and students is, there is an inescapable truth school leaders must confront: as they go, so does their school. It becomes harder to justify not investing in one’s well-being and leadership capacity when viewed through that lens.
Extreme emotion has always come with the role of the principal. However, the social-emotional dynamics in schools intensified this past year, and it urgently demands school leaders to better attend to their wellness. When the demands of any job outpace the supportive resources available – whether that be social support or supportive leadership – negative outcomes occur including decreases in job satisfaction and performance and increased stress (Granziera, et al., 2021). These outcomes can torpedo leaders’ influence.
Given how the school leader’s job is currently structured and numerous post-pandemic issues, principals will continue to face chronic stress, physical and mental health issues, and decreased job satisfaction. To avoid these, principals typically make one of two choices: they either leave the profession or turn to ineffective ways of relieving stress.
Unfortunately, these choices often disregard developing new social or emotional skills, which can be the root of the problem. Moreover, in the current environment, too few supports exist to help reduce the stress and burnout of school leaders. As one principal we interviewed shared, “There’s no real institutional structure or support for leaders to develop their social-emotional skills… this is work that’s pretty personal and private, that you have to do and not rely on work to provide it for you.”
How might we help leaders to see developing their SEL skills as an essential investment? We believe it is possible to create a daily SEL practice that can develop the personal resources necessary to balance out the job demands of school leaders.
For example, our research found that leaders suggested five minutes a day or 400 words as the limit for self-development. We used these constraints to design a simple, daily routine for our book The Daily SEL Leader: A Guided Journal.
- Grounded in CASEL’s competencies, a daily quote and prompt to reflection invites rapid exploration of SEL in a leader’s practice.
- A feelings wheel allows leaders to name emotions and expand their awareness of a range of emotions.
- A call to gratitude focuses leaders on being thankful.
This small, daily routine of reflecting, naming, and appreciating creates more internal resources for leaders to draw upon when needed.
Selflessness, scarce support, and time constraints are seemingly reasonable responses to why more school leaders are not investing in their SEL development. However, those obstacles only exist when the problem is framed as requiring selfless and time/resource-intense responses. We suggest another frame that is far more likely to yield success: small scale, consistent practice that need not change a school’s world tomorrow but might over months or a year.
One thing we can be certain of is that continuing to ignore supporting leaders’ SEL development will only contribute to perpetuating the increasingly unsustainable job of leading a school.
Granziera, H., Collie ,R. & Martin, A. (2021). Understanding teacher wellbeing through job demands-resources theory. In Mansfiled, C.F. (ed). Cultivating Teacher Resilience. Springer.