KOKOMO, Ind. — As a principal, Jennifer Rhoades works hard to prevent her teachers from burning out and leaving the profession — a critical job, given Indiana’s current teacher shortage.
However, Rhoades and other school administrators know that to lead their teachers and students, they also need to apply that same care to themselves.
“The professional lifestyle is, everybody works like mules, and it’s not sustainable,” said Rhoades, principal of Greencastle’s Tzouanakis Intermediate School. “You have to give yourself grace. Taking care of my own wellness is going to make me a better leader.”
She was among about 35 Indiana school administrators who attended a recent two day “Leading Schools Toward Hope and Wellness” retreat at Indiana University Kokomo, focused on leader and organizational well-being.
“We know you can’t take care of others when you’re burning the candle at both ends,” said Leah Nellis, senior advisor for IU regional campus K-12 initiatives. “We know the teaching profession is stressful in many ways, for multiple reasons. School administrators need to be able to pour into their teachers, to affirm them, to lift them up, to sustain them to do the day-to-day work in their classrooms.”
She added that students benefit when teachers and administrators’ wellness is supported.
“All kinds of research show student learning is stronger in more positive classrooms,” she said. “When you are anxious, you don’t do your best work.”
The idea for the retreat came from a conversation between Nellis and Jenny French, an IU Kokomo alumna who is assistant superintendent of the Greencastle Community School Corporation. Nellis told her about the School of Education’s wellness program for education students and alumni who are early career teachers, and French said a similar program was needed for administrators.
“It comes down to self-care, “ French said. “Administrators take care of their staff and students, and not themselves. This gives some time to pause and reflect as individuals, and for us to guide them through that process, so they are better prepared to meet the needs of their school community.”
Nellis said the need has been there for a long time, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on it.
“The stressors are a bit more pronounced because of the pandemic, and the division that exists in our state and society,” she said. “All of those things add additional pressure to school administrators. As we look at the number of teachers, administrators, and staff choosing to leave the profession, it’s easy to make the connection between workplace stress, wellness, and retention.”
While the retreat doesn’t solve all the issues educators face, it can help them manage the stress those issues cause.
“We know burnout is one of the primary reasons people leave education, burnout and lack of hope,” she said. “If wellness contributes to bringing hope to individuals and school communities, then logic follows that retention would be benefited as well.”
Rhoades noted it was helpful to talk to others in jobs like hers and hear their stories.
“It shows you that you aren’t alone,” she said.
The “Leading Schools Toward Hope and Wellness” retreat was co-sponsored by the Indiana State University College of Education, the Indiana Association of School Principals, and Ignite Well-being.