top of page

Principal Well-Being - Managing Stress and Staying Healthy

Practical Self-Care for School Leaders

There are many things we learn about a job after we accept it. For many school administrators, that includes understanding that the principalship can be extremely stressful.

Principal wellbeing is essential to the success of a school; I’d argue that my school’s achievements are directly proportional to the quality and quantity of self-care in which I invest.

The Stress Though

Administrators face challenges unlike many others in schools. We are the “people in charge.” Therefore the situations that make it to our desk are often complex, highly emotional, and not always smooth to navigate.

For example, today I happened upon a quick video on social media and quickly found myself glued to the five-minute segment. The video was from a popular interview show where a parent who had recently went off on a school administrator was being interviewed about their behavior. Like any high-ratings interview show, they included the viral video and showed a global audience the behavior of this extremely angry parent; like 11 out of 10 anger. I am not one to typically get pulled into the allure of just any viral video. But this one had me in its grips.

Any one of us could be that administrator to a parent.

I don’t have to poll you to know that each of us has seen the biggest of emotions in people – BIG emotions: rage, mania, hatred, frustration, devastation, shame, sadness, grief. My heart went out to the administrator who was on the receiving end of this person’s tirade, because I know what it’s like to take that (and other burdens) home with me each night.

The principalship is a family job. Even if I leave the work at work, some nights I still bring home the stress and need to find healthy ways to set it aside.

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

You and I both know why we tolerate and navigate situations like that – because we love this work. I tell my students that I haven’t worked a day since I became an educator: “It’s not work if it’s something you love to do.” We make incredible impact in our work, change lives for the better, and we know we serve a diverse community with varied values and skill levels.

So the question becomes: How do I nurture my principal wellbeing in this role? How do I show up each day as my best self, so I can be there for my students and team?

For what it’s worth, this is my formula – forged after many pit-in-the-stomach, can’t-sleep nights, panicky wake-ups at 3AM, and tons of trial-and-error. I hope this helps even one of you, my colleagues!

Burn the Tense Energy

Where do you carry your stress? Shoulders, lower back, your jaw or temples? I carry mine in my stomach ~ it’s this hollow, sinking feeling in my stomach that feels like a tangled ball of stress. My stress feels directly connected to my mind. When I’m in one of those places (for example, there’s a problem burning in my brain and a question of whether to solve it by email tonight or first thing tomorrow), I can feel that problem in my stomach.

We all experience stress differently in our bodies. Where does yours live? How does it impact you throughout the day?

Hands down, without exception, 30 minutes of heavy breathing activity always makes that feeling better.

Two years ago, I decided to invest in stress-relieving exercise equipment. I didn’t set out with HUGE goals to get in shape or train for a race. My goal was to be less stressed in my work by getting energy out every day. I invested in an entry-level treadmill on Amazon, a weights set, and a yoga mat for stretching. Here’s exactly what I bought.

I’d be lying if I told you have a strict routine by which I stay fit. I have, however, quickly come to rely on these fitness tools when my stress is high. It’s a feeling as I drive home: “I need to walk or run tonight,” when my brain and body are consumed with a problem. Working out has slowly become a habit for me, and my go-to for stress relief.

While walking or running, I love to either tune out while streaming something relatively mindless, or put on some music that makes it easy to escape. I set the goal of 30 minutes on my treadmill; either walking or running or a combination.

Without fail: I always feel less tense, clearer, and ready for quality rest after I burn off the tense energy. 30 minutes is absolutely worth the investment for what I get in return!


In 2021, as the pandemic continued, I decided to take my stress management and fitness to the next level. I invested in a Peloton bike+ and I couldn’t be happier!

The Peloton membership comes with so much more than cycling classes, so there's no chance of getting bored. I use it for walking, running, HIIT classes, strength training, stretching, yoga, meditation, and so much more.

I discovered Peloton through one of my principal friends. My life has forever changed for the better! I’ve joined a community of other educators and principles, and we follow each other’s progress every day. I am not ashamed to say that I am now a proud Peloton owner. My favorite coaches are Bradley Rose (he’s so funny!) and Kendall Toole (who pushes me to my limits).

Save $100 now! If you use my Peloton Referral code (87F3ED) when you buy your bike, you’ll get $100 off gear. I used my principal friend’s code and basically got my shoes and a T for free! What’s in it for me…I also get $100 to spend on Peloton-brand clothing. You must buy the bike AND your gear in the same purchase to get the savings.

Call a Mentor

Even though students view us as “the school celebrity,” the principalship can be such a lonely job. Many times I’ve faced challenges in my role where talking to my counselor/dean is just not appropriate, such as with personnel matters. I can’t talk to my partner because they’re swamped, there’s too much back story, or I don’t want to bring it home. It sometimes feels like I can’t talk to anyone. I have felt this way so many times.

Fortunately I have three professional mentors in my life who have helped me grow through years of work together. They are who I call when the going gets tough. Two of the three are really great at making me laugh, and always help normalize this work we do (which is so not normal sometimes!).

The other has such a fascinating life that I get lulled by listening to their stories just like I did when they were my boss. I quickly don’t feel so alone anymore when I talk to one of my mentors.

Something I’ve learned, for what it’s worth: I have a few people in my life that don’t actually help me feel better. We talk about the problems but never really get to solutions. I’ve learned that these aren’t my go-to people when I’m ready for an uplift or to hear some hard truths. So I stick with those who believe in education; they believe in our work, and don’t get buried by obstacles. They truly help me in my principal wellbeing.

Leave My Office

As you know, it’s really easy to get buried at our desks. The work of the principalship is endless.In order to stay connected to the job of teaching and the lift of being a student, I have to stay “on the playing field” which is out and about in my school. My strategy is to take my laptop and go somewhere else – somewhere I can interact with students.

One of my favorite places to do work is in the center of my school in the Commons: Grand. Central. Station. As I prepared for the principalship, I read a wonderful book by author Jen Schwanke called, “You’re the Principal! Now What?” Sounds corny but it was seriously packed with excellent advice for this newbie!

In Jen’s book, she shares one of my favorite tips: Make a goal to see every student and every adult every day. Moving my office to the Commons helps me achieve this goal, and undoubtedly helps my wellbeing.

The administrators I admire most are those who have never forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher. That is easier said than done; as the nature of a leader’s work shifts from classroom to school-wide, it’s understandable that our perspective and problems will change. However, remembering what it’s like to teach (to give all day, to be teacher-tired, to be “on” constantly) – I work at that daily, and leaving my office is one way to do that. Ultimately, staying connected to those I serve helps my principal wellbeing.

A Faith That Works

Regardless of what you believe in, I’ve found that a faith practice is vital to my principal wellbeing. When the work is huge, when my spirit is low, or when my heart breaks for a student, family, or colleague, my spirituality undoubtedly carries me.

Each morning while enjoying a cup of tea, I practice getting into a “new day” mindset. I have a few select prayers that I say in my head. There are also a couple of meditation books that speak to me. I take 10 minutes to center myself and focus this time on gearing up – acknowledging that I’m headed to a really hard job that requires all my mind and heart. I remind myself how difficult this work is – not in a defeatist way, but gratefully and with resolve to do my best.

Throughout the day, I pause when I’m unsure, confused, or tuning out. I’ll say a quick prayer or recenter myself. This happens several times per day, and I undoubtedly feel as though it’s helped my leadership. I also am not shy about praying in the bathroom! Before important meetings (leading my first interview team, emceeing at Senior Awards, etc.) I’ll lock the bathroom door and pray. I call it “powering up,” and for me, it works wonders.

Here are three of my favorite books for the morning:

Step Away

Finally, my principal wellbeing is healthiest when I spend time away from the work: with my family, with friends, and engaging in activities I love. However, stepping away is really tough to do. The principalship is (in many ways) a 24-hour-a-day job.

I distinctly schedule time away from the work. Each summer I schedule my school-year vacations so that they’re on the books and therefore more likely to happen. Vacations for me look like weekends away ~ trips to the nearby city, renting a VRBO in a small town, or buying tickets to an event that make me leave home for a weekend. I also schedule longer trips during Winter Break and Spring Break. If it’s scheduled, then I have something to look forward to and know that a “recharge” is just around the corner.

Now leaving my laptop at home and shutting off email alerts – that’s something I have to do, too. Again, not easy! But so worth it to my wellbeing.

My Secret Weapon

Okay, this strategy is going to sound…weird. It IS weird! But for what it’s worth, I have found one tool that really helps with my principal wellbeing. And when you find something that works, stick with it.

A few years ago while online shopping for colleagues, I came across a cute series of bracelets. Though they couldn’t ship fast enough for my approaching office gift exchange, I bought one for myself specifically to help with stress reduction.

This cute silver cuff is engraved with a sweet message, “Note to Self”. Engraved on the inside (so no one can see it) reads, “Let that s*** go.” I’m not a frequent bracelet wearer so when I have a problem that I’m fixating on, I will wear my bracelet.

Each time it moves, it reminds me to check my mind and see if I’m fixating on that problem again. I take a few breaths, remind myself to “let that s*** go,” and viola! Four or five reminders later, and the problem is often gone.

(Profanity warning!) Click through the options to find my bracelet!

I know it sounds cheesy or strange but for me – it works!

And that being said…

Find What Works for You

One of my favorite sayings is, “There’s a wrench for every nut.” These are some of the strategies that work to keep me balanced, open, and happy in this complex, demanding role. I hope you find some ideas and inspiration here to help you stay your best!

Please share your strategies in the comments below. Better yet ~ follow me on Instagram or Facebook and let’s start a conversation about principal wellbeing.

1,498 views0 comments


bottom of page