Sr. Mark Hollywood is a former school principal of a large Girls’ Grammar School and a one-time recipient of the Winston Churchill Award for Exploration. Today she brings her life experience as a principal to a newly formed school in poverty stricken El Salvador. Not one to shy away from a challenge, she had a calm mantra in the middle of what seemed like a hectic and busy life.
Her line was always uttered with a smile at the most pressing moments, maybe inspired by a contemplative life that had helped her find meaning amidst the most immediate worries and concerns in a tense school environment. I’m sure principals everywhere are envious of her words - "I don't do stress."
Stress can be defined as:
- The body’s complete physiological reaction to a demand.
- An emotional, physical, social, mental or chemical factor that results in tension.
- The end result of how we dealt with and reacted to events.
A look into the educator’s mind and we see many causes of stress - the hidden and continuous pressure in preparing pupils for final exams, the discipline issue that has yet to be dealt with, the parent who is not cooperative at a meeting, the requirement to keep and file accurate records or daily activities.
All of this and more can cause us to acquire high levels of stress and sadly we don’t deal with it due to our focused involvement in any given situation. The heart beats faster, the muscles begin to tense, the stomach churns when we know the next up is a meeting with the confrontational student, a call from an inspector or a ‘fill-you-in’ conversation from a Head of Department.
Over a prolonged period of time, other health problems can emerge from headaches, loss of appetite or interest, fatigue and inevitably, mood issues. At worst this can lead to depression and absenteeism may follow.
So how can a principal control the level of stress in his/her school life?
Here are some basic ways worth considering.
1. Find a little space within your actual job that allows you to tend to the interests that you enjoy, things that are creative and that are measurable in terms of achievement. Bring your mind to another place, not in a day dreaming kind of way but as part of a mini-project within the school. It may be working with a football team, a choir, an art class or a science experiment away from the exam oriented focus. This can be rewarding and relaxing.
2. Learn to compartmentalize. We can really only deal with one thing at a time, even though some issues take disproportionate amounts of time in our tending to them. The reality is that the problems of yesterday will still be here tomorrow and will not be solved at this hour or on this day. We can only do what is possible at any given moment.
Thereafter, we must learn the habit of placing an issue on the shelf until we return to it. Not all of life is found in any one place. We can’t let one singular issue take hold of our life.
3. Every month, do something that takes you away completely from your work. Acquire a hobby and enjoy it. Attend concerts or sporting events, climb a mountain, take flight! We need something ‘to look forward to’ and something to recall with delight.
Sometimes we can be shy about or unwilling to take necessary time for ourselves believing we have to carry the school with us every passing hour. But this is far from being spoiled, it is in fact a crucial part of our health.
4. Have someone to talk to whom you trust and who has a sense of the nature and place of your work.
5. Take a few minutes each morning all to yourself. This is where one can place things in perspective. Once we have spared a thought for the staff member or student who has lost a loved one, the efforts of your family to care for yourself and the place you have in their world, then most things that occur during the day will be viewed in a more balanced way.
6. A happy staff means so much in a school. Creating a climate where everyone feels relaxed and making the staff room a place where tea/coffee is enjoyed will reap its own dividends in terms of spirit and morale. Showing colleagues that they are valued in simple ways through a mention at a birthday or anniversary celebration shows care.
Care is at the heart of all relationships and the more normal family/community like bonds we build, the less problems will be.
Contentment is not a station that we arrive at but it is the very way that we travel. Travel lightly with the right attitude and hopefully our stress levels will reduce. But first of all, I have to make a decision that stress will not rule my life.
Maybe that was the educator sister's morning prayer, a simple line to herself and for herself that we could all practice. "I don’t do stress."