How principals can build a culture of resilience in their school

How principals can build a culture of resilience in their school

Across Australia’s education, there is a glimmer of hope that 2022 could be the year that the word “Covid” begins to fade from the public vernacular and things return to normal for students, parents and school staff.

Higher rates of vaccination, the strengthening of public health measures and a gradual decline in case numbers could very well mean that Australian kids end the year celebrating their school formals, participating in Schoolies and looking to the future with a newfound sense of optimism. 

But in the meantime, serious issues such as burnout, stretched resources, staff shortages, and the potential for disruption caused by absences and COVID-19 are a stark reminder that big challenges remain.

As those as the helm of our nation’s schools, principals are working hard to ensure that teaching and learning routines return to normal as quickly as possible.

‘A resilient principal means a resilient school’

Peta Sigley, Chief Knowledge Officer at workplace resilience organisation, Springfox, says that when a principal demonstrates resilience in their own life, it paves the way for the creation of a resilient school – one that is “grounded in productive, mentally healthy teachers, who can sustain a high level of performance, and effectively prepare students for life beyond the classroom”. 

“We know that being a leader demands a tremendous amount of responsibility, and stress – both positive and negative; it’s a normal response to the weight of this high-pressure role,” Sigley told The Educator.

“Stress in leaders can have a ripple effect and a principal who is unable to manage stress may find that their teachers also exhibit stress as a result of high-tension behaviour. This in turn, is felt by students in the classroom and the wider school community.”

Sigley said employees often report that their boss is a key factor in the stress they feel at work, indicating that how a leader manages their own emotions directly impacts those they work with.

 “The power of resilience in leadership is that it acknowledges things aren’t always smooth sailing and prepares you to bounce back from situations with focus, decisiveness and purpose, rather than sending you into a permanent state of distress,” she said.

“There are simple ways to take control of negative stress and demonstrate resilience.”

She said these include funnelling negative stress into something productive that feels good; going for a run or cooking dinner for loved ones can be healthy ways to diffuse the negative energy boiling under the surface and avoid any outbursts.  

“Principals can also catch, check, then change, or reframe. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your attitude into a more constructive and beneficial response,” Sigley said.

“Another important tip is taking time at the end of each day to acknowledge the positive things that have happened. This will allow you to focus on the good; nurture personal relationships and leave the negativity behind.”

Fostering resilience on a community level

Sigley said principals can foster resilience both on a personal and a community level by focusing on the ability to accept ongoing change and to rise to the challenge of finding new ways to operate will be essential.

She said simple ways to do this both personally and within the school community include:

  • Be flexible and ready to adapt. No doubt, things will change a lot as the year progresses. Leaders who are ready to set carefully made plans aside and to build new ones in collaboration with teachers, will be well placed to bounce forward.
  • Maintain and build relationships. Regular check-ins and open conversation with your staff will help you spot the early signs of negative stress and burnout. Identifying colleagues in need of support at the early stages and putting in place structures to help them, will safeguard against potential absences and disengagement.  
  • Respond carefully and with perspective. With all the inevitable twists and turns the year is likely to produce, it will be important to remain calm and rational to find the best solutions. Situations can seem overwhelming in the moment, but over the longer term, lose their impact.
  • Utilise mistakes for future benefit. Making mistakes is going to be inevitable this year as schools think and adapt in real time. Leaders who accept that mistakes are key to innovation and adaptation dispel an environment of fear, giving colleagues the courage to suggest new ideas and try new ways of working.

Integrating resilience into daily working life

Sigley said principals are currently working in a challenging and unprecedented environment and building resilience can help master stress and minimise the risk of developing mental health problems such a burnout and stress.

In particular, one of biggest drivers of stress for principals stems from ‘over-caring’ about the needs, opinions or behaviours of students, parents or teachers. Building resilience can help educators step back from the emotionally charged work they do and shift into a more constructive and beneficial response. 

“In building personal resilience, prioritising daily routines and practices is important,” Sigley explained.

“Encouraging these same behaviours in colleagues, alongside supporting regular breaks, structured downtime from work and discouraging an ‘always on’ mentality, will also help educators make time to invest in their own resilience practice.”

Sigley said principals can build the foundations for personal resilience by doing the following:

  • Take time to meaningfully connect.  Maintaining healthy and emotionally stimulating relationships with your personal network or family takes educators out of the demanding ‘pastoral care’ role they so often take on.  
  • Implement a good sleep routine. Getting into a structured 7 to 8-hour sleep habit and regular wake up time. Sleep is critical for mental health and especially important for those that operate as decision-makers. 
  • Keep your body active and fuelled. Daily movement and eating well are great tools to help you refocus and increase your resilience long term. 
  • Learn how to breathe. Controlled breathing can benefit your cognitive performance, help you effectively manage stress, improve concentration, increase creativity and boost productivity.