Soul Care for the Superintendency
The author’s three-part plan for attending to one’s personal needs during a year of solitary stress and unimagined demands
BY PAUL W. IMHOFF/School Administrator, June 2021

Paul Imhoff, superintendent in Upper Arlington, Ohio, urges fellow superintendents to support one another during times of enormous challenge.
During an AASA COVID-19 Task Force meeting earlier this year, I was greatly impacted when I heard the superintendent of a school district in Virginia share his impassioned concern about the well-being of fellow school leaders.

He referenced superintendents, career educators, suddenly being thrust into politically tainted battles like never before, amplifying the stress they were experiencing. “A lot of casualties on this,” he said. “Many colleagues retiring.”

As the hour-long Zoom meeting about school openings and returning children and staff to classrooms was winding down, his re-marks ignited a longer discussion about the intensely pressurized lives of superintendents over the past year. As school leaders were trying to focus on the educational and social-emotional needs of their students and staff members, they also were targets of personal attacks. A superintendent in Washington state told of having to hire armed guards for several weeks at his home because of threats by a community member to him and his family.

It was sobering to hear of superintendents who had been threatened and needed security details to protect their families. It was common to hear of superintendents who had to step away from social media due to threats. There were stories of mental health issues caused by extreme stress, as well as a rush of retirements and resignations.

Many of us have been hurting, and we need to be honest about the struggle, link arms and hold each other up and support one another.

Caring for Yourself

For the past year, school system leaders have worked tirelessly focusing on children, staff and families. Through all of this, we have been looked upon to provide leadership not only for the schools we serve, but often for the entire community. We did our best to make the most effective decisions possible under impossible circumstances. We put our hearts, minds and nearly every second of our time into this work.

Like most school leaders, I believe in the concept of servant leadership, and I know we also believe and practice the philosophy that leaders eat last. What we often forget is while leaders do eat last, leaders still do need to eat.

We must take care of ourselves if we are going to be able to serve and lead effectively, especially in times of crisis. We understand these concepts on an intellectual level, but they are difficult to practice and that has never been more true than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before we can focus on ourselves, we have to be honest about the journey we have been on. We have to share with trusted friends, and we have to realize we can’t do this alone.

For me, this has been the most difficult year of my career. I have been subjected to constant attacks. I have been harassed while mowing my grass. I have been harassed while taking a run in the neighborhood. Like many superintendents, I have had some very dark moments where I felt totally alone. But I am not alone, and neither are others in school system leadership.

I want to offer some helpful tips as we manage the pandemic and transition to the recovery phase.

Our Entire Being

Instead of thinking of this as self-care, I contend we ought to talk about soul care, a concept I learned of from a close friend who first heard it referenced by singer Alicia Keys (who spells it “soulcare”). It means taking care of the body, mind and soul. Taking care of our whole self. It is a great way to frame what we all need to do to be in a position to lead effectively and lead with a servant’s heart.

Soul care is about taking care of our entire being. It is not an indulgence or a luxury — it’s a basic necessity.

By practicing three basic steps we can be in a much better position personally and professionally. Remember, while leaders do eat last, we do need to eat.

»No. 1: Make a soul-care plan.

As leaders, we must create our own plan that describes how we will take specific actions that will positively impact us as leaders and as people. We are each wonderfully unique, so what works for one of us will not work for someone else.

The concepts to consider are all action-oriented. For me, making time to work out each morning enables me to start my day in the right head space. Another action step could be stepping away from e-mail after a certain time each night to give yourself a better chance at a peaceful night of sleep.

Give yourself something to look forward to each week — it may be spending time with your spouse or partner or scheduling a Zoom call with a trusted friend. Relationships matter, and you know the relationships that feed you versus the relationships that drain you. Take the time to invest in the relationships that feed you.

»No. 2: Be accountable.

Making a soul-care plan is not enough. We have to share it with a trusted someone. Accountability matters, and we are better together.

Throughout the month of January, a group of about 18 superintendents in Ohio came together to focus on soul care. We shared our individual goals of attending to regular exercise, committing to having a quiet lunch every day, finding 15 minutes for meditation, improving our diets and several other items. We did these things together.

School system leadership can be solitary work, and to be successful, we must focus on soul care. We will need to find a way to practice accountability.

»No. 3: Share your journey.

This is the most difficult step. Share your journey with your team to become the role model for soul care, thus giving others permission to do the same. Some may believe the top leaders always have the answers, that leaders never worry, that leaders always have it all together. The reality is, those we serve need to know we are human. We have struggles and we certainly don’t have all the answers.

Have the courage to share your journey with your team. Give them the freedom to share as well. By sharing our journeys, we give everyone the freedom to be real and to take time to care for their own souls.

Earlier this year, I shared my journey with my entire team in the school district. I also took the time to be honest about my struggles. I told them that a trusted friend had recently told me I was becoming angry and judgmental. This friend was right. It was difficult to hear, but I needed to hear that feedback. I am not that person, and I’m so fortunate to have a friend who cared enough to be honest.

We are all on a journey and we have struggled in different ways during the pandemic. Let’s be honest and rely on each other so we can become even stronger and more authentic leaders as we move forward.
As AASA’s incoming president, Paul Imhoff addressed the association’s 2021 national conference on the necessity of leaders attending to their bodies and minds.

Forging Onward

I am incredibly proud to be a public school leader. During the pandemic, superintendents have been leaders in communities across the country. We have spoken openly and honestly with our communities. We have made the tough decisions based upon science, and we have made decisions based upon what is best for kids. Many of us have been attacked. We have struggled. Our families have struggled. But we have kept leading.

Commit to soul care as we conclude this tumultuous school year. Make a soul-care plan, be accountable, and share your journey. If you see a colleague struggling, do something about it. Reach out and offer a hand. If you are struggling, ask for help. I don’t know a single superintendent who wouldn’t drop everything to help.

Remember, leaders do eat last, but great leaders remember they do need to eat!

PAUL IMHOFF, president-elect of AASA, is superintendent of Upper Arlington Schools in Upper Arlington, Ohio. Twitter: @imhoffpaul. This article is adapted from the author’s speech at the AASA National Conference on Education in February.