invited four superintendents to write about self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic when the demands of the job have been unrelenting. How are those responsible for leading school systems finding ways to unwind when their work world seems beyond control? These personal essays are intended to connect you on a human level with peers in other communities during this prolonged period of professional isolation. These four leaders are making their self-care a priority.
The Intentional Bookends to Your Day
BY JONATHAN COOPER
|Jonathan Cooper, superintendent in Mason, Ohio, starts each day with a three-mile run and finishes each with a late-night walk with his wife.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JONATHAN COOPER
I often have thought that the superintendency is one of the most interesting, complex and intense jobs one could have. That’s why I love it. And after this past year, I’m convinced it is one of the most stressful, which is why it’s necessary that we take care of ourselves so we can give back while serving and leading.
As I’ve always been told, you can’t give what you don’t have. In his book Atomic Habits,
James Clear emphasizes the importance of being intentional about our habits. He says our habits are like votes toward the people that we want to be.
I have found the habit of bookending my day with a run in the morning and a walk before bedtime serves as my renewal. My morning alarm goes off. Rain or shine, 15 degrees or 80 degrees, I get dressed and go through the habit of running three miles out-side to start my day. I love being outdoors. Ice is the only thing that will put me on the treadmill at the gym.
During the morning run, I listen to a chapter of a leadership book or podcast. At the end of my run, I pause for a couple of minutes and post a runner’s reflection on my Twitter account #RunnersReflection
. I’m not perfect with this habit, but it is what Clear refers to as habit stacking. You stack one healthy habit on another one, and it has a compounding effect. My kids will have these as logs about what their dad learned all those years of long days and evenings at work.
This routine helps me to start my day with purpose, focus and the ability to bring the energy and commitment it takes to serve my team, our students and our community.
At the end of the day, I conclude with a late-night walk with my wife. Again, rain or shine, hot or cold, we head outside and walk a mile or two. We process and reflect on our days, our four kids, our relationships with others, what has us most stressed or what we are grateful for that day. It keeps us aligned with each other, in tune with each other’s world and better able to serve each other and our family.
I believe being intentional about the bookends of one’s day, the way you start and end, sets you up for success. It doesn’t always ease the burdens of what you’re carrying, but it makes you stronger. It allows you to focus on today and not worry about tomorrow because we all know tomorrow will have worries of its own.
is superintendent of Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. Twitter: @cooperlearns
30 Minutes in Front of a Good Book
BY NANCY L. WAGNER
|Nancy Wagner, superintendent of River Trails School District in Mt. Prospect, Ill., says being submersed in a good book temporarily removes the worries of the day. PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY WAGNER
It is impossible to read and worry at the same time. Thus, reading is my daily self-care activity.
During this pandemic, I have been asked to make medical decisions for my public school community based on spotty scientific guidance. I worry constantly about the health and safety of my students, staff, community and family. My need for self-care has increased exponentially.
My reading routine begins in front of my living room window on a cozy couch. I put my feet up, my two dogs come and lay on my lap and I am transported to a world where I don’t have to make any decisions, other than when to turn the page or put down the book. If I add a cup of coffee, cocoa or a gin and tonic to my self-care ritual, I feel like I have spent hours at a spa.
If you were to meet me in person or in a virtual setting, you might have trouble believing I am an introvert. But that is true. I have trained myself in extroverted ways. When I finish my day, filled with hundreds of interactions, 30 minutes or so with a good book recharges my batteries. If I don’t have time to sit down and read an actual book, I always have an audio book or two ready on my phone. While waiting in a line, working out or commuting, I can listen to a story that transports me to a world where my problems become smaller. I also can listen to something inspiring or practical to help me meet my lifelong goal of making a difference in the world.
My days, like most of those working as superintendents, have been focused on the pandemic with the majority of my interactions happening on Zoom. So one of my favorite things about reading a book is that it can be done without a device. There is no light to keep me awake when it is time to sleep. Books are a non-threatening conversation starter when I talk with friends or colleagues, a diversion from public health matters or political conversations. I can be incredibly positive about a novel or a professional book, without being insensitive to what is happening in the world.
Start by finding a good book, and always remember, it is impossible to read and worry at the same time. If you try my self-care approach, please let me know. However you choose to take care of yourself, make sure you find the time.
Those who follow me on Twitter (@wagnernancy)
get my one-sentence book reviews or on GoodReads
where I use the star rating system.
is superintendent of River Trails School District 26 in Mt. Prospect, Ill. Twitter: @wagnernancy
Dusting Off My Latent Baking Skills
BY GUDIEL R. CROSTHWAITE
|Gudiel Crosthwaite, superintendent in Lynwood, Calif., has revisited culinary interests first sparked in junior high for creative ex-pression in his kitchen. PHOTO COURTESY OF LYNWOOD, CALIF., UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
The pandemic has disrupted our routines, structures and overall sense of well-being while forcing us in school leadership to make drastic adjustments. I’ve read a lot about developing new interests during these times, including learning to play a new instrument, taking up yoga or picking up some other cool hobby. And while all of these are great options, I personally have a passion for food.
Although eating may not neatly fall under the category of self-care, it’s definitely something that I appreciate and look forward to.
As educators, we know self-care requires reflection and ultimately changing our behaviors to achieve those desired outcomes. Our days are filled with so many anxieties, and educators at all levels have risen up like champions to support each other and students, often at the expense of their own mental and physical well-being.
When I was a student as a 7th-grader in a home economics class, I learned to prepare scrambled eggs and sugar cookies, but I’ve not spent much time since then expanding on my culinary skills. I do remember, however, feeling a sense of independence and enjoying the creative expression that came with preparing those simple recipes. When I started to revisit those early culinary days this past year, I didn’t have much training or practice to lean on as I’m a self-taught cook. The challenge of baking on the fly only added to my enjoyment. Each time out, I blend my recipes with my instincts to try to create the best result possible.
As a superintendent, I have been working from home one day a week to balance my role as a father and spouse during this stressful period. My family is invaluable, so balancing the responsibilities of a superintendency with self-care is not easy. For me, self-care also requires family time and serving as a role model at home while pushing myself to continue growing and becoming a better person.
As a consumer of media over the past year, my eyes have been drawn to colorful and savory-looking images appearing with recipes in the weekly Food Section of The New York Times
. I figured the time might be right to dust off those junior high school culinary skills.
I started with sugar cookies, and the positive affirmation at home led to other varieties that I shared with colleagues at work. Slowly, I worked my way to baking scones and, ultimately, I braved my way through multiple attempts to make dinner rolls and pizza dough.
We often tell our students, “Sometimes we need to fail to become stronger and better.” In all honesty, some of my baked goods never made it to the dinner table. But in the process, I learned much more about yeast, combining ingredients and the importance of a preheated oven — and about myself. Baking became another way to enjoy and appreciate my food while spending time with family and helping my mind momentarily get away from all the craziness we are working through together.
I hope I have learned to better understand our limitations as human beings and our need to engage in activities that keep us healthy and build our relationships.
is superintendent of Lynwood Unified School District in Lynwood, Calif.
Musical Notes That Speak to My Core
BY JEFFREY D. THAKE
|Jeffrey Thake, superintendent in Williston, N.D., resumed his trumpet playing despite limited chances to perform publicly with groups during the pandemic. PHOTO COURTESTY OF WILLISTON PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT 1 IN WILLISTON, N.D.
Ten years ago, I was a first-year superintendent. Understanding my roles and responsibilities was all-consuming. I was leading a small school district that required me to perform multiple duties — finance, human resources, curriculum, student services and clerical. I realized then the importance of balancing work and life. I needed a release.
One evening, while sitting in my home office, I looked across the room and spotted the carrying case that holds my trumpet. It dawned on me that I used to play my trumpet in ensembles and practice sessions for up to six hours a day while attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In the evenings, I would occasionally perform with live bands. If I weren’t a member of the band, I might either ask or be invited to perform on stage.
This was the moment I realized how much I missed playing my trumpet. I realized I was creating the imbalance by focusing so much on work and not enough on staying healthy and balanced. That year, I performed a few times as superintendent with the high school pep band and joined the pit orchestra for the spring musical. While playing and rehearsing with the orchestra, my trumpet playing endurance increased. I was having fun. I felt more balanced than I had in a long time.
I didn’t stop there. I began reaching out to musician friends who performed regularly. They invited me to join them or to fill in as needed.
Ironically, rehearsals for the pit orchestra started a month before the AASA National Conference on Education. Because my “chops” came back, I decided to bring my trumpet to Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego and New Orleans when the conference was hosted by these cities. I had the opportunity to perform with live bands in all of these great cities.
The same is true today during the pandemic. Opportunities to play my trumpet publicly have been sharply scaled back. I had become a member of the Williston State College City Band, but we were unable to perform the annual Tuba Christmas Concert due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With performances and large gatherings limited up until now, I believe the band might return to the stage this month.
I continue to receive open invitations to play my trumpet with the high school’s band. Also, the director of the community college band often reaches out if he needs a trumpet player. I take advantage of opportunities as I am able.
I look forward to AASA’s return to Nashville next February for its 2022 national conference. I will have my horn, just as I did at my first AASA event in Nashville in 2014 when I had the honor of performing with the B.B. King All-Star Blues Band.
Every time I get the opportunity to perform, it is truly a release. Music creates a chance to release every pent-up feeling and emotion. Being a superintendent and a musician is the perfect way to release the challenges of the superintendency in a fun and productive way.
is superintendent of Williston Public School District 1 in Williston, N.D. Twitter: @jeffthake