As a school leader, the number of things you could be doing to improve your school is infinite. There’s always another teacher to coach, another student to check in with, another way to improve.
If we don’t have a benchmark for being satisfied with what we accomplish, we’ll perpetually feel overwhelmed and unsuccessful. We’ll feel stressed.
The Stress Equation
The level of stress we feel is based on a simple formula:
Stress = Expectations – Capacity
Simply put, how bad we feel is a function of how much we expect of ourselves, minus how much we’re capable of delivering.
This means stress is largely a choice, because we have some control over the degree to which we internalize other people’s expectations.
Of course, if you’re feeling the pressure of others’ expectations, there’s a good chance it’s because those expectations have power. They can’t just be ignored. They must be managed.
John is a high school principal who’s been on the job for the better part of a decade, and he’s well-respected in his mid-sized town.
Over the past few years, the graduation rate at John’s school has slipped a bit, and he’s feeling the pressure—from his own conscience as well as the community—to turn the tide and help more of his students cross the stage on graduation day.
At the same time, John’s state passed new teacher evaluation requirements, so he’s now required to complete nearly twice as many formal observations, and his final evaluations are several pages longer than they used to be. He likes the new rubric, but it creates a ton of paperwork.
The new evaluation rules, coupled with miscellaneous other district initiatives, on top of the need to improve the graduation rate, is piling the stress on John. He knows he can’t let it continue to build, with his family history of heart trouble.
Both for the good of his school and for his own health, John needs to get things under control.
Where to Start
The stress equation makes it clear that John can do two things (and he should probably do both of them): Reduce the expectations he places on himself in terms of workload, and increase his capacity to manage that work efficiently.
But here John runs into a moral dilemma: How can I expect less of myself and still do right by students? If my responsibilities and paycheck are staying the same, how dare I go easier on myself?
Sure, John can get plenty of mileage out of productivity tools and techniques. And he should. But he’ll also need to work on the expectations piece of the equation, because no level of productivity can help John meet personal standards that have spiraled into infinity.
One day, John talks to several staff members within a 15-minute span, and realizes that everything he’s passed on to them has been a burden lifted from his mind. He uses an app on his iPad to deal with some data that’s been piling up. And he realizes that a problem area in the halls, which he asked teachers to help supervise during passing period, hasn’t had a flare-up in weeks.
It dawns on John that his work ethic and high expectations can be channelled not into longer hours, but into more purposeful action.
Instead of trying to be the lone warrior and do everything himself, he can think more carefully about how to involve his team, and how to delegate.
He can think about the organizational habits that will solve problems permanently, like seniors who don’t ask for the help they need with their college applications, so he’s not a firefighter scrambling to put out individual fires as they break out.
He realizes that he can build systems—combinations of tools, strategies, and habits—both personally and across his school that will take on the burden that he’s been bearing personally.
And he can go home a happy man—not content with the status quo, but satisfied that he’s done a good day’s work and made a marked difference in students’ lives.
How is your stress equation stacking up? What adjustments could make a difference for you?