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The Stress Equation

Stress isn’t a status symbol, and we have to draw the line somewhere—so that what we commit to doing, we can do successfully.

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’s Story

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.

John Stressed

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.

The Epiphany

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?

Drawing the Line on Stress


Yesterday, I wrote that we shouldn’t see stress as a status symbol, and that stress can come from a mismatch between the situation we face and our level of skill.

But stress can also come from having far too much to do—which probably sounds familiar if you’re a school administrator.

When there’s more on your plate than you can possibly handle, how can you keep it from stressing you out?

Get Everything Straight

Sometimes we’re stressed not because we have too much to do, but because of clutter.

A pile of disorganized work is far more overwhelming than a neat stack, and the same is true when we’re talking about mental clutter.

What does this mental clutter look like?

  • Not being clear on what needs to be done
  • Avoiding decisions about priorities
  • Not marking deadlines on the calendar
  • Not finishing things you could easily finish

and so on.

But after you’ve addressed these issues, you’ll still have too much to deal with. So how do you keep that from stressing you out?

Draw the Line

Once your priorities are clear, you’ll have to make a hard call and draw the line.

Everything above the line gets done. Everything below the line doesn’t.

This one of the hardest decisions to make clearly, because our superhero tendencies make us reluctant to admit that we have limits.

We want to hold out hope that somehow we’ll get to that months-old task, instead of facing reality and admitting it won’t get done.

Efficacy and Efficiency

But if we can muster the courage to admit, to ourselves and others, what we will and won’t be able to accomplish, something remarkable happens:

We can actually fulfill our commitments. We can accomplish what’s above the line.

And this increases our sense of self-efficacy, which in turn increases our productivity.

We’re much more likely to work in the flow state, and to finish what we start, because we believe we can…and because what we’ve committed to is actually doable.

Are you resisting drawing the line? What needs to fall below it so everything else can get done, and so you can leave every day feeling more successful?

Stress Is Not a Status Symbol

Book cover for Red Badge of CourageWhen I read Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage as a 10-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to experience suffering in the name of heroism or nobility.

Today, I still can’t.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows a young man who joins the Union army during the Civil War. Though the young man, named Henry, isn’t sure he’ll have the courage to stand tall in battle, he desperately wants to be marked as one of the brave, and wants a war wound—a “red badge of courage”—to prove his honor.

Note that he doesn’t merely want to help his side win the war. He doesn’t just want to be brave. He wants a wound that he can wear with pride, so that others will know his true measure.

As principals, we often have the same attitude—except that instead of a wound, we want stress. We want to be seen as overloaded, overwhelmed saints who nevertheless press on and achieve victory through our superhuman efforts. We want to be heroes.

Our students don’t need us to be heroes. They need us to perform at our best, to be the kind of leaders we know we can be.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed the concept of flow to describe the optimal state of mind. We can do very challenging work with a very high level of skill, yet a very low level of stress, when we’re in the flow state:
Flow diagram

As you can see, anxiety is caused (at least in part) by not acting skillfully enough. The skill to which I’m referring in this case is handling our workload so that we can operate at peak performance.

If you’re stressed, look for ways to reduce your stress so that you can be more effective as a leader. Don’t wear that stress as a status symbol.

1 ELR11: Ian Vickers on Teacher Well-Being

Eduleadership RadioIn this episode of Eduleadership Radio, Ian Vickers joins me to discuss how we can take steps to improve teacher well-being in our schools.

Educators are no strangers to hard work—sometimes at the expense of our own health. How can we do great work on behalf of kids, while also taking care of ourselves?

Concerned about teacher stress, burnout, and related health implications, Ian embarked on a year-long campaign to promote health and wellness among his staff at Sancta Maria College in Flatbush, Auckland, NZ.

He found that a series of small steps, which he has compiled into a booklet that he makes freely available, dramatically reduced the illness rate in his school. Ian was kind enough to explain his approach, the strategies, and the results in our conversation.

Ian Vickers photoOver the past year, Ian has shared his teacher well-being initiative with hundreds of principals around New Zealand, and welcomes further interest from around the world.

To contact Ian about his teacher well-being program, you can email him at teacherwellbeingglobal[at]gmail.com.


Listen Now:

Download this episode (MP3 format, 29 minutes, 14 MB)

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Ian adds:

Below is a YouTube video of a Maori song called “He Tangata” by a group called Oceania.

There is a Maori proverb – He aha te mea nui o tea o? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

This roughly translates – What is the most important thing in the world? It’s the people, It’s the people, It’s the people.

The song is saying that people are the most important aspect of our world, town, workplace, and schools.