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Principals Offer 30 Ways to Fight Stress

Being a principal is a stressful job -- no doubt about it! But principals do a great job of figuring out ways to beat that stress. We asked our "Principal Files" team to share their stress-busting tips. Maybe a few of these 30 ideas will be ones you haven't thought of before.

Being a principal is a very stressful job. Principals put in long days, including evening and weekend hours. They are responsible for the well being of hundreds of students, each of whom has special abilities and needs. They lead what amount to small corporations that are rated on their output (test scores). New mandates are frequently imposed on already high expectations. Add to that a mountain of paperwork and meetings, queries and complaints from parents, playground and lunchtime duties, and you have the potential for a huge amount of stress.

But since stress comes with the territory, principals are also masters of dealing with it. They get pretty creative when it comes to finding ways to battle the stress that is "just part of the job." That fact couldn't have been more evident than when we recently asked our Principal Files team to share with us the ways they beat stress. Maybe you'll find some new stress-fighting tips among their "30 Ways to Fight Stress."

See the list of "principal" contributors to this month's article.

Make time to laugh. "I laugh a lot," principal Brenda Hedden told Education World. "Humor is a wonderful outlet for stress reduction." Principal Julie Ryan agreed that finding something to laugh about is a stress reducer: "We keep a daily Far Side calendar on the office counter. Reading ahead a few pages can do wonders to reduce stress!"

Listen to music. "I keep a few of my favorite CD's in my office," said Brenda Hedden. "When I need a moment for myself, but can't get away, I'll just stop and make time to listen to a song that rejuvenates me." Principal Tamara Fahmi does the same thing. "Sometimes I just take a 5-minute break I put on one of my favorite classical music CD's, put my feet up, and close my eyes to meditate." When principal David Christensen is stressed, he finds classical music to be a great relaxer too. "I listen to our local classical FM station on my way to work to get myself ready for the day," Christensen said. "I have the same station playing at low volume in my office, where it does wonders for reducing angst and stress in anyone who might enter. Even irate parents seem to be a bit calmer when the music is on Naughty kids are also invited to join me in my office to 'enjoy my music.' I can't imagine why, but that seems to be a deterrent to misbehavior!"

Keep a "praise file." Many principals and teachers keep a "praise file." Whenever they get a positive note from a parent, student, or colleague, they drop that note into the file. "I keep a kudos file," said principal Michael Miller, "and when I am feeling unappreciated I pull out that file and read cards and notes from parents, teachers, and students who were happy with me and what I was doing at the time." That's a way to feel better, said Miller, who is always surprised at just how many notes are in his folder. "It is also a reminder that the good definitely outweighs the bad," he added.

Surf the Net. "I love surfing the Net for great lesson plans, school graphics that are free, and other things," said principal Teri Stokes. "Surfing relieves my tenseness, and yet I am doing something that may be helpful." Bonita Henderson finds logging on to her computer to be relaxing too: "I fight stress by getting on my computer to do research, shop eBay and other stores, or to create greeting cards, flyers, calendars, or certificates for school."

Reading "gets my mind off the hamster wheel of worry"
--- Nina Newlin

Spend time with students. "My office staff can sense when I am getting stressed, and many times they just look at me and say 'Take a walk,'" said Michael Miller. "They know I will come back in a better mood if I get out into the building to spend time with the students." Julie Ryan said that getting out of the office and talking to some children reminds her why she is working so hard. "Kindergartners are especially helpful for this," Ryan told Education World. And Brenda Hedden said, "Hanging out in a classroom offers a wonderful perspective and can change my thinking. When I eat lunch with the students, I have a great time talking with them -- and my secretary can't find me!"

Expand your horizons. Principal Les Potter finds that doing other kinds of activities related to education can help relieve stress. "I get involved with activities such as teaching graduate classes, writing articles, or editing textbooks," said Potter. It might still be "work," but it is work of a very different kind.

Read. "I love books of every kind, but my favorite stress reliever is to read a murder mystery," said principal Nina Newlin. "I take time to read every night, even if only for a few minutes. It gets my mind off the hamster wheel of worry for at least a little while and lets me relax enough to fall asleep quickly."

Don't take stress home with you. "To me, the best way to fight stress is to leave it at work," said Les Potter.

Enjoy nature. "When I encounter stressful situation, I go for a walk and enjoy nature," said principal Maureen McNeely. "The sights of plants blooming and growing and animals caring for young or searching for food remind me that we are in a cycle of life. Observation of my surroundings always calms me." Principal Michelle Gayle does the same thing. "I like to take in nature in all its beauty. The clean, fresh air is stimulating and refreshing at the same time." A walk is also something that is easy to complete, added Gayle. "That's often what I need if I have started several projects during the day and not completed any of them. At least I can check one thing off my list!"

Spend quality time with pets. "A soft, warm, purring cat can do a great deal to relieve my stress and cheer me up," said Nina Newlin. "If I am feeling overwhelmed, often I will just spend some time interacting with my furry feline friends."

Classical music gets me ready for the day and it's a student misbehavior deterrent!
--- David Christensen

Plan to cook a meal. "I love to cook for my family, but there are often evenings when I cannot cook due to sporting events, meetings, and presentations," said Michelle Gayle. "When I can, though, the enjoyment of seeing my family's faces as we eat a meal together after a long and busy day brings a stress relief that words cannot capture."

Work in the garden. "When the weather is good, I love to work outside in the yard or garden," said principal Tim Messick. "The opportunity to 'get my hands dirty' and to see immediate results from my labors is relaxing as well as fulfilling."

Plan/manage time efficiently. Good planning can help eliminate stress, said principal Marguerite McNeely. "A lot of stress is due to poor planning, or not thinking in advance about the things that could go wrong in a situation," she added. Les Potter agreed that good time management helps to prevent stress: "Sometimes I choose to work during parts of my scheduled breaks. Doing that helps me catch up because there are so few interruptions when school is not in session. I find that if I manage my time wisely, I can do a lot without crashing and burning."

Do things with colleagues outside of school. "To reduce stress, I talk -- or network -- with other principals," said principal Paul Young. "It is soothing to know that others experience some of the same frustrations I do. At least it does that for me." Teri Stokes agreed. She gets together regularly with a group of female principals in her district. "Several years ago a few of us started taking tap dancing lessons together," Stokes told Education World. "The laughter and physical exercise were always a tremendous stress reducer." The group usually talked about work problems for the first 30 minutes, then danced for 30 minutes, said Stokes, adding, "It helped that we had a very supportive dance teacher who enjoyed our comical attempts as much as we did. The teacher even convinced us that other people would like a laugh too, so we performed for local groups, then state groups, then at the NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) conference in San Diego!" Since that performance, the group has stuck together, but these days instead of dancing they often schedule game nights. "We have become a wonderful support group for each other," Stokes added.

Watch a favorite soap opera. "I tape my favorite soap opera, All My Children, each day," said Bonita Henderson. "When I get home, watching the tape or a movie can be a good way to escape stress."

Take a whole weekend off. "Then be sure to tell the staff what you did. That way, you serve as a role model for taking care of yourself."
--- Julie Ryan

Plan a work-at-home day. "My greatest stress probably comes from overload -- too much work and not enough time," said principal Brian Hazeltine. "My board has OK'd taking an at-home work day once a year or so in order to catch up on some of the major reports and other projects. At home, I can get a lot done without phone calls, meetings, and other interruptions. Just having a quiet day to knock off some significant items and gain ground is a wonderful feeling. It's still work, but it seems to be stress reducing for me."

Take a "fun" class. "I have found that taking a pottery or ceramics class with my bride has been a wonderful way for us to share some 'quality time'," said Tim Messick. "Like gardening, a pottery class provides an opportunity to put my hands to work and end up with a pleasing product. I like engaging in activities like this where I can control the plan and outcome."

Listen to inspirational tapes. "I relax by listening to inspirational tapes on the way to and from work," said Teri Stokes. " Joyce Meyer is my favorite." For a different kind of inspiration on the way to work, Stokes said, "I often tune in to the Rick and Bubba radio show when I want to just laugh out loud all the way to work!"

Take the weekend off! "If you tend to work a lot of weekends, take one off to do something special," said Julie Ryan. "Then be sure to tell the staff what you did. That way, you serve as a role model for taking care of yourself."

Exercise. "I relieve stress by spending some time working off the day's frustrations on my Nordic Trak," said Nina Newlin. "I find that after working up a sweat for awhile, I end up feeling calm and relaxed." Julie Ryan sees the stress-reduction benefits of exercise too: "Exercise, exercise, exercise -- even if it is just to walk around the block at lunchtime!"

Take up running. "I did it to improve my cardio-vascular health, but I found out that it relieved stress more than anything else. I am now an avid runner."
--- Lee Yeager

Find an empty classroom. "I am known to be a very patient and tolerant person, but sometimes my stress level rises to the extent that I escape to the furthest vacant room in the school building and just close the door," said Tamara Fahmi. "When I return to my office, I am much calmer."

Schedule "girlfriend time" (or some time with the guys). "I fight stress by enjoying some 'girlfriend time'," said principal Karen Mink. "That is time when I get away from work and the family to go to dinner with the girls. Women share a special bond. We 'hear' each other and empathize with each other without trying to fix each other. An evening of laughter always lessens the days of stress."

Make an appointment. "Getting pampered with a manicure, a pedicure, or a massage" is a great way to deal with stress, said Michelle Gayle.

Go for a run. "I took up running three years ago," said principal Lee Yeager. "Initially, I did it to improve my cardio-vascular health, but I found out that it relieved stress more than anything else. I am now an avid runner." Paul Young has been a runner since high school. "Five miles alone on the road after work helps me burn off frustration," said Young. "It is good 'thinking' time too. Some of my best ideas have come to me while running."

"Stress is my friend -- I thrive on stress,"
--- Michael McNeece

Plan special outside activities to look forward to. "I always try to plan special activities so I have something to look forward to," said Les Potter. "I try to plan something for the near term, like going to a college or professional sports event -- maybe even making a weekend of it in another town -- or having friends over. I also like to be working on long-term plans for something like a summer cruise. That way, when I go home I can focus on those activities instead of school."

Meditate. "I fight stress in various ways," said principal Lucie Boyadjian. "First, I like to meditate. It's not easy to do, it takes lots of practice, but once you perfect it the results are amazing."

Always keep a positive attitude. Maintaining a positive attitude all the time makes a world of difference, said principal Larry Davis. "Changing your inner thoughts will change your outward expressions," he said.

Spend time with friends. "Having a best friend who is a good listener is a great way to relieve stress," said Nina Newlin. "Friends know that we can call each other anytime if we need a pep talk, a sounding board, or just a sympathetic ear. We advise, console, and cheerlead each other on a regular basis."

Communicate directly about stress. "If an individual has caused me to stress out, I have learned that communicating with that person directly is the best approach," said Lucie Boyadjian. Dealing with the situation sooner rather than later "clears the air much faster than festering about it."

Enjoy it! Or maybe instead of dealing with stress, you can do as principal Michael McNeece does -- make it your friend! "Stress is my friend -- I thrive on stress," McNeece told Education World. "The ability to handle or solve stressful situations is what sets me apart from the rest of my former classroom teaching colleagues who wouldn't have this job, no matter what it paid!"


This Month's "Principal" Contributors


  • Lucie Boyadjian, principal, Glen Oaks School, Hickory Hills, Illinois
  • David Christensen, principal, Wirreanda Public School, Medowie, New South Wales (Australia)
  • Larry Davis, principal, Oakleaf K-8 School, Middleburg, Florida
  • Tamara W. Fahmi, principal, Coral International School, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • Michelle Gayle, principal, Griffin Middle School, Tallahassee, Florida
  • Brian Hazeltine, principal, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, Airdrie, Alberta (Canada)
  • Brenda Hedden, principal, Park City Learning Center, Park City, Utah
  • Bonita Henderson, assistant principal, Central Fairmount School, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Michael McNeece, principal, Itawamba High School, Fulton, Mississippi
  • Marguerite McNeely, principal, Hayden R. Lawrence Middle School, Deville, Louisiana
  • Tim Messick, principal, Providence Day School, Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Michael D. Miller, principal, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida
  • Karen Mink, principal, O.C. Allen School, Aurora, Illinois
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, principal, Rock Hall Middle School, Rock Hall, Maryland (Grades 5-8)
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Julie S. Ryan, principal, Lower School, The American School in London, United Kingdom
  • Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary School, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, principal, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas
  • Paul Young, principal (retired) and past-president, NAESP (2002-2003), West Elementary School, Lancaster, Ohio

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Updated: 04/18/2015