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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

When Principals
Feel Helpless

Deborah had noticed her husband's irritability. He was tense, quiet, and distant. Finally, he admitted growing frustration due to ineffective communication with his superintendent. Sensing he would never be able to fall asleep, she offered a suggestion -- and a valuable lesson for all principals.

It might surprise some people that stressed-out school principals often fail to respond to everyday learning experiences in effective ways. But it won't surprise a single principal, because we have all been there.

In fact, the greater the stress we are under, the less likely we are to learn, reason, and accurately perceive what happens in the work environment.

In his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina shares how chronic stress deregulates the body's ability to deal with short-term responses. The influences of stress can be devastating. Stress hurts learning and it hurts people.

But there can be good stress as much as there is bad stress. For example, the stress students feel before examinations can help them study better. Musicians and actors describe a feeling of butterflies in their stomach before performances and state that when those butterflies aren't there, they sometimes make more mistakes.

Positive stress can provide a feeling of excitement and opportunity. It often helps athletes perform better in competition than in practice. Other examples of positive stress include a new job or birth of a child.

As principals, we utilize the positive aspects of stress to help us work hard, persevere, and motivate others to work outside their comfort zones.


Most of us have been taught to recognize stressors. We have heard that exercising, eating right, getting adequate amounts of sleep, and slowing down to deal with events can help reduce negative stress. Even the style and fit of our clothing can affect our stress.

In addition, numerous studies chronicle the causes, symptoms, and effects of negative stress. And a quick review of principals' state and national conference agendas indicates that we have ready access to workshops that promise to help us learn to manage school stress.

Our inability to deal with stress is not due to a lack awareness of cause or effect. It's one thing to be aware of stress in our daily lives, but it's another to know how to change it.

Added to the significant stressors that come from our jobs, many of us deal with pressures in our personal lives. Our response to what happens around us varies depending on the complexities of our interactions and our ability to react to stress.

Whether we are able to handle the stress or not, one thing is certain: stress affects everyone at one time or another. Its concrete effects are real.

Even those among us in the best of health will experience trying times when the walls seem to be closing in -- just as Larry did. The principalship is lonely, and that can be dangerous. The prolonged effects of mental stress can damage our brains. In that state, we can't learn as effectively, balance our responsibilities, or maintain an even keel on our emotions.


Why then are some principals able to maintain a sense of optimism and avoid succumbing to the pressures and stresses of the job? What causes others to lose their vital fight or flight responses? What can be done to help those most at risk avoid the depths of depression?

The answer: support from a mentor.

Deborah recognized the signs of her husband's stress. She wanted to help, but she knew that the best intervention would come from someone who had walked in Larry's shoes.

Mentors have experienced and dealt with the non-communicative and unpredictable superintendent. They have coped with building-level personnel issues magnified by difficult, ineffective teachers. Their experience with angry and irrational parents can shed light on the crazies with whom we all must deal. Most important, mentors can help guide our learning and professional growth. They can help us work through the tough conflicts and decisions we face between our professional lives and our families' needs.

We can't afford to miss out on attracting the best and brightest people to the principalship -- and retaining them -- because of the affects of stress. We know the most successful strategy for stress management is enabling individuals to get control of their lives. We know that mentoring partnerships enable mentees to learn, grow, and thrive.

When we feel helpless -- and all of us do from time to time -- we must remember how to help ourselves. We must call our mentors.

Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003 and retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. He is an author with Corwin Press,, and School-Age Notes. He and his wife, Gertrude, a music teacher, live in Lancaster.

Article by Paul Young
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