Feeding the Superintendent’s Mind, Body, Spirit

The leader’s attention to personal wellness influences an organization’s effectiveness by Judith A. Palmer

How are you? Really.

There is little doubt that the primary purpose of your position in the school system is to take care of people — children first, then faculty and staff, the board of education, parents and anyone else who strides through your door. That is a tall order, isn’t it? You are faced with one challenge after another, day in and day out, and you are expected to handle each one with ease.

But at the end of the day, after you have taken care of everyone else, who is taking care of you? Some might answer that your spouse takes care of you by cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. Some might say a family member or a friend fulfills that role in your life. I am challenging you to rethink your answer. No one really “takes care” of you, except you, yourself. Your well-being is directly linked to your state of mind, the health of your body and the life within your spirit.

Your personal wellness can be easily assessed by answering this question: What do you bring to work every day? I don’t mean your briefcase and a cup of coffee. I mean what attitude do you walk in with and what expression is on your face? What do people assume about you when your presence is felt? Do you make eye contact and offer a warm greeting to your colleagues or do you slip in unnoticed, not willing to take the time to stop and say a good morning to your staff because your thoughts are preoccupied with your last board meeting? You just don’t want to stop and get all caught up in conversation. You probably feel like no one understands the pressure you are under anyway.

Your weeks are filled with demanding schedules, relentless requests from parents, intense pressure to raise test scores while staying within budget, administrator evaluations, union issues, school safety concerns, disciplinary matters and so on. You even may be keeping a check on the emotional and social uncertainties within your student body. You just don’t feel you have the time to greet everyone in the morning. You are too busy. Surely, your staff understands.

It is no wonder superintendents often are mentally exhausted, emotionally disheartened and physically sick as we attempt to juggle all the demands placed upon us. At times, the position seems impossible.

The secret to feeling successful is learning to create harmony among our mind, body and spirit.

The Mind
We superintendents spend most of our time preparing our minds to perform well under any circumstance. Many years have been spent attending graduate school to acquire further degrees and keep certifications current. We read literally hundreds of books on a range of topics that include student achievement, supervision, curriculum development, child psychology, special education, education law, 21st-century learning skills and workforce demands. We are compelled to stay current on best practices regarding teaching and learning.

Our minds certainly absorb an abundance of information that can be retrieved to improve student learning. When student achievement rises, we feel proud of our accomplishments. But this comprises only a small portion of the work needed to keep a superintendent healthy.

We tend to stuff our brains full of theory and strive to produce creative ideas so we can prove our effectiveness to the board of education and community. I propose that superintendent’s mind needs to create much more than a relevant educational theory and sound practice. It needs to create a healthy thought process. Only then can the mind, body and spirit work together effectively.

What exactly is a healthy thought process? In part, it is the cognitive choice to create a positive environment in which we can thrive. The secret is to stop perseverating on negative thoughts and to replace them by reflecting on the positive aspects of our life’s work.

Here are some simple ideas on how to improve your thought process on a daily basis. Few of these suggestions require a time commitment:

• Smile more often.
• Warmly greet your staff when you walk through the door each morning.
• Make eye contact and take a moment to ask how they are doing. Listen.
• Offer at least one genuine compliment a day.
• Visit classrooms the morning after a board meeting. These visits are always uplifting and serve as a powerful reminder of why we
dedicate ourselves to improving students’ education.
• Let this question be your guiding light when faced with a difficult problem: Is my decision good for the students? If the answer is yes,
stand your ground.
• Listen to inspirational music or books on tape during your commute.
• Take a few minutes to look out the window and reflect on the positive school environment that you are molding.

These simple adjustments to your daily life can have a huge impact on your well-being. They are simple choices. When used consistently they become habits of the mind that will help to create a more positive approach to your life.

When more time is available:

• Sit and talk with the children.
• Send a letter of congratulations home when appropriate.
• Write a quick letter to staff members who go beyond what is expected and copy their building principal.
• Send notes of encouragement to teachers who may be experiencing a difficult situation.
• Send a word of thanks to the board of education.
• Recognize volunteers by a coffee date and conver-sation.
• Extend invitations to community service organizations to participate in schoolwide events.
• Take over for a principal one day.

The Body
As far as I can tell, the more stressful the occupation, the more painful the body. Many superintendents suffer from more ailments than their 1st graders can count. I know my 88-year-old mother climbs stairs faster than I do. My weight has escalated over the years almost as quickly as my blood pressure.

Attempting to keep my body healthy is an all-out challenge. Some superintendents have a steadfast commitment to the gym. I envy them. They dedicate one or two hours a day to themselves with the purpose of keeping their bodies healthy.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. As a mother of two teenagers, I find it impossible to carve out that kind of time right now. However, I do realize that my body plays an extremely important role in my ability to perform well. So I try to get my rest, but I usually don’t get enough. I try to eat right, but that is not always easy when I am running between meetings, and I attempt to exercise, which does not come easily to me.

Recently, it became apparent I needed to concentrate on my physical health. I started slowly by implementing the following strategies:

• Before getting out of bed in the morning, stretching my legs, arms, neck, shoulders and back.
• Cleaning the house with the purpose of working up a sweat.
• Washing the car instead of taking it through the car wash.
• Buying a big rubber ball and doing leg and arm exercises with it.
• Walking to the end of the street and back.
• Gardening. I started with window boxes and potted plants, then moved to a lawn garden.
• Lifting small amounts of weight. I use household items in place of store-bought weights.
• Going for a yearly medical exam.

If you do not have a fit body, start your journey toward becoming more physically active. Give yourself credit for starting. You will feel better emotionally when you feel more physically fit. The first change I made was training my thought process to include the health of my body. The next step was buying a pair of walking shoes. I leave them beside my bed for a daily reminder to keep moving.

The Spirit
For me, the wellness of my spirit is the barometer of my overall health. My spirit is a reflection of my connection to God and therefore stands to reflect all that is good.

In all major religions the teachings revolve around love, adherence to laws, commitment to faith, the grace of forgiveness and the promise of great rewards.

Sadly, over the years, many educators have become afraid to mention God for fear of offending non-believers. I believe administrators have an important role to play in becoming missionaries for goodness. There are many simple ways to keep your spirit healthy by spreading goodwill to others:

• If you attend formal religious worship, live the message throughout the week.
• If you dont attend services, feed your spirit by watching an inspirational message on television or reading an inspirational book such
as The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
• Have the courage to allow love to guide your leadership.
• Express deep and sincere thanks for the gifts you have been given.
• Meditate about your mission at work, which goes well beyond your written job description.
• Be at peace with who you are, not just the position you hold.
• Be guided less by your problems and more by your dreams.

Calvin Coolidge once said, “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” Effective administrators give freely of their love, time and energy. The environment they create leads to creating great schools where everyone feels a sense of belonging, love and respect.

Far-Reaching Impact
As superintendent, more than likely you have all the brain power you need to be an effective leader. You may need to refocus your attention to create a healthy mind, body and spirit that will function together to help you reach beyond your current level of effectiveness.

The most effective superintendents I know take the health of their mind, body and spirit seriously. One superintendent in particular has the ability to constantly search for solutions to problems rather than concentrate on the problem itself. He naturally exudes a positive outlook on life, which in turn feeds his spirit. Many of my colleagues attend religious services on a weekly basis, which helps them to stay grounded in goodness.

Shouldn’t you devote your attention to creating harmony among these critical elements of your existence? Who will take care of you if you don’t? You are worth the effort, and so are the people who count on your guidance every day.

As a school system administrator, you and your personal outlook have far-reaching influence.

By following these simple steps, you may find that the next time you are asked, “How are you?” you can honestly answer with a smile, “I’m well, thank you.”

Judith Palmer is superintendent of Oxford Public Schools in Oxford, Conn. E-mail: palmerj@oxfordpublicschools.org