5 leaders share their uplifting secrets to self-care

"When you’re not joyful in your work, it's added anxiety, stress and illness," Superintendent of Minerva Garcia-Sanchez attests.

Self-care for Superintendent Cary Holman means reminding himself of his “why” as an educator. “My ‘why’ is to believe all children deserve the right to have an individual to stand in front of them not only to teach them the academics but also to impart life lessons so they can become very productive citizens,” Holman, director of schools at Tennessee’s Franklin County School District, explained during an interview at last week’s District Administration Leadership Institute conference.

Cary Holman
Cary Holman

Holman, a 28-year-educator, also stressed the importance of finding a balance in and outside of work: “When I was a classroom teacher, I taught students this phrase: ‘I will not allow any noun—that’s a person, place, thing or idea—to disrupt the climate of my day,'” Holman said. “I believe in protecting my space. When I leave the office, I leave the office.”

At Johnson City Schools, also in Tennessee, the final question asked by the superintendent during job interviews is, “What do you do to take care of yourself?” “It’s understood that you work hard in this school district and you need to carve out time to take care of yourself,” David Timbs, Johnson City’s supervisor of secondary and instructional technology, noted at the conference.

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Timbs is a member of a men’s workout group that meets four or five mornings a week for runs and other fitness activities. So how does he block the urge to do some work first thing in the morning? “You get so committed to the group, you feel guilty if you’re not out there with them,” he said, offering an additional piece of self-care advice: “It’s important to have friends outside of education.”

‘You cannot do this job in isolation’

Minerva Garcia-Sanchez
Minerva Garcia-Sanchez

Self-care for Superintendent of Minerva Garcia-Sanchez of Illinois’ DeKalb School District #428 is all about taking care of her employees and ensuring they have time to spend with the family or attend to other interests outside of work. “I need you to take of you,” Garcia-Sanchez said in a video interview. “Because if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of me and the district.”

She also encourages her employees to take their allotted time off rather than bank up vacation time. She lives by those words, too, and says that when she’s on vacation, only her assistant knows how to reach her in case of emergencies. She also tries hard not to take school politics personally.

“When you’re not joyful in your work, it’s added anxiety, stress and illness,” she pointed out. “We have to be willing to see that.”

Connecting with a community that has rallied around DeKalb’s schools is just one thing that motivates her to continue serving the district. Also, she, her husband and their three grown sons check in with each other regularly through group texts. “They’re very supportive of me, I’m very supportive of them and I always want to make sure we’re bonded,” she pointed out. “They really ground me.”

Spending time with colleagues via AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and similar groups of leaders helps Superintendent Wayne Vickers of Alabama’s Alabaster City School District stay motivated. The organizations, and their conference, in particular, are venues by which to share ideas and find solutions to challenges. Vickers said he relies on his “wonderful team of chiefs”—and his regular meetings with them—to share the responsibilities of running the district.

“It is as much for me to get things out in the open that I may be frustrated about as it is to listen to them,” he explained. “I just feel better about having that camaraderie. You cannot do this job in isolation.”

Fitness-wise, he has started an exercise regimen that includes trying to log 10,000 steps a day. “I think that the biggest factor in self-care is not letting the work overwhelm you,” Vickers asserted.

Tony Spence, superintendent of Waterford Graded School District in Wisconsin, listens to podcasts to motivate himself on walks and runs. His 7 a.m.-7 p.m. work schedule leaves only about 90 minutes for a workout, so he has been endeavoring to make healthier choices around eating less and exercising more. “I’m not going to serve the district in a hospital bed,” he declared in a video interview. “I have to keep my vitals in a good place.”

Micah Ward contributed to this report. 

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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