How 5 superintendents cope with the stress of a job they cherish

"I still work about 60 hours a week but feel more in control of those 60 hours including how, when, and where they are consumed," one says.

It was COVID—the most stressful time of Superintendent Diane Kelly’s career—that, ironically or not, has given her the tools to cope with the ongoing stress of the last few years. “I actually use my vacation time now,” confides Kelly, superintendent of Revere Public Schools outside Boston. “I make sure I’m present for the milestone events in the lives of my family and friends—things I used to miss for evening meetings in the district.”

Diane Kelly
Diane Kelly

She says she is also more inclined to decline new partnership requests that she may not be able to give her full attention. Establishing these boundaries was a direct result of being pulled in so many different directions during the early days of the pandemic that making decisions to satisfy everyone became “nearly untenable.” The stress became so severe that, in July 2020, Kelly says she began taking anxiety medication for the first time in her life.

The pandemic experience, which included working with the city government to open vaccine clinics and COVID testing sites, gave her a new perspective on just how much superintendents can achieve and how they can avoid being consumed by their responsibilities.

“All of this taught me that the things I used to think were a big deal, like a disgruntled parent making ugly claims against a school on social media, aren’t really that big of a deal,” she continues. “I still work about 60 hours a week but feel more in control of those 60 hours including how, when, and where they are consumed.”

‘I will be getting out in the next year or two.’

Summer gives Superintendent Bruce Thoren time to recharge and “work on the fun and important things,” such as student learning and vision for Fremont County School District #24 in Wyoming. “During the school year, I would say that my stress level on average is around a 5 out of 10,” says Thoren, Wyoming’s Superintendent of the Year.

Bruce Thoren
Bruce Thoren

He also exercises daily for the endorphin release that helps to regulate tension. “However, I also have to take blood pressure medicine to keep things in check,” Thoren says. “The job is stressful and demanding. I will be getting out in the next year or two. I am not exactly sure what I will be doing yet, but it will be something different.”

Maximizing time outside the office is how Superintendent Jeremy Mangrum of Arkansas’ Elkins School District copes with the demands of a “very stressful position.” “I try to focus on being present and in the moment when I’m away from work and spending time with my family,” Mangrum explains.

He, too, exercises regularly and connects with a “support group” of other superintendents who understand the workload and can serve as both a sounding board for ideas and a source of empathy. “Superintendents tend to feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders,” he points out. “We have daily concerns about student and staff safety, funding concerns, academic achievement, student and staff members’ mental and emotional health, and the list goes on and on.”

Relying on your leadership team

Xavier De La Torre
Xavier De La Torre

Hiring top-notch administrators is one reason Superintendent Xavier De La Torre of Ysleta ISD in El Paso, Texas, says he is not experiencing the same levels of stress that he is hearing about from other district leaders. “I thrive in this kind of environment,” De La Torre says. “I like problem-solving, I like working with others—I have some of the best, if not the best, cabinet-level educators working with me.”

What makes his administration unique is that De La Torre allows his cabinet members to communicate directly with Ysleta ISD’s school board members—rather than having all interactions filtered less efficiently through him. He does expect his administrators to let him know if a board member contacts them to discuss, for example, a school construction project or another matter.

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“The information the board receives can come directly from people out in the field, doing the work,” De La Torre explains. “It creates an inclusive leadership model where we as a team rely on a culture of trust and accountability, transparency and respect for one another—there are no secrets.”

Superintendent Adam Cheeseman, of Doddridge County Schools in West Virginia, calls his stress level minimal though he also concedes that certain times of year of more stressful than others. He says he relies “100%” on his faith in God to cope with the challenges of leadership.

“I ensure time away with family and also protect evenings and weekends now more than ever,” he concludes. “Having time to unplug and remember what life is all about is vital.”

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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