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Emotional rescue

New prof researches the toll of Ed Admin

January 18, 2019 — 

Being a principal takes qualities that include resourcefulness, responsibility, superior communication skills and leading by example. According to research by a new faculty member, the leadership role also takes its toll.

And how a school leader deals with the demands of the position can make the difference in a achieving a successful career.

Determining how principals cope with the stress of their jobs was a key finding to emerge from a large-scale survey of Ontario principals by new Assistant Prof. Cameron Hauseman. Among the findings, Hauseman and co-researcher Katina Pollock, an associate professor at Western University, discovered that 30 per cent of Ontario’s principals self-medicate to deal with the emotional toll associated with their work.

“They got into the profession because they enjoyed working with youth, and a lot of them talked about connecting with students.”

“First of all, we’re talking about leaders,” Hauseman said. “They are also in a position of care. Is that the kind of behaviour we want them to be modelling—both for staff and students? Not so much.”

According to feedback in the survey, self-medication included drinking, overeating, using prescription drugs, marijuana as well as illegal drugs.

 “If any students were found with those items in their locker, they would be calling the police,” Hauseman said.

In another study, Hauseman identified some 30 different strategies that principals used for managing their emotions. About half of those are described as maladaptive in existing academic literature, leading to more stress in the workplace, role confusion, poor work-life balance, among others.

Healthy responses

Examples of healthy responses included principals changing their thoughts about negative experiences, finding humour in difficult situations or finding ways to reconnect with the reason they got into education to begin with.

“They got into the profession because they enjoyed working with youth, and a lot of them talked about connecting with students,” Hauseman said.

Moving forward in his new position at the University of Manitoba, Hauseman said he wants to build on the findings of the research, exploring the idea of a 360-degree study about emotions in schools, including characteristics, school conditions, stage of career and other factors associated with school leaders who self-medicate. Research could also help to identify ways to remedy or avoid the situation altogether.

The emotional aspects of educational administration have been largely overlooked, Hauseman says, pointing to much of the available leadership research having been conducted in the business sector as far back as the 1950s.

“It’s only within the last 10 years that emotions have started to be looked at as sort of a fundamental job demand in these positions,” Hauseman said, adding at the same time, changes in broader society have been reflected in schools, contributing to the pressure on the role of principals.

This includes increasingly diverse student populations—both visible diversity and less visible forms, such as different learning styles, special-education needs—changing perceptions of student mental health and well-being, inclusion in schools, and learning to 18.

“I agree with the changes, but they do create challenges and stressors,” Hauseman said.

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