I should have seen it coming when I found myself listening to yet another podcast on burnout. First it was Brene Brown, then it was Dan Harris, and there were articles and webinars through the fall as well. I told myself I was interested in supporting my staff and students, and I was. We are a community that prioritizes wellness, and last spring, we added a Task Force to ensure we are doing all we can for our staff and students. And we have more to come.
My favourite so far is Wellness Wednesdays. For me, walking my dogs is a great way to relax, get outside and get energized. Not a walk goes by without my laughing at the two of them, and I have a route that takes me by our barn and under a tree lined path. At the start of the year, when Adam Ross, our Athletic Director and member of our Health and Wellbeing Task Force asked for volunteers, I offered the idea of dog walking. I felt like an insecure teen myself, wondering if anyone else would like the idea. Turns out, it was the most popular session. On the first Wednesday, I watched as students gathered outside my office window (We call it the Grove around here). I saw my dogs were already among them, and some bright students already found other campus dogs to walk. The scene made me laugh – Wellness Wednesday was already working for me and I hadn’t even stepped outside! And then we were off… at maximum capacity, we were 38 students and 14 dogs traipsing past other groups (fitness, canoeing, beach volleyball, and mountain biking) and through our woods. The day it rained felt just as exhilarating, and every walk allowed me to just chat with students with whom I would not otherwise have a chance to connect. The pandemic makes it challenging to have spontaneous conversations.
But what I realized last weekend, was that that wasn’t enough. As a boarding school Head, like everyone in education, I’ve been working long days with very few days off since the spring. I told Vicky Boomgaardt, our Assistant Head, that I was looking forward to taking a couple days off, and she said, “You know, Saturday and Sunday don’t actually count as taking a couple days off; it’s called the weekend.”
So, I took a few days away from the school. I have been thinking about what made it so restorative – was it being off of our campus? Catching up on sleep? Living without a schedule? I think it was all of those things, but I also think it was living other aspects of my life. My son joined us and it felt good to make him a pot of soup and eat the cookies he baked; my aunt had surgery and it felt good to bring her a container of home-made chili; I zoom called with friends and wondered why we don’t do it more often; Kevin and I hiked our favourite trail in the Gatineaus, walked to a new outdoor coffee shop, and binge-watched The Queen’s Gambit. I also read an entire book. Usually this is not a significant accomplishment, but since the pandemic started, I haven’t been able to really get lost in a book. I realized that once I had slept and avoided my phone (with the constant election and pandemic updates), I could relax and enjoy one of my favourite past-times again.
Lessons learned? I need to take more than two days in a row off (Thank goodness for the perfectly timed November break!), and not only did I need to escape my day-to-day routine, I needed to intentionally tune-out of the world of incessant news and do things I love.
And as a leader, I have an additional lesson learned. It is not easy to admit to needing a break, and as it is the role of the leader to be strong and positive so as to inspire the community, I learned that I needed to fight the urge to appear to be strong, when what I really needed was a break. If I am serious about supporting wellness initiatives, I also need to look at my own lifestyle and be open about my own need to hit pause and recharge. If tone is set at the top, so too is wellness. My hope is that my admission here is not perceived as weakness.
My big hope is that anyone who reads this will feel that needing a break is normal, now more than ever.