Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
Three school leaders

From Stress to Success: 5 Winning Back-to-School Strategies for K-12 Administrators

Brad Niebling
Brad Niebling
written by

Brad Niebling, Ph.D.

Back to School

This time of year has always been invigorating for me. The smell of freshly cut grass. Soaking up the abundant sunshine (with an appropriate amount of sunscreen, of course). Eating great midwestern BBQ.

But most of all, as July turned into August, I always got excited for the beginning of a new school year. 

There was so much anticipation! As a child, I would eagerly scour the school supplies aisle at the store with the best deals, checking off each item on my list (can you say Trapper Keeper?!?!). My parents made sure I had a new, first-day-of-school outfit.

The thing that caused the most anticipation for me though was the big question: who was going to be my new teacher? Or, as I got older, new teachers. Did I get the cool one, or the mean one? 

This was my view through the eyes of a child and adolescent. In many ways, not much has changed. I still love the smells of summer, the food, the fun, and the lead-up to a new school year. 

But now, I get to see this as a parent and a professional educator.

My soon-to-be 3rd-grade daughters (twins!) have been talking about who they think their teacher will be this school year. And, with their school supplies list in hand, we are planning our annual school shopping online (things are a bit different than I was a kid!). You can feel the excitement building in our house.

As a professional educator, I’ve worn many hats. Practitioner. Trainer. Evaluator. Consultant. Administrator.

And, while my roles and responsibilities have changed over the years, fundamentally my efforts have been focused on helping my colleagues grow their skills so they can meet the needs of those they serve day in and day out.

I love my work. I am energized by ideas, and even more energized when I get to spend time with educators, supporting their work.

I will admit, however, that the exhilaration of this time of year does come with a dose of responsibility, apprehension, and anxiety. 

As an administrator, you are familiar with the burden of responsibility. Just like your teachers and staff feel the burden of responsibility. The details of our responsibilities may be somewhat different, but we all have them as professional educators. 

Things like ensuring the budget was spent appropriately, that action plan goals were being met, and ensuring staff are getting their needs met were always at the top of my mind. Maybe these are some of the decisions you’ve grappled with. Perhaps your list is different.

Regardless, all of these decisions are made with the ultimate intent of meeting the needs of students so that they thrive.

In addition to being an administrator myself, I have worked with hundreds of administrators. Having walked in administrative shoes, and beside so many on the administrative journey themselves, I have seen the burden of leadership play out over and over again. I have also seen a lot of resilience in the face of this burden.

Today, I want to share some of the lessons I have learned over the years in managing that burden. 

Here are 5 strategies every school, district, and AEA administrator should consider to cultivate positive social-emotional-behavioral health in themselves and those they lead:  

1. Remember Why You Wanted to Become a Leader

Simon Sinek, of Golden Circle fame, makes a compelling argument for individuals and organizations alike to “Know Your Why”. Knowing your why resets your purpose and recenters your intentions. It adds meaning to the mundane.

Even more, it is the motivation we need to redirect or recalibrate when life gets hard. As simple as it sounds, write it down. And look at it every day.

2. Distribute Leadership

steady stream of research has repeatedly demonstrated that the most effective leaders do not put it all on their own shoulders.

Instead, they involve others in the tasks and responsibilities of leadership. Doing so reduces the burden and workload of administrators, empowers others, increases buy-in, improves the credibility of work, and improves implementation. You can find some helpful strategies for using distributed leadership practices here

3. Take Care of Your Own Well-Being

One of the biggest mistakes I see even the most effective leaders make, one I have made myself too many times, is not taking care of their own well-being.

This goes for physical and mental health. Taking care of yourself is paramount to effectively taking care of those you lead.

The Scanlan Center for School Mental Health provides a variety of self-care resources. For example, we offer multiple asynchronous online modules at no cost to Iowa educators focused on self-care.

In addition, all PreK – 12 educators in Iowa have free access to Togetherall, an anonymous, 24/7 digital mental health and peer support community that is monitored by mental health professionals.

Although it may feel like it at times, you are not alone as an administrator. Make sure to stay connected with other administrators.

4. Create a Culture of Caring 

A Teddy Roosevelt quote we’ve all heard before “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care” reminds us that we must speak to our staff’s and students’ hearts before any real learning or change can take place.

Being an educator has never been easy. But it is getting harder and harder every school year.

Nevertheless, you and countless other educators in Iowa continue to work towards creating caring and nurturing learning environments for all students. Keep doing it! 

Caring environments support positive social-emotional-behavioral health for educators, students, and their families/caregivers. Which leads me to my last strategy…

5. Attend the 2023 Iowa BEST Summit!

2023 Iowa BEST Summit with logo

October 5th and 6th 2023, the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health is hosting our 3rd annual Iowa BEST Summit at the Iowa Events Center downtown Des Moines.

Last year, I wrote a blog with my Top 5 reasons why every K-12 administrator should attend the Iowa BEST Summit. All of those reasons still stand.

This year, our theme is “Creating a Culture of Caring.” We will have strands focused on students, classrooms, educators, and communities & families. We have had 1,500+ attendees each of the first two years and received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the experience. We are excited to host you and your colleagues, at no charge, for an awesome 1.5 days of learning.

So, if you haven’t already, take a few minutes to register yourself and your staff. I look forward to seeing you there!