Leader’s Digest with Principal Jessica Cabeen

Issue #2: Connection and self-care during COVID-19

Sign up here to get #PrincipalProject newsletters like this in your inbox!

Jessica Cabeen is a middle school principal in Austin, Minnesota, the author of Lead with Grace and the co-author of Balance Like a Pirate.

School leaders, I want to ask something I know you’re asking everyone else. It’s this: How are you?


In the last month, our entire world turned upside down. And while everything you’re doing to support your students, families and teachers is important, it’s also important you take care of yourself.

Self-care in uncertain times is tricky. As COVID-19 disruptions began, many principals either didn’t sleep or didn’t sleep well. The evidence and research behind that? All the emails, posts and tweets we wrote between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. As school leaders, we are community engagers and relationship builders – so being physically separated from our students and our teams takes an emotional toll on us. You may have lost the habits you had in place to take care of yourself, but there are ways to bring balance back into your leadership practice – and your daily life. Here are my suggestions for reprioritizing self-care:

  • Find ways to read your team’s cues and provide support. I am writing this after spending two days with the most incredible team you could ever go through a pandemic with. However, I didn’t sleep before our first online meeting. I am someone who needs to see my colleagues’ faces and read their body language. Talking to 50 people on my computer screen was like getting stuck in the beginning of The Brady Bunch – and it was really hard to use my previous skill set in this new platform! How did I work around it? I shifted to a simple online system to stay connected and support their needs:
    • It starts with this #PrincipalProject check-in form. Everyone on my team fills this out, and then I export it into a spreadsheet so I can document how I follow up with each person. Your team will likely appreciate this quick way to tell you what they need – and it can satisfy your own need to continue checking in on those you care for, as they continue to care for students. You can also use the spreadsheet to see who isn’t asking for help and connect with them as well, just to make sure they feel supported, too.
  • Know your role. In times of crisis, people look to leaders. They don’t need you to have all the answers, because no one does. But what your team needs from you is what you’re uniquely suited to provide: a vision. 
    • Knowing your role is key to regaining balance in these difficult days. Setting – and modeling! – sustainable remote work guidelines for your team is essential. Supporting teachers as they transition to online instruction is essential. But then, you have to get out of the way. Let them know you care about them first and foremost. Provide the resources they need to be successful in this new terrain. But you don’t have to create the lessons for them.
  • Step away from the screen! After my first day of distance learning PD with my team, I was exhausted, just from sitting in front of my computer all day. We’re all more plugged in right now, but as we go from day one to week one to week two, we need to recognize that this sprint is turning into a marathon. This is our new normal, and we need to make it sustainable. These are some steps I’ve found helpful:  
    • Set a timer, and get up and move around every 45 minutes. During one meeting, I even did lunges by my desk while problem-solving a few access issues.
    • Go tech-free for two hours a day. During this time I make dinner, go for walks (without my phone!), read or play games with my children. 
    • Tackle something you’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for. It could be cleaning out a closet, writing cards to loved ones, or starting a new bible study, meditation practice or online yoga class.

What I want you to remember is that self-care is not selfish. It’s sustaining, for you and your community. You’re doing so much to serve in these unsettling days – but I want to encourage you: make sure you’re incorporating self-care into your daily activities, too. I like to break self-care into four quadrants: personal, professional, positional and passion. To promote wellness and balance for school leaders, I’m sharing this worksheet of Balance Like a Pirate Quadrants. Please use it to create some space for wellness in your day – and if you’d like to learn more, check out this blog post.

We may be leading across distance, but we are still leading together. Be well.

Jessica Cabeen
Middle School Principal
Austin, Minnesota

When all is new, we all are at risk of retreating behind closed doors to solve our schools problems. Yes, a sense of isolation and anxiety can arise for teachers, students and families – and for principals, too. Keep reaching out. School leaders are bridge builders, and right now, you’re doing so much to promote connection and share encouragement across physical divides. As you take steps to support your school community, taking steps to sustain yourself matters, as well. These articles break down ways you can bring connection, reflection and renewal into your remote leadership practice:

Leading in Disruptive Times

“You can resist the current wave of unprecedented change or you can make the most of it by riding that wave.” Education consultant Jenn David-Lang suggests that guiding your school community through these challenging days means modeling a resilient mindset and a willingness to grow. Read her tips for building up your own resilience and renewing your strength through supportive self-care strategies.

10 Remote Work Tips from Better Leaders Better Schools

Leading your school community remotely means helping teachers, students and families adapt to new learning environments and new routines. But you’re building new routines for yourself, too – and setting healthy habits in place is vital, as leadership consultant Daniel Bauer explains in Better Leaders Better Schools. Read his 10 tips for taking a successful, sustainable approach to leading from home. 

Right now, every step you take to create community and connection means so much to students, families and teachers. What’s something you’re doing to make everyone in your school community feel seen, supported and cared for during this unsettling time? Click here to share your approach with fellow principals using #BetweentheBells.

Sign up here to get #PrincipalProject newsletters like this in your inbox!