We’re leading through a tough time – but we’re not in this alone.

Marc Cohen is a high school principal in Germantown, Maryland, and a presenter with ASCD. You can find him on Twitter @marcjcohen.

Over the summer, my new director scheduled a meeting with me. I thought she wanted to discuss district initiatives, school improvement efforts, and successes and challenges in my school, but her first question surprised me. She asked, “How are you doing?” I quickly realized the purpose of the meeting was actually to check in on me. 

I paused before answering that simple question, because, in truth, I didn’t know the answer. How was I doing? I hadn’t taken a proper day off in over four months. I was exhausted from incessant 14-16 hour days. My back ached from Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. I was losing sleep over the realization that, for the first time in my 21 years as a school leader, I had doubts about my ability to lead. How was I going to lead my community through the most tumultuous experiences of our lives: a global pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and powerful protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, rising unemployment and food insecurity, and an ugly election cycle?

I was so wrapped up in months of stress and worry for my students and my staff that I had neglected to consider the impact this time was having on me.

My director’s question was a good reminder of two things that I’ve spent my career learning. First, if I’m going to lead, I need to take care of myself. Second, I am not alone in this work. 

Principals across the country, and around the world, are all dealing with the challenges of this 2020 edition of ”normal.” I’m grateful that early in my career a mentor instilled in me the importance of getting involved in professional learning networks, which have led me during this time to personalized, job-alike Zoom and Twitter chats about how to lead explicitly anti-racist school improvement efforts; how to promote kindness and respectful discourse; and how to help our students, staff, and families feel safe and supported while living through the COVID-19 crisis.

If you’re in need of some peer connection and support right now, I want to share some places you might find it:

  • On Oct. 28, I will be attending ASCD’sVirtual Symposium on Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools. True experts in the field have been assembled in one place to provide sessions that have been strategically designed to address many of the societal challenges school leaders are facing in todays’ schools while also helping us all become more well-rounded, informed and resilient leaders.

    And I am most looking forward to the chat in the virtual parking lot after the meeting where hopefully I will connect with some of you who are reading this post, because that is where my learning really takes flight.
  • When I am looking for a quick answer to a tough question, an opportunity to be of service to a colleague or a chance to smile at a peer’s success, I often turn to the Facebook Group “Principal Principles Leadership Group.” I have never seen a negative interaction on this group’s page, perhaps because among their key rules is to stay positive and to be supportive.
  • I often turn to #EdChat on Twitter when I want to learn something new, discuss current ed reform efforts or examine the impact of certain trends and their impact on the leadership of my school.
  • My favorite PLN is the one I created for myself. Having attended ASCD conferences for years, I have gathered a cohort of colleagues from across the country and around the world. I turn to them when I have a professional need. I first met many of these friends in the ASCD Educator Advocates and Emerging Leaders programs. I strongly encourage people to attend conferences and to make personal connections. We have so much we can learn from the colleagues who share our jobs but do not work next door.

As leaders, we make personal sacrifices every day to lead our schools and communities well. The truth though, is that if we are going to be the leaders that our communities need, then we must take the time to fill our own buckets too. We must balance the challenges of work with our own self-care. We must make time to find and connect with each other.

Feel free to hit me up on Twitter if you want to connect: @marcjcohen.