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Facing Pandemic Pressures, Superintendents Must Attend to ‘Soul Care’ in Their Personal Lives, Imhoff Implores Conference Audience

By Jay P. Goldman |

Paul Imhoff, AASA’s incoming president, delivered a three-part agenda for his superintendent colleagues that had nothing to do with teacher and learning, racial inequity or social justice, his usual themes.

Instead, Imhoff, speaking at the 2nd General Session of the AASA national conference on Friday, Feb. 19, drew on an unsettling experience as a member of AASA’s COVID-19 Task Force a few weeks earlier. As the meeting was winding down, the superintendent in Virginia Beach, Va., Aaron Spence, had referenced the personal toll the pandemic has been exacting on him and his fellow school leaders. That ignited a new round of online discussion about the personal lives of superintendents over the past year. Imhoff called it “sobering.”

“There are superintendents who have been threatened, superintendents who have security details, superintendents who have taken a break from social media due to threats.  There were stories of mental health issues caused by extreme stress – a rush of retirements and resignations,” said Imhoff, who is the superintendent of Ohio’s Upper Arlington Schools. “Many of us are hurting — and we need to be honest about the struggle and we need to link arms — hold each other up and support one another.”

Drawing on the concept of servant leadership, Imhoff delivered a cautionary point to tie to that philosophy: “We often forget that while leaders do eat last, leaders still do eat.” It’s a concept school leaders understand on an intellectual level but something difficult to practice, Imhoff said, “and that has never been more true than during this pandemic.”

Imhoff described the past year as the most difficult year of his long career. “I, like you, have been subjected to constant attacks. I have been harassed while mowing my grass. I have been harassed while taking a run in the neighborhood. … Like many of you, I have had some very dark moments where I felt totally alone. But guess what – I am not alone and neither are you.”

During his 10-minute speech, he put forward a three-part plan for attending to what he termed superintendent “soul care” in order “to frame what we all need to do in order to be in a position to lead effectively and lead with a servant's heart.”

  • No. 1: Make a plan.

“When we talk about the soul, it means taking care of all of ourselves. We are each wonderfully unique and what works for one of us will not work for someone else.

“The concepts to consider are all action oriented. For me, making time to work out each morning — that way I start my day in the right headspace. Another action step could be stepping away from e-mail after a certain time each night to give yourself a better chance at a peaceful night of sleep. 

“Give yourself something to look forward to each week. It may be spending time with your spouse or partner or scheduling a zoom with a trusted friend. Relationships matter and you know the relationships that feed you versus the relationships that drain you. Take the time to invest in the relationship that feed you. These are all examples of making soul care a priority.”

  • No. 2: Be accountable.

“Making a soul care plan is not enough. We have to share it with a trusted someone.  Accountability matters and we are better together. 

“For the month of January, a group of superintendents came together to focus on soul care.   We shared the goals of exercise, committing to having quiet lunch every day, finding 15 minutes for meditation and several other items. We did these things together.  

“Accountability is important for each of us — leadership is solitary work and in order to find success as we focus on soul care, we will need to find a way to practice accountability.“

  • No. 3: Share your journey.

“The most difficult part may be the final step — share your journey with your team. Become the role model for soul care, thus giving others permission to do the same. Some may believe leaders always have the answer, leaders never worry, leaders always have it all together. The reality is those we serve need to know we are human. We have struggles, and we certainly don’t have all the answers. 

“Have the courage to share your journey with your team – give them the freedom to share as well. By sharing our journeys, we give everyone the freedom to be real, to take time to care for their own souls. Just last week I shared my journey with my entire team.  I also took the time to be honest about my struggles. I told them that a trusted friend had recently told me I was becoming angry and judgmental. This friend was right. It was hard to hear but I needed to hear that feedback. I am not that person and I’m so fortunate to have a friend who cared enough to be honest.   

“We are all on a journey and we have struggled in different ways during the pandemic. Let’s be honest with each other and let’s rely on each other so that we can become even stronger and more authentic leaders as we move forward.”

Imhoff concluded his remarks with a point of gratitude to his superintendent colleagues for leading whole communities, not just schools, through an unprecedent period.

“We have spoken openly and honestly with our communities,” he said. “We have made the tough decisions based upon science. We have made decisions based upon what is best for kids. Many of us have been attacked — the struggle has been real. But we have kept leading. You are all heroes. I want you to know AASA sees you, admires you and supports you.”

(Jay Goldman is editor of Conference Daily Online and AASA’s School Administrator magazine.)

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