Posted by: principalsintraining | August 2, 2017

Staying Empty (A Tonic Against Rampant Do-Gooderism)


Seeking (and finding) a Robust Emptiness (future site of officially-sanctioned PD…)

August 1 is the equivalent of New Year’s Day for most school principals: the first day back after summer, the day when we walk into an empty building, sit down in a quiet office, and stare into the fog of the year to come.

(I like to keep the lights off for as many days/weeks as possible – institutional lighting just feels too gloomy)

August 1 is the day we begin to think about our goals for the year (personal, professional). Maybe we’ve thought about them before today – if so, then today is the day we get to put them into place (or begin a yearlong process of skirting them…).

Setting goals is generally a good thing to do; they can help bring more focus to our work and help us feel less scattered. Conversely, for your run-of-the-mill do-gooder educators, goal-setting is also an old habit that dies hard. There seem to be ever more ways to quantify the work of a school and the process of learning; the year gets started and we, collectively, begin chasing after numbers. Every day is saturated with purpose, and, if we choose, we can seek and find an endless supply of busy.

Accidental selfie taken while caught in The Blur: water, chocolate, legal pad, device – all moving towards the ever-important Place To Be Next. 

The time we spend away from our schools in summer is a chance to empty out after 10 months of rigid routine. Our bodies deprogram from fixed wake-up and bedtime hours; we wear different (and fewer) clothes; we spend more time outside. The fights and frustrations of the past year drain from our nervous systems. We scrape away the calcified layers and reconnect with the things we love about life (and ourselves) not related to work.

Educators often work themselves into other kinds of frenzies in the summer: the frenzy of completing house projects that the work year prevents; of embarking on travels and adventures; of seeing friends and family that often don’t get seen. As we empty out from the school year, we’re hard at work trying to cultivate a deeper kind of fitness.

Ultimately, the Story of Summer reads like a tragedy; a short-lived idyll before returning to the Toil. This persistent narrative feels inevitable (and possibly attractive to those who garner meaning from being Important). So what if we rewrote the Boom-Bust cycle of educator health, wellbeing and all-around vitality by doing the following?

  1. Eat. I’m not being facetious. This is a fundamental need, literally the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy, yet how many of us rush through our workday calorie intake – or don’t eat at all? I’ve averaged less than five minutes to eat lunch over 10 years in admin – not okay. Speaking of goal-setting: last year we asked everyone to craft a self-care goal at our school. Mine was to spend 10 minutes each day eating lunch, away from my office. I’d say I had a 15% success rate. Other ideas to not only encourage eating, but also enjoying it and maybe building some community along the way – food, after all, is culture!
  • Staff potlucks
  • Weekly/monthly lunch with students
  • Locking classroom/office door and going outside

2. Run (or get your heart rate up however you choose…)

Exercise is not some frivolous thing. I took a run earlier today and thought about the following things:

  • Staff inservice days to start the year (Ropes Course and day at the beach!)
  • Launching process to evaluate proficiency-based grading practices (here’s one tremendous example out of Salt Lake City at Rowland Hall School).
  • Hiring open positions
  • Conferences to attend
  • Master schedule final clean-up
  • Things/people that bug me and getting past/through the bugged feeling

Running is a way to break through the crust of all we have to deal with and react to. It’s cathartic. It helps make the things that feel difficult less so (maybe it’s just the endorphins talking…). I’m lucky to live in a beautiful place so it’s a way to appreciate that beauty.

If educators do not take the time to empty themselves out – to step off the Serve Others treadmill to Do Nice Things for Oneself – they rob themselves, their students and their organizations of their BEST thinking.

Searching for emptiness and enjoying the view along the way!!! (Marin Headlands)

3. Do Art (or whatever you call your creative pursuit)

It’s not just for summer. It’s not just for weekends. What about 10 minutes a day? What about dedicating time during meetings for these creative pursuits? The Blank Canvas is a tonic to the soul!

  • Painting
  • Writing
  • Quilting
  • Gardening
  • Journaling
  • Sketching
  • Doodling
  • Cooking

For a whole slew of ideas on building critical creativity in the classroom (and beyond), take a look at the new book Intention by Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder.

Let’s rewrite the tragedy of summer through a series of small, daily actions. See you at the beach.



  1. As a principal sitting down at his (relatively) quiet desk, this was a great reminder to keep perspective. Thanks for the delightful post and ideas that I’ll take into my work this fall!

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