Leadership and the Cycle of Resting, Reflecting, and Responding

To say that this past school year was challenging is undoubtedly an understatement. Summertime couldn’t have come any sooner for most of us, if not all of us. As the duties of school shifted during the quieter months, I noticed the need to transition to another part of the leadership cycle that I’ve come to know over my 10 years of being in schools: resting.
 
School leaders are responsible for fostering a culture of care within our school communities, and it begins with practicing and honoring rest. This past school year's pace felt unsustainable and, at times, unattainable. I am saddened but not surprised that so many great educators left the profession after this year. Globally, we experienced collective trauma and then transitioned back too quickly, or at least that’s how it felt. So many school communities tried to transition slowly. Still, we were consistently at odds with the demands of societal productivity and the economy.
 
Schools needed to make decisions that required us to move faster than was ideal last year; we went from zero to 100 in many places, leading to increased rates of educator burnout and student school refusal. The pace we once knew as “normal” has become an unrealistic expectation. And when we are moving at such a pace, how can we ever truthfully prioritize and honor rest and what comes next?

Getting Our Rest

When summertime finally came, I felt a sense of relief. I needed to reset, to take the time to rest physically and mentally. Resting is not a simple task; it doesn’t come easily to many educators. Because I am a problem-solver, I tend to take on more, always saying, “yes, I can do it,” or “yes, we can figure it out.” I knew that if I was going to truly recommit to everything I love about education and working with young people, I needed to turn off and know that my colleagues would have my back while I was away, just as I would have theirs when their turn came to rest.
 
In an attempt to rest, I planned a trip to Vermont with my 10-year-old daughter, which would allow us both the time to “turn off.” Our goals were to take a break from technology, enjoy nature, and see who could make the other laugh the hardest. We brought our lives back to a manageable pace and centered joy in our daily actions. We observed the beauty around us as we gazed out from our gondola at all the shades of green that covered the mountains. We indulged in wonder and curiosity as we explored the town of Stowe. At the end of each night, I felt a sense of calm. On the second night, I identified this feeling as “rest.” At the time, I described it as the ability to allow my mind to wander creatively and reflect kindly, because that’s exactly what I was finally able to do again.

Turning Inward to Reflect

The time I took to rest allowed me to break a pattern I was starting to develop, which involved ruminating nightly over shortcomings I had identified in myself or others. Instead, I was back to reliving aha moments, seeing the joy and good intentions of others, and dreaming up new ideas. I felt inspired to reflect on the needs of others in ways that align with my values and commitment to growth.
 
Slowly, I reenergized myself for the new school year. But as I returned to campus after being away, I began to feel my body tighten again. I could feel my cortisol levels rising, anticipating my email inbox overflowing with endless questions from parents and faculty members. I began to worry that I would start doubting myself, my abilities, and my love for this profession. I remembered naming how I was feeling to our dean of faculty and saying, “All right, time to recommit to climbing up this hill together!”
 
Despite feeling the slide to self-doubt or imposter syndrome, I returned to the goals my daughter and I had committed to while being away—use technology appropriately, appreciate nature in all its beauty, and center joy. At that moment, I realized that these simple goals align with the culture we want to nurture in our middle school. I no longer felt like I was about to climb a steep hill. Instead, I knew I was holding onto a healthy mindset that would help cultivate a culture of intellectual curiosity, happiness, and a sustainable pace.

Time to Respond

As the new school year is underway, I am ready to be the culturally responsive servant leader I want to be. I am now ready to take on this approach because I’ve had the time to rest and reflect. In the classroom, I love striving to embody the “warm demander,” a teacher who intentionally focuses on rapport-building and establishes high student standards while providing emotional support and appropriate scaffolding, as Zaretta Hammond wrote about in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. I have seen firsthand how this approach transforms the learning environment. My students and I establish classroom norms and expectations collectively. I provide the time and space to share essential facts about ourselves as individuals and learners. I actively listen to them and notice their hopes, dreams, and fears, honoring each student for who they are. I use student interests and experiences to drive the Spanish curriculum. I strive to ensure that my students know that I deeply care for them and that I firmly believe in their ability to achieve their goals. My students have consistently embraced vulnerability and intellectual risk-taking, because they’ve come to trust their classmates and me. Whether in my sixth grade class reading Bryce Hedstrom’s “La chica fantástica,” or in my Advanced Spanish class reading Gabriel García Márquez’s “Cien Años de Soledad,” these students become accountable to their growth and peer motivators for one another.
 
As I’ve taken the time to think about this approach, I’ve returned to the idea in The Wallace Foundation’s “The School Principal As Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning,” that school leadership is crucial to student achievement because it empowers educators to tap into their fullest potential. And just like students, adults in our community want to feel a strong sense of belonging—that they too are seen, safe, and supported by school administrators. Therefore, school leaders must be “warm demanders” to the faculty. Adult learners also want to be engaged and inspired, and it involves building and maintaining trust.
 
This year, I plan to work collectively alongside administrators and faculty members to continue cultivating a sustainable pace that ignites and maintains a love of learning. It won’t be a walk in the park, but I am committed to helping my community by honoring rest, practicing constructive and kind reflection, and responding to needs and norms. This cycle will be practiced multiple times throughout the school year, and I look forward to how this cycle will continue to help me—and my colleagues across the independent school community—grow as a leader.
Author
Isabel Ceballos
Isabel Ceballos

Isabel Ceballos is head of middle school at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut.
 

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