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Welcome to the Circus

Juggling the demands of life and leadership

By Donya Ball, Ed.D.


Driven, determined, confident. These words describe many administrators. Along the way to the top, you’ve juggled dozens of responsibilities. You’ve performed almost superhuman feats to keep your life, your children’s lives, and your school duties afloat.

You proved to yourself and those around you that you were more than the challenges life threw at you. Somehow, you’re still kicking. But it hasn’t been an easy road. Some days, you feel like a crazy circus clown, juggling more balls than you can handle.

Perhaps you started your career like many young teachers do. Although you enjoyed the classroom, your original dream was to be a stay-at-home mom. You loved teaching, but you were willing to put your career on hold to welcome a tiny human into the world.

You’d always admired those “model moms” you saw on Instagram. That ultimate stay-at-home mom was the pinnacle of productivity. As you scrolled through social media, you vicariously watched her sip her daily dose of Cafe Vienna, then spend her day carpooling, grocery shopping, laundry, ironing and making dinner. She maneuvered through household duties with class and grace.

After giving birth to your first child, you were bound and determined to be just like that supermom. You’d take the stay-at-home route. You’d succeed with flying colors. But after a few days on your new job, you found yourself collapsing on the couch with only one thing to say: “This job is hard!” Many days you looked forward to hanging out with the neighborhood mom across the street over a glass of Chardonnay, just to have a little bit of a breather from 24-7 mommy duty. You suddenly gained a new level of respect for all stay-at-home moms everywhere. How did those moms on Instagram do it, anyway?

Suddenly, teaching began to feel like a viable option again. When you started considering going back to teaching, you wondered if you were selfish. All the women in your church group seemed to imply that you were. Whispering behind your back, they looked at you in shock as they mouthed, “How could you?” Some even said it out loud: “Do you really have to?” “Why would you choose that?”

Your mom guilt may have made the whispers seem more extreme than they really were. But at the same time, it felt like there was no compassion. You realized that women can be extremely cruel and judgmental to one another.

Despite the judgment, you knew deep down that sometimes a lady just needed to work to be truly fulfilled. You knew you were not the only one who thought this way. Finally, you decided to take the plunge back into teaching. You found it filled a need and scratched an itch like nothing else.

Welcome to the circus.

When you plunged into teaching after your first child was born, you realized that teaching was more complicated now than it was before kids. There were many additional facets to your new life. Being a full-time mom was not easy, but neither was juggling your children’s needs and your teaching role at the same time.

But you were strong, capable and determined. You needed to keep showing yourself and the world that you could handle the demands of full-time work and full-time mothering.

Kids kept coming one after another, and you kept climbing the administrative ladder. Once you were “all in” with teaching, the jump to administration was a short one. With a master’s degree behind you, you found yourself eyeing a place in administration. Why not go even farther doing what you loved most: organizing and monitoring systems of improvement? Your superintendent saw your strengths and offered you your first administrative position. You felt like you were walking on air.

Now, you’re facing the acrobatic act of working and administrating while juggling full-time mothering. As you keep track of one child in grade school, one in a different preschool, and one on the way, you begin to fear for your job, your role and your future. You seek to prove yourself in the administrative arena, and you wonder how your children will reflect on your future prospects.

No matter how high your confidence in your own abilities, you fear that others will not see you the same way. A pregnancy, a sick child, or too many responsibilities at the same time may threaten your prospects. As you adjust for needs at home, you fear that others will begin to see you as incompetent.

To push back against that perception, you work as hard as you possibly can. Nine months pregnant, you’re still trundling through the halls, putting out fires in your school. Perhaps you’re even in the classroom, conducting a formal observation, when the labor pains hit. After the baby is born, you are bound and determined to continue breast-feeding.

Wanting the best for your children, you hide in the closet or bathroom to pump for your little ones. Or you take a walkie talkie to the nearby day care at lunch and nurse your baby on the couch just to make sure you do not miss out on any pressing issues back at school. Every day is a constant balancing act.

You don’t always have to live like a crazy circus juggler. There are important ways that you can choose to let go of some of the balls you are juggling.

The circus doesn’t end there. Once in administration, you feel the need to get more education. A doctorate degree feels like the perfect way to fulfill a personal goal and hone your professional skills. Deep into school administration, you see areas where you need to grow and develop. Going back to college seems perfect for your needs.

Again, people ask, “Why now?” “Your kids need you.” “You’re taking on too much.” But you know that more important than anything else is the driving force that has been behind all your juggling over the years.

What is the driving force? It’s the determination not to lose yourself in the midst of all the chaos. You want to keep using your gifts. You don’t want to disappear beneath a pile of humdrum chores.

You know you can take it all on, so you press on. When you set a goal, you can make it a reality. So you push forward.

Juggling all these areas, however, comes at a cost. You suddenly discover that there are things you simply can’t hold together. You find yourself dropping balls. This leads to one of the most important lessons you need to learn as you juggle administrative life: have grace for your failures.

Grace for failures

As you try to keep track of all the aspects of your new life, it’s easy to let some things slip. One of the easiest areas to drop is your marriage. Teachers and administrators are constantly growing and learning, but they often forget to bring their partners along for the ride. As you evolve and grow professionally, you often forget to grow closer to your partner.

Your spouse may be incredibly supportive of your career and educational aspirations. But he or she may still resent the sacrifices that come along with your professional goals. Long working hours, board meetings, constant fires to extinguish and multiple out-of-town conferences make a marriage unsustainable over the long haul.

Without knowing it, you may be overburdening your relationship with your loving partner. When you disappear into the next room to write your dissertation, zeroed in on your career goals, you forget that you’ve left your spouse alone to make dinner and tend to the family. Without realizing it, you’re forcing the one you love the most to sustain these sacrifices year after year.

Perhaps you assume your relationship is more durable than it really is. At the back of your mind, you know that it’s not easy for your spouse to be married to such a driven professional. But you assume that your partner can handle the short-term sacrifices while keeping the end goal in mind. You long for your spouse to be your solid friend, understanding the reasons you choose your career and higher education.

When your spouse seems unable to do so, it’s easy to succumb to the idea that being with someone else will ease the situation. Finding someone who truly understands you — or even being alone — will be better than your current reality. You feel bad that you don’t try harder to “make it work,” but you find yourself bailing on your marriage.

Before you know it, you’ve dropped some major balls. You will need to take some steps to recover your circus act before it’s too late. One of the most important things to remember is that there is always forgiveness available.

Recovering from a major misstep like divorce, failure or mismanagement can require intense therapy and forgiveness. Picking up the balls you’ve dropped takes courage, humility and determination. Learning to coparent, learning to accept your failure, and learning to start juggling again is a difficult but beautiful process.

As you handle the circus of life, remember that there is always grace. You can receive restoration, forgiveness and new beginnings. There is always time to start over, no matter what mistakes you’ve made. Each time you make a fresh start, you do so with a little more wisdom and balance, and a few more tools under your belt. Life is full and continues to be a chaotic, beautiful mess. Remember that even a master juggler drops many balls, but he always picks them up and starts again.

Set boundaries

As you juggle your professional and personal responsibilities, you should ask yourself an important question. “Is this my only option? Do I have to spend the rest of my life chaotically grabbing at responsibilities as they fly towards me? Are all these responsibilities really as important as they seem?”

If you’re asking these questions, you’re headed in the right direction. You don’t always have to live like a crazy circus juggler. There are important ways that you can choose to let go of some of the balls you are juggling. Prioritize the most important responsibilities and delegate the rest to others.

Although leaders must learn to balance personal and professional life well, they must also master the art of saying “no.” Just because you wear many hats doesn’t mean you have to wear every hat that people try to assign to you. You as the leader are the one who chooses which responsibilities to take on and which to let go of.

Suppose a teacher texts you on a Friday night. She’s in a frenzy, worried about a student and parent situation. It’s an emergency, she says. She’s hoping you’ll be willing to meet with her over the weekend. She’s sure you’ll want to help her out. She ends her text by reassuring you that she’s so grateful for your support.

As you set down your phone, you sigh. You’re feeling a mix of resentment, resignation and confusion. Should you really give up your chill Saturday afternoon to help this teacher out? It seems like she’s desperate. You remember how grateful you’ve been in the past when one of your mentors sacrificed their time to meet with you on their day off.

You pick up your phone to tell her you’ll meet with her.

But then you pause. In your mind’s eye, you see your kids begging you to take them to the park. You remember that you’d promised them you’d take them this weekend. In addition, you know that if you don’t take a break, your own mental health will suffer. You won’t be the leader you need to be without taking proper time for rest and recuperation.

Your resolve strengthens. Just because this teacher feels it is an emergency doesn’t necessarily mean it really is one. Her situation can wait. You don’t need to panic, even if the teacher does. You can work with her to find a time that works for both of you early next week.

You remember the mantra: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

You realize that you don’t need to overwhelm your calendar just to rescue people from their own mistakes and emergencies. Instead, you can give people space to work out their own problems. You can show them that you trust them to figure it out on their own.

Filled with determination, you text the teacher back. “I can’t meet tomorrow, but I can spend a few minutes texting with you about your emergency tomorrow afternoon. Then we’ll work together to find a time that will work for you next week.”

Learning to set boundaries is an important part of maintaining your sanity. You must take the time to rest, recharge, recuperate and relax. It’s important to maintain your own mental health by saying “no” to some of the balls people throw in your direction. Sometimes, it’s OK to take off some of the hats and let your hair down.

Prioritize mental health

Prioritizing your staff’s mental health is another way to cut down on the responsibilities piling onto your plate. Think about it: a relaxed, healthy, calm teacher is less likely to dump her issues and concerns onto you. Help your teachers build peer support systems. Encourage them to lend a listening ear to one another. This way, they will not try to make you responsible for fixing their breakdowns.

This doesn’t mean that you must take on the burden of starting another program for your teachers. You don’t need to create another initiative or babysit your staff’s mental health, all by yourself. Instead, you can ask the staff themselves what they need in order to decrease stress. Put teachers at the helm, allowing them to take charge of their mental health. Assure them that you’ll provide the needed resources to help them along the way.

For example, perhaps the teachers, counselors and classified staff could start a Positive School Culture Committee that meets once a month to share ideas. Staff can handle this role on their own without any intervention from you. They can meet periodically to discuss the stress levels of teachers in the buildings. They can support each other, debrief and brainstorm about steps that can be taken to raise positivity in the culture.

You’ll be surprised at what your staff can come up with all on their own. They might make a mental health wellness bingo card full of simple wellness activities: listening to music, trying a new hobby, smiling at a student or reading a book for fun. They might fill a basket with low-budget snacks teachers can receive as prizes for completing their bingo card. They might compete with each other as they track their mental-health-boosting wellness activities. The smiles, laughter and fun that are added to the building will bring joy to your heart. Their simple ideas can be cost-effective and easy to implement.

When you as a leader intentionally support positive staff wellness, it will also help you manage your own stress level. As you help your staff maintain a positive work-life balance, it will reduce the emergencies that are offloaded onto you.

As a side note, allow your staff to take a break when needed. There are plenty of time-clock Gestapos out there who will enforce bell-to-bell work schedules. Do not be one of those annoying leaders. Those that you supervise will thank you tremendously for your trust and respect for their mental health.

Staff anxiety causes urgent “fires” that they want you to solve. They try to rope into putting out the fire. But mental health programs help staff put out stray sparks before they grow into emergencies. When you help staff manage their own mental health, there will be less urgent situations piled onto your plate. Make sure staff are aware of the insurance options or district wellness opportunities that will help them take advantage of professional counseling or therapy.

As you’re prioritizing your staff’s mental health, don’t forget about your own. Do you need to take a vacation? See a therapist? Take some time for self-care? Do whatever is necessary to keep yourself in a good mental space. Allow others to help you carry the weight of your daily responsibilities.

Don’t try to do it all alone. Recognize that vulnerability with trusted friends and coaches is an important — and needed — self-care practice. If you are struggling with the weight of the responsibilities you’re juggling, make sure to ask for help sooner rather than later.

Remember the end goal

Education administration is more than a work-home balancing act. It is a circus. It is conducting a performance. It’s a well-choreographed production. And it takes multiple takes and even sometimes a whole new design of the script to make it work.

As you continue to work and rework your plan, keep in mind the end goal. Is it worth it? Absolutely, but only if you’re able to truly give yourself grace during the times of crazy.

Be patient with yourself during the seasons when you feel that you are doing nothing well. When your kids are sick, and you have to meet with the angry parent anyway. When you have to choose between the board meeting and the swim meet. And neither choice seems like the right one.

Why is it worth it? It may take more than a decade to find out. But when your firstborn is a focused high school student excelling in athletics, your middle child has her mind set on accomplishing a 100-mile endurance horse ride, and your youngest son is a happy-go-lucky jokester, you’ll begin to feel a sense of gratitude and satisfaction. You tell yourself that somehow, all of this hard work on momma’s part has influenced them all in some way. Of course, in the silence of reflection, you wonder. You wonder if you could have done it any better.

Education administration is more than a work-home balancing act. It is a circus. It is conducting a performance. It’s a well-choreographed production. And it takes multiple takes and even sometimes a whole new design of the script to make it work.

The true north

Life can be a circus. It is a roller coaster ride, full of ups, downs, and in-betweens. But through the disasters and heartache, there are also celebrations. There are times of rebirthing happiness, drenched in complete thankfulness for the experiences that have shaped you.

Along the way, remember these key ingredients to surviving the circus:

  • Give yourself grace for the times you drop the balls.
  • Focus on mental health.
  • Remember that the journey is worth it, even if you don’t see it right now.

The work is hard. Balancing administration, parenting, and marriage is extremely difficult. But know it can be done if you truly work through the chaos. Seek affirmation in knowing that not only are you changing the world, but your children are watching as well. There can be a lot learned from administrative jugglers. And when one of your children drops the ball in their own life, they’ll immediately know the outcome … pick it up and try again.

You got this.


Donya Ball, Ed.D., is a superintendent of The Academies Charter Management Organization, a professor for both educational leadership and teacher education, and a member of ACSA’s Board of Directors. The preceding was excerpted from her 2022 book, “Adjusting the Sails: Weathering the Storms of Administrative Leadership.”

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