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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Have you noticed that some people are sad this time of year?  Quite SAD, actually.  Yet given their condition, they still come to school each day and depend on our leadership.

Physicians and pharmaceutical companies call this condition, Seasonal Affective Disorder, also referred to as the mid-winter blues or another name we used when I was principal-ing in the U.P. of Michigan: Cabin Fever.  Cabin fever kicks in around this time each year – when a chill’s in the air, the sun’s not shining, and when things just aren’t quite green enough.

Maintaining staff and student enthusiasm for teaching and learning is a bit cumbersome during this season.  We find that our short days sometimes seem lengthier than our longer nights: staff fuses get short, office referrals get long, and students don’t seem to be buying what we’re selling.

What do we do?

As leaders, we try our best to play “Doctor Mom” or “Doctor Dad.” We make quick, prudent diagnoses of those who are SAD, offering prescriptions to “fix ‘em up.” 

Easy as that … Right?

Well, as a leader, I didn’t always think so. 

I tried all sorts of these motivational promotions from companies all-too-willing to flood my desk with catalogues of mailbox stuffers, happy-land posters, and workday-well wishes for the staff announcements.  Atta-boy’s and Rah Rah’s can last a quarter or two on a game clock, but typically not a quarter or two on a school calendar.  They didn’t work for me all too well.

Wanting to involve greater minds than mine for ideas as I composed this short-read, I reached out to friends in the Twitter universe and found that they offered more creative ideas for keeping high the energy level in schools.  A leader’s meaningful, genuine efforts to recognize, to reward, and to accentuate the positive were first on our colleagues’ lists.  They suggested that by finding those magic moments, making the most of “the present,” and asking staff what they, themselves, needed to get through this mid-winter stretch, leaders would make headway.  The key, my colleagues felt, was in listening to others and of course, smiling … authentically smiling.  I would agree wholeheartedly.  I certainly smiled when I heard the ideas for staff snowball fights and morning floor hockey. 

Through these and other conversations, along with the pleasure of reading a few excellent books, I think I have uncovered the most important part of what we as leaders must do in our schools to help others get through through this season’s Cabin Fever …

We must diagnose and cure our own. 

Yes, we must take care of ourselves first; yet, we often do not. 

We’re often in denial. 

Just like parents, sometimes when we have a fever (Cabin Fever, or otherwise), we stoically plow forward, not under any circumstances letting anyone else know we’re not well.   Yet, is this really doing anyone, any good? 

This week, I received a request to write a conference abstract for one of my upcoming presentations. As I put some thought into what I wanted to say, I thought of our Tweets this week and the Leadershop as well, and entitled it, When the masks drop, put YOURS on first. 

Here is what I wrote:

[Our] role is more of a calling than a job … more a mission than a position … in fact, a true labor of love.  As human service professionals, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy operating altruistically, thinking of others before we think of ourselves, don’t we?  Yet, are we truly “helping” those who depend upon us to the degree that we can, when we do just that?!?  Airline personnel would remind us that if turbulence is present and the oxygen masks drop, we should affix OUR OWN, before fastening those of our children.  This is based upon the premise that unless we are first fully capable of helping others through a clear body and mind, then we are “no help at all.”  [There exists] the unapologetic necessity of focusing first on meeting our own needs while working in the helping professions, in that by doing so, we will be more effectively positioned to help others with theirs.  Being self-ful is the key that pays itself forward.

The cure for Cabin Fever? 

Ironically, might I suggest that in the midst of moving forward with the many good ideas that our colleagues on Twitter suggest, we should first ensure we are operating on all cylinders. Putting on our own oxygen masks first is not selfish; it is self-ful.

We can then navigate more effectively through our cabins, until we can open the windows and let-in a little fresh air, whereupon spring fever will bring about the exciting need for an entirely different prescription regimen.


Dr. Ryan Donlan studies school wellness and would hope that you should share ideas on how you apply your own oxygen masks with the intent of being self-ful.  If you would like to share, will you please contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks for visiting the Leadershop!

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