Why Supporting High Achievers Matters

Independent schools are filled with educators that are both highly motivated and high achievers, many of whom are products of the independent school world themselves. These are the folks in the community who not only do the various elements of their job really well but are also the ones who most frequently say yes to each extra duties than assigned. On top of excellence in teaching, dedication to dorm parenting, attentive advising, and so on and so on, these are often the educators taking on more without taking away any of their existing responsibilities, such as picking up an extra duty when a colleague is sick.


Many educators I consult with tell me that they do this because they love their community, believe in their school, and find joy in their roles. And while that all may well be true, these are precisely the talented, committed educators who the industry has a habit of burning out. While this does not mean these educators all leave school in its entirety, but, at some point, they find themselves desperate to take a step back. We do this to our most enthusiastic and motivated student leaders as well, but that's another blog.


What these educators often cite as their number one need is increased support. Those who genuinely like taking on so many different aspects of life, especially within a boarding school community, would certainly benefit from a reduction of duties, a pay increase, and some good old-fashioned boundaries. But, what they themselves report is that they are most in need of support. The conundrum is that internal mentoring could help our overachieving faculty, yet asking for help often leaves these educators feeling guilty as mentorship is, in a sense, asking another educator to go outside their set responsibilities.


You may look around your campus and see those highly dedicated educators and presume that their candle continues to burn brightly. Those same high achievers, many of whom have identified this way since childhood, have an incredibly hard time admitting when they are struggling. They are the buck-up, pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps, slap-on-a-smile-and-muscle-through sort that makes identifying when they need support all the more difficult. They roll with it, no matter what it is. We call them superheroes, tireless, the backbone of our communities. They have been hearing this for so long that it is foundational to their identity.


So, what happens when, internally, they know that they are tired, feeling nothing like a hero, and wishing that they could be honest with their supervisors, their direct reports, and their community?


These are precisely the people who are finding their way to coaching. People who need and want support, are eager to continue to do their job exceptionally well and want to contribute to their community in a variety of ways. Coaching certainly is a support that is needed and beneficial for those who are struggling - for the underperforming educator who is not ready to give up, for the embittered educator looking for a new perspective and a fresh start. But, coaching a high achiever is in many ways turbo-boosted coaching. There is no convincing the high achiever that they can do well. They demonstrate this day in and day out. What they in fact need help with is stepping back, setting boundaries, and finding a pace that is sustainable and fulfilling to protect them from burnout (which, in turn, protects the industry from losing them altogether).


Often, this type of educator uncovers through coaching that saying ‘no’ to additional responsibilities or projects feels like a shift in identity. Setting boundaries at work can feel like somebody else's strategy, but certainly not theirs. They identify with ‘busy’ but not with ‘rest’. And to ask for a rest, for a break, for a reduction in duties, or even for support from their peers, feels entirely counter to their internal and external identity, their entire sense of self. Coaching high achievers, in many ways, is an exercise in challenging the self-fulfilling prophecies educators have built both their career trajectory and self-identity on.


In boarding schools in particular, if our highest achieving colleagues cannot have that honest conversation internally, we must grant them the support externally before the rift in that identity deepens, leading them to walk away from our industry altogether.


-Jackie