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This article originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of TASA’s INSIGHT.

In January 2022, nearly 100 Texas school leaders kicked off a transformational journey, participating in the first cohort of TASA’s new Breakaway Leadership program, which was created to help TASA members develop and improve all aspects of their well-being — mental, social-emotional, and physical — to enable them to be the best leaders they can be.

The idea for the program has its origins way back in 2009, when TASA Executive Director Kevin Brown and Deputy Executive Director Charles Dupre were both serving as superintendents, and they participated in TASA’s Life Institute program. The program planted the wellness seed in both of them, and when Dupre joined the TASA staff in fall 2021, he and Brown got to work on creating the brand-new wellness program for members.

“You can’t take care of those you lead and serve if you’re not taking care of yourself,” Dupre says. “In my last several years as superintendent, I was more effective as a leader and came to the table more fully present and fully engaged because I had learned to take care of all aspects of my well-being.”

Over a six-month period, participants in the Breakaway Leadership program participate in monthly sessions, mostly presented virtually and led by expert speakers focused on a variety of leadership wellness topics. Thus far, the 2021-22 cohort has heard from Scott McClelland, H-E-B president; Dr. Dana Labat, a clinical psychologist; physician Scott Conard; and Dr. Kevin Gilliland, also a clinical psychologist.

Speakers address a variety of topics — some offer medical perspectives on wellness, while others touch on psychological or social-emotional issues, or practical leadership skills. Going forward, participants will split into smaller, self-selected accountability groups, in which they can communicate with others in the program to check in and encourage each other.

“The goal is to help every public school leader in Texas be healthy and whole so that they can be the best leader for the school districts and the children they serve,” Dupre says.

Pedro Galaviz, superintendent of Canutillo ISD, says his health drove him to join the Breakaway Leadership program. Galaviz lost his father to diabetes and watched his sister go through two open heart surgeries. When he was hospitalized last fall due to high blood pressure and later discovered he was prediabetic, it was a wakeup call.

“When I was in the hospital, in that bed, I was like, ‘This isn’t where I want to be,’” he says. “The superintendency, a lot of times it’s the loneliest chair, and it doesn’t have to be lonely.”

Galaviz says he found Dr. Conard’s discussions on metabolic syndrome and his “seven numbers” helpful and inspiring. Galaviz’s doctor recommended he lose 10 pounds to avoid becoming diabetic. So far, he’s lost 13 pounds since starting the program. Aside from the weight loss, Galaviz says he’s made other healthy changes thanks to the program, such as using calming breathing techniques. He now sits and breathes before a board meeting, reminding himself to stay mindful and present. He also realizes that his job doesn’t necessarily define him. It’s up to him to define the kind of person, husband and father he wants to be.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you make or how many degrees you have. If you’re not healthy, you’re not going to lead healthfully,” he says. “And you’re not going to have healthy relationships.”

Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Sharon McKinney also signed up for the first Breakaway Leadership cohort. She knows that once committed to something, she tends to stick with it. And she believes the program can help her become a better leader.

“As superintendent of a small district, I tend to do everything and take care of everyone but myself,” McKinney says. “I felt like it would be helpful if I were doing something to make sure that I am healthy and ready to lead our district every day.”

McKinney says she appreciates that much of the program can be done on her own schedule, via the Wondr Health partnership. She says the speakers are engaging and provide the right amount of content for busy administrators.

“They appreciate the fact that we are busy people with a lot on our minds. And it’s not incredibly restrictive or prescriptive. It’s not counting every calorie or every second of exercise. It’s supporting good lifestyle habits that you can carry on with you long after you finish the actual program.”

For McKinney, the greatest benefit of the program so far has been a reminder for her to stop and take some time for herself. “We tend to be selfless as leaders. We want to take care of everybody else.”

Rory Gesch, deputy superintendent of operations in Alvin ISD, is one of four administrators in his district participating in Breakaway Leadership, but his success so far might be one of the most easily measured.

At 6’5” and a former offensive lineman, Gesch says he has weighed as much as 445 pounds during the last 10 years. With help from the program and Wondr Health, by February he had dropped below 400 pounds for the first time in 15 years, and currently he’s down to 375 pounds.

“That’s allowed me to do a lot of things over the last few months, and to be more active and to be more present,” Gesch says.

While the weight loss is a significant part of the potential benefits, Gesch stresses that dismissing the program as just a weight loss program is missing the mark.

“There’s a big piece about creating the ability to be present mentally,” he says. “Going through the process to be more reflective in my day-to-day activities helps keep me more on top of things.”

Gesch says he appreciates the fellowship the program provides, as well as knowing that there’s a network of like-minded administrators from across the state who are sharing the experience with him. He also likes that the program isn’t based on a fad, but focused on making permanent lifestyle changes.

In the past, Gesch says he hasn’t always taken the time to take care of himself, and it’s impeded his ability to serve. Once, he felt selfish focusing on his own needs, but hearing experts stress the importance of doing just that has changed his perspective.

“It’s about giving yourself permission to take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to care for yourself professionally, but also on a personal level, so you can be there for others.”

Gesch is quick to recommend the Breakaway Leadership program to other administrators. With his own team, he’s seen how the program means something different to each person involved. Participants can take the information and apply it to where they need it most in their own lives.

“I encourage anybody with the opportunity to do so to give it a shot, because I think there’s something there for everyone,” he says. “And as educators, we give so much of ourselves. Through this I’ve found ways to improve my abilities to lead as well as to give back to others and make my community and my life better.”

Looking ahead, Dupre says TASA hopes to develop a phase two of the program, so that the leaders participating in the first cohort can continue their work after the first six months of the program. A second cohort of Breakaway Leadership is also planned for the 2022-23 school year.

Watch for sign-up information in the TASA Daily e-newsletter and on the TASA website.

“Superintendents have always faced stress in their jobs, and it’s only increased over the last several years,” Dupre says. “Breakaway Leadership is about helping leaders be their best, because if the superintendent is taking their wellness and well-being seriously, then others in the organization will follow their lead.”