It’s That Time of Year Again: Fending Off the February Doldrums

By Joe Schroeder, PhD, Associate Executive Director

For centuries, mariners crossing the Atlantic lived in fear of getting stuck in the dreaded Doldrums, that latitude near the equator where windless waters could strand sailed vessels for weeks or months at a time – and at great peril!  February has a similar quality to it, generally feeling like “the Doldrums” of the school year, where fall excitement has dissipated, relationships and patience can be strained, and winter routines mix to put a school at risk of stagnation and even regression.  With anticipation of this regular school year phenomenon in mind, this article provides several approaches for fending off the February Doldrums so that you can keep your crew focused and energized for successfully navigating the challenging waters ahead.

Acknowledging and Expressing Gratitude
Genuine appreciation is always important but especially at this time of the year, as people can feel their tanks running low and “burn out” mentions arising.  According to many psychologists, burnout is simply the impaired ability to experience positive emotion.  Thus, the interventions that are most effective at reducing burnout all have to do with improving one’s ability to perceive positive emotions.  But our focus determines our reality.  So if you’re feeling down, it’s hard to recognize the data pointing to what’s going well.  You literally won’t see, hear, or register it.  That’s why it's helpful to build in disciplines of noticing and acknowledging the good already in our lives, even in the most dire of times.  Notably, expressions of gratitude by one person tend to motivate others to express gratitude, thus prompting a virtuous cycle as well as reciprocal behavior (Cameron, 2008).  Therefore, this is an especially impactful time to model the way for acknowledging the good in and with your team.  Establishing a routine for expressing gratitude at the start of regular meetings and/or your weekly newsletter could bear fruit.  Done well, these efforts can help folks get in a better head space to learn and come together in a positive way.  A personalized approach for this is the 15-day Gratitude Challenge, where leaders can model the way and encourage others to join them in the effort.  Essentially, each day write down three things you are grateful for and your role in it.  It is recommended that you do this nightly, as your brain will continue to bathe in gratitude even while you sleep.  And those who continue this challenge for at least 15 days typically describe feeling differently because they are making an intentional effort to acknowledge (literally see and hear) the good around them (and ways they are contributing to it), which can otherwise get lost in the day’s churn.  Finally, research shows that recognition is most often valued when it is delivered in a sincere and private manner.  So another approach is to deliver a personal, handwritten message of gratitude to 3-5 staff members each week, being sure to address each member at least once over the course of the school year.  I have found such efforts to be incredibly valued by folks, even twenty years later, which is a hat tip to the power of showing appreciation and to the significant way such simple, authentic efforts of ongoing gratitude expression can foster positive relationships and a supportive culture.

Celebrating Short-Term Wins
Celebration doesn’t just feel good.  Research shows again and again that thoughtful celebration is the fuel that makes deep change and transformation possible, as underscored by just a few of the many findings from our field, such as these:  “In successful change efforts, empowered people create short-term wins – victories that nourish faith in the change effort, emotionally reward the hard workers, keep the critics at bay, and build momentum.  Without sufficient wins that are visible, timely, unambiguous, and meaningful to others, change efforts inevitably run into serious problems” (Kotter & Cohen, 2002).  “The beauty of small wins is, if you design a small win, people see that they have produced change.  Anytime you create a goal for yourself and you achieve the goal, you start to believe I’m a person who can make a difference in my environment. That inspires further change” (Correll, 2019).  “Win small. Win early. Win often. People can’t argue with success” (Hamel, 2002).  In fact, we at AWSA are convinced that celebrating short-term wins is so important for moving the needle for all students over time that we insist that some aspect of celebration is included within each 100-day plan for those we coach in our academies like SAIL.  So as you enter the February Doldrums, consider how you can engineer further progress through ongoing, intentional celebration.  It will feel good and do good!

Fueling Optimism
At a deeper level, gratitude and celebration fuel our underlying energy and optimism, which builds in each of us our compassion resilience so that we can weather through even the most challenging times of the year, such as the predictable February Doldrums.  It’s worth mentioning here that compassion resilience wasn’t even a term in our field until recent years, which gives insight into its rising importance for those who wish to lead in choppy seas and sustain the journey within the challenging context of 21st century educational leadership.  My favorite definition of compassion resilience is “our ability to remain optimistic amidst an imperfect world.”  So to that end, consider how expressing gratitude and celebration can build optimism and even enthusiasm in service to something bigger than ourselves.  I find video to often be an especially powerful lever to accomplish this.  Two of my favorite gratitude videos (often used as warmups for team meetings) are the following:  Alicia Keys’ Good Job (which you can use as-is or supplant with images of your own team while the lyrics play) or CBS Sunday Morning’s segment called Special Delivery (which shows the amazing impact that any staff member, not just teachers, can have on student lives.)  Two others that engage the heart and help people reclaim their deepest why for service to those most in need of it are Gregory Boyle’s “Life Lessons from a Gang Member” video and Ernie Johnson’s Got to or Get to? video.  And in case you missed it in August, my Agent of Hope article has been used by many leaders this school year to fuel optimism, encourage the heart, and help a team lean into the continued labor of changing systems over time for the benefit of all.

In closing, turning the calendar to February can bring a host of notable – yet predictable – morale challenges for leaders.  These challenges can be met through a host of thoughtful efforts that will both feel good and do good.  I trust that at least one or two of the approaches described herein can be a match for you and your situation, this month and beyond.  As always, please reach out if we can be of further assistance and thanks for leading the way!  We so deeply appreciate dedicated, thoughtful, and capable colleagues like you.


Compassion Resilience Toolkit for Schools. (2023). WISE Initiative for Stigma Elimination. Retrieved from

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Mattos, M., & Muhammad, A. (2021). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, Second Edition. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Gwinn, C. & Chan, C. (2022). Hope rising:  How the science of hope can change your life. New York: Morgan James Publishing.