We’ve all been younger versions of the person we are today. And most of us have been younger versions of the principal we are today. These two things are linked but not the same.
Unless you are very young (and hence not likely to be a principal) there’s a lot to dislike about getting older. Physically things change and time takes on an increasingly finite nature – and I’m not even going to mention the scientific fact that everyone slows down mentally (even if you believe that’s fake news . . .).
The better news is that many things also improve. You’ve had more time to connect with more people, learned skills compensate for a lot, you stop caring so much about a whole range of stuff that used to keep you awake at night, and with your increased life experience, have more opportunity to keep perspective when things get tough.
. . .
I’m borrowing an idea from Tim Ferriss this week. He often asks his podcast guests what advice they would give a younger version of themselves. He sometimes even specifies, “what advice would you give your 30 year old self”. My question is even narrower – “what advice would you give your first-year principal self?”
There’s probably as many answers to that as there are people doing the role, and if you are in your first year, all I can promise is that you will probably look back one day and think, “that was dumb!”
Personally, a couple of thoughts stand out amongst the myriad of other things I’d like to be able to time travel back with and slap in front of my naïve self. The first involves fully accepting that the job can never be finished.
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As a teacher, you are responsible for a lot, but the edges of that responsibility are largely constrained to the core business of teaching your class.
If you were lucky (or very intentional) in your journey to school leadership, your path would have involved progressive increases in responsibility. Maybe from pure classroom to team leader, then to an AP/DP role. This journey would have equipped you with an increasing skill set, but even then, the step to being ‘the leader’ is a big one. And many in our eclectic system simply bypass most or all of that and find themselves fully responsible for a school with little more than a well written application and a great interview. Boom.
It took me ages to really accept that what we do has no end point, but once I did, it changed the way I work (and the mental load). Once you do accept that reality, the challenge moves from trying to get everything done, to working on what’s most important, empowering others to do the same, and crucially, giving yourself permission to say, “I’ve done enough”.
We (the Forty Hour Project team) have a key definition that frames this thought – “being professional means working effectively and sustainably”. The sustainable part refers to you.
(You can read a more detailed post on the reality of not having a finish point here. It’s a positive one!)
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The second piece of advice I wish I could give my younger self is to stop saying, “I’ll do it.”
Saying “I’ll do it” freely and often, is a trap that usually comes from a good place. Most school leaders I’ve met are intrinsically wired to be helpers, to get stuff done, to care about people.
They see a need, or someone alerts them to one, and 2 beats of a hummingbird’s heart later they are responsible for a new thing . . . and there can be a lot of new things.
What I now know is that by freely volunteering “I’ll do it” has consequences, and very easily interferes with our core goal to be professional (as above).
What consequences you say? How about:
Makes you ‘busy’
Stops important work
Guarantees unnecessary stress
Creates false expectations in others
If I’d understood this earlier, I would have been a much better leader . . . and a much healthier person.
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So, what about you? If you could time travel back to when the adventure first started, what sage advice would you give yourself?
And if you are in New Zealand, happy Easter – park the worries about orange/tangerine/pale yellow/whatever and concentrate on your core work for the next fortnight – strengthening your school’s most valuable asset. We’ll see you on the other side!