There’s a great kids movie called Wall-E that came out a few years ago. It’s one of those early Pixar animated films that actually has a story line. It’s 2085 and the world is a mess. Humanity has abandoned the (broken) earth and for generations has been travelling through space looking for a new planet to inhabit.
Ultimately, it’s a fun movie about hope, but the reason I’m mentioning it is that it has a hilarious section where the impacts of humanity’s sedentary lifestyle are laid bare. A sort of reverse evolution where people change from being strong and mobile to the complete opposite.
The leaders who planned the escape trip to the stars wanted people to travel in comfort and luxury which meant everything was done automatically with no human effort needed. Over time, even the need for bones was gone and people basically turned into blobs. In the movie it’s funny.
Except . . .
The job we do is somewhere on that slippery slope. It’s sedentary.
Ten years ago, Kansas State University researcher, Richard Rosenkranz, reviewed data from over 60 000 Australian men that showed those sitting for more than 4 hours daily were significantly more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure. (I don’t why he only studied men, but I’d be very surprised if the other 50% of the population were much different). The risk periods were categorized as less than four hours, four to six hours, six to eight hours, or more than eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a direct link between the length of time spent sitting and ill health.
The link between time spent in a chair and pain when sitting, is also being clearly mapped. Researchers suggest that the lack of movement involved in sitting for extended periods induces conditions in our body that inevitably lead to back pain and dysfunction. Some current thinking is that most of the total damage is due to this inactivity too.
How many of you have ended up with a sore neck/back/arm/hip after a couple of big admin weeks? Or what about the days you spend at a course or PLD session? I bet I’m not the only one who feels the effects of this.
So, how much time do you spend attached to the swivelly chair – today? This week? This year?
And of course, your desk chair is only one part of the equation. We need to add in the daily commute and what happens at home in the evening . . . the numbers can be confronting if you are brave enough to actually add them up. And if you compare your number to the Australian study mentioned above, even 8 hours will look conservative to many of us.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our American friends are the most studied group in regard to this issue. Various research shows that the average American office worker now spends up to 15 hours per day sitting . . . eek!
. . .
Personally, I’m conscious of this problem and deliberately try to minimise it, but the reality of the job means it’s difficult. Some strategies I do use though include:
- Getting a cup of water as needed rather than using a drink bottle
- Standing up whenever someone comes into the space I’m working in (also keeps the conversation shorter)
- Stretching when I remember to do it (this is good for a laugh occasionally when someone walks in on an awkward looking stretch)
- Alternating between sitting and standing (a permanent high and low screen setup helps)
- Deliberately going for a walk (I even try to do this when at a course)
And I don’t know how you are finding the job right now, but my observation is that the amount of admin that needs to be done is increasing slowly but surely every year. To be fair, there have been some recent wins, things like the new ERO model and the changes around teacher appraisal have been welcome from a ‘reducing unnecessary admin’ perspective, but the overall trend makes time in a chair increase.
Reading some of the research shows that there are two key problems in play when we sit a lot. The first is that too much time is spent in one particular posture, and the second is that, overall, it makes us sedentary.
There are actually lots of options for varying posture – high screen/low screen, rotating across the day between different chairs/kneeling stools/swiss balls, standing meetings, regular stretching.
Why don’t we already do these things? Habit.
We can all choose to be more active around the site by visiting classrooms, running messages for the admin team, volunteering for duties, walking the long way whenever possible . . . essentially being more active in the hours we are at work.
Why don’t we do this? Habit.
We’ve talked about habits lots in previous posts, including how to form new ones, but one simple tactic that I’m going to leave you with exponentially increases the likelihood of change happening – it’s removing barriers.
In regard to varying posture – put (at least) two sitting options near your desk. Two different chairs, a swiss ball, whatever you like, just different.
In regard to being more active during the working day – deliberately go the longest way possible to a classroom you are visiting. Out the gate, around the block if possible. Or past the bins where some ‘close enough’ shots have generously left a bit of stretching practice. It’ll take 3 minutes extra but those minutes are very good for you.
When Monday rolls around next week, you can do what you’ve always done, or . . .
Photo by Vladislav Babienko
I have a growing feeling that the next few weeks are going to be huge. There’s a weird sort of vibe in the wider cosmos and I have a suspicion that winter needs to make way for something better – quickly.
I don’t know how things are looking in your particular school, but from my experience this week there are a lot of people operating well short of their best. I’m talking children, parents, and teachers. Now, it may simply be my own slightly jaded perspective driving this thought.
I confess I broke a long-standing rule of mine to not even consider getting sick in Term breaks. Being sick sucks and that’s why I normally don’t do it. But for some unknown reason I didn’t follow the usual plan and with that lapse came consequences – being a bit behind with the work, a heap of wasted fun time, and a definite sense of starting the new Term tired.
So maybe it’s just me.
But . . . the emails, phone conversations, and various meetings this week make me think there’s something bigger up.
An example has come with the recent call from Head Office to “strongly encourage” mask wearing, but without that final step of mandating it. Each school is to make their own decision on what “strongly encourage” looks like in their setting, and of course, this means schools are all doing different things. This is a lot of fun for the news organisations and provides rich opportunity for social media to do its thing. All of which stirs the winter pot a little more and tests those of us who have to make these interpretations. Add it to the list.
It’s challenging to be a ‘leader of learning’ when so much of your time and energy is being used to meet the needs of people who are projecting their own worries and fears both personally and through their children – it’s easy to be distracted by the urgent and possibly lose sight of the important.
As a possible answer to this conundrum, I’m going to quote one of my favourite thinkers, Seth Godin –
“find the value and you will find the job”.
While Seth wrote this from a business perspective, I think it is very applicable to the situation we school leaders find ourselves in right now. There is so much extraneous ‘stuff’ going on that being clear about what is important becomes critical.
And let’s be honest, if we don’t keep our focus clear, under the current conditions we run the very real risk of getting into a spiral of busy because there is so much that could be done.
. . .
To illustrate the point, here’s a common wee scenario that’s all too real for many of us. Depending on the size of your school it’ll go something like this –
It’s 6:45am, raining, and you just finished sorting your mental to do list for the day and were reaching for the car keys.
Beep goes your phone.
“Hi, I’m not coming in today. I’ve been up all night coughing.”
“Oh no, sorry to hear that. Any chance we’ve got a reliever?”
“No, I messaged Kate (Team Leader) and she hasn’t replied.”
“OK, leave it with me. You take it easy and rest.”
Things speed up now. You message the Team Leader yourself and pull up the reliever schedule to see who is possibly available. You know it’s going to be very unlikely that anyone is. Two other teachers are already out and another has a planned PLD day which has been deferred twice.
As you jump in the car (later than you wanted to be now) the possible options for covering the class roll around in your head. Miracle – you find a reliever, or split the class (that’ll be hard on everyone on this wet day), or ask the teacher on PLD release to cough up their reliever, or . . . you teach them.
. . .
This very common little scenario is like one of those ‘pick a path’ books. Each choice comes with consequences and each has the potential to impact on other people, not least the kids involved.
So how to choose?
This is where Seth’s quote comes in – where is the most value?
Every situation will be different, but some principals I’ve talked to say they feel ‘guilty’ if they don’t volunteer to step in. They want to help and don’t want to create more load for others, but behind these positive thoughts is also a nagging feeling that it is somehow ‘bad’ not to offer. Self-imposed guilt.
And then there’s the flip side. An aspect that principals often seem to push to the back of this decision process is the value of what they were going to achieve that day. By jumping in, all the work that they would have done that day stops. And some (much!) of it was important. This work still needs to be completed and tomorrow’s schedule is already full . . . a spiral of catch-up is born.
There are other factors too. The probability (tragic as it may be to your ego) is that you are not as good as you once were as a teacher . . . unless you are a teaching principal, your core work is no longer in front of a class. Your ‘rusty’ skills and no opportunity to prepare, combine to mean the value of the teaching you will do is almost certainly limited.
Where the balance lies between what you will achieve by teaching versus what you will achieve by working on your core job is the question. But if you take this ‘maximum value’ approach to making the decision, things may be clearer.
There will be plenty of other scenarios coming up in the next few weeks that will ensure competition for your finite time and energy, but by pausing for a moment, ignoring any negative self-talk, and looking for best value when making your choice, you increase the chances of arriving at the next Term break in good shape. I’m off to try and follow my own advice!
Photo by Sear Greyson
As you read this, here in New Zealand we will be celebrating the appearance of the star cluster we call Matariki. These stars can be seen at mid-winter and using the Māori lunar calendar, mark the start of a new year. A new year is always a perfect time to take stock and consider change!
This is a simple ‘tactical’ post about freeing up time that is leaking away regularly and doesn’t need to. Today I’m looking at the black hole called ‘admin’. My definition of admin is everything that isn’t directly linked to people.
Admin(istration) is part and parcel of running a school. Done well it supports the important work (which is always to do with people) and can actually create time. Done badly it swallows up your most finite resource and gets in the way of things like, efficiency, progress, and the will to live.
And some people love it.
A good system or an efficient protocol can be things of beauty. For some of us there is a siren like pull towards perfection and where better to find that than in a neatly documented plan? The people we work with are harder to ‘polish’. They are unpredictable and always changing. But not so your duty roster – it can be refined and tweaked until it almost glows with perfection. Efficient, fair and perfectly presented. Even laminated.
But, and it’s a big but, admin tasks cost time and energy – yours. And quite frankly some of them don’t need to be done and some of them don’t need to be done by you.
So, I have two simple challenges for you this week.
One – identify one admin task to stop. Neither you nor anyone else will ever do it again.
Two – identify one admin task to delegate. Someone other than you will do it.
Let’s look at the ‘stop it’ tasks first. There’s a long list of things that belong here and I have been (and am) as guilty as the next person in maintaining some of them. Things like:
- Printing out newsletters (do you know how many people even read them?)
- Writing behavioural notes about minor lunchtime incidents (soul destroying)
- Collecting ‘lost and found’ uniform items in a central location (creating learned dependence)
- Sending home paper copies of Board minutes (wasteful on every front)
- Personally adding all the items onto a shared staff calendar (that’s not a shared calendar)
- Putting stray teaspoons/cups/stuff into the staff dishwasher after every break (… wrong on every front)
These tasks aren’t on the ‘stop it’ list because they are actually useful. But just because they are useful does not mean you have to do them.
Depending on the size of your school and hence the number of people available to help, this list will vary. (If you are a U1 leader, your main gains are going to come from challenge one!)
- Creating rosters
- Following up student absences
- Answering the admin telephone as you pass it in the Office
- Doing anything with paper-based mail
- Running payroll
- Taking minutes
- Add your own
Because you are not a robot and are a real person with all that it entails, I guarantee that you are regularly doing some time sucking tasks that you shouldn’t. I know I am.
And every regular task that you do eats into the precious 168 hours you get each week.
Of course, the items you pick to eliminate/delegate may not be easy to lose as others will probably be very happy that you are doing them. In fact, it’s guaranteed that some on your team will absolutely see a particular task as yours and yours alone.
Principals often strike this when moving to a new school. They are likely to be told directly that some admin tasks are theirs because that’s how it has been done by their predecessor . . . somewhere in the conversation will be at least the hint of “because that’s how we always do it”. If you feel this disingenuous little justification surfacing, you know you’ve just brushed up against the status quo – and unless your new school is perfect, it’s your job to challenge this. I’m not suggesting straight away though, rather once you have established yourself and have some reciprocal trust built up. I suggest making a few ‘back of the envelope’ notes as things occur to you in the early days – new eyes are sharp eyes.
And just to prove I often struggle to follow my own advice, here is an admin task I’m trying to delegate and at this point am failing miserably . . .
Outside the main entrance to our Office is a large whiteboard. It is smack bang in your line of sight as you come up the stairs to enter the building. Every visitor to the school and every student who needs something from the Office passes it. It’s blue chip, gold plated visual real estate.
For a long time, every day I would add something new – a quote, a reflection on the weekend sport, people’s birthdays, key events that day, congratulations, and of course the date (to prove it was fresh). But . . . if I wasn’t on site in the morning on any particular day, yesterday’s messages were still there. If I was away for two days, the material was two days old, you get the idea.
So, I found someone in the Office team who was willing and able to take over this task. Their handwriting is much nicer than mine and their ability to draw entertaining pictures outstanding.
For almost a fortnight all went well. The whiteboard was interesting and fresh and I relaxed into having one less thing on my self-imposed to do list. But it didn’t stay that way, and after a while it was clear that their commitment to this task had waned. We are now doing a sort of Russian roulette type dance until one of us cracks and will do the job. We both know the system is broken!
Given that ever school leader has a different list of admin tasks, and given it is highly unlikely that all (any?) of them are in your actual job description, you absolutely have the right to do a bit of deletion and or delegation. Two items – that’s my challenge to you.
Mānawatia a Matariki
Photo by Lukas Blazek
Time, the most precious gift and the one thing that we can’t replenish – when it’s gone, it’s gone. Each of us gets 168 hours every week. You, me, and Elon Musk got exactly the same amount last week, and each of us used it differently.
I don’t know about you or Elon, but in my allocated time I didn’t get to some stuff that I wish I had. If you’d asked me why, I might well have said because I was too ‘busy’.
But I don’t actually think this is true, what I think is that we make time for things that are important.
Here’s a personal example.
I had a full day of work-related activity lined up including meeting with some parents, a Board report to finish, an important conversation with a team member, and my promise to cover someone’s morning duty. And our office manager was sick. That morning when I turned on the shower, mentally lining up all my ducks for the day, I realised it wasn’t getting warmer. Plenty of cold but no hot.
I grabbed a towel, stepped out of the shower and started down the passageway. Three steps later my bare foot went “squelch” on the carpet and I realised where the hot water was going.
My priorities for the day shifted exactly at that moment.
The point is, that when something important (fixing the leak) and urgent (it’s getting worse by the second) came up, I could find plenty of time to resolve the situation. I messaged people, rearranged plans and started phoning plumbers. It took all morning.
Before the leak started, if you’d asked me to spend two hours that morning on something else, I’d have said, “sorry I can’t today”.
As it turned out, I had plenty of time to do what needed to be done – I wasn’t short of time, I just started the day with different priorities.
This example is due to a crisis (first world crisis!) forcing my shift in priorities, but most of the important stuff that we struggle to find time for is longer term – things like exercising or creating that new strategic plan. They sit there, hovering in the background adding mental load, but still undone.
I’d like to suggest that how and what you prioritise are the real issues when you say, “I’m too busy”. No matter what you decide to do with your 168 hours you still have exactly the same amount – and the choice is always yours.
There are two simple strategies that I’d like to suggest to help you allocate time for important things.
Firstly, to find your top priority items, think in the longer term – maybe a year ahead. Tim Ferriss uses a technique called “fear setting” to do this. He considers what harm or loss continuing with a particular habit will have in the longer term. An example is gaining a kilogram in weight every couple of months. A couple of extra kilos probably isn’t a problem but if we look at the outcome after a year or two, the harm is bigger. Tim uses this ‘over time’ technique to amplify problems so they become priorities.
I have used this negative consequence idea as a motivator but have also flipped the viewpoint and looked for some positives. An example would be to imagine what it would be like to have an extra $500 cash to spend on a hobby or fun event next Christmas. That’s only $10 per week – skipping 2 bought coffees or not buying a Lotto ticket gets me there easily. Imagining that happy outcome gives me motivation to change a habit.
The key thing to use as leverage is the effect of your immediate choices over time.
The second strategy that I find super helpful is really about making sure I stick to my priority plan and to do this I use my calendar (diary) system.
I’ve written about this before and in essence it reflects the fact that we put the important things on our calendars –
“When you have a meeting with your leadership team, it’s on the calendar. When you want to see what is happening next week, you check the calendar. Meeting your appraiser? Yes, it’s on the calendar.”
The truth is, that when we make a commitment to do something/be somewhere, we add it to our diary or calendar. All the important work stuff is there, but what about all the important other stuff?
So, a 2-step action plan to ensure your 168 hours each week are properly prioritised, starts with applying a longer-term lenses to what matters most (which will include both work and human needs) and then adding the necessary smaller steps to your year calendar/diary.
If you work backwards from the desired outcome, it’s pretty easy to identify and add the small steps needed. Once they’re locked in your calendar, you’re likely to do them.
None of us are really short of time, we just need to be clear about what matters most.
It’s been a while since this blog kicked off – 25 July 2019 to be precise when we published a post by Steve called, “Leave it At the Gate”. Every Friday of Term time since then we’ve pushed out some thoughts to people such as yourself somewhere in the multiverse.
Mid 2019 . . . that really was in another lifetime.
We made the decision to start The 40 Hour Project then because it had become clear that school leaders were under huge pressure to fulfil the role. What should have been an amazing career choice was often simply too hard under the expectations and workloads required. Even the very best, resilient, dedicated and experienced principals were often struggling. There had to be a better way.
So we decided to do some provoking, to mention possible ways of working that just weren’t widely accepted, to challenge some sacred cows and to accept that not everyone would be pleased.
. . .
Pre-pandemic, a lot of the discussion was around strategies and tactics for getting to the important work and doing it in ways that were sustainable. It was becoming clear to many that the common model of school leadership had become unhealthy. We’ve talked about some of the reasons before, including the complicated mess of separating a vocation from a job and other people’s mixed-up perceptions.
Regardless of the drivers for where we found ourselves, the reality was simple – if changes weren’t made, good people, doing important work, would continue to be hurt. So we talked about making time to get things done, prioritising personal health, recoiling from ‘busy’ and embracing ‘being professional’.¹
The conversation was eagerly picked up and the momentum gave a clear feeling of change either happening, or at least the possibility being considered.
And then the big disrupter appeared – Wuhan may have been first, but the rest of us caught up quickly.
. . .
Two and a half years later things are different.
Everyone has had to adjust and adapt and even our industrial aged education system has had to accept different.
The passionate people out near the edges of our system are working for change. Their calls are often based selflessly in quests for equity – for the children and young people we work with. They are challenging traditional curriculum delivery models and even the nature of education itself. And while our huge, ponderous education system is very hard to move, no one can deny the need.
However, stuck in between the shifting plates of the status quo, and possible new ways, are you, the leaders.
I believe this battle for the future has complicated and obscured some of the simpler messages of The 40 Hour Project. The damn virus itself makes it tough to build new habits when at any given time you, or other key people in your school, can be out of action.
But despite this, the need for change has never been greater. With plenty of experienced leaders stepping away from the role, there are an equal number of new leaders stepping up and that fact equals opportunity. The opportunity is now for those who are working with our newest leaders – their habits aren’t set . . . yet.
A very recent example that reinforces this point is the way people have reacted to an unprecedented action by the Ministry of Ed. All new principals were given a large sum of money to spend on themselves, to support their well-being. Strings unattached!! I know many of our American followers will find it very hard to believe a Government would do this, but trust me, for those of us in the New Zealand system, it is equally amazing.
This gift illustrates how experience builds expectation.
Those receiving the gift are surprised (and hopefully very happy) and from this point onwards in their careers will live with the possibility that sometimes someone in power will notice they are working damn hard under pressure and try to help.
Those more experienced have never seen such a thing and wonder if it is just some random anomaly probably never to be seen again. Years of not being noticed take their toll.
Regardless of your perspective, the fact is that it has happened and so for me represents the shifts that are possible and in this case tangible.
Someone far enough up the food chain in the Ministry has noticed that leaders are struggling and has convinced the money holders to act. I don’t think this would have happened pre-pandemic.
It is now our collective job to encourage this type of thinking, to shift it from an anomaly to a business-as-usual scenario where the system looks after the very people who have the biggest responsibility and the biggest impact – you.
¹ Professional = working in ways that are both effective and sustainable.
Photo by Vitolda Klein
Luckily, I’m a teacher not a builder. I say this because while I’d love a new Ford Ranger (with EV stickers on it), I’d be so slow in my job that I couldn’t afford to run it. Why? Because I’ve realised I’ve got a problem – I like projects to be just right. To be fair, I’ve suspected this for a while, but over the last holiday break I found myself pulling apart a small deck I’d built and redoing it just because one corner was slightly (15mm to be precise) too high. That deck was, objectively, finished last Christmas, but instead of accepting it was done, I just had to adjust it.
I think school leaders are very prone to doing this. Tweaking that pandemic plan, leading yet another curriculum meeting about maths, trying to build the perfect Professional Growth Cycle . . . the list is long indeed.
And we’re surrounded by people who do the same thing, and are part of a system that encourages this over thinking. It’s hard not to do the same.
The people closest to us as leaders are the teachers we work with. Typically, they like things to be right (fairly so) and can be passionate about their specialty, which leads to searching for the best. On the face of it, this is an admirable quest. Better is better and obviously the students in our care deserve this.
But there’s a cost to seeking perfection.
For example, how many times have you arrived at another reporting cycle and found that what was agreed to be fine last time now needs to be amended? I’m pretty sure most of us have been part of that dance! The “big picture” people in the team will talk lovingly about biting the bullet and adopting a whole new system, those with eyes for detail will want the font sizes changed . . .
The cost comes in the discussion, the thinking, the re-creating, the energy – all of these are finite resources and if not carefully allocated, either stop us from doing other important work or simply add to an already heavy load for everyone.
. . .
The education system that we are based in explicitly and implicitly encourages the same behaviour.
New curriculum initiatives are usually broadly described. They come with school-by-school autonomy where each school interprets how to implement them. In a quest to avoid prescription, very little specific guidance is given and so every school starts inventing their own version. This can be a daunting process and principals I know are always eager to see what others have done, not only to get some guidance on what to do themselves, but to compare and see if what they already have is “good enough”.
(As a brief aside, NZ is currently going through a curriculum “refresh” and my fervent hope is that the new model breaks the cycle of school-by-school reinvention. My breath is held.)
The implicit push is more subtle. There’s an unwritten expectation that things can always be improved.
At times this has been obvious with terms like “a culture of continuous improvement” driving Review Office expectations, but at other times it’s deeper, buried in conversations or contained in media releases. When a system wide problem emerges, an almost default next step is to start talking about what schools can do better. In our NZ context, the current angst about school attendance is a classic example.
The fact that all can see the main drivers of the problem are societal, with an overlay of 2 years of international pandemic, does not stop the conversation quickly turning to what schools can improve on. (I’m not suggesting that schools can’t be more welcoming, more relevant, or more attractive – simply that yet again we are seen as an easier answer to a complex problem.)
So the dance will start again and teams across the country will need to use their finite resources to respond.
. . .
Which brings us full loop to a term that I believe has been wrongly maligned in our game – “good enough”.
“Good enough” – satisfactory, fine, acceptable, decent, respectable – are all synonyms for this term.
When deciding at what point to stop working on something, to leave it alone, we are making a decision about where the project sits on a continuum. That line starts somewhere around ‘crap’ and stretches all the way to ‘perfect’.
Perhaps if our only job was to create a single beautiful thing, like a designer watch or a set of song lyrics, it would make sense to push the definition of good enough closer to the perfection end of the scale, but we have a myriad of things to create, maintain and support.
Recognising “good enough” and acting on it, is not a natural behaviour for many of us, but to ignore it, is to self-impose unnecessary workload and comes at a high cost to other important work.
‘Good’ is good and ‘enough’ is enough – believe it.
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.
. . .
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!)
. . .
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.
. . .
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!
There are plenty of tough bits in school leadership right now, but there are also gems of goodness that are shining through and need to be kept and built on as we move past the current challenges and onto the inevitable new ones.
. . .
Somewhat perversely, one of the perennial difficulties that faces principals is the isolation of the role.
Isolation is a strange word to link to the role of principal as we are absolutely surrounded by people – students, teachers, admin staff, parents, community groups . . . people are involved in everything and anything that we do. The isolation that I am referring to occurs because a principal is not really a member of any of these sub-groups. We are connected, but we are not in them.
A principal role is positioned differently.
And it’s complicated. Staff drinks on a Friday night? Absolutely you are there, but you are still “the boss” and that means there is an intangible separation. Even the most affable, accepted, and social principals still sign off attestations at the end of the year, still make professional judgements about other’s work, still mediate upsets, and still have control over other staff members’ employment issues.
Another example that nicely illustrates this tension involves your membership of your school’s Board. In New Zealand, a principal is both a full Board member but at the same time an employee of the Board. You are part of the Board but at the same time separate from it. If this relationship breaks down things get tricky quickly and so there’s always a sense of caution involved.
The issue is structural too. Schools largely operate as ‘silos’. You lead your silo and 5 kilometres down the road another person like you leads their silo and you’re both really, really busy. A brief phone conversation about an intending student transfer might be all the contact you have for weeks on end. And in some cases, there is active competition – bums on seats pay the bills, keep staffing stable, and can be a scarce commodity . . .
. . .
Connection is the antidote to isolation and the group that you have the most in common with in your day job are fellow school leaders.
And here’s where some unexpected ‘gems’ have glinted not only amongst the difficulties, but actually because of them.
Our local Principals’ Association has been holding weekly ‘touching base’ online hui. We are quite a small group and certainly small enough for people to keep their video on, so the first time we met like this there was an array of faces and office backgrounds looking back at me. I’ve never visited some of those offices and it seems a long time since I’ve seen most of the people looking back at me – some I’ve never met!
But there we were, in the same place, at the same time, talking about the same things. And even if we didn’t have anything to ask or add, there was a sense of connection in just being there. The odd joke was cracked, and shared challenges acknowledged.
Likewise, the wider regional meetings give some of the same effect. Even though most participants turn their cameras off, being part of the hui and seeing the leaders in action also creates a sense of collective connection. Early in the pandemic I would never have thought this possible.
The strange thing is that in some ways we are potentially more connected with our wider colleague groups than we were when we could physically catch-up. While the possibility to meet up in person was there, the reality was that we often didn’t, particularly in larger numbers.
I’m as ready as the next person for some stability and predictability in our working lives, but I also hope that we can keep some of these new connections alive as our schools adapt and evolve.
Have you felt any of the same?
Photo by Aren Nagulyan
It’s been another interesting week to be a 40 Hour Principal. And as usual, the challenge is partly around the doing, and partly around the mental load of juggling too many balls at the same time.
But there’s also another challenge that is becoming more and more evident in conversation with people both inside and outside of our day jobs – there’s a sense of ‘waiting’.
Danny Nicholls, in his guest post a couple of week ago, touched on the topic of the ‘inertia’ that is currently gripping many of us. As he put it, we are stuck and with that comes a real sense of waiting. Those with major disruption gripping their schools are waiting for it to be over. Those who haven’t reached that stage yet are waiting for it to start.
As an example, everywhere I go I’m hearing people verbalising some version of, “I just want to catch it and get it over with” (in reference to Covid). There’s a feeling that each of us is in a limbo of sorts until we have our turn (to get sick) with the implied upside being that life will get back to normal afterwards. Job done.
But, what if it doesn’t? What if this roller coaster goes for much longer?
From my own, non-expert perspective, it’s looking more likely by the day that this adventure we are part of is here for the longer haul. If I look at what is happening in countries that beat us to their virus peaks, getting sick (or at least testing positive), does not give people a ‘free pass’ to resume normal life. While the exact science is still unknown, the best our Government experts will give us is a 90 day warranty . . .
. . .
Waiting for our ‘turn’ certainly creates inertia. It can bog us down in a mental holding pattern that is limiting to both productive leadership and personal happiness. I can feel it in myself.
So what to do? I believe some of the answer is be found in how we choose to think about it. As we patently can’t control the virus, we need to focus on where we do have some control – our thinking.
If we park all the conflicting thoughts we have about this pandemic, just for a moment, and pretend that our new normal is that people, including ourselves, may periodically become unwell, what changes?
What mindset and approaches would you change if this were true?
For me, everything.
- I would stop trying to manage staff absences through a combination of ninja like scheduling skills and crossed fingers.
Absences would be expected and either we would have more staffing capacity or different allocations of responsibilities. All classes would be accessible onsite and offsite.
- We wouldn’t be talking about whether children have a fortnight’s learning activities accessible at home.
Children at home would engage with the same learning opportunities as children at school.
- Communication with families would be completely different.
Because new systems had been setup and a new norm created, communication would be focused on the learning – not the fact that people might be temporarily isolating.
- The shape and intention of our curriculum plans would be much different.
Curriculum would reflect the essential skills and competencies that students need to learn effectively both in a classroom and in a home.
- Priorities for personal wellness would look different . . .
Maintaining the best health possible would become a key focus area – at least on a par with a school’s current ‘core’ subjects. The new school organisation would reflect that focus.
The list is endless really.
Our planning and thinking would have to stop being reactive and start being proactive. There are lots of clever people in education working on exactly this. For example, one topic that is being talked about a lot is ‘hybrid’ models of teaching where the whole curriculum delivery is set up to work regardless of whether a student is physically onsite or offsite. Much of the conversation has been about temporary arrangements, but an increasing amount is around a possible new normal.
The bottom line is that this current sense of waiting has to be challenged, because as a school leader it stops progress, and as a human it is exhausting. I’m not suggesting in any way that we can ignore the reality of what is happening in our schools, but I am suggesting that to start looking at some parts of what we are doing as long term, is potentially an energising and ‘freeing’ way to think. It shifts the feeling from holding on and reacting, to one of possibility.
What do you think?
Photo by Nadine Shaabana
(For those who would rather listen to this post, the 4 minute podcast is below.)
It’s been a hell of a week for troubling news. Floods, war, pestilence – it seems everyone on the planet is experiencing some sort of disaster. At least that’s what you’d think if you skimmed the headlines. The rhetoric is harsh and some of the reality is pretty damn harsh too . . .
So how do we keep our heads up and eyes open to the goodness and positivity that is also all around us?
. . .
A couple of years ago I was at a Kahui PLD day and the presenter was working with us as leaders in our schools. We were discussing how the constant demands of a school leader’s role often meant that strategic thinking was lost because we were simply too busy with the day to day details.
They used an analogy that really stuck in my head – “you need to get off the dance floor to really appreciate the dance”. I took this to mean that when you’re head down in the mahi, reacting to things as they occur, and trying to meet all needs, that you simply can’t see the bigger picture.
And the bigger picture matters, because the bigger picture creates the possibility of that very subjective, but very real thing called “perspective”.
Perspective – “a thought; a particular way of thinking about something”,
Which means we all have our own perspective, regardless of what is actually happening – which also implies it is very possible to change.
So, the current overload of negative headlines that surround us, influence our own perspective if we don’t make the figurative journey off our dance floor, up the steps, and onto the balcony where we can get a wider view – a better view.
We in New Zealand are moving into the same Covid based scenario that many others have already endured across the world, and as a school leader it can seem all encompassing, and frankly, overwhelming at times. Not being able to control the variables is a stressful situation for many principals who are responsible for, and accountable too, such a wide range of people. It’s tough.
I’d like to suggest that a way forward is to change the way you think about managing this stage of the pandemic – to change your perspective.
And one of the easiest ways to do that is to listen to your Grandma’s advice – “there’re people a lot worse off than you” (which when I was younger, was usually followed by something like, “so eat those peas and be grateful”).
Worrying about who sat by who, and were they infectious, and will the parents ‘kick-off’ if you don’t tell them, or maybe if you do tell them . . . can seem huge problems, but you only have to glance at any media source to find situations that are epically harder than ours.
If you pause to compare what we are facing with what many others are, the comparison allows perspective. It certainly has for me anyway.
One of my ‘worse case’ scenarios at the moment is that someone in my family gets sick, gets nearly through their isolation period and then I get sick – I could have nearly 20 days at home! My youngest son has an epic camp due to roll out next week and he is really worried that it won’t happen. I have friends about to go on a cycle tour and their conversation is all around the possibility that it can’t go ahead, or that they’ll get two days in and someone will get ill and have to come home.
But if I step back and pay attention to some of the other current world challenges, even for a moment, it doesn’t take much to realise that my problems are not that big.
It’s called perspective.
. . .
I’ve given myself two challenges for next week – 1) don’t watch or listen to headline news – I need a break and have already decided that others are well worse off, and 2) re-read Danny’s excellent post from last week (about getting ‘unstuck’). Actionable things that are objectively good for me and will help me keep my perspective positive.
Last week Steve gave you a nice positive To Do List.
A week after considering this excellent advice I’m going to give you another way to stay healthy, happy, and hopefully sane. I’m going to call out some things that you shouldn’t do – my plan could well be titled The Don’t Do List.
If you’d rather hear this post, scroll down the page and you’ll find a podcast version.
1. Over Planning
There’s a famous quote attributed to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, – “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Back in history, the Field Marshal wrote an essay showing that the unpredictability of how the enemy might respond meant the key aspect of any plan is flexibility – not detail. You don’t control all the variables in a battle (pandemic) so simply can’t write a plan that accounts for everything.
On that note, how is your “Business Continuity Plan” going?
My head started to hurt when I first sat down and tried to cover every possible scenario . . . (it still hurts when I look at the plan we created!). Yet despite the colourful layout, neat headings and well-balanced font choices, it will no doubt change very soon, so it is time to stop adding detail and to prepare to be flexible.
2. Pretending you have all the answers
One of the hardest things to admit for many of us ‘on it’ leaders, is that we simply don’t know the answer to everything. And to compound the pressure to pretend, some of our teams positively expect Solomon like wisdom from their leader.
The antidote is to swallow hard and say, “I don’t know”. If the question actually seems important, offer to find out or better, suggest how the person wanting to know can do this for themselves.
3. Assuming feelings of personal responsibility for literally everything
Your school is really just a community of people who all have parts to play in how it operates. Parents, children, caretaker, teachers, bus driver, lunch providers – each has a role to play, and whether or not they do them to the satisfaction of all the other community members is not, rationally, your responsibility.
4. Fearing the worst
When faced with uncertainty, your limbic system (lizard brain) kicks into gear and starts predicting a whole range of bad outcomes. Most of which never happen (as you already know based on the stuff you’ve worried about in your life up to this point). As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man now and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Believe that.
5. Thinking other principals have everything sorted
This is one that a great many new leaders (and many who should know better) believe. I think it’s because we’re often careful not to publicly share our doubts and questions. It’s human to want others to see us in a good light and besides, everyone knows a school leader is a decisive and ‘on to it’ person.
At the risk of creating disillusionment, the breaking news is that pretty much every school leader I’ve had the privilege to get to know well, has fears, doubts, and stuff they don’t know. They are in fact, remarkedly like you!
6. Walk faster
This one used to be a bad personal fault of mine. The busier I felt, the faster I moved around the school site. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I actually ran (well at least jogged). This nuts behaviour created a feeling of ‘busy’ in all the people who saw it.
Now days, the busier I feel, the slower I walk. On a bad day I’m barely moving and I stop often to talk to people. Try it, because it forces you to slow down mentally as well, to lower that annoying cortisol, and makes those who rely on you feel safer.
7. Neglect your basic human needs – exercise, food, water, sleep, connection, fun
Now, I’ll admit that there are times when you have to push yourself. Stuff can happen that needs your attention, energy, and presence and that’s fine – if – it’s only for a short period of time.
However, being in a pandemic is not a short-term situation. It’s been real life for over two years now so your default behaviours really matter. I’m not going to try and give you a science lesson, but if you neglect any of the things listed above, you will not remain the leader you, your school community, or your family wants. Just saying.
8. Be a martyr
The martyr syndrome . . . this is worthy of its own post but the bottom line is don’t do it. Don’t think that the harder you work, the more you show you care about your school or community. This is a thinking pattern that is prevalent in schools and usually leads to unpleasant outcomes such as burnout, unhappiness and as a leader, ineffectiveness.
A martyr will die for the cause, and in the case of your job, is neither needed nor desirable.
9. Tell your friends you’re too busy for a game of tennis
You can substitute other things for tennis if you like, but this is my metaphor for stopping doing the things that bring you joy.
The bigger and more demanding your job is, the more you need to maintain the things in life that energise you.
10. Turn down offers of help
Earlier in the pandemic, our school was moving into lockdown and we needed to get a whole heap of computers to families who needed them. There ended up being quite a few not collected and various people offered to help getting them packaged up and delivered. I’m not 100% sure why (perhaps a bit of martyr syndrome?) but I said, “I’ve got this” and let the others go home. In hindsight this was a dumb move as the job took ages and it needn’t have.
When people genuinely offer to share the load, the only smart answer is “thanks”.
. . .
The things on this list can be really hard to action as some of them are reactive habits.
Those of you who have read Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (and if you haven’t, you should) know that the first habit he promotes is to be proactive.
So, I’m suggesting that you proactively skim the list above and if you see anything that makes you go, “yip, that’s me”, intentionally make some change.
The next while in our role as educational leaders in New Zealand is likely to be challenging, and at times, even chaotic. This is an environment where default behaviours rear their heads and where even experienced leaders can come a bit unstuck.
Photo by Lucas Davies
The Forty Hour Project is all about encouraging school leaders to think (and do) differently. To challenge the status quo and to provoke as much “what if” thinking as possible.
Well, 2021 didn’t need much provocation.
. . .
Recently, I looked out my office window at the children playing – a typical lunchtime with 20 different games on the go. The way they sort of inter-weaved between and around each other amazed me as it always does, and it occurred to me strongly how those players had no idea of the complexity of what was happening ‘behind the scenes’ as we struggled with getting ready for next year.
They were firmly ‘in the moment’ and I doubt whether any of them was even thinking forward to when the lunch break ended. Lunchtime itself was an end point to savour after the challenges of the morning and before the new challenges of the afternoon.
. . .
There’s something naturally balanced about having an end point. Imagine if you lived forever, or didn’t need to sleep . . . sure there’d be a few benefits, but I suspect in reality it would be awful.
The summer holidays are a definite end point in the cycle of a school year here in Aotearoa New Zealand and in a few short days you will have the opportunity to embrace them.
I encourage you to do exactly that. Take a leaf from the play book of those happy, noisy, untidy students just outside your office windows. Relax into the holidays and live in that moment for as long as you can. We already know that 2022 has a myriad of challenges etched into its calendar but we have important work to do before then. We need to recover.
Steve and I are going to follow our own advice and step away from the work for a while now. When the final few days of next week are consigned to history, we’re going to grab our figurative buckets and start filling them up.
I’ll leave you with a final thought that always makes me smile a little wryly, because it neatly describes the truth of our human nature.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Mark Twain
See you on the other side!