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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.

Dave

¹ Professional = working in ways that are both effective and sustainable.

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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.

Dave

 

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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 . . .).

But.

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:

Disempowers others

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?

Add your thoughts here if you like.

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!

David

 

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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?

David

 

 

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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?

David

 

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(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”,

Cambridge Dictionary.

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.

Dave

 

 

 

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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.

Dave

 

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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!

Dave

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Even a hardcore, intentional ‘40 Hour Principal’, is likely to be fully stretched at this time of the year – particularly in this year!

We’re in the sprint to the end with a deadline for everything and a lot of other people’s urgency crowding our days. There’s stuff that just simply has to be done and it keeps piling in because a lot of it is to meet the needs of others. And what they need is not affected at all by our existing workload.

People to be employed (and sadly, some need to be unemployed), professional growth cycles require meetings, the Board needs a draft Budget, strategic plans to review, new annual plans to write, end of year celebrations to be created …

Then there are the daily ‘extras’ – tired kids doing dumb stuff, tired teachers being less than perfect, anxious parents popping up on the daily, and Board members starting to lose sight of the balance between management and governance.

And overarching all of this is a wee detail called a pandemic.

An example of its impact was buried in last Friday’s innocuous looking email from Iona*. There was a link to the definitive guide you will use to manage the COVID cases that will be in your school next year. This guide is complex, detailed and almost certain to be regularly amended. It gives a lot of responsibility to the school, and by the school, I mean you.

So, there’s a bit on.

.   .   .

I’d like to introduce a term that is widely used in the sports world – “deloading”.

One definition is:

“A period of time where the intensity of the activity is deliberately reduced to allow proper recovery and to prepare for the demands of the next training cycle.”

Deloading was originally coined in the world of strength training and is now widely used across sports of all kinds.

Performance focused sports people have worked out that it is detrimental to their overall goals to work at a high intensity all the time. If they do, their performance stagnates, injuries become likely, and they generally achieve less.

No doubt you can see where this analogy is going – we can’t keep working at this end of year pace and expect to do our jobs well. It’s counter to the way we humans are wired.

.   .   .

Tim Ferris talks about deloading in his book, The Tools of Titans* and explains how he applies it to general life. He discusses how an intentional approach to deloading greatly benefits him in pursuit of his goals.

I’d like to suggest that there are two ways that deloading can be used to look after your well-being right now –

Short term

In the 3 weeks left, take mini breaks by:

  • Walking at least 30-40 minutes every day
  • Not checking emails after tea (yes, real people do this!)
  • Arriving onsite late the day after evening meetings (and in the space created, go to the gym, read a book, walk a few blocks to school; anything but work)
  • Spending some time every couple of days on a passion hobby
  • Scheduling time to meet a friend, hangout with family, (regardless of the pressure to nuke your to do list).

Long term

Plan your ‘term break deloading’ (some of you might like to substitute the word ‘holiday’). Maybe you can hardly raise your eyes above the daily stuff right now, but very soon this time will pass. Planning, discussing ,thinking, and savouring about the chance to deload in a few short weeks is in itself a deloading activity. So, give yourself permission to look ahead and let that happiness energise you.

And when the time finally arrives – use every tiny piece of it to relax and rebuild. One master holiday planner I know, arrives at school on the last day of term with the car loaded, boat hooked up and destination route set. Around 3.30pm he collects the family and leaves work behind for a while – that’s master principalship deloading in action.

Dave

*(p.583)

*(NZ Secretary of Education)

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP

From a 40 Hour Principal perspective, school leaders in New Zealand are currently operating right out near the middle of a very long tightrope and someone or something keeps giving it a playful shake.

We’re not so much ‘leaders of learning’ but rather amateur psychologists with a side specialty in clairvoyance.

And despite any possible aspirations of superhero level powers, we remain annoyingly human. As such, right now, we need to ramp up our self-care.

.   .   .

I’ve been reflecting on the vaccine mandate recently (New Zealand context). It’s what’s ‘on top’ as deadlines loom.

I certainly don’t want to get into any form of debate about the rights and wrongs (of the mandate), but this very raw and real scenario starkly illustrates where the majority of your STHTM* originates.

People.

We lead people and they are complicated. Year after year, the principal health and wellbeing surveys find that dealing with other people’s emotions and at the same time hiding our own, are among the biggest causes of school leadership stress. They trump workload, time poverty, and dealing with (insert your own favourite pressure point).

.   .   .

People ‘outside the game’ may not see the emotional intensity of managing/leading a community through examples like this.

They may see it as a purely ‘operational’ situation. A rule has been made, the people affected either comply or face the consequences. From an operational point of view your job is to ensure your school continues regardless – A + B = C. Simple.

But it’s not.

Everything you do is relational. In a school, a good school, people matter. They are not simply cogs in a machine or hidden away in the third assembly line in a giant factory. It’s the complete opposite. They are real; connected, known, and valued. If they are teachers, they nurture other people’s children for 6 hours per day. If they are in your office team they are known by the whole community.

People.

The beginning and the end of what is most important in any school are the relationships between people. It has been researched and known for eons that children only really fly in their learning when they have a positive relationship with their teacher. Likewise, the staff team operate only as well as the relationships they have across and within the various groups and sub-groups they belong to. A school is not an individual, it’s a complex ever-changing kaleidoscope of interactions, needs, wants, dreams and emotions of many people.

And here you are, a school leader, positioned precariously between the clear instructions of your employer and your duty of care to the people in your team. That metaphorical tightrope just got another playful slap.

.   .   .

So, this year’s November dance (Madvember!) is particularly complex. There’s more than one competing tune and you are spinning more disks than usual.

Now is the time to be careful with yourself. To keep connecting with others, asking for help with tricky situations, eating stuff that’s good for you, exercising more than last month, stopping work at a reasonable time . . . just doing stuff that, despite you wishing you were superhuman, acknowledges that you are in fact simply human. (As we’ve suggested before, the Mental Health Foundation’s  “5 Ways to Wellbeing” is an excellent place to start.)

And if you are at the ‘apex’ of your school’s leadership, the model of self-care that you display impacts deeply on those around you. As a leader, it’s a case of the old maxim that ‘people believe more of what you do, than what you say’. Now is the time to model the good stuff.

Four weeks to go folks, deep breaths, and as Steve rightly said a couple of weeks ago, we’re all going to make it – just ensure you arrive in the best shape possible – oxygen masks on please!

Kia kaha

Dave

*Shit That’s Hard To Manage

 

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Right now we all need a positivity button.

In New Zealand, the shifting sand of managing this pandemic is taking its toll. The ‘rules’ change frequently, unpredictably, and quickly. Good people (that’s you) turn themselves inside out trying to lead their schools well in this climate.

Lay over the top of this the usual pressure points of next year’s staffing, setting budgets, reviewing strategic plans and the fact that Susan in Room 3 is really tired and is taking that out on everyone in her class . . . 

With the constant unpredictability and shear workload framing what we do, it’s very easy to slip into a little spiral of negative thinking . . . and that is exactly where the positivity button comes in.

.   .   .

You may be surprised to learn the button is an actual thing. 

My one was given to me by one of the team as a mystery gift at our staff Christmas party two years ago. From the moment I first pushed it I knew it was going to be really useful.

Here it is – 

 

.

When you push it, it plays one of five pre-recorded ‘positive’ messages. They’re done in a cheery Australian accent and are cringe makingly cheesy . . . which is where the magic comes in – it makes people smile.

No one is immune to its power – not staff nor students (I haven’t had the nerve to use it with an unhappy parent yet, but one day . . . ).

The message is random so it is easy to build a little theatre around it by saying “this is just for you”, pushing it, and watching the reaction. It really works well when the message completely contradicts the way the person is feeling or acting. If the message doesn’t resonate, you just push it again. My favourite is, “I am calm and Zen like” although the kids seem to like “I am going to have a really, really good day”, and teachers often like “I am  beautiful” (which is said with utter conviction).

Here’s some samples:

I have a strong sense that the next 6 weeks are going to test us all to our limits and for less than $20 you can create some simple fun in amongst it all. Dare you to.

Dave

 

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Photo by Pablo Varela

When talking with principals, particularly those who are ‘stuck’ with a particular situation/habit/need for change, the biggest road block is often themselves.

They have rational possibilities (choices) clearly in front of them but those annoying “little voices” start chattering away and they don’t take action. You can read our post Voices and Choices for more on this. (Steve and I are both guilty of this too, so I’m not taking the moral high ground here!)

A classic recent example was (ironically) at a mindfulness session where a number of principal attendees were chatting away over the lunch break. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the Pacific Ocean sat shimmering less than 200m away (cue the violins). A couple of people headed down to the sand for a walk and as they left, the conversation turned to how great it would be if we could walk/run on the beach everyday.

There was a sort of collective sigh and then people started lamenting that they didn’t have time to exercise at the moment. The word “busy” popped up a lot. Then a stirrer in the group said, “but you could if you wanted.” This was greeted with a pause, then people shaking their heads and explaining all the reasons they couldn’t. The main reason being, “what would ‘people’ think?”

And there we were – a group of smart, organised adults, who knew that exercise was important, yet choosing not to do what we rationally knew was healthy  .  .  .

I’ve been part of these conversations many times over the years with many different groups of school leaders.

Which brings us to the point of this post – exactly who gives you permission when you make decisions? If you’ve read The Forty Hour Principal, you will know the passage below:

.   .   .

History

“Mum, can I have another biscuit?”

“Mrs Reitana, can I skip homework this week?”

“Professor Brown, can I submit my essay late?”

Whose permission is required in your life now? (Just to be clear, we’re talking about your professional role – any discussion about your home life is definitely above our pay grade and willingness to risk comment, but the basic principle is the same if you’re feeling adventurous.)

The only reasonable answer is – yours.

We’re not arguing that there aren’t any constraints on what you must do in your role. You’ve got a job description, employment contract, and the Education Act to guide you in that. What we are suggesting, is that you can give yourself permission to change the how.

And with that truth comes possibility because now you’ve potentially got both the world’s best boss or the world’s worst boss – because that person is you (thanks Seth Godin).

It’s time to negotiate some better employment conditions!

Dave

 

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Photo by Stephen Hui  

You’ve probably all heard the saying, “never waste a good crisis” which was originally attributed to Winston Churchill and has now been recycled a million times (particularly in the world of business where one person’s ‘crisis’ is another person’s ‘opportunity’ – e.g. no one is quibbling about the cost of vaccines right now . . . ).

I think a global pandemic qualifies as a crisis and while that is largely a bad thing, one upside is that it creates a climate of change – the status quo gets a non-negotiable slapping.

There are big meta challenges to solve – global vaccination, redistribution of food resources as economies struggle, and a world supply chain that is creaking badly.

At the next level down countries have to change how they support (or not) people who can’t work, how their borders will operate in the future, and how to keep their people safe.

Below these lofty change needs, deep in the system called public education, is you.

And it’s very likely that you need to change something too – not necessarily something forced on you by the pandemic, but something that will make you both sustainable (better) as a school leader and as a person. The pandemic just brings with it a general sense of the cosmos shifting, and with that feeling, change seems more possible.

 

 

In my case,  I’m currently part of a Springboard Trust Coaching for Leadership programme focused on strengthening our leadership team, and to do my part, I need to make some changes.

While I know that the science of change management is a well researched field and that many clever people have created excellent models to guide us through the process, I’m currently just focusing on a very simple little tactic – the interesting fact that changing something small somehow creates momentum towards bigger things.  

Strange as it may sound, by tweaking a couple of small daily habits, I definitely notice my ability to consider bigger change is easier. Couple that with the ‘opportunity’ of a crisis (a general feeling of change) and now becomes an excellent time to work towards better.

What I’m doing:

Getting up 45 minutes earlier than usual.

I’m not doing a full Power Hour as Saira Boyle has shared, but instead have focused on only a couple of elements at this time. Firstly, I don’t look at any screens. I open up the curtains and let the day share its light. As it’s getting warmer I’m going outside and I’m the only one there. Once I’ve spent a couple of minutes being still (is that meditation?), I head inside, get a coffee and read a section of a thought provoking book (currently Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris). Then I journal a few thoughts that link to what I’ve read. 

I know that sounds incredibly low key and simple but I can promise you it sets a different tone for the day. And I think that’s the key – it’s different. (The other small change I’ve made is to swop my habit of listening to news channels with listening to music. A sense of FOMO made that tricky for the first couple of days but now it feels really good.)

We’ve talked lots about habits and the relentless pull towards the status quo in other posts, but by making the really simple changes above, I think I’ve moved my figurative wagon wheel out of it’s constraining rut just a little bit. Once free, even just a tiny bit, it can start to take a new path.

If you too have some important things to improve, I think a great way to get started is to just change something small in your daily routine. You may be surprised at the mental shift that comes from this, and combined with the general sense of change in our world, things can happen.

Dave

 

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If you are feeling the pressure right now maybe you need to ditch your superhero cape for a moment and find some other heroes to help. It’s about distributing the load.

Sort of like this – 

 

So who are these other potential heroes in your school and why might they not be sharing the load with you? 

I’d suggest they are to be found everywhere; amongst the team leaders, the teachers, the admin crew, the caretaker . . . Sure, not everyone in your school has superhero qualities – but plenty will. And then the question really becomes; why, in this time of need, are they possibly not standing with you, distributing the load?

Well, it might just be that you haven’t left a space for them to join you. When superman/superwoman is in the house, no-one else offers to take the lid off the jam jar. 

As a favourite thought leader of ours, Seth Godin says – 

It’s easy to use our indispensability as fuel. Fuel to speak up and contribute. That’s important. But it’s also possible for that same instinct to backfire, and for us to believe that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done right.

That’s unlikely.

Using the power of a pandemic to bring people together, now may be the perfect time to shuffle to the side a bit, make space and invite them to share the load. 

However, some school leaders can be intimidating. They’re used to being in charge and potentially project an aura of perfection, of always knowing what to do and doing it perfectly.

To get others to step forward and shoulder the load, you need to be able to park your ego, – and and trust them to “get it done right”. To be, as Brene Brown explains so well, vulnerable. And if this way of working is foreign to your team, it’s going to take some deliberate actions by you to make the changes necessary.

It’s worth it though – one superhero is good, but a team of superheroes is unbeatable.

Dave

 

 

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Who gets the oxygen first?

So here we are again . . .

Those of us in New Zealand have just gone into a nation wide lockdown with schools closed and everyone expected to stay home unless an essential worker. 

A fragment of the unwanted Delta COVID-19 variant has sneaked through our borders and for the first time since last year, all schools are shut. Which is not to say that school leaders and teachers are doing nothing!

In fact, the very opposite is true. Most leaders have wisely chosen to keep expectations on their teams and families low-key over this week but we all know this can’t last. The excitement of distance learning is about to get real.

My personal experience of running a school remotely is that it is damn hard work. There are a lot of details to keep on top of and the rules of the game can change at any given point in a day. Often key information comes in late in the evening because the people sending it want to be 100% certain it is accurate. This, coupled with the need to stay on top of both media news and the changing personal circumstances of people in your school community, add up to the likelihood school leaders will struggle to mentally switch off.

And staying “on” for too many consecutive days (and nights) is a recipe for problems. 

You’re going to create plans for curriculum delivery, for pastoral care of your community, for communication with your teams, for what to do if students disengage, for who works onsite, for how to maintain everyone’s safety, and probably a plan for who’s responsible for the Room 13 hamsters  . . .

So today’s provocation is bog simple – make one for you too.

Get your figurative oxygen mask on so that you can continue to be amazing – sustainably. 

Kia kaha

Dave