There’s something about writing a blog about principalship, and leadership in particular, that gives a certain air of “worldliness” about the writer. It appears that the writer somehow flies above all the crap and has a view of life that soars a number of clicks above the insane level that those who don’t write, live in. Their reality appears so much clearer, and simpler than the muddied waters of this place we affectionately call “ the real world”.
David and I live and work in the real world. What we write about comes from the proverbial chalk face. It comes from a place of infinite muddiness. And often from places that are written just a slip under the surface of the reed pool that we call stress.
In essence whatever we write is advice. It’s heartfelt for sure. It’s dripping in experiences. But essentially it’s just opinion.
And that’s a good thing.
We aren’t gurus, we’re just provocateurs. We want you to come to your own party with your own thoughts and solutions.
Apparently, legend has it, King Solomon was also known for his advice. He was wise and respected. But none of his advice to others was good enough to save himself from making disastrous choices that led to his own kingdom’s demise. Psychological scientist Igor Grossmann dubbed this phenomenon the “Solomon’s Paradox.”
Grossmann discovered within his research that, “people reason more wisely about other people’s social problems than about their own.”
He found that across three experiments, participants displayed wiser reasoning (i.e., recognizing the limits of their knowledge and the importance of compromise and future change, considering other people’s perspectives) about another person’s problems compared with their own.
He found that instructing individuals to “self-distance (rather than self-immerse) eliminated this asymmetry”. Interestingly he also found no age differences in wise reasoning about personal conflicts, and that the effects of self-distancing generalize across ages. So it’s not always true that we get wiser as we get older!
Most of the problems that we face in our schools are of social persuasion. Anything to do with people inevitably has a social element. It’s that social component that arguably makes any decisions we make as leaders difficult. Because of it, nothing really is ever black and white, or cut and dried. There’s always something to mull over, to consider, and to iron out.
Plenty of it has a personal impact. We are only human.
So what’s the advice around Solomon’s Paradox during our difficult times? (And, just as importantly, will I take this advice next time I find myself in the proverbial).
In dealing with any issues, clarity is the key. And to get better than 20/20 powered clarity it’s important to give yourself some distance (or self-distance) from the situation.
For all of us, it’s hard to judge a problem clearly when we’re immersed in it.
It requires distance to judge things more reasonably.
There are a number of key ways of getting distance.
Consider the following:
Give yourself some physical distance from the situation – get up and move. Go somewhere else. It might even be off site. But get away.
Give yourself some time. Time is a great way of distancing yourself from the conflict. But don’t give yourself too much of it either. Set yourself a time limit.
Imagine, like Solomon, that you’re advising a friend or professional who is in the same predicament – what would you tell them to?
Talk to yourself in the third person. Instead of asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” or “What can I do?” ask yourself, “Why is s/he doing that?” “What can s/he do?”
Accept the wisdom you come to:
This isn’t always easy, but nothing really ever is in these situations. Accept that the advice you’ve given yourself might cause some grief. That decision to cut your Learning Assistant’s hours back because the budget doesn’t quite make it that far – well, that will come with some grief.
Don’t short change or doubt your own wisdom. Would you doubt it if you were offering it to someone else? If you would, then maybe you haven’t found the right answer just yet. And if you think your advice is spot on – then go with it.
This is where the rubber hits the road. Just do it. Follow through and get it done. Move on promptly.
And one final tip. If you’re still not sure about what to do, or how to deal with a situation then try the “flip of a coin” method.
Nail yourself down to two choices. Heads you do one, Tails you do the other.
Flip the coin.
Watch it fly and turn in the air.
Let it land.
Heads or Tails?
There, in front of you lies your answer in the flip of a coin.
And this is where your gut instinct will suddenly kick in. With the answer of the coin lying in front of you, you’ll suddenly be well aware of the choice that you needed to make, and it might not be what the coin says.
Go with it. Get it done.
Of course, if the problem is too big then you need to be assured that you are not alone. Although there are times when we will feel isolated, we all “stand on the shoulders of giants” in our role. We just need to have the confidence and faith to put up our hands and ask for help.
Your ability to deal with issues and survive successfully in ways that enable you to get up and do it all again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, with an energy and passion that this job deserves, is crucial.
There are certain times of the day when just about anything can happen, and it most likely will. I call this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ time. These are times when you can easily find yourself figuratively following some furry creature down a rabbit warren with no idea where you’re going or what’s going to happen.
The key Alice in Wonderland time is usually between 8:30am and 9:00am. Students are streaming into the school, teachers are finalising their classes, and people need things. It’s the time when the photocopier is most likely to die, when someone has forgotten to buy the milk for teachers’ coffee, when your five-year-olds arrive for the very first time, and when parents storm the ramparts with their complaints and insistences.
It’s an exciting time.
It can also be an anxious time.
If you are going to assume anything, then assume that this period of time will be like no other in your day, and then throw away any plans you have for it. Instead, look at it as a key relationship building opportunity. This is crucial tone-setting time for a principal.
Get out of your office and get visible. Keep moving around the school. Greet, meet, and be cheerful. Don’t fill this half-hour with phone calls or pre-arranged meetings. If people do turn up randomly, then of course, see them.
Talk to everyone and anyone but keep moving. The fresh air and movement are as good for you as it is good for everyone else to see you out and about. If you’ve got kids doing jobs such as road patrol or putting out equipment, make sure you get to them and let them know in a fun way that you value their roles: ‘Oh, Keli, I see you’re out here on road patrol, saving lives again! Good on ya!’
Being visible gives the impression (quite rightly) that you’re available and approachable. Some parents want to say things but will never go anywhere near your office, so them getting the chance to wiggle your ear at the sandpit is beneficial.
It’s also good for your staff to see you out and about, although your office administrator is probably wishing you weren’t so hard to track down! You’ll be back in your box by 9:00am, so no-one really needs to be worried. Alice in Wonderland time doesn’t have to be an anxious time if you go down the rabbit warren with a sense of adventure and inquiry.
This is ultimately all about relationship building. As someone once said, schools are 80 percent about relationships and 20 percent about more relationships. Using your Alice in Wonderland time is the key to setting up relationships for the day ahead in a very positive way.
This term I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about communicating. In particular about how I communicate with my school staff of around forty adults. The most recent staff appraisal of me suggested that communication wasn’t always my strength. A little bit inside me yelled back sarcastically – “give me strength!”
Communication of course though, is the thing that makes any of our relationships connect. Terrible communication and you’re likely to make terrible connections. Super communication and you’re likely to meet with super results. Every now and again you can communicate terribly, and still get great results, but it won’t be consistently positive. It’s just a matter of time before things start sinking. So great communication is key.
Communication is something that all animals, and in fact all living beings do. It’s not something that is uniquely human.
I enjoy watching my puppy dog, Daisy, communicating with any other dog that she comes across on our walks. Some she immediately barks at, and some she simply saunters up for a sniff. Both are forms of communication. Daisy thinks that this is a very effective way of communicating.
At school I do a little bit more than barking or sniffing. (Although, dependent on what’s going on at the time, sometimes I might be just as well to stick with just those two options!)
I am very lucky to have a great group of people to work with – however communication isn’t always easy.
Much of the problem is the vacuum of time when there is no communication. During these vacuums people tend to make up their own stories or lines of interpretation to fill in the void.
A classic example of this was when the Ministry of Education chose to release the Staffing Entitlement notices on a Saturday. Why they chose a Saturday no-one really knows. They probably let us all know the reason at some point in time, but this was lost. Instead, it was replaced by other stories and lines of interpretation. These were along the lines of; “What is the Ministry hiding?”, “It’s going to be bad news and that’s why it’s released on a Saturday”, “Doesn’t the Ministry care about principal well-being? If they did then they wouldn’t be releasing this during the weekend”.
People filled the vacuum with all sorts of erroneous stuff. Was any of it true? Well, possibly, but none of it was done on purpose.
At a micro level, communication is also an issue. When was the last time you sent a text or a message to a friend and you waited for a reply. The longer the wait for a reply, the more your mind starts filling in the gaps. Did you send the message to the right person? Why haven’t they replied? Are they ok? Did they read your message wrongly and they think you’re damn rude?
You get the picture – communicating with humans is fraught.
In your schools it is no different. Some understand the way that you communicate, and some hope for something quite different. Some demand information at the drop of a hat, and some are more than happy to wait.
And some get confused between equality and equity of communication expecting to know everything all of the time.
As leaders this makes communication our hardest role. And our most important. It’s also one of the things that can give us incredible satisfaction, and just a little bit of heartache.
Taking on the old adage, treat the people the way you would like to be treated, and applying it to the way that you communicate with people, doesn’t always cut the mustard either. We are all different beasts and we all respond in different ways. It’s a bit like Daisy my dog – some will appreciate her bark of warning, and others will appreciate her sniff.
The gold standard of communication though is found at the next level up. It’s not about communicating with someone the way you like to be communicated with – no, it’s communicating with someone the way that they like to be communicated with.
This is a subtle but life changing difference.
The Ministry of Education struggles with this because they have to communicate with 2,500 different schools in New Zealand and 2,500 different Principals. They haven’t got time to find out how each individual wants to be communicated with. So essentially they don’t care when the information is communicated as long as it is all distributed fairly at the same time. People can then do what they want with it. If it’s a Saturday, then as long as everyone gets it, then that’s what matters. Not their problem. Of course this has the potential to cause a certain disconnect between the Ministry and the sector.
At a school level we have the ability to make communication choices that are more in line with how people want to be communicated with. This takes some serious relationship building though, and some serious understanding of the people that you’re working with.
Some communication can remain at the sniff and bark level, but unlike the Ministry of Education, you have to work with these people (these humans) day in and day out, and sniff and bark isn’t always the brightest move.
Maybe you have someone on your Team who really needs at least three to four days’ notice of any big “idea” announcement … ideally longer. She doesn’t like any surprises, but also enjoys having some sort of control, and understanding of the issue before it’s announced. She needs time to think. If I continue with my Daisy analogy – this is a sniff for a very long time approach. This is full-on sniffing!
And maybe there’s another member on your team who enjoys running with ideas as soon as they’re told about them. She’s an ideas person, she doesn’t need any run in time to consider and process, she wants to run and create on the fly. With Daisy this is a bark and sniff approach. Bark, and then I’ll go away and do my own sniffing.
And yet another member who just wants to be told what to do. Just tell me what you want boss – and I’ll get it done. No questions, just get on with it type mentality. If this is Daisy my dog then this is a simple Bark and get on with it.
And finally possibly you have another member of the team who it doesn’t really seem to matter how you communicate with them, their interpretation will be quite different to the reality of the message – maybe it’s because they appreciate multiple communication attempts? They will reply in their own time, with their own interpretation. Using Daisy my dog this is a, sometimes a bark will do it, but often it’s a sniff, sometimes the bark will be thought of as damn rude, and sometimes the sniff is damn intrusive! Quite likely either a bark or a sniff will be wrong.
All of this is frustrating, particularly as you’ll have your own style of wanting to be communicated with. In this regards the Ministry of Education takes the easiest route – just bark.
At school level you’ve got choices depending on the size of your school.
If your school is a big school then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find the sweet spot for communication with every single person in the school. It’s simply too hard.
In situations like this, as leader you need to carefully outline how you’ll communicate and you need to consistently do it that way. This message will often need to be repeated throughout the year.
Principal’s in larger schools can use the power of their Senior Leadership Teams though. These teams are likely to be smaller, and so you can take time to get to know how each member likes to be communicated with. This is a win/win for you – chances are they’ll start to communicate with you in the way that you want to be communicated with as well.
They can then use this strategy for their own teams or syndicates and they can pass back to you what they’ve found out about in regards to communication needs. They get to do the homework for you!
In smaller schools it is slightly easier. There aren’t so many people to communicate with, or to learn communication preferences. This doesn’t make it any easier though. Any communication is fraught with misunderstandings, confusion, interpretation issues and even just plain annoying people!
I find using the Five Ways to Wellbeing strategies work just as well in terms of communication:
TAKE NOTICE: Take notice of individuals and how they communicate with others. This will often give you a lead into what their preferences are.
GIVE: Give your time, your words and presence to build an understanding of the individuals on your team.
BE ACTIVE: People change all the time … be active in getting around and noticing things. Take time to enjoy getting to know your people better.
CONNECT: This is what it’s all about. Great communication is about great connection. Great leaders should be fantastic at connecting with all sorts of diverse people around them.
KEEP LEARNING: Don’t be surprised that people like to be communicated in a variety of ways. It depends a lot on the context. But get to know your people and appreciate that your particular learning about them is always a work in progress.
Of course sometimes everyone may need a good solid barking at. Daisy seems to have this innate super human (dog) way of knowing who needs this. Everything is context based. But these barking times should never be your go to.
You might wonder how this all relates to the Forty Hour Principal. Surely a good old fashioned barking will get you home a lot sooner. Getting to know your team takes time, that is true, but it’s time well invested. You get to know them better and they get to know you better. Communication becomes much clearer and forgiving, and when it’s like that, the key to unlocking your 40 hour week just needs to be turned.
Just like a song, every blog article needs a great line to pull you in right from the start. Something that’ll catch the imagination, and won’t let go.
I’m trying to find something that’ll make the term “psychological detachment” sound enticing and thrilling. Something that’ll get your attention and not let you go until you’ve read the whole piece.
Mmmm, how about this?
A study published in the May issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who became depressed late in life had a 70% increased risk of dementia, and those who’d been depressed since middle age were at 80% greater risk.
Too negative? Too depressing? Mmmm maybe.
. . .
I don’t want this post to be one of those gloom and doom types. No, this post should be read as a beacon of hope. Maybe my starter line to grab you all in should be;
This is what you can do today to help you with your tomorrow!
Last year we did a brief survey of around 150 New Zealand principals in a quest to find the answer to “what strategies do principals use to effectively and quickly recover from stressful events”. It seems that some principals are able to bounce back a lot quicker than others. How do they do this?
We found that the “bounce-a-backer-ers” did four things really well.
Firstly they found time to exercise regularly.
Secondly they found time to talk to their people (confidants, people they trusted) about the crap they were going through.
Thirdly they found time for Me Time! … that time that was just for them, and only for them. Time to do something they loved, without interruptions.
And fourthly … they had a wonderful ability to rationalise the stressors that they were going through. They appreciated that bad times never last, and nor do good times. That the things that worry us are often miniscule in the big picture of things, and that ultimately they weren’t alone in dealing with these issues. Powerful stuff.
Great, perfect! Sorted!
Now all we need to do is appreciate these things and put them into place and we’ll all be as resilient and “broad shouldered” as these successful principals!
But nothing is really that simple is it.
All of these things take practice, and need to be turned into habits … both physically and mentally. And all of these have a time element. You need to prioritise time for them to be beneficial.
And it turns out that there are a couple more key elements that also help. They’re both important for recovery, and to put it not too finely, they both need to happen daily.
Dailyrecovery is vital for giving us the ability to bounce back. Proper recovery allows you to take on the next day with the “vim and vigour” that your school (and you) deserve.
The alternative is known as burn out, which easily turns into depression, which in turn leads to that jaw dropping dementia statistic that grabbed you into this article!
So what are these two elements?
Internal Recovery – this is about giving yourself some respite and relief from stressful situations whilst at school/work. Switch tasks, go for a walk around the playground, take time out for yourself. These don’t have to be long times, but it’s important that you give yourself a break. In olden times this was also known as a lunch break, or morning tea!
In many work places outside of schools these breaks can even be taken off site – imagine that! The key of course is to give yourself a break regularly. Mix it up, and don’t forget to do it. Got a spare minute or two before a meeting – don’t check your emails, instead just take some time. Pause, chill, stop. For a minute or two or three.
External Recovery – this is what we do outside of our work hours. The real key here is to develop this thing called psychological detachment. Often we think that we’re well onto the road to recovery by doing things such as reading, catching up with social media or socialising. These are all good things to do. But the big key is to do these things that detach you from your work.
If you’re catching up on some reading, but it’s work related then your recovery isn’t going to be as useful. If you’re socialising with friends, but you spend the whole time talking about work – again, although initially useful to unload, over time it doesn’t have the same recovery effect. And have you ever found that watching TV full of bad news and gruesome shows doesn’t work like it used to – well, maybe it’s time to actually switch that box off so that you can detach yourself from many realities that you simply have no control over.
Psychological detachment isn’t easy though. Recently, I spent some wonderful time at Lake Tekapo in the South Island of New Zealand, but instead of just enjoying the place for what it is, I spent most of the time ruminating on a school issue. It takes some serious practice just to be in one place, and to enjoy being in that one place, without the stressors of school or your work place creeping in.
Many who are particularly good at psychological detachment find that “attaching” themselves to other things can be useful.
In a nutshell – get a hobby.
And be passionate about it. Put your “vim and vigour” into that. In the past I’ve played sport, and at present I’m in a band. It’s very hard to do a competent job of doing a lead guitar solo that runs across the fret board, if you’re still “fretting” about school or work. The key, as I’ve said many times, is to find something that takes you daily away from being attached to workplace thoughts and concerns.
Taking time to master your recovery, every day, so that you can face the next day with the energy and enthusiasm it deserves is at the heart of beating burnout. It’s also at the heart of living for today, and not about “just getting yourself to the weekend, or just getting yourself to the next holiday break”.
This is what you can do today to help you with your tomorrow!
You take a look at the bedside clock. It’s glowing 3:00am and, truth be told, you’ve probably been awake for an hour already. There are nigglings, plans, and plain old emotions in the form of concerns rushing around your head.
Your mind is alive with thoughts. Many are worries. You lie there knowing that this could go on for a couple more hours, only subsiding into a deep sleep, ten minutes before it’s time to get up.
Emotions play a huge part in our principal roles. A school is a highly emotive place. There are highs and lows all the time. We live for these highs, and in a simple paradox, it is the lows that often make the highs so enjoyable. Like yin and yang, you need both.
The lows can have the power to swamp us, though. Especially if they’re coming at speed, one after another. It can be difficult to keep your head above water. This can result in routinely waking up in the middle of the night for many. Sadly, this is the reality of the job – it is volatile. This is not likely to change any time soon, so what can we do to limit the negative effects of these lows when we find ourselves awake far too early in the morning?
Switch off notifications: Turning off notifications on your phone or device has a significant positive impact on your thought processes. By doing this, you’re essentially putting up the closed sign at the front of the shop. If you do this on your phone each day, it’s a bit like telling your brain that you’re closed for business. Of course, many of you tech-savvy people will have some setting to automatically do this. Whatever works, just shut off those notifications and train your mind to recognise this as shutting up shop for the day.
Consider your brain as being half-open: Science tells us that the human brain is divided into two sides.
There’s a logical side and there’s a creative/imaginative side. At 3am, it really could be possible that only one half of your brain is open for business. If that is true, then it’s likely to be the imaginative side. You know what imaginative types are like – they come up with all sorts of left-field (left-brain) creative ideas. At 3am, your creative mind has suddenly woken up and it’s going to town with all sorts of thoughts. They are feeding your inner worries like wildfire.
Meanwhile, on the other side of your brain, the logical part is still fast asleep. There is nothing available to logically look at what your creative side is doing. There is nothing open to take a breath and say, ‘Hold on, that’s a little bit crazy’. This is why, when you wake up in the morning, you’ll think you’ve solved an issue in the middle of the night, only to find that in the light of day, the solution is actually pretty naff.
3am diversion therapy: It sounds like a great name for a rock band, but it’s a little strategy that we’ve given a name. Basically, there are many ways to divert your thinking from 3am worries. If your mind is open to thinking, then you might as well get it thinking about some worry-less material, not worry-more. This strategy is a bit like counting sheep and, with practice, it is useful. So instead of counting sheep try doing this:
Remember all the living rooms that you have lived in throughout your life. Including those dirty flats! If there aren’t many, work on remembering where the couch was, or where the TV was, in each room. Don’t focus on the ‘exciting’ memories/emotions that each room may give. You want your brain to be as taxed as possible on the details of those rooms, not on any emotions.
If living rooms isn’t doing it, try bathrooms, or kitchens, or backyards.
Anything slightly boring and just a little taxing will work. Every time you find your mind wandering back to the big worry topic, stop yourself and re-start your diversion, and each time, make your brain start again from the beginning.
Give in and get up: If you’re really struggling, get up. Make a cup of very sweet Milo and write down your thoughts. Get them all down. Let your mind go wild. Don’t worry about whether anything is wrong or right. The only person who will be judging this outpouring is you. So, you might as well go for it.
Before you go to bed, give in: Crank open your laptop. Don’t check your emails!! Instead, make a list of everything on your mind. Fingers crossed that the list isn’t too long! Write a quick thumbnail sketch like a paragraph about what has to happen with each item on the list. Don’t go into it in detail. If you wake up at 3am, let yourself know that you’ve already got this sorted! This gives your logical side power over your creative side, without even having to wake that part of your brain up!
There are plenty of ways of dealing with 3am worries. You certainly aren’t alone. Your sleep is vital, so finding something that works without reverting to copious amounts of alcohol has got to be a good. Be creative, but don’t let your mind move on to what’s worrying you. That’ll just keep you up all night.
To be honest I wondered if my topic for this week’s article, reflection, was still appropriate now that New Zealand is being re-visited by the COVID-19 virus and parts of our country are in lockdown.
I was going to start off by painting a beautiful picture. You see in South Westland, just near the township of Fox Glacier, is the beautiful Lake Matheson. It’s renowned worldwide for its stunning reflections. On any given day, when the conditions are just right the reflections are so perfect that it’s near on impossible to know what’s up and what’s down. Aoraki Mt Cook soars above you, and also at your feet.
I felt that this was the perfect metaphor for reflecting on our professional roles. When the conditions are near on perfect, then so is the reflection. It’s finding those perfect conditions that is the key to getting the thought processes moving.
A friend of mine, Richard Spackman, has recently stepped away from his hectic life running a thriving photocopy and print business, to travel the world with his family. COVID-19 has put paid to this and his tour of the world has become a world tour of New Zealand. During this time he has found time to self-reflect. He’s even written about it. The advantage that Richard has is that the conditions for his reflection are perfect. There is no noise or angst, no pressing timelines, no insidious conflicts or unrelenting perceptions or expectations. He has time. He has time to think.
And that reminded me again about how important it is to find the right conditions to get the most out of your reflections. Then the latest round of COVID-19 hit and I began to wonder whether this actually was the best time to talk about finding the optimal time in your professional lives to go away and think.
I mean, as we all head back into various forms of lockdown and restriction, with it’s angst and uncertainty, the whole world seems to change once more, and the need isn’t to slow down and reflect, but instead it is to speed up and be ultra visible. As leaders in times like this we are expected to marshal the troops, know the answers to those questions that haven’t even been asked yet, and to always, always be one step ahead of the mob … or the virus … or that parent who thinks this is some sort of crazy conspiracy.
This isn’t time to slip away and find time for reflection. Or is it?
When I first thought about writing this piece I imagined that I’d be encouraging leaders to actively make time, and large chunks of it, to get away and do some solid reflection.
However there is still a need for reflection in these busy COVID times. We just aren’t in a time rich environment.
Is this therefore the time for micro reflections? Instead of a half day here, or a whole day there, I’m thinking ten minutes here, or fifteen minutes over there.
And during these times your reflections aren’t going to be long flowing inquiry based examinations of your reason for being. Instead they’ll be succinct, targeted, and to the point.
How do these steps sound for a micro reflection during these crazy times?
Reconnect with your purpose and what you’re trying to achieve
Reflect on how you’ve got to this point and how you’ll know when you’ve got to your destination
Refract on how this might look with another lens, and a consider if there is another way/s
Commit to the thoughts that you have – if you’re making a change, commit to it. If you’re not, commit to that. But give yourself some flexibility. When new information arises be flexible enough to know that your commitment may change.
Take time to breathe and let yourself know that you’ve got this
And finally; read this quote by Maya Angelou.
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then, when you know better, DO better.”
Now go back to your busy role knowing you’ve got this.
So where can you do this? Schools are notoriously busy.
A ten minute walk around the grounds of the school straight after interval when the grounds are empty …
A fifteen minute “alternate” route on your way to school in the car ….
A twelve minute escape to a room in the school that is seldom used….
You’ll know the places to look. Your office isn’t always the best place for this.The ideal is to find a place that is quiet. You just need some peace to get your micro reflection going.
Even Lake Matheson has days when the reflection is ruined by the weather. So don’t be hard on yourself if your own micro reflection gets messed up by the “constant noise” of school life around you. There’s always tomorrow. But see if you can make it a habit, and see if it makes a difference.
I’m not really known for my short blog pieces. The last one I wrote ended up as a world record for me in word count! Recently I’ve been enjoying some Seth Godin blogs. He is the total opposite of me. He says the bare minimum, and then leaves. His words linger in the air, uncluttered by superfluous language. He never gives the answers, but instead provokes you to look for them yourself. And I’d pick that those little journeys that he sends you on are more than just the content of the words in his blog.
For example, this is his blog post from the 17th July 2020.
So that’s what I’m going to try and achieve here. I don’t have the answer, and I want you to go on a journey to find yours.
Four ‘P’s of Principalship
Purpose …. This is the rudder that helps you move your school in a certain direction. Without purpose you are an inflatable lifeboat without oars in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You move with the currents and the prevailing winds. What, therefore is your purpose?
Passion …. This is the energy source that fires your direction. It is your engine. It keeps you going. It’s what gets you up each day. It gives you satisfaction of a job well done, and nourishment to keep going. What, therefore is your passion?
Poison … This is everything that gets in the way of your Purpose and Passion. It’s the waves and potholes that get in the way. Not only is it the viciousness of gossip, the bullying of colleagues, but also the battle within your head, the doubts that have been sown, and the situation that you are in. It is physical and mental. It is real and it is imagined. It is both in your face and subtly in the background. It is quiet and it is loud. Another word for this obviously is conflict, but conflict doesn’t begin with a P! How you deal with this either adds to the poison, or it diminishes it. But it never really goes away, and there is always something that will replace it. There are those who have the super power of resiliency that seem to rise above this, never letting the waves entirely swamp the boat. What a superpower to have!
What do you do to mitigate poison? Is it effective? Does it constantly get in the way of your Purpose and Passion? If it does, why?
Poise … poise is about balance and equilibrium and self control. Poise is how you walk around the school with your head in the air not only knowing that you’re doing a great job, but also knowing that everyone else knows you’re doing a great job too.
I’m arguing here that your poise in your role is dependent on this equation:
Purpose + Passion/Poison = POISE
Too much purpose and you run the risk of over managing or micro managing others.
Not enough purpose and you will be a leader like a chicken who has just had it’s head cut off. And of course where is the poise in any of this?
Too much passion and you run the risk of burning your team out around you. Too little and they will simply think you don’t care.
Poison plays an important role however. Without it you just have Purpose and Passion, and although this does sound nice, the reality is that it is the poison that keeps you grounded and accountable, approachable and human. The narcissist is typically all purpose and passion inflamed by their ego – as long as it’s all about them. The poison they don’t see. The poison keeps things real, but if we manage it badly then the purpose and passion of our lives means nothing.
The key to optimum POISE then is the continual balancing act of ensuring that Purpose, Passion and Poison play off against each other in a well balanced like way.
So, if you find there’s too much poison in your world, then maybe you need to make your purpose more visible, or your passion. And if you’re being accused of being a narcissistic, whip wielding, tyrannical leader, then maybe, just maybe it’s about time you take a look at how you’re dealing with your poison component.
When everything is in sync, you have maximum POISE.
So how do youmaintain your ‘P’s to ensure maximum Poise?
“I hadn’t been at my school for very long. It was a country school with a straight road of about 6 km separating it from the edge of town. Perfect running distance to unwind after a hectic day of principalship. I left my car in the carpark and took off down the road. The run went so well that I did it again the next day, and the next, leaving school each day about 4pm. Each evening I’d get a lift out to school to pick up my car. The pick-up times would vary from 5:30pm through until after 9:00pm.
Overtime, I began to get compliments about how hard I was working from the community. “Wow, you’re putting in some long hours at school at the moment” and, “awesome work, you’ve been busy”. I didn’t read too much into it. It was true I had put some hours in, but I began to wonder how members of the community who had nothing to do with the school, knew so much about how busy I was and the amount of time I was spending working.
The compliments kept coming, and so did my running home habit.
My fitness improved and at the same time so did my standing in the community.
One day it dawned on me why my community seemed to know so much about the hours that I worked. When they drove home in the afternoon, they always saw my car parked in the carpark. They had no reason to believe that I wasn’t at school, especially when the lights were always on in the school at the same time (thanks cleaners!).
I hadn’t done this to be deceitful, or to skive off early each day, but it did underlie to me some suspicions that I had about how people see the role of a principal, and what we see the characteristics of a great principal as being.”
. . .
Many people put value in the hours you work, especially if they don’t know exactly what you are doing. And let’s face it, as a principal, there are often things that we do in our role that go unseen. This perceptionof the “hours you work” reflecting your value, is often worth more than the actual work you do. Perception is king.
If you are working long hours, then by association, you must be working hard and achieving a lot! I’ve never heard someone say, “wow you’ve only worked 6 hours today, you must have been super-efficient and on the ball!”. I wonder why this is? Sooner or later you’ve got to consider; is it our role to be the busiest person at school, or is it actually to make the most impact?
This begs the question, what would our roles look like if we were forty hour principals? I asked several of my colleagues, all who work a variety of hours, (but always well over forty in any given week – sometimes double that), “imagine if you could work a forty hour week, I wonder what that would look like?”
They all said it couldn’t be done. They implied that a forty hour a week principal simply wouldn’t being doing their job, and (just gently) that maybe I was out of mind suggesting such a thing.
The maths didn’t quite stack up either. If you start at 7:30am in the morning then you’d have to be walking out the gate by 3:30pm, five days a week. Even if you began at 8:00am, you’d be in your car by 4:00pm. None of this accounted for Board meetings, staff meetings, PD sessions, evening PTA meetings, or school community events which were important that you attended.
However, I think most of these principals missed the point.
Forty is just a number. A number that we all grew up with, that we were promised – the mythical forty hour work week. I could have suggested thirty-five or fifty for the same reason. Here we are in a principal world where many of us are overworked, stressed to the max, and struggling to create a work/life balance that has some semblance of joy. We clock up some insanely big work hours. The New Zealand Primary School Leaders’ Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey (2018) indicates anywhere between 55 and 80 hours a week.
The most important number of course, is not the number of hours that you spend chained to your desk. No, the most important numbers are found on the flipside. How many hours do you spend with your loved ones? How many quality sleeping hours do you get each night? How many hours do you spend exercising? How do your blood pressure numbers look? How many hours of stress do you pass on to those around you; to your colleagues and to your loved ones? These numbers add up to your wellness and hence effectiveness both as a person and a principal.
The “Forty Hour Principal” is therefore aspirational. There are countless things that you as a principal might have to do, and let’s face it the day will only ever be 24 hours long. However, there are some things that we do each day that can happen tomorrow or at another time. The things that you do that make an impact, or a difference, are the only things that really have to happen today.
The “Forty Hour Principal” isn’t about adding work onto those around you either. You are responsible for a lot in your schools and that is never going to change. This is about you being directly accountable to your own well-being.
So, what steps can you take?
Throughout this book we make several suggestions, but a good place to start is to take a look at your current hours per week. You’ll notice that they fluctuate a lot week to week, depending on what’s happening in the school. Try to timetable in at least two forty hour principal weeks during those potentially quieter times per term. Remember, forty is just a number. It’s aspirational. The aim here is to dramatically decrease your hours when the rhythm of the term makes this possible.
During these weeks, don’t feel guilty when you walk out at 4:00pm. Some of the biggest thinkers in the world routinely take time to do exactly – nothing. Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss, Mark Zuckerberg to name a few, have taken on the habit of regularly stepping away from their usual routines. This isn’t a vacation, it’s a “nothing time” where they spend periods reflecting, reading, thinking and living outside the all-encapsulating world that is running a business. They do this without being contactable or connected to their businesses. And they do it because it works – it makes them healthier and more effective.
Look at the 4pm walk to your car as the beginning of your nothingness time. Nothingness brings to it the flexibility of doing whatever you want as long as it is not more work.
On those days, switch off your email notifications from the moment you leave school. (You should try this every day, not just during your Forty Hour Principal weeks!) Switch them on again when you come to school the next day. You’ll be amazed at how many hours you can save per week just by limiting when you can be contacted. Consider not checking emails during the weekends either. If you are going to check them, then make sure you do it on your own terms, when you are ready to engage. Surprises can wait. They will be equally surprising when you read them tomorrow or on Monday.
By taking on the aspiration of being a Forty Hour Principal, you actively and positively show that being busy isn’t what you value in your school. Impact is the goal, not the number of hours you log up. We’re not talking about Facebook likes here after all!
By looking after yourself you can do your job more effectively. Don’t give in to the perceptions of others who may see this in a negative light. Instead you’re showing some powerful traits; flexibility, a non-judgemental mindset, positive coping strategies, appreciation of self, and the ability to look after yourself and your school.
Throughout the Forty Hour Principal book and in our weekly blog posts, we look at other provocations that will get you thinking about your role. As a whole, they signpost ways that you can use to make being a principal or school leader more manageable, more sustainable, and more fun.
English is a notoriously tricky language to navigate. Take a look at this classic sentence describing a panda to see that simple nuances and grammar can dramatically alter the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
A Panda eats, shoots, and leaves
A Panda eats shoots, and leaves. (It’s also available in joke form.¹)
It’s a bit the same with our Forty Hour Project catch phrase –
“Be Slacker Better”.
We mean one thing with Be Slacker Better, but it’s a totally different take on “Be a Better Slacker”.
When I wear my Be Slacker Better tee shirt, most people I know laugh and say something like; “Yup, I’m with you! I’d love to spend my time lying around on the couch watching Netflix and drinking beer.” I daren’t wear my tee at school in case I’m accused of being the biggest slacker around and an affront to the whole educational community. A principal can’t be a slack arse, let alone go around promoting it!
Of course, lying on the couch watching Netflix and drinking beer (being a better slacker) is something I often aspire to, sometimes even in my professional life (!) but it’s not something that I am actively encouraging.
I’ll use a small example to help show the difference. No doubt you’ve all had similar experiences in your roles. Our principal and leadership roles are full of such events, so this experience won’t be new to you I’m sure.
. . .
Recently I found myself attempting to manage a series of unfortunate events during the end of a lunchtime, all bang, one after the other. I was out in the playground watching some 8 year olds tear around the field playing football. Suddenly I heard a commotion and I had a swarm of kids around me yelling, “Mr Zee, Mr Zee, you’ve got to come quick, it’s real bad, there’s lots of blood”.
Over on the adventure playground I found a five year old who had simply forgotten to duck as he ran around and had split his forehead open in a collision with a playground bar. The kids were right – there was blood everywhere. The boy lay on the ground with a nasty gash open for all to see. I made the decision to move him and so picked him up and made for the sick bay.
Around about the same time, a fight was beginning between some of our 13 year olds and 10 year olds. They’d been sharing a game of soccer and a purposeful foot-trip by one of the younger boys was now being dealt with in an over the top sort of way. A teacher was trying to sort the problem out, but the bell to return to class was about to go and she needed to get to class.
At the same time, our current class runner/skipper had decided he wasn’t going to go back to class and he was more interested in playing “catch me if you can” with any adult who was trying to get him back into class.
In my arms lay a five year old boy bleeding all over my coat and leaving a nice trail on the concrete. I took him into the sickbay and chose to stay with him because he was really upset.
“Steve, I’ve got four boys out here needing to see you – they’ve just been in a fight.”
“Mr Zee, Brian has headed off out into the field and he won’t come back – can you get him back into class.”
Sure I said. I’ll console the bleeding and upset boy, he needs me right now!
Sure I said, I’ll sort out those four boys from the fight!
Sure I said, I’ll chase after Brian and get him back to the classroom, he’ll be back before you know it!
Sure, I’ll do it!
This really wasn’t going to end that well.
. . .
Mark Mason in his book, “Everything is F*#ked – a book of hope”, argues that our brains are wired by two parts; an emotional feeling side, and a thinking/self-control side.
Ultimately it’s our emotional side that stokes the fire for us to do anything. Without emotions driving us there’s simply nothing for the self-control side to, well to put it simply, control. There are plenty of documented stories of people who have brain injuries or surgeries and who have lost their ability to have feelings and as a direct result have also lost their purpose in life.
So it’s not surprising that when I was confronted first with a lot of blood and then another couple of behavioural issues to decipher, that it was my feeling side that began making the decisions first.
Mark Manson likens this to a Clown driving a Consciousness Car. He argues that our feeling brain drives our consciousness, and in the seat beside it sits our Thinking and Self-control. However, the feeling side has control of the driving wheel, the accelerator and the brakes. And, just like a teenager, the feeling side doesn’t like being told what to do, and so the thinking side of your consciousness is always trying to play catch up.
Not surprisingly my feeling side led from the front. Self-control only kicks in when there’s something to provoke it, so it was my feeling side that said, “Sure, I’ll do that, and sure, I’ll sort that, and sure I’ll chase after Brian.”
And because my feeling side doesn’t like to be told what to do, my self-control side tried to reason to start with. It said; “The other adults around are all busy people taking their classes and you don’t want to pull them from their core job”, and “You’re the principal and your core role is to look after people”, and “Your job is to sort out the behaviors (and don’t forget to sort them out good and proper!), and “If you aren’t being seen to do this then maybe you’ll be considered an imposter”, and “Maybe you’re cutting out the middleman by just doing it all, cos it’ll end up on your plate in the long term anyway” and … well, you get the picture. The easiest thing was to just do it … do it all. Which, simply put, wasn’t the best thing to do.
So after a while of consoling the bleeding child and making sure that he was in good hands with the school first aider (which of course he was from the moment I stepped into the sick bay), I headed out to sort out the fight with the four boys. “Don’t forget Brian” my thinking side reasoned, “he’s out there somewhere and needs to be back in class”.
Next day I got a phone call from a very disgruntled parent. She was very upset about how I had dealt with the fight. Her young boy had been punched in the eye by an older boy and it appeared that there were no consequences, and if there were then they were all weak ones. And…… what the hell was I going to do about it! No doubt you’ve had similar types of phone calls. It always astounds me how someone else’s bad behaviour gets turned into your bad behaviour.
It made for an uncomfortable realisation that Being Slacker Better would have been thefar better option.
Sure, at the end of the day, I did cope, and all three events were “sorted”. Some were sorted better than others. However all could’ve been sorted much better if I’d simply been slacker with myself and directed people around me to step up. The fact that someone said “Steve’s got it sorted” added to the tension that I couldn’t be slack.
But in whose’ mind was I really being slack in? Somewhere in my subconscious is an incredibly unfair feeling that if I hadn’t done what I did, then I would’ve been slack.
Just because I thought it doesn’t mean it was so though. Not all of our thoughts are correct.
. . .
As principals, we do this frequently. We rely on our emotions to drive the choices that we make. That’s what humans do. It’s not in our job descriptions, or performance management reports, or policies and procedures that really drive what we do. When was the last time you even read your Job Description? No, it’s our emotions. It’s our feelings. They start the ball rolling, and they provide motivation for us to actually do something. So if you also have a feeling that because you’re The Principal, that you need to do everything, or else you’re slack, then you have a problem. I imagine we all have this from time to time.
The difficulty is that our emotions/feelings don’t have a rudder when determining the best way to go. And essentially, they love to undermine self-confidence if they consider you’re being slack or if they think that someone else will think you’re being slack.
This is counter productive to your own well-being which somewhat ironically, puts you in an even more vulnerable position.
Being Slacker Better means looking for better options, even though your immediate gut feelings might be to do it all yourself. It would’ve been way better for me to delegate responsibility to another adult for any one of the three things that I was trying to do all at once.
I would’ve been better to triage the situations a bit like they do in the Emergency Department of a hospital. Are the doctors and nurses of those departments slack because they make decisions about what, and who they’re going to see first? I don’t think so.
So what are the key takeaways when Being Slacker Better?
Understand that it’s your emotions and feelings that get you moving. They are your drivers and what ultimately motivates you. This is key to understanding that your motivations might not always be the best thing to do even though you feel they are.
Give yourself some time before embarking on a big challenge.
Go easy on yourself. You are your biggest critic. Have high standards, sure, but keep them in check with what is actually required.
Don’t be overly proud in an arrogant way. I always wondered if this was a great example of the old adage “Pride comes before a fall”. You are not the only one who can “get this sorted”.
Understand that your role as a Principal/Leader is better suited as not being responsible for the job, but being responsible for the people who are responsible for the job. This is very important.
Give yourself some time after embarking on a big challenge.
Indian Educationalist, Saif Sarwari, has a great saying; “Sincere principals don’t count the number of hours they put in … they count how much they put into those hours … and that makes all the difference – give yourself some slack, your performance should be measured in the difference you make, not the number of hours you work.
Celebrate a job well done – irrespective of who has done the job.
Feel comfortable to delegate. Believe in the people around you and show trust in their ability to get the mahi done. This builds leadership capability and ultimately means you can Be Slacker Better even more often!
Don’t dwell and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t quite go as planned. Yes I had an angry parent, but this time next week, or next month, or next year it won’t really matter.
Consider formulating an alternative plan that could be used in challenging situations when you are inundated – write it up, record the key people that you want to delegate to. Talk to them about how you’ll communicate with them and how they’ll know they need to step up. Part of this plan is knowing what your priorities are as a leader .
. . .
My little situation turned out just fine. It was ok. Everyone was ok. Everything was ok. It could’ve been better – but I got the key elements right. The point is, if I’d been a little bit slacker things would’ve been better.
The following day the little boy who split his forehead open on the metal pole came in with his three stitches and this card. And it was then that I knew I got the most important part just right!
Mr Zee and the lady, Thank you
¹ A panda walks into a bar and orders a sandwich. The waiter brings him the sandwich. The panda eats it, pulls out a pistol, kills the waiter, and gets up and starts to walk out.
The bartender yells for him to stop and says, “You come in here, order food, kill my waiter, then try to go without paying for your food. Who do you think you are?”
The panda turns around and says, “Hey! I’m a Panda. Look it up!” The bartender grabs his phone and googles “panda” which reads:
“Panda: a bear-like marsupial originating in Asian regions. Known largely for it’s stark black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”
Sometimes you can look at a problem for a long time and have no idea what the answer is going to be. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get a little glimmer of an idea that ignites a whole tsunami like wave of ideas and solutions. The other day I lucked in. A member of my Board of Trustees sent me the following diagram/model.
Maybe you’ve seen it before. This one in particular was published to help describe recovery after the Christchurch earthquakes. I’ve certainly seen variations of this to help explain a whole heap of recovery like situations. I’ve also seen it describe Professional Development and growth.
I lucked into this because at the time we were all heading back to school as part of Alert Level 2 and I sensed that although things were incredibly buoyant, there was going to be a time when reality hit and I wanted my school to be in a great place to meet this reality head on. At the time I wasn’t totally aware that I even had a problem, just a niggle of an inkling.
During the lockdown my team was outstanding. No doubt yours were as well. Everyone stepped up and placed themselves in unknown and testing situations. There was a sense of heroism as the graph describes. We were all in this together, and although times were often challenging, there seemed nothing that could bring us down. When we headed back to school we encountered a honeymoon period. Everyone was pleased to see each other! People felt an ongoing sense of community and togetherness. We had all survived!
I was really interested in how to keep this sense of almost “euphoria” going for as long I could. This “Phases of Recovery” graphic certainly sparked my imagination. Nothing lasts forever, happiness or difficult times; but finding a way forward to manage these upcoming uncertain times sounded particularly useful.
I felt determined to once more be part of something that “flattened the curve”.
I started by looking at the words that made up the down facing curve. No doubt there are endless adjectives that could fill that curve (which I’ve also seen described as “the pit”) but I decided to stick with the terminology of the model to put in some thinking about easing the pain of the dip.
For each of the adjectives I looked for an opposite. As I did this a pathway of questions began to open up.
Disappointment becomes Satisfaction: What could we do as a staff to promote a sense of satisfaction in the mahi that we do daily?
Anger becomes Contentment: How could we encourage staff to look at their emotions during times of uncertainty from a rational perspective in this changing scene?
Frustration becomes Success: What are the daily things we do that actively promote success in our school? What are the things that are the biggest barriers?
Disputes become Compromise and Understandings: Where are we going with working with people to understand that listening comes first and that this is more than just a “yeah, nah I heard ya” sort of response? How can we promote a sense of understanding before conflict?
Red Tape becomes Green Light: What do we do in our school to encourage a “can do” environment. One that is trusting enough to allow people to move forward with new ideas without the obstacles of “we’ve always done it this way”. How does our staff culture really encourage a sense of trust and allow for open vulnerability?
Loss of Support becomes Continued Support: How do we know who needs support? How do we best provide this support? And most importantly, how do we maintain positive connections to make people feel on-going support when they need it and how they need it?
Exhaustion becomes Replenishment: Is there anything we can be doing that actively promotes replenishment. What would our “fountain” of replenishment look like?
And at the bottom of the curve Disillusionment becomes Enlightenment or Reinvention: What can we do to help our people in the depths of their pit see a new purpose/passion or possibility of reinvention?
All tough questions. None of them can be answered by anyone person. These are school cultural questions that should be done as a team. He waka eke noa at it’s most powerful.
As we move up the other side of the curve we find that our group becomes tighter and strengthens. We rationalize that delays have a habit of turning up, and that this includes u-turns and false dawns, but nothing is forever and we will make our way together out of this. Any obstacles are simply just opportunities to review and refine the course that we are all on.
When I first started talking to my staff about flattening the curve and this model we were still in the honeymoon stage. A lot of what I was talking about meant little to them because they weren’t in the pit.
David’s piece last week “Add the Big Rocks First” reminded me that the pit itself could be metaphorically filled with those big rocks – those things that actually matter most. Those things that should come well before any of the other stuff that routinely pulls us down or interrupts the real rhythm of why we’re here. These are the foundations of what is most important to your school. And this conversation, although often universal throughout schools, can also be unique to your own context and setting. My diagram shows my initial thoughts, but obviously they could be quite different for your place.
The Reconnection, Reflection, Refraction inquiry
Rolling along our new flattened curve I’m beginning to run a new low key form of inquiry. Low key because I want to do this routinely at weekly/fortnightly staff meetings in small bite sized bits.
From the vantage spot of standing on the honeymoon mound, we began by watching the TED talk by Brene Brown – “The Power of Vulnerability”, an oldie, but a goodie. This was designed to reconnect my staff with the idea that, hey! it’s all about courage, compassion and connection. I especially like three parts of the talk.
Firstly, where Brown discusses the original meaning of the word “courage”: literally telling the story of who you are from the heart”. Secondly, which leads nicely into the courage to be imperfect, and thirdly which in turn leads to embracing vulnerability, embracing who you are and understanding that yes!, you are actually enough.
Potentially heavy going, but a perfect way to pull staff into reconnecting with themselves.
At our next meeting, we did more reconnecting. We looked at why we, the adults, were here, at this school. We took thumb nail photos of all the kids in our school, stuck them onto a life size like person, (symbolising that the children are the centre of our what we are), and then hit the books – pulling out all the key documents in the school that are important to why we are here e.g. the New Zealand Curriculum, our school Charter, our school values, our touch stones, the cultural make up of our school etc.
At our third meeting we changed tact and began reflecting. I was keen for my team to reflect as adults where they had come from. We’ve talked about our own backgrounds and the turns, the u-turns and triumphs of our lives which eventually resulted in us all being here, in one place, at our school. We framed their individual lives as a piece of harakeke (flax) and then showed how as each piece eventually joined up, here at our school, our individual qualities strengthened as a rope.
The third part of the inquiry that rolls along our flattened curve I like to refer to as refraction. Physics (and Wikipedia) tells us that refraction is the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another or from a gradual change in the medium. I could easily have used the word review but I wanted to find a word that suggested looking at something in a different light, moving in a different direction. When we reconnect and reflect on things, we often do so from only our own perspective. More often than not this is done with rose tinted glasses. By refracting, I hope to encourage people to change the light that they see things in order to look for new possibilities moving forward.
HOW we see these possibilities and (just as importantly) IF we see these possibilities is the key to flattening the curve. Essentially I’m saying “if you do the same old, you get the same old”.
This refraction part is the hardest for any of us to change. We’ve all got a lifetime of opinions and individual “legends/stories” that are incredibly hard to break with. Even on social media we tend to surround ourselves with people with similar backgrounds and experiences. Their opinions are likely to be like ours, and because of this we have a false sense of security that what we think is right. It’s a difficult place to come from when considering diversity.
And then of course, sometimes we are right! We’re spot on! Nevertheless it’s worth the journey in looking at our issues and concerns in a different light.
As I said, this can be difficult. It takes more courage and it takes more energy. But ironically it’s a bit like the end of a race. The most difficult part of any race is just out from the finish line. It’s when your body is screaming out in pain, begging you to give up and stop. And even though this is the hardest part of the race, ironically you are also closer than you have ever been to the finish line.
So go on, get out there and find a way to flatten that curve.
Ok, so last time I wrote I said I was tired. This time, two weeks later, I’m exhausted. This is different to being tired. It’s the next step up for sure. It’s that feeling you get when you get home and you slump into the couch, and thirty seconds later you’re asleep. It’s that feeling you get when you wake up an hour later with no knowledge of where you are or what time of day it is. For all you know it’s the next day. You hope it’s the weekend. More often than not it’s not.
For those of us providing leadership in New Zealand schools we’ve spent the last couple of weeks at least planning for life at school with COVID-19 Level 2 restrictions, and at least a week of living life at school with COVID-19 Level 2. You’ve enjoyed the community joy and relief of seeing your students walk back into your schools. You’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of seeing all of your staff in the flesh for the first time in 7 weeks. It has felt good to be back.
But I’d imagine that for most of us this has been a mind bending journey. And this now goes way back at least ten weeks to the uncertain pre-lockdown COVID times. That’s why we’re feeling so damn tired! Hats off to you all.
During the journey we’ve been the rock of our community. We’ve been the calming role, we’ve played the compassionate role, we’ve listened, we’ve consulted, we’ve made decisions, and then often re-made those decisions. In short we’ve led. We often do this sort of thing, but the context has been greatly different and we should all be proud of ourselves
During this time we’ve also seen a glimpse of what the future could be, and David and I have both written about this, a lot. We’ve written a lot about what a “new normal” might look like.
So on Monday I headed back to school with some niggling worries. What if my Board thinks I’m slack because I asked to defer the Board meeting? What if my emails weren’t all read? What if people find out I haven’t reviewed my School Docs during lockdown? What if my class washing hands stations weren’t going to be manageable? What if my community jumped the gates and refused my “want” for them to wait patiently for us to bring their children to them at the end of the day?
None of these worries eventuated.
However one worry did stick with me; what if my “new normal” was just my “old normal” and I had learnt nothing during lockdown?
This week I’ve found myself doing a whole heap of roles that wouldn’t have been in my job description before lockdown. I’ve sanitised the bathrooms every day, I’ve emptied and refilled our classroom washing hands stations, I’ve emptied tubs of paper hand towels and replaced them … frequently. Every day.
During this time my school has seen me do this. They’ve seen me get my hands dirty and muck in. It’s provided an opportunity for me to interact with a whole heap of kids and adults in ways that they haven’t necessarily seen before. Yes, I’ve never shied from mucking in, but the point I’m making is it’s opened up another connection. This is a connection that is much more valuable than a Board report, or a data drop for the Ministry of Education … it’s a connection that shows that I’m “in it” with everyone. That there truly is a thing called “together”. As a result I’ve had a reminder of where my new normal should be based.
The new normal quite possibly is that everything should be about connections and therefore everything is fluid because the means to connect is also fluid.
So don’t sweat the small stuff; The Board reports, the data drops, whether your Strategic Plan meets Ministry of Education approval etc. etc. Yes, have high expectations, sure, but sleep easy knowing that you don’t have to have all the answers, or all the visions, or all the knowledge. You just need to know how to encourage it all to come together, and if you don’t know then surround yourself with people to help you. And you do this by connecting in a myriad of different ways.
I want to finish with this story.
I’m currently in my fifth school, and 31st year of teaching. Four of those schools as Principal. I tend to stay at a school for 6-8 years. In all I worked hard, made my mark and tried my best. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not so. At all of the schools I had a great time, and worked with great people – adults and children alike. I’ve now been at my current school for 8 years. If I go back to my old schools there is nothing really to say physically that I was ever there. Yes I’ve built classrooms, laid netball courts, donated trophies. But since I’ve left, children have come and gone, teachers have come and gone, people have come and gone. The memory of my connection isn’t to be found in any of the buildings. Instead my connection has gone with the people, and possibly still sits with them today … years later. And that’s the crucial point. Our new normal has to be more people orientated, not systems or buildings.
Our new normal has to be about finding those connections between people and encouraging them to flourish.
There’s been a great video circulating on social media recently by Tomos Robertson AKA Tom Foolery called The Great Realisation. Maybe you’ve seen it. It really is wonderful and follows a line that David and I have been promoting for a while now. In our current climate of lockdown and isolation it’s come into even more focus. Put simply this is the notion that our old “normal” wasn’t really the wonderful place that we all thought it was, and that we are now in a unique position to re-image a “new normal”. This is what Robertson calls the “Great Realisation”.
If I was going to design a new Tee Shirt it would have the slogan; “Join the Realisation Revolution”
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit guilty that I’m not that excited about going back to school. In reality what I’m probably not excited about is going back to an old normal
To be honest, I’m tired. For the rest of this paragraph I’ll use the royal “we” here because I’m sure that you’re just like me. We’ve had over 40 days in lockdown. We’ve moved mountains to make home learning a reality, we’ve sweated a lot of small stuff, and we’ve made plenty of big decisions. We’ve all been asked to act in a manner that none of us was ever trained for. But yet we’ve all stepped up and done it. We’ve told our communities not to panic, and that we’ve got this. We’ve worked hard to create a sense of calm and normality even when we’ve fretted about going from Level 4 into Level 3, and now into Level 2. Wow. No wonder I’m feeling the way I do.
As a result I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed.
At times like this I find it’s useful to start giving the logical side of my brain a bit of a work out.
Invariably this leads to thoughts about how I can best rationalise the situation.
There are a few rationalised points that come to mind instantly:
1. We are all in this together …. I’m not alone. There must be hundreds of thousands of Principals world wide also going through the same situation. Certainly in New Zealand alone that figure has to be at least 3,500. There’s likely to be plenty of Principals feeling the same way. This isn’t a time then to think in an insular manner, quite the opposite – it’s time to connect.
2. Nothing is forever … this is a very powerful thought. In the old days we’d used to say, “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish’n’chip paper”. Largely it’s the same with problems and circumstances. Today’s issue is old hat by tomorrow – or at least by next week. New things will have come and gone. Think about where your thinking was this time 6 months ago, three months ago, or even three days ago. Things change, things move. We’re in a very fluid time of our lives, but it won’t be like this forever. As a result of this going back to an “old normal” doesn’t have to be the way if I don’t want it to be. There is time to consider a “new normal” and to embrace that on our return.
3. There is always an upside…. Sometimes it is hard to find the silver lining, but over the last 40 days there have been many examples of “extreme positivism”. From a professional point of view I look at my staff and feel so proud. They have all stepped up in so many ways that six weeks ago I would never have thought possible. Yes there have been some bumpy times and things often haven’t gone to plan, but yet they’ve pulled together and done an amazing job. This will have a huge benefit when it is time to head back to school. As a result our new normal can be quite different to our old normal.
4. Where there are challenges there is room for personal growth … things happen and opportunities arise. The logical side of my mind opens up to all the new learning and growth that I’ve been a part of over the last six weeks. I’ve grown, and not just because I’ve eaten a lot of baking! And quite frankly it’s time to use that growth to consider new ways of doing the same old sh#t!
So as we head into the new uncertainties of COVID-19 Level 2 and we all get our team back together under the same roof, look for those opportunities to connect with your people about what the new normal might look like. I imagine that they too will be feeling like you.
You could start by using a simple PMI about the experiences that your team had during lockdown from both an educational and personal point of view. Find the commonalities, look for ways to take on board the positive ideas in a school based format.
One of my favourite bands, R.E.M used to sing a song called, “It’s the end of the world and I feel fine”. Originally released in 1987 it is now back in the charts throughout the world as people use it as a rallying call for change. We might not change everything, there may be things totally out of our control, but for those things that you and your team can change to improve lives then now is the hour. Join the Realisation Revolution!
There’s something about being in lockdown that has resonated very positively with me. The other day I found myself walking through my neighbourhood during a very pleasant autumnal like, but sunny day. There were people everywhere, walking about, smiling, waving, being genuinely cheerful. All adhering strictly to the 2 metre social distancing requirements, but also obviously enjoying the moment. There was an uncanny sense of optimism in the air.
No one was moving anywhere fast. The speed of life was just a click above sedate. It was bliss.
It occurred to me that during lockdown we’ve all experienced a sense of what life used to be like. A time when there was time and people took time and gave their time. People seemed very happy, and hence the optimism hung thick in the air.
It reminded me of why sports shows use slow motion to such great effect. It gives people time to look at someone else do something amazing (or stupid) at a speed that captures the shear magic of what is going on.
It’s also why athletes talk about being in the moment and literally slowing down time in their minds during their events. They are focused on one thing, and one thing only. The rest of the world slows almost to a stop, so that they can concentrate on just that one movement that will beat their opponent.
Musicians do a similar thing when they’re learning new pieces. If they’re struggling with a riff of notes they’ll slow down the action and speed of playing, only speeding up when they’ve got it under control.
There is something to be learnt here.
In contrast, I found myself at school the other day packing up IT devices to send home to families. Computer cables, ipads, packaging and cellotape strewn everywhere. I’d told the Ministry of Ed that I’d be in and out of my school in one and half hours. Time was of the essence! Speed was king.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of, well, rushing. I hadn’t felt like this in a couple of weeks and I got a kick out of it. When I knew that there was no way I was going to finish in time and that I had to press on regardless, the adrenaline turned to stress and the enjoyment flowed away. It was replaced with angst, agitation, frustration and annoyance. I felt like a washing machine that couldn’t finish it’s last cycle!
I feel the same now as I type this piece. I’ve spent all day planning for Level 3, organising Bubbles, dealing with personnel issues and losing a couple of hours of work due to an IT issue. The washing machine cycle is back! I realised that my usual way of working was often at this speed and intensity. No wonder I am often shattered!
And it made me think. Yes there are times when speed is crucial, but that doesn’t need to be the norm or my usual modus operandi. What if I was to look at the way I work, like that autumnal afternoon in the sun, where I can take my time, enjoy my time, give my time and appreciate the time that I have with others.
We all need to look at what the lockdown has given us – time. We need to understand that constant speed is going to mean constant tiredness, and that the best thing we can learn to do is not speed everything up, but to slow everything down.
I’m keen to hear how you plan to do this when you get back to work? How do you think you could change the culture of your school to embrace “having time to take your time?”
The other day I found myself looking over my wife’s shoulder as she viewed a clip on line from comedian and TV personality Miranda Hart. Some of you may know her show, “Miranda”.
“Turn that up,” I said to Helen, “what did she just say?”.
Miranda was talking about life in lockdown and the pressures, stresses and uncertainties that this created for everyone. And then she quoted a guy called Dave Hollis which really took my liking;
“Hear this: in the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”
Bang! Wow! What a great thing to say. And on he went;
“If things go back exactly as they were we will have missed the opportunity to take the good from this bad.
The gift nobody’s asked for is sitting here for us all to open — an opportunity to do some housekeeping in where we focus, who we spend time with, what we consume, how we work, what matters and most importantly what doesn’t.
Take notes. We’re getting a lesson we cannot forget when things return to normal.”
I liked what this guy Dave was saying.
On his Facebook page, he describes himself in this way; “Every day Dude, In love with Rachel Hollis, Dad x4 Dominating the roads, NYTimes best selling author”
I like this description greatly. I don’t even know the guy but in a very small precis he’s told me he’s not a big noter. He’s just an every day guy who loves his wife and family. Oh, and he’s a NY Times best selling author – but that bit comes last.
It resonates with me because it’s essentially what David Armstrong and I have been promoting in the Forty Hour Principal project over the last year. We spend so much of our time in our professional lives leading, sorting, being accountable, mentoring, writing screeds of words, connecting, relating and being “fully there”. By the time it’s time for our other life, when we leave school each day, there’s so often little left but to collapse on the couch and nap away the evening in a state of exhaustion. At present I imagine that our professional Facebook pages would all read like mine; Steve Zonnevylle, Principal. Full Stop.
I want to be more like David Hollis’ Facebook precis. I want any description of me to start with the most important things. I want to be proud to be a principal, but I don’t want it to define me. As I’ve said in previous posts, I want my principalship to be a part of who I am, but not all of who I am.
Last year, the other Dave (David Armstrong) wrote a great piece in our book “The Forty Hour Principal” called, “Be Slacker to Be Better”. Like the title of our book, the notion of trying to be slacker than normal in our roles is totally alien (as is the notion of actually working a forty hour week).
For most, using the words ‘slacker’ and ‘principal’ in the same sentence is akin to blasphemy. Recently we were asked to present at a meeting and we were keen to call our talk “Be Slacker Better”. However, the organisers quite rightly pointed out that many would see the notion of this as being almost disrespectful or rude. We could see their point.
. . .
So what is the point that we’re trying to make, and how does it relate to Dave Hollis’ invitation of not rushing back to normal?
Being Slacker Better is a call to arms. And when better than now, when we all have a bit of time on our hands to think things through to start to consider what a new normal might look like.
Plenty of people are talking up the premise that education will be different when we get out of isolation. If that is the case, then we should also be talking about the role that we play, and how we play it as principals.
We certainly aren’t advocating becoming slack. Instead, we want you to step up and look at the way you do your job. Take time to look at the habits you’ve bought into over time. Take time to assess the way you want to live your life. Big questions. But you’ve got some time on your hands, so why not do it now?
Take a look at some of the things that you do now that you personally would consider slack if you did them differently. Don’t worry about the other side of the coin – things that other people would consider slack if you did them differently. This is your journey, not theirs.
What if you didn’t write so much in your Board Report? (Someone once said if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t actually understand what you’re talking about.)
What if you worked at home two days a term?
What if you left school at 4:00pm on those quieter days?
What if you closed the door of your office and made yourself unavailable more often?
What if you spent more time in classrooms and felt confident that administration trivia always has a habit of getting done tomorrow, or the next day?
What if you didn’t have so many meetings?
What if you viewed your role as the key relationship maker/connector instead of the key educator?
What if you looked to maximise your own talents within the school setting more?
What if you decided not to sweat the small stuff?
What would happen if …………..?
The list goes on, and is limited only by the questions you ask yourself. In the end, Being Slacker Better is less about some internalised concept of slackness, and more about finding those things that are actually the most important and getting to them more often by being efficient.
With efficiency comes time. Not time to do more at school, but time to do more in the rest of your life. This is a very important point. It underlines the premise that being a principal is part of your life, not your whole life.
So to paraphrase Dave Hollis; in the rush to return to normal, let’s use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to and change those things that are not.
Woah, what a crazy couple of weeks it has been since I last wrote. This time last week as a principal, I had just made the decision to postpone our school camps, to stop having school assemblies and we were talking about moving the Staffroom into the Hall so that we could all practise the correct social distancing etiquette during intervals and lunchtimes.
In the back ground was the constant pressure building about who should be self-isolating and who wasn’t. Everyone had an opinion. I ran constantly between the surreal world of COVID-19 and the real world of running a school as normal. Quickly over time the two merged. If you were like me, you probably ran on some sort of mega adrenaline rush, that was just enough to get you through each day, before running out and leading to a crash in the evenings.
Fast forward a week and all New Zealand principals are now at home. In New Zealand we are all in lockdown. We join a couple of billion people throughout the world in a similar situation. The decisions from last week are now pretty much redundant. There is a relief that I don’t have to be the on-call, face to face expert about everything. That pressure has gone, but no doubt it will be replaced with other pressures soon enough.
No doubt all principals through the land feel the same way. And to be honest I think for a little while we should all stop and reflect about the bloody good job that we have done. We should take time to look back and give ourselves a pat on the back (no one else can because we’re all practising social distancing!!) in regards to how we steered our ships through troubling times to this point. Wow. Great job us!
New, unforeseen pressures will start to rise, but for the moment let’s take a breather.
I thought it was useful to share again the four key points that David and I promoted last year as a result of the findings of a survey of New Zealand principals that we ran. The point of the survey was to discover what it was that principals did to pick themselves up again after stressful situations – what did they do to head back into “functioning at 100%” levels?
No doubt we have all been through an unprecendent (it’s the “it” word at the moment) stressful event. We’ve had to do things, and make decisions on the fly like never before. But, unusually, we now have a little window to take stock and get ourselves sorted. So taking a look at those four points that other principals use regularly is a good idea.
The four key things are:
Exercise: When I was on sabbatical I factored in exercise every day. You should do the same during the lockdown. There are lots of ways of doing this … I’ll be going for a short run, but there’s heaps of things on line from Yoga to Tai chi that’ll get you moving. Be creative, but keep moving.
Talking with Your People: You might not get to talk to your usual go-to people face to face, but you can still ring them, FaceTime them, email and text them. I’d recommend phoning and Face timing, Skyping or the like. Having an actual conversation, not just a written one, is much more beneficial
Me Time: You’re at home for a longtime. Organising MeTime into your daily routine is important. MeTime is your time. It’s not time where you have to do something that needs to be done. No, it’s your time when you get to do what you want to do. For me it’s probably shutting myself away for an hour a day and playing the guitar. For others it’ll be reading a book, or choosing to get in the garden. Either way, it’s a time when you choose to do something for yourself, guilt free.
Rationalising: This one is crucial. We are going to get a lot of time over the next four weeks to think. Some of those thoughts might be quite dark, especially if we are locked down in small houses, and/or in small groups of one or two. Like all things, this too will end. Yes it’s hard to be precise as to when it will end, but it will end, and there will be good times. Be rational about your thoughts. Some great advice is to give yourself a wallow time once a day – that’s a limited time put aside to write down your thoughts and investigate what you’ve been thinking and feeling. By doing this you get to unpack your ideas fully, and you get to see them in front of you on the screen, or paper, as they really are – and you’ll find that most of your wallowing is just that. Wallowing.
There is very little that you can control fully over the next four weeks. Worry about those things you can control. Appreciate that your old control as principal at school is now more of a watered down influence instead. This is fine. It is what it is. Don’t worry that you can’t get everything to the auditor, or that the otto bins haven’t been put out yet. Work to influence positively, but don’t stress if things aren’t quite as you would expect. Control yourself, look after yourself. The rest?, well it is what it is.