A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about “reasonable” and the “status quo”. You can read it here, but in a nutshell, I stated that to change the status quo of your school leadership role you have to be “unreasonable”. I wasn’t suggesting that you have to be a pain in the proverbial sensitive spot or walk all over other people’s rights, rather that the status quo is maintained by reasonably doing what is expected, whereas change relies on you doing things differently.
I finished the post by posing a few questions designed to move the conversation from theory (“go on, just be unreasonable”) to practical (“this is what you might do”). Let’s have a look at them now.
. . .
- What does ‘unreasonableness’ look like in the context of your role?
Since the concept of being unreasonable is simply what it means to challenge the status quo, there are plenty of opportunities that you can consider. Let’s just pick a couple –
Exercise – your job means that you frequently have meetings and other community commitments in the evenings or weekends. These work events probably mean that you struggle to fit healthy physical activity into your schedule. People might assume a reasonable school leader knows this is “just part of the job” and will accept that their personal wellness has to be sacrificed.
But, what about challenging that status quo and fitting in the necessary exercise at other times? For example, in the afternoons of any days with evening meetings, or the Monday morning after your school Fair weekend?
Challenging students – you receive a call from someone at the MOE. They want you to enrol a student who has a long history of behavioural issues at previous schools. They only offer a minimal amount of practical support because “it’s a limited resource” and round out this attractive pitch with, “it’s your turn” (or a euphemistic version of the same).
Sticking with the status quo, and therefore being reasonable, you would swallow, accept the situation, and start the inevitable damage control with your teaching team and community.
But, you could be “unreasonable”. You could: seek your Board’s support, ring your local MP, insist on limited onsite time based entirely on the resource given, choose to value the rights of staff and other students when deciding on possible disciplinary responses – in effect, challenge the status quo. If this annoys someone, good work, it proves you are making a change.
Remember, being unreasonable (in this context) doesn’t mean you are a “bad person”, “unprofessional” or any other negative label that pops to mind, it simply means you are challenging the status quo. You can do this!
- Will making this choice lead to a conflict with your own personal morals or values?
In short, probably.
Just as teachers are usually people who value literacy, school leaders are usually people who like to be seen as professional, collaborative and . . . reasonable. It’s who we are and who people expect us to be.
Steve echoed this in his last post – “I’ve made a career based on being reasonable”.
And that’s a problem, a big problem, because it’s almost a guarantee that a large part of your own personal identity story has you pictured as being reasonable, following the rules, not rocking any boats.
Personal identity stories . . . they are the intimate, detailed stories that all of us carry in our heads. They define who we think we are and who we want others to think we are. They are self-constructed over years until we have a mental image of ourselves. (And they are largely completely fictional, but that is another topic!)
If you want to get into the nitty gritty of the psychology behind this, you can find any number of explanations on the web. Here’s one that is easy to digest on The Atlantic.
Regardless, if you seriously consider making a change in how you operate as a school leader, there is going to be tension between the leader you think you are and some of the choices you will have to make to do things differently. That’s why the status quo is so seductive. It’s a comfortable place to live.
The good news is that feeling tension between your values and something different, means that you are actually considering real change. You are reaching out into the unknown and metaphorically starting to flex your legs, ready to take a step out of the box that defines your picture of school leadership.
- If you have built a career based on reasonableness, over years – what critical shifts will allow you to change?
I believe there are some stages to go through before you can get to the actual change(s).
Firstly, you have to want to. I know this sounds simplistic, but until you come to a point where you know things have to change, the cards are stacked against anything happening. For me, I reached this step when I realised that no matter how much experience I gained, and no matter how “good” I was getting at my job, it just kept growing in size and complexity – even after nearly 20 years working in the field. That, and the creeping realisation that I was continually putting my own wellness behind doing the job. This was, and is not, OK.
Others get to this point because there is a crisis, perhaps in their health, a relationship, or their happiness in the job. While crisis is a great catalyst for change, it is also an unhappy place filled with unpredictability and pain. A better plan I suggest, is to heed that inner voice and start changing while you are in control of the process.
Once you have decided that the status quo can’t continue, you are in good shape to take the next step – which is to get very clear about what is important work and what is not. We have written more about this in The Forty Hour Principal, but in essence, the important work is always to do with people. Gaining this clarity is a critical step because choices have to be made and some things will either be done differently or not at all. Sabbaticals help with this type of thinking, as does coffee with friends who are willing to challenge your status quo.
Once you have that clarity, it becomes much easier to rationally prioritise what work you will focus on and what work you will put in the optional pile – what is actually important and what is merely status quo reinforcing habits. Your list will build quickly once you move into a change mindset.
At the very point that you find yourself seriously considering which parts of your current job reality can be changed/deleted, you have already made the critical thinking shift needed to challenge the old way of doing things. Congratulations!
- Who are you going to upset? (Because real change requires this.)
The people on this list are important. If a possible candidate is on your team, it’s a good idea to communicate very clearly why you are going to make a particular change. If you’ve been upfront and clear, then fire ahead. Others may not need as much effort – the guy who drives past your school at lunchtime and sees you out for a walk, may shake his head and mutter something about “teachers and the real world”, but that’s OK, just add him to the upset list and ignore.
A win/win outcome might be what a reasonable person seeks, but to make real changes, to move away from the status quo, you are going to have to annoy someone (at least in the short term).
To minimise the ripples, I suggest you start small and go after the easiest things to change that potentially have the greatest impact. For example, create a ‘no interruptions time’ daily between 9:30am and 10:30am. Diarise it, explain what you are doing to the people who might interrupt it, and set the bar for an emergency interruption high. I can promise that this “space” will have an immediate positive impact on both your productivity and sense of calm.
So, who might this upset? I’d suggest anyone who routinely interrupts you is a likely candidate as you are stopping their status quo behaviour. Hold strong, keep doing it, and in a surprisingly short time you will have made change.
If any of this post resonates with you (or not!), or you want to tease out some of the thinking further, put your thoughts in the comments section below, or head over to The Forty Hour Principal Facebook page and we can discuss them there.