It’s 5:30pm and I’m driving out the school gate. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I only live a few minutes’ drive away. Fortunately, because I’ll be home soon, and I don’t have to contend with rush hour traffic and endless traffic lights. Unfortunately, because when I get home in 4 minutes time I’m still very much in school mode. My mind is still decluttering. I’m battling with the work demons in my mind; things like everything that I didn’t have time to complete, and the relentless niggle that I’ll be dealing with a lot of crap tomorrow when I head back to school.

When I was the principal of a five-teacher school just out of town, my commute took nearly 30 minutes. That commute every day for seven years had two important functions other than travelling. On the way to school, it gave me time to think about the day ahead and to mentally prepare myself for what was about to happen. On the way home, it gave me time to declutter my mind and to review the day. Just as importantly, it allowed me time to transition from Principal Me to Family Me. By the time I got to my location I was ready.

Nowadays I don’t have that luxury. Occasionally, I find a longer way to travel to school to give me some thinking time but arriving home I’m always unpacking the day well into the evening. My thoughts about school interrupt my family time (and my time), and my family time interrupts my school thoughts. This battle of interruption flows on through the night often meaning that I never really get the opportunity to stop thinking about school. Invariably my thoughts don’t start again from the place that they were interrupted from, and so many thoughts start their loop from the beginning again!

When do we actually stop working?

If your brain is anything like mine, then it’s a pretty complex beast. Finding a work-around to stop the relentless unpacking of the day can be a mission.

I began experimenting with two strategies, and to this point they have been quite successful.

Firstly, I stopped judging the success of my day based on everything that I didn’t complete, or the number of people I let down. For much of my career I’ve spent my evenings mentally reviewing the To Do List that was never finished and feeling bad about the things I said and the people I’d left disappointed. You’ll have your own list of frequent things that you bash yourself up about I am sure. 

The work-a-round here was a very simple idea. The key is to make it a habit and to make it a habit, you’ve got to invest in doing it every day. The work-a-round goes like this – choose three things that are key constants in your role. These are the things that you are going to measure the success of your day against.

For me I chose;

  • Kids – how did I engage with them throughout the day? 

Was I visible? Did I manage to get into classrooms or see groups of kids?

  • My own wellbeing – if I’m not looking after myself then I’m never going to be able to give my role 100%. I use the Mental Health Foundation  Five Ways to Well-being  as a simple guide; Did I eat properly? Did I get out and about and away from my desk? Did I drink well? Water? Less caffeine? How did I stack up against the Five Ways of Well Being?


  • Maintaining positive relationships with my people. My people are my staff and my community. I can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and there will always be times of conflict, but I believe that if I’m doing my bit in maintaining positive relationships then my job will always be easier, even during those tricky times. Did I connect? Did I listen? Did I respond quickly to any issues? Was I fair?

I designed a simple visual graphic like this to remind me of these constants.

Every day when I’m ready to leave school to go home, I stop to review how things went. I don’t review it based on the To Do List that kept on growing, or the Board report that I half-finished because there was an emergency plumbing issue in Room 4, or any of the other hundreds of things that came and went throughout the day – all important that they may have been.

Of course, this isn’t your ticket to stop caring about these other things. Instead, this is your ticket to let them go for the night. They’ll still be there in the morning when you come back to school. 

Your constants may well be different, and that is fine. 

My review literally takes a minute or so. To keep it visual and in my face (keys for making this a daily habit) I record the date on my graphic and highlight the icons to show that:

a) I’ve reviewed them in my mind and

b) If I think I’ve achieved them. There will be times when parts aren’t highlighted. I’m up for that.

I do this every day before I leave school. I call this my chain. This metaphorical chain is daily building a habit for me that is going to help me. The golden rule is, “Don’t break the chain”!

The second key strategy I use is to take my exercise gear to school with me. Whether it’s gear for a run, walk, swim, or off to the gym, it doesn’t matter. The key here is that as soon as you’ve had enough at school and it’s time to go home, don’t! Instead go and do something active. Do this before you go home. By doing your active thing you’ll find that you are also giving your mind time to unravel the day. Just 20 or 30 minutes of this will do wonders.

This is especially useful if you live within a 15 minute drive of school. Anymore, and you can start to use your commute to unwind, although obviously you miss out on the physical well-being aspect of the strategy.

The key to all of this is to keep doing it. Build that habit, day in and day out. Experts are divided about how long it takes to form a habit, but it seems somewhere between two months and eight months.  So, each time you do this it’s a link in your habit chain of well-being. Don’t break the chain!

Don’t worry if you go a day without though, researchers also suggest that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” So, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process. 

What is important, is that you are consistent so you can begin leaving your professional thoughts at the school gate.



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3 thoughts on “LEAVE IT AT THE GATE

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a really useful read Steve. I agree with you that we need to keep our own wellbeing at the centre in order to do the best we can do. Also … it is just a job … one aspect of who we are …

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Steve, I totally relate! At times I feel my brain is working overtime at home after school. I am there physically for my wife and kids, but mentally I am still at school. Often my family will be talking to me and I am oblivious to what they are saying. I will begin building my chain, as something needs change.

    • Thanks for sharing! Let us know how you get on 🙂 I’m finding it’s working pretty well for me….making it a habit is the key of course. I got myself a little label maker that makes it a little fun like in recording my daily habit. Who would’ve thought a label maker could be fun!! Ha ha! Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog piece from Davo and me reporting back on our own progress so far!

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