Photo by Nicole Baster

Resilience is not singular.

I wrote this last week after a chat with some awesome Wellington principals.

We were discussing tactics that school leaders could use to make the job better and more sustainable. As we discussed deliberately recovering after periods of intense work, I could see people nodding but with some reservation. Eventually someone voiced the “but” sitting accusingly in the air.

“But, what will my team think?”

A very valid question, and for context, we were discussing Board meetings – there’s always lots of prep to do in the lead up, then at the meeting, you the operational leader, are ‘it’. Questions, opinions, justifications, pleading cases – they’re all yours to handle, and then when it eventually  comes to an end, you will have a whole new ‘to do’ list to add to the next day’s existing load – in fact, you’re likely to be the one left to turn the lights out after everyone else has gone home!  

So we were discussing the possibility of coming onsite slightly later the next morning. As a principal, you could choose to do a bit of deliberate recovery by fitting in a some exercise, sleeping in a little, or doing a home-based chore that was left undone the night before.

But where’s the fairness?

What about the staff trustee who was also at that evening meeting but who couldn’t come in any later because they had a class to teach? What would they think if you chose to take the opportunity available to you, but they couldn’t? Is this fair?

.  .   .

I believe there are two things to consider here. The first is that what is good for you (as the principal) is also good for other staff members, and secondly, that within a school people have very different jobs.

Starting with the assumption that what is good for you is also probably good for others, I believe we have an obligation to share the possibilities for working sustainably as widely as possible. Teachers, admin staff, and everyone else who works in a school, have pressure points where they sprint for a while and work in overload. Report writing would be a classic example for teachers as would audit time for the admin team.

This is where you, as the leader, can absolutely create opportunities for others to recharge and build resilience. Possible examples include letting your senior teachers know they are trusted to work remotely if they wish on release days, that hearing they had run their meeting in a coffee shop would make you happy, that you encourage them to go for a lunchtime walk if possible. For class teachers you could allocate a ‘no strings attached’ release day which they could use as they wished, there could be meeting free weeks where all were expected to leave site early – the possibilities are actually very wide.

However, this type of resilience enhancing thinking can be derailed if you worry that different people have different possibilities. It’s natural to want to be as fair as possible, but we also have to be clear that the shape of roles in our schools are very different – both the pressure and possibility of being a principal is quite different than the pressure and possibility of being a class teacher.

Which brings us back to where this post started – your own resilience is easier to build when firstly, the people around you understand what you are trying to do, and secondly, that you want it for them as well.

The best way to ensure those around you understand what you are trying to achieve is to tell them. Meet with your senior leaders and admin team and discuss what you are doing and why. Being upfront about what you are doing is the best, and I would argue only, way forward. The opposite is to half-heartedly try some changes – using the meeting tactic above, going for a lunchtime walk, etc without any context for those who see you doing it. This means they will create their own narrative about what you are doing, and you will possibly feel guilty as well – don’t do this!

The second part of the puzzle is to help the others understand that you want them to work sustainably too. This can be both through concrete actions (e.g. here is a no-strings attached release day), or through consistent messaging to staff (e.g. whanau first).

If you get these two puzzle pieces in place, the likelihood of being supported to work in a resilient and sustainable way is exponentially higher.


PS: You should never apologise for doing your job in a sustainable way – in a logical and fair world you would be celebrated for doing this. Be brave.

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