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 Today we have a guest post from Danny Nicholls of Te Matauru School in Canterbury. Some of you might know him for the awesome mahi he does helping administer the NZ Principals’ Facebook page. This week Danny is offering up some very inciteful and timely suggestions for how to move past the present inertia that is gripping many of us. (If you would rather listen to this post, jump to the end and hit the link.)

“What can you do today to shift from reaction mode to action mode?”

If you’re of a similar vintage to me, you’ll be aware of The Cure. Your impression might be of a very dour goth band, and yes there’s some of that, but for a band whose biggest hit is called “Friday I’m in Love”, there’s more than one shade to their songwriting palette.

Stick with me here.

Our current circumstances as Principals – managing our way through Red level, assimilating SPOC and CTUT and other four letter words into our vocabulary, basing our professional decision making around our next Zoom, or the latest Facebook share from another Principal – is leading us away from empowered decision making and context based leadership, into reliance, dependency and a waiting game, as we scour the stats and opinions to try and decide what we should do next for our communities.

We’re getting stuck in it too.

I’m like you – I read the Facebook and Twitter posts, I parse through Iona’s bulletin at a time of day that I should be practicing football skills with my daughter (which is her SMART goal this term – well done to her school for giving their children something personal to focus on at the moment rather than worry about the global situation!), I read and think and overthink and uberthink and read and think, and then I plan and I plan… and then I adapt my plan and tweak it again and again… and then I hope that I am giving my community and staff the right advice…and then I repeat it all the next day.

Talking with a couple of Principal colleagues recently, we reflected that the independence, innovation and creativity touchstones of Kiwi school leadership (remember that doc?) might be getting squeezed out at the moment. Leaders who have built up systems over many years are now having to throw them out and become more flexible and vulnerable than ever. It’s hard for any of us to change, and it’s hard not to feel in control of everything. As leaders we are in the deep waters, and while some of us are waving to the shore, some might be drowning. 

Anecdotally these patterns that are developing seem to be enabling a lack of confidence and action from us as leaders. We are waiting for others to tell us what to do, or to adapt a template that someone else designs for us, rather than thinking for ourselves. (PS – nothing wrong with sharing – that’s in our DNA – it’s dependency that’s a worry)

We are getting stuck.

The loudest voices on social media are becoming our yardstick for what we “should be doing”, and scaremongering about what might happen tomorrow, and why someone else is to blame for it. We find ourselves taking advice and direction from people we’ve never met simply because they are the most vocal or have the most edgy perspective. We worry that we don’t have the most up to date information, and then when it arrives, we rush with questions, rather than taking the time to read and reflect. We are reducing our kanohi ki te kanohi with our most trusted colleagues and voices in the interests of physical health, possibly at the cost of mental health. We are hunkering down, hoping our plans and spreadsheets are the magic fix, and that this will pass.

Planning is no substitute for action. A plan without action is a waste of time. And a lack of action is leaving us feeling tired, overwhelmed, stuck and powerless.   

Back to The Cure.

On the same album as that Friday song, there’s another tune that us older folk would call a “deep cut”, called, Doing the Unstuck. It talks about shifting our mental model from paralysis to action – the importance of getting up out of our comfy desk chairs and doing something, anything – and to appreciate the positives that we do have, and the power to change our circumstances. So taking a cue from the song – let’s think about what we can control and do to get us unstuck.

  We all know the best anecdote from mind numbing spreadsheets and bulletins is getting out into our schools and spending time with our littlest people. I’m limiting my classroom contact at the moment, but I’m trying very hard to be out in the playground during breaks and spending time with our children – laughing with them, answering their questions both big and small, and showing an interest in them. It reassures them that things are OK in our corner of the world. It reassures me too.  

  It already seems like a very long time ago, but do you remember your new year’s resolutions? Gretchen Rubin (check out her Four Tendencies book if you haven’t already – seemingly designed to unlock those staffroom culture elephants!) – recently posted about the concept of a Determination Day – a reset, a chance to start over, to find again the resolve you had on January 1st. We need now more than ever to take that walk, to log off Twitter for the night, to spend time talking with people, and to experience those personal wins.

  Manage your time and your commitments. You don’t have to attend every Zoom. You don’t need to know the opinion of a Principal who is posting all the time on Facebook. Your community will forgive you getting your comms out later than the school down the road if they know you are busy caring for their children and keeping them safe. Because really – that’s our number one job at the moment. 

  Connect empathetically. Check in on your Principal colleagues that are quiet at the moment – you might be the only person doing so, and they might really need it. Do the same for the adults in your school community. 

  Connect strategically. Iron sharpens iron – who are the colleagues you need to connect with who will lift you up? Who makes you feel better after you talk with them? You need to talk to them now. Give them a call. You don’t need a reason.

  Put down the device. We aren’t made to sit in front of a screen all day. We need fresh air, communication and connection. Make it a daily non-negotiable. Go for a walk by yourself or with a friend. Listen to a podcast, do some baking or turn up the stereo and sing along – whatever fills your bucket.

 –   And finally, a time management recommendation – read Oliver Burkeman. Four Thousand Weeks is a very different take on time management, but it will resonate with you for a long time. His latest post is worth reading also and not a million miles away from the thrust of this post right here.

You could even listen to The Cure (or not). But you might need to Do the Unstuck. 

What can you do today to shift from reacting mode to action mode?

Danny

 

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“You can’t please all the people all the time”.

These words are often quoted after a particularly drawn out or stressful event. They are a figurative shrug of the shoulders that signals an end point.

But the truth is that for many of us there is a lot of angst that comes before this point. And a lot of it comes because we don’t want to upset people, in fact we don’t want to upset anyone.

Early on in my educational adventure, I often found myself in that camp.

 

 

By trying to please everyone, or at least to avoid upsetting anyone, we unwittingly make ourselves  ineffective because the only way to attempt this impossibility is to consign ourselves to maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo is simply not OK in a world where we need change.

So, what are some signs that you are operating in this trap? Here are some  common ones.

  1. You pretend to agree with everyone

When people are discussing a topic, it is not your job to agree with everything they are saying. That’s a low trust position. Professionals can (and should) disagree at times.

  1. You apologise often

This is sometimes a default habit. If your opinion, or leadership call, is made thoughtfully, you have zero to be sorry for. This doesn’t mean it’s OK not to care, but your best decision is your best and that’s nothing to apologise for.

  1. You often feel burdened by the things you have to do

Despite the reality that you are in charge of your own schedule, it’s possible that you are doing some things merely to please others. As an example, if you ever stay onsite later than you need to, because of what people might think if you left earlier, then that’s a red flag.

  1. You struggle to say “no”

This is a common one – your calendar is already full of things but when that keen sounding person asks if you will do something, you feel bad saying “no” – regardless of whether the new thing meets the definition of important work.

  1. You feel uncomfortable if someone is angry at you

Anger is a complex emotion and often has very little to do with the person it’s projected onto (you are probably innocent!). It’s also true that many leaders find it very uncomfortable if others are annoyed at them – fairly or unfairly.

  1. You frequently need praise to feel good

Praise makes everyone feel good. However, some of us like that external affirmation so much that we change our behaviours to get it. Not necessarily a good thing.

  1. You avoid conflict at all costs

Conflict at some level is a part of making change and if you aren’t willing to offend anyone, you may easily become ineffective in pursuing the important work.

 

 

Can you see aspects of yourself in this list? I certainly could, and at some level still can!

For myself, I have made significant change in how much (or not) energy that I put into trying to please people. It’s taken time, and at certain points in my career some deliberate effort to get a better balance. The key for me has been around being clear about  what’s important because once I did that, many of the negative emotions or feelings I would once have tried to avoid became so much easier to manage. Clarity gives purpose.

And of course, none of this is meant to say you should aim to be “tough” or unkind. The complete opposite really – a school leader’s important work is always to do with people, and seeking better outcomes for them comes with the strong possibility of disapproval from others.

The real question isn’t, “how can I keep everyone happy?” but, “who am I willing to offend?” 

Dave

 

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Photo by Markus Spiske

 

Humanity 

When people are giving their all, when the pressures on and they are stretched too thinly, that is when it is very easy to be hurt by others. 

And there seems to be a lot of educational leaders feeling that hurt at the moment. 

These are good people doing their very best to lead in difficult circumstances – maybe because of  COVID, maybe because they are new to a role or new to a school, maybe they’re not getting the support they need from those with the purse strings . . . What they have in common is a deep feeling of hurt – betrayal almost by the very people they are trying to serve. 

Why is that? 

My gut feeling is that it is to do with being human, or more accurately, not being seen as human. 

.   .   . 

Steve and I often write about the leader’s role not defining us. It is part of who we are but not all of who we are, but does your team believe that too? 

It can be very easy to unwittingly contribute to this misconception (that you are one dimensional). It’s a tough gig at the top and one way to mitigate risk is to metaphorically pull on your armour and present a “professional” face to your school 

There are many ways to do this – you can separate yourself by the way you dress, you can create a culture where you are always in charge, you can subtly discourage disagreement, you can pretend you know what to do in all situations . . . the list is long. 

Meanwhile, your team are facing their own challenges. They too are struggling inside a pandemic, they too may also feel overwhelmed by workload or difficult situations. Their challenges are real too. 

Then one day you hold a staff meeting and seemingly from out of left field, despite the huge effort you have clearly put into the situation, there is a total lack of kindness or understanding towards you. Churlish questions are asked, people’s faces show disapproval, you can almost taste the disdain in some corners of the room . . .  

What!? Don’t they see how much of yourself you’ve put into this? How can they seemingly completely “forget” all the slack you have cut them – the leave granted, the thoughtful messages about achievements, the support of their initiatives . . .  

.   .   . 

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they have stopped seeing you as a person and now see you as “The principal” or “The Assistant Principal”. And when you are reduced to merely your official role, your feelings and emotions are easily discounted.  

As a person, you are invisible. 

.   .   . 

I believe at least part of the answer is to lead from a position of humanity. You need to let your team see you as a person who happens to be their leader, rather than just a leader, fullstop. 

And the way to do this is to be brave enough to be vulnerable. 

Vulnerable” – “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” The critical word here is capable – it’s the possibility that shows you as being human.

Brene Brown describes this beautifully.  

 

There are simple actions that you can start (or do more often) tomorrow  –

Admit when you don’t know 

Apologise  

Ask for help 

Talk about your life outside work  

Share your aspirations 

These things can help others see you as a person and when the going gets tough, that is a very good thing. 

 

David 

 

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Have you ever been at your desk, in your car, or in the shower and thought something like;

“How did I get to be the principal? This is crazy!”

“I hope nobody finds out – I don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t believe they appointed me.”

If you answer “yes”, it’s a high chance that this random thought was followed by a sense of anxiety, maybe even a sick feeling in your stomach. It’s something that increases your heart rate and introduces a solid helping of self-doubt.

Well, you’re not alone. It turns out that the world of school leadership is blighted by these types of feelings. Most principals that we have talked to have experienced them at some point, but the tragedy is that far too many of us battle with this thinking regularly. It can be debilitating.

“I had just won my first principalship and was sitting outside the school in my car and I suddenly felt sick – literally sick. What have I done? I don’t know how to do this (be a principal). I just sat there like an idiot with these panicky thoughts rolling around me. Eventually, I got out and walked inside.”

For many, this feeling fades as they gain experience, but for a worrying number it stays, popping up in quiet moments or when big decisions must be made. It’s hard to be a decisive leader when a little voice is whispering that maybe, just maybe, you’re not up to this whole leadership lark . . .

Welcome to the world of the “impostor phenomenon” (syndrome). It’s real, difficult, and far more common in our profession than you might imagine (because one of its common markers is that it’s carefully hidden).

The label was coined in 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.¹ Their initial research was centred on high achieving women who appeared to suffer from the syndrome most often, but more recent research has shown it affects many men as well.

The medical professionals say that it is a cycle of thinking (not a mental illness) and follows a set of predictable steps. In fact, it’s so well studied that there is a  scale² that psychologists use to measure how severe the condition is. (You can test yourself here.)

 

.  .  .

So what’s going on in your head?:

Firstly, there is an achievement related task to do (for example, leading a strategic planning meeting). Once the task has been identified, one of two likely actions happen, either you over prepare for the task, or you procrastinate and avoid it for as long as possible.

When the task is completed, if you receive positive feedback, you discount this and attribute the success to either extreme hard work (if you are an over preparer) or luck (if you are an avoider). Regardless of  which tactic you used, you don’t believe that you deserve any personal credit.

This cycle of attributing successes purely to luck or hard work, and not being something to be personally satisfied with or proud of, feeds feelings of being a fraud, self-doubt, and anxiety. An impostor is born.

 .  .  .

Given that this thinking is widespread in our profession, a key question is – why?

My guess is that it’s due to how people become school leaders and what they are expected to do once appointed.

Firstly, consider the pathway to principalship (or any other senior school leader position). In New Zealand, as long as you are a qualified teacher, you can apply for management positions. Some people coming to the leader’s role will have worked in middle leadership positions and others will be straight from a classroom. In either case, the amount of specific training for the role will be limited and the support provided afterwards unpredictable.

Once the job is won, some other factors kick into play:

  • An extremely complex role, so mistakes are likely
  • An extremely public role, so mistakes are highly visible
  • Almost no induction period – the rubber hits the road 100% on day one
  • An expectation that you make the right decision every time (and there will be a lot of opinions on what qualifies as “right”)

To compound things, there’s no rule book on how to run a school – particularly for the important work.³ (Briefly, the important work is always to do with people, it’s the wrongly labelled “soft skills” that leaders need to be effective.)

“I’d been a Team Leader for a couple of years and then the principal job at Next Step School came up. A good friend of mine said I should apply. I said, “no way” at the start, but after a few days, decided to get an application pack – “just to have a look”. It was exciting to think about a new job and after talking it over with my partner I decided to apply. To my surprise, I got an interview, so I rushed around for the next 2 weeks preparing. The interview went really well and an hour after it finished, I got a phone call offering me the job. I couldn’t believe it. I thought there’d be heaps of people better than me. I remember saying yes and then just standing there in the kitchen thinking “what have I done . . .”

Another reality is that we often pretend. We pretend we know how to run the meeting; we pretend we are OK after an intense ‘conversation’ with a parent, we pretend we understand the school finances like an accountant does . . .

And so much of what we do is agonisingly public.

This is a hard place to operate in, and even very experienced and outwardly “on top of things” leaders admit to having the impostor feelings – the cycle of thinking can be insidious.

 

 

How is your self-confidence right now? With the craziness of the pandemic still strong in our minds, it is very possible many of us initially experienced at least some “impostor” type thoughts – it’s hard to be confident when you don’t really know what you’re doing! 

The model Steve shared last week predicts that at some point, you started to realise you could handle the situation, but it also predicts that some time soon, the old feelings of doubt might return. Forewarned is forearmed!

 

 

So, what can be done?

Luckily quite a bit! If you are reading this and it resonates with you, you have already taken the first step – acknowledgement. The cycle of thinking associated with impostor syndrome is well studied and clearly outlined. If you can recognise it, you can start re-framing your thinking.

There are a lot of well qualified experts who you can access online for specific advice. One place that provides detailed, but clear advice, is Psychology Compass ⁴. The three basic steps they promote are:

  1. Share the Experience

A big part of the problem is thinking you are the only one feeling like this – which is simply not true!

  1. Relax when you identify the thinking happening

Our minds and bodies are completely linked. Mental tension flows from physical tension and vice versa. We can manipulate this link.

  1. Identify the false thinking and re-frame it

This is basically an awareness exercise where you label the feelings/thinking as they occur and discount the nonsense.

There are a lot of other avenues beyond self-help research too – for example, your GP can connect you with trained counselors or other relevant therapists. 

And in the end, whether or not you are plagued by this type of thinking, many of your colleagues are, and this conversation needs to be had. If you are feeling brave, please share your experience – it helps everyone.

Dave

 

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²Hoang, Queena (January 2013). “The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements”. The Vermont Connection. 34, Article 6. – via http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol34/iss1/6.

³The Important Work, Chapter 3, “The Forty Hour Principal”, 2019

⁴https://psychologycompass.com/blog/overcoming-imposter-syndrome/