There are plenty of tough bits in school leadership right now, but there are also gems of goodness that are shining through and need to be kept and built on as we move past the current challenges and onto the inevitable new ones.
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Somewhat perversely, one of the perennial difficulties that faces principals is the isolation of the role.
Isolation is a strange word to link to the role of principal as we are absolutely surrounded by people – students, teachers, admin staff, parents, community groups . . . people are involved in everything and anything that we do. The isolation that I am referring to occurs because a principal is not really a member of any of these sub-groups. We are connected, but we are not in them.
A principal role is positioned differently.
And it’s complicated. Staff drinks on a Friday night? Absolutely you are there, but you are still “the boss” and that means there is an intangible separation. Even the most affable, accepted, and social principals still sign off attestations at the end of the year, still make professional judgements about other’s work, still mediate upsets, and still have control over other staff members’ employment issues.
Another example that nicely illustrates this tension involves your membership of your school’s Board. In New Zealand, a principal is both a full Board member but at the same time an employee of the Board. You are part of the Board but at the same time separate from it. If this relationship breaks down things get tricky quickly and so there’s always a sense of caution involved.
The issue is structural too. Schools largely operate as ‘silos’. You lead your silo and 5 kilometres down the road another person like you leads their silo and you’re both really, really busy. A brief phone conversation about an intending student transfer might be all the contact you have for weeks on end. And in some cases, there is active competition – bums on seats pay the bills, keep staffing stable, and can be a scarce commodity . . .
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Connection is the antidote to isolation and the group that you have the most in common with in your day job are fellow school leaders.
And here’s where some unexpected ‘gems’ have glinted not only amongst the difficulties, but actually because of them.
Our local Principals’ Association has been holding weekly ‘touching base’ online hui. We are quite a small group and certainly small enough for people to keep their video on, so the first time we met like this there was an array of faces and office backgrounds looking back at me. I’ve never visited some of those offices and it seems a long time since I’ve seen most of the people looking back at me – some I’ve never met!
But there we were, in the same place, at the same time, talking about the same things. And even if we didn’t have anything to ask or add, there was a sense of connection in just being there. The odd joke was cracked, and shared challenges acknowledged.
Likewise, the wider regional meetings give some of the same effect. Even though most participants turn their cameras off, being part of the hui and seeing the leaders in action also creates a sense of collective connection. Early in the pandemic I would never have thought this possible.
The strange thing is that in some ways we are potentially more connected with our wider colleague groups than we were when we could physically catch-up. While the possibility to meet up in person was there, the reality was that we often didn’t, particularly in larger numbers.
I’m as ready as the next person for some stability and predictability in our working lives, but I also hope that we can keep some of these new connections alive as our schools adapt and evolve.
When people are giving their all, when the pressure’s 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 seenas human.
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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 . . .
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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.
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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
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.
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.