Photo by CHUTTERSNAP

From a 40 Hour Principal perspective, school leaders in New Zealand are currently operating right out near the middle of a very long tightrope and someone or something keeps giving it a playful shake.

We’re not so much ‘leaders of learning’ but rather amateur psychologists with a side specialty in clairvoyance.

And despite any possible aspirations of superhero level powers, we remain annoyingly human. As such, right now, we need to ramp up our self-care.

.   .   .

I’ve been reflecting on the vaccine mandate recently (New Zealand context). It’s what’s ‘on top’ as deadlines loom.

I certainly don’t want to get into any form of debate about the rights and wrongs (of the mandate), but this very raw and real scenario starkly illustrates where the majority of your STHTM* originates.

People.

We lead people and they are complicated. Year after year, the principal health and wellbeing surveys find that dealing with other people’s emotions and at the same time hiding our own, are among the biggest causes of school leadership stress. They trump workload, time poverty, and dealing with (insert your own favourite pressure point).

.   .   .

People ‘outside the game’ may not see the emotional intensity of managing/leading a community through examples like this.

They may see it as a purely ‘operational’ situation. A rule has been made, the people affected either comply or face the consequences. From an operational point of view your job is to ensure your school continues regardless – A + B = C. Simple.

But it’s not.

Everything you do is relational. In a school, a good school, people matter. They are not simply cogs in a machine or hidden away in the third assembly line in a giant factory. It’s the complete opposite. They are real; connected, known, and valued. If they are teachers, they nurture other people’s children for 6 hours per day. If they are in your office team they are known by the whole community.

People.

The beginning and the end of what is most important in any school are the relationships between people. It has been researched and known for eons that children only really fly in their learning when they have a positive relationship with their teacher. Likewise, the staff team operate only as well as the relationships they have across and within the various groups and sub-groups they belong to. A school is not an individual, it’s a complex ever-changing kaleidoscope of interactions, needs, wants, dreams and emotions of many people.

And here you are, a school leader, positioned precariously between the clear instructions of your employer and your duty of care to the people in your team. That metaphorical tightrope just got another playful slap.

.   .   .

So, this year’s November dance (Madvember!) is particularly complex. There’s more than one competing tune and you are spinning more disks than usual.

Now is the time to be careful with yourself. To keep connecting with others, asking for help with tricky situations, eating stuff that’s good for you, exercising more than last month, stopping work at a reasonable time . . . just doing stuff that, despite you wishing you were superhuman, acknowledges that you are in fact simply human. (As we’ve suggested before, the Mental Health Foundation’s  “5 Ways to Wellbeing” is an excellent place to start.)

And if you are at the ‘apex’ of your school’s leadership, the model of self-care that you display impacts deeply on those around you. As a leader, it’s a case of the old maxim that ‘people believe more of what you do, than what you say’. Now is the time to model the good stuff.

Four weeks to go folks, deep breaths, and as Steve rightly said a couple of weeks ago, we’re all going to make it – just ensure you arrive in the best shape possible – oxygen masks on please!

Kia kaha

Dave

*Shit That’s Hard To Manage

 

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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.

 

Steve