.

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.

.   .   .

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 . . .

.   .   .

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.

Have you felt any of the same?

David

 

 

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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