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?
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.
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.
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!
*Shit That’s Hard To Manage
Who gets the oxygen first?
So here we are again . . .
Those of us in New Zealand have just gone into a nation wide lockdown with schools closed and everyone expected to stay home unless an essential worker.
A fragment of the unwanted Delta COVID-19 variant has sneaked through our borders and for the first time since last year, all schools are shut. Which is not to say that school leaders and teachers are doing nothing!
In fact, the very opposite is true. Most leaders have wisely chosen to keep expectations on their teams and families low-key over this week but we all know this can’t last. The excitement of distance learning is about to get real.
My personal experience of running a school remotely is that it is damn hard work. There are a lot of details to keep on top of and the rules of the game can change at any given point in a day. Often key information comes in late in the evening because the people sending it want to be 100% certain it is accurate. This, coupled with the need to stay on top of both media news and the changing personal circumstances of people in your school community, add up to the likelihood school leaders will struggle to mentally switch off.
And staying “on” for too many consecutive days (and nights) is a recipe for problems.
You’re going to create plans for curriculum delivery, for pastoral care of your community, for communication with your teams, for what to do if students disengage, for who works onsite, for how to maintain everyone’s safety, and probably a plan for who’s responsible for the Room 13 hamsters . . .
So today’s provocation is bog simple – make one for you too.
Get your figurative oxygen mask on so that you can continue to be amazing – sustainably.
Photo by Raul Varzar
Those of you back in the land of Level 3 lockdown (NZ context) have my utmost sympathy. There’s no easy way to run a school under these conditions and you have a massive task on your hands. Kia kaha – you are in my Level 2 thoughts!
This week I’m “piggy backing” off Steve’s suggestion that right now, amongst the uncertainty, is when we need to take half a step back from the action and reflect.
For those of you in Level 3 the status quo of school is gone. For those of us (a little nervously) sitting in Level 2, we know we might join you at any time.
Now is the time to seriously consider change.
But I believe right now is the perfect time to by-pass that timeline and jump to a new position. To metaphorically advance around the Monopoly board and choose where you land.
Now equals opportunity.
. . .
So here’s my challenge –
Find one aspect of the usual way of working at your school that through the lens of this pandemic, is no longer fit for purpose.
I’m talking about things like:
the number of physical meetings each week.
aspects of your school’s reporting
expectations around teachers being onsite
the shape of your lunch rosters
the amount of extra-curricular activities
the values you say are most important
This list is as long as your imagination!
A fundamental test you can apply is to ask people “why” something is done. If the answer comes back with some variation of, “because that’s how we’ve always done it”, you know you have a likely candidate.
I’m not suggesting that you go nuts and change lots of things, or even much at all – just one.
One thing that is now redundant because the world is shifting, and to be relevant, your school needs to shift too. One thing that might just start the change process that our students need.
When you pause for a moment, with the pandemic shining a light over your shoulder, what do you see?
When your team’s winning you don’t change the captain – even if they are an arse. When your school maths results are going up you don’t bring in a new system – even though some individuals are failing. When it’s Mothers’ Day you don’t suggest that chocolates are unhealthy – even though Mum . . .
If change is needed, success or failure often relies on timing. Particularly changes to things that have been around for a long time, because then you are dealing with the status quo.
However, a global pandemic is a game changer, it’s a crisis. And for those interested in change, it is huge opportunity.
. . .
A couple of weeks ago, Steve wrote about time and pace in the (then) locked down world and it really struck a chord with people both inside, and outside of, our game. (Check it out here if you missed it.) There was agreement that the conditions he described were real and good. He had put his finger on something that many others were thinking and feeling too.
It seems many of us recognised positive side effects of being in lockdown. Somewhat counter intuitively, there is an almost “wistful” recognition that what we’re experiencing is about to disappear.
Of course, there’s a scale of stress versus happiness that obviously drives our own viewpoint. We all had different experiences: kids or not, work requirements, what the local school expected, whether another person was with you, money security . . . there were as many variations as there were bubbles.
But despite these things, the “good bits” still managed to show through.
Amongst the stress and mess people noticed, and as we move closer to a lifting of restrictions, we can see aspects of life that are better than we had before.
And we want to keep them!
Lots of people agree – I asked our school community what they valued about the lockdown period and received this response. It neatly encapsulates the other replies I got and is written with honesty and a real sense of possibility –
“Time to be bored! A very unfamiliar feeling for a lot of our family as life has just become so routine, busy and we find ourselves in automatic pilot. We ‘get through’ the week, so we can enjoy the weekends… a huge imbalance!
We have been reflecting on what we can do to slow life down a little bit during the week so that this isn’t the case. Do we need to work so much? We did not realise how much money we spend on unnecessary items and how this money would be better spent working less and spending it on time! Time is the most precious thing that we will value from this experience. It gave us the opportunity to get back to some old fashioned fun- creating new and creative ways to spend time together! Previously the thought was “where should we go?” – this has now changed.
When I hear my child say “I’m bored” I’m so grateful that he has the opportunity to be bored. So, so many valuable things learnt. My children valued the first time they got into the car because for once they didn’t have to bike or walk- this is a luxury! They were excited to receive mail, to see their teachers online, to do art, to play music- to play board games- those are all things I hope we will continue to enjoy as a family!”
So, for many of us, a question has started floating around in our heads; “how do I deal with my real-life obligations and retain the good bits of working/living from home?”
And the good bits seem, person to person, surprisingly consistent:
- Time – to cook, to pause, to read, to get stuff done . . .
- Connection with family
- Connection with passion hobbies (your identity)
- Exercise (maybe that’s about time as well?)
They all add up to a slower pace of life, – a sort of “hello the sixties, I wish I’d known you” type wistfulness.
It seems that working from home, or at least being at home more, gives us things that were so often absent in “the old normal”. And they are things that we will miss.
Unless . . .
Unless we choose to keep some of them.
. . .
I recently stumbled across a quote from Noah Kagan, a well-known entrepreneur, where he says, “ . . . for anything important, you don’t find time. It’s only real if it’s on the calendar.”
That’s truth right there. When you have a meeting with your leadership team, it’s on the calendar. When you want to see what is happening next week, you check the calendar. Meeting your appraiser? Yes, it’s on the calendar.
Have you considered putting some of the good bits of “working from home” on your calendar?
Because you could.
I’m taking a chance here. A chance that you are just far enough into lockdown to be starting to wonder how things might look on the other side.
And here’s where that question gets both exciting and scary – it’s going to be different.
Before digging into this thinking any further I’d like to make a plea.
Please, please don’t try and make the distance learning programme you are about to roll out on the 15th April the same as “school”. In times of crisis it is normal for people to try and hold onto what they know. It’s understandable. The risk though, is that our eager, slightly bored teachers, with secure jobs, warm homes and solid internet connections might just try.
Yes, a few of your families may want 6 hours of online learning activities daily, but what about those who are newly unemployed, sharing small spaces, and worried about their Nana? We have absolutely no way of knowing or controlling the learning environments our children will be operating in.
This is not a time to try and control people, it is a time to be flexible, kind and wise. A time to put humanity first and to stop any extra stress on families . . rant over.
Different – “different” is a word that implies uncertainty. Humans don’t like this. We are hard wired to seek predictability, stability and the known. ‘Different’ can be a frightening place to consider.
And when different arrives in the blink of an eye (what were your plans 4 weeks ago?), it’s even harder.
So What now?
Luckily (or unluckily), this is not the first time in history that major disruption has occurred and smart people have researched the way leaders (like you) can be most effective in the coming weeks.
Bernard Walker and Tracey Hatton from the University of Canterbury, wrote a useful article about this which you can read in full here, but a brief summary of their five principles is:
- Take an employee-centric approach – look after your team first.
- Quality communication – find the balance between enough and too much. Listen to your team.
- A common vision – keep the vision for “what now” clear.
- Collaboration and networking – connect with other groups/people for the advantage of all.
- Personal and organisational learning – keep up to date. Seek information.
None of these look extraordinary, but together they show you exactly what successful leaders facing crisis do. Number 3 is where I need to focus right now. My team need absolute clarity about what our game plan is.
The flip side of huge disruption is possibility. The possibility to do things differently, and better, and more fitting for a changed world.
Crisis brings opportunity for change – think of the way new societies formed after WW2, or the development of more productive varieties of rice when population growth in some countries threatened starvation. Change happened quickly and on a grand scale.
And that’s where you come in. You’re a leader in the most important community of all, the community where our future lives – children. Hold onto that hope for a moment as I describe what I believe is coming.
There’s tension about to occur in our post-COVID-19 world. The status quo of ever expanding globalisation, free movement of people wherever and whenever they desire, aligned with humankind’s belief that we can control everything, has just been tipped on its head.
Many people may presume that the situation will be temporary, and that at some point – in a few weeks, months, maybe even a year – all will return to “normal”.
The business world particularly will want that. Big corporations that have created models that (used to) make lots of money, will be planning and hoping that they can go straight back to exactly that.
However, a “once in a life time pandemic” rewrites some fundamental rules. It strips away control and requires communities to respond whether they like it or not. And, what say it’s not a single, one-off event? What say our world is very likely to have another such experience?
Well, that’s exactly what is likely based on research and knowledge within the scientific community. If you need proof, have a look at this short (8 minute) Ted Talk that Bill Gates shared in April 2015.
None of the above is meant to scare people or cause more worry. I share it because it supports my belief that we must, very soon, lift our eyes up and start looking for the changes we will need to make in our schools. The changes that our children will need from us.
Where to start?
Obviously, we are in the very early days of change, and the day to day reality of being locked down at home is still a novelty (but wearing thin quickly!). We can’t ignore this, but it does also bring the opportunity to think.
I am fortunate to be part of the Springboard Trust this year (a programme aimed at increasing school leaders’ strategic capacity, and one that many of you in NZ have probably already taken part in). It just so happens that we (the participants) are currently being challenged to review our school vision statements to see whether they align with the reality experienced by our children and their needs looking ahead.
This means that I have had the opportunity to recently reflect on “what matters most” for our learners.
This I believe, is where we all need to start in our quest to serve our communities in a post COVID-19 world. The answers are most definitely not apparent yet. It is going to take time to clearly see the emerging needs, but we must start looking for this clarity.
We need to talk to with others, keep up with “real” news, and consider which aspects of our school direction are helpful and which need to change or be added to.
A simple truth is that we can’t lead if we don’t know where we’re going, and now is the time to start working this out – together.
What do you think? This is a huge topic and discussion is going to be essential – jump over to our Facebook page or leave a comment below.
Woah, what a crazy couple of weeks it has been since I last wrote. This time last week as a principal, I had just made the decision to postpone our school camps, to stop having school assemblies and we were talking about moving the Staffroom into the Hall so that we could all practise the correct social distancing etiquette during intervals and lunchtimes.
In the back ground was the constant pressure building about who should be self-isolating and who wasn’t. Everyone had an opinion. I ran constantly between the surreal world of COVID-19 and the real world of running a school as normal. Quickly over time the two merged. If you were like me, you probably ran on some sort of mega adrenaline rush, that was just enough to get you through each day, before running out and leading to a crash in the evenings.
Fast forward a week and all New Zealand principals are now at home. In New Zealand we are all in lockdown. We join a couple of billion people throughout the world in a similar situation. The decisions from last week are now pretty much redundant. There is a relief that I don’t have to be the on-call, face to face expert about everything. That pressure has gone, but no doubt it will be replaced with other pressures soon enough.
No doubt all principals through the land feel the same way. And to be honest I think for a little while we should all stop and reflect about the bloody good job that we have done. We should take time to look back and give ourselves a pat on the back (no one else can because we’re all practising social distancing!!) in regards to how we steered our ships through troubling times to this point. Wow. Great job us!
New, unforeseen pressures will start to rise, but for the moment let’s take a breather.
I thought it was useful to share again the four key points that David and I promoted last year as a result of the findings of a survey of New Zealand principals that we ran. The point of the survey was to discover what it was that principals did to pick themselves up again after stressful situations – what did they do to head back into “functioning at 100%” levels?
No doubt we have all been through an unprecendent (it’s the “it” word at the moment) stressful event. We’ve had to do things, and make decisions on the fly like never before. But, unusually, we now have a little window to take stock and get ourselves sorted. So taking a look at those four points that other principals use regularly is a good idea.
The four key things are:
Exercise: When I was on sabbatical I factored in exercise every day. You should do the same during the lockdown. There are lots of ways of doing this … I’ll be going for a short run, but there’s heaps of things on line from Yoga to Tai chi that’ll get you moving. Be creative, but keep moving.
Talking with Your People: You might not get to talk to your usual go-to people face to face, but you can still ring them, FaceTime them, email and text them. I’d recommend phoning and Face timing, Skyping or the like. Having an actual conversation, not just a written one, is much more beneficial
Me Time: You’re at home for a longtime. Organising MeTime into your daily routine is important. MeTime is your time. It’s not time where you have to do something that needs to be done. No, it’s your time when you get to do what you want to do. For me it’s probably shutting myself away for an hour a day and playing the guitar. For others it’ll be reading a book, or choosing to get in the garden. Either way, it’s a time when you choose to do something for yourself, guilt free.
Rationalising: This one is crucial. We are going to get a lot of time over the next four weeks to think. Some of those thoughts might be quite dark, especially if we are locked down in small houses, and/or in small groups of one or two. Like all things, this too will end. Yes it’s hard to be precise as to when it will end, but it will end, and there will be good times. Be rational about your thoughts. Some great advice is to give yourself a wallow time once a day – that’s a limited time put aside to write down your thoughts and investigate what you’ve been thinking and feeling. By doing this you get to unpack your ideas fully, and you get to see them in front of you on the screen, or paper, as they really are – and you’ll find that most of your wallowing is just that. Wallowing.
There is very little that you can control fully over the next four weeks. Worry about those things you can control. Appreciate that your old control as principal at school is now more of a watered down influence instead. This is fine. It is what it is. Don’t worry that you can’t get everything to the auditor, or that the otto bins haven’t been put out yet. Work to influence positively, but don’t stress if things aren’t quite as you would expect. Control yourself, look after yourself. The rest?, well it is what it is.
Kia kaha everyone!
A day may be a long time in politics, but not as long as a week in a school with a pandemic virus doing the rounds.
There’s a lot happening right now, and you as a leader, are right in the middle.
. . .
The adrenaline junkies among us are probably feeling excited, those with imagination feeling nervous, and everyone wondering just what the next day will bring.
So how do you lead?
With support is my recommendation.
The really big calls will be made by the Government and filtered to you through the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education. As a good public servant, you will follow the plan. So relax and be thankful that you’re not Jacinda right now.
The middle tier stuff – things like how much to tell your community and how often, or whether to run that camp, should be done together with your Board. There’s a need to ensure management (you!) and governance are seen to be working together – a united front is a confident front. Ring your Board Chair, listen to their opinion and together be visible to your community.
The smaller things such as planning a possible programme for students at home, are best done with your team at school. Re-purpose a staff meeting and nut things out together. (Just keep it simple though!)
At a time like this, your community is looking for strong leadership and you can best provide that by sharing the decision making with others, then fronting the plan with the groups effected.
You’ve got this!