Photo by Rod Long 

How’s your urgent list going? Getting longer or starting to glow with an ominous neon highlight?

As the clock ticks down for the last few weeks of this year, it’s easy for the ‘urgent’ stuff to cloud what’s important. Urgent by itself is not necessarily a reason for something to be at the front of your queue.

A little sorting might be necessary and the first place to start is by filtering for ‘important’. All things being equal, I usually find that stuff to do with people is likely to be important – jobs, staffing schedules, family traumas, teacher performance management . . . These things matter and may also be urgent. If so, straight to the top of the list.

The next thing to consider is who labelled a particular thing urgent? If it wasn’t you, then potentially it doesn’t even need to be on your list. Later in Term 4, it’s fairly common for someone else who is feeling time pressure, to suggest something on their own list should be urgent for you too. This can be a slippery slope of responsibility shifting and is where the ability to politely, yet firmly say ‘no’, is a vital principal skill.

But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that what is ‘urgent’, by definition, will change quickly. An item that is genuinely urgent can’t stay on your to do list for long, otherwise it wasn’t.

In 2020, thinking about and planning for Covid was urgent. However, its position on all our lists changed a long time ago. Likewise, having a cohesive agenda and plan for the first staff setup day this year was urgent. But, if on the morning of that same day, one of your own whanau became very unwell, the order of urgency is rearranged.

Urgency is relative and time limited. So as the Term races by, and you find yourself feeling ever more pressure to get ‘urgent’ things done, just step back a fraction, pause, and give yourself permission to rearrange what gets your attention. A lot of what is creating mental workload is almost certainly neither important or urgent – it just feels like it is.

Dave

Photo by Brett Jordan

Last week David provocatively asked “What would you do if you had only two hours a week in your job”. It hit a nerve with a number of people, including, unsurprisingly, me.

There were elements of David’s piece that were mighty attractive. For a start, imagine only working for two hours a week! What a treat. And secondly, imagine if your job was to do only the things that you believed were most important; if you could cut through all the BS and get to the real nitty gritty that made a difference – how meaningful would that be?

How would that look?

I wonder though, if it may just be a bit of a red herring because being human would make it impossible. We wouldn’t, or couldn’t ever get to this nirvana without feeling guilty, or conflicted, or judged, or questioned. We carry too much baggage in our heads. Stuff that was placed there not just yesterday, but the day before that, and the week before that; even years. And we carry with us the expectations of a future, which is more often than not labeled THE Future, as if it is already written and all we really need to do is do the right thing here and now and it will all become so.

Of course, we don’t have the luxury of working just two hours, or four or eight on just those things that are most important. Nevertheless it’s still a great question to ask in order to clear your mind. So I’d say to you, give yourself a bit of space this morning, after you’ve read this and ask these three questions

  1. What’s important to you right now?
  2. What do you need to get there?
  3. Is there anyone close to you who can help you that you can go to talk to? (and then go and do that)

And then once you’ve done this, because even this is a big task, see if you can do this next thing. It’s a quote from Maya Angelou, and it’s wonderful. Can you make it happen before the end of the term?

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us”. ~Maya Angelou (Book: Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey)

Steve

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Photo by Waldemar 

It’s February 2024 and the newly elected coalition Government has just launched its revolutionary education policy. All principals have been called to Wellington to learn about the fresh new AI derived curriculum and how it will transform their schools. Their excitement is palpable. This huge new project will dominate the next 6 months, so they will have no more than 2 hours per week to think about, or work in their schools.

“If you could only work 2 hours per week, what would you focus on?” ¹

I know this is a ridiculous question, but indulge me for just a moment and consider it – 2 hours, that’s all you have to lead your school . . . what will you do? And what will you not do?

.   .   .

There are several ways of trying to answer this, for example you could start by considering what are the very most critical things you do each week. You could make a short list of 5 things you absolutely must do and then whittle away the amount of time you spend on each.

You could choose just one.

Or, you could start at the other end and begin deleting stuff that is either unimportant or you already know is a sticky mess of procrastination and inefficiency . . .

.   .   .

I’m going to suggest applying a filter – is the piece of work leadership, or is it management?

In the spirit of Friday provocation, how about:

Management = Heck no!

  • The newsletter
  • Any fixing/unblocking/shifting stuff
  • Admin meetings
  • Minor student discipline issues
  • Tidying other people’s messes (figurative and literal)
  • Anything to do with finances
  • Attendance intervention plans
  • Board reports
  • PTA reports
  • Rosters (of any sort)

Leadership = Heck yes!

  • Connecting with staff (being visible, positive, interested)
  • Connecting with students/whanau (being visible, positive, interested)
  • Strategic thinking (which requires space and pause)

I know which list looks more fun and energising to me!

(I would also add ‘staffing’ to the critical work pile. It sits both in management and in leadership but is often the single biggest driver of both possible stress and possible happiness for all involved – you, students, other staff, whanau. We all know what happens if it goes wrong, from not having a teacher for a class, to working with unhappy team members – and the flip side is that when it is going well, everything is better.)

What do you think? Where would you put your 2 hours?

.   .   .

There’s also an interesting side effect of narrowing down your work to the absolute essentials, it raises the possibility of creating time to do other essential non-work things.

Perhaps 2 hours is too extreme. But what say we doubled it? Would 4 hours allow you to get more essentials completed?

And if 4 was still too little, how about 8? At what point would there be ‘enough’?

Is it possible that at some point, well below the mythical 40, that you cross over into spending your time and energy on things that really aren’t important (or even necessary)? I suggest the answer might be closer to ‘yes’ than many believe.

Dave

.   .   .

Postnote:

I said I’d share the data from responses to my last post about email – Master or Slave. Thanks to everyone (109 people) who took a moment to share. The numbers are below for your interest, and I’ve put a couple of useful tips that were shared as well.

  1. How many emails did you receive yesterday?

Most                   175

Least                   9

Average              49

  1. How many emails are sitting in your inbox?

Unread                              Most 838            Least 0                Average 36

Read (but not filed)        Most 21299        Least 0                Average 347

  1. Helpful tips:
  • “I attended a Google Certified Educator Course about 5 years ago and the guy talked about ‘zero’ inbox. I thought he was absolutely mad and this was impossible to achieve, but I now live and breath it AND encourage my staff (and anyone who will listen) to do the same. So the easy secret to share here is the ‘Snooze’ function on Gmail. Absolutely my best digital friend and I encourage all to use it as a ‘101’ for organising emails. Zero inbox is now my reality and it REALLY helps me function.”
  • “My inbox is my to-do list. I get rid of an email once actioned. Works for me.”
  • “I am a teaching principal and I have an automatic reply saying that I am only in my office on Tuesday and Friday, emails will be checked before 9am and after 3pm – this does not seem to deter anyone!!”

 

I’m grateful that so many of you shared and now have my own aspirational goal to get to “zero inbox”. Dave

¹ Borrowed from Tim Ferris, someone who excels in asking thought provoking questions.

Photo by Felix Berger 

Corner cutting is about taking the shortest or most direct route to where you want to go. You’d think that would be a good thing, but this little idiom also carries the unhappy thought that you might be leaving something important out or are going to hit a metaphorical curb.

Imagine standing up at your next Board meeting and saying, “great news – the whole team is cutting corners.” I’m thinking there would be a very awkward silence before someone asked you to explain.

.   .   .

In reality, that’s exactly what we have to do as school leaders. There are time limits to the work we need to get done, and ever more competing work waiting to be started. The Ministry has 31 current initiatives or reviews listed on their website today, so it’s fair to assume that new work will not be in short supply in the foreseeable future . . .

Even a rockstar principal (like yourself), will be unable to methodically work through the items. You are going to need to look for some speed and that’s where judicious corner cutting is a vital strategy.

Let me give you an example.

The auditor has just sent you the 14th email requesting yet more information. You could methodically work your way through each item, carefully considering whether a particular piece of information or evidence exists, then compose a detailed response with supporting commentary/evidence. This process could take several hours, which might be acceptable practice if you were an accountant, working in a controlled and quiet environment, with skilled secretarial help and no interruptions from the public. But you’re not.

Or

You could reply directly to the emailed items with the briefest (and truthful) possible responses. For example –

“Does the Board have processes and controls, regularly reviewed, and understood by key management staff, to mitigate the possibility of individuals being the sole receiving and banking personal?”

Answer: No

“How have you enhanced the abilities of individual employees?”

Answer: With focused PLD linked to individual development needs.

Are these the best possible answers you could give? No. But are they answers that will allow the hard-working junior audit staff to tick an item off their own list? Possibly yes.

And while there’s definitely an experience related ease to identifying which corners to cut, anyone can do it with the right mindset. It’s about deliberately giving minimum time and effort to the things that don’t fit the description of ‘important work’, but that do need to be done.

In a busy day, it’s very easy to mix up whether you are looking at a potential shortcut or whether it is actually important work. When torn with what to do first, my personal sorting thought is; “is this directly to do with people?” Anytime I’ve ignored this rule, I’ve made more work and/or more future hassle. Here’s an example from an earlier post.

Next week will give you many opportunities to look out for cuttable corners, and if principalship was an online game, you would absolutely get bonus points everytime you found one and took it. No shame, just satisfaction in using your professional judgement like a boss.

Weekend well!

Dave

 

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Photo by Markus Winkler 

What is it about taking your own advice that is so difficult?

There’s some sort of paradox at play that makes it easy (relatively) to give solid, helpful advice to just about anyone, but makes it 10x harder to follow for yourself.

And that’s a nuisance because of all the people in the world, you are uniquely positioned to see what you actually need at any given time.

.   .   .

Over the last week I made a mistake. I let a situation stretch out for just a little too long and in that extra space, people inevitably filled in the gaps themselves. Rationally, I knew this might happen, but. . .

(Just for context, the situation involved a group of students where one or several had been less than ideal in how they had treated each other. Each of these students had a parent, and each of these parents had a social media account.)

If I’d been chatting this situation over with a colleague when it first emerged, I would have said something like, “get on the front foot and sort it out as quickly as possible. If you let it sit unresolved, someone is going to throw some petrol on the simmer and that won’t be good.”

But, here I find myself 10 days later and only now have I managed to work through to a resolution. The simmer did indeed burn a little brighter than it needed to.

.   .   .

So, what stopped me from acting more quickly?

My reflection is simply that I didn’t get my priority order straight, and that led to running out of time/energy. The last fortnight has seen a number of unexpected pieces of work crop up, mostly around people not behaving as well as they normally would (Steve talked about the current ‘niggly’ vibe last week), and that, combined with the most pedantic, time wasting audit process I have ever been subjected to, was that.

Each situation required time, energy, and wisdom, and despite knowing better, I dealt with some of the less complex ones first.  By the time I handled the ‘smaller’ issues each day, I’d run myself out of time and energy, and guilty confession here – I may have run myself slightly out of my work ban hours too . . .

You’d think I’d know better, and the really crazy thing is that I did!

.   .   .

For ages now, a common 40 Hour Project theme has been to get very clear about what matters most, and to stick to that work as a priority. But in this instance, I let the unexpected work trump the important work and I’ve been thinking about how to make this less likely to happen again as the adventure of Term 2 unfolds – how do I keep my priority list straight?

What I’ve decided to try, is to put a scheduled 5 minutes into my morning routine to write a brief ‘shopping list’ type visual reminder for myself. I’m going to do it on paper, and I’m going to use it as a touchstone throughout the day. I know this may sound like just another bog standard ‘list’, but the difference for me will be the 5-minute daily recreation and the habit I’m going to try and build around checking it.

Let’s see how this goes.

Dave

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Photo by Roberto Sorin 

If you are a NZ principal operating under the “work ban”, how is that going for you? 8am – 5pm on week days equals 45 hours (unless you are managing a lunch break . . . ).

Most people that I’ve talked to are finding it impossible to do their usual job inside this set time.

The key word here is ‘usual’. In the context of your role, ‘usual’ could be transposed for ‘huge’ or ‘complicated’ or even ‘downright silly’. It could reasonably be described as dancing the line of what’s possible, and something that stretches most people on a good day.

Sure, we have disengaged with Ministry of Education initiatives and are solely focusing on our schools and community needs, but it is very clear that even these items by themselves don’t fit inside of 8 until 5. What does that say about the load of the complete job?

.   .   .

Which brings me to a phrase that I heard inside of some training I was doing recently –“it’s OK to do the best you can with the resources you have”.

The resources we each have is not a static situation. How much you can bring to any particular task or situation varies widely depending on a myriad of factors – health, support, competing work, others around you, a crisis, home life . . .

In effect, your “best” will be different, probably on a daily basis! Stephanie Thompson nicely described this in her guest post You Are Not A Machine.

So, the puzzle of how to work in a finite number of hours is only solvable by taking stock of the resources you have available, then adapting the plan based on that reality.

And therein lies a problem – many of us are used to ignoring our ‘current state’. I witnessed a very common illustration of this point recently at a curriculum PLD session.

The presenters had worked hard all morning, giving freely of their energy and expertise and now, 3 hours in, were visibly tired. Clearly, they needed a rest/food/fresh air before doing any more work, but . . . they had a second session due to start 30 minutes after ours and through a series of unplanned for events, we had gone 20 minutes over time.

I gently suggested to the leader that they could start the next session 10 minutes late, and at least have a bite to eat in the sunshine before starting again. I predicted that the attendees would understand, and it was better for them to have a brief wait (teachers can always chat!) than an exhausted presenter.

That’s not what happened though, they ‘soldiered on’.

.   .   .

So, what about you? How good are you at recognising when your ‘resources’ are low and then adapting your plan based on that reality?

When resources are low, your ‘usual’ needs to change accordingly, and that is most definitely OK.

Dave

 

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Photo by Eric Rothermel 

Two weeks in . . . how did that happen?!

There’s no denying that launching a school year has one very consistent and familiar pattern for me – it starts fast and then gets faster!

And I’ve been lucky. I had a great holiday break. When the checkout operators asked me, “have you had a busy day?”, many times I’d been able to pause and say, “no, very cruisy indeed today”. When those first few emails of the year came in, they often started with a polite, “I hope you had a refreshing break” sort of opening line. Happily, I’ve been able to reply with complete honesty, “yes I have thanks”.

So, I’ve started from a place of goodness, but we all know the saying about good things . . .

At a certain point, I did what you’ve done too; I got back into work, and supported by a ‘full tank’ of energy, started to get ready for launch.

As the final few days counted down, the pace of work picked up. More people thinking meant more thinking for me, and more decisions, tasks, stuff . . . which was fine as I was fresh and ready to go.

And then the year started properly. Kids onsite, classes in action and the hum of humanity that is a school running again. Two weeks in, systems are in place, people are finding their patterns and we are bedding into the shape of an operating school. Business as usual.

.   .   .

Which brings me to now.

Now, the urgent and unpredictable things are just starting to pop up here and there. Now, the complexity of leading in a clear and effective way is being tested. Now, many things are competing for my time and energy. Which still feels manageable as I’m within touching distance of a more relaxed time.

But I’ve done this before and I just know that soon the familiar feeling of not being on top of everything, of getting important stuff done by stopping doing other important stuff, and of being stretched on the daily is about to start.

Forewarned is forearmed and I’m determined to maintain my balance as the load builds. The trick is in finding that sweet spot and working in a sustainable middle ground where I can be a good/great/superb (depending on the day!) leader and keep myself healthy and whole at the same time.

Part 1 of my strategy this Term is around priorities. I am going to put my overall wellness near the very front of the list for what to achieve each day. And I’m starting with the key things that I sometimes ‘drop out’ when squeezed for time/energy.

Part 2 is adding these things to my calendar/diary exactly as I add all the important work stuff. If it’s in the diary/on the calendar it’s real and has instantly tripled my chances of doing it.

My challenge for you this week is to do the same in your own diaries. Even just adding a single healthy thing is a very doable first step. It’s called having a plan folks, and we all know that good intentions without a plan remain exactly that!

Dave

(You can read another earlier post that teases out this idea a little more and here’s one that takes a nostalgic look back into ‘bubble’ living.)

 

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Photo by Thomas Bormans 

How’s your list going? You know the one – the one with all the stuff you have to get done before the end of Term.

I’m currently finding mine is tricky to control. Even if I beat it with a metaphorical stick, it still seems to fight my need for order. No amount of crossing out (or in my case scrunching up the Post-it notes) diminishes its size, satisfying as that can be.

And it’s not just the sheer volume of items on it, it’s just as difficult to maintain in the right order – the important is getting slowed down by the urgent and some of the urgent is unpredictable.

Welcome to the sprint to the finish.

If you are feeling somewhat similar, I have no perfect solution, but what I can offer based on having run this race before is:

    • It’s going to be over soon (in my case, December 14 – woohoo!)
    • You will not complete your list
    • It matters which things don’t get done
    • Self-care is essential over this time

Over soon

Regardless of how late you started the year, or how many TODs you scheduled, you can’t keep your  school working past the 20th December. That’s worse case scenario and it’s 18 days away.

List Incomplete

It is impossible to do everything. Relax into that reality.

Priority

If it’s to do with staffing it is both important and urgent. It trumps all other list items and stays right at the top until done. When you are dealing with organising your most precious and important school resource, it beats everything.

When some crazy stuff happens (and it will in the next fortnight) of course you must help if needed. These things might even cause you to pause in your work around staffing (employment, appraisals, support, etc). The trick is to go straight back to the staffing as soon as you can.

Self-care

Despite any temptation to ignore your own wellness, don’t do it. Now is exactly the time when you have to deliberately ensure your health and happiness is in the mix of important work. Two weeks of poor sleep, no exercise, junk food and too much coffee, at the very time you are at your busiest, is not going to help. Here’s a simple idea – pick one item to improve and put it on the list with a highlighter underline. You’re welcome.

Dave

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Photo by Casey Horner 

A fortnight ago I wrote about the privilege of going on a school camp and the fact that even though it left me well behind with other important work, I didn’t care – it was worth it.

Sitting here 14 days later, I’m reflecting that I may have tempted fate with a such a cavalier statement. Because a few hours after the post, I started feeling a little ‘average’ and things deteriorated from there. Yes, I finally brushed shoulders with the virus we all wish would go away, and got sick. As the ‘last man standing’ amongst our staff, I didn’t exactly feel invulnerable, but had given up worrying about the possibility months ago. Yet there I was.

I’ve been back at work this week but my ability to get things done is way down. Those of you who’ve been where I am will understand, those who have had a very light dose will hopefully be grateful, and those who are sitting where I was previously (untouched!), might want to ignore this.The bottom line is that I just can’t get through the stuff I need to.

Those around me are helpful and understanding which makes me very happy, but the truth is people still want to know what their job will look like next year, budgets need to be written, new families need attention, other people get sick too, strategic plans need to be reviewed, . . .

.   .   .

Two themes have bounced back into my mind as I scramble to get through this difficult period – I need to be clear about “what matters most” and I need to accept “good enough”.

We’ve written about both these topics before, and I encourage you to take the 5 minutes to read them if you haven’t (link to What Matters Most, link to Good Enough), but in a nutshell –

What matters most?

People.

Simple, emphatic, and true. I can’t get through everything that has piled up around me so I need to swallow hard and choose the tasks that directly relate to people. In my fuzzy state that is something to hang onto.

Good enough

Never has this concept been more important to me. Like many leaders I like to set the bar high, it gives me personal satisfaction to do things as well as I can. But that luxury is not possible right now, I need to accept that ‘good enough’ is exactly that.

Footnote: Life right now is reminding me how critical having energy is. Obviously being sick is an energy vampire but what about poor sleep, lack of exercise, continual stress . . . I miss my energy and on the other side of this current debacle I’m going looking for even more.

Dave

 

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Photo by Vitolda Klein

Luckily, I’m a teacher not a builder. I say this because while I’d love a new Ford Ranger (with EV stickers on it), I’d be so slow in my job that I couldn’t afford to run it. Why? Because I’ve realised I’ve got a problem – I like projects to be just right. To be fair, I’ve suspected this for a while, but over the last holiday break I found myself pulling apart a small deck I’d built and redoing it just because one corner was slightly (15mm to be precise) too high. That deck was, objectively, finished last Christmas, but instead of accepting it was done, I just had to adjust it.

I think school leaders are very prone to doing this. Tweaking that pandemic plan, leading yet another curriculum meeting about maths, trying to build the perfect Professional Growth Cycle . . . the list is long indeed.

And we’re surrounded by people who do the same thing, and are part of a system that encourages this over thinking. It’s hard not to do the same.

The people closest to us as leaders are the teachers we work with. Typically, they like things to be right (fairly so) and can be passionate about their specialty, which leads to searching for the best. On the face of it, this is an admirable quest. Better is better and obviously the students in our care deserve this.

But there’s a cost to seeking perfection.

For example, how many times have you arrived at another reporting cycle and found that what was agreed to be fine last time now needs to be amended? I’m pretty sure most of us have been part of that dance! The “big picture” people in the team will talk lovingly about biting the bullet and adopting a whole new system, those with eyes for detail will want the font sizes changed . . .

The cost comes in the discussion, the thinking, the re-creating, the energy – all of these are finite resources and if not carefully allocated, either stop us from doing other important work or simply add to an already heavy load for everyone.

.   .   .

The education system that we are based in explicitly and implicitly encourages the same behaviour.

New curriculum initiatives are usually broadly described. They come with school-by-school autonomy where each school interprets how to implement them. In a quest to avoid prescription, very little specific guidance is given and so every school starts inventing their own version. This can be a daunting process and principals I know are always eager to see what others have done, not only to get some guidance on what to do themselves, but to compare and see if what they already have is “good enough”.

(As a brief aside, NZ is currently going through a curriculum “refresh” and my fervent hope is that the new model breaks the cycle of school-by-school reinvention. My breath is held.)

The implicit push is more subtle. There’s an unwritten expectation that things can always be improved.

At times this has been obvious with terms like “a culture of continuous improvement” driving Review Office expectations, but at other times it’s deeper, buried in conversations or contained in media releases. When a system wide problem emerges, an almost default next step is to start talking about what schools can do better. In our NZ context, the current angst about school attendance is a classic example.

The fact that all can see the main drivers of the problem are societal, with an overlay of 2 years of international pandemic, does not stop the conversation quickly turning to what schools can improve on. (I’m not suggesting that schools can’t be more welcoming, more relevant, or more attractive – simply that yet again we are seen as an easier answer to a complex problem.)

So the dance will start again and teams across the country will need to use their finite resources to respond.

.   .   .

Which brings us full loop to a term that I believe has been wrongly maligned in our game – “good enough”.

“Good enough” – satisfactory, fine, acceptable, decent, respectable – are all synonyms for this term.

When deciding at what point to stop working on something, to leave it alone, we are making a decision about where the project sits on a continuum. That line starts somewhere around ‘crap’ and stretches all the way to ‘perfect’.

Perhaps if our only job was to create a single beautiful thing, like a designer watch or a set of song lyrics, it would make sense to push the definition of good enough closer to the perfection end of the scale, but we have a myriad of things to create, maintain and support.

Recognising “good enough” and acting on it, is not a natural behaviour for many of us, but to ignore it, is to self-impose unnecessary workload and comes at a high cost to other important work.

‘Good’ is good and ‘enough’ is enough – believe it.

Dave

 

New posts directly to you

.

Welcome back everyone!

(And before you read another word, you can scroll to the bottom and listen to the post if you prefer.)

By the time you read this you will (if you’re reading this in New Zealand) have just about navigated your way through the first week of term.

Congratulations! Well done! You’ve done it! Again! Against the odds even!

The holiday break now seems like a distant memory, but if you’re like us on the Forty Hour Principal team, you might still be enjoying the afterglow positive energy that flows from your break away and into the early part of the term. 

The key is to keep this afterglow well and truly shining for as long as possible.

So just for a moment I need you to stop thinking about your Red Level Covid Plans, your BCP’s (thanks Iona for this lovely new acronym), your Audit trail, Analysis of Variance and first Board report of the year. Oh! And also forget about answering those annoying emails about facemasks and exemptions.

Park it, and take a little time to plan for yourself a survival plan.

This plan, written when you’re relatively fit, healthy, energetic and “with it” will help you manage those times when you’re relatively flabby, sick, downright tired and despondent. This Survival Plan is for you to access during those times when looking after yourself has become just a little bit too hard.

For me, I’m going to write it as a ten point plan. The number doesn’t really matter, but for artistic purposes ten always has a nice ring to it.

I’m going to make this plan look pretty and official looking and then I’m going to print it off in colour and stick it somewhere bold, so that I can refer to it really easily. Who knows, I might even stick it to the lid of my laptop.

These points are going to be a hotchpotch of ideas that I know, when I apply them to myself, that I get enjoyment and energy from. Your points will be a lot different to mine, but you get my drift I am sure. These are for you to dive in at any time that you need a “pick me up” to get you going again.

My plan is called the Lime Thickshake Plan and involves the following:

  1. Leave school at 3:30pm with no guilt allowed two days during a given week 
  2. Buy something unhealthy but delicious like a Lime Super Thickshake from a Night and Day. Yes that does sound particularly lame, I agree. But they’re amazing and my wife has banned me from having them … ever! 
  3. Listen to my Uplift playlist on Spotify – one that I’ve already prepared just for these occasions. This playlist has songs that I find emotionally uplifting and positive. A bit of fun … songs that connect me with brighter times.
  4. Go for a walk in my favourite place looking for piwakawaka. For me it’s a bit seasonal here in Timaru where I go walking. Autumn time is lovely in the Scenic Reserve, Winter/Spring down on Caroline Bay. Somewhere serene.
  5. Ring Murray. He is probably my oldest friend and lives 2,000kms away. Sadly to say I speak with him far too rarely, but when we do it’s like nothing has ever changed. The key here is to have a real conversation. As in a spoken conversation. A connection.
  6. Go for coffee with Davo. 
  7. Write a Journal … take some time to write it all out e.g. write what’s going on and then write three scenarios – worst thing that could happen, best thing that could happen, and most likely thing to happen
  8. Get away – get out of town during the next available weekend. A mini break does wonders. Put a safety net of cash aside each week so that when you need to go, it’s not going to be the lack of cash that will stop you.
  9. Delve into my list of favourite sayings and re-introduce myself to the concept that nothing is forever, both good times and bad times come and go.
  10. Indulge in my hobby. Give myself the freedom just to immerse myself in that and to block out everything else. For me it’s the band I’m in. When I grow up I want to be a rock star …. And I’m still striving towards this.

It doesn’t matter how long your list is, or even if it actually is a list. What matters is that you have a plan in place all ready to go when you hit those difficult times where you’re finding it hard to keep your head above water.

And because we’ve all written so many darn plans over the last three years, you’ll find this one is a breeze!

Steve

 

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Charles Shultz

It often seems that school leadership is a tight rope strung between the opposing realities of doing a job or living a vocation. There is a big difference between the two, but like many aspects of our roles, the edges are easily blurred.

.   .   .

Teaching as a whole used to have vocational undertones. In fact, many education jurisdictions had  fairly hard-core rules about what teachers could or could not do – even outside of what was considered ‘school time’.

You’ve probably seen the lists floating across the interweb. Lists with things like:

  1. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly. 
  2. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  3. Women teachers who marry, or engage in unseemly conduct, will be dismissed.
  4. Every teacher should lay aside a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  5. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give a good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
  6. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given and increase of 25 cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Some of these demands have probably been exaggerated over time (as happens online), but the under current, the climate of teaching in our historical past, was very controlled with a focus on service at the likely expense of personal freedoms. The historical context made this possible and teachers weren’t alone; nurses, doctors, and other ‘caring’ professions had their own vocational expectations.

But what about now? What about today in your school?

I believe that snippets of this past model are still very much alive. The key difference is that they are implied, rather than written in contracts. The Human Rights Commission would be in for a busy time if they were documented! The problem is that implied expectations are still incredibly real.

.   .   .

The model of education that we work inside of now, was designed a loooooong time ago, yet many of the basic structures are much as they always were. A lot of arbitrary ‘rules’ are still followed.

For example, in New Zealand, children start formal schooling at 5 years old, they come to an institution Monday to Friday at a set time where there is generally one adult (the teacher) responsible for around 25 – 30 individuals. One person (the principal) is responsible for all aspects of the school’s operation. The curriculum is set by a central Government group and the focus is on creating economically contributing citizens – just like it was well over 100 years ago!

So, if the basic structure of schooling is still very similar, how much sub-conscious expectation still exists that our professional is vocational? Through conversation with other school leaders I’d say there is a lot!

For example, how do you feel about regularly going for a walk at lunchtimes? Or even sitting down and having a lunchtime? When that community fundraiser is on over the weekend, do you put personal plans second as a default? If you are heading home at 4.30pm (potentially having done a huge amount of productive work) do you feel guilty about calling into the supermarket?

And therein lies a daily problem – how do we stay fulfilled, effective, and well in our roles when many of the expectations on us come from a past where working in schools was seen as vocational?

My answer is increasingly to do with being brave. Brave enough to silence those nagging little voices which are based on fear, not reason, and brave enough to work in ways that make me sustainable in a complex and highly demanding role.

Perhaps it helps if we substitute the word ‘brave’ for the word ‘professional’. A professional sets limits, a professional values their own time and energy, a professional works in a way that is sustainable.

And if you need even more convincing, consider for a moment the future school leaders who will take your place. They are already in our schools and they are watching and noticing how we do our jobs. This is an opportunity, in a world of change, to lead by modelling better – better balance and better professionalism.

For many (most?) of us, a vocation is not what we signed on for. We expected to work hard, to be dedicated and committed – to treat our role with the respect deserved, but we didn’t choose to make it the only and defining thing in our lives. We also chose families, hobbies, friends, and health as well.

So, by all means treat your role as a vocation. If that’s what it truly is for you, embrace it and relax into the lifestyle that comes with this choice.

But if it’s not, you need to start bravely resisting the pressure to treat it like it is. Set reasonable limits, prioritise sustainability (yours!) and be an even better leader and role model for the future.

Dave

 

And as a late breaking piece of news that is very relevant to this discussion, The NZ Government has just announced a 3 year pay freeze on public service pay. Very telling is a statement by our Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, quoted in the New Zealand Herald –

We want the public service to use modern, progressive employment practices, and be a great place to work. We also want a productive unified workforce grounded in the spirit of service.”

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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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Last week someone stole my mailbox.

I was driving out the gate on my way to work last Friday and a part of my brain slowly registered something was wrong – my mailbox was gone! It’s the weirdest feeling to suddenly realise a familiar feature of your world has inexplicitly changed. And right behind that confusion came a rush of anger – how dare someone do this! I was smoking hot angry. I sat in my car and said short inappropriate words – loudly.

At this point I need to explain that the mailbox in question was a bit special. I’d shifted house a couple of years earlier and the existing mailbox was a sad and rusty version of what it must have been 30 years earlier. It was junk.

In a moment of new house enthusiasm, I told the kids that we were going to do better, that we could build something fun and creative. (A rookie mistake that casual promise.) 

The ideas team let their imaginations run wild unsullied by any concern for practical realities, and after plenty of discussion, settled on making a Star Wars star – R2D2 to be exact. My weak suggestions  that a minion or a cat might be better, were brushed aside, and without a plan, the project started.

If you follow the Star Wars films you will know that an R2 is a lovable but complicated little robot/droid thing and that making it ready for the local postie to stuff mail into it, took some work. 

To cut a long story short, the droid was created. This was a team effort by the family and  a lot of fun. He was duly installed at the end of our driveway to carry out his mission which he did faithfully for over two years. The neighbourhood walkers all knew him and hundreds of  little fingers pressed the various buttons to see what would happen.

But this morning, he was gone and the evidence was that he had been brutally abducted. We’d considered the possibility that someone might think it funny to move him and had gone medieval on his attachments. He was anchor bolted into the concrete path and the bolts had been welded on. Bulletproof. Unless someone brings power tools in the middle of the night and hacks his feet off.

.  .  .

As leaders, we all have situations like this – life intruding into the plan for the day – sometimes a little better, sometimes a lot worse, and they take our thinking away from school. This is OK – it’s what makes us human and this particular Friday morning I was not focused on school!

After I’d made the police report I spent the next two hours pushing out an SOS on social and local media. And it went viral. It got shared so widely that people I’ve never met in countries far away, contacted me to express their sympathy and to offer suggestions for retrieval. There was a collective feeling of outrage that someone had thought it OK to take him and when the local paper did a short article showing the kids looking sadly at the empty space, it just ramped up.

Eventually, a few cryptic messages started floating in. People connected to the thieves wanted to help, but they also deeply didn’t want to be directly involved. No one wanted to be seen as a “nark”.

Over a couple of days the pieces of the puzzle starting fitting together and when it was clear who had been involved, we got our R2 back. 

He’s currently waiting for me to fire up the welder and get some paint to repair him, and when finished (probably in the holidays now), he’s going back to the end of the drive. Which brings me to the point of this post – why did the four young guys who took him do it? How could they think it was OK to vandalise and steal someone else’s property?

I’ll probably never know the real answers to those questions. These 19 year olds are all either in jobs or training courses (yes, I know where they live!). They come from middle class families and as best I can determine went through both primary and secondary schools in reasonable shape. But they’re missing some things. And their missing bits are really important.

As things calmed down, I began to wonder if there was something to think about or learn from a school perspective. In the many school reports that these young men shared with their parents over the years, did any of them mention a lack of conscience? A sense of entitlement or arrogance? A willingness to ignore others’ rights? They would definitely have talked about maths and reading, about taking part in sports or cultural events, what their next steps in writing were . . . 

I can’t help thinking that it is very easy for major flaws to slip through our schools unchallenged. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming a school or a teacher for what these people chose to do, rather their actions highlight huge personal gaps in the key competency of being a decent human.  

Our system demands that we focus on academic progress, that we teach, measure, and report on a fairly narrow range of skills. Considering what these young men are doing in their day jobs now, after their 13 years of schooling, it’s reasonable to imagine that they are competent at the things that schools traditionally focus on.

But the things that mattered greatly to my family and neighbours last Friday night were sadly absent.

With a whiff of change in the New Zealand education system, in our unsure  new pandemic world, now is the perfect time to refocus on what matters most in our schools, and that, in my view, is all about people.

Dave

 

PS1 An unexpected upside of this week’s drama has been that I now know more Star Wars jokes and wise saying than I had any idea existed. 

PS2 There are a lot of comedians in the world of social media, but after the 10th person messaged their version of, “I know who took your droid and I’ve mailed you their description”, I started to get a little bit jaded.

PS3 I usually knock social media for being a force for bad, but in this case it was brilliant.  Power to the people!

 

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Photo by Natalie Daley

It’s great that we are in a Term break at last (at least for those of us in NZ). This year is proving to be anything but business as usual and the challenges just keep coming. We’re been operating in a “hoping for the best, but ready for anything” type mode. This is a tough way to live long term!

Something that has helped me stay energised and well through the ongoing adventure of 2020, has been to get very clear about what matters most. I’m coming from the perspective of a statement we often use in the 40 Hour Project –

“being a school leader is part of who we are, not all of who we are”.

From a work perspective, there will always be things that are more or less important. There will be periods when more time and energy need to be committed to particular tasks. Bearing in mind the statement above though, alongside the work requirements will be other things.  A  misalignment between these two competing needs is a common problem. And misalignment happens easily unless you have clarity.

A statement to describe this idea could be:

“People are more resilient when they are clear about what matters most.”

 

 

One of the gifts of having space to think clearly (time for a sabbatical!), is that you can really consider what matters most to you. The absolutely fundamental items will almost certainly be personal – things to do with family, health, relationships, finances . . .

As school leaders, it’s very easy to let the urgent parts of each day take priority, and maybe that’s OK short term – but if you apply a longer term lenses to what it means to work/live as you are, priorities will change.

I’d like to suggest that until you do this exercise, you will often feel tension between what you need personally and what your work requires.

For example, if you haven’t done any exercise in a month, yet you woke up this morning worrying about school data targets, you are probably confused (about what matters most) and need to create space to get things straight.

.   .   .

And it’s not rocket science! Here is what I strongly recommend you do:

  1. Find some uninterrupted space. Ideally this will be somewhere you don’t usually go and will be away from the people who you usually interact with. In duration it needs to be long enough to allow you to sense the approach of boredom. No devices at all. Zero. Zip. Nada. Somewhere naturally beautiful is ideal but a quiet corner in the back of a Library you don’t visit often will work too. Find your space.
  2. A blank piece of paper and a pen (I actually use a notebook, but start on a blank page).
  3. Now just make a list. A list of the things that really, really matter. Don’t be shy or driven at all by what others might think – this list is for you and you alone.
  4. This is the perfect time to use some “fear setting” so that you build your list past the immediate.
  5. Sort the list so that the very most important thing is at the top.

Job nearly done.

The final, crucial remaining step, is to accept that you have to work in a way that allows you to address the items at the top of your list. If you can do this consistently, you will be aligning your needs with your work and when the pressure comes on, you are now positioned to make choices that are sustainable and energising.  Just do it.

Dave

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