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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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Growing up, my Dad had lots of great advice for me. Two pieces have stuck with me through thick and thin. One he pulled out for the first time during our very first time playing golf together (and last as well now that I think of it). As he swung backwards and forwards wildly missing the little dot of a ball at every sweep, he yelled out mysteriously, “There’s method in my madness!”.

At the time I was about 18 and I’d never heard that saying before. I really thought he was as crazy as his swing. 

Over time I’ve learnt to recognise my own method in my madness, in particular in things that I do in my professional life. Case in point when it comes to taking a look at things that get me down as a principal and I find myself taking a close look at my character.

Which leads me nicely to the second thing he used to say. Invariably whenever I had stumbled, which was often, he would say; “Don’t worry Steve, it’s character building”.

Again, because he was my Dad, and I was just young, I had no idea what he meant.

Again as I’ve stumbled my way through principalship, his words have taken on a new meaning.

Even more so, recently, when I heard an addition to my Dad’s saying:

“Personality is what we see when times are good, character is what we see when times aren’t so perfect”

In recent times this has resonated with me. I’ve seen fellow principals and leaders find themselves in times of trouble and mistakes have been made. I’m not immune to this. Every time I make a mistake, put a foot wrong, or find myself in trouble it’s not my personality that will get me through. It’s my character.

Your character is often you at your rawest. Interpreting what that means to you can be confronting! Especially at 3:00am.

Knowing your character is one thing, but understanding it is another thing altogether. 

Epictetus, a first century philosopher, once said, “people feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them”.  Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours. Case in point with your character. 

Your character is your bedrock. It’s both what makes you strong as metal and as flaky as the dust in the wind. You’re likely to feel great about your own character when you “dig deep”, “hold strong”, “lean into the wind “ but feel like a loser when you “cave in”, “break down” or “ lose the plot“.

Truth is though, it’s not your character that is actually at fault, but the feeling that you assign to it that makes you feel at fault. Put it another way – unless you’re thinking about it and you’ve assigned a feeling to it then really it means nothing at all.

So when you get into a situation that involves you taking a closer look at your character, be careful not to assign too many ill feelings to what you see.

This is the crux of the matter when it comes to character building. Train yourself to know your strengths and flaws, because they are what make you human. No one is perfect. But also find a way to train yourself not to assign a feeling or emotion to all of them.

Think of your mind a little like a Facebook or YouTube algorithm. It keeps on showing you similar stuff to that which you’ve been looking at – or in this case with your mind, what you think about. Think of each thought as being a bit like the LIKE button. This tells your algorithm to give you more of the same. That’s a useful way of explaining why you tend to replay and remuniate over events again and again.

This takes some superhuman-like abilities though to avoid. As I’ve written often, I’m not always great at nailing this.

Anthony Metivier in his rather dry TED video entitled, Two Easily Remembered Questions That Silence Negative Thoughts”, (watch from about 7 minutes in!) comes up with a bit of a solution. He suggests that as your thoughts come in that might question your character, ask two simple questions.

Is that thought useful?

How does that thought behave?

Next time you’ve had a particularly crappy day at school, and everything has turned to custard and you find yourself starting to question what your character is really about, ask yourself those two questions about the thoughts that you are having:

Are these thoughts useful?

And how do they behave?

Bear with me as I explain this next bit, there is a little method in my madness here, as my Dad would’ve said!

So the other night as I lay in bed, questioning my character after a series of failings, and the thoughts began to flow in waves like they do, crashing against the rocks, I decided to run an experiment. 

Not that I have any experience in Tinder like dating apps, I decided to view my thoughts as though I did. As my thoughts flew in I purposely looked at them from a slightly removed perspective. I swiped them left or right as I asked the questions, is this thought useful, and how does it behave? If I caught myself in the negative I swiped them away, instead dwelling in the positive and useful thoughts

This little exercise might help you strengthen your character, and might well help you get a better night’s sleep at the same time.

Your character, and your understanding of it, is pretty vital. It’s unique to you, and it’s what makes you special. Worry about your character, not your reputation. Your character is who you are. Your reputation is who people think you are.

And if you can get your head around that, then that’s definitely character building.

See, I always thought there was method in my madness.

Steve

 

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Hey you!

Yes you!

The one reading this blog!

Yes you!

Now don’t be shy, I’ve got some questions for you – yes you!

I’ve always been a big advocate of the Five Ways to Wellbeing model. Probably because there’s only five to remember, but also because it is so simple and makes heaps of sense. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about the Five Ways to Wellbeing centres on five key thoughts: Give, Take Notice, Be Active, Connect, and Keep Learning.

Here we are in the middle of another lockdown, we’re as busy as that proverbial place of fire and grimness. Coupled with this, it’s mid-term and we’re about to head into that part of the term when everyone gets crazy tired, people lose patience and it’s hard not to feel just a little swamped. 

What better time then to Take Notice of where you are at …. Yes you!

David talked in last week’s blog about the need to “Get your figurative oxygen mask on so that you can continue to be amazing”.

Part of this process is Taking Notice of where you are currently positioned – and I’m not only talking about this from a professional point of view – but also as a human being.

This week I decided to throw in some  extra thoughts and provocations to help me personally take notice of where I’m at. Some of the answers weren’t too flash, but all in all they showed me some things in my current predicament that were missing and gave me a heads up as to what I could do next in terms of grabbing that oxygen mask and taking a bit gulp of goodness. Maybe they’ll help you too.

# When was the last time you had your blood pressure taken?

# When was the last time you went on a romantic dinner with your significant other?

# When was the last time you got away for an entire weekend with your significant other?

# When was the last time you said NO at work when normally you’d say YES?

# When was the last time you said YES at home when normally you’d say NO?

# When was the last time you felt like you were the BEST Principal/Leader in the world?

# When was the last time someone did something that made you really happy?

# When was the last time you did something for the first time?

# When was the last time you did something just for you?

# When was the last time that you went somewhere that you’ve never been before?

How do these questions make you feel? What are the keys to getting to these points?

We live in crazy, crazy uncertain times. As principals and leaders much is expected of us. There is very little out there in terms of research and study to tell us how to do it – well not without spending a whole heap of time finding the info – time that you likely don’t have.

A great friend and fellow principal of nearly 30 years standing, Grant Willocks, once said that principalship is a bit like running a marathon but with an increasingly annoying quirk. In a marathon, every five kilometres or so there is an aid station. There are toilets, and a drinks/water station. You know that they’re going to be coming up, because you’re all following the same route and you can plan where to have your rest. The difference in education is that no-one now seems to know where those aid stations are. The route is continually being changed, and the aid stations are never where and when you need them – if they’re there at all. 

Because of this, we need to have our own walking aid stations. So take time to take notice of where you are at. Use the questions above to help you take stock of you. You’re the best aid you’ve got.

Steve

Keep up here:

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. 

Kia kaha

Dave

 

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This week we are sharing a guest post from a fellow New Zealand principal, Michael Fletcher.

Michael has worked in education for nearly 30 years, half of that in leadership positions. As the Principal of Chaucer School for the last 7 years he shared;

“There are days when I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this job . . . and there are other days when you couldn’t pay me enough to do this job!”

.   .   .

“My doctor has 28 principals on his books…”, I was told recently by an experienced principal. “Of those, 25 are on blood pressure medicine.”

Now, I’m not up to speed with the national statistics when it comes to what percentage of the general population has high blood pressure. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s lower than 89%.

Sustainability. Our own. How can we prioritise this? For ourselves? I’m a believer in ‘put your own oxygen mask on first and ‘be kind to yourself. These sayings , mantras, reminders are all well and good. But what about tangible measures that we, as principals, can implement now to help make our roles manageable, realistic and sustainable? And what can Boards do in this space?

A key first step is to ‘get in on the table’. Principal health and wellbeing as a separate item on the BOT annual work plan. Then, listed on meeting agendas. For example Kahui Ako Principal meetings, Principal PLG’s, First time Principal hui, NZEI Principal network meetings.

Secondly, I’ve started canvassing colleagues to collate examples of measures they’ve put in place to directly support their own health and wellbeing. There have included: A period of discretionary leave, granted by the Board for the Principal to use to support their wellbeing; an annual subscription to a meditation app; 1-1 sessions with a counsellor/executive coach / professional supervisor; working a day per fortnight offsite; going in later one day a week; going in later on the day after a BOT meeting / late event.

Do you have other examples?

My next step is to ask colleagues if there is one new measure that they would like to see implemented this year to support their health and wellbeing.

Board of Trustee elections are coming up next year. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, at the NZSTA ‘Governance 101’ workshops, new Board members received a list of tangible ways that schools have supported their principal’s wellbeing? This would help to normalise the fact that principal health and wellbeing is its ‘own thing’, it deserves and needs to be discussed, supported and resourced.

At the recent NZSTA conference a principal colleague shared this thought with me, “Imagine if people thought of a principal as a taonga …”.

That stopped me in my tracks. Now let’s get that on the table and talk about it.

I can feel a clip coming on . . .

Michael

*Taonga means “treasure” in te reo Māori. 

Check out Michael’s latest video clip here.

 

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“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again”

Nelson Mandela

 

So the good-ship “home learning” has launched, and you and your team have done your level best to make it as smooth as possible.

Once you get some momentum up things will smooth out, but right now there will be some choppy water – people will try whole class Zoom meetings, parents will realise their old computer is just that, someone else’s school will be perfect, . . . stuff will pop up for awhile.

But among all that, what is bubbling to the top, or at least percolating around the edges of your thinking?

Which parts of this remote learning adventure are throwing up possibilities? Sure, there are plenty of challenges, problems even – we weren’t ready for this. We didn’t get to practice and none of us have experienced it before. (To be fair, neither has anyone else in history! )

For me, it poses the fundamental question of which skills and dispositions we need to grow in our children?

The lens of crisis is revealing and what it shows is that the so called, “soft skills” are more critical than ever. Things like the ability to communicate, to build relationships, to show empathy, and to be resilient.

I’m sure most (or at least many) of you will agree. But to play the proverbial naughty advocate, do you think they will remain at the top of our priority lists after we all get back to our classrooms?

.  .  .

I believe there is both huge opportunity and huge risk right in front of us worldwide. The opportunity involves people identifying what really matters and carrying that clarity with them into the world when we have tamed this spiteful virus.

The risk is that we don’t.

Right now the spotlight of necessity is lighting up the type of attributes children, adults, – people need to develop to be ready for a future where the whole world can stop and the only way out is to work together for a common solution. This uninvited virus is a game changer.

What are the fundamental attributes that are making some individuals successful and communities strong? I want a short list of things that our school can embed into what we do. Some are already there, but some have just gotten promoted to the front of the line.

And one that is making a bid to be at the very front is resilience.

“Resilience – the ability to be  happy ,  successful , etc. again after something  difficult  or  bad  has  happened.” 

Cambridge Dictionary 

We can see it in our leaders and we can see it in some of our kids and their parents. But where it is missing, it takes a terrible toll and the ripple effects touch many others negatively. Now is the time to start changing this.

A key step in a leader’s role is modeling, so what are you doing to ensure you are the Ashley Bloomfield of your team? He seems to be showing amazing resilience in very difficult conditions, but how can we mere mortals build more of our own? A solid place to start are the Mental Health Foundation’s Five ways to Wellbeing which Steve has previously shared.

Once we are intentionally doing some of these resilience building activities, I believe we have a responsibility to model this. Do we let others see us deliberately doing things that keep us well and effective as leaders? Things such as prioritizing space to think, and exercise? Things such as saying “no” when excess demands are being made?

We all know that people see more truth in what we do, than in what we say. In this regard, is your messaging to your team consistent? How deliberately resilient would your team see you trying to be?

This crisis is a huge opportunity to reset the fundamentals in how our schools might best serve our students moving forward, and also an opportunity for us to walk the talk to empower others.

Soft skills have just proven to be anything but.

Dave

 

What are you seeing emerging? What would you put at the top of your “new world” list?

You can share your thinking in the comments below or over at The Forty Hour Principal Facebook page.