There are certain times of the day when just about anything can happen, and it most likely will. I call this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ time. These are times when you can easily find yourself figuratively following some furry creature down a rabbit warren with no idea where you’re going or what’s going to happen.
The key Alice in Wonderland time is usually between 8:30am and 9:00am. Students are streaming into the school, teachers are finalising their classes, and people need things. It’s the time when the photocopier is most likely to die, when someone has forgotten to buy the milk for teachers’ coffee, when your five-year-olds arrive for the very first time, and when parents storm the ramparts with their complaints and insistences.
It’s an exciting time.
It can also be an anxious time.
If you are going to assume anything, then assume that this period of time will be like no other in your day, and then throw away any plans you have for it. Instead, look at it as a key relationship building opportunity. This is crucial tone-setting time for a principal.
Get out of your office and get visible. Keep moving around the school. Greet, meet, and be cheerful. Don’t fill this half-hour with phone calls or pre-arranged meetings. If people do turn up randomly, then of course, see them.
Talk to everyone and anyone but keep moving. The fresh air and movement are as good for you as it is good for everyone else to see you out and about. If you’ve got kids doing jobs such as road patrol or putting out equipment, make sure you get to them and let them know in a fun way that you value their roles: ‘Oh, Keli, I see you’re out here on road patrol, saving lives again! Good on ya!’
Being visible gives the impression (quite rightly) that you’re available and approachable. Some parents want to say things but will never go anywhere near your office, so them getting the chance to wiggle your ear at the sandpit is beneficial.
It’s also good for your staff to see you out and about, although your office administrator is probably wishing you weren’t so hard to track down! You’ll be back in your box by 9:00am, so no-one really needs to be worried. Alice in Wonderland time doesn’t have to be an anxious time if you go down the rabbit warren with a sense of adventure and inquiry.
This is ultimately all about relationship building. As someone once said, schools are 80 percent about relationships and 20 percent about more relationships. Using your Alice in Wonderland time is the key to setting up relationships for the day ahead in a very positive way.
This is a guest post by a principal colleague, Mike Hope, from the Rangitikei.
With the excitement and nerves of starting a new principal role at the beginning of this year, the last thing I needed was to be dealing with a pandemic in my first term. The year started really well, with routines being set up, relationship building in full swing with the staff, children and the community, a successful community barbeque, the best swimming sports I have ever been a part of, student leaders announced and leadership training organised, preparations for this year’s big production etc…
Then bang! In Week 8 we’re notified that Aotearoa is moving to Lockdown Level 4 due to Covid-19. As all principals are now aware, this was a stressful time for children, staff and the community. I felt a huge amount of pressure from all angles, but felt lucky planning had begun a week prior, thanks to the support and wisdom of the leaders in our PLG meeting the week before. A discussion was initiated around planning for a pandemic and each principal shared their thoughts on what their schools would do. This got me thinking about what we as a school would do, and started checking our policies, procedures and begun planning as a staff. We decided to get the ball rolling with both hard copy and digital learning packs. By the time the announcement was made, each class was ready to go.
The following weeks are somewhat of a blur, with the amount of information coming from the MOE, MOH and the media, it made life at home that much harder. I found myself getting caught up in the moment, trying to listen to what everyone was saying, trying to keep our school community, BOT, children and staff all informed and supported. After 2 weeks in Level 4, my mind finally started to clear of the Covid-19 mist. It was my lovely wife that reminded me, that we’re all in this together and to try and keep life entertaining and fun for the children (both at home and at school).
From this point on, I stopped checking the news apps every 10 minutes, I stopped checking the Principal Facebook page every 5 minutes and I stopped checking my work emails continuously, waiting in anticipation for Iona’s bulletin at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. It was here I started spending and enjoying more time with my own young family. This helped me to refocus and formulate a plan, to not only inform the school community, but to boost morale. This came in the form of the weekly ‘Bluey’, a newsletter basically.
In the Bluey I started winding up the community about their support for the dismal Hurricanes, trying to drum up support for the mighty Highlanders. I tried to use a bit of humour when discussing life at home in lockdown, supported by photos of what I was doing with my family at home. I know, this isn’t an original idea, but the feedback I started getting helped with my own confidence.
As a staff we started having Zoom Meetings (which I had to learn how to use). Here we supported each other with each wave of distance learning packs. It was during these times, I begun to realise what an amazing staff I have. Their drive and commitment to support their children throughout lockdown, was above and beyond. They were in constant touch with the children and parents in their class, provided high quality learning experiences using a range of platforms, all while trying to look after themselves and their own families.
The icing on the cake came when one of my teachers mentioned making a music video for the children. With the staff we have, I knew this was a great idea and we made a very entertaining lip sync music video of ‘We’re not gonna take it!’. This brought not only the staff closer together, but also brought our whole community together. The last time I checked, we had over 3,000 views on our school Facebook page.
The life of being a principal in a new position, went from being full on, very busy and stressful, to being a lot more fun and positive. Through having a little fun and humour, our staff as a team has grown stronger and our community has come together. The staff were more eager to get back to school to be with their class and I know the children were missing being at school too. Not to mention how excited the parents were to send their lovely children off to school.
So yes, it all seems a little cheesy really. But the time in lockdown gave me time to think about what I value most, and for me that was family. I treasured my time with my 2 young children and my wife. It made me reassess where I was in life and what I needed to do. The following questions keep running through my head:
Do I want to continue to be overwhelmed by what principals have to contend with each day?
Do I want to carry on going home with a full head and not sleeping well?
Do I want to enjoy life more with my family?
Do I want to enjoy work more?
I need to change the ‘normal’ and start enjoying life more. Now I just need to figure out how.
Hands up if the run into Level 3 left you feeling like you’d accidentally spent 3 rounds in the octagon with Israel Adesanya.
The general consensus is that it was exhausting!
The world wants things to go back to how they used to be, and predictably, our education system is doing its part by trying to control everything – no surprises then that there’s huge pressure on school leaders.
Let’s pause and consider what has just happened.
Schools are re-opening so that parents can go back to work. That’s the bottom line and certainly not worth getting upset about. It’s our turn to step up and pretty much everyone agrees that we need to. However, this need comes with the awkward little problem that someone might get sick. No one wants that on their hands.
So the Ministry of Education kicks into gear and starts writing guidelines. They need to share responsibility so they consult with the Ministry of Health. We now have two agencies involving dozens of people working on creating rules – “guidelines” – to cover every conceivable risk.
These ‘work streams’ need to be checked and validated by experts and then, eventually, they are passed on to the people on the front line (that’s you!) to action.
And here lies the reasons you’ve possibly felt like a train wreck:
The buck now stops with you – you have magically become accountable for following each new rule.
The rules are made to cover every possible scenario so are blunt instruments that do not easily allow for local needs.
These instructions drop into your pile of responsibility when the system is ready – not when you need them.
. . .
I’ll give you an example – the Ministry of Education is told that schools need to reopen. Someone in a “planning team” suggests that small groups of kids, operating separately, might be the way to go (the birth of a bubble). This idea now has to be run by the Ministry of Health as a concept. Then a group is tasked with formulating some rules which obviously need to be debated and checked for problems. Eventually a draft instruction to schools is prepared which has to be very carefully worded and requires multiple levels of checking. At some point is rises to the Secretary of Education’s office and gets approval to launch – at 8:00pm that night!
The next day, some questions arise about the previous day’s information. This has to go back into the system to be considered, checked, and eventually a new “guideline” emerges – and on goes the cycle.
Meanwhile, a little closer to the actual reality, you’re operating at a different level – a human level.
You have multiple groups in your community who want to know what is happening, and crucially for each individual, they want to know ,“what does it mean for me”? Support staff, teachers, Board of Trustees, all want clear factual information – now!
So you start creating plans and emails and lists of people to ring, but, your hands are tied until the nightly missive from the MOE hits your inbox.
There’s a massive tension between the need to act quickly and your ability to take that action. It feels like the gap between rocks and hard places.
(As an aside – with critical information being sent daily, in the evening, the “system” has guaranteed that it’s front line leaders are working under pressure for long hours every day. This is not smart.)
. . .
In an ideal world, a world where trust and commonsense are the default expectations, you would not have experienced this maelstrom of activity.
The skilled team player absolutely needs to know the direction of travel – what the goals are, but then they get to work and design a response that makes sense in their context.
I’ve watched skilled, sensible school leaders, doing exactly that, but having to double guess and retract plans when a general “rule” is magically dropped into the mix.
Using an example that is very familiar to all of us; people have had to waste time, conversation, and thinking energy on how they organise staff for “bubbles” of 10 students.
Rationally, 10 is just a number that is not too large, with no more or less science behind it than say 9 or 11 – but by making it a “rule”, suddenly your ability to make a sensible, local decision is squashed.
Likewise, we have waited with bated breath to hear whether two staff members can be assigned to each group. Wait, what?! We needed permission? That’s a low trust scenario right there and again negates a timely, local response.
Now the rebels among us will be very tempted just to do what is sensible and practical knowing what the goal is. They will look at that next email sitting there in their inbox at 7:59pm and their finger will hover, poised over the delete key.
But they’ll hesitate, because many of the rules in our current scenario are about shifting responsibility. If the worst happens and a fragment of that sneaky wee virus crosses your gate, the inquisition that follows will start from the question – “did the school follow the guidelines?” And by “school”, they mean you.
We are accountable.
. . .
With the move to Level 2 about to peek over the horizon, we can learn from the previous couple of weeks.
– Are we going to get “guidance” from our system? Yes.
– Is it at times going to be frustratingly late or unclear? Probably.
– Will it take away some of your ability to make smart, local decisions? Yes.
However, forewarned is forearmed, so I suggest you look to what gave you some balance back at the end of the Level 3 rush.
A couple of themes that have come through strongly:
Deliberately switch off at a point each day – stop thinking, stop working. The bane of principals everywhere is the “monkey mind” bouncing us from one thought to another. Pick an end time for your working day and stick to it. Absolutely stop waiting for the next email from Iona, as many have said, it will be there in the morning.
And secondly, to make the first tactic work, get away from your computer/phone for an extended period regularly. There’s research that shows that people who take regular, extended breaks from screens, have better mental health. I bet you can fill those hours in very productively and creatively!
Level 2, bring it on!
(And just a wee stab at fairness in a time that is difficult for us all – I know the MOE has been tasked with a huge, unprecedented job and they have absolutely stepped up and done their very best at both a system and individual level. Thankyou.)