Photo by Kelly Sikkema

It’s audit time in New Zealand schools. A state appointed auditor has a close look at the financial performance of your school (with a few random ‘add-on’ questions included).

This can be a process akin to dental surgery or it can go quietly in a low-key type of way. What I’ve learnt over time is that the amount of stress involved is directly proportional to your understanding of the MVP – minimum viable product. And, if you like acronyms, you are the other MVP in this process (most valuable player).

MVP in the sense we’re using it here is straight from the land of product marketing. It describes the least developed product/thing/widget that can be put into the market for consumers to consider – in effect, you get your biggest amount of bang for the least amount of bucks.

As your personal stash of ‘bucks’ is both important and finite, it makes sense not to over use them on tricky audit questions. Recognising this happy balance improves with experience, but there is a simple hack that anyone can use which will get you 90% of the way to a sign-off – it’s leveraging the infallible power of “yes” or “no”.

“Do you have a policy for disposal of assets under the value of $50?”

Yes or no.

“Do your cash handling policies, procedures, and practices ensure the risk of fraud is properly managed?”

Yes or no.

Sure, sometimes an explanation is required, and in these cases the concept of MVP is again the best way forward. This bit could be called the MVWs (minimum viable words). Less is always more for these queries and any degree of overthinking should be squashed at inception.

I always find it helpful to remember that some hard-working junior auditor is responsible for getting all the required answers and in most cases, they simply want to get the job done. It’s a kindness to make it easy.

It obviously goes without saying that every answer should be completely honest and factual, and occasionally that will mean you must admit a deficiency. Again, this is not a problem to worry about, even if it leads to a “note” on the final accounts. Unless a note involves fraud or serious mismanagement, neither your mum nor Presiding Member should care.

I once received a note for getting 2 FlyBy points on my personal credit card related to a school purchase. I still remember it because it annoyed me greatly. The school had ordered a piece of computer equipment from a well-known national retailer. No one had time to collect it during the week, so on a Saturday morning I hopped in my car and drove down to the shop. As I waited at the checkout for the helpful person to process the order, they said, “FlyBys card?” Without thinking I handed them my own one.

So, on a Saturday morning, in my personal time, using my own car and with no malicious intent, I earned our school a “note” . . .

I rest my case.

It’s possible that by the time you read this post your audit will be complete – congratulations, you can go back to leading learning. But if you’re still in the process, keep it simple, keep it brief and this too will pass.

Dave

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Last week David wrote a powerful piece called 4am. It’s well worth reading if you haven’t already done so! It reminded me a lot of the sleep pattern/habit that I’m currently in and which I find really annoying!

Most mornings I find myself lying awake in bed, about an hour before I’m meant to get up. This happens a lot, and as I said, I find it very annoying; primarily because instead of enjoying the last hour of sleep that I need, I lie there scanning the day ahead of me looking for dangers.

I’m not sure why my brain does this, but I suspect that I’m probably not alone. The dangers that my brain is looking for are most probably rooted in the mists of time, well before I was even born. It’s an evolutionary thing that modern brains have held onto and into the modern age, God only knows why.

The dangers that my mind is scanning for aren’t found on the savannah, behind some bushes, or in a cave. Yet you’d think the way that my mind works at this time of the morning, here in the 21st century, that these dangers still exist.

That unwritten board report – it’s a sabre toothed tiger.

That maths lesson with the class from 3G – it’s a Haast Eagle.

That talk that I need to present at a staff meeting – it’s an empty food basket.

I really should just get up out of bed and shut these thoughts off. I always feel better once I’m moving and the light of the day shows itself. But yet I lie there, in the dark, hoping that I can find that last hour of sleep before the alarm goes off.

It’s a bit like I’m at the start line for a race. I’m waiting for the starting gun to explode, a whole hour before but my brain has already begun the run. I’m lying there trying to train my mind not to start the run until the starting gun goes, but my brain doesn’t want to listen. 

You’ve got to wonder – who is in control of these thoughts?

So, I’ve turned to Chat GTP3.5 and I’ve asked for a list of mindfulness techniques that I can use in bed. I’m going to give these a go over the next few days. I’m hopeful that I can train my mind over time to switch on for the big dangers only when I need it too.

What do you think of this list? Could these help you?

  1. Deep Breathing: Focus on your breath and engage in deep breathing exercises. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise, and exhale slowly through your mouth, releasing tension with each breath. Counting your breaths or using a mantra can help keep your mind focused.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Start from your toes and work your way up to your head, tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body. Pay attention to the sensations of tension melting away as you consciously release each muscle.
  3. Body Scan Meditation: Bring your awareness to different parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort, and consciously release the tension as you focus on relaxing each part of your body.
  4. Mindful Observation: Use your senses to observe your surroundings from your bed. Notice the feeling of your sheets against your skin, the sounds of the night, and any subtle scents in the air. Allow yourself to fully experience the present moment without judgment.
  5. Guided Imagery: Visualize yourself in a peaceful, calming place such as a beach, forest, or mountaintop. Imagine the sights, sounds, and sensations of this tranquil environment, allowing yourself to become fully immersed in the experience.
  6. Gratitude Practice: Shift your focus away from worries or stressors by practicing gratitude. Reflect on three things you’re grateful for, no matter how small they may seem. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can help promote feelings of peace and contentment.
  7. Mindful Listening: Tune in to any sounds you hear in your environment, whether it’s the hum of a fan, the rustling of leaves outside your window, or the sound of your own breath. Allow the sounds to wash over you without trying to change or analyze them.
  8. Relaxing Visualization: Picture yourself in a calming scenario, such as floating on a cloud or drifting in a peaceful stream. Imagine all your worries and concerns melting away as you immerse yourself in this serene visualization.

Steve

4am

An eon ago you woke up, and try as you might, you just can’t get back to sleep. Random thoughts, ideas and worries flick through your mind in a messy cascade of wakefulness. You don’t really know how long this has been going on, but it feels almost endless. And you know this is bad – there’s work tomorrow.

Eventually, you roll over and check the time. Surely, it’s nearly time to get up, but those glowing wee neon lights make your heart sink. 4am.

How will you possibly get through the day? And yesterday the same thing happened .  .  .

.   .   .

Sleep – the best of things and the worst of things. And many, many school leaders slide to the wrong side of the equation on a nightly basis. When Steve and I talk to principal groups we often ask how their sleep is going, and on average, 75 percent of all principals we’ve asked report significant problems with their sleep.

If you’re one of the three quarters of these sleep deprived school leaders, it’s time you stopped worrying about the science of reading and started considering the science of sleeping because there’s a growing amount of it, and the current buzz phrase – “sleep hygiene”, might actually change your 4am experience.

So why do you wake up or stay awake?

It’s almost certainly a combination of things, but three that drive a lot of people’s wakefulness are:

  • A high level of cortisol
  • Misuse of caffeine
  • Bad habits around screen use

Cortisol

Question – do you regularly feel stressed at work?

People operating with elevated levels of stress produce more of the hormone cortisol. It’s our bodies way to get through difficult situations and in the right amount, for a short time, is good. Too much, for too long is bad.

As part of our human circadian rhythm, everyone’s cortisol naturally peaks around 2 – 3am daily, which is fine, unless your base level is already too high. If it’s too high, the 2am boost pushes you into consciousness (even if you are tired).

There are many ways to deliberately reduce stress (meditation, exercise, diet, etc) and I believe our job choice requires us to make an effort to do so.

Caffeine

Question – do you know how much caffeine you take each day?

(cup of instant coffee 60mg, double shot café coffee 200mg, can of Coke 30mg, cup of tea 50mg)

We love caffeine. It’s addictive, it’s fun and it’s certain to wreck your sleep if used thoughtlessly.

The problem with caffeine is that it binds to exactly the same receptors in your brain as does the natural sleep-inducing chemical adenosine. One function of adenosine is that it builds up over the day and at a certain level makes you feel sleepy. If you take caffeine, it blocks the adenosine from working.

With a half life of 5 – 6 hours, that 2pm coffee you had after lunch is still 50% active at 8pm and 25% active at 2am . . .

Based on this long effect, it’s generally well-known that taking caffeine after midday is not a winning move. However, drinking coffee first thing in the morning can also negatively impact sleep.

Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and researcher at Stanford University, has studied what happens when caffeine is taken in the first hour of waking. If you do this (and I always used to!), you’ll get the usual ‘lift’ as it blocks your adenosine, but at the cost of stopping your naturally rising cortisol from waking you up.

There are two downstream effects – firstly, that adenosine doesn’t disappear. It stays circulating waiting for a receptor to bind to and unless you keep adding more caffeine, will eventually succeed and cause the dreaded afternoon energy slump. But the bigger effect is that by stopping your body using cortisol to maintain a natural rhythm across the day/night you impact on your sleep too. A double whammy. Mr Huberman suggests waiting at least an hour, ideally two after waking, before feeding your caffeine habit.

Screen Use

Question – do you have a screen device in your bedroom?

Are you looking at a screen in the hour before going to bed, or worse, scrolling on your phone while in bed? Most people I know do one or both of these things . . . and they wreck sleep.

We’ve all probably heard that blue light emitted by screens effects sleep. It does this by supressing the hormone melatonin which regulates the good old circadian rhythm. What happens when you mess up your circadian rhythm? You also mess up your sleep cycle.

Any light when you should be asleep is bad, but the blue wavelength has the strongest suppressing effect on melatonin. It’s not rocket science to know what to do about this, but it can be incredibly hard to make change because addiction and habits are involved.

One simple step to take is to keep your phone out of the bedroom.

.   .   .

I’m no sleep scientist but have had my own struggles with sleep over the years, which is why I try to keep up with the thinking. I strongly recommend that you do your own homework in this area and happily, there are plenty of experts publishing practical guides that can help.

Two books to read are:

              “Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker

              “Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night”, Guy Meadows

Two podcasts to listen to are:

              Sleep Toolkit: Tools for Optimising Sleep and Sleep-Wake Timing, Andrew Huberman

              The 6 Sleep hacks You Need – Matthew Walker

Sleep well!

Dave

An earlier post Steve wrote on this topic.

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It’s the beginning of a new Term. 

You find yourself standing in the staffroom looking at the Term planner. It’s full of rows and columns, numbers and days. 

At one point, very recently, the planner was pretty much empty. Now you look at it and you see the empty boxes made up by the intersecting lines (the days) filling up with stuff; special events, deadlines, meetings, discos, camps, school productions, more meetings, working bees, school reports and other meetings. 

Maybe it’s colour co-ordinated. Maybe you have a key to the side that tells everyone what the colours mean. Maybe there’s a friendly motivational quote adorning the top of the board just to soothe the busyness of it all. Maybe.

There’s something about the staffroom Term planner that seems to keep everyone on track. If it’s not on that planner then it may never ever happen. If you want something done, it needs to be somewhere on that piece of board.

If you’re lucky you’ll be looking at two or three weeks towards the end that aren’t quite filled in the same as the initial weeks. There’ll be a few blanks.

If you’re wise you’ll keep it that way.

If you want to help your team get through the term without feeling fried, frizzled, overworked, over stressed, burnt out, exhausted and crawling on all fours, then jealously guard over those blank spaces. And if you can’t do that, then write into the blanks imaginary “stuff” that only you know aren’t true – call them space savers. 

No one else needs to know.

Your future self will thank you.

Steve

 

Photo by amirali mirhashemian 

I used to like reminding my students, when they’d tell me that things were too hard or just simply too much, that the key to beating this sort of stuff is to think of it all as a hamburger.

Yup a hamburger. Stick with me here.

What I used to tell them is that when they (or anybody actually) bites into their favourite, huge, big, gigantic hamburger, that they never swallow it all in one big bite. Nope, they take little bites. And they take these little bites because their mouth is simply far too small to cram a whole big hamburger into their gob.

Unsurprisingly it’s the same for Leaders too. When we eat a hamburger – when we eat anything actually – we tend to chew off as much as we can, and no more. And if we’re really clever we’ll also take a little moment to savour what we’re eating while we’re at it.

This is the same for those times when the task in front of us is simply far too big, or far too much. There’s no way you can tackle the whole task in one big bite – so don’t even try. Break it down into “mouthful” pieces. And although the task might not necessarily be as tasty as your favourite hamburger, you can still take time to savour, or get some meaning, out of the situation.

There’s no challenge in front of us that can’t be tackled in bite sized chunks. So stop looking at a task and thinking it’s far too big, or onerous, and instead take a little bit of time to wonder where you’d be best to take that first bite.

Steve

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati 

The thought below came out of a recent conversation with a colleague where we were discussing the the willingness (or otherwise) of some newer staff members to take on extra responsibilities when needed. They were frustrated at this situation and wanted change, but at the same time were grateful that many others were willing to step forward. 

Culture, an eclectic mix of elements, thoughts, actions, and ways of doing things. And it’s also one of the biggest things that is laid at your principal door. It might even be in your Job Description and it’s an ongoing work stream that every school leader has to deal with.

.   .   .

We use the word all the time in conversation about our schools and it’s often in a judgement – “School X has an awesome culture; you can feel it the moment you step onsite”.

People will say things like, “you need to visit Suzy over at Y School, their playground culture is so settled.”

So off you go to have a coffee with Suzy and wander through their grounds to see this for yourself. Then you come back to your place and tell your team about the goodness. At this point it’s possible that some goals start to be set and plans formulated to develop a new playground culture at your school. Maybe you need to.

The problem with this approach is that culture is very complicated and nuanced – it can be incredibly difficult to understand exactly what is driving that “settled” playground. And it’s all too easy to start following a particular path of action that should have worked, but doesn’t.

I suggest that there is an easier way, a way that is more likely to get you to where you want to be and doesn’t involve translating someone else’s magic mix into your setting – instead of new, how about amplifying the ‘good bits’ of your existing reality?

A major plus of this approach is that you are starting in your own context with the assets available and already intimately known by you.

The cliched reality that ‘you will get what you focus on’ is your driver here, and it’s a lower key, positive way to create change.

Is your mission to create a completely new culture? Or might it be better to amplify what is already good?

Dave

 

People often comment on the financial difference between working in the public sector and working in a business. When contracts are being negotiated comparisons are made and we often end up bemoaning  the relative under pay.

But it’s not under payment that is causing me to age a little more quickly this week, it’s people. Specifically, some of the people we are mandated to serve – ‘difficult ’ parents.

.   .   .

There’s a fundamental difference between how you can deal with difficult people if you are running a business as opposed to running a school.

Imagine owning a bookshop where a particular customer is always rude to staff or publicly criticises the decisions you make – it wouldn’t be long before you asked them to leave. Or perhaps you run an irrigation supply business and one particular farmer is often awkward to deal with and abuses your sales rep – it’s likely that you would simply stop working with them.

Therein lies the problem for public servants, we can’t simply stop working with our most difficult people. And unlike a retail business where an unpleasant customer calls in once then goes away forever, difficult adults in our school communities stay with us – often for years.

So, both management and teachers have to continually work at maintaining relationships with people that for varying reasons do not reciprocate this responsibility. Its often an unequal dance with one party demanding/expecting something more akin to servitude than service!

So here’s a question – what standard of behaviour is acceptable for parents in your school? In effect, is there a ‘line’?

Many years ago, a principal of mine had a very clear personal view that there was a line, and that crossing it meant you either changed or left. In the top righthand drawer of his traditional old school desk was a stack of ‘transfer slips’. These small pieces of paper were for recording the basic details of a student’s enrolment and were used when a student was moving to another school.

When he felt all avenues had been exhausted, he would calmly open the drawer, pull out a slip and place it on the desk. He would then say something like, “I’m sorry that we can’t meet your needs, perhaps another school might”. An interesting effect was that often the parent would immediately start retracting some of their more unreasonable statements and demands. 

Putting the slip on the desk was effectively drawing a solid line in front of the behaviour.

As we sit here at the end of the Term, with pressure on everyone’s’ time and energy, perhaps we need to get more direct with some in our communities. Perhaps we need to rehearse a verbal version of the old transfer slip – “I’m sorry that you feel like that, but that’s all we can do.”

Fullstop, no more commentary.

While the almost universal implementation of ‘zoning’ has made shifting schools difficult for most, the well known saying that, “you’ll get what you are willing to accept”, is never truer than deep in Term 4 – service needed, not servitude.

Dave

 

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Photo by Chris Abney 

Three weeks to go in Term 4 – welcome to the jungle!

This is the time when I start to have a nagging feeling that the human brain (mine) isn’t made to work at this pace. I was standing in the playground after school this week and simply could not remember the name of a parent. I value connection and knowing someone’s name is a critical part of that, but my mental resources were drawing a blank. I suspect some of you might relate to this.

I have a completely un-scientific theory that I can check what capacity (slack) my mental game has by doing the Stuff Quiz (a daily NZ news site quiz). My observation is that in the holiday periods my scores get better and at pressure times worse . . . so that day I checked. I can report a reasonable 10 out of 15 result so not disastrous thank goodness.

.   .   .

How about you? Are you picking up clues that your mind is running out of spare capacity as we race to the end of Term? Now might be exactly the wrong time to be doing too much high level strategic thinking and is also probably why those teachers still writing reports can struggle to string a coherent sentence together – system overload.

It’s at times like this that I deliberately slow down. I know projecting an aura of ‘busy’ negatively affects others in my kura – people ‘catch the vibe’ from their leaders and if I am clearly flat out, I subtlety turn the pressure dial up for all.

Personally, I have two simple strategies I use to try and manage any impact my busyness has on our team –

  1. Physically slowing down
  2. Making space/time

Slowing down – I’ve confessed before that back in the early days of this adventure, I used to almost run around the site when super busy. In hindsight, this crazy behaviour was akin to getting a super soaker full of stress and spraying it on those watching me.

These days, when the pressure really comes on, I physically walk slower. Simple as that. I pause, chat to kids and move more slowly around the site. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but try it and see for yourself. Walk slower and talk to at least a couple of children every time you are out and about.

Making space/time – I’ve built a wee habit in the mornings where I get up a bit earlier than I once did and get the day straightened out in my head. I look at my schedule, check my email and generally get the shape of what will happen clear. Once I’ve done that, I write a single Post-It note with the one or possibly two critical pieces of work I have to do that day. That note sits where I can see it all day and at the end, finished or not, is biffed. Tomorrow I will make a new one based on what that day brings.

This is a win/win/win strategy. It means I have both clarity and peace about what needs to happen that day, and it also means that when I arrive on site in the morning, I can focus on talking with people and making those critical ‘start of the day’ connections. I can’t overstate how useful this tactic is.

A 15 minute investment each morning is all it takes.

Dave

 

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Photo by Ignacio Amenábar

Principalship is sometimes described as hard, complex, or challenging, which can all be true at times, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was easy?

And interestingly, ‘easy’ is very subjective.

I’m guessing we all have aspects of the job that we find easy, but that others may well find difficult. For example, the yearly prizegiving speech. You may love giving that annual inspirational address to a packed auditorium. You look forward to it and get a real buzz from the delivery – it’s easy. But just down the road, another principal lies awake worrying about it as the fateful day gets closer. If public speaking was the primary task of the first principal, their job would be easy. If it were the primary job of the second principal . . .

I know a school leader who is amazing at creating timetables. Give them the parameters and intended outcome, and in less than 5 minutes they’ll have a functional masterpiece nailed. Give me the same challenge and I’ll struggle for ages and have to write drafts, redrafts and probably more drafts before I get it right. If timetabling was a big part of this gifted individual’s daily work, they would be cruising.

If something has a degree of challenge, and you are good at it, it also usually becomes enjoyable, fun even. (Having fun while working could be close to the holy grail!)

.   .   .

So, one way to make the job easier is to spend as much time as possible doing the things that energise you, and the least amount of time doing the things that you find difficult or energy sapping. Some experts even call this ‘job design’ – where you deliberately craft your role in a way that maximises your strengths (and minimises the time you spend on things that drain you).

On the flip side, this strategy means change – someone else will be doing the things that you struggle with, or those things are deleted, or they are done differently. If you have a scheduling guru in your team, doesn’t it make sense for you to release them to sort that pesky learning support timetable? You could even teach their class while they do.

.   .   .

Before any of this can happen, some thinking will be required.

Which regular aspects of your role could be: done better by someone else, done differently by you, not done at all? And which would you like to do yourself, or do more of?

You need some time on your own personal ‘lillypad’, with a blank piece of paper in hand, to think about this. And folks, this needs to be done off-site.

I suggest you start with the negatives – the things you hate doing. Even giving yourself permission to consider what they are, will have them rushing out onto the paper. That’s because they are usually closely linked to an emotion or two.

Then make a second list – the things you enjoy doing. The parts of the job that energise you. I’m guessing pretty much all of us will have something about hanging out with the kids in this list, but after that it will diverge uniquely. (If you genuinely struggle to think of things here, that is a tangible sign that change is needed, things are not OK, and you may need to talk to someone you trust.)

Once the lists are started, it’s time to picture yourself doing less (of the difficult) and more (of the energising). It may sound ‘cheesy’ but literally visualising what your job could be like with a better balance of responsibilities helps make change.

“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”  W. A. Ward

Picturing something is that vital first step in making an abstract idea real. There’s more to do after making that first leap, but without it, what you decide is ‘impossible’, stays that way.

Why not?

Dave

 

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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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If you would like a guaranteed way to feel mentally ‘lighter’ in less than an hour, try scheduling 60 minutes of work-based decluttering next week.

All you have to do is block out 1 hour in your diary and devote it to;

  1. Deleting any openly displayed piles of paper in and around your office
  2. Deleting any hidden piles of paper in cupboards/cabinets in and around your office
  3. Tidying your computer desktop

Trust me, I’m not judging. My workspace has seen plenty of piles that have sat there mocking my efficiency for silly amounts of time. In my (and possibly your) defence, there’s probably a fine line between administrative perfection and the time spent achieving it. A perfectly clear desk/office might just suggest you have used more than a reasonable amount of your time on achieving that perfection.

Personality comes into it too – we all have different tolerance levels for ‘stuff’ lying around, but the universal truth is that clutter is exactly that, and plenty of research shows that working in a cluttered space adds mental load to the people doing it. And the last thing a school leader needs is more mental load.

When I started the teaching game, I well remember a wise, older teacher telling me that if I hadn’t used a particular resource in the previous 3 years, I should biff it. The reality back then was that almost all resources were paper based, and they took a lot of space to store – in your classroom, in your car, in your lounge at home . . . These days most of my clutter is electronic, but the bit that mocks me on a daily basis is sitting on the corner of my desk. Unresolved.

The old way of dealing with ‘the pile’ was to wait until the Christmas break then finally drop it all in an Otto. That symbolic action meant you had finally come to terms with the reality that the possibilities and opportunities buried in that pile would not be realised. And with this sub-conscious understanding, some mental load was also thrown away.

Why wait until Christmas when you can do it before lunchtime next Tuesday?

Dave

*You can read another post we wrote on this topic earlier here.

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There’s a great kids movie called Wall-E that came out a few years ago. It’s one of those early Pixar animated films that actually has a story line. It’s 2085 and the world is a mess. Humanity has abandoned the (broken) earth and for generations has been travelling through space looking for a new planet to inhabit.

Ultimately, it’s a fun movie about hope, but the reason I’m mentioning it is that it has a hilarious section where the impacts of humanity’s sedentary lifestyle are laid bare. A sort of reverse evolution where people change from being strong and mobile to the complete opposite.

The leaders who planned the escape trip to the stars wanted people to travel in comfort and luxury which meant everything was done automatically with no human effort needed. Over time, even the need for bones was gone and people basically turned into blobs. In the movie it’s funny.

.

Except . . .

The job we do is somewhere on that slippery slope. It’s sedentary.

Ten years ago, Kansas State University researcher, Richard Rosenkranz, reviewed data from over 60 000 Australian men that showed those sitting for more than 4 hours daily were significantly more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.  (I don’t why he only studied men, but I’d be very surprised if the other 50% of the population were much different). The risk periods were categorized as less than four hours, four to six hours, six to eight hours, or more than eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a direct link between the length of time spent sitting and ill health.

The link between time spent in a chair and pain when sitting, is also being clearly mapped. Researchers suggest that the lack of movement involved in sitting for extended periods induces conditions in our body that inevitably lead to back pain and dysfunction. Some current thinking is that most of the total damage is due to this inactivity too.

How many of you have ended up with a sore neck/back/arm/hip after a couple of big admin weeks? Or what about the days you spend at a course or PLD session? I bet I’m not the only one who feels the effects of this.

So, how much time do you spend attached to the swivelly chair – today? This week? This year?

And of course, your desk chair is only one part of the equation. We need to add in the daily commute and what happens at home in the evening . . . the numbers can be confronting if you are brave enough to actually add them up. And if you compare your number to the Australian study mentioned above, even 8 hours will look conservative to many of us.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our American friends are the most studied group in regard to this issue. Various research shows that the average American office worker now spends up to 15 hours per day sitting . . . eek!

 . . .

Personally, I’m conscious of this problem and deliberately try to minimise it, but the reality of the job means it’s difficult. Some strategies I do use though include:

  • Getting a cup of water as needed rather than using a drink bottle
  • Standing up whenever someone comes into the space I’m working in (also keeps the conversation shorter)
  • Stretching when I remember to do it (this is good for a laugh occasionally when someone walks in on an awkward looking stretch)
  • Alternating between sitting and standing (a permanent high and low screen setup helps)
  • Deliberately going for a walk (I even try to do this when at a course)

And I don’t know how you are finding the job right now, but my observation is that the amount of admin that needs to be done is increasing slowly but surely every year. To be fair, there have been some recent wins, things like the new ERO model and the changes around teacher appraisal have been welcome from a ‘reducing unnecessary admin’ perspective, but the overall trend makes time in a chair increase.

Reading some of the research shows that there are two key problems in play when we sit a lot. The first is that too much time is spent in one particular posture, and the second is that, overall, it makes us sedentary.

There are actually lots of options for varying posture – high screen/low screen, rotating across the day between different chairs/kneeling stools/swiss balls, standing meetings, regular stretching.

Why don’t we already do these things? Habit.

We can all choose to be more active around the site by visiting classrooms, running messages for the admin team, volunteering for duties, walking the long way whenever possible . . . essentially being more active in the hours we are at work.

Why don’t we do this? Habit.

We’ve talked about habits lots in previous posts, including how to form new ones, but one simple tactic that I’m going to leave you with exponentially increases the likelihood of change happening – it’s removing barriers.

In regard to varying posture – put (at least) two sitting options near your desk. Two different chairs, a swiss ball, whatever you like, just different.

In regard to being more active during the working day – deliberately go the longest way possible to a classroom you are visiting. Out the gate, around the block if possible. Or past the bins where some ‘close enough’ shots have generously left a bit of stretching practice. It’ll take 3 minutes extra but those minutes are very good for you.

When Monday rolls around next week, you can do what you’ve always done, or . . .

Dave

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Photo by Sear Greyson

As you read this, here in New Zealand we will be celebrating the appearance of the star cluster we call Matariki. These stars can be seen at mid-winter and using the Māori lunar calendar, mark the start of a new year. A new year is always a perfect time to take stock and consider change!

This is a simple ‘tactical’ post about freeing up time that is leaking away regularly and doesn’t need to. Today I’m looking at the black hole called ‘admin’. My definition of admin is everything that isn’t directly linked to people.

Admin(istration) is part and parcel of running a school. Done well it supports the important work (which is always to do with people) and can actually create time. Done badly it swallows up your most finite resource and gets in the way of things like, efficiency, progress, and the will to live.

And some people love it.

A good system or an efficient protocol can be things of beauty. For some of us there is a siren like pull towards perfection and where better to find that than in a neatly documented plan? The people we work with are harder to ‘polish’. They are unpredictable and always changing. But not so your duty roster – it can be refined and tweaked until it almost glows with perfection. Efficient, fair and perfectly presented. Even laminated.

But, and it’s a big but, admin tasks cost time and energy – yours. And quite frankly some of them don’t need to be done and some of them don’t need to be done by you.

So, I have two simple challenges for you this week.

One – identify one admin task to stop. Neither you nor anyone else will ever do it again.

Two – identify one admin task to delegate. Someone other than you will do it.

STOP IT

Let’s look at the ‘stop it’ tasks first. There’s a long list of things that belong here and I have been (and am) as guilty as the next person in maintaining some of them. Things like:

  • Printing out newsletters (do you know how many people even read them?)
  • Writing behavioural notes about minor lunchtime incidents (soul destroying)
  • Collecting ‘lost and found’ uniform items in a central location (creating learned dependence)
  • Sending home paper copies of Board minutes (wasteful on every front)
  • Personally adding all the items onto a shared staff calendar (that’s not a shared calendar)
  • Putting stray teaspoons/cups/stuff into the staff dishwasher after every break (… wrong on every front)

DELEGATE IT

These tasks aren’t on the ‘stop it’ list because they are actually useful. But just because they are useful does not mean you have to do them.

Depending on the size of your school and hence the number of people available to help, this list will vary. (If you are a U1 leader, your main gains are going to come from challenge one!)

  • Creating rosters
  • Following up student absences
  • Answering the admin telephone as you pass it in the Office
  • Doing anything with paper-based mail
  • Running payroll
  • Taking minutes
  • Add your own

Because you are not a robot and are a real person with all that it entails, I guarantee that you are regularly doing some time sucking tasks that you shouldn’t. I know I am.

And every regular task that you do eats into the precious 168 hours you get each week.

Of course, the items you pick to eliminate/delegate may not be easy to lose as others will probably be very happy that you are doing them. In fact, it’s guaranteed that some on your team will absolutely see a particular task as yours and yours alone.

Principals often strike this when moving to a new school. They are likely to be told directly that some admin tasks are theirs because that’s how it has been done by their predecessor . . . somewhere in the conversation will be at least the hint of “because that’s how we always do it”. If you feel this disingenuous little justification surfacing, you know you’ve just brushed up against the status quo – and unless your new school is perfect, it’s your job to challenge this. I’m not suggesting straight away though, rather once you have established yourself and have some reciprocal trust built up. I suggest making a few ‘back of the envelope’ notes as things occur to you in the early days – new eyes are sharp eyes.

And just to prove I often struggle to follow my own advice, here is an admin task I’m trying to delegate and at this point am failing miserably . . .

Outside the main entrance to our Office is a large whiteboard. It is smack bang in your line of sight as you come up the stairs to enter the building. Every visitor to the school and every student who needs something from the Office passes it. It’s blue chip, gold plated visual real estate.

For a long time, every day I would add something new – a quote, a reflection on the weekend sport, people’s birthdays, key events that day, congratulations, and of course the date (to prove it was fresh). But . . . if I wasn’t on site in the morning on any particular day, yesterday’s messages were still there. If I was away for two days, the material was two days old, you get the idea.

So, I found someone in the Office team who was willing and able to take over this task. Their handwriting is much nicer than mine and their ability to draw entertaining pictures outstanding.

For almost a fortnight all went well. The whiteboard was interesting and fresh and I relaxed into having one less thing on my self-imposed to do list. But it didn’t stay that way, and after a while it was clear that their commitment to this task had waned. We are now doing a sort of Russian roulette type dance until one of us cracks and will do the job. We both know the system is broken!

Given that ever school leader has a different list of admin tasks, and given it is highly unlikely that all (any?) of them are in your actual job description, you absolutely have the right to do a bit of deletion and or delegation. Two items – that’s my challenge to you.

Mānawatia a Matariki 

Dave

 

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Photo by Stephen Hui  

You’ve probably all heard the saying, “never waste a good crisis” which was originally attributed to Winston Churchill and has now been recycled a million times (particularly in the world of business where one person’s ‘crisis’ is another person’s ‘opportunity’ – e.g. no one is quibbling about the cost of vaccines right now . . . ).

I think a global pandemic qualifies as a crisis and while that is largely a bad thing, one upside is that it creates a climate of change – the status quo gets a non-negotiable slapping.

There are big meta challenges to solve – global vaccination, redistribution of food resources as economies struggle, and a world supply chain that is creaking badly.

At the next level down countries have to change how they support (or not) people who can’t work, how their borders will operate in the future, and how to keep their people safe.

Below these lofty change needs, deep in the system called public education, is you.

And it’s very likely that you need to change something too – not necessarily something forced on you by the pandemic, but something that will make you both sustainable (better) as a school leader and as a person. The pandemic just brings with it a general sense of the cosmos shifting, and with that feeling, change seems more possible.

 

 

In my case,  I’m currently part of a Springboard Trust Coaching for Leadership programme focused on strengthening our leadership team, and to do my part, I need to make some changes.

While I know that the science of change management is a well researched field and that many clever people have created excellent models to guide us through the process, I’m currently just focusing on a very simple little tactic – the interesting fact that changing something small somehow creates momentum towards bigger things.  

Strange as it may sound, by tweaking a couple of small daily habits, I definitely notice my ability to consider bigger change is easier. Couple that with the ‘opportunity’ of a crisis (a general feeling of change) and now becomes an excellent time to work towards better.

What I’m doing:

Getting up 45 minutes earlier than usual.

I’m not doing a full Power Hour as Saira Boyle has shared, but instead have focused on only a couple of elements at this time. Firstly, I don’t look at any screens. I open up the curtains and let the day share its light. As it’s getting warmer I’m going outside and I’m the only one there. Once I’ve spent a couple of minutes being still (is that meditation?), I head inside, get a coffee and read a section of a thought provoking book (currently Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris). Then I journal a few thoughts that link to what I’ve read. 

I know that sounds incredibly low key and simple but I can promise you it sets a different tone for the day. And I think that’s the key – it’s different. (The other small change I’ve made is to swop my habit of listening to news channels with listening to music. A sense of FOMO made that tricky for the first couple of days but now it feels really good.)

We’ve talked lots about habits and the relentless pull towards the status quo in other posts, but by making the really simple changes above, I think I’ve moved my figurative wagon wheel out of it’s constraining rut just a little bit. Once free, even just a tiny bit, it can start to take a new path.

If you too have some important things to improve, I think a great way to get started is to just change something small in your daily routine. You may be surprised at the mental shift that comes from this, and combined with the general sense of change in our world, things can happen.

Dave

 

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A couple of weeks ago Saira Boyle wrote a great guest post about what she called the “Green Focus Power Hour”. In a nutshell she described an early morning routine that energises her – you can read about it here.

When I initially considered her method, a seemingly random thought popped up, “I’m guessing she has a good heating system.” This left field thought is not quite so crazy when you understand that where I live, the morning temperature is consistently sub-zero at this time of year – it’s cold at 5am!

The thought crossed my mind because I was mentally picturing doing what Saira described and attempting it in my house, before dawn, would have required an impressive number of thermals. The cold would be a real buzz killer for me.

And right there I had the perfect excuse to avoid something new.

  .   .   .   .   .

We humans are creatures of habit and subconsciously we don’t like change to our routines – even if objectively the change is good for us!

Don’t get me wrong, routines and habits are not ‘bad’ things. In fact, we rely on them to stop us having to make a thousand decisions every day – it’s way more efficient to have the majority of things in our days on auto pilot. It keeps us sane and avoids exhaustion.

But, and it’s a significant ‘but’, habits also make it difficult for us to change.

Well known author, James Clear, talks about this subject in his book, “Atomic Habits”  (an essential piece of reading for school leaders).

James discusses tactics to creating better habits.  He breaks the habit forming pattern into:

CUE            –       CRAVING        –          RESPONSE       –          REWARD

You can read more about this in a previous post here. But today I am only focusing on one part – how to make a start, that is, making it as easy as possible to make the desired change. In Jame’s model we are discussing the “cue”.

The recipe is simple enough; identify the barriers, then deliberately do something that removes them.

In the example of Saira’s routine, in a sub-zero 5am start, it is not the time to go out to the woodshed, fumble around for some matches and light a fire that will take an hour to make any difference.  But how about setting the heatpump to turn on an hour earlier the next day? That’s pretty simple the night before. That would guarantee the house was nice and warm when your  subconscious is looking for excuses the next morning.

Another example could be going for a walk after work. We all know it’s good for us but by the time we get home it’s late, the family needs us to be present, tea needs to be sorted, and we’re tired. But how about we make it a lot easier. How about we throw some comfortable shoes, a beanie, and some gloves (still in winter mode!) in our school backpack? At the end of the day, before we head home, there they are, accessible and hard to ignore. Pull them on, head out the office door and walk for 30 minutes. Then go home.

Or you are finding yourself sitting for way too long each day. How about investing in a permanently ‘up’ standing desk (set up with a screen and keyboard) positioned alongside your sitting desk. That way when you come into your office it is very easy to just stop in front of the standing screen and start working. Without the hassle of moving things, another barrier is gone.

Some other examples are:

  • Leave a visual reminder (like a little 40 Hour dinosaur!) in the middle of a workspace where you have to notice it. 
  • Leave that book you want to read on top of your pillow when you head to work.
  • Put a recurring note in your daily calendar that says “visit a class now!!”
  • Download a “get up and walk” app to your phone.
  • What’s in the pantry at home gets eaten – put better stuff in it.
  • Get a friend to agree to meet at a specific time each week – non-negotiable (and agree to nag each other).
  • Set the “do not disturb” function on your phone so it goes quiet early in the evening.
  • Schedule ‘hard’ stuff earlier in the day  so you are fresher when needed.
  • Read this post – “Add The Big Rocks First
  • Etc

The key point is that you are setting yourself up for success by making the desired new behaviour as easy as humanly possible. Ideally, so easy that it actually takes effort to avoid it!

.   .   .   .   .

So, what positive habit would you like to build? With a Term break starting at 3:01pm today, this is the perfect time to remove some barriers and set yourself up for success.

Happy holidays (at least in NZ!) and the 40 Hour team will see you back in a couple of weeks. Ka kite!

Dave

 

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