Written by Steve Saville.
To all principals reading this, an apology and a request, please be patient with me. This blog kicks off by painting a bit of a bleak picture, one that contains information and opinions that will not come as a surprise to any of you and, are probably not what you want to hear at this time, or indeed any time. My apologies, but bear with me, there is a method to this madness.
This blog has been prompted by two specific media related events.
The first is a surge in articles and research coming out of Australia over the last couple of years, highlighting just how stressful being a school principal is and sadly, just how many principals are leaving or considering leaving the profession.
Headlines like this from May this year hardly make the calling of being a principal sound attractive.
And there are plenty more,
Under each headline is a bleak story,
Yes, this was from 2015 which makes it even worse. Has nothing changed?
This is by no means new news. The reporting of principal stress somewhere in the world is almost an annual event. The country providing the stories changes, but the song remains the same. It’s hardly reassuring that principal stress is global, but that seems to be the reality from Kenya to the United Kingdom. There is no shortage of reports and stats that paint a grim picture.
It is hardly comforting when principals realise that their teachers feel the same way or that, at times, it is claimed that they are actually part of the reason for stress in others. Not only do principals seem unable to solve the problem of time and workload management, but they are actually affecting the wellbeing of their colleagues.
The second event was news emerging that during lockdown there was and still is, an alarming spike in calls to support agencies in New Zealand relating to mental health concerns. This spike included increased numbers of school-aged children who reported feeling unsafe or anxious due to their lockdown situation or environment.
Putting these two media events together, a conclusion emerges;
That the job of being a principal is becoming increasingly stressful and harder to successfully maintain a healthy work-life balance in. This is at the very time when their job leading a school has never been more important.
How ironic it is that – during this time of COVID-19 induced uncertainty, at the very time we need our principals to step up, lead and to protect our children, is the same time when their personal health and wellbeing is being compromised by the increasingly complex demands of the job.
The ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel or indeed, any light in the darkness, is always a challenge for a school leader and never more obvious than in these uncertain and rapidly changing times.
The act of being a principal is often similar to that of a juggler as we try to meet the needs of the Ministry, our community, current pedagogical trends, our learners and our staff. Sometimes, it has to be said, we don’t help ourselves and the sense of inter-school competition is hardly conducive to collegiality.
Sorry, I did say that initially, this piece was going to be a bit bleak. I apologise again for stating the obvious and the lived reality for many principals who work ever longer hours whilst ignoring their personal wellbeing.
So, what is the answer? Principals are important, very important. They lead, they inspire, they matter. All educators matter, but principals often need to live in two worlds, leading the school that they are also expected to represent and defend.
So how about these three ideas as a way forward?
There have been many voices recently, pleading that we learn from the experience of distance learning, to use this experience to move forward and not to default to our old ways. Let me be clear, I believe that we should never use COVID-19 as the reason to make a change. Never make a decision out of a crisis and never make an educational decision from a non-educational situation like a pandemic. Maybe though, it can be used as a catalyst for changes that were already under consideration.
Two schools that I have been working with recently were both going through a review of their vision as part of their local curriculum re-design. In the time immediately before lockdown, they were both re-examining their vision. Well, maybe COVID-19 could be the catalyst for the change in a school vision and the direction that was initiated before the crisis. Maybe this pandemic can provide the catalyst to give urgency to reviews like these.
If lockdown has put some existing practices in schools under the spotlight, that could be a good thing. However, it will only prove to be truly beneficial if the voice that dictates or directs change comes from within the school community itself.
There is currently a plethora of post-lockdown advice and suggestions descending on schools, all of it well-meaning and much of it valid. The best voice to listen to right now for a principal, however, is the voice of the learners. They have just been through a very different educational experience which makes them the experts. Survey them, listen to them, empower them and as a result, empower yourself. Use their voice, their needs, their wants to inform change more than ever before. There is a narrow window of opportunity during which time the real experts are the children who have been on the receiving end of distance learning and are in the best position to highlight its pluses and minuses and to make an accurate comparison with the learning experience that they left behind. Use them, and in doing so, seize the opportunity to reconnect and be directed by the voices of those you care most about. They are your data.
If there is (and there most certainly is) the need to work smarter, not harder, then we could state by deciding now, in this time of potential re-calibration, who we listen to. We need to stop trying to please everyone and focus on pleasing those who need us most, and those we care about most, the students in our school.
If there was ever a time for a self-review, then it is now. This is the time to lead a review of how we deliver learning in our schools. By acting now and by using internal voices as the primary source of data then we have the chance to genuinely develop a local curriculum. We have the chance to DO before we are DONE TO.
2. Lonely but not Alone
There is no doubt that leadership is a lonely experience. The need to make unpopular decisions, the need to stand alone, and often apart all mean that loneliness is part and parcel of the job.
This does not mean that a principal needs to be alone.
Now, more than ever, it is important to establish community. All principals have support networks, allies in other schools, associations, appraisers etc. All of these provide perspective and balance for a principal. Now though, it is time to reexamine what networks we want to be part of.
Now more than ever, it is important to belong but to belong according to our needs and wants.
Look at this recent tweet from the inspirational Wellington educator, Karen Spencer (@virtuallykaren):
Just ran a Wellington Loop session for our schools, sharing how we are all helping our learners reconnect, wherever they are at. Turns out it’s a mix of caring & kindness, flexible structures, inclusive programming & staff support. Great kōrero wellingtonloop.net.nz.
Now is the time to establish new and exciting networks based on sharing, honesty, sharing and, oh, sharing. The unity of purpose becomes the driving factor, not the mere fact that you are all principals. Let the purpose, not the position drive these new networks.
Let that purpose be an examination of what learning should look like in all schools, not just in your school.
The first step is to reach out as an educational leader and not just the advocate for your school, but as the advocate for learning. In this way, leadership can be a collaboration, not a competition, between individual schools.
If you want inspiration on what this looks like, then look no further than this regular blog from Christchurch Principal, Robin Sutton.
Robin regularly talks about his philosophy, beliefs, frustration and aspirations as a principal. His blog is honest, passionate and an invitation to share.
This is how we can alleviate the loneliness of the role, by establishing networks based on learning, not just on the act of being a principal.
It doesn’t have to be a select group of likeminded individuals either. In my time in Christchurch, the conversations I valued most were with the principal of the largest school in Christchurch (Phil Holstein from Burnside). We were not always on the same pedagogical page, but I admired and respected him as an educator and person. Our discussions were always about learning and education and as a result, inspirational, affirming and challenging.
3. It is a Journey, Not a Destination
I talked earlier about the shifting sands that we build our schools on. The reality of being a principal is that we never arrive at the final destination. We never quite master the job. There is always going to be a new cohort of learners, demographic changes in our community, educational developments and initiatives, changes in government, socio-economic changes, etc. We deal with people and people are not static; they are an annoyingly complex ever-changing entity and so schools will always exist in a state of flux, where the only constant is change.
So, we need to stop aiming at the final destination and instead focus on making sure the journey is as smooth as possible for everyone involved. It is the journey that needs to meet the needs of the school community, not the destination. Just as the journey ends for one cohort, it begins for another. Often, the constant who navigates the journey is the principal. Focus on the act of being in a state of constantly arriving, rather than striving to be in a state of arrival.
This manifest itself in enjoying the simple events on the journey. Taking the time to focus on the immediate as well as future goals. I admire the principals who take the time to greet the students as they arrive at school and farewell them as they leave on a daily basis. The time taken to connect, to be part of their daily lives is mutually beneficial. It makes the students feel important and is remarkably therapeutic for a principal.
Accept that you can’t control every aspect of your daily life and settle in to enjoy the ride.
Now more than ever it is the time to celebrate the everyday, to enjoy the coming together of your school again as an important refuge for personal safety, as well as for learning.
I must emphasize here, however, that before you get lost in the swirls and the eddies of everyday school life, all of the above depends on one unifying feature, and that is the vision of the school.
This could be a time to reflect on and review the effectiveness and relevance of the current school vision. In these times of change, it is the vision that will be the light that shines in the darkness, so it had better be a good one and for that reason, it is worth spending time reviewing it.
These three ideas will not make the stress go away; they will not necessarily reduce the work hours, but they just might enable principals to get a bit more control over the journey that they are carefully navigating.
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