Is this the hill to die on? Have you ever considered that question when faced with a big decision? In leadership positions we can find ourselves in situations where some degree of compromise of our values may be necessary. Working for large organisations we often confront situations where we must match our localised needs to those of a system and this can cause moral conflict. You know those decisions when you have the voices on either side of your shoulder pulling you in opposite directions? There is a choice to be made. You know you have to stand up for what is right and sometimes this can be extremely difficult. You’re at a morale crossroads. Having the courage to do what is right at this moment can have a significant impact on your reputation, it demonstrates very clearly your strength of character and the integrity that you possess.
What is integrity? Personal integrity is thought to be having a consistent set of principles or values that when faced with a challenge or temptation you uphold them regardless of the consequences. Social theorist Larry May, suggests that personal integrity may not be as rigid as this. He is of the view that integrity is not necessarily a core set of beliefs that are unshakable, but more a web of commitments that are interwoven and open to outside influences. In essence integrity is a moral balancing act where we are forced to make judgements. It is this space, that allows us to work successfully as leaders within systems.
We are not born with or without integrity, it’s a behavioural trait that is shaped by our experiences and as such evolves. With this in mind, it is reasonable that when exposed to more information we can become less certain about steadfast rules or moral judgments that we once made, whilst our integrity per se is not compromised the ground on which our judgments are made may shift. For this reason it is important to take time with big decisions and not to react with gut instinct. We must carefully consider all avenues before opening our mouths. Sometimes silence really can be your friend.
Recently I was on a tour of far Western NSW Public Schools. A 1200km road trip with a group of Principal colleagues. We spent 4 days together visiting high performing schools in rural and remote locations. As is the case with educators the conversation never strayed far from the workplace. We spoke about the strength of what we were seeing, the implications for our own schools, we discussed the challenges and successes of our own school communities and the allocation of a finite bucket of resources across an enormous system. What became evident very clearly, was that when push came to shove the personal integrity of each and every one of these leaders could not be compromised. They understood fully that working for a large system sometimes requires a moral compromise. They acknowledged that given the context of each situation they must balance their own moral judgements against the legitimate moral judgements of others. That sometimes the greater good can be a difficult but necessary position to take. They had a clear morale purpose that aligned with their values and beliefs and they would do what was right for students regardless of the fallout. When faced with a choice they would choose students, regardless of context, community, advantage or challenge every day of the week.
There are some simple reasons why living and acting with integrity are so important. When you act with integrity you don’t have to question yourself. You’re doing what at your core you believe is right, you’re weighing up all the information you have and following your moral compass. As a leader the work is often difficult enough without creating a minefield to navigate by cutting corners, making deals and selfishly gathering resources at the detriment of the system. Those we lead will take their cues from us, for this reason it is critical that we set the standard. We must demonstrate that we are dependable and accountable for our actions.
As leaders integrity sets the foundation from which our organisation can flourish. When we act with integrity those we lead feel safe. They know that when the difficult decisions come along their leader will act fairly and that their integrity will not be compromised. These leaders build an environment where people have the opportunity to be open and honest and know that their ideas whilst not always agreed with will be treated with respect and dignity. When we work with integrity we don’t undermine colleagues, we admit to making mistakes, we don’t cast blame and we share credit when it’s due. We are open and honest in our words and actions with no misalignment. In the words of Dr Seuss, “ We say what we mean and we mean what we say”.
In the end your career will not be remembered by the title you hold, the salary you earn or the office you leave. Your career will be remembered by the way you have or have not lead with integrity. In a nutshell you’ll be remembered because you did the right thing even when no-one was watching. In the age of Local Schools, Local Decisions, integrity really is a non-negotiable. In the end those you led will know that when you picked the hill to die on you did it with the utmost integrity.
Trust is a powerful 5 letter word that allows the human race to work effectively. It allows us to predict potential outcomes and make sense of what can be an unpredictable world. We trust that the sun will come up; we trust that our bank is securely storing our money; we trust that the lights at the intersection are working correctly as we pass through; we trust that the pilot has the correct qualifications to fly the plane. Trust is the cornerstone from which we make our decisions. It stands to reason then, that the most important part of a high functioning team is trust. It’s the foundation on which all other elements are built. As we enter a new year, some of us with new team members, some with new leadership, it’s the perfect time to start reflecting on the concept of trust.
Ask your team members if they trust the team. I’d be prepared to say that you will generally get a positive answer. If you probe a little deeper, I guarantee that you find the level of trust is conditional. You see there are certain parameters around which trust is generally given. Your team would trust that there are levels of acceptable behaviour that people abide by in the workplace. They may even go so far as to express that they trust that members of the team are working together placing individual interests aside. This though is just surface level, it’s your garden variety socially acceptable trust. High performing teams need a deeper level of credence that takes an investment of time and energy.
I believe that in the workplace trust falls into two categories. The first is that we trust our colleagues to follow the rules and the general social norms of the workplace. How we greet each other, the manner in which we interact, the sharing of resources and the general collegiality of the profession. The second is at a deeper level. This type of trust allows us to take risks, to expose our vulnerabilities, to ask for help and to remove silos. This is the level that we need across our workplaces. As a leader you need to engineer a protective environment for trust to be established. The question is ‘how do you develop this environment?’
Developing trust can be a timely process as past experiences can play a significant role in allowing it to develop. Trust is not a tick a box procedure, you can’t put in on your to do list and order someone to trust you. It’s a human emotion that can be multi-faceted. It’s a feeling we get when we share similar experiences. I’ve heard Simon Sinek say that just by doing what you say you are going to do doesn’t make you trustworthy, it just makes you reliable. I couldn’t agree more. I know some very reliable people but I’d don’t know that I’d trust them with my credit card details. However, I also know some unreliable people whom I trust implicitly. As a leader it’s a fine balance, trust is generally given from the very beginning a team is established. The difficulty is that you can only assess your decision once it has been given.
There is a great deal of research that supports the fact that shared experiences create trust. You’ll often hear that a meeting was good but the dinner afterwards was where the real learning occurred. This is because this networking time allows us to share common experiences. It provides an opportunity to share information voluntarily, building connections based on similar events. This level of informal exchange actually has an impact on our physiology by releasing the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for the positive ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling we get when we find something that strikes us emotionally. It supports the building of relationships which in turn builds trust. The more information we share and connect in a nonjudgmental way the more hormone is releasedand the stronger the bond. A study conducted by Amsterdam scientists Shalvia S. & De Dreub C. (2014) found that oxytocin actually boosted group serving behaviour, causing members of a group to act in way that would ensure the group achieves its goal. Now I’m not suggesting that we all engage in week long bonding sessions, we’ve seen how this has worked for some of sporting teams. What I am recommending however is that you spend time getting to know your team , taking time each day to touch base and build relationships.
Building trust takes time. I’m not sure there is any secret formula to building it as it’s an individual decision that is made based on a number of factors. It is my firm belief however that there are a few fundamental principles that can accelerate it.
- Share common experiences, taking time to get to know your people and taking an interest in them both professionally and personally will assist.
- Develop a shared vision; this builds trust as people understand what you are working towards together.
- Work collaboratively and do things that support your colleagues to show that you are prepared to put the needs of others before your own.
- Be consistent in your words and actions. This reduces uncertainty and brings a certain level of predictability to the workplace.
- Simply repeated the words you hear is not listening. Try to understand the message and possibly the reason behind it.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answers. Asking for assistance when you don’t know the answer can create an environment where others will do the same. Clarifying ensures the job is done the right way.
- Be flexible, it shows you’re human.
- Follow through. If you make a decision and set a plan in place follow it through.
- Always be open and honest in communication. Nothing erodes trust like hushed tones and secrets.
In a world that is increasing in speed and complexity with ever increasing demands on our time, building a strong trusting environment is crucial. If we create an environment where we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. High performing teams are not built on grudging compliance they thrive on trust. You can have the finest structures, procedures and routines in place but without trust your progress will be limited. Remember building trust really is the work before the work. It’s undeniably the glue that binds.
I’m a fraud! This thought hit me hard just recently. I observed some of the quality leaders around me and thought, I don’t measure up. They were so confident, so articulate, infallible to a point. I have good days and bad days sure, but not like these people. They are always on top of their game, never missing a beat, across every aspect of their learning to a degree I could only imagine – or so it would seem.
Have you ever been involved in an educational conversation full of jargon when all participants are nodding at the right times and interjecting with highly technical language? Did you feel out of your depth? Have you ever been invited to speak at a professional learning session or had your work singled out for the positive impact it has made? Did you question if you were the right person to be delivering the message? Was your work really of note? Did you question if you were worthy of the praise? Was there a nagging feeling that maybe you don’t deserve to be there? You rationalise by thinking that you’re just lucky, you’ve been in the right place at the right time, you’re not doing anything different when compared to other leaders. You then start to think, what if people start asking questions? What if they dig deeper? Then you have that sinking feeling of self-doubt. You feel like you don’t measure up. Did you feel like a fraud? Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been held hostage by the Imposter Syndrome.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, named the Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970’s. Their work outlined the psychological fear felt by high achieving individuals who perceived themselves to be intellectual frauds waiting to be found out and exposed. They often questioned their ability to be mixing in the company of their colleagues, feeling like they were somewhat misplaced. In the minds of those who feel it they’re not worthy of the position they had worked so hard to find themselves in. Clance and Imes concluded that people who challenge themselves and place themselves outside their comfort zone are more susceptible. These people are in a state of growth, looking to learn new skills and refine their practice because they have a firm belief that they can always improve. Acknowledging that we are always learning, whilst embracing the growth mindset, can be challenging and potentially leaves us exposed to the Imposter Syndrome.
The sometimes debilitating Imposter Syndrome can strike us all, in fact research suggests that over 70% of people will feel this way at some stage in their career. The feeling that in some way we are undeserving, that our success has come more from luck and being in the right place at the right time, than from anything we have actually achieved is at the core of the Imposter Syndrome. We doubt our ability, question our decision making processes and look for reasons outside our influence for our success. Those who get struck often neglect to look at the fact that they work hard, they do their homework and sometimes they take the calculated risks that others won’t. What we sometimes forget is that we are currently in our positions because someone saw something in us and gave us the opportunity. In times when you doubt yourself, at least have faith in those that saw your potential and gave you the opportunity. Whilst you may believe that you were lucky to be afforded the opportunity, you proactively took it and made it your own. Far too often we undersell our hard work and commitment.
The more I’ve tuned into the Imposter Syndrome the more I’m recognising it in others. It’s allowed me to take stock of those who’ve also talked about feeling this way. From what I can see, in order to feel it you must be making a positive impact. I believe you can take it as a sign that you’re on track. You can fake it for a while but eventually it will catch up with you, smoke and mirrors only lasts so long. From what I’ve observed the real imposters don’t get the syndrome. They seem to be almost oblivious, claiming to be something that they clearly are not. They continue to sell the snake oil, pumping up their own tyres regardless of the lack of progress. They show little ability to reflect on their practice continuing down well-worn neural pathways of self-praise utilising small subsets of data and research to support their work. In comparison those that feel the Imposter Syndrome often feel self-doubt. They question the accuracy of data and research, wanting to make sure that they are hanging their hats on a solid foundation. They trial new initiatives not because they are popular but because they have a belief they can enhance practice. My advice is to embrace the feeling when it comes and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflect on the work and obviously look for continuous improvement, but occasionally acknowledge that you do have some skills that serve you well.
So now that you have recognised that you may have encountered the Imposter Syndrome, I believe the following steps may assist you in using it as a tool.
- Confide in someone you trust and talk it out, not to actively seek a compliment but to get some perspective on your feelings. They can help you take an objective look at what you have achieved and guide you to understand that you’ve actually played a part in your own success.
- Understand that it’s not always about the paper credentials, don’t think you have to be the most highly credentialed person in the room to have expertise. Remember a title does not always give you credibility.
- Listen to the language you use. Sometimes the low modality of our language subconsciously leads us down the path of self-doubt. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, “it could just be me”, “I hope I’m on the right track”, “maybe I’m missing the point” shows you don’t back your own judgement. Believe that you can operate in this space and feel comfortable having an opinion.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I’m currently involved in a learning community where we are discussing our personal assumptions that limit us. What’s interesting is that there are a great deal of people who share the same insecurities in leadership positions, yet we often hold them up as the perfect being not knowing that their own internal dialogue may be very similar to our own.
- Understand that you are growing and that you can actually change your point of view when new information comes to hand. Having an alternate opinion doesn’t make you a fraud, it makes you human. Realise that you don’t know everything and that anyone who thinks you should has placed a unrealistic expectation on you.
- Occasionally, just take that compliment. It’s good to be humble but sometimes you just have to take the compliment and say thank you.
- Know that perfection is unattainable. Celebrate you successes by reflecting on what you did that worked and refining what didn’t.
I spoke to an aspiring leader recently who was doubting their recent promotion. They trotted out the usual “I’m lucky, right place right time” line. My advice to them was simple. You can’t continually be this lucky. Be comfortable with your success and continue to work hard to maintain it. Stop and take note of how far you have come and reflect on the effort it has taken you to get there.
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever been held captive by the Imposter syndrome, try taking this test. Maybe then you can recognise it and acknowledge that you’ve had something to do with your own success. http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
Self-belief is not arrogance, it’s not blind loyalty to a misguided cause. True self-belief comes from deep honest self-reflection underpinned by a strong moral purpose that your work is making a positive impact. Maybe I’m not a fraud after all.
I’ve just started a course that requires a high level of self-reflection and I’ve got to say it’s scary business. Reflection is something that we as leaders and indeed as educators do on a regular basis. We constantly try to find better ways to engage our audience, to deliver better outcomes for students, to strengthen and broaden opportunities for the communities we serve. Having said that there is a great deal of reflection on the behaviour of others. I’m questioning though, how deeply we reflect on our own behaviour?
As leaders we constantly analyse behaviour to look for answers as to why things did or do not happen. Unfortunately we are not always as good at analysing our own. It’s a brave thing to really reflect on your practice. There is a significant difference between thinking about what you have done and really reflecting on its impact. It’s not about negative self-talk, “I should have done this”, “Why did I do that?”’ “You’ve really messed up this time.” It should be a positive process of analysing your action, your responses and trying to identify your impact. Did your leadership drive the impact you were looking for? Did you, as I am learning at present subconsciously negate the possible outcome you were trying to achieve? It takes a great deal of courage to really drill down. It can be quite confronting at times and can leave you feeling very vulnerable when you see the harsh realities.
An easy way to dip your toe into self-reflection is by reading about leadership so you have an increasing understanding of what makes a good leader, observing others, listening to their stories and reflecting on how you would have responded in the same situations, or how you might approach a new situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify a better way of doing things almost absolves you of any fault and allows a safe space to start the practice of self-reflection. There may even be some parallels to your own context that might enable you to make some positive change. From here you can began to look inwardly to really examine what it is that could be holding you back. It may be a chance to break out of a routine that may not be as effective or efficient as it first was. I’m not suggesting that we are all flawed, what I do believe however is that everyone not matter who you are has some personal characteristic that can be developed, grown or enhanced.
Reflection is hard. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin, or just don’t want to begin. It can be quite challenging. For many of us seeing an accurate picture of ourselves with deficiencies, faults and areas for improvement can be quite confronting. The egocentric among us will proclaim “it’s them who have the problem, I know what I’m doing”. The altruist will reflect quite harshly on how they have let others down. Getting the balance right may take practice. The point of reflection is to analyse your behaviours, actions and decisions, opening them up to personal scrutiny and facing your own fears about your own professional judgment. Without true deep self-reflection I believe that you may be limiting your potential. Subconsciously you know when your best effort was not put forward and denying this and not reflecting will not make it go away, it will always be there gnawing at you. The difficulty is being 100% truthful with yourself. We have an inbuilt self-protective system that allows us to reason and justify our actions. It’s one thing to recognise our limitations, it’s another to act on improving them.
Self-reflection is possibly the first practice you will discard when things get busy but that is probably the time when it is needed most. Done correctly it can help you make accurate decisions in stressful and busy times. It is actually a really helpful tool to keep you centred, remembering the why it is that you do something. Allowing yourself quarantined time to think about your work, maybe the car trip, maybe a sneaky cup of coffee on the way to or from work can provide great opportunities for this. The point being that if you don’t dedicate time for reflection, the full agenda takes over and you move on to your next task. It’s not just the thinking about your actions that’s important here. Making plans of action, developing pathways, exploring other alternatives and testing out theories are all part of the reflective process.
Next time you go for a walk leave the phone at home and use the time to truly reflect on your leadership, you might be amazed at the answers. Try answering the following questions:
- Are you making a positive impact? How do you know?
- Would your staff choose to work at a school you lead?
- Do staff choose to follow your direction? Do they do this because they want to or because they are directed to?
- How do you feel about coming to school? Are you happy?
There is a great poem on self-reflection by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr titled “The Man In The Glass”, I highly recommend it.
The educational world is evolving faster than ever before, new pedagogy, new research, new policy, new skill sets, a constant stream of information and all within a day’s work. To combat this leaders are becoming increasingly strategic. We map out plans, initiatives, contingencies, re-evaluate, analyse, refocus and repeat. The frenetic pace of the work has many of us leading with our heads. I believe it is time to strike a balance and ensure that we spend time leading with our hearts.
It’s often said that as leaders of our schools our staff are our students. Each day we trust our staff to make an impact on the lives of the students trusted to our care. Our staff are exceptional in getting to know their students, they know their academic, social and emotional needs and are able to plan suitably challenging tasks to ensure the development of well-rounded students. How many of us can say we do the same for our staff? How many leaders can honestly say that their interactions have staff leaving school every day feeling valued, supported and cared for?
Recently I’ve spent time looking at my own leadership. I’ve spoken to leaders, I’ve read about leadership, I’ve observed leaders in action and reflected on my own practice. What I’m coming to realise is that the head style of leadership, can for the most part, be learnt by following a series of steps. Admittedly it’s not quite that easy and some of us are better at following steps than others. However heart style leadership requires something more. It requires you to give of yourself. It requires leadership of service, it requires compassion, it requires you to listen, to suspend judgement and assumptions and look for the good in everyone, it requires you to give more and care more. Leading from the heart involves getting to know your people, treating them like family. Let’s face it we spend many of our waking hours with our staff, they are our workplace family.
This idea of a workplace family is an interesting one. You’ve often heard the saying ‘you can’t choose family’ and for many of us this is often true of our staff. Just like a parent in a family you have the enormous responsibility of making sure that all members reach their full potential. As a parent, just like a leader, you are trusted to ensure the wellbeing, safety and fulfillment of those you care for or lead. I am by no means suggesting that you are the sole authority, that you alone have complete responsibility for your staff. What I do believe however is that as a parent we would never abandon our children if they made a mistake, we would never focus on their shortcomings. As a parent we would always look to support, guide and encourage. We constantly model and demonstrate the desired behaviours we’d like our children to adopt. We would never give up on our children. Sometimes though we have to apply tough love, it’s not always about making decisions that keep everybody happy. Being popular and being your children’s best friend is not always wise. There are lessons to be learnt and difficult decisions to be made but as a leader thinking about how you might parent could come in handy. I believe this will allow you to lead in a more intentional way, with the intention of ensuring your staff feel valued and cared for.
We all know that even small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect. Just recently we had ‘Happy Week’. A week when we were deliberate in our actions, we went out of our way to ensure that the week was as happy as it could be. Random acts of kindness, morning tea, kind notes and messages and a staff get together on Friday afternoon. We gave ourselves time to breathe; we intentionally created opportunities for people to sit and talk, to listen to each other’s stories. It was self-reinforcing for staff. The more we modelled the more it spread, influencing all corners of the school. What started as a small initiative sent such a powerful feeling throughout the school, it was quite staggering to see the transformation. It was almost a collective sigh of relief to know that we are in this important work of educating together. The challenge is to maintain this positive energy.
As a leader developing a culture that magnifies that positive energy can be difficult. Leading with heart, showing empathy and genuine care has the potential to create an environment of acceptance. Just as we’d like our staff to develop warm, accepting and encouraging classroom environments, our task is to create this on a larger scale. If we are able to achieve this, those we lead will be more willing to take risks, to share practice, to ask for help, to seek support and guide and to offer assistance. That trusting environment allows people to exert their energy on collaborative practice rather than developing silos of self-protection. The right environment allows people to stick their head above the parapet and have a look at what’s happening around them.
We are in a people centred environment. Professor Richard Elmore once said that “Teaching is not rocket science. It is in fact far more demanding and complex work than rocket science”. Add to this the individual personalities and it can be an emotionally charged environment. Therefore if we give more, care more, make each interaction matter, we place not just ourselves as leaders, but our entire school community in an environment that has a strong culture to withstand the tough times. We know that the tough times will come, they always do. There is truth behind the saying winning the hearts and minds. If you build the emotional connection you develop trust, this comes from the heart. In turn you develop reasoning, this comes from the mind. You need one before the other. As important as the analytical, strategic and visionary skills are, it’s a lack of interpersonal skills that derail most leaders.
To some extent this post may seem like I’m advocating for a free range, choose your own destiny environment. On the contrary, I will always maintain high expectations; I will always ensure that we place students at the centre of the decision making. What I will do however is consider the human impact and ensure that I take time to breathe, slow down and develop relationships. I believe this gives added strength and depth to leadership.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back and cope with disappointment and I believe it’s an area we need to focus on better. During my childhood there were winners and there were losers. There were times when you were rewarded for a job well done and times when you missed out; because frankly the job you put in was just not good enough. As an educator, I’m observing a lack of resilience permeating across a range of areas within school communities. I am sure that I am not alone. In fact, I know I’m not. This is a conversation being held across all sections of our society. What I am also noticing however, is enormous amounts of resilience in the community I serve. When speaking with Principals across many disadvantaged communities they talk of similar stories. They see students who overcome enormous obstacles, trauma, economic and social disadvantage to flourish in our schools. So, why are there pockets of students who display a lack of resilience whilst others flourish and what are the factors that have created this? Is it a social change that has led us to this point? Do schools play a role? Has parenting contributed to the issue? What factors have caused this dramatic change?
Resilience is thought to be the result of a combination of factors including: individual character traits, positive thought patterns, social and emotional environments and the presence of positive relationships. It is believed that a successful combination of these factors helps to build up a person’s ability to act in a resilient manner. It is no surprise then that experiences that children have early in their life play a crucial role in the development of resilience. Being exposed to opportunities that foster self-regulation of emotions and setting boundaries that provide a stable set of rules to guide behaviour can lay a suitable foundation. In addition to this there is growing evidence that overcoming adversity as opposed to prolonged privilege can play a significant role.
Research suggests that there has been a significant shift between intrinsic motivation and a need for extrinsic reward. I believe we have perpetuated this shift through the era of ‘everybody gets a prize.’ There is an old saying ‘there are no prizes for second place’. However, now there are prizes for every place regardless of the merit. At my son’s football presentation everyone gets a trophy just for playing – there may well be a place for this, but is it an effective recognition mechanism? It seems there has been an increasing trend of rewarding mediocrity to ensure we nurture the emotional wellbeing of all involved. Whilst there is certainly a place for building emotional wellbeing, there must also be a place for realistic and honest feedback. Not everyone is good at everything, sometimes you will have to work harder and you may not get an award at the end of the day. From a whole of society perspective there is some merit in building strong, resilient young people who know that the only reward may be that the work is done. In the long run this has to have a positive impact for everyone.
The long term trend of helicopter parenting has certainly played a role in the reduction of resilience. Increasingly, parents are asking schools to become problem solvers for their children. We now have a generation of students who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have been raised by a society that carefully constructs all early interactions from play dates to indoor playgrounds and more recently non cheering sporting fields. Our children’s lives are so cautiously scrutinized that they are not given the opportunity to fail and develop their ability to problem solve and find a way out of uncomfortable situations. As parents we have placed safety nets on every corner. Students need to experience failure and realise they will survive it; life will continue. Being called a bad name, not being chosen for a team or getting out in a game is something that does not need adult intervention.
So what can we do to turn this around? We can start by reinstating the desire for intrinsic reward. We have spent a great deal of time over the last 25 years developing elaborate systems of extrinsic rewards that focus on the collection and accumulation of material possessions. This system has often led to the measure of our success being based on a numerical value. The higher the number, the greater the perception of our success. I believe the tide is turning however. We are seeing a ground swell in education where individualised and differentiated learning is developing students who are motivated to succeed by achieving personal mastery of targeted skills. There is a strong commitment to have students not just survive but to thrive by connecting and succeeding in their learning. Students are being given specific and appropriately challenging goals where success is developing personal fulfillment. I have seen students responding well to lessons that allow them to follow their interests and are customized to their level. It gives them ownership and triggers authentic learning. I am witnessing large numbers of students who are able to articulate what they know and what they need to know in their learning. This is a more positive approach than previous deficit models.
There is a growing awareness that personal thought patterns impact on resilience. This is certainly an area within our control. We need to rework our students thinking patterns. Many students believe that not knowing how to do something is the same as not being able to do it. We need to encourage our students to have faith in their ability to overcome whatever obstacles are in their path. They need to understand that new situations can be uncomfortable and difficult, but that this feeling is a part of new learning. By developing this thinking in our students we can begin to normalise setbacks and develop determination as a natural process. Students need to be comfortable with making errors and learning from their mistakes. They need to understand that it is OK to have areas that need developing. Our students who receive a ‘C’ in current reporting systems believe it is a failure. Many parents believe that their child is an ‘A’ or ‘B’ and that a ‘C’ is something that another child receives. The reality is that the vast majority of us sit within the ‘C’ area. We all have things to work on. The more we shape our thinking to understand that it is natural to have areas of development, the better off we will be.
Contextualising learning develops a connection to new learning and acts as a motivational tool for the completion of tasks. By making learning meaningful we are providing authentic opportunities for students to practice problem solving. Applied problem solving allows students to bring in background knowledge and apply new learning to situations that are relevant to their world. This allows students to identify the problem, think through possible solutions and evaluate their effectiveness before choosing an appropriate option. Most importantly in this process is the provision of quality feedback on progress and areas for development. We must set realistic goals with our students that encourage them to work hard for the basic reward of progressing and getting better. The motivating factor must be the achievement, not the piece of paper or sticker. The time is right for this type of motivation given the high level of gaming that our students are currently involved in. Gaming is based on rewarding perseverance and determination. To progress through the modern gaming world players must refine and hone their skills, without skill development the player will not progress. The reward is solving the problem, which in turn leads to a more difficult and complex level.
As a system we have a responsibility to develop high levels of resilience in our students. In NSW Public Education we have implemented The Wellbeing Framework for Schools that aims to have students contribute to not only their own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others across their school community. It is setting out a pathway that assists our students to become socially competent, optimistic problem solvers who have a healthy understanding of the ups and downs that we may face. When implementing this framework we must teach our all members of our school community that challenges and obstacles are opportunities for reflection and growth. Above all else we need to remind them that it’s a choice how you respond to adversity. If we work collectively to build resilience levels across our school communities, who knows, maybe we will all be winners.
There are lists aplenty when it comes to what makes a great leader. They need to be courageous, creative, ethical, compassionate, strong, connected and have the ability to make strategic decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. However when stress takes hold, when the workload builds up and that overwhelming feeling rushes over us like an insurmountable wave our focus can be impacted and we run the risk of losing sight of what is really important. I read an article recently that stated that two thirds of leaders surveyed in the study believed that their stress level is higher today than it was 5 years ago. Why is that? In some ways I guess it’s a rhetorical question. We know the demands of the job are increasing, we know the skill set is expanding; we know too well the hours are extending. I know at times the day to day demands can be intense. I hear about leaders who are feeling the pressure to keep up with the evolving nature of the educational landscape. We are certainly under the microscope of producing results, having impact from an intense educational reform platform. So, what impact is this having on our leaders and what can we do to right the ship?
In my conversations with colleagues there seems to be a culture of soldiering on. We are leaders, we can deal with pressure, we don’t have time to slow down, the work needs to be done. It could be perceived as a sign of weakness if we we’re not coping. I also hear of some colleagues who feel they need to appear to be stressed as if there is some unwritten expectation of leadership that you need to be over worked, overloaded and turning out eighteen hour days. Whilst I agree as leaders we need to work hard, we should work hard, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibility. I also believe that we need to strike the right work life balance. We need to be able to identify our own signals of stress and ensure we are able to put things in place to manage our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our staff……..outlets away from work for every leader are vitally important.
So what are the things that seem to cause us stress? During this period of significant educational reform the ever increasing workload plays a major role. We seem to almost get a handle on one concept and another is handed to us, with two more waiting in the wings and then the required compliance matters which never escape us. As leaders we need to be very focussed on what is important. What is it that will have impact? If it has no impact, if it does not relate to what will make a difference for students then eliminate it. It’s been said thousands of times before, but doing a few things well is far better than doing a number of things poorly. Assess what is achievable and work towards it, when we overload our schedules we set ourselves and others up for failure. Much of our stress comes from circumstances beyond our control. Whilst I recognise that we can never eliminate all of the low impact initiatives, we must certainly do everything in our power to make sure the main thing, is the main thing. Focus on what you can take carriage of and make a difference in that area. The external pressure will always be there, by acknowledging this and accepting that it is beyond your control allows you to move on and get on with the job. I believe this is a positive and proactive approach. Showing leadership in this area will not only reduce your stress but will go a long way to eliminating the stress of your staff.
It can be highly stressful dealing with conflict and difficult personalities. I know of many leaders who lose sleep thinking about how they are going have a difficult conversation. The ability to mediate and lead negotiations between personalities to find successful outcomes can be a very difficult and taxing process. It can be challenging to find common ground and at times decisions need to be made that may not please opposing sides. This can weigh heavily on us as leaders. It is common that one side will have a very limited view and cannot see the wider implications of their actions. This tests our skill when trying to navigate these discussions making sure that we listen attentively whilst trying to guide both parties to a successful resolution. Understanding the difference between personal and professional opinion and being able to distinctly separate them so that your judgement is not clouded can be a difficult task. I’ve found that having a plan, thinking through the conversations and trying to anticipate alternatives is helpful and assists greatly in preparation for potentially difficult conversations. Identifying your personal and professional opinion on the subject and trying to view it from the first floor rather than ground level gives some perspective. In difficult conversations perception can become reality for some, so trying to consider how your responses may be perceived is also a useful preparation tool. If you are temporarily able to see your responses through the eyes of others and utilise a degree of emotional intelligence you can be more strategic in your management which maximises the opportunity for a successful resolution.
Another area of frustration I hear from leaders is the roller coaster ride that is maintaining momentum in the implementation of initiatives. We see it regularly. The high quality professional learning has been delivered, the fire in the belly has been ignited, and there is a definitive way forward. The staff are on board, you can almost smell the enthusiasm and passion in the air and then 24 hours later, it’s died down and the flaws in the plan have been highlighted. The reasons why it can’t be achieved have taken you on the one step forward, two steps back dance. I know that feeling I hear you say, it happens here, I leave work in the afternoon feeling great and then by the next morning the weight is firmly back on my shoulders. I believe that we need to focus on progress not perfection. We need to look for and celebrate the small steps forward. Setting long term goals with small increments built in develops the idea that drops in a bucket add up. I’ve found this approach alleviates the frustration. It allows you to anticipate the road blocks and set appropriate detours along the way. Take time out to celebrate the progress and reflect on the incremental achievements. But most importantly don’t ride yourself too hard, there are many working parts to a well-oiled machine and sometimes they just need a little extra oil.
We know that stress can hinder us, but it can also be a force that fortifies our efforts. To use it as a motivator we need to be able to recognise it coming on and monitor our own stress responses. I know when I’m getting stressed. I lose focus, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I will never get the work done. I look at the list, the pile of papers, the full calendar and try to navigate safe passage. I don’t listen as well at this time, I know I’m preoccupied thinking about what needs to be done. It’s at this time that I have to stop and go for a walk, visit a class, take a time out. This short period away allows me to develop some perspective. The work will get done, it always does. In times of high stress I believe we have a tendency to over think the work, to make things more complicated than they need to be. I find making a list of what needs to be done today and what can wait helps to put things in perspective. Thinking about each task and asking, will it really matter if it does not get done today? Defining the task and clarifying what the expectation is assists in bringing it to its simplest form making it more manageable. Using this method I can make an immediate to do list allowing me to focus on the most important tasks in an organised manner. I then set very clear timeframes, you will not be doing your best work during an all-nighter. Be realistic about what you can achieve, depriving yourself of sleep and some down time will not help alleviate your stress. Remember balance is key. Making time to unwind, prioritize what is important. Sometimes the task immediately in front of us gets all the attention when it could possibly be the task that can wait. It’s important to think the tasks through and evaluate what has to be done today and by whom. I believe this is critically important as leaders. If we can use this method when running our eye over the whole school we can help alleviate the pressure our staff feel as well. Let them know they have time, ensure they are able to identify what is important and allow them the ebb and flow of a balanced work environment.
As the leader of your workplace the culture you create in ensuring that there is the right balance rests solely on your shoulders. Listen carefully, observe closely and lead by example in maintaining a healthy balance. Getting the work life balance can be difficult thing, but it’s vitally important. Your wellbeing goes a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. The right balance starts at the top. People will look to you to see what the expectation is. I’ve often listened to world class athletes who whilst working at the top of their personal performance on a daily basis also talk about the importance of recovery. They spend almost as much time preparing and performing as they do systematically recovering in preparation to do it all again. They also take time to discuss their performance and schedules with someone. Reaching out and talking to a colleague can help put things in perspective. Stress is part of leadership, you can let it rule you or you can take charge. After reading this blog why not try to answer the following questions. What are you doing to recover? How do you manage your stress? Do you recognise the signs? What strategies have you got in place to alleviate it? Develop a plan, because we need you to be at the top of your game every day. Our students are too important for you not to be. At the end of the day you are charged with making a positive impact on the students you serve, I’m sure you’ll agree that thought alone has a positive impact on your wellbeing.