The post today is an article I wrote a in 2011 for the MYSA Leaders Network. You may find it valuable…
As I sit to write this, another busy term has come to an end and I’m looking forward to a holiday break. There would be no argument from any education leader that holidays are well deserved for each term and each year seem to get fuller, busier and simply more demanding. But as I reflect on my energy levels right now I realize that, while I may feel tired, I am not feeling particularly weary. And as I explore why that might be, I realize that as a Middle Years Leader I am in a wonderful occupation; one that provides a myriad of opportunities to be energised and to share that energy with others. Let me encourage you to reflect on your own energy levels and, perhaps, challenge you to look anew at your work environment and ways in which you too might renew your energy for the leadership task you face.
Firstly, we should to explore the danger of leadership burnout, for it is real. I value what Parker Palmer writes on the dangers of being a leader who gives from a place of emptiness…
One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess–the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.
(Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)
How do we ensure that we remain ‘full’? I believe it relies on seeking those places and events that engage and enegrgise us.
In my school, I am blessed to combine an administrative role with a teaching role, allowing me to lead, share, teach and learn in equal measure. I have the opportunity to engage my unique passions, especially to see young people grow in their self-awareness and knowledge of the world in which they daily engage. I know that when my students are engaged in what they are learning, they will affect greater learning. The same is true for us as leaders. When I am working in my areas of passion, my ideas, concepts and curriculum flow more easily. I can empower staff to grow in their teacher-awareness and knowledge of adolescents. I can also draw energy from my passions to springboard me through the mundane aspects of the job. Indeed, I deliberately create times in my day when I can engage in the things that matter to me, the things that (to draw on an advertising analogy) ‘give me wings’. To quote Parker Palmer again, Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place within myself from which my teaching will come, just as I can choose the place within my students toward which my teaching will be aimed. I need not teach from a fearful place: I can teach from curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty, places that are as real within me as are my fears. I can have fear, but I need not be fear—if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape. (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach) How might you paraphrase this quote to bring it inline with your leadership? What might it look like to lead from curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty?
Celebrating success is a big ‘passion switch’ for me; success in the big and small, in students, in staff and in me. I love looking for the greatness in others, especially in those students who my peers may struggle to see the same greatness. I think it is important that I celebrate a student’s birthday, a learning group’s achievement or a class’ exploration of a new topic. I also know that a note, comment or email from me to a staff member about their achievements and successes will energise them just as an encouragement note from them spurs me on. Something this simple can unlock the potential in others and, in my school community, we look for ways to make encouragement a part of our work life. How can your actions or comments make another person’s day? How could you deliver thoughtfulness as a rich blessing?
It is from these celebrations that another ‘passion switch’ flows: the building of meaningful relationships with those I work alongside each day. And the starting points for this is vulnerability and (appropriate) intimacy. For me, I reckon there is something wrong if I have walked through the school and not had a student say hello or want to tell me something about their life. It empowers me to know kids want to connect with me and what I do, for this is part of the reason I became a teacher in the first place: I enjoy working with students.
As I reflect over the past couple of months, there are some standout events where I see my openness has led to powerful moments. As a Year Eight English teacher, I revel in the opportunity teach autobiographical writing and to hear of the life journey of my students. In the course of teaching the unit, I share something of my life – specifically the tough but growth-filled time when my niece died. This year, it became apparent that Lance* was struggling to put pen to paper and I discovered why when, after much encouragement from me, he finally showed me some planning notes. It was hard to go past one word on his page: suicide. A quiet moment later that day gave Lance the opportunity to talk for the first time about some dark events of his past. He was relieved to tell someone and I was blessed to be the right person at the right time.
In the same way, Lucas* latched onto the similarities in our life experiences as a young man who, like I did, finds himself boarding with a family and a long way from his family. My words of encouragement and understanding of his situation empowered him and energised me.
Where have you become isolated in your leadership role? In what way can you develop relationships and reconnect with the reasons for why you chose your career in the first place?
As a leader of leaders, I see it as my role to empower teachers in their job. I love trawling for ideas that support Middle Years educators and my inbox is constantly being supplied with emails from the various lists to which I subscribe. While it does take time, I love reading through these articles to find the gems that others may use, whether that is an approach to teaching an element of curricula, a behaviour management concept to try, or a challenging idea a Pastoral Care teacher might use to generate class discussion. But leading staff obviously takes a lot more than this. The meeting times I have with year level staff each fortnight include more than the issues that need raising; there is also opportunity to discuss successes for, as they say, success breeds success. As we talk about great things, we energise ourselves and others to look for greater success too. As a leader, you have skills and knowledge that deserve to be shared with those you lead. What can you do to create a greater culture of sharing and success in your school?
Finally, I need to be energized through laughter. Like many, I can become so focused on the task at hand that I miss the opportunity for introducing those laugh-induced endorphins into my blood stream. Having a belly laugh with a class of students does more than make them feel that learning can be fun. It puts me in the place where barriers are broken down and where I can be free to laugh with them (and maybe even laugh at myself). Sharing laughter with staff is also important and I make sure my inbox contains some comic feeds too. Most recently a YouTube by Julian Smith titled ‘I’m reading a book’ has done the rounds at my school. And if you want some encouragement about the value of your career, check out the ‘What do I make?’ clip by Taylor Mali. Look them up, and laugh!
None of us who work in Middle Years Leadership will question the fact that it takes a huge investment in time, tears, effort and emotion to do our job. Each one of us knows that we do what we do because we are driven by our passion to see young adolescents become more than they seemed capable of. Equally, we know the demands of the job will never be fully rewarded extrinsically. What engages and empowers me, as I trust it does you, is the deep knowledge that my leadership style connects with my skills, desires and personality. I trust you will look for those intrinsic moments in each day when your passions energise you through (and in spite of) the challenges of leadership.