Hate mail arrived in my letterbox at home 5 days before I was officially to start as principal of a nearby school.
It was just that little bit more disconcerting considering there was only 1 member of staff that I actually knew.
It certainly didn’t help my severe case of imposter syndrome either. You see I was impressively underqualified to become a principal, let alone a principal of a primary school. My only experience in formal school leadership was as a teaching and learning coach for the previous 2 years in a secondary school. I just had a couple of influential people who believed in me, one of whom just happened to be the chair of the selection panel.
The hate mail was a shock, but it did marry up with the reports that were floating back to me including that a staff member had cried for a week upon the news breaking of my appointment. To be honest I felt like joining them … I still had doubts on whether I even wanted to be a principal.
The part from the ‘letter’ that I can include:
“Though I do not know you personally, I do know that you have been the topic of discussions in many primary school staffrooms in the Yarra Valley. Angry and disgusted discussions. Teachers at Woori Yallock were even toying with the idea of holding industrial action over your unwelcome appointment and words such as ‘devastated’ and ‘distraught’ have been used to express their feelings on this topic. Teachers who have been working there for years have talked of transfer or early retirement. They don’t NEED a very young high school teacher to become their principal.”
One of the terms that gets thrown around a lot in society “is fake it until you make it.”
In that first year nearly everything was new to me; Student Resource Package (budgets), policies, School Council (!), OH&S (to save a lengthy list – pretty much any compliance or administration task). Did you know that some people actually enjoy compliance tasks?
Since I had moved from secondary to primary, even my strengths around teaching and learning weren’t as apparent, particularly in the junior years. Therefore, there was a lot of faking, and a lot of learning going on.
On reflection, after coming out the other side, it really is as Amy Cuddy states it, “don’t fake it till you make it, fake it till you become it.”
Yes, that’s right, you can take comfort that I did make it out the other side, but please keep reading.
The one thing that I was good at as an educator (and why I got the job) was that I had strengths in teaching and learning.
Since I had no real pre-conceived idea on what I should be doing in the role, I did what I thought was important. I would spend most of my time in classrooms, working with students, and getting to know teachers. What the work should entail.
The office staff weren’t used to this, and they would take to ringing my mobile regularly through the day to find where I was. My approach was unorthodox and possibly unique, but it worked.
The success didn’t happen overnight though and learning the technical aspects of the job took some time. Some key things that helped along the way were:
Having a very generous and helpful high performing principal as a mentor, who I would ring regularly.
Being included (via my mentor) in a collegiate coaching group with two other highly experienced principals and a coach who was also a former principal.
Appointing an amazing Assistant Principal who shared the load and always had my back with anything and everything
The Department of Education itself. If you missed a deadline for a task, you would receive a follow up email that had a red exclamation mark, if you missed that deadline, you received a phone call. I would get there in the end!
Over time I became very efficient with my administration to allow me to be in classrooms regularly without the technical to do list piling up. In fact, I coined a saying, “give administration tasks your maximum, minimum amount of time.” Many of the tasks you could spend days/weeks/months/years on, but they really were of no consequence to the core operations of a school – teaching and learning. The challenge was finding the maximum, minimum.
This efficiency coincided with the increasing success of the school. The time and focus on teaching and learning led to a change in culture as well as student outcomes. It was a positive cycle that led to schools and educators coming to visit us in action, nominations for awards, and invitations to speak at international conferences. The thing that I’m most proud of though, is that the improvement has been sustained. It is 5 years since I left the school, and it is arguably in the best position it has ever been.
Part of my work nowadays is supporting leaders to be able to effectively focus on teaching and learning.
I share some of the things that worked for me when the admin load was heavy:
Regularly having my email inbox at zero
Cleaning my desk and completing my daily to do list for the following day before leaving work
Tackling the task on my to do list that I least wanted to do first thing in the morning
At particular times shutting the door to my office and asking to not be interrupted unless it was an emergency
Employing a contractor to ensure we were compliant with OH&S requirements
Working solidly for 45 minutes on an administration task without distractions and then going for a walk around the school for a break
I’ve only recently read the 4 Hour Work Week. I can assure you this was far from my reality, or for any of my colleagues. In my final year as a principal, I was still working around 60 hours a week, down from the 75 I was regularly clocking in my first year, but still way above the 38 hours that was in the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.
Steven Covey writes about taking the time to sharpen the saw. It’s important that we build time into our week devoted on the things that make us tick. Exercise, music, gardening, reading a book, catching up with family or friends, etc. By building this into our week we have less hours working, but we are actually more efficient and get more done in the hours we do work, because we have sharpened our saw.
Through developing a system that allowed me to focus on teaching and learning I was able to transform the school and develop a high-performance culture. If education departments are serious about their desire to develop instructional leaders, their first priority should be to minimise administrative requirements. There are a multitude of strategies that could be considered. Centralising the compliance at a regional level and having an efficient way of communicating the necessary information with school leaders would be a good starting point.
I’ve got my suspicions, but I never did find out who penned that poison letter. After reading this piece I hope you can tell that I’ve well and truly moved on.