Whether you are part of the executive team at your school or someone who strives for excellence in classroom practice, if you are a teacher, you are a leader. There may be people reading this who are not teachers at all, but who still lead in different areas of their lives. Some of us are more forthright about leadership positions than others, but however you lead, it is vital that you acknowledge how much of an impact you have on those around you. You have the power to empower, or to disempower the people in your charge. So take a moment to consider where your motivation comes from.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown systematically lists the traits of empowering leadership, and I will begin here by saying that EVERYONE in a position of power or leadership should engage with this book. Having experienced both the best and the worst of leadership styles, I could give you a firsthand account of how you could destroy another person by using your position to fill a personal need or make up for some sort of lack in your own life, but there are therapists I have paid for that! No, this here is about bringing out the best in the people around you, whether those people be students or colleagues, and building them up for a more efficient and effective outcome.
Many people believe that our personalities are fixed, and an inherent part of who we are and how we do things. They think that we are either compassionate and empathetic, or we’re not, and that these are traits that we can’t really alter. The great thing that the science tells us is that unless you are a sociopath – a person who doesn’t have the capacity to feel empathy towards others – these are skills that we can learn. Of course, the way that we are raised makes a difference to how we respond to others’ pain and hardship, but we can all change this aspect of ourselves with a little practice.
With so many great resources out there, it isn’t necessary for me to go into enormous detail. I guess this is where I want to speak about the basics, but make you aware of the schools of thought that are out there. It is this style of management that could make this world a better place, and where better to teach it than in schools and classrooms? So I have broken it down to what I see as the top 5 principles of leadership for humans:
- Find out what makes your people tick
Connection is one of the most underrated aspects of human existence. I seriously believe that a lack of connection is responsible for most of the world’s problems…drug abuse, anxiety and depression, anger, social media, our need for fast and easy, our desire for money…all of these are in some way linked to our basic need to be seen and heard and understood. So I believe that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is to find out what is important to people. I don’t just mean knowing what is happening in people’s lives outside of the workplace, although this is important as well, but find out where your team’s ethical and moral standards lie. If you know, for example, that a person values honesty above everything else, then you will know that this person will want you to come straight out and explain the situation in a way that resonates with them. Dare to Lead has some wonderful resources for establishing such connections, and you can find them, as well as many other resources, here.
There are many leaders who operate from their own morals and values, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, providing that those morals and values are in line with compassion and empathy. But wherever you operate from, if you don’t consider what is important in life to the people you are dealing with, particularly in difficult conversations or situations, you may be blocking that extra level of connection and thereby not being as effective as you could be. In our classrooms we do this as a matter of course. We KNOW we need to get to know our students in order to get the best from them. Somehow we lose this concept when dealing with the people around us, and this creates so many obstacles!
2. Be vulnerable
Most leaders across the world view vulnerability as a weakness. They think that by admitting that they are nervous, or don’t have all the answers, they are ceding their power. World leaders, look to Jacinda. There is NOTHING that will make me respect a person more than hearing them say “I made a mistake with this and I’m sorry. Can we work together and see if we can come up with a solution?”. It immediately opens up a connection between myself and that person, and I naturally want to help them find a way to fix things. Hearing a principal explain to the staff that they are under a great deal of pressure from above, and this is why they are feeling a little impatient and frustrated right now, reminds us that they are human as well. If we have made connections with our teams they will back us up when we fall down. And in a school, we should all have each others’ backs!
I will share a “this is what you don’t do” story though. I was in my first or second year of teaching. It was a fairly small school, and I was chatting to the principal after a staff meeting. I remember making a comment about how I was feeling so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of attention that was required to do this job. Not just juggling tasks, but the mental capacity to care for and nurture these children in a low socio-economic setting. The principal responded with “well, how do you think I feel?”, and proceeded to list all of the things she had to do, pointing out that her job was so much harder than mine. This was not her being vulnerable. This was belittling, and another way in which this person undermined the self-esteem of those around her. A response like “yeah, it’s tough. Especially in these first years” would have made the world of difference to me. Even if she’d said “yeah, I get it. I am under a lot of pressure as well”, I wouldn’t have walked away from that conversation feeling like I’m just a whinger who should be coping so much better than I am. This was Principal 1. Don’t be like Principal 1.
3. Don’t shy away from the tough conversations
We use so many things in our lives to avoid those difficult conversations. Sometimes we mask our avoidance with concern for the other person; “Today has been tough for him. I’ll check in with him in the morning”. Sometimes we don’t actually know what we want, or don’t have a replacement behaviour for the one we’re trying to address, so we just let it slide. Sometimes, even when we’re in a higher position than the person in question, we are afraid of the repercussions of addressing this person’s actions, and allow behaviours to continue, even when they are damaging the effectiveness and cohesion of the workplace.
I haven’t been in an Executive position in a school. I have led teams in hospitality, and I have run my own businesses, and of course I lead a team of students in my classroom each day, so I have definitely faced situations that I REALLY wanted to walk away from. At the end of last year I called a meeting with someone high up in the education department as I needed to address something that had been bothering me for a long time. I had used all kinds of avoidance tactics because I was intimidated by this person. I had met with him on a few occasions preciously, and always felt demeaned and belittled by the end of our conversations. This time I prepared for our meeting. First, I got clear on the outcome I was after. I had this in my mind as I wrote down all of the points that I wanted to make. I studied tips on how to maintain my power with someone who traditionally uses his masculinity to intimidate women (this was a known fact among teachers and leaders in my area), and chanted a mantra to myself as I drove the half hour commute to the meeting. I took my notes in with me, and referred to them throughout. And I got the outcome I was seeking – which, really, was just to be listened to so that he could factor in my perspective when making his decisions. It was so much better than I had anticipated, and not once did I feel as though I was ceding my power. I was on a high for weeks after that meeting, and I actually developed more respect for him because he listened to me.
I think the most valuable thing you can do to prepare for a difficult conversation is to know what outcome you are seeking. I also believe that there is nothing wrong with having an agreed rule within the workplace, where no complaints are allowed without also presenting the desired outcome. When we teach PBL we make sure that we explicitly state the expected behaviours. We don’t say to the students “I’m really sick of you all running on concrete surfaces. I wish you’d just stop it.” We say “I’d like to give you a reminder that we walk on hard surfaces to keep us all safe”. Be clear on what you want – everyone.
It’s also important to give the person you’re meeting with the heads-up, particularly if it’s a heavy matter. It is a common courtesy to say “Chelle, would you mind stopping into my office after school? I need to have a chat with you about the incident that occurred this morning.” When there has been no indication of what the meeting is about, I know that I start picking everything apart, and stressing about what I have or haven’t done. I go into anxiety overdrive, and I can’t function effectively in the classroom for the rest of that day. It’s also good to give the person an opportunity to speak up. There might be another perspective to the incident that we haven’t considered, or don’t know about. It can leave a person feeling exceptionally disempowered when they haven’t been given an opportunity to explain from their point of view.
And, finally for this point, make sure that the person is supported to achieve the outcome you agreed upon. Perhaps another colleague could be assigned to help guide and teach the person how to reach the outcome. These are people. They have so much going on in their lives. We can’t just agree that things should be done a certain way and expect them to seamlessly make the shift – well, not in most situations anyway.
4. Practice Gratitude
Daily gratitude practice has been scientifically proven to rewire the brain. Instead of automatically scanning our environment for what is wrong, which is what humans naturally do, we begin to habitually look for what is right. In his book The Resilience Project , Hugh van Cuylenburg introduces the GEM concept. It stands for Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness, and Hugh explains how this acronym can help everyone, everywhere, be happier.
The school as a workplace can be so heavy and overwhelming that it is difficult to see anything but the struggle. Having a leader who encourages a whole staff to search for things they are grateful for on a regular basis has got to help to build cohesion and camaraderie. After all, we’re all in this for the same reason. We all want to make a difference to the lives of these kids. We are compassionate, kind human beings, but some of us can be so difficult to work with. It’s like we use up all of our joy on our performances for our kids, and then have nothing left but complaints for our colleagues. If your goal as a leader was to develop a happier staff, imagine what it could mean for productivity, loyalty, and that feeling of enjoying work – of wanting to be there!
Hugh van Cuylenburg’s story is an engaging and enriching one. I am very happy to state that it was my 23 year old son who put me onto it – it means that he is becoming enlightened at a much younger age than I did! Hugh has touched people across Australia in all walks of life, and he has developed this Gratitude Journal to support people to develop positive habits in their own lives. I know daily gratitude practices have changed my life for the better, and I can’t think of how they could be damaging to anyone, anywhere, no matter what they are facing in their lives.
We live in a society that operates from a deficit model. “I’d be happier if…” is our go-to. A bigger house, a promotion at work, losing weight, they’re all things we aspire to. Unfortunately, when we get those things, we soon discover that they have not provided us with a deep sense of satisfaction, and we develop a new goal, thinking that actually, what I need is…Actually, what we need is to appreciate what we have. Let’s build workplaces where people automatically scan for things they appreciate. It makes the tougher aspects of school life so much easier to deal with.
5. Have fun!
One of the best parts of my working week is on Friday afternoon, where all staff who are available get out of their rooms as early as possible and meet for a chat and a laugh. Sometimes there is a wine or beer involved, but it’s not actually about drinking. It is time to get to know each other through stories and jokes. Sometimes it gets a little sad and heavy, but it’s all in the name of building our connections, so doesn’t ever feel like a bad thing. We really get to know each other through the fun times. We see aspects of each other that we didn’t know about or expect. It makes the workplace a much better place to be.
I know teachers who can’t be bothered with things like dressing the windows for the Bookweek window competition, and who won’t dress up for parades, or who feel frustrated at having to attend school events outside of work hours. I think these are wonderful opportunities to engage with each other, and the broader community, in a different way! So, when you are asking teachers to put in that little bit extra, ask in the name of fun. Order pizza for them when it’s a late event – get them to sit together and eat at the same time. Take some time out. Dance, sing, dress up in silly costumes. These are the things that make a school. You know how cohesive a staff is by the number of people attending and enjoying extra-curricular events.
And there you have it. I am no way an expert on leadership. There are plenty of those around. I am just a teacher who has seen both sides of the coin, and who wants all of us to live up to our potential. If you lead from your heart, you will make invaluable connections with everyone around you. If you lead from your hurt, or a sense of lack and desire for power, you will only alienate your staff. I know who I will give more of myself for.
#gratitude #teachersleadtheway #fixthefuture #makeworkfun #leadwithlove