The miracle of 2017: This IS principalship

It is timely to reflect on the year that has been. 2017 has passed in a flash, but in reflection there is an opportunity to slow down time’s passing and, like a connoisseur of fine wine (which I am not), to smell the cork and let the year roll around my mouth, savouring every smell and taste sensation. Some taste bursts are definitely more pleasant than others. A few memories of the year leave a bad taste in my mouth, but most, make me smile and leave me feeling warm inside. This is normal enough because the rhythm of a year is always marked by ups and downs, ins and outs, and joy and pain. However, the fact that I am writing this on the last day of our school year tells you that something about this year has been different.

I began 2017 writing a couple of somewhat personal posts. In one, Bordering on Burnout, I spoke of realising in 2015 that I was “staring into the great abyss”. Not burned out yet, but perilously close to the edge. It has been a long slow walk back. And because my strengths as an educational leader (my passion for education, my love of hard work and deep, creative thinking) contribute to (or are the other side of the same coin as) my greatest weaknesses, the propensity towards overwork and burnout will always be present. Added to that, the inevitable outcomes of aging, and the propensity is even greater. I said in that post at the beginning of 2017 that, “I am slowly feeling alive again. I am no longer [emotionally] numb and living as though in a vacuum.” As I take stock of myself now - where I am now, what I am able to do, what I can feel and express now, in spite of a still challenging year - I can see that I am continuing to move forward on that long journey of healing.

To do so, I have had to keep reminding myself of the words of Parker Palmer which I think it is timely to quote again …. and again…. and again:

“Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” 
― Parker J. PalmerLet Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

I need to be reminded regularly – even on a daily basis - that not only do I have permission to care for myself but I have a responsibility to do so. I was raised as part of a generation of women who believed they could and should be able to do everything and who sacrificed their own needs in order to do so. It wasn’t healthy but it was what we knew. As a result, I live every day with overwhelming guilt when I seemingly put myself and my needs before others.

In spite of the guilt (or to spite the guilt) that still follows me like a shadow, at the beginning of 2017 I took the plunge and agreed to do what our Board Chair and my coaches and mentors have been encouraging me to do for so long – to work more offsite to find focus and flow, to get out of the drudgery of the day to day and write and read, and, in doing so, feed my heart, soul and mind. The miracle of 2017 is that Parker Palmer is right. In taking care of myself, in feeding my heart and soul and mind, things have not only been better for me, but they have been better for the school, and perhaps even for the wider education community as the articles I have written have in some way impacted those who have taken time to read them.

At the beginning of 2017, in a post entitled “Getting off the treadmill”, I shared this well-known quote:

“So the urgent drives out the important; the future goes largely unexplored; and the capacity to act, rather than the capacity to think and imagine, becomes the sole measure of leadership” (Competing for the Future, Hamel & Prahalad, 1994, p. 5).

This year I can truly say, the urgent hasn’t driven out the important – well, not most of the time –and I have given a great deal of time and thought to exploring the future. I have gone places (in my mind, not physically) that I would never have imagined. I wrote an article about, “Schools as constantly self-improving algorithms: what driverless cars and biology can teach schools”. Where did that come from?! Another article I wrote, “The paradox of being fully human in a technological world”, got me thinking deeply about artificial intelligence and machine learning – new areas of consideration for me. I have embraced the need for postformal thinking which I had never heard of before and I published quite a number of articles pointing to a sustainable future for education. One of these has had over 80,000 views. All of these and many other areas of exploration – no matter how diverse and seemingly disparate - have added to a growing big picture about the future of education and of Amesbury School. During this time, I have also done research into developing middle leadership, written an academic journal article about coaching leadership, developed a framework for thinking about leadership and personalising leadership learning. We have developed an education brand to assist change in education and we are organising a conference for the same purpose. The list goes on. There is no doubt, I have been highly productive and disciplined.

I began the year talking about having an informal, semi-sabbatical year as though having the time and space to think, read and write, is a break or a rest from principalship. But just the other day, when someone asked me how I was feeling about getting back into full time principalship, I realised that what I have been doing this year IS full time principalship. I have been doing exactly what I should be doing, not just during 2017, but every year. And not just for myself, although that has been important, but for Amesbury School and the wider education community. The future of education needs principals who will step away from the day-to-day, who will eschew the urgent as a daily practice, to think, read, write and reflect on what’s important; and who will, as a result, grow a bigger, more connected picture, one that is increasingly reflective of the reality of the world, and that will provide a useful blue print for leading their schools forward. The future of education depends on this.

The miracle of 2017 is that in stepping aside from the day-to-day and the urgent, we don’t lose time, we gain it. I have never finished a school year feeling so calm, refreshed and creative or so far ahead in our school planning, and having planned so comprehensively and connectedly. The day-to-day will always get done because it has a loud, demanding voice. But deep thinking and reading and creating have gentler voices. They speak in a whisper and beckon to us to leave the loud voice behind and engage, often in silence, with ideas that feed heart, soul and mind. However, I realise now that this is not just for principals, that if we want a great future for education, one that is best for all kids, then we must provide time and space for all our staff to respond to the gentle voices and engage with what is really important - with what feeds their hearts, souls and minds.

Nga mihi nui ki a koutou.