“Oh, I think I’ve landed
In a world I hadn’t seen
When I’m feeling ordinary
When I don’t know what I mean”
(Coldplay – Head Full of Dreams)
Cleaning out a classroom or office at the end of a year is nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling nervous about opening something that was given to you more than a year earlier is.
In 2015 I was given the exciting and equally terrifying opportunity to be Acting Principal for a term while ours was on a sabbatical. I remember feeling stunned and honoured to be asked if I wanted to undertake the task, but soon felt the corporeal response in me as the gravity of what was involved sank in. What I can say with every degree of confidence is that the stint ‘in the chair’ had a huge impact on me emotionally and aspirationally.
I remember trying to conceive what it might be like, predict what might happen and envision who and what I would have to become in order to act with reason, integrity and trustworthy leadership. I figured I couldn’t entirely be myself. I had to acknowledge the unique personal and situational factors that would shape my experience. I was taking up the post in my current school and so many things about the place were familiar to me – people, places, routines and general processes. Would that be an advantage? I am a consultative and collaborative school leader and value the experience, thinking and contributions of others. Could I continue to be that person but not interfere with other people’s business knowing ultimate responsibility for the school lay with me? I am reflective and proceed with work in a considered fashion. How would I cope if I needed to make snap decisions or take decisive action? I wrestled with these in the lead-up to the experience, during it and in my reflections since.
I had some coaching to prepare me for the opportunity. I was made aware of any significant meetings, pending decisions, matters of business, looming deadlines and I had constructed a sense of what it could be like from observing our Headmaster at work, through literature I had read and from speaking with others in comparable positions. I was very grateful for this. The reality was significantly more complex and challenging than I anticipated. I learnt a lot about myself. With new responsibilities and with new tasks I quickly discovered what I could do and what I struggled with, how I had to work with others differently, how I would have to communicate differently and how I would need think in new strategic and whole-school ways. It was learning, albeit at a very steep gradient.
A few weeks into the role, a mysterious and pretty looking box was left on my temporary desk. I remember studying it for some time wondering what on earth it could be. It wasn’t my birthday. I hadn’t done anything to warrant a gift. Had we had school visitors who wanted to leave behind a token of appreciation? I don’t tend to enjoy surprises, so cautiously lifted the latch which sealed the box. Like a curious kid I slowly opened the lid and sat perplexed at what greeted me. On the top, partially obscuring the items beneath it was a card.
I sat trying to digest the sentiments expressed inside the card. A colleague who I rarely have anything to do with had taken the time and effort to craft some very touching words about how they had faith in me, they were behind me and I was appreciated by the community. Beneath the card were a number of trinkets (click on the image to see more closely), emblematic of how my colleague perceived the pressures of Principalship.
How did my colleague’s perceptions match my reality? Here is what I discovered;
- It can be very lonely at the top. Some things remain at the top, should be at the top and need to be worked through at the top. This isn’t necessarily because of a trust deficit, but more to do with the responsibility of the portfolio of work and accountabilities. I had to become equally comfortable with occupying the public face of the school, interacting with a wide array of people and groups, and at times becoming the background, allowing others to do their work and act with freedom and responsibility.
- I had to accept that I would be the focus of some conversations, speculation and a new range of behaviours and reactions from the community as I assumed this new position. I do not mean this is an egotistical way, more as an acceptance that it is was matter of fact. My visibility and activity altered and that was noticeable. It left me feeling uneasy in a context with established norms, reputations and relationships. This left me feeling anxious, not to please, be accepted or receive affirmation, but getting a sense of how people would receive me when returning to a role I love, had worked hard at and crafted over time. I had to be treated differently for the term but didn’t want be looked at differently.
- It takes remarkable courage. We have all encountered the Headteacher/Principal figure whether from our school days, from work or both. They symbolise something significant in the educative experience. Diplomatic or authoritative, visionary or operational, limelight-seeking or quiet, they shape culture and do work that is remarkably challenging and takes courage in many forms. I will not sit in judgement of any Principal/Headteacher. Whatever context the school is in, what I have discovered is that what they face is complex and sometimes invisible. There is much to be admired about them and much to be learnt about courage.
- It left me feeling vulnerable. The challenges I encountered raised my blood pressure, made me weep, made me laugh, filled me with excitement and fulfilment, prevented me from eating on occasion, struggle to switch off, be deprived of sleep and question my capabilities. I became aware of performing my performativity and this was energy sapping. This might be a reflection of my skill and readiness for heading up a school or it could be simply circumstantial.
The generous and thoughtful gift from my colleague resides on my desk and stands as a reminder that despite my personal preconceptions of the role, others have perceptions of me and Principalship that I cannot control and I have to be comfortable with that. My challenge is dealing with being comfortable with being uncomfortable and the uncertainty of a role of this magnitude. I am not sure whether being the head of a school is my path, but like lifting the latch of the box, I am not completely closed on the possibility one day.