Radiators, Drains and Palettes of Colour

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Despite what the title might suggest, this is not a blog about my DIY misgivings. To be honest, if I did try to write about my abilities with a hammer, paintbrush or electric drill I think the account would verge on that of a farce. Enough about my lack of technical ability and back to the purpose of this Friday night/Saturday morning act of sharing.

Last week I wrote about the danger of hitting the wall which all teachers go through at least once or twice in an academic year to a lesser or greater extent. You can catch up with my blog here. It was written after a tough couple of weeks for me personally, where the loss of a friend (who died too soon) and my uncle happened in quick succession. As a result of these tumultuous rites of passage, my energy levels were low. Sensing this, I recognised the need to recharge my emotional batteries and put strategies in place to reinvigorate my personal well-being. Coming out the other side of it (the last time I actually felt sad was about 17 years ago), I began to consider other colleagues who, for whatever reason might be hitting their emotional wall and so I decided to share. Writing the blog was somewhat cathartic for me and I started this week determined to continue in an upwards direction.

It’s now Friday and, with one week to go the finish line of half term is most definitely in sight. There is a buzz in our household (despite the onset of various holiday bugs), all being in education in one form or another we are understandably excited at the prospect of a whole week off.

This week has been great! In fact, it has been no different from previous weeks but there has be a distinct difference. That difference has been me. It may be a cliché but you do have a choice as to how you experience life and it ultimately boils down to how you approach your day. I am a natural radiator and have made sure that this week I was on full power (the cold is setting in after all). Going out of my way to share this with other colleagues and students, sensing their emotional levels and being sensitive to their feelings has had a reaffirmingly positive effect. Good working relationships and high energy levels has contributed to the general feeling around school. I’m not naive (nor egocentric) enough to think that it’s just me, I work in a happy school with lovely students and staff so any good intentions resonate around the place, but I can definitely say that having a happier outlook this week has certainly helped me to feel better.image

Another goal that I set myself this week was not to avoid the drains in my life. I’ve written about radiators and drains in my advice to my NQT self previously. It is important for anyone in education to be self aware but it is vital for senior leadership to act as a conduit for positivity whenever faced with a possibly difficult situation or negative environment. To do this when you’re not at the top of your own game can be hard and the tendency of radiators is to avoid drains like the plague. However, in doing so you’re not affecting a change. You’re allowing pockets of negativity to form which can have an adverse effect on us all, especially the children we teach. There is another perspective to consider which may serve to shine some light on the situation. Asking yourself why are these people acting like drains and do they really want to be this way may help to strengthen your approach.

Empathy is a very important aspect of teaching yet often, we become too busy and blinkered to apply it to those around us. Taking time to understand why friends, family and colleagues may be feeling or acting in a certain way will make a difference to their emotional state, it may also give you the opportunity to influence their behaviour in a positive direction. Remember, it is important to balance energy spent with the drains with the time working with radiators though. Your emotional reserves are the priority, a bit of mutual appreciation and positivity goes a long way in keeping the levels up.

Being self aware and socially aware are key aspects of emotional intelligence that I’ve experienced or observed in great leadership. I used to believe that it was innate, you either got people or you didn’t . However, after a great deal of reading around the subject and continual conversations with two very patient heads, I began to consider that everyone can improve their self awareness to some extent. This is a continuous process and takes effort but the benefits of an EI approach to yourself and others are worth it. Yesterday, I watched a TED talk (suggested by our Headteacher to all of the leadership team) which acted as a gentle reminder of the importance of self awareness. It’s worth a watch and can be found here. In addition to self perception it also gave powerful insight into how others may perceive us and highlighted the benefits of being measured when necessary as well as the concept of mirroring where appropriate to put people at ease. Incidentally, I used the suggestions from the talk with a student and noticed their response almost instantaneously. The content wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before in one form or another but it was a timely reminder.

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Taken from Scott Schwefe’s TED Talk

Taken from Scott Schwefe's TED Talk

For most of us on the last hike to the top of the half term mountain, we are delirious with the prospect of the imminent break and positivity levels are high even if our energy levels are almost gone. It is important that we take time to stop and enjoy the view from the summit (otherwise what’s the point in climbing the mountain) and ask yourself:

How am I feeling?
What are my self perceptions?
What have I achieved this term?
What do I still need to do?
How are others feeling?
What are their perceptions of me?
What can I do to support them to get to the top of their mountain?

It won’t hurt to take a step back and do this, in fact, it will probably ensure everyone reaches half term ready to enjoy the view from the summit. Celebrate what you have achieved with students and staff so far this year, encourage them to do the same. After all, even though our journey is a very personal one, we are all in this together and sometimes a view through different eyes helps us to see just how important our contributions are.image

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Hitting the wall

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Earlier this year my cousin completed the London Marathon raising thousands of pounds for Crisis, a very worthwhile charity. This is a great achievement and I feel extremely privileged to know him. I am astounded and humbled by those ordinary people who achieve such extraordinary things every day. Not just the athletes, but people from all walks of life who do something so spectacular that it pushes them to their limits, takes every drop of emotional and physical reserve they might have and still they go that extra mile, generally in aid of someone else. They are the people that we as onlookers can only watch in awe and think, “Wow.” These are our everyday heroes.

I aspire to one day complete a marathon so that I can understand what it is like to achieve such a formidable feat so was asking our Grant all about the preparation, training and the day itself. The most interesting observation that Grant made about the whole process was that of his experience of hitting the wall; the point of exhaustion that athletes feel when their muscles run out of glycogen stores having catastrophic effects on their physical and mental well-being. I had always thought that it was like running with a stitch: that if you stick your hand into the affected area, wiggle it about a bit and keep running you’d be ok (thanks to my high school PE teacher for that nugget of wisdom). However, what my cousin described to me was something much more debilitating. After about 20 miles, he felt this invisible wall appear in front of him, he began to feel as though it was continually pushing him backwards and so he had to use all of his strength to keep moving forward. As if this wasn’t enough, the surface he was running on suddenly started to have the consistency of melted tar, his legs became extremely heavy and almost incapable of movement in any direction let alone that of moving him forward in the face of the foreboding obstacle that only he could see. He said that he looked around for help and there was no one there to notice as the runners around him were focussed on their own performance and problems. He felt increasingly alone, then the mental battle began… The thought of having to carry on for another six miles was almost too much to contemplate; the feeling that it was just him and everyone else around him was surviving happily evoked emotions of inadequacy and inability; the thoughts of the charity he was representing, the family who were supporting him and all of the other people he would disappoint if he didn’t finish were at the forefront of his mind. An overwhelming wave of failure coupled with sheer exhaustion and the urge to just give up continually washed over him for the next five and a bit miles, it wasn’t until the last few hundred yards that he made it through the wall and out of the tar, putting his demons to bed. In the last sprints towards the finish line he saw a number of fellow runners collapsing, unable to move because their “wall” had beaten them. It was then that he realised he wasn’t fighting the wall alone, it was a personal battle though because for everyone the wall is different, it appears at different times to a lesser or greater extent but can be isolating and debilitating non-the-less.

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My cousin triumphantly finished the race in 3 hours 49 minutes which is a formidable achievement for anyone, let alone an old timer like him! However, the conversation about the wall taught me more than his achievements over 26.2 miles. Grant’s description of his marathon experience is not a bad analogy of a teacher’s year or even career. Even though we have done our training, spent time preparing and have teams of supporters cheering us along, we are on our own. Even though there are thousands of people in exactly the same position as we are, the journey is a truly unique one. We can empathise with colleagues when they hit their wall but there is very little we can do to solve their problem. What we can do is look up and look around us. If it is apparent that a colleague feels as though they are running through tar at a point during the year just a kindly word or a friendly ear, a brew, a bar of chocolate and ten minutes of reassurance can help them to realise that they are not alone and not to give up. This is particularly important with teachers who are new to the profession or new to a school as they are completely out of their comfort zone.

I find the danger weeks for most teachers are during the autumn and early spring terms. The last couple of weeks in October, mid-November and late January/early February are the times when we need to be aware of our own emotional state as well as that of our colleagues. Last week, I sensed myself hitting the wall, nothing seemed to go right but thankfully I have an excellent support network both inside and outside of the school environment which meant that I am coming out the other side. I am also resilient and reflective so I can recognise my energy levels depleting and put strategies in place to address this. Generally, a few early nights, a couple of pyjama days and a long walk it the Lake District solves most of my issues. However, if it wasn’t for the kind words of colleagues and the care of others, my five miles of discomfort might have been a much more difficult and lonely experience. Next week, take a look up from your own marathon and observe the runners around you, particularly new or vulnerable staff (not just teachers), if you see that they are hitting their wall give them your time because you have no idea how much it helps them get through their personal battle. Teaching is a marathon, it is a long and arduous task with many peaks and troughs, cherish the peaks and look at the troughs with a fresh perspective. A view through different eyes can highlight that the endurance of such things makes us stronger in the end, but remember… we don’t have to do it alone.
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