We’re all tired

Exhaustion does strange things to people; things that we don’t mean to do, or things we used to do that we have stopped doing. Tiredness isn’t just caused by physical activity; the most exhausted I’ve ever felt on a single day is after a series of interviews examining my thoughts on leadership and driving improvement in schools. Right now, I think it is fair to say that anyone who works in a school is more tired, mentally and physically, than they have ever been at any point in their career. More than anything else (understandably), I’ve seen the following three behaviours in staff:

Reverting to type

Uncertainty caused by exhaustion often leads to people reaching for things they are comfortable with, and things they associate with more certain times. There is a certainty in things that are known, and processes that people have been through time and time again.  When we are tired, we are more likely to go backwards in any development journey and revert to type. This is a feature seen in sporting teams; when they go a goal behind in a football match, they return to styles of play that they have been trying to break. I have seen the same thing happen with teaching staff this term, going back to practices we have encouraged and guided them to move beyond. It is our job as leaders to support staff to keep them on track.

Can’t see the wood through the trees

When we are tired, we can’t see the end of the tiredness. How often have you thought “all I need is a good night’s sleep” and then next day you wake up feeling just as tired? The same thing can be said of any task that is given to someone when they are tired; all that can be seen in the workload and not the potential positive impact of the task at hand. This is where effective communication and understanding staff is crucial; we need to feel empathy for what staff are feeling, while being clear and precise when stating why we are doing what we are doing.

Feeling the world is against you

Linked to the above, when tired, often people feel that everything around them is going to add to the tiredness, and that no one is actually trying to make conditions better for them. Dismissive attitudes can be held against strategies that are being put in place to make things better, as exhaustion is leading to barriers being put up to prevent people engaging with improvement processes. This leads to feeling that no one is trying to change or improve the conditions in which you are working, and therefore all they are doing is making things worse.

As leaders in schools, especially during this turbulent time, we need to be wary of the way our exceptionally hard working, talented and exhausted staff are feeling. How can we prevent the above from taking place?

Keep the main thing, the main thing

@saysmiss has been saying this a lot recently. As a reader of the work of Stephen Covey, this resonates with me. Our school priorities, CPD offer and development plans all tie together around central theme. Keeping the main thing the main thing helps staff stay on track with developments by ensuring their cognitive load is not overwhelmed in times of uncertainty, reducing the likelihood of reverting to type.

We can ensure that we keep the main thing, the main thing by evaluating where you are with “the main thing”, make it part of your daily routine to check in and think about “the main thing” and create a to-don’t list of things that could draw you away from focussing on “the main thing”. Without putting these things in place, you risk overcomplicating improvement and overwhelming staff. Right now the main thing for staff is to focus of improving how they are delivering knowledge and skills to students; this should be their main focus.

Don’t give a job you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself

When asking someone to do something, always put yourself in their shoes. Consider their conditions and how the task at hand would feel in that situation. When talking about the task, talk to your audience, understanding their position and their concerns. One of the best ways to do this is to consider “would I be willing to do this job if I was in their shoes, and what would worry me about it?”. By doing this you can help to guide staff through the forest before their eyes, and show that you are an ally, helping them do their job the best they can. In the same way you wouldn’t give yourself a job that you were not skilled to do, it is important to consider whether they staff you are leading have the knowledge needed to complete the task you are asking of them; if not, systemically do something about it, over a period of time, checking in to ensure everything that is needed is in place.

Build trust

Arguably the most important factor in helping people when they are tired (or in any stressful situation) is building trust. Staff need to know that you care about how they are feeling and that you understand the position they are in. This goes beyond being a leader in an organisational sense and instead enters the realm of being a leader of people. This is not an endorsement of the hero model of leadership; far from it! Leaders know their staff and know them well and through that build trust.

They also build trust through demonstrating credibility; by showing what they know. Expert leaders have a wealth of information; about the area they are leading, the context of their school and knowledge of the plans they are intending to implement. By being transparent about why they are doing what they are doing, and sharing their wealth of knowledge, trust is built between the people designing the plan and those that are going to enact it.

More so than ever, with us being in such turbulent times, leaders need to ensure that we build trust, communicate clearly, listen to the concerns of people we are leading and put in place plans to improve conditions.

Leaders need to be able to focus on the main thing, ensuring staff and students have the best conditions to learn within the classroom, which is the only job teachers need to be focussing on right now. We can build trust by showing how we are understanding of concerns and how our plans are mitigating them, rather than brushing them aside and rushing through a plan. I am so proud to be part of a profession that is doing this so well. But I do wonder, is there another profession, or organisation related to the teaching profession, that could learn from the messages above?

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