6

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Slowing Down

Too often we communicate, make decisions, and act in such a rush. Yes, there are many decisions that can and should be made on the fly but there are also many times where we should take the time to pause, reflect, listen, and contemplate… and the best way to do this is something that we seem to be losing sight of in education (and society)… SLOWING DOWN.

As part of my professional growth plan, I continue to reflect on the importance of building staff culture but as I moved to a different school in August 2018, my goal has shifted to one focused on building a positive culture to one focused on Instructional Leadership. Although I continue to reflect on developing and now maintaining positive staff culture, I am hoping to wrap up some final thoughts in this post and possibly one more. For previous posts on building a positive staff culture, please read:

Slow Down… 2 words that I have repeated to myself over and over again over the past 2+ years as an educator, a formal leader, a husband, and a father. At one time, I was excited at the speed of my learning and communication as I was embracing all things technology and took pride at being a self-proclaimed “connected educator”. However, as I have taken the time to reflect on life in this hyperspeed world of information, communication, and notifications, I have realized that although the connections with people and ideas are much more vast, connections and ideas within my school and personal life have also lost some depth. Instead of reading and reflecting, I was scanning. Instead of talking, I was texting. Instead of resting, I was racing. As my friend Cale Birk once said, I was continually trying to “drink from a firehose”. I needed to change things… I needed to slow down.

By slowing down… I realized that we can do and feel so much more. My friend Carman McKay shared with our staff at James Hill last year about the importance of face to face conversations (or at the least, phone conversations) as this keeps us connected at a deeper level.  Deeper, meaningful relationships are not formed through quick text messages or emails so he shared that he will text but will not use that form of communication to replace face to face. Following these words from Carman, I also read a book called “Digital Minimalism” that included portions that echoed Carman’s thoughts. In a quest to connect with others, I was using social media to trick myself into believing that I was staying in contact and although I was aware of some parts of people’s lives, I was losing touch with closer relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. For me, I realized social media can serve a purpose and it can be a starting point to a conversation but should never replace an actual conversation.

By slowing down… I moved from skimming and scanning things online and started to actually read and reflect and think more deeply. I now read fewer tweets and blog posts but take more time to read books, research articles, and blog posts that made me think deeply about education and life. By reading less, it gave me time to think more. In doing this, I started to also focus more on things that were truly important in education and my life… things that were evidence-based and/or created a noticeable difference. By slowing down, I could read less, think and reflect more, and focus on fewer things more effectively.

By slowing down…  it helped me, as a principal, to move away from being quick to respond (often when emotions were high) to pausing, reflecting, and then responding in a more thoughtful manner. By doing things like taking email off my phone, I found I was less concerned about the speed of my response to a worrisome email and placed more focus on tone and thought in my words. Because I would only respond to email in front of a computer, I didn’t feel so rushed and I was more focused on the task at hand. I often would even pick up the phone (shocking, I know) and call someone back or request a face to face meeting after an email to ensure that we engaged in an actual conversation where there could more of a chance of empathy and understanding.

By slowing down… it has helped with my health and wellness. I feel I am less concerned about “keeping up” with blogs, tweets, and posts and more concerned about having meaningful relationships with those around me. I still struggle to slow down with being in a job that involves many people and a variety of endless tasks but I have realized that we do have way more time to make decisions. The small ones can be made on the fly but when we are supporting people in a building and have to make decisions that have a serious impact on these people, we all need a reminder to slow down and pause before making decisions. This has helped me to seek first to understand and lead better with my heart and mind.

By slowing down… I take less pride in being “busy”.  We are all busy in some way and this is not something we should wear as a ‘badge of honour’. Over the past number of years, my comfort and pride in being busy prevented me from looking around and seeing that others are willing and wanting to help. I often failed to notice the needs, wants, and wellbeing of others. I failed to notice the beauty around me and take the time to enjoy the moments with students, staff, and my friends and family. The simple acts of going for a walk outside, engaging in a real conversation, breathing deeply, and noticing the many amazing things around us have helped make me happier and healthier. By slowing down, I have embraced many more moments and ensured that I stay in that moment longer while trying to avoid that pull to the busy or perceived urgent matter.

My current school, Shortreed Community Elementary, is full of ALL aspects of life. We can get caught up in the speed of trying to quickly solve the many problems our children and families face; however, this can be overwhelming and exhausting. What some staff (at Shortreed and James Hill) have modeled to me is that in order to best support our community, I need to embrace the team, focus, listen, seek help, work through things in a face to face manner, and… slow… down…

By slowing down… we can create stronger and deeper relationships, make more thoughtful decisions, lead healthier lives.  By doing this, we can positively affect staff culture and the wellbeing of our entire organization.

I continue to have to whisper these two words to myself: SLOW DOWN. In a world that seemingly demands us to be faster, I encourage you to remind yourselves to simply slow down.

7

Maybe Dad: A Simple and Powerful Message From My Daughters

I sat there and stared at the table setting and welled up in tears. The other 3 plates contained what was left of a family dinner and mine lay there empty. Beside each table setting, my girls had written the names of our family members. Beside my name said “Maby”. Maybe dad. It was a message that broke my heart but I needed to hear. Too many dinner times I had arrived late or not at all because I was in a meeting or just trying to get that important email sent out. Too many dinner times, I had left my wife and daughters with the hope that I would be there for dinner but arrived 15, 30, or 60 minutes late. Now, we are at the point of “Maybe, Dad” for dinner. When we stop and listen to our kids, they can tell us so much… so much that comes unfiltered. So much that comes straight from their hearts.

I remember Chris Kennedy sharing that Barrack Obama had made it a priority to be home for dinner and if the President of the US could do this more often than not, so could he. Whenever I start to complain about my job, Chris is always the first person to tell me, “you signed up for this, you can choose to make it work for you”. I hate it when he says this but he is right. In our job as educators, there will always be the draw to be part of that committee, to attend that workshop, to be part of that meeting, to plan that perfect lesson, or to write that important email. There are many times when we can say no. Saying no to the things we don’t necessarily want to do is easier; saying no to the things we do want to do is much more difficult. We can, however, do this and make our families a priority.  We are all busy and we never have “enough time” but we can prioritize our time; if dinner time is important to me, I can make better boundaries and be sure that I am home for this more often. Yes, there are evenings when I absolutely have to be at the school or in a meeting but there are other times where it is my choice and I prioritize other things over these dinner times. This is not so much about doing way less but perhaps doing things differently. Instead of working until 6:30 and then heading home, I can head home earlier and catch up on work after the kids are in bed. I can still do my job well but shift my schedule so I do not miss out on the most important times in my life… time with my kids – these are times I will never get back and they must be a priority.

Having said this, I also think that we, as a system, need to continually strive to be more understanding of the importance of family and create the conditions for more wellness and balance in the lives of people within our communities. Each person is at a different place and we need to do a better job of seeking to understand and support. It is no secret that people who are healthier and happier are more engaged and more effective at work; we need to make this health and happiness a priority in our schools and districts. As principals and formal leaders, we can have a significant impact on this but we also need to take care of ourselves. The “airplane oxygen mask” analogy works here too – if we do not take care of ourselves, we will have a harder time caring for others.  There will always be a need for some late-afternoon learning sessions, volunteering as after-school coaches and club leaders, and having some fun as a staff beyond the school day but we need to be continually mindful of what we are asking of ourselves and others. If family is a priority and time with family makes people healthier, happier and more engaged at work, as a system we need to support this.

My goal is to put my family in my calendar like I do for meetings and evening events. I have to set better boundaries on leaving school to make sure I am home. I have to learn to say “I can only stay until 5:30”. I can be more reflective on what needs to be done and what can wait. I can be home for dinner more often.

In the past year, there have been some changes that have occurred that have helped me as a father. I am thankful that our superintendent has discouraged emails on the weekends as I find I can be at home and away from work on weekends (and to district staff who are bringing wellness to the forefront). I am thankful that my colleague George Kozlovic encouraged me to take emails off my phone so I can be at home and focus on family. I am thankful that my staff understands that I need to arrive at school a little later in the mornings so I can help my daughters get ready for school and my wife can look after our newborn son. Most importantly, I am thankful that my daughters set my name tag as “maby Dad” and sent me a message to shift my priorities and be home for dinner more often. There will be more times when I get to home to help to cook, serve the food, talk about “what went well” in our days… and the table is set with my name tag saying simply “Dad”.

Please feel free to share any ideas that have occurred in your school or district to help support those wanting to spend more time with family while maintaining their effectiveness as an educator. 

This song is a good reminder for us all…