few weeks into the school term and already some teachers are starting to look fatigued and dazed as another thing to manage and work through is thrust at them in staff meetings. The education agenda is continuing to speed up and more and more is required of teachers to keep on top of the shift. Already flat out providing quality education within their classrooms, our teachers are on the whole more than willing to evolve their practice if they can see what the big outcomes are for students.
But in the busy-ness of a school, the big picture direction can be overwhelmed by the minutiae that the job requires. Unless we manage the message and delivery of what needs to be done to move our big plans forward, our staff will become stressed and unable to work at their best, let alone thrive.
GIVE THE BRAIN A BREAK:
Our brains are constantly bombarded by minor stresses: new approaches to think about, jobs to do, people to see, classes to design, assessment to analyse, practice to embed, students to teach, nurture, challenge and support ( phew! I'm exhausted just writing all that!). When these stresses load up without being able to relax though brain friendly techniques, our brains suffer from allostatic load. (ever walked from one room to another and COMPLETELY forgotten what you came in for? Memory loss can be an indicator of allostatic load). We tip over from peak performance and the sweet spot of 'flow' into overwhelm and negative arousal. This place has a a very apt term neuroscientist use: FRAZZLE! This is a great term that I think perfectly describes the feeling of the brain 'fraying at the edges'. It's also something that is easy to see in schools in confusion and overwhelm at certain times of the year.
So how do we keep frazzle and allostatic load under control? As leaders, while we can't control people's own ways of dealing with the multitude of expectations and requirements of the job, we can help them to think and approach things in a manageable way.
CHUNK YOUR STRATEGY:
While we like to think we can carry and juggle a mass of information in our heads, our brains would probably like to differ. Research by Nelson and Cowan in 2001 showed that our brains can cope with up to 4 chunks of information well. Chunking is putting linked pieces of information together - think of a mobile telephone number where we 'chunk' the numbers to three or four groupings e.g.: 0417 317 563 or 0417 31 75 63. Much easier to remember than 0417317563.
When we are confronted by a list of things that have to be done, we can easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Yet in reality, if we have done the strategic work of aligning our forward direction to our vision, then the big chunks should be easily there for us to see. Your school's strategic plan, or annual implementation plan should be the guide here, if it's been well written. Is it improving teacher practice? Engaging the community? Embedding inquiry learning? Improving outcomes through explicit teaching strategies? Each school will have different focus areas depending on their context. What are your four main 'chunks' of strategy that you are working on as a school? Are your team clear on what they are and how the smaller parts link up towards that bigger picture?
CREATE A PICTURE
Put your four chunks up visually for people to see and talk about. In meetings and discussion, talk about what people are doing regarding big pieces and how they are helping move towards the vision. Then put down the key components clearly underneath them, so you can see the intersections; whole school approaches needed and the commitment required to get there. Just as importantly, so can your staff.
TALK ABOUT THE WHY
Simon Sinek's famous line from his 2009 Ted talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action : "People don't WHAT you do they buy WHY you do it' rings true in education just as much as business. Spoken insights from staff when we are working through the history of the school is that they didn't know WHY they were doing something. Or if they did it was not up for debate and discussion. This feeling of not knowing leads to confusion, frustration and lack of commitment all round. Leaders who make the link for people to WHY something is being done allow all staff to understand the moral purpose of the work. Leaders who co-create that why with their staff create massive shift forward to the vision.