The struggle

I’m struggling. No, this isn’t one of those confession blog posts, or a cry for help. I have just had something of an epiphany, however, that I am struggling. This is my first post in a while, and it’s a bit long, but I’ll explain why this is a big deal for me.

First, my role. I am a school principal. If you’re not specifically knowledgable about the role, at this point I’ll just say it’s complicated, multi-faceted, and has a high level of responsibility attached. As with most professions, we are guided by a set of Standards developed by our professional organization, which describe an ideal, if you will, or a set of skills and competencies to strive towards. Great, right? The standards serve as the basis for our performance reviews, and help us set goals for improvement. Professional Growth is obviously an integral part of a career such as mine. In fact, I am the professional development chair for my local chapter of the BCPVPA, so I place great value on professional learning.

Now about me. I am a pretty driven person. I work hard, I am passionate about many aspects of my role, I love to learn new things, I embrace change, I am energized by working with people and solving complex problems, and I think on top of that I’m a pretty positive person. I consider myself to have been very successful as a teacher, and I hold high standards for myself in ethics, relationships, collaboration, and empathy. So far so good.

So here’s the thing.

One of the topics in education that I’m fascinated with currently is the idea of growth vs fixed mindset as studied and described by Carol Dweck. Her research illuminates some extremely powerful effects of feedback and praise, and provides excellent strategies for building resilience, risk taking, and persistence in our students and ourselves. She talks about how some feedback and praise actually shut down a person’s willingness to do difficult tasks, and can create fear of failure and low self-confidence. I am planning on bringing more awareness and practice along these lines into my school. I try to be aware of how I support a growth mindset in my work with teachers and students. I write about it in my school newsletters. Like I said, I’m pretty into it.

I was the kid who could have been an example from the fixed mindset stories in Dweck’s book. I was told I was smart, just naturally good at things, and they were easy for me, especially school. I don’t remember trying hard and still got the same type of comments. I don’t remember most of elementary or high school, to be honest, but I remember very specifically the instances where I hit a failure: my grade 2 math test on greater than and less than. My first physics class. My first university class entirely in French. Guess what? My dirty little secret? I quit them all. I didn’t struggle. I quit them because they were hard. Huh.

Fast forward through two decades of successful teaching, having fun, taking on new grades, new school systems, getting great evaluations, and into administration. The work is messy. It’s complex. It’s constantly shifting. It’s spontaneous. It’s affected by dozens of factors completely out of my control. It’s hard to pin down. It’s guided by ideals that seem unreachable. It is fraught with moments that make you grin ear to ear with joy and make you want to shut the door and weep. It gives you tremendous energy and sucks it right back out. I judge myself based on the Leadership Standards, which describe what the job should be if you’re doing it well. self doubt creeps in. I’m not meeting all those standards. I’m not good at this. How can a person be “good at” a job like this? And wouldn’t it feel easy once you figured out how to do it?

I said this wasn’t a confession post, but maybe I do need one to tell the story right. A couple of years ago things were tough in my school. I felt like I was a “good” principal, a good leader, had good relationships, but I was also frustrated and feeling ineffective because things weren’t progressing towards that ideal as I’d expected. I decided that a change of school was what I needed to be able to be good at my job, the way I felt I should be. Basically, I quit because it was really hard.

I am sure you can guess that the work did not magically get easier at a different school. I am still struggling. And here’s where it all comes together. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset, I grew up in the fixed mindset, and I still live there sometimes. My epiphany has been that the struggle is not bad. That’s not to say that it feels particularly good while you’re in the middle of it either. It just is. I am learning that the struggle is not a definition of my success or failure. It’s learning. And it’s never going to end. Being an effective principal is never going to “come naturally” or be something I’m just good at, but i am going to keep learning how to do it. I can’t compare myself to other who seem to be “better” at it, or for whom it seems easier. I would never promote that thinking in a student! I should also not cut myself, or my school, down because it’s hard.

It’s a hard job, Carol, I remind myself, let it be hard.

Over the past few years, I have not been looking at my work as a work in progress, only at the product. The leadership standards should be, for me, not a destination to achieve or a list to check off. They are descriptions of the role, and it’s the process of learning how to do them that should be the goal rather than giving myself gold stars for already knowing how. I have been holding s double standard – that being a work in progress is great for others, but not for me. I’m working to be aware of how that old spectre of the fixed mindset still affects my thoughts and impulses, and to change that mindset.

But it’s a struggle.