Thursday, 25 May 2017

Bordering on Burnout, perilously close to the edge

I well remember sitting at the first Transforming Together International Coaching and Mentoring Conference being held at Waikato University in April 2015, listening to a psychologist describing the symptoms of burnout. I was shocked but, funnily, also relieved to realise that she was telling my story. I wasn’t there yet, but I was bordering on burnout, perilously close to the edge.

I had spent the first term of 2015 wondering if something was seriously wrong with me. Every morning I woke up and struggled out of bed with a body that ached all over. I walked around school feeling completely divorced from the world. I still managed to do my job quite well (proof I wasn’t there yet), but there was no joy, no feelings of fulfilment and only occasional excitement. I love hard work and I am passionately committed to what I do; but that term, I did my job and there was no pleasure in it. With my family, I was physically present, but I was all alone, lost in my own bubble. I was numb and couldn’t feel anything…zilch, zip, nada, nothing! I was tired…so tired. Too tired to even watch TV or movies or do the things I most enjoy. Even they brought no respite from this unrelenting nothingness. All I wanted was to be alone. Was I suffering some incurable disease? Was I dying? I didn’t know, but something was very wrong.

That, for me, is what bordering on burnout looked like. I was staring into the great abyss. Not burned out yet, but close. What wrong turning had I taken to get to this point?

I have always had a huge capacity for hard work. But eight children, becoming a principal, completing a doctorate, opening a new school – one big thing after another, without any recovery time in between – took their toll, along with aging and everything that entails. I kept going, as though I still had just as much energy as I had ever had, and slowly, over time, without conscious knowledge, like a wind-up toy whose battery is getting low, I wound down and ran out of energy. The thing about burnout is that it creeps up on you just as age does; and sometimes they creep together. That’s what happened to me.

Why was I relieved to discover this? Because now I knew what was wrong with me. Once something has a name, a label, you gain power over it. That thing has been exposed and now you can do something about it, do the right things differently. I was also grateful, because though I hadn’t been fully aware of what was happening to me, I had taken some actions, such as reducing my working hours a little, and that had helped – perhaps, stopped me from falling over the edge into burnout.

Looking back, I now realise that a couple of significant losses and no time to process the grief were significant contributors along with the perennials of overwork, stress and lack of time to and for myself, lack of quiet time - which for an introvert is an absolute imperative.

I would like to say I have turned over a new leaf or that I have this thing beat. Unfortunately, recovering from near burnout is a slow process and, anyway, life doesn’t seem to work quite like that. My strengths as an educational leader are a double-edged sword, because they also contribute to my weaknesses and so the propensity towards overwork and burnout still remains. I find myself dipping in and out towards burnout, but now that I know the signs, I take action. I am trying to write a new story of my life and develop a new narrative, but the human condition still impacts and it is an ongoing struggle to live according to the new narrative on a continual basis.

Self-knowledge helps. I have a lot of natural insight, both into others and into myself. But that is not enough, because I also have deeply embedded weaknesses and blind spots. I am so grateful for mentors and coaches, colleagues, friends and family, who keep me grounded and remind me by their presence and words, of what is important in my life. They are a mirror in which I am able to see my reflection from their and others’ perspectives. They show me the things I cannot see for myself.

So how to avoid burnout?
  • ·         Know yourself – your strengths and your weaknesses
  • ·         Be aware of the symptoms of burnout
  • ·         Take your “burnout” or “wellness” temperature frequently – take action accordingly
  • ·         Spend time doing things you love – other than work
  • ·         Find quiet and solitude
  • ·         Listen to what trusted colleagues, friends and family are saying
  • ·         Never be embarrassed to seek help
  • ·         Exercise
  • ·         Take control and actively manage your time

I am slowly feeling alive again. I am no longer numb and living as though in a vacuum. My life brings joy and pain – but at least, once again, I can feel all of it. I am trying to keep the words of Parker Palmer close to my heart:

“Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” 
 Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Friday, 28 April 2017

Releasing ourselves from narratives by storying

It was gratifying to see my first blog post inspire other educators to think about their health and well-being. Thanks Karyn Gray for your support and generosity in sharing my post and responding by telling your own story. I know what a committed educator you are and the price you pay for your commitment and service to education and humanity. Thanks also to those who have expressed appreciation for our honesty.

It is definitely a time in education to be honest. A political response might be an important element in creating the change that is necessary in education. But so far it hasn’t been particularly successful, and there has certainly been a great deal of politicking. Maybe what has greater potential to create change is a tidal wave of honest stories told by teachers and principals who acknowledge the tensions and guilt we constantly live with as we frequently fail to meet the needs of EVERY student in spite of our undoubted high moral purpose and our best efforts. These stories will necessarily be highly personal at times because we are, firstly, people – human beings with hopes and dreams for our lives – as well as professional educators.

In our stories we must acknowledge that the personal and professional cannot be separated and begin to address our issues in a holistic ways – by acknowledging the fullness of our experiences including our failures, our doubts and our emotions. We need to remove our professional masks and reveal ourselves honestly as people. To do otherwise is to keep in place the very ropes that bind us.

In stories, we can pull together the complex strands of our lives and begin to make sense of them. Through telling our stories honestly, the hope is that we will gain greater understanding of them, and in doing so, begin to release ourselves from the narratives that have held us in thrall for so long; and, hopefully, evolve and grow beyond them. We tell our stories to transform ourselves and to transcend them (The Importance of telling our stories).

I have recently published two articles on LinkedIn (A Sustainable Future in Education and Funding for care: A sustainable future in education, Part 2) which are my attempts to tell stories of my experiences as a principal. I wrote them because through the process of writing I am better able to make sense of them. The thing about narratives is that though they always have a complication, conflict or problem, they also finish with a resolution. As we write or tell our stories for others, we have an opportunity to rethink the ending and commit ourselves to creating a different ending in reality. It provides us with an opportunity to describe out loud, with witnesses present (audience), the ending that we want. That action of speaking out (or writing) the words then empowers us to actually create that ending in our lives. Writing these stories helps to clarify and highlight for me the gaps between what I say and what I actually do. I then have a second chance to change things so that what I say now becomes what I do. So.... life is understood through stories and stories, in turn, create life.

I finished my second article with:

“Even as I write this, I feel the anxiety twisting in my stomach: will I actually be able to say no? Possibly not. But then, as long as I am part of the enabling the problem, how will things ever change?”

Since saying that aloud in the public arena, like a recovering alcoholic, I have been able to say NO to being stretched too far beyond our capacity to meet the needs of our students. I have been enabled to act beyond a story that has held me in thrall for so long. If we do not push responsibility back to those with the power, then change will never take place, and we will be continually wearing ourselves out for little real gain.

I cannot change the story of others, but when I stop making excuses and stop playing the blame game and front up to examine and own my own story, then I gain control of my story and I am empowered to rewrite it; and, who knows, perhaps my honestly told story will resonate with someone else and enable them to reimagine their story.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Time and space to think, imagine, explore

I was pretty excited when at the age of 55 years old I was sitting in a session with Mark Treadwell and he said that age 55 - 60 were the most productive years in a person’s life. I decided then and there to make the most of this period of time and be as productive as possible. I also really liked what he said about things falling out of your head being a sign of great intelligence; because if that is the case, then I am incredibly intelligent. Things like spelling, homophones and possessive apostrophes are definitely falling out – and I have always been pedantic about these things. You might notice this at some point in my posts. Please do not judge me.

Well, recently I turned 58 years old and I wonder whether, in spite of my vow, I really have been as productive as possible. Life and overwhelming busyness somehow seem to have got in the way. Schools are very busy places; principalship even more so. This was brought home to me when an associate principal, who was doing my job for a few days, bemoaned the fact that she did not get anything on her list done in that time. She had thought she was busy as an associate principal, but could not believe the constant interruptions that required her immediate attention when she sat in my chair. The work we do during the day is necessary, but not necessarily productive or always positive as we react to everything that is thrown at us.

That is why I have to work early in the morning or even through the night – to try to get the sense of being productive and having control over my time and workload. I love working within the cloak of darkness, when the rest of the house is still and silent. I feel short changed when someone else gets up early and patters around the house. My bubble has been broken and life imposes itself once again. People think I am mad because I work in the night, but in my busy life, that is when I am most productive and get the most joy from what I do. It allows me to reset, gain perspective and approach the future with confidence and the right attitude.

Fortunately as you grow older, it seems you do not need as much sleep as you once did. However, I know this is not a particularly healthy way to live a life – especially when you then go on to do a big day of work and family living and there is no respite. I am tired.

For years, the Board Chair and my mentors/coaches have been encouraging me to do more of my work offsite to find the time to focus and get in flow; and as much as I have wanted to do this, it has never quite seemed doable or the right time.

“So the urgent drives out the important; the future goes largely unexplored; and the capacity to act, rather than the capacity to think and imagine, becomes the sole measure of leadership” (Competing for the Future, Hamel & Prahalad, 1994, p. 5).

However, towards the end of last year, my coach and long-time mentor, Dr Jan Robertson, challenged me to make 2017 the year when I finally did what the Board Chair has been encouraging me to do - step back a little, work off site more, and take time to think, imagine, and write.

So here I am, on a beautiful, calm, early autumnal day, with time and space to think and imagine, explore the past, present and future and be productive (in a less manic way!). It is the right time for me – my two youngest children have both left home for university this year. While family always places demands on parents, I am now freer than I have ever been since my eldest child was born in 1984. It is also the right time for Amesbury School. Staff are more than ready for increased leadership and are more than capable of running the school and responding to the daily challenges that present themselves. This is an opportunity for them to grow and develop; and is essential for succession planning.

I plan to share my journey - the thoughts, feelings, revelations and imaginings, particularly in relation to leadership and education (my great passion) but from time-to-time on life in general - on this Blog, with the hope that it might just make things better for someone in some small way.