I was thinking this past weekend about a talk I heard Chris Kelly, the then Superintendent of Richmond School District, give at the BCPVPA Short Course about 15 years ago. The BCPVPA Short Course is generally for new administrators. At the time, I was an aspiring vice-principal.
Chris brought to the podium a kinetic chrome figurine like the one above. I remember these as popular at the time, a regular “executive” gift for one to put on their desk. They were the kind of figurines that you had to carefully balance one part on the other, or it would fall. Chris said it was one shared with him by a principal in his school district.
He used the sculpture to talk about the balancing act of leadership. As someone just entering the school vice-principalship at the time, I am reminded of the phrase, you don’t know what you don’t know. Chris spoke about the great balancing act of school and district leadership – with so many competing interests – the Ministry, the District, parents, teachers, students, and others. And the amazing diversity of the work, one minute you can be talking about reading strategies with a teacher, the next you are thrown in the midst of a parent squabble related to custody, then you are off to support the music production, and the next you are disciplining students for smoking on school property. The good leaders are those who are able to keep it all in balance.
That talk and that notion has stuck with me for fifteen years. I was used to teaching in my classroom, and there were largely defined start and end times to work – classes were built around a bell schedule and my work was largely defined by lessons, units and courses. The biggest shift I found moving into school administration is that work was rarely “done”. At some point one has to leave it where it is, and pick it up tomorrow. I have found this continue in district leadership.
As a teacher, I could often be very concrete with the answer, “So what did you do today?” As a school, and now district administrator, I find this more difficult. It is not that there is not a lot of work, or that one is not making a difference, there is just a lot that is ongoing. There seems to be a lot more that does not tie-up nicely. I find there is a continual ongoing nature of the topics, whether they are parent concerns, budget recommendations, curriculum implementation or ongoing working with the Board.
I look at the variety of tasks that our school administrators complete, and look at what my own days looks like – and diverse would be an understatement. Chris’ notion of balance is still very much alive for me. I often think positions like the one I currently have are like being a juggler at the circus, working to make sure all the balls stay in the air.
Our best leaders in schools and districts are able to balance all of these priorities without ever looking “busy”. They always have time for a question, rarely look rushed or flustered, and recognize that each encounter, no matter how significant it is for them, might be pivotal for the person they are interacting with.
I often think of Chris’ chrome balancing figurine. It feels like the story of my life – an endless balancing act.