Let’s normalise imbalance…

A few weeks ago a colleague said to me… ‘But you always look like you have it all together?!’ Now… either I’m doing a pretty good job of looking like the swan gracefully swimming above the surface, whilst furiously paddling below, or actually they don’t know me very well at all. Either way, I most certainly don’t have it ‘all together.’ But it got me thinking about perceptions and our role in how others view us.

The most recent podcast from @ScottishEducatorsConnect on Imposter Syndrome further forced me to consider this notion. How do we portray ourselves to others either intentionally or unintentionally? What part does social media play in our portrayal of both work and personal life? And how, as leaders, do we balance the dichotomy of bravely taking on the burden of the team’s issues, with being vulnerable enough to admit when things are difficult? So as a teacher looked at me almost ashamed to admit she was stressed, worried and overwhelmed, and I openly admitted that I often felt those things too, I wanted to pen a letter to my colleagues everywhere…

Dear fellow teachers,

I do not have it sussed. I know a lot after teaching for 16 years, but I’m still learning.

I always try my best but sometimes I get it wrong.

I love my job but sometimes it’s really hard.

I adore my boys but often they drive me crazy.

I work hard but I love time off.

Please don’t ever put me on a pedestal and assume I’m superhuman. I’m not.

Please don’t ever think you can’t come to me to offload. Because often I need to offload too.

Please share your bad days with me. I have them too.

Please ask me for help. I need help sometimes too.

Yours sincerely,

A very real mummy, wife and teacher leader.

It can be easy to present a part-life on social media. Only sharing the good parts or the things that go well. Part of the reason I removed myself from Facebook and Instagram years ago. For me, EduTwitter helped connect me with many inspirational teachers and leaders, at a time many years ago when I felt a bit lost and disheartened. It was about allowing me to stay positive and celebrate success, but I realise now that this may be seen by others as toxic positivity. As time went on, I used it more and more to learn from others, and ask questions. Admit mistakes and reach out for help. But I suppose we never really know others’ perceptions of our social media presence. But being aware of it, and recognising that everything we post will be taken and perceived by others in different ways should make us mindful before posting. That’s quite a responsibility. But so is filtering what we perceive as voyeurs. And being aware of our own responses when making judgements or decisions about others based on a wholly surface level acumen.

It’s important to normalise ‘not having it all together.’ Work/life balance isn’t the utopia. Life is not balanced. Being ok with work/life imbalance is important. Sometimes I’m on fire at work. Sometimes I’m doing great as a mummy. Sometimes I get it right as a wife. But very rarely is there a time when all three are equally successful – more often than not, because I’m doing well at school, I forget about my son needing to take money to school for a craft fayre. Or because I’m supporting a member of staff, it totally slips my mind to collect my little one off the school bus. On the contrary, there are times when poorly kids mean that my priority is being mummy, and work has to take a backseat. Making peace with the fact that there’s never an end point when we ‘make it’ has been really useful for me as a coping strategy. It gives me permission to give it everything I’ve got to do both well but when things don’t go to plan, it’s all part of the journey… or the rollercoaster.

The word I keep returning to is dichotomy. For leaders it’s the dichotomy of reassuring the team by being calm and in control, yet being vulnerable and honest enough to admit when things are tough. I want my team to come to me with problems. I want them to feel comfortable enough to tell me when things aren’t working. To be able to be honest with me, without fearing my reaction. Which means I need to be mindful of my response. Leaders are like the fenders on a boat – they cushion the blow. They are not able to stop the impact, but they can prevent or minimise damage by allowing others to lean on them.

But for leaders, that’s tough work. How can we as leaders, balance the need to carry the worries and stress of those around us, yet not be overwhelmed by burdening this weight for others?

For me, having a strong, trusted support network around me is vital to ensure that I can offload and talk through these worries to people who understand, yet whom I am not directly leading. Honesty, integrity and compassion are at the forefront of my actions and being professional is without question. Keeping perspective is another aspect which I think is important. Seeing the bigger picture and opening up the eyes of others, to the context of situations, is a key part of creating empathy within the team. As well as realising that sometimes others, like leaders, just need time and space to vent. There’s not always something tangible which can be ‘done’ or fixed, but purely by providing the safe space to open up, sometimes colleagues work out a solution or a way forward. That’s why it’s important that colleagues feel able to approach leaders. And that leaders have space to reflect – They don’t always have to have the answer. And that’s ok.

This week, let’s lift each other up with encouragement and praise, but recognise that toxic positivity is also damaging. Look for opportunities to listen to colleagues, but attempt to keep things in perspective and respond with compassion. Have a great week all.

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