It has been well documented that when school leaders change roles and have to step out of their comfort zones, it can take a while for them to find their feet and to regain their equilibrium. For any new school leader or an experienced school leader in a new role the experience is much the same.
New school environments to get used to, new relationships to build, new structures and systems to develop, all needing enormous investments of time and energy.
I know that it certainly took me some time to really feel that the role of Head Teacher really belonged to me and I that I could take it, shape it and make it my own.
I was excited and full of hope about the plans I had for the children in my school and what could be done to take the school out of special measures. But equally I was fearful too. I was one of the youngest members of staff, how would the other members of staff respond to me? As much as I knew that one of the reasons that I had been appointed was because of my people skills. I also knew that as much as I got on well with people, I hated conflict.
I was great at handling conflict and breaking up fights and disagreements with children, but with adults, that was another matter! Stepping into the role of Head Teacher meant that for the duration of time that it would take me to learn new skills [and in particular the skill of conflict management] I would be living and leading from my “stretch zone”.
The truth is that it is never easy moving out of our comfort zones; when we are in our comfort zones, in our day to day roles, our self-esteem receives regular boosts when our expertise is recognised and validated by others.
Meanwhile, when we step out of our comfort zone into this stretch zone, we have no expertise to call upon and our self-esteem that feels under threat. We are no longer able to gain confidence from tasks, roles and responsibilities that we have yet to master. We have to admit that we do not know and in admitting that we do not know, feel the self-doubt and diminished self-confidence that accompanies these admissions.
As a result, we can fear stepping out of our comfort zone, and the change that will have to come with it. This fear can be disguised in many forms. It can be;
– The churning feeling in the pit of your stomach when you think about things being different
– That sudden urgent need to take the dog for a walk or to watch X Factor; anything that will turn your mind away from moving out of your comfort zone
– It can be the worst case scenarios that you create in your head about ‘what if, things go wrong or don’t turn out as I had planned’
– The inner voice that says, ‘But really I am happy as things are , I don’t want things to change’
Many individuals stay in their comfort zone precisely because they have not yet learnt how to turn down the volume or switch off this inner voice. Through its constant pestering, nagging and criticism, your inner voice can cause you to believe that your false expectations will become a reality.
The fact is though, that they never really do, but your own inner monologue, never really tells that you that story. It has its own spin on reality. It tells you that your worst fears need your attention. It causes you to see the negative, as opposed to the positive, of any new situation. It reasons with you that things might even be worse the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation.
Consequently, you fool yourself into believing, it is best if you remain in a state of high alert; always vigilant, always on the lookout always ready to face your greatest fear. This is of course madness, as it is emotionally draining to remain in a state of high alert for something that might never happen.
However, because you believe that your inner voice is looking out for your best interests, you succumb to its advice and inadvertently create for yourself a negative cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
When no–one is challenging your thoughts, when no one is challenging you to think differently, listening to your own inner voice and its attempts to ‘protect’ you from hurt and pain seem like a pretty sensible idea. However, unexamined and left to run riot in your head, these voices can actually cause more harm than good.
As they act as invisible chains, that bind you to ways of thinking and behaving that over time, limit your growth and development. Often in jest, we call these voices our inner demons, but really, there is nothing funny about harbouring negative thoughts and feelings that prevent you from fulfilling your true potential.
However, the stretch zone is also the main place in which real growth occurs. James Hollis a Jungian analyst argues that this is because when we develop the capacity to accept and work with the anxiety and ambiguity that often accompanies movement outside of our Comfort Zone, we in effect grow up.
“Move into unfamiliar territory and anxiety is activated as our constant comrade… psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in us for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity. The capacity to accept this state, abide it and commit to life is the more measure of maturity”
( Hollis, 2006: 40)
It is after all, important to remember that it is precisely because you chose to step into your stretch zone and learned to make it your comfort zone, that you are a school leader today.
If you were like me, I’m sure you can remember a time when you knew that you were ready to step outside of the comfort of your classroom. This was a time when you knew that you were ready to take on increased responsibilities, because its walls had become too small for you and were constricting your growth.
As much as stepping out of your comfort zone into the position you are in today may have felt a conscious decision, it takes a much deeper level of consciousness to know how to thrive and survive in the stretch zone.
If you think back to when you first became a teacher and your very first class, your very first parent’s meeting, your very first assembly. No doubt you will remember those very first feelings of fear, anxiety and worry as you sought to get to grips with all those new experiences.
However, you will also remember when those feelings began to subside and you were no longer so worried and fearful; the time when you began to operate effectively within your comfort zone. As you grew in confidence about your skills as a teacher, so too did your ability to manage your classroom, your interaction with parents, peers and colleagues. Your comfort zone became a positive place for you to be. It became a place that:
– Confirmed your identity as a teacher
– Affirmed your strengths, which in turn boosted your levels of confidence and self esteem
– Nurtured belief in your own abilities and enabled you to experience the freedom to be creative and try out new ideas
– Helped you to trust in yourself
So as you undertake these new changes, try to keep in clear sight that you have been through this stretch zone before in plenty of other occasions, and have navigated these transitions and grown as a person and leader.
Whilst this latest transition will inevitably involve new challenges, allow this to embolden you as you broaden your comfort zone, your skills and knowledge once more.
My 5 Top Tips for New School Leaders
Stepping into a new school leadership role can be one of the most exciting things you’ll ever do – but it can also be one of the most challenging and the first few weeks can feel daunting as you adapt to the demands of life as a school leader.
To help you manage the transition and help make this time a little less overwhelming, I’ve prepared 5 key tips for all those who are embarking on a new school leadership role…