The Maverick Principal — Sunshine and Rain

Mark Sonnemann
Oct 24, 2018 · 5 min read

I began this year with a promise to write as much as I possibly could. Ostensibly to write a short post each day, or to write a few times a week at the very least. I haven’t written anything for a little more than a month. There is a story there – actually several - but those narratives are not mine to tell, and I want to respect the privacy and the feelings of those families and individuals.

Suffice it to say that there has been tragedy and tumult and transition in equal measure. In spite of this, I witness daily demonstrations of strength and resiliency and awe-inspiring compassion. There is heroic work being done by staff. There has been an outpouring of kindness and support from our community. But there is also a fragility to things – there is exhaustion and frustration and anxiety.

Though you never start the year with a hard and fast schedule to adhere to, this year has been exceptionally challenging in terms of where my focus and support are needed. I have been pulled more and more to the day to day operation of the school — management, supervision, accountability, conflict resolution. I spend a great deal of my time being reactive right now — responding to issues, putting out fires, managing conflict, filling in gaps. This is not a cycle that is sustainable or healthy, and it also means that the critical work of leading the instructional program and building a faith-filled and inclusive culture gets pushed to the side.

In schools, there is a tendency for educators to want to fix these situations – to do more to make things go smoothly. I think that this is true of all educators in whatever role they have, and while it is admirable and can hold things together in the short-term, it also drains the collective emotional and physical reserves of staff. Over an extended period stresses of this type can lead to conflict as well as illness both physical and mental. Keeping an eye on where these reserves sit and how people are coping is a key part of my job — building in opportunities for rest, activities to look forward to, chances to share the load with others.

It also requires that I am able to honestly reflect on my own abilities to cope and be resilient, and to care for my own physical and mental well-being. Honestly, this is tricky. I think that many administrators see time and their health and their overall well-being as some sort of line of credit. Most are willing to take out extravagant loans against their personal health based on the flimsiest of promises that we will “pay ourselves back” at some point in the future. In my experience, we are horrible borrowers who rarely make good on this IOU. I would consider myself in this category. Even though we know that the potential consequences of this pattern of leadership and work are significant, we cannot seem to stop ourselves — we attempt to put our heads down and work ‘through’ it.

It reminds me of the line from Macbeth where he says

“I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Shakespeare, 3.4.142–144)

Now Macbeth was talking about death and violence, but I think the same could be said for our work, especially in times when we overextend ourselves to keep things from grinding to a halt. In this case the violence we do is to ourselves and to our relationships, and all in the name of putting one foot in front of the other to reach some distant shore where this kind of Herculean effort is no longer required. As Macbeth finds, we can never actually reach that shore because once we start to overwork (or kill in Macbeth’s case!) we cannot stop, and the slower we move forward, and the further things seem to get away from us.

It is my hope that the completion of our school improvement plan will allow all of us to reset, reflect, and re-focus on our priorities. They are due next week, and ours will be a representation of the journey we see kids being on when they come to us — where they start, where and how we want them to grow — and what we want them to leave us with.

And maybe that is part of what is needed in times like these — a willingness to keep our eyes up and looking toward the future, on that dream that we have for all of our students, instead of “on the ground” or the drudgery of daily tasks, the challenges, and the red-tape.

Don’t get me wrong, without attention to detail, without planning, without doing the little things well, you can never ever reach your ultimate goals. But, I think it is equally true that if you become obsessed with these things, then you lose the clarity of vision you need to see things in context, to see the forest for the trees.

It is also critical, I think, to be able to find small moments of joy in what we do and where we are, everyday. I feel very fortunate that my teachers love bringing down students to me to share achievements and good news – these interactions sustain me and remind me that teaching and learning and working with kids is a wondrous vocation. Not everyone can share in the joy I get to experience when a student shares some new skill or ability or piece of work, or achieves some important personal goal, or just does or says some incredible that makes your smile or laugh, but I hope that everyone has those kind of precious gems in what they do each day.

At the end of the day, hopefully we are able to realize that life is rarely perfectly sunny or perfectly dreadful. Where and what we choose to focus on will go a long way in determining how we see the weather. And how we see the weather will help us to respond appropriately to conditions. Life is full of both sunshine and rain.

Mark Sonnemann

Written by

Dad, Husband, Learner, Catholic Principal. I never stop wondering, questioning, and imagining.

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