“I’m not sure I can do this,” you text late on a cold Thursday night. “I’m not sure it’s sustainable.”
I call you right away; we talk through the challenges of a hard week, the intensity of mid-winter in Independent Schools. By morning, you are feeling slightly restored.
But I can’t sleep, thinking about how to help you know how good you are at running a division, at meeting the needs of the girls, the faculty, the parents. It may be you are too good, entirely empathetic, at your own expense. You tell me you have never cried before about work, and I think about all the times I have cried because of work, because of how inadequate I felt, how ill-equipped and inexperienced I felt about how to face a situation, find a path.
I’d lie in our bed in Manhattan, my husband fast asleep and cry because I didn’t know how to manage, what to do, because I felt like an impostor, because a child in my care at school was too sick or sad or lonely or a colleague was infuriating or a parent was too hard on a girl and I couldn’t protect her. I did not believe I would ever feel equal to the work, worried it would consume me at the expense of my own children, but what else could I do? I am a teacher. And that meant, in order to make more money, I took on more responsibilities in my school. Eventually, I became a Head of School. I remember very little of those first few years of headship, except crying while my husband slept.
Once, early on, I told him, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how.” I bleated, quivering, awake this time, not restored by sleep. My mother always counseled that things looked better in the morning, but this time they were as bleak as they had been the night before.
“So, are you a quitter?” my kind husband asked.
I bristled. I am anything but a quitter, often to my peril. I never give up on anyone, anything. He knew that. How dare he accuse me of being a quitter.
“Of course not,” I retorted, still crying.
“Then get dressed and go to work and figure it out. Ask some people to help you. It’s just stuff.”
It is just stuff. Sometimes, mountains and mountains of stuff. We feel an urgency to respond, to provide solutions, to meet every need, and then we are depleted, fragile, frustrated. So sustainability is the right goal. I look at the ways we raise the girls in our school. We preach resilience all day long. We have to be purposeful in practicing the components of resilience for ourselves. If we want to be strong, durable school leaders, we must walk the walk. That means taking ourselves out of the game from time to time, knowing when we need to vent or kick a problem upstairs or remind ourselves that a lot of the urgency we feel is because others want us to feel that urgency. One of my mantras is that it will all be there tomorrow. What really matters? In the tsunami of minutiae, we get to decide. Not everything is a capital letter crisis, but there are days that feel that way. I liken it to be trapped on a wonky escalator. I can’t get off. But, most always, we can.
We can always look at how to organize the work, but a weird thing will also happen. You will keep going, buoyed by people who love you. The rhythm of the year will become more familiar, not easier, but less like your calendar is living you instead of the other way around. Or, like me, goaded slightly from my self-pitying puddle by my husband who knew that all he had to do to move me from paralysis was to taunt me with my greatest fear—that I might give up—which, in a slightly unbecoming way galvanized me, you will find a path forward.
You’ve got this. We can whittle the job into smaller bites, remind you of the high regard the faculty hold you in, the affection girls have for you, the trust parents are developing in you. I remind you that there is nothing wrong or weak when you ask for help or feel overwhelmed—it’s a fact—the work is overwhelming. Hard. Frustrating. Some days, hopeless. But most of the time, it’s just stuff.
And, I was thinking in the middle of the night, that sometime down the line, you will offer your own version of this to a younger, less seasoned administrator. Pass it on. My job is to care for you so you can care for lots of people who benefit from your care. Put your away message up for the weekend. It will all be there on Monday. And take a real break over vacation. It helps.