An “Oxygen Mask” for the Principal

My life as an airplane passenger started at for me at five years old on the trek to visit my father in California during summer vacations. I long ago lost track of the number of flights I have taken, or the number of safety presentations that I have heard. At one point, I decided I might be a stewardess so I could fly to grand adventures for less money. The fact that you had to serve people caused me to rethink the job as a viable option, but the aspiration made me practice the safety presentation until I knew it by heart. The takeaway, “in the event of an emergency, secure the oxygen mask to your face before trying to help someone else”.

Health and Safety, and Social Emotional learning has been at the forefront of my mind, since March when the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic first impacted the British Columbia School system in a big way.  The website and the TEAMS Platform for staff was updated with many helpful links and ideas.  In my leadership role, I implemented many ideas to provide support for kids, parents, and staff.  During the summer, opportunities to address self-care were easier because there was more time.  However, now back in the midst of addressing needs of others in an emotionally charged environment with many issues to address, what are those things that make up the oxygen mask for the principal?  It is only October and the answer to the question is elusive to many of us.  I have come up with five things that I am trying to do now that school is back in session to provide that much needed “oxygen mask”.

  1.  Try to Avoid Personalizing Negative Interactions

COVID has created a highly emotionally charged environment.  You don’t have to be in a position of authority to experience overtly inappropriate reactions to events folding out around us.  Sometimes you just need to be there.  The other day I was riding my bike to work.  I most often take the seawall route because it is so pretty and a great way to start and finish the school day.  As I was about to cross the road by Granville Island, a guy in a nicely pressed pink shirt, driving a big, black SUV, stopped to unleash a string of expletives at me and the bike rider beside me, and then squealed off in front of us with his red face and a head that looked ready to explode.  The other bike rider and I shot each other perplexed looks, wished each other a good day, and carried on.  I wonder how the rest of pink shirt guy’s day went.   The only option is to recognize that this person is having difficulty coping.  Step away.  Sometimes there is a need to revisit the situation later.  Sometimes I just chalk it up to COVID stress. 

  •  Set Boundaries

My initial strategy was to try to develop plans, and back-up plans to fully inform people of upcoming changes and issues.  I would also try to trouble shoot, problem solve, and address all the requests coming my way.   I would wake up in the wee hours of the morn to strategize and send email.  I created comprehensive communication systems and broadcasted the latest information.  I created multiple ways for people to provide input into decisions.  I soon learned that I would not be able to solve all of the problems, I was overwhelming people with too much information in some cases, that not everyone wanted to be involved in all of the decisions, and that the shifting landscape caused frequent changes in information.  Plans were obsolete within hours and I was exhausted.  Now I am waiting for the reality of the situation to play out before I make plans and announce them.  I realize that I am never going to solve all of the problems, get all of the jobs completed, or make everyone happy.  I continue to have an overdeveloped work ethic and do the very best I can in a workday, but I also set boundaries about a time when work stops and starts.

  • Connect Often with Supportive Colleagues Doing the Same Work

Never underestimate the value of having people who you can trust to call.  People who you can call and cut to the chase when you’re in a hurry or to vent.  Other principals and vice principals are the only ones that can possibly understand the work you are doing on a daily basis.  They are the people that can steer you in the right direction, let you talk through your rationale, share a similar experience, problem solve, give you another perspective, tell you where to find the updated form, or just laugh with you.  I have principals that my life crosses paths with in a multiple of ways – book club, golf, personal experiences , shared friends, or perhaps BC Principals’ Vice Principals’ Association responsibilities.  We share experiences in the same schools, the same community school teams, or connections with universities.  Those conversations are invaluable because the understanding of our shared experiences and navigating in shark infested waters is pivotal right now.  These are the people who  always give you the benefit of the doubt and have your back!

  • Laugh

I recently had a high school friend on Facebook send me a message after I had posted something.  She reflected that although we have lived in different cities for many years, she can still hear the giggle and the joy in many of my posts.  On both sides of my family, I grew up laughing.   I just celebrated our 35th Wedding Anniversary.  The key to the longevity of the marriage is we can still make each other laugh.  Our kids are grown but they still life to travel with us and visits are filled with laughter.   Being able to identify the humour in even a difficult situation, often helps us to get to the other side of it.  The most common refrain in the job right now – “You can’t make this stuff up,” followed by laughter!

  • Make a date with yourself

I am currently reading, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.   Her book targets those people aspiring to become more creative.  She makes a suggestion that I think is invaluable to anyone.  It is not only giving yourself the permission to indulge yourself with a fun activity but also planning it and putting it on your calendar.  One of my goals for this year was to read 100 books.  Thanks to COVID, I’m almost there.  Reading is high on my list of dates with myself.  So is writing.  So is being by myself.  So is Book Club.  So is Happy Hour with friends.  I like the deliberate way in which Cameron talks about creating these spaces for ourselves.  I think it is an aspect of self -care, as important for principals and vice-principals, as it is for staff, parents and kids. 

The focus of my professional growth plan this year is focused on the Relational Leadership standard.  Developing inclusive and collaborative cultures with effective communication requires a focus on social-emotional learning more important now than ever before.  How people are coping with the stress of COVID-19, recognizing the inter-cultural context of our schools, and developing a sense of collective efficacy determines our effectiveness as a school community.   In March, my focus was very much trying to address the social-emotional needs of staff, students, and parents in my school community.   I was running as fast as I could, and I was exhausted.  My pivot is not to shift the focus of my work, but to integrate how I can model self-care.  I’m putting on my oxygen mask, and hopefully my school community will all benefit from it.  My fellow administrators, I’m interested in what makes up your oxygen mask?

As always, I understand that not everyone is comfortable expressing their ideas online.  I appreciate the private messages, emails, and calls.  They push my thinking and contribute to the “eureka” moments along the way.

One thought on “An “Oxygen Mask” for the Principal

  1. Thanks Carrie
    This post sets up my week!

    From: Inquire2Empower
    Reply-To: Inquire2Empower
    Date: Sunday, October 18, 2020 at 7:48 PM
    To: E Bell
    Subject: [New post] An “Oxygen Mask” for the Principal

    Carrie Froese posted: ” My life as an airplane passenger started at for me at five years old on the trek to visit my father in California during summer vacations. I long ago lost track of the number of flights I have taken, or the number of safety presentations that I have hea”


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