My husband says that I am obsessive-compulsive. I prefer to say that I like to be prepared and that I am just living up to one of the meanings of my name, Tekakwitha, “one who organises”.
Truth be told though, he is right. Own your stuff, one of my sisters would say, although she would use a different S-word. So, I own it. I am (just a little) OCD.
I am one of those persons who has organisers in her drawers for socks, stockings, colour-coded masks, everything! I know exactly where everything is on my desk. When my husband borrows my stapler without asking me, I know because it isn’t replaced in exactly the correct spot. I study and research everything before I embark on a journey – professionally and personally.
When I lived in Hawai`i and California, I had minute by minute detailed itineraries planned for family visitors, beginning with breakfast and ending with lights out. It became a standing joke. No one followed the itineraries but I always had them available, just in case. Always. Anyone out there like me? If so, perhaps we can bond over a choice beverage.
I over-prepared for my first Headship, a charming school on the northern California coast. I studied everything about the task ahead – governance, personnel policies, dealing with conflict, etc. – even writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic. I was well-versed on the theory. I was less prepared for the emotional part of the position.
Yes, I had heard other Heads talk about it; however, I had been raised in a culture, that of a Wapishanna Indian, that valued stoicism when faced with adversity. It had always served me well in the past. I didn’t envision that changing.
During those early years, my energy was placed in improving institutional structures, policies and procedures. Together the staff and I helped the school advance in numerous ways and when I left 7 years later to move to the East Coast, I was pleased with all we had done to make the place happy and thriving. I look back on those times fondly but know that in one particular area I missed the mark. Even though I am a person bursting with joy, I had kept my emotions tightly reined, subsumed to getting the tasks done.
Setting New Priorities
That first school was barely out of adolescence. The second was a century-old and as I entered its halls, I could hear the whispers of trepidation that the California girl was going to change tradition, mess up things irreparably, wasn’t going to know how things were done on the East Coast. I chuckled inaudibly, remembering that in California, the whispers were that having been educated in a traditional manner, I was too formal for the West coast. Human nature tends to view the unfamiliar with suspicion.
I am wired to be goal-oriented and whilst that brings me comfort, I decided that this time around, I would step out on a slim balance-beam and prioritise relationships over tasks. For my fellow “well-organised” travellers, you will understand the depth of commitment it took to set aside the need to get through tasks in favour of getting to know someone. Obviously, I still scheduled time on my calendar to be spontaneous.
Prioritising relationships over tasks when there is so much to do makes me shift uneasily in my Head’s chair, so what will come as no surprise to most, was eye-opening for me. A new world was revealed as I bonded with each person, one heart at a time. I learned truly how each person’s journey was the most important thing to that person – the 5-year-old who whispered earnestly to me that she sometimes sneaks downstairs in the middle of the night to steal sweets and asked me not to tell her parents, the staff member who needed to find a new place to live within a week, the teacher who shares my love of shoes.
What I quickly appreciated is that the tasks will get done but with far more lightness of step when we understand each other. I have found that a healthy team dynamic is one where agreement flourishes amongst members who feel comfortable sharing their opinions and then once a decision is made, not always in consensus, all members speak with one voice, moving the school forward. Staff members who believe that their viewpoint matters, even if they do not always get their choice, give wholly of themselves.
Opening myself to showing emotion has allowed me to feel comfortable both crying and laughing together. This is a whole new world for me, one where I now feel relaxed having lunch or Happy Hour together, dressing down on Dress Down Days instead of making excuses of having to look professional in meetings and sharing personal stories with strangers.
I am the Head of the kindest school community I have ever experienced. It is not a utopia – Oh No! Persons get angry with some of my decisions, we step on each other’s toes and sometimes, we forget that to err is human. We, however, celebrate Random Acts of Kindness at our Weekly Gatherings, the pupils are well mannered and serious about their lessons, the parents go to great lengths to show the teachers how much they treasure them and when a community member is faced with an adversity, we rally around to support the person. All this, and we are an academically rigorous school – yes, I used the R-word.
Headship is like balancing on the edge of a sharp knife. When things go smoothly, we wait for the other shoe to drop. This time around, in this Headship, perhaps because of greater experience, I worry less about the shoe. I am less over-prepared for every imagined eventuality. I am less guarded, more open to the emotional side of leadership, allowing my whole self to emerge. A shy person at heart, I am less embarrassed by being me. I ended last year at our staff luncheon by saying, “I know that I am going to be judged for what I am about to do but I am going to do it anyway.” Then I took off my sandals, stood on a chair, raised my hands high in the air and said, “I feel on top of the world because with all its ups and downs, together, we had a great year!” My UK-bred husband had joined us and for a moment, I thought I saw his jaw drop and then he quickly composed himself. You see, he was also raised in a culture where stoicism was revered.
We began my second year with much celebration. Masks were optional, gatherings were back, Welcome signs, our Mascot and Kind breakfast bars inscribed with “All Kinds of Happy to See You” were distributed to parents during drop-off. I studied hula when I lived in Hawai`i and debated long and hard about sharing that part of me with the pupils, then decided to start our Welcome Back Gathering with an Hawaiian chant, an ‘oli about knowledge, to the surprise of some and giggles of others. A teacher said he felt I was brave to do the chant. No, I thought, not brave, just bringing my whole self to school.
E hō mai ka `ike mai luna mai ē Grant us knowledge from above
O nā mea hūnā no`eau o nā mele ē The things of knowledge hidden in the chants
E hō mai, e hō mai, e hō mai ē Grant us these things