My thoughts on dealing with adversity

By this time of year, most of us have dealt with some form of adversity in our school. Perhaps there was a difficult conversation, an initiative that just isn’t going as planned, maybe there’s a relationship that’s causing some friction. Whatever the case, there’s some value in reflecting on how you deal with adversity and thinking about your role in it.

First, a story. I’ve a friend who owns and operates a takeout pizza restaurant. As an employer of many students in our town, I often ask him about his current staff. Not because I’m curious about particular kids, but because I want to know his impression as an employer of students in general. He has a fairly large turnover of staff, as they graduate or move on to other ventures. On average, a student will work for him about 2 years, perhaps returning in the summer for work as well.

Now Mark is a pretty level guy, and he’s not prone to exaggeration or hyperbole. He’s a businessman through and through, so when he speaks about something he’s thought clearly about it. There are often dollars attached to decisions, and the livelihood of his business is connected to the decisions he makes. One decision stands out for me; Mark is very reluctant to hire Honor Roll kids.

At first, I was puzzled by this, but then he explained. In his experience, these are the highest achieving kids so you would expect them to carry that over into the workplace. For the most part that’s true, but where he finds trouble is when they are faced with adversity. Instead of just admitting a mistake, or accepting something they’ve done, he finds they often try to cover it up, lie, or deny it. It might be something small, like putting on the incorrect toppings, or something larger involving cash, transactions or deliveries. He needs to trust his employees, and with his tracking systems he can tell when something’s amiss. When customers phone to complain, and the employee denies any wrongdoing, there’s a problem.

When I ask him, he feels these kids are doing at work what’s been effective in their lives, allowing them to be successful. He feels it’s a strategy these high achievers have learned to deal with failure. Other kids, not so tied up with success or “looking good”, more easily accept mistakes, admit them, and move on.  He’s been surprised how many top students he’s fired, and how reliable the average students are.

I often think of this when faced with adversity in my day. As a leader, there’s part of my personality that strives for good results and is motivated by success.  But the background noise of Mark’s story always echoes in my mind. After all, I am that kid in someone’s pizza shop, metaphorically speaking. Am I all that different?

I haven’t been perfect, we all get flushed when things go awry. Some times are better than others, but it would be nice to have a few tools to keep in check when it goes south.

So what’s worked for me recently? Well, I’m always comforted by thoughts that bring me back to the importance of relationships, and the need to keep student learning first and foremost. This business is not about maintaining my ego. If something isn’t going as planned, I need to be able to remove my emotion from the situation and “work the problem, don’t be the problem”.

When something happens that causes tension in my building, I immediately take the “balcony view” and watch myself for use of the personal pronoun. When I catch myself saying “I..” instead of “..we..” I’m putting my needs before those of the team. Me before relationships. Am I motivated by a desire to move the problem forward, or preserve my damaged ego? After all, failure is a vulnerable place, not many people like to admit it. But how you deal with it says a lot about you and what you believe.

It’s been helpful so far to remind myself; be the watcher, not the thinker. Stay attuned to the emotion, the need to defend your ego. Situations can often trigger a fight or flight reaction, and you go into defense mode. But it’s important to remember our role, the need to move through the situation in a way that protects the people, keeps them safe, preserves their dignity and honor. We are the leaders in that and the example we set is seen by the entire community. We are there because of the students and their learning, and improving the learning in our buildings should be the primary motivation for all we do. If I keep that central in my mind, I’ve got a source of comfort when faced with challenging situations.

In the pizza shop, the kid who protects his ego now has 2 problems; the mistake he made, and the lie to cover it. He’s now become part of the problem. How do you deal with adversity when it comes your way?


About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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