When I was in high school and college, my brothers and I worked part-time diving for mussel shells in the Kentucky Lake area.
We would sell them by the pound at local markets, and those shells would in turn be sold to Japanese markets. Apparently, the pearly-white cuts from those shells are unique implants for growing cultured pearls in oysters.
One day I was climbing across the bottom of an area that was ten to twelve feet deep. The only sounds I could hear were the hissing breaths from my regulator. As I found shells, I placed them in a net-bag I had clipped to one side of my weight belt.
Because of low visibility, we didn’t swim with tanks on our backs. Instead my compressor, tank, and filtered line all connected to my boat. I was connected to a 50-foot air hose taped together with a 50-foot line of rope, and my regulator line was connected by a clip-on-hook to my weight belt at one end and attached to the boat and compressor at the other end. As I worked along an even stretch of clay and mud, I swept the surface with my hands while pulling the boat along with me.
Suddenly, I came up to a trotline. This was a problem. Above me somewhere, long fishing cords were stretched, weighted, and floating horizontally while in front of my face were the vertical lines interspersed with hanging hooks and bait. I didn’t like cutting these, so I tried maneuvering around this one instead.
But a few minutes later, I felt a pressure pulling on my line. I tried to turn around to pull back at my hose in case it was caught on a root or stump, but I couldn’t move it any further than a few inches. As I strained at the line, I finally saw where a few hooks from the trotline had snagged it. For some reason I decided it would better to unhook my regulator so I could hold the line in front of me and take out the hooks by hand. This seemed like a reasonable option, so I reached for the clip and flicked it open. Wrong decision.
In a flash, my regulator line jerked forward, and I was left biting my regulator’s rubber mouth piece as hard as I could while the line shook with amazing force. At the same moment, I also realized I couldn’t move forward toward my line because something was tethered to my back. Somehow I had been hooked in the back and my regulator was pulled away from me at the same time.
If this is hard to imagine, picture standing in a room with two doors. You are standing with your back stapled to one door while your only source of oxygen is a mouthpiece connected to a hose and tank on the other side of the room by the second door. Someone opens that door, picks up your oxygen tank and is walking away. Only your teeth in that regulator mouthpiece will keep you breathing.
Twelve feet under water, in a cloud of mud and clay, I was being pulled from two directions at the same time. With my free hand, I reached for my knife I kept sheathed around my leg and began cutting at any of the tangled trotline I could find. Soon I was free again. I reattached my line to my belt, breathed deeply again and followed the air-hose line back to my boat.
3 Lessons From A Close Call
Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t make lake diving my life-time career. I still made dives for year afterwards, but I realize now how lucky I am to be telling that story. My point in telling that story is this: If I had not been prepared ahead of time for what do when under pressure, I could have easily never made it to the surface alive. I’ll talk about that more in a minute.
But first, think about your own school leadership. We may not face life-and-death situations on a daily basis, but we’re faced with amazing pressures all the time. Whether that involves managing student safety, resolving conflicts, directing personnel policies, prioritizing budgets, or advocating with elected officials–the list goes on and on with scenarios we face under pressure (sometimes many of them at the same moment).
I remember one day visiting with an elected official in my office. We were talking when I received a phone call that we had a situation requiring police presence and my supervision. I shook hands with my friend and headed out the door. Hours later I followed up with a phone call to thank him for his visit. But this was after I had helped investigate the situation on hand, interviewed students, contacted parents, issued school discipline, and written a police witness statement.
For many school leaders, managing under pressure is the rule not the exception.
So let me ask you a few questions today. What kinds of pressures are you currently facing? Do you ever feel like the weight of decision-making is threatening to drown you? If so, you’re not alone. As you face these pressures, let me offer three quick takeaways from my diving story that may apply to how you can keep your head above water:
1. Anticipate pressures, practice for them, and lean on your training.
Let me go back to my diving story for a moment. Long before I had begun solo diving, my older brother Jesse had been given the task of training me in safety. His training involved having me completely suit up and connect while walking through demonstrations of my work on the ground first. After he was satisfied that I understood each step and what to do in case of emergencies, I was allowed to do test my diving skills.
One important safety step also included wearing a knife strapped to my left leg, and practicing locating and unsheathing it while in full gear and underwater for trial runs. These practice runs very likely saved my life.
As you grow in school leadership, you grow through the practice. Eventually, you may find some of your responsibilities carried out almost by second nature. But most commonly, you will rely on your training and the on your experience. With that in mind, when possible walk through difficult scenarios before they happen. Think about the kinds of crises you may face in school: an intruder scenario, difficult conversation, disciplinary action, or instructional coaching moment. Practice, drill, and debrief with others on these scenarios. Later when real situations arise, you will walk through them with more wisdom because you’ve practiced.
For instance, we recently practiced an intruder drill at an unexpected time in my building. This exposed areas we needed to address better for the next time. And it gave everyone the opportunity to practice.
Sometimes new situations arise for which you’ve never practiced. But these also serve as good experiences to draw from the next time you face a similar situation, and believe me, you will.
2. No matter what is happening, keep calm, and work slow and steady.
When difficult moments happen, it is easy to begin losing your self-control. But staying cool under pressure is a big part of finding solutions. I remember having lunch with one of my school’s Army recruiters. He was talking to me about his own survival training where he was plunged into water in full gear. It was a controlled setting. Because others were standing alert to jump in and help, he knew he was safe. But when he plunged into the water wearing a hundred pounds of gear, he remembered his training. He was told that in intense situations, try to relax and work slow and steady.
So keeping a cool head, he carefully unzipped his jacket, and piece-by-piece he methodically removed his gear and all of outer garments before swimming safely to the surface. Although I was terrified of losing my air in my diving experience, I had to gather my thoughts so that I could take the next best step.
Sometimes the best response to intense situations is to slow down and take your time.
When encountering a difficult conversation in your office, for instance, if you feel emotions beginning to rise, begin taking notes and put your thoughts in writing. Or if you are managing follow-up to a student conflict, have the students sit in separate locations, and require them to write out statements before their discipline is assigned. It not only provides important documentation but also it also reestablishes a sense of self-control. You can de-escalate a situation by simply stopping and slowing down the process in front of you so that you don’t miss out on important steps in finding a solution.
3. Gather appropriate tools in anticipation of possible scenarios.
Procedures, processes, handbooks, emergency plans—these are all the school leaders tools in implementing the right response to a given situation. Sometimes tools may include form letters, Google Docs or Google Forms. At other times, your tools may be technology apps or programs for communicating like Mailchimp, Remind, Twitter, or Facebook.
If you find yourself facing tasks that drain lots of time from your day, ask yourself if there is a more efficient tool for accomplishing this. One tip I’ve tried is setting a timer when reading emails. If you are working against the clock with a pre-set amount of time, you often can process much more thoroughly with this kind of focus.
Having the right tools and strategies available before these scenarios arrive can help you successfully move forward under pressure. Strong teachers collect good tools for instruction, and we should do the same in administration.
When I think back to the day I was caught underwater while diving, I remember making it to the surface, climbing into my boat, and then leaning back against the side with a prayer of thanks. School leadership also creates moments and scenarios of intense pressure. So keep these three tips in mind: anticipate and plan for pressures, slow down your pace and keep your head, and gather the right tools on hand. When you do, you will have meaningful ways to keep growing and moving forward each day.
Now It’s Your Turn
Times of pressure and stress are inevitable. What plans, practices, and tools do you have to help you manage those times when they come? Feel free to comment or reach out to me via Twitter @williamdp.
Shout-out to TASSP!
By the way, if you’re reading this currently, I will be keynoting at an Assistant/Aspiring Principal Conference for the Texas Association of Secondary Principals next week! Check out the TASSP website for more details!
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