2010 – a full decade ago — was a watershed year for me. It was the year I shed my aversion to, and even learned to sort of love, the ‘H’ word.
Here’s the scenario: I was living in the idyllic town of Mill Valley, nestled in the hills just north of San Francisco. We’d moved there from the city a few months before, so my two kids were still in elementary school in San Francisco itself. I, meanwhile, had a job I loved … in Palo Alto, which is south of San Francisco, by a good way. Driving door to door without traffic, I could make that commute in a little over an hour. Add rush hour traffic and the detour to drop the kids off at school and pretty soon you’re looking at nearly 3 hours in the car each day. Add to that the stresses of dealing with bad drivers, looming deadlines and impossible ‘to-do’ lists; of trying to be ‘present’ to my kids during the limited time we did have together, trying to do my best work when I was in the office (and after the kids were down for the night), trying to appreciate the idyllic place we’d moved to and feeling guilty when all this ‘trying’ didn’t add up to success and bliss ….
That’s how I found myself in a therapist’s office, a place I had never foreseen for myself. And very quickly she prescribed the ‘H’ word. HELP. I needed it, she insisted. Fine. But here’s the kicker: I needed to ask for it. This prescription felt very very hard for me. I had an ingrained sense that I could do it all. Asking for help was anathema to me. It was tantamount to admitting I was a total failure.
Baby steps, said the therapist. So I started with my ‘babies.’ I summoned up my courage, overrode that voice inside me saying I was a bad mother, and asked my mother-in-law to pick them up after school a couple of days a week (rather than have them go to after school programs that ended too early) and have them stay with her until I could come get them. She was … thrilled! Thought I’d never ask, was delighted at the chance to spend more time with them, hadn’t wanted to insert herself though could see I was struggling. Result: happy kids, happy grandparents, happy mom.
Next up: Work. What about proposing working one day a week from home? (Funny to think about that nowadays.) *Gulp.* This was unprecedented in the organization I worked for, but then again I was unprecedented, as the first person there to have elementary school children. I wrote up a proposal to try this arrangement out as a pilot. It was approved, somewhat reluctantly, because of the whole unprecedented thing. And guess what? It worked! So well that it wasn’t long before others in the office also began working one day a week from home. Productivity went up. Morale went up. As for me, I got to spend more time with my ‘babies’ and less time in unproductive traffic. I got more done at work and on the home front. Everyone was happier, and all it took was for me to utter that ‘H’ word.
The more I started uttering the ‘H’ word, the more I experienced its benefits in little and big ways, in my personal and professional lives. And here’s the big lesson: those from whom I sought help also benefited. Sometimes it allowed them to gain new experiences or develop new and useful skills. Sometimes they got compensated for exercising their skills and talents. Sometimes they were simply grateful to lend a hand or an ear to someone they cared for. Sometimes they simply got a better me as a result of their contributions and assistance.
I suspect many people in school leadership roles have the ‘H’ word affliction. In some circles there is a stigma attached to asking for help, as if true leaders are self-contained vessels who can handle anything that comes their way. COVID has made it clear that self-contained vessels are liable to burst when under enough strain. And leading a school from that approach leaves the school liable if something happens to the school leader. Something like COVID.
Asking for help doesn’t come naturally for many of us. Baby steps. Reach out to a trusted colleague to brainstorm about a particular challenge. Join an AAIE call for supportive guidance from peers. Watch a helpful webinar, like the one just put out by Ann Marie Luce and Amy Rankin on “Surviving, Reviving and Rebooting.” Engage a coach (I know a few good ones😊). I suspect that, like me, you’ll start noticing the personal benefits of Vitamin H pretty quickly. After a while, you’ll begin to see its impact on the individuals and the community around you as well. Ultimately, you might become addicted.
Yours in pushing (healthy and helpful!) prescriptions,