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The Canary in the Coal Mine

advice leadership management organisation Apr 07, 2024


Are you familiar with the story of the canary in the coal mine? For those who don't feel like googling, I will give a brief summary.

Back in the day, coal miners would bring canaries in cages into the coal mine as a way to test for early signs of toxic gas, in particular, carbon monoxide. Canaries are more sensitive to these gases and would display illness before the miners would. If a canary became sick, the miners knew it was time to put protective gear on or get out of the mine. 

At the school where I work, I have a few canaries. They don't know they are canaries. Essentially, they are staff members I keep an eye on to test the environment and check for signs of danger. If I see they are a bit rattled, avoiding me or showing symptoms of stress I know I may have pushed a bit too far with my latest idea, project or expectation. I can imagine a few people reading this saying 'Stop animal and human testing right now!' Please know, I am not testing on staff, I am simply keeping an ongoing eye on the community as an ecosystem.

This first idea came to me many years ago when I was an early career deputy principal. I would get so excited about the latest research or idea and would desperately want to implement it right then and there. Luckily I still had a teaching load so I was able to give it a go in my own classroom. This probably wasn't useful in my execution of said idea or project because naive me would usually say 'I think we should do.... and I have already tried it in my classroom and it's not hard so we should all implement it'. Urrggh! Even writing that now makes my stomach flip. Seriously, talk about how to NOT win friends and influence people!

As I grew as a leader, I learnt that I could test out my latest ideas with one or two canaries. I would share what I was working on without saying it was something I thought we should implement school-wide. I would share my latest thinking and seek advice from said canaries on how I could improve. This was very useful, not only would they share great insights but when the research or project was a bit full on or pulling time away from what mattered, they would name it. 'Anne-Marie, it sounds interesting but I think it's pulling you away from your core teaching' or 'Anne-Marie, I think you are over-complicating things, have a look if it has made a difference over the course of 4 weeks and if not, pull back'. This was exactly what I needed to hear. Other times the canaries would say 'That's actually a clever approach. Tell me how it goes' or 'I do something similar in my class, I didn't know there was a name for it. That's interesting!'. 

If you are considering who might be the canaries in your coal mine, the following points might help you.

Think of the Environment First. What is Your Coal Mine?

Don't use a drop in attendance in the staff room as your measure if no one goes to the staff room in the first place. In some schools, the staff room is a hive of community and friendship, other schools, not so much. What will the measure of environment be? If there were to be push back on change or upset in well-being, where would it be visible? Keep an eye on that environment and see if there are any changes.

Timing is Key

When in the term are you going to test your theories, ideas, projects or suggestions. When will you measure the culture and well-being of the community? Look at the term and try to avoid those peak times like the week reports are due or parent teacher interview week. Your read on the situation might be off due to competing factors. Pre-test the timing by having a term or a few weeks where you keep things very stable and still. What are the waters like? Are they already choppy or is it all smooth sailing? If there is unrest, stress and upset among the community on the 'average day' perhaps start there and fix that rather than bringing in something new. I know you could be busting to try a new approach, idea, project, opportunity but if the conditions aren't right it's going to make for an unpleasant journey. 

Who are the Outliers? They Aren't the Canaries You're Looking For.

We know them - the ones who spit the dummy when the slightest change comes in.

We also know them - the ones that will roll up their sleeves and say 'put me in coach' to any new idea.

The aren't your canaries.

The canaries are the middle road people. The ones who take on board what needs to happen, who are level headed and are possibly a little under the radar. The canaries are the ones who get on with things with minimal fuss but won't buy the unnecessary flash of a new approach if it is not supported by a substantial reason as to why the change needs to take place. These are the canaries. You will know that you have pushed too far if the ones who are usually cruising along all of a sudden start jacking up about something. If there are change in the behaviours of those who are the steady as they come people in the school community. Hopefully you will read it early and recognize the signs before it impacts on their well-being. 

Move With the Times - Proactive Measures and Less Sick Canaries

Nowadays, canaries have been replaced with CO2 detectors. No one is harmed and the detectors can pick up the most subtle of changes. Consider how you could replace or supplement the canaries for CO2 detectors. One such way is keeping a clear eye on your school strategic plan and annual goals. Your plan and goals are your map and whilst it would be excellent to take up a new idea, opportunity or project there is wisdom in the phrase 'it's not no... it's just not now'. If you feel strongly enough, wait and bring the idea into the following year's plan. Be sure to provide the required support and professional learning for staff to implement and name the success measures you will be looking for. By providing these from the start, you are drawing everyone's attention to the CO2 detectors and ensuring everyone has read the manual. 

The expression 'canary in the coal mine' is useful as it reminds us to constantly check the state of the community. Questions and reflections such as 'I notice, I wonder' and 'How do we feel about...' can give everyone the chance to be a canary.

Being a school leader can be really challenging and keeping the balance of the community whilst trying to innovate is especially difficult. Hopefully this week's reflection provided some useful insights into testing your community's readiness for and willingness to change.

Let's not wait until a full mine collapse before doing something about our school community and the well-being of those inside. Keep an eye on the canaries, or better yet, invest in some quality CO2 detectors.



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