“This job is so hard.”.
The first time I heard that, sitting politely in the neat, welcoming office of a Head Start Director, I’ll be honest: I attributed the statement to the person. She seemed warm, nice, experienced, and organized, yet frazzled.
Maybe she’s in over her head, I thought. Who knows? Maybe that’s why she hired me?
“This is the hardest position I’ve ever held. It’s sort of soul-crushing.”
My ears perked up. It was two months later, a new office, a new face, and a familiar discussion around “what’s right in front of you?”. My partner in conversation: A Head Start Director who had been in his role for sixteen years.
There is it again, I thought.
Those two moments occurred in rapid succession over a decade ago. I was building up a consulting business by doing something sort of radical at the time: showing up, leaning in, listening and learning. Then, and only then, offering to help, and working at solutions that would actually work and actually last.
In ten-plus years of close conversations often bordering on therapeutic or intimate, I’ve learned a ton.
Head Start Directors are always in the most challenging position in their professional lives. Most of them have stuck around despite the fact there are many, many reasons not to. They are ridiculously dedicated, carry stress with what is outsized strength, and have become fluent in a foreign language no one outside of the world of Head Start can possibly begin to understand.
“My FCE Coordinator can’t figure out the PFCE framework in time to get our Strengths and Needs Assessment ready for our FA2 Review. And my ERSEA Coordinator broke her custom module in ChildPlus so we’re sort of blind on our 85% attendance threshold compliance.”
Yeah. Totally. For sure. (I’m from Southern California)
“We’re struggling with turnover, morale and pay issues, union problems. I’m always at odds with one of my content leads. Our teachers are more or less revolting against the rise in the amount of tasks they have to finish outside class time.”
That also sounds bad.
One thing I really like are visualizations. They help me make sense of things.
To help me make sense of my experiences, I drew this:
That was my first “model”. The Head Start Director getting clobbered by all sides, all at once, while keeping her spirits up and putting on her best face and attitude for all of those for whom she is responsible.
I’ve used that image in power point presentations when I’m speaking to groups of directors around the country. It always got the desired response: a big laugh, then immediately, all the directors turning to each other at their circular tables of 10 and nodding and smiling in communal agreement.
I’ve since refined the model.
Let me explain:
The pressure from above never relents. Maintaining the grant, both application and acceptance, and successful maintenance, while avoiding DRS, is responsibility number 1, paired closely with monitoring visits and a continual stream of compliance demands and “what do they want us to do now” changes. Programs operate in state and local contexts with similar endless requirements, and topping it off, many directors put the challenges that push down from above within their own agency at the top of the list.
The pressure from below is far more unpredictable, but also omnipresent. Running a Head Start turns out to be little more than an earning a PhD on the fly in daily, monthly, and seasonal crisis management. “Now what?” says a typical Head Start Director, on Monday, Tuesday, WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, and FRIDAY morning (at 6AM). Working with children and families living at the poverty level, in communities facing their own endless pressures, is characterized by instability and the unknown.
But it’s the red arrows in the middle that make the model.
When all those Head Start Directors repeatedly state “this is the hardest job I’ve ever had”, they aren’t talking about the two blue arrows with the unrelenting pressure. They are talking about the red arrows. They are referring to their responsibility to track, understand, accept, translate, communicate, and manage every single one of the pressures.
Head Start Directors are faced with an impossible task. They have to catch, hold, and take responsibility for all of it. The red arrows show this. Every day, they decide how to either push down to their staff the endless things from above without breaking them, AND, they gather information and prepare to report up to the various compliance organizations without betraying or damaging their programs and staff.
The image above is the starter model, to help explain the concept of the red arrows. I ran this past a few Head Start colleagues, to see how it landed. Each one of them made a correction to the model. It now looks more like this:
I fixed it and showed it to them, and got this:
“Ha! We’re in JAIL! Look at me peeking out of the bars!”
“This job is so hard.” You think?
And of course, now, I could add a huge colored “COVID” arrow to this, just to put the entire thing up over the top.
One of the most rewarding parts of my career has been developing strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with Head Start Directors. When I walk through this model, each of them has really reciprocated in return. The main thing I’ve learned is how many of them are willing to make a tradeoff: they take responsibility for all the pressures because the difference their programs are making in the lives of families and children is WORTH IT.
“This job is so hard.” Yes. Thank you for doing it. Happy Thanksgiving.