Grace, a high school principal, had some difficult choices to make when she arrived home at 6:00 p.m. one recent Tuesday after spending 11 hours at work. She could spend time playing with her children before they went to bed, or spend time with her husband before calling it a night. Or, she could start responding to the 52 emails and texts she didn’t get a chance to address while at school.

Grace knew she had 24 hours to respond to parent and community inquiries, but she always felt the pressure to respond sooner. Although she had a positive reputation in the community, she wanted to be viewed as a responsive and technologically savvy principal. She also felt pressure knowing a couple other principals in the district were tech superstars.

But Grace knew being a parent was important as well. The time she did not spend with her children could not be put aside and retrieved at a later date. They needed a mom in real time, not a Skype mom. It was a personal and professional dilemma.

Grace knew what she should do—spend time with her children. She also understood that those who were waiting for her response did not care if she spent time with her children. She also realized that if there was a critical email or text that she did not respond to that night, the superintendent would not be happy. She only cared that Grace responded ASAP. That was the cold reality of the “new access.”

While everyone agrees that technology has impacted the principal’s work in many ways, most of the discussion has centered on the benefits. Faster and better ways to communicate information to parents and almost instant access to school staff and administrators are all seen as positive by the public and school boards.

But there is a dark side to this new technology and improved communication that few are discussing. That unspoken question is: When does a principal’s day end?

Moving to the Shadows

How many hours out of 24 should one be available to respond to work-related issues, either in person or through the use of technology? Is a 24-hour response time calculated in 24 clock hours or is it 24 “typical” daytime work hours? There is a big difference. When is the principal not on the clock, and who decides that?

According to the results of a survey we conducted, principals told us that their work-life balance has been considerably compromised as a result of their increased use of technology and social media to communicate with various stakeholders. Overwhelmingly, though, principals acknowledged the varied benefits such as increased connectedness to school, increased parent engagement, and increased stakeholder satisfaction.

Downside to Technology 

However, these benefits come with considerable costs to the principal. When one says “yes” to one thing, one says “no” to something else. That something else might be time with your family and friends, your health, or professional development. It also might be less visibility in classrooms and fewer formative classroom observations.

One of the unwritten promises of using technology is that it will make our work lives easier, more efficient, and more effective. However, less than 5 percent of respondents indicated that the use of technology and social media had even slightly decreased their workload, while nearly half of respondents indicated that technology had either increased or significantly increased their workload. In fact, two-thirds of respondents indicated that they are available to their stakeholders seven days a week, with only a quarter of respondents reporting that they limited their access to five days per week.

When asked how many hours they as principals used technology to communicate with their stakeholders from 5:00 p.m. on Friday evenings to 7:00 a.m. on Monday mornings, the responses ranged from less than one hour to 24/7, with the average respondent admitting to six to eight hours. The vast majority of respondents spoke at length of losing their struggle to limit the negative impacts of 24/7/365 accessibility.

Principals shared how technology has consumed their lives, often wreaking havoc on their home lives—leaving little room for family or personal time. They noted that even at family gatherings, on vacation, or on dates, they find themselves checking their work emails and social media feeds. These school leaders spoke candidly of how the lines of work and home life had blurred—for many even disappeared—making it “difficult to walk away from it and just enjoy life.”

When Is the Job Done?

To reduce the problem to simple terms, the question becomes how much time does a principal need to spend working at the job to be successful? Principals sincerely want to project the attitude that they will do whatever it takes to get things done. Complicating this quandary is the fact there are usually expectations from the superintendent, school board, teachers, and students that you need to “work until the job is done,” but rarely do you find the definition of “until the job is done.”

When is the job done? The real answer is “never.” However, some new (and some veteran) administrators do not know that yet. We found the positive benefits that have resulted from increased communication with all the stakeholder groups have placed a new and serious strain on principals’ ability to “leave work” when they are not physically at work. The definition of what it means to be at work has been redefined. It seems as if the principal is always at work. And the one constant driving this tension is that all the constituencies listed above want the principal to be there when they need them. But this expectation for the role of the principal is not sustainable.

So, how does the principal glean the benefits of increased use of social media as an effective communicative tool while ensuring that the role of building principal is sustainable? The answer, as principals told us, is to define the boundaries between home and work. Unless this is defined and made public, the delineation of the principal’s role—the current model of the building leader as we have known it—is in danger of becoming extinct.

So, what can specifically be done? Principals did make some recommendations. See their suggestions above.

Beyond these recommendations from principals, we also advocate that school boards and superintendents assist principals in limiting 24/7 access of stakeholders by clearly establishing and supporting guidelines and expectations for a healthy work-life balance. Without these defined boundaries, principals will find themselves choosing between family and work or possibly considering another career. And that is not a choice wise superintendents would want successful principals to make. 

Jody Capelluti is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, ME. He was the principal of a National School of Excellence and currently works as a coach to principals in schools attempting significant change initiatives.

Anita Stewart McCafferty is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of Southern Maine Partnership. She was a middle school principal and presently works with aspiring and current administrators.

Balancing Family and Social Media Responsibilities

Principals recommend: 

  • Self-impose limits on use of technology and social media.
  • Choose one or two social media outlets to use consistently and purposefully in communicating with external stakeholders.
  • Allocate human resources to assist with effectively using, monitoring, and managing social media messaging.
  • Celebrate the benefits of social media by sharing resources, ideas, and strategies with staff gleaned from one’s professional learning network.
  • Remember the importance of face-to-face communication.