Sometimes I get overwhelmed with this job. Sometimes it is difficult to know if I am doing this job well. Sometimes it is hard to prioritize.
Fourteen years into a career as a principal, I can now admit these things openly. I can do that because I have found a set of solutions to being overwhelmed. The first step, of course, is admitting to being overwhelmed and trying not to unnecessarily complicate your administration.
Anyone who has been a school leader understands this complexity—our job requires us to manage a complex organization with changing and often unreasonable or unclear expectations.
Some of this complexity is political—too many people think of schools as places to solve all of society’s problems. As Jamie Vollmer illustrated in his book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, with a lengthy list of additional duties that were added to public schools over the last century—nutritional classes, immunization requirements, technology lessons, character education, standardized testing, bullying prevention, and more—we expect way too many things of our schools.
Further complications have arisen due to a changing society. Think of the complexity, distraction, and time burden added to schools in the last decade alone with the addition of smartphones and social media. I do not remember Apple or Instagram warning schools about how much time their inventions would add to the principal’s schedule, particularly when students say unkind things in a text or a post, causing an issue that needs to be addressed.
Additionally, there are competing priorities: crosswalk duty that needs to be covered, a frustrated parent in the office, a student struggling with severe behavior, lesson plans that need to be checked, evaluations, etc. Often, this messiness makes it hard to decipher exactly what it means to be a good principal. It is all too easy to fall back to “just stay busy” instead of doing this job with intention.
That strategy of staying busy is not only widely practiced, it is also widely celebrated: “Look how many hours the principal works! And she stays so busy the whole time!” But staying busy is hardly the point of school administration.
So, what is a school principal to do to become more effective while preventing being overwhelmed?
First, find clarity about what you should be doing, and then build systems and habits to stay focused on that. This is easier said than done, of course. Try putting the following eight strategies into place to maximize your role as principal:
#1: Create a Written Plan With a Few Big Goals for the Semester
This does not mean writing a bloated, complicated plan that is required to meet state or federal requirements. The simple truth of the principalship is that you cannot prioritize and maintain focus in your job unless you know exactly what your school should be focused on. Spend some time digging deep into school indicators, and have lots of conversations with teachers, district office administrators, parents, and students about what the priorities should be. Listen, look, and then reduce and simplify the final list down to two or three key goals—be brave here! Remember that too many priorities are the same as none at all.
#2: Make Instruction the Priority
Since the interaction between teacher and student is a key purpose of school, focus at least one of your goals from the previous step on improving instruction. In his book Leading with Focus, Mike Schmoker’s straightforward approach to improving the essentials of teaching—chunking, having clear objectives, checking for understanding—may help give you a clear priority. Block out significant chunks of time to observe in classrooms, model—or get someone to help you model—solid instruction, and provide relevant professional development sessions on a regular basis.
#3: Don’t Ignore Valuable Data
Data can be tremendously helpful in steering your school. But it’s not about the amount of data your school can put on charts—it’s about getting the key data in front of the right teachers. Be on the constant search for simple data that show progress or need for a change in your goals, and then share it and have conversations about it regularly. This is time-consuming, so delegate some data sifting to others if possible: an instructional coach, a teacher who is interested in leadership, or a district data expert. Of course, you still need to have a conversation about any key data discovered. Consider exploring the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model developed by Richard DuFour.
#4: Create Systems That Make It More Difficult to Reach You for Smaller Things
Since you are the principal of the school, people certainly need to be able to reach you in an emergency. But the things many people consider urgent may not be urgent to you at all. Take the time to train your office staff to respond politely but firmly to requests to see you that are not urgent. In the vast majority of cases, you can respond to the issue later. Also, remember that you don’t have to immediately respond to emails and texts in most cases. You can spend time immediately responding to everyone, or you can spend time focused on your goals, but you cannot do both.
#5: Use Your Calendar as an Indicator
Deploy your calendar the way that teachers use lesson plans. Use it to plan ahead. Invest a little time planning for the upcoming week. Make sure you have specific time blocked out to focus on your priorities. Show me someone’s calendar, and I will tell you what their priorities are.
#6: Meet Less, but Better
Some meetings in schools are necessary, but learning how to have shorter, more effective meetings when possible will help tremendously. I’m sorry to say that nobody covered this important topic in any of my administration classes. A great resource here is Patrick Lencioni’s aptly titled book Death by Meeting.
#7: Listen to and Communicate With Your Staff
Michael Fullan once observed that education is “technically simple but socially complex.” As you go through the process of getting more focused, some people might feel hurt that you are not as available as you once were. Be careful not to forget about the emotional aspects of leadership. Set aside a little time to listen to their concerns, show them you care by responding to those concerns when appropriate, and constantly remind them of the priorities.
#8: Review Your Plan Quarterly
No plan is perfect. Build a trusted leadership team and reflect with them. Discuss the evidence for what worked and what did not. Be open to criticism, but do not allow too many priorities to creep into your plan. Monitor and adjust as needed.
Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution, write about the challenge of trying to be disciplined and focused in the whirlwind of competing priorities in any organization. I believe this whirlwind is even more difficult in schools due to the sheer number of stakeholders with so many competing interests. But that is all the more reason to tackle the principalship with a focused set of tools to simplify your leadership and the many distractions that surround you.
Changing how you approach your job is never easy. It requires you to let go of some ideas that are comfortable, such as “If I stay busy, everything will be OK.” And it requires you to try some new ideas that might be a bit awkward at first: “Since I can’t do everything, I will focus more of my time on the key things to improve our school.”
The complication and messiness of schools—caused by politicians, changing society, and the many competing tasks in your school—do not have to keep you from being a successful principal. By using the outlined strategies, you can significantly decrease your stress, be more effective in reaching your goals, and enjoy the job more. I know this because it is exactly what I did. Simplifying your school leadership is worth it.
John Scudder is principal at Wigwam Creek Middle School in Litchfield Park, AZ.