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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

Principal Connection / Taming the To-Do List

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Brad's desk was stacked with papers organized into some kind of "to do" pattern. When I commented on it, he laughed wryly. "If you think it's bad now, you should have seen it before the weekend! I spent most of Saturday sorting and pitching." Linda, another principal I met with recently, just looked weary from all the tasks her job required. "How many hours last week?" I asked tentatively. "I counted about 65. I've had worse," she replied. The stories proliferate.
Piles of papers—overdue reports, forms from the central office and the state, test scores to be aggregated and disaggregated—seem to multiply like rabbits. And that's without taking into consideration our overflowing e-mail inboxes! The quantity of things to do seems only to increase, as does the speed of expected responses.
  • Multiple agendas from central and state offices. Each district administrator is working on a piece of the education puzzle, and they funnel a lot of their work through the principal. These often unrelated and sometimes conflicting demands send principals scurrying in many directions.
  • Meetings! Too many, too often, and frequently not essential. Direct work with teachers, students, and parents at the school is often preempted by planned and "emergency" meetings at the central office.
  • Changing emphases. One month professional learning communities are touted; the next month, it's new methods of assessment or a newly minted math curriculum. The principal must juggle multiple new initiatives instead of taking time for in-depth focus.
  • Unrelenting paperwork. Although they are essential tools of the larger system, many reports and forms with urgent due dates have little or no relationship to student learning.
  • Interruptions. These unwritten line items in a principal's job description steal huge chunks of time.
  • Discipline issues. Both routine and crisis-related concerns riddle each day, and a serious student issue can steal days.

Breaking Free

There's no easy formula for getting free from these realities. However, these hints might help.
Set clear priorities and stick to them. What is urgent? What is really important? What can you postpone or delegate? No may be the hardest word in a principal's vocabulary, but it's essential. Say no (or no thanks) at least five times a day. Remember too that you may need to say no to yourself if you tend to spend large amounts of time on "professional hobbies"—endless tinkering with data, long phone calls, professional conversations, and so on. Be tough on yourself as you analyze whether you spend too much time on activities that only superficially relate to student learning. But be ready to say yes to activities that are likely to enrich student learning.
Stay connected. Block out time to visit classrooms and observe people in their day-to-day work. Carry a cheat sheet listing messages you want to communicate and for noting down matters that others bring to your attention. Often a moment's meeting in the hallway solves a problem that would take a half hour in your office. When you're out of your office for these visits, leave an automatic e-mail and voice-mail response stating, "I am working with teachers and students" and letting people know who might assist them with immediate needs. This message communicates your real work.
Delegate. Send an assistant or a teacher to meetings where your presence isn't essential. (However—if the superintendent calls the meeting, attend!) Your administrative assistant can be a great help with writing letters, returning phone calls, managing your calendar, sorting and recycling mail, and organizing meetings. Develop clear, consistent, and fair codes of conduct and consequences that teachers can enforce without having to send students to the office for minor infractions.

Remembering the Essentials

As we streamline our days, some essentials must not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.
Continue to learn. Principals absolutely must be head learners. Carve out time— however painful—for professional learning. Build a community of learners with other principals. You will quickly become an anachronism if you don't vigorously pursue your own learning.
Slow down! Dig deeply into who you are and what you are about. When the walls are caving in around you, shut the door, sit down, breathe deeply, and find your center. Continually running faster leads to poor decisions, mistakes, and forgetfulness—and ultimately wastes time.
Build relationships. Strong relationships with students and colleagues bring success and meaning to your work. Enjoy students. Laugh with them. Celebrate their joys and sorrows. This, more than anything else, brings us back to essentials. Our work has always been and always must be about children.
Tired we may be, but the meaning and joy of our work moves us forward. We have the power to energize teachers and form the hearts and minds of students. That is our "north star" and, at the end of those long days, the point of it all!

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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