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Time Management Insights for Principals

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “How Instructional Leaders Can Create Healthy Work-Life Balance” by Justin Baeder in The Principal Center, March 2018, link
In this article in The Principal Center, former principal Justin Baeder weighs in on the perennial issue of work-life balance for school leaders. “Evidence is starting to emerge that stress isn’t just endemic to leadership,” he says, “– it’s an epidemic… Many hard-working educators seem to feel a strong sense of guilt around the idea of self-care, as if a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude toward student learning rules out any effort to limit one’s own stress.” This is a formula for overwork and burnout. To have a positive impact on student learning over time, says Baeder, principals need to pace themselves as professionals, not damage their health by acting like heroes.
An interesting parallel is what has happened in a line of work with a long history of heroism: firefighting. Rushing into burning buildings, carrying out gasping victims, and dousing raging fires – all this epitomizes bravery and self-sacrifice. But starting in the middle of the 20th century, firefighters turned to a much more effective way to save lives: prevention. Firefighters now spend most of their time visiting schools, supervising fire drills, and checking on sprinkler and alarm systems, fire doors, and smoke detectors. According to Steven Pinker in his new book, Enlightenment Now, 96 percent of 911 calls to fire stations are for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies, and most of the rest are for small fires. A typical firefighter sees a burning building every other year. “Professionalism outperforms heroism, every time,” says Baeder. “It’s not flashy, but it works far better.” So what’s the equivalent in the world of the principal?
• Define and protect the leader’s work. That means staying focused on a well-defined leadership agenda designed to maximize student learning, and having systems to prevent and deal with things that pull principals away from the core work. “[I]f you’re fighting fires all day, every day,” says Baeder, “it’s time to step back and look at the system you’re dealing with. Do you have a wooden building with no sprinklers, metaphorically speaking? Are you plagued with perpetual emergencies that could and should be prevented by proactive leadership?”
One example is substitute teachers – calling them, assigning them, dealing with problems when they can’t handle classes, covering classes yourself when there aren’t enough subs or they arrive late. Baeder suggests putting some serious time into solving the problem up front: consulting colleagues in other schools who have a better system, recruiting a strong pool of subs, getting a staff member to train and handle subs, and delegating the daily business of calling and assigning replacement teachers to someone in the office.
“Ninety percent of schools have already done this,” says Baeder, “and you can too. In fact, we have the knowledge and the ability to solve virtually every problem that’s currently stressing principals out. The key to sharing that knowledge and implementing it everywhere is to drop the pretention of heroism. We must instead adopt a mindset of professionalism, stop tolerating the endless cycle of burning buildings, and install the ‘sprinkler systems’ we need.”
• Build low walls with gates. If you don’t protect your core work from all the other agendas that compete for your time, says Baeder, you won’t be effective for students. Working with principals over the last decade, he’s noticed that “the most overwhelmed and stressed-out principals seem to be in a constant state of emergency. It’s not just that they’re dealing with a few emergencies. It’s that everything is an emergency, all the time.” But in other schools, the same phenomena aren’t emergencies; they’re handled by systems. In the school where Baeder was principal, for example, there was already a good system for handling substitutes – a combination of technology, delegated responsibilities, and resources that made subs “a permanently solved problem” that rarely demanded his attention.
Baeder likes the analogy of a low wall around a pasture. When teachers needed a substitute, they connected with the school’s online SubFinder system. If that didn’t arrange for a sub, they called the school’s office manager, who worked her magic with glitches in the automated system. If that failed, teachers could “jump over the wall” and bring the problem to him. Importantly, the “wall” was low enough that Baeder could see what was on the other side and intervene if necessary. The result: subs took very little of his time.
• Designate exception-handlers. Of course not all problems can be solved with systems. How can principals keep from being pulled off agenda by unique situations that demand an immediate response? An example: there’s a traffic-flow issue out front at dismissal time. This kind of problem could come straight to the principal, but a better process (unless it’s a real emergency) is asking the safety committee to address it at the next meeting. “Again, the ‘wall’ protecting our time shouldn’t be so high that we’re fully insulated from every issue,” says Baeder. “But the wall should gently guide issues to the right ‘gate’… ‘Let’s put that on the agenda’ is a magical phrase. It shows responsiveness and concern, but also a disciplined, measured response – you’re not dropping everything in response to someone else’s issue.”
Another example: a parent comes to the principal and says, “My kid is being bullied. What are you going to do?” The best scenario is that the school has a PBIS program in place and there’s a structured response ready to be implemented – a “gate” to which the principal can direct the parent. If such a program isn’t in place, the principal’s work is getting a program up and running, which will take time now but pays big dividends in the long run. That’s the macro work that prevents lots of inefficient micro stopgaps. “Again,” says Baeder, “think of these as low walls … to keep people from dumping too many of their issues on us too easily. Some issues are big enough to get over them, and interrupt you immediately, like if there’s a fight, or a serious complaint about a teacher, or some other emergency. But other issues aren’t big enough to go over the wall, so you route them to the ‘gate.’ They walk around for a bit, come to a gate, and try to get in.”
Does this sound bureaucratic? Sure, but it’s bureaucracy in the best sense of the word – systems to get routine things done efficiently. It seems bureaucratic when the fire marshal comes around with a clipboard and scolds a principal for using door stops on fire doors and asks to see the fire drill logs. “Would it be more ‘heroic’ to carry people out of burning buildings?” asks Baeder. “Absolutely… But which saves more lives – the professional process, or the heroic rescue?”
• Keep regular working hours. Even with good systems and low walls in place, leaders still get a lot of other people’s issues. That’s because there’s one leader and lots of stakeholders, and it’s very easy for them to button-hole the leader or send an e-mail. “It’s important to recognize that this work is endless,” says Baeder. “There is no hope of ever being free from this work, or ever finishing it all… You’re the bottleneck in your organization. So how can you keep these pressures from eating you alive?”
Step one, says Baeder, is recognizing that, “If you’re willing to stay at school until 9pm every night, your work will oblige you by expanding to fill whatever time you give it… If you feel guilty leaving at 5pm, just remember this: you’re never going to get everything done, and the longer you work, the more time you waste. You’ll approach each additional task with less mental energy, and you’ll be working on less and less important tasks as the evening wears on. Do the most important work first, and give yourself a hard deadline for going home. You’ll work faster and more efficiently, you’ll prioritize more rigorously, and you’ll be more effective.”
• Don’t use texts for tasks. In recent years, there’s been a big increase in texting in professional contexts, accompanied by less use of e-mail, which Baeder believes is a big reason for leaders’ stress and overwork. Texts are great for quick questions, he says, but a very poor way to manage work. Why?
- Texts can’t be marked as unread.
- They’re difficult to forward or copy people on.
- They’re difficult to manage on your computer and other devices.
- They don’t integrate well with productivity tools like Outlook and Google Calendar.
The solution: Don’t let people text you at 10pm and expect an immediate response, and don’t let people text you random requests that you’ll struggle to keep track of. Institute a clear policy that people e-mail you if they need you to do something, and model this by using e-mail the same way yourself.

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07/15/2020 - Matt
This is a great list of strategies for time management. I remember in my first year as a principal and the time grabbers were overwhelming.

One thing that helped me was the rule of one-touch. If I'm going to touch email, paper, or some task, I'm only going to touch it once. So if I don't have time to fully respond to an email - I will not open the email until later. One touch and done.

There's another list of time management strategies like you list at Principals' Seminar:

Also, your third tip was a valuable lesson to learn. Stay in my lane. Do my job. Help others understand and do their's. Leaders get to their position because we're good at taking on tasks, but as a principal, that same behavior will swamp you fast.

Thanks for a great read!