Four habits for effective school leadership

As the new school year gets underway, follow these tips to make you a more effective leader, says Justin Baeder, director of The Principal Center

Justin Baeder

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I love the opportunity to start fresh each school year. Even if we’re welcoming back mostly the same teachers and students, and teaching mostly the same curriculum and standards, the new year gives us a chance to hit the “reset” button on our habits.

More than any other factor, your habits as a leader determine the impact you’ll have this year: here are four that will help you start the year strong.

1. Get current: practice inbox zero

Every day of leading a school is like drinking from a firehose. There’s so much going on—such a high volume of communication—that it can be overwhelming.

The main problem is prioritization. We can pick the best option out of, say, three possibilities for how to spend our time, but how do you pick among dozens or hundreds of competing priorities?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, gives us the answer: we can’t—at least, not rationally. When we’re overwhelmed with options, we don’t pick the best one. We pick whatever’s closest at hand, whatever’s squawking the loudest, or whatever seems least unpleasant at the moment. 

If you have 1,732 unread emails sitting in your inbox, there’s no way to prioritize them. The solution? Don’t get so far behind. It’s not realistic to spend ten hours on email in a single day, but it is possible—in fact, essential—to handle today’s email today.

Inbox zero doesn’t mean answering every email, or filing every email, or doing all the work represented in all of your emails on the day it arrives. That’s not realistic. But you can clear your inbox once a day, and you must if you want to stay current this year. For strategies to help you organize by action and reach Inbox Zero every day, check out my webinar The Inbox Overhaul.

2. Separate deciding from doing

My wife loves to make lists for each week and each day, then check off every single item. Not me. I’m not much of a planner by nature; I prefer to just dive in and see how much I can get done.

Can you guess who’s more productive? Left to our own devices—our natural ways of working—she is, by far. I can only match her productivity if I force myself to plan.

It took me a while to discover the power of planning, because the main function of planning is to create focus and help us avoid distractions—and for school leaders, reacting to distractions is part of the job. But only part of the job.

How many times have you felt the frustration of working hard all day, without a moment’s rest, only to reach the end of the day without having achieved anything on your to-do list?

For school leaders, the to-do list suffers from the same problem as the overloaded inbox: too many items to prioritize.

So I don’t plan with a to-do list. I plan from my to-do list (which contains all my options, including many I’ll never actually do), and I plan on my calendar.

Making a list isn’t enough. Instead, you have to make a schedule, which eliminates in-the-moment decision-making and forces us to be realistic. 

A to-do list can grow infinitely long, but a calendar gets full. The sooner we notice our limits, the better, so we can actually prioritize.

Make your weekly schedule before the week begins, and update the next day’s schedule each evening. If you do, you’ll be more realistic, more able to say no, and more able to make informed changes as circumstances change.

3. Communicate on purpose and on schedule

As a leader, you can never communicate too much or too clearly. If you want to get everyone working hard toward a common vision, you must communicate regularly about where you’re headed, how you’ll get there, and the progress you’re making.

This year, don’t leave communication to chance; leave it to your channels.

You probably have a few key channels through which you can communicate with your staff:

•    Staff meetings and professional development days

•    Your staff newsletter

•    All-staff emails

•    PA announcements

•    1-on-1 conversations and team meetings

Talking about big-picture goals once in August isn’t enough; they must be repeated and re-emphasized week after week if you want them to remain alive in the hearts and minds of your staff.

The only problem? Each of these channels is already full of other priorities. Every meeting agenda is full. Every newsletter has plenty of other announcements. And you know everyone gets enough email already.

But if you want to give your priorities a platform, you must create it.

In your weekly staff newsletter, set aside the first page for people to hear directly from you about what matters most. Put the big issues front and center. Every week, give people an update on them.

(As a side benefit, this will ensure that you’re making progress each week so you have an update to share.)

To ensure that you’re communicating on purpose and on schedule, send out your newsletter on a consistent day each week. This will get you in the habit of preparing your updates, and will get your staff in the habit of reading your newsletter.

And use a template that you can copy from one week to the next. This will save time and create consistency, because it’ll give you blanks to fill in, instead of an intimidating blank page. 

4. Listen – and get into the classroom

While it’s essential to communicate a clear vision, it’s not enough. As leaders, we must also be students of our organizational culture, and that means listening to our staff, students, and families.

When I first became a principal, I set up 1:1 meetings with each staff member so I could learn as much as possible about the school as quickly as possible.FT

It was a great decision, but now I’m wondering: why didn’t I do that all the time?

Even if you pride yourself on having an open-door policy, how will you hear from staff members who are more hesitant to seek you out?

Consider quarterly, or at least annual, one-on-one meetings with each staff member.

But the best listening doesn’t take place in your office; it takes place in the classroom. That’s why the most powerful habit you can develop this year is to get into classrooms, every single day.

In the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge, I share a free plan for getting into about 3 classrooms per day, which will put you on track to conduct 500+ visits this year.

You don’t need a form or a template or a checklist; at most, you can take some notes so you have something to discuss with the teacher afterward. Have a brief conversation, be ready to listen, and see what you can learn.

Justin Baeder is Director of The Principal Center and host of Principal Center Radio. He helps school administrators transform their productivity and speaks regularly at conferences and professional development events.


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