Five ways hectically busy school leaders can stay on track

17th November 2016 at 00:06
leadership, stress, teachers, schools, students
'Trying to run a school can feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole, but there are ways to keep winning'

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As a principal I was fond of saying "if you don't have ADHD when you take the job, you will have it two weeks later". I supervised 70 adults and dealt with 530 students and their parents, as well as my follow administrators and the Superintendent.

It only took a small subset of this hoard to want my attention at the same time for the job to seem like playing the 'Whack-a-Mole' carnival game. 

Anyone who aspires to this job needs to realize this and be prepared to deal with it. As a principal for 13 years, I believe I managed the hectic pace with success, so for anyone who wants this job or who already has it, here are my top tips on how to stay on track.

1. Work out what can wait 

The ability to prioritize in a nimble manner is vital. This is a skill that can be improved with practice. When I taught leadership courses for teachers who sought principal certificates, I did just that. I gave them 'Wack a Mole' situations where multiple things were happening at the same time. 

I asked them to figure out what to do on their own and then put them in groups to compare answers, come to a consensus, and share with the class. I also shared what I would do. I used real examples from my practice and had them harvest the same from their building principals for further practice.

Here is an example. A teacher is upset that a vehicle is in her parking spot. An angry parent is in the office and wants to see you immediately. The breakfast line has stopped as two food service staff are arguing. You have a meeting with the superintendent in ten minutes. What do you do?* (Answer below)

2. Remember: all you need is love

The students and staff you serve are all God's children. I think this is a good outlook even if you aren't sure about God. You don't get paid to viscerally dislike anyone. It's also very stressful. 

You don't have to accept behavior you find inappropriate, but as you deal with it, the people involved should see that you still care about them. This may not seem directly related to 'Whack a Mole' problems, but if you act this way people will cut you more slack and be more likely to pitch in to help.

3. Diet and Exercise 

To get a lot done you need to be fit. Busy administrators tend to get bogged down in daily activities and promise themselves that they will make time later for exercise. The easiest way to build a fit foundation is to be visible. It's known as management by wandering around. It wasn't unusual for me to log forty plus miles a week as a principal, which included thousands of stairs.

Being visible will allow you to address things as people who see you can grab your ear. It will make them more efficient as they won't have to wait in line outside your office to see you. It will also give you more time to foster relationships with students and staff. You don't have to be thin to be fit, but fight the urge to snack whenever you find food in your path unlike many administrators I know. 

4. Be a Model Learner 

It's important to control your own professional development. The more you know, the easier some problems will become. In my case, I arrived at 7 am and worked non stop until about 4 pm when I was usually alone. I devoted the next hour to my own personal learning, which became more efficient when the Internet arrived.

I always left at 5 pm so as to not pass the point of diminishing returns. Many principals I knew worked nights and weekends. Working too long lowers the quality of your work. I also strove to be deadly efficient while doing routine chores. My proficiency with technology was key here.

5. Get someone else to do it

You need to look for as many tasks as possible that other people can do and delegate. When you do this, fight the urge to micromanage. This will show people that you trust them. 

Student teachers and administrative interns should be given real work, not just busy work. In the case of the all important state tests, for example, I always assigned the entire job to a teacher who had an interest in joining the administration ranks.

While being efficient is important, avoid things like reading your emails when someone is talking to you. Active listening is important as it shows respect and gives you a better chance to deal with the problem at hand. Sometimes all you have to do is listen.



Tell the teacher to park behind the car and leave her car keys in the office. When the offending driver comes to the office to complain you can move the teacher's car. Tell the office to let the parent know you are on your way. Swing by the cafeteria and tell the staff in no uncertain terms to start serving and that you will see them later to sort out their problem. Listen to the parent's complaint. If you can fix it fast, do it. If not tell the parent you will investigate the problem and call back. Then go be on time for your appointment with the superintendent.


Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the website and can be found tweeting at @drdouggreen


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