A Nagging Problem

In a recent national survey conducted by The National Association of Secondary School Principals, over 50 percent of principals reported spending at least 60 hours a week on school-related activities. This workload contributes to nearly 50 percent of them leaving their schools in their third year. In another survey by the same organization of first- and second-year principals, 44 percent cited time management as their top challenge.

The sage advice veteran principals give to their newly initiated colleagues is direct and straightforward, “Don’t let the job consume you, or you’ll burn out.” The question is, how can principals avoid the dreaded burnout that lies in wait for so many of our finest men and women who wish to devote their lives to bettering our children’s education?

In interviews with many of those same principals who understand the risk of burnout, two bits of advice were heard over and over again. The first was the necessity to hone both in-school and out-of-school habits to be more productive while keeping time available for family and other essential aspects of life. The second was to define your mission as principal and focus your activity as much as possible on its fulfillment.

In the pursuit of accomplishing these critical objectives, every principal needs to be committed to three things: time management, self-care, and implementing the principal’s real role.

Time Management

Organize and Plan

Find your organizer, planner, calendar, or app of choice and make it a very close friend. Get in the habit of putting all of your tasks into it and set priorities. The more you can put on the calendar, the better– essential meetings such as appointments with the superintendent, administrative personnel, teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and formal classroom observations, as well as deadlines for your projects.

Teachers have lesson plans, and so should principals. The principal’s lesson plan consists of what you want to accomplish each day. Aside from the daily happenings that you can’t predict, make sure that you block out time to check your email, prepare for the school board meeting, and read. Create another list for those essential items that you don’t need to do today, but need to get done, nonetheless.

Who’s Boss, You or Your Email?

As we all know, email can rob us of valuable time, and therefore requires discipline if we are to escape its grasp. Commit yourself to reading and responding only at certain times. Control yourself from reacting immediately, lest you train your senders to expect instant replies. Remember, the fewer emails you send, the fewer you will receive.

Avoid reading emails after hours unless you are expecting an urgent message. Principals have found that reading emails late at night can keep them awake worrying about how to solve that problem the next day. There is nothing you can do about it right now. Let key people know you can be reached via text or a phone call if it’s an emergency.

Sharpen The Saw, Habit # 7, Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Practice Self-Care

Be sure to take the time to rest and recharge your battery. An exhausted principal is of no benefit. As one principal put it, “Don’t forget to breathe. Breathing is a really good thing!” Working longer hours won’t make you a better principal. Much of being a principal requires you to be in the moment, centered, and focused on the other person, which requires rest.

Exercise and Sleep

You need to find a regular exercise routine that works for you. Whether it’s working out, swimming, or jogging, releasing those endorphins is just as important as being in good physical shape. And make sure that you get enough sleep. If you need seven hours to be “the best version of yourself,” those seven hours aren’t a waste of time!

Meditation and Reading

Try to find 10 minutes a day to meditate. For many, meditation is the way to feel grounded and be more in touch with themselves, reduce their overreacting to situations, and improve their ability to focus on the task at hand. And don’t forget to take some time each day to read meaningful writings that inspire, motivate, and promote self-development.

Vacation Time

Take advantage of those long holiday weekends for getaways to new places or time to indulge in your hobbies. You need time to break away from the daily grind as much as possible. Many highly stressed executives, not only principals, have remarked that, “by taking time for myself; as a result, I have more time for myself.”

A Paradigm Shift

Principals need to change their mindsets to understand their real roles better. Experience shows that the most successful principals see their roles as executives and prioritize their time, so they spend up to two days a week out of the office and in classrooms. A principal needs to shift his/her focus from the management aspects of the job to instructional leadership.

The key to this shift is learning how to relinquish authority and delegate it to others. Principals would do well to appoint a cadre of first responders—experts to handle specific issues. For example, the secretary can tackle your communications, organize your schedule, and streamline paperwork. And the assistant principal (if there is one) can assume responsibility for discipline and responding to parents.

Handing off responsibility to others who are capable will free up your time to get more involved in the education of the children. You become freer to observe classrooms, give teachers feedback, and focus on instruction.

Moving to this new paradigm has been shown to reduce the principal’s stress while increasing efficiency dramatically. Once the principal becomes focused on the classroom and teachers, he/she can quickly spot areas in need of improvement and recognize teachers who deserve praise and others who will be great resources for their peers.

Principals who have successfully made this shift have observed that, “I can see kids more and understand better what is going on with them.” While still fully responsible for administrative functions, your primary time, energy, and talent are devoted to the children’s education. After all, isn’t that why you became a principal in the first place?