Managing the mounting responsibilities of school leadership is no small task. From fostering a positive school culture to interfacing and problem-solving with a variety of stakeholders to shaping a vision that supports student learning, principals juggle many details and demands in their daily work. The key responsibilities of school leadership, while numerous, are critical to a school’s success. Given the complexity of the role, we asked successful school leaders to share their go-to strategies for maximizing productivity and maintaining a laser focus on student learning.
Here are five tips to become a more productive (and impactful) principal:
1. Prioritize People:
Across the board, successful school leaders prioritize their interactions with people—students, staff, families, and other stakeholders—over administrative tasks that can be completed outside the school day. Prioritizing people increases the “joy factor” in school leadership and helps set the tone for the climate and culture of the school. These school leaders also connect mandates and compliance pieces that are out of their control to the school’s vision, mission, and strategic plan.
Vanessa Valencia, an assistant principal at a P-8 school in Aurora, CO, reframed the mandated state and district teacher evaluation process through a professional growth lens that helps her and the staff stay focused on meaningful goals.
I created a one-pager of every staff member’s professional growth goals and use it as a framework for feedback and as a reference for planning and implementing professional learning. Being able to say, ‘I know you’re working on ______, have you thought about ______?,’ has been a huge timesaver and relationship builder.”
Brian Duwe, a principal at a 6-12 campus in Aurora, CO, also prioritizes people in his schedule. “I rely a lot on my team leads (assistant principals, instructional coaches, and deans) to report to me. I’m diligent about checking in with them weekly, both formally through a regular calendared meeting and informally. Informal check-ins help me get a pulse on what they’re focused on and any challenges they are facing.”
Mark MyGrant, a retired principal from Atlanta, GA, focused his leadership efforts on the relationship between student and teacher. “At my schools, I wanted there to be a really healthy, positive relationship between the student and the teacher,” he reflected. “I believed facilitating that relationship was my most important role as principal.”
2. Establish Routines:
The power of rituals and routines as a classroom management and learning strategy is well-documented. Similarly, school leaders insist that routines are critical to their success. They note that the priorities they schedule, plan for, and hold sacred are the same priorities where they see growth and accomplishment over time.
Duwe builds his calendar around specific routines. “It’s hard to see everyone in a 6-12 building, so each morning I start my day with a round in a specific grade level.” Through this method, he works his way around to all grade levels every one or two weeks. He also instituted a “morning huddle” routine for the entire leadership team. “We meet as an ad team every morning from 8:15-8:30 am as a way to brief everyone on big items, communicate time-sensitive information, and check in on people. If people are unable to attend, it’s their responsibility to follow up with a peer to get the information that was communicated.”
Valencia notes that prioritization is a constant work in progress: “I’ve learned that the things I schedule are the things that will get done. I schedule the things that are sacred to me and in alignment with the school’s vision and mission, and try to focus my energies there. I’m also huge on using the tools and systems that are required to work smarter.”
In MyGrant’s experience, developing and sticking to a core leadership vision helped streamline his work as principal:
The lead administrator has to be really intentional. Ask yourself, ‘What type of mother or father of this huge extended family do I want to be?’ Make that your vision, and then strive to align all of your work with this goal.”
3. Email Efficiency:
Email management is key. Develop set times to respond to email communication in order to maximize time in classrooms and prioritize face-to-face dialogue with students, staff, parents, and other stakeholders.
Valencia spends the first fifteen minutes of each day looking over her calendar and prioritizing what needs to be accomplished, including skimming all of her emails for the most critical and urgent issues that need an immediate response. Her ah-ha moment?
I realized a clean inbox is never going to impact student achievement! This shift in mindset helped me reframe where and how I should spend my time.”
4. Collaborate and Co-Lead:
The scope of school leadership is larger than one leader working in isolation. Develop capacity on your team and recognize that school leadership can be shared as a staff based on strengths, expertise, and experience.
“We rely a lot on our teachers to lead teams,” Duwe states, “I work closely with instructional leaders twice a month to develop their Adaptive Schools toolbox, as well as support them in our school-wide focus using data to inform practice. We constantly seek feedback to make adjustments as needed in these focus areas, both through surveys and informal checks, to get a pulse from a variety of staff members.”
We would meet and debrief frequently, and we communicated very well. We knew what our roles were and what we brought to the table, but we were able to be flexible enough to do whatever needed to be done at the time, whether it be there’s a teacher out with no sub in this classroom, how do we accommodate that? That made my life a lot easier.”
From grade level meetings to vertical alignment by department, teachers can impactfully lead their peers in professional learning communities.
MyGrant avoided the drains of teacher turnover at his schools by investing time and energy in his faculty: “In my experience, the number one way to prevent turnover is to make teachers a major stakeholder in driving decisions about curriculum and instruction and about the management of your school. I always tried to develop leaders within my faculty, so when I had administrative positions open I would be able to tap those people who had already gained trust and built a reputation within my schools. I took opportunities with my staff to have discussions about their leadership potential, and I went out of my way to acknowledge teachers’ contributions.”
5. Set Goals, Share Goals, and Seek Feedback:
One of the many challenges of serving as a school leader is that the role can be isolating. The time, supports, and structures available for school leaders to collaborate, problem-solve, or engage in coaching and mentoring with other leaders varies widely from district to district.
Given this reality, leaders must often be creative and proactive about sharing their goals and seeking feedback on their work. Duwe shares his goals with his entire leadership team to help focus his work, and asks his colleagues to hold him accountable to his stated and shared goals.
Valencia adds that taking time to reflect with her team and ask for input from the teachers she evaluates has helped her grow as a school leader.
I always walk around with a notebook that has my running task list. I also create a shortlist of three things I hope to accomplish each day (knowing realistically I may only get to one or two). On days I do get to all three? Those are really successful and productive days that I celebrate!”
What productivity tips would you add to this list? How do you manage the mounting responsibilities of school leadership while maintaining a laser focus on what matters most: student learning?