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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Managing the Onslaught: 7 Tips for Principals Trying to Survive August

By Jen Schwanke — August 09, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Dublin, Ohio Principal Jen Schwanke, author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD).

For school principals, July is lovely. In most cases, everything moves along at a slow, manageable pace. There might be a couple weeks of vacation with family and friends; after that, there is time to catch up on professional reading, make careful decisions about the building for the upcoming year, and complete any outstanding tasks that remained on the to-do list from the previous spring. It feels productive. It feels really, really good.

And then August comes, shattering the peace with all with the necessary rapid-fire preparations leading to the first day of school. It brings the myriad needs of all sorts of people who seem to need something right now. That’s when you, the principal, will begin to feel a bit like a tree. A tree that has been suddenly, unexpectedly covered in busy, needy, hungry woodpeckers. Suddenly, your quiet and calm office turns into a turntable of people coming to see you--staff members, parents, and everyone in between. They have questions; they need decisions made; they point out problems that seem to require an immediate response. It is relentless and rattling.

I’ve experienced this August whirlwind for many years now, but even though I know it’s coming, and even though I actively prepare for it, I’m still always caught off-guard by the abrupt shift in pace. To help keep myself moored, I remind myself of some basic ways I might react to the escalating needs that surface in the beginning of the school year. These tools may help you, too.

Utilize wait time. When taken aback by a question, it often helps to give yourself some time to think--or for the problem to solve itself. You can respond honestly by saying, “I apologize that I can’t make this a priority right now. I promise I’ll get back to you when I have the time to devote to your question.” Time will help you be more thoughtful and thorough in your response, of course, but you may also find that a viable solution has emerged on its own with the passage of a few hours or days.

Deflect. Many times, a problem that comes to you can be easily and effectively handled by someone else--a secretary, a custodian, a team leader, the head of a department. I will often listen to a request or question and then consider who might be better able to handle it. Then, I will say, “Let’s go together to talk with the secretary (or whomever is appropriate ) to get some help on this.” I’ll facilitate a conversation that will get the two parties talking, and then remove myself, trusting that a solution can be found without my involvement. Problem solved.

Ask a friend. Many times I’ll be asked a tricky question I think I know how to answer... but I feel a whole lot more confident if I run it by someone I respect. When I’m not completely comfortable with my plan for response, I take a few moments on the phone with a colleague, asking, “What would you do with this problem?”

Ask more questions. When someone comes to you with a concern, question, or idea, it’s wise to gather as much information as you can. “Can you tell me more about this?” is a great way to start, followed by questions such as How many people is this affecting? What will happen if we do nothing? What are some solutions you have in mind? Ask questions until you completely understand the problem and know how to proceed.

Determine the real problem. I often ask myself, “What problem, exactly, are we trying to solve here?” More times than not, I’ll realize there really isn’t a problem--or there isn’t a substantial one. If there isn’t anything “broken” that needs an immediate fix, I table the question until I have the time and energy to consider it further.

Vent privately. You will get frustrated and overwhelmed. You will want to grit your teeth, roll your eyes, and groan in irritation. As tempting as it is, though, it’s best to keep your feelings to yourself. Find a safe way vent your frustration--either in a place where you can be alone, or to a trusted colleague or family member. Otherwise, work to remain calm, cool, and professional. You’re the leader; you are paid to take the high road.

Bring every answer back to kids. As the principal, it’s our job to stay super-focused on our main role: Making sure our students have the best experience possible. Repeatedly asking yourself, “What is best for the students?” will help you remain on point. Don’t let this become a cliché--insist that it remain your guiding philosophy.

In these first few weeks of the school year, you’ll feel like you can’t keep up with the pace of your work. Keeping up is possible, though, if you remind yourself of these seven strategies of management. In time, everything will slow down and you’ll have time to breathe, pause, and reflect. The year will progress nicely and, before you know it, July will have come again. And, as we all know, July is lovely.

Connect with Jen on Twitter and Instagram @jenschwanke.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.