Special Report
School & District Management

‘I Want a Job and a Life': How Principals Find Balance in All-Consuming Work

By Denisa R. Superville — October 16, 2018 6 min read
Mojdeh Henderson, the principal at Berewick Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., sticks to a time-management plan that ensures she spends about 80 percent of her time in classrooms.
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Just a few months into her first year as principal of Oak Knoll Elementary School in Menlo Park, Calif., Kristen Gracia was on a fast track to burnout.

She’d been assistant principal for four years and felt in command of that job.

But as principal, there was so much more to do, and things were falling by the wayside. She wasn’t making enough classroom observations, getting enough sleep, working out, or eating well. When she finally got home, it was a mad dash to feed, bathe, and tuck her children in before powering up her computer to return to work.

“There was no way a healthy human could sustain this job,” she recalled.

Takeaways for Principals

Here’s what principals can do to establish a healthier work-life balance:

Empower administrative assistants to manage daily schedule, meetings, and flow of paperwork

• Commit to spending at least two days a week out of your office and in classrooms

Delegate authority to the experts in your buildings

Five years later, Gracia is much more satisfied with her job. She regularly spends two full days a week observing teachers and interacting with students and staff. She’s consistently working out. And when she works from home, it feels like a choice.

“It really came down to: I want both a job and a life,” she said. What changed?

It started with her superintendent’s insistence that Gracia get support after she confided the job felt overwhelming. He directed her to The Breakthrough Coach, a seminar that helps 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 key tenet Gracia absorbed is to trust the experts to handle many of the jobs she’d been trying to do herself.

The program taught her to forge a strong relationship with her secretary, the keeper of the schedule who directs Gracia’s day. The two meet every day to review the daily schedule and put upcoming items on the calendar.

The secretary ensures Gracia signs important documents in morning meetings, eliminating interruptions during the day. She also schedules time for the principal to read, prepare presentations, and meet with parents, teachers, and students.

Meetings are set for the three days when Gracia is not in classrooms.

Gracia was motivated to make the job work for her. But she also wanted to prove that the principalship isn’t an impossible job, populated by people who are perpetually overworked.

In a national survey, more than half of principals reported spending 60 hours or more a week on school-related activities, a workload that contributes to nearly 50 percent of them leaving their schools in their third year. In a recent survey of first- and second-year principals done by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 44 percent cited managing time as their top challenge.

What Principals Shouldn’t Do

There are many culprits for the long, stressful days. Policymakers have added many labor-intensive responsibilities to the principal’s job. One of those is more in-depth teacher evaluations, according to Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

“One of the things you hear from principals a lot is that ‘we have all of these expectations … but nothing got taken off our plates,’ ” said Grissom.

Interruptions—from staff and parents—add extra minutes that can stretch into hours. But principals are also to blame, in large part by doing other people’s jobs instead of empowering employees to do them.

“A principal’s job is not to go into the classroom and complete a discipline process with a student,” said Erik Burmeister, the Menlo Park superintendent. “A principal’s job is not to take a call from a parent who is upset about the cheerleading coach’s decision to not put their child on the cheerleading squad.”

Do This, Not That

1.) Define the job. Know your role and what you want to accomplish. Set goals based on your role and prioritize the tasks that will get you there. Don’t be distracted by interruptions that aren’t aligned with your or your school’s goals and mission.

2.) Delegate. Appoint first responders—experts to handle specific issues. A secretary can tackle communications, organize your schedule, and streamline paperwork. The assistant principal (if you have one) can handle discipline and parental complaints. Now you are freer to observe classrooms, give teachers feedback, and focus on instruction.

3.) Schedule what’s important. Schedule classroom observations, face-to-face time with teachers, and projects focused on learning. Unless there’s a true emergency, stick to activities that lead to better teaching and learning.

4.) Calendar everything. Create a “lesson plan” that includes what you want to get done each day. Block out time to read, check email, or prepare for a school board meeting. Create a “later” list for the things you can’t get to right now, but are nonetheless important.

5.) Be intentional. You ask teachers to plan for the year, do the same. Where do you want to be at the end of the school year? What do you need to do to get there? What meetings do you have to set up? Make a plan and follow it through the year. This allows you to be less reactive.

6.) Tame email. Be disciplined about email, only reading and responding at specific times. Don’t respond immediately, or people will expect instant replies. Set an outgoing message that says you’re in classrooms and directs people to other staff who can help. And, the fewer emails you send, the fewer you will receive.

7.) Arrive early. If a teacher has a minor issue or concern, you can deal with it at the beginning of the school day rather than during the day when it will take a lot more time.

8.) Follow closing routine. Take time before you leave for the day to reflect and plan for meetings the following day.

9.) Have a buddy. Make sure you’ve got a colleague or group to turn to for advice, an outside perspective, or support—especially on tough days.

10.) Practice self-care. Take time to rest and recharge. Take a hike. An exhausted principal is no good to anyone. As one principal put it, Don’t forget to breathe.  “Breathing is a really good thing,” she said.

Source: Education Week interviews and research

Principals need to change their mindsets, too.

Quit thinking that working longer hours will make you better, said Mark Shellinger, a former principal who created the National SAM Innovation Project, which helps principals shift their focus from the management aspects of the job to instructional leadership.

“So much of being a principal requires you to be in the moment, centered, and focused on the other person you are working with,” Shellinger said. “If you are tired and out of gas, that just doesn’t [cut] it.”

The good news is that time management is a learnable skill, and principals don’t have to spend a lot of money to learn how to wring the most out of their days.

In her first year, Mojdeh Henderson, principal of Berewick Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., worked more than 60 hours a week and wondered if she’d survive.

Now, she averages 50-hour work weeks, feels less stressed, and spends more time with her family. She credits the SAM process and personal growth for giving her balance and the tools to last seven years on the job.

SAM designates a team or person in a school to work with principals to increase the time they spend on instruction. A team of first responders takes a crack at a problem before it goes to the principal. A tracking mechanism logs and charts how principals spend their time and with whom.

The tracker is on Henderson’s Apple Watch, so if she runs into an employee who wants to meet, she can add them to the calendar on the spot. The charts help her see whether she is spending her time on the right things. When she first joined the SAM program, an analysis showed that Henderson was spending between 50 to 60 percent of her week on instruction. Now, her average goal is 78 percent and she often hits 85 percent, she said.

She cut out things others could handle, including building minutiae and student discipline. She spends the “extra time” planning meetings, observing classes, and giving feedback to teachers one-on-one.

“I am analyzing what’s happening in my building and making instructional decisions that support the forward progression,” she said.

Mojdeh Henderson, the principal at Berewick Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., relies on a team of “first responders” who can handle matters such as student discipline and building issues. The setup allows Henderson to spend the bulk of her time doing things such as classroom observations that are meant to improve instruction.

Billy Lewis, principal at Belvidere High School, in Belvidere, Ill., said The Breakthrough Coach process drastically reduced his stress and made him more efficient.

By mid-September, he’d been to all of his 82 teachers’ classrooms. And with the school rolling out four big initiatives, the process helps him focus on the right tasks.

He can quickly spot areas in need of improvement and recognize teachers who deserve praise and others who will be great resources for their peers, he said.

“I am able to see kids more,” he said. “I am able to see teachers more, and identify trends, and have a picture of how teaching and learning [are occurring] at Belvidere High School—and then a lot of things can happen from that.”

Gracia, the Menlo Park principal, has learned she must actively choose the activities that would move her school forward. She had to prepare her staff for the changes to come, including that they would no longer be able to stroll into her office and that they would be receiving fewer emails. The school, she told them, would emphasize face-to-face communication.

“The way we have redefined how we are operating really is a team effort,” she said. “You have to get people on board. I don’t believe it would work if it was just me trying to do this on my own.”

Gracia spends a lot of time talking to teachers, providing them access to professional development, and sometimes just getting out of their way, she said. And in the process, she has created a team of problem-solvers, who don’t need her to fix everything, she said.

“My job is to be a leader,” she said. “People want a leader, they don’t all need a boss to be bossed around. That’s not effective or efficient.”

Related Video

Bethany Hill, the principal at Central Elementary School in Cabot, Ark., shuns a formal office in favor of roving around classrooms, hallways, the playground, and the cafeteria, where she can be as close as possible to teachers and students all day:

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as ‘I Want a Job and a Life:' How to Find Balance in All-Consuming Work


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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