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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Is Time on Your Side?

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For principals, the best-laid plans rarely survive the first school bell. A disgruntled parent, a full email inbox, a bus incident, a malfunctioning boiler—any of these and numerous other administrative obligations routinely overtake principals' workdays. As a result, principals struggle to find time to observe teachers, engage in curricular discussions, or evaluate student data, let alone develop long-range plans.
This struggle to balance the duties and expectations of the principalship is not new. For more than a century, principals have expressed the difficulties of both managing school operations and leading classroom instruction. In the early 1920s, the time diaries of 43 principals working in Seattle showed that principals spent twice as much time satisfying administrative and clerical duties than supervising teaching (McClure, 1921). Fast-forward nearly a century, when, from the time diaries of 52 principals working in an urban district in 2018, it is estimated that the leaders worked an average of 444 minutes per day, with only 3.7 percent of those minutes dedicated to instructional leadership activities (Sebastian, Camburn, & Spillane, 2018).
Such numbers have concerned school boards, superintendents, researchers, and principals, all of whom have assumed that more time dedicated to instructional activities returns positive educational outcomes. Yet some research has indicated that principals' dedication of time to instructional tasks has not necessarily resulted in more positive student and teacher outcomes. In fact, in some studies, better educational outcomes have been associated with principals who spend more time on activities perceived as administrative (Grissom & Loeb, 2011).
For instance, in their study of 65 principals, Horng, Klasik, and Loeb (2010) identified a positive relationship between teachers' perceptions of the educational climates at their schools and principal time dedicated to management. And in a longitudinal study of 39 elementary and middle school principals, May, Huff, and Goldring (2012) demonstrated positive associations between management activities and student achievement on state assessments. In other words, schools, teachers, and students could benefit from principals who allot more time to managing the operation of their schools.

Smart Time Management

So, despite the conventional wisdom, spending more time on instructional leadership is not necessarily the answer to being a good principal. In fact, some researchers have identified null and even negative associations between principals' use of time for certain instruction-related activities and educational outcomes (Horng, Klasik, & Loeb, 2010; May & Supovitz, 2011). For instance, Grissom, Loeb, and Master (2013) found that the popular instructional practice of principal "walkthroughs" exhibited an inverse relationship with student achievement. However, results from this study also demonstrated that some instructional activities, such as coaching or evaluating teachers, did correlate with student-achievement gains. Rather than interpreting these contradictory findings as a prescription to reduce walkthroughs and increase coaching, principals should view them as evidence for the importance of being selective about the instructional leadership activities in which they engage.
A robust mixed-methods study by Scott, Ahadi, and Krug (1990) provides a plausible explanation for these counterintuitive findings about principal instructional engagement and educational outcomes. From the reported actions and perceptions of 81 principals working in Chicago, the researchers discovered that principals, regardless of their effectiveness, dedicated similar amounts of time to a common set of activities. However, the principals they identified as more effective attributed different meanings to similar activities. The researchers provided an example of how differing perceptions of an activity might contribute to differences in performance:
Consequently, while any two principals may be required to monitor the lunch room, the less effective principal may view this task as simply monitoring the lunch room or even as a distraction from more important activities. In contrast, the more effective instructional leader is more likely to view this task as an opportunity to promote instructional climate (e.g., recognize outstanding student achievement), define mission (e.g., communicate school goals to students), or even monitor students' progress (e.g., asking students what they are learning about; what they are gaining from their lessons) and so forth. (pp. 20–21)
These findings suggest that educators, policymakers, and researchers have misunderstood the meaning of instructional leadership. A principal will always need to manage a myriad of unconnected issues—that's just part of the job of leading a school. But the principal who can perceive those daily tasks differently—understanding how they might contribute to instructional leadership or school improvement—can more effectively and efficiently manage time demands and harness their power to lead change.
From my study of the history of principal time use, as well as my experiences in working with and observing principals, I've drawn five strategies for principals who want to manage and use their time more wisely.

1. Prioritize Time Demands

The effective operation of a school requires principals to prioritize and complete important, but unexciting, tedious, or uncomfortable tasks. No one enters the principalship because they hoped to plod through paperwork. Yet, timely completion of forms for the district human resource office could result in interviewing and hiring more effective teachers (Papay & Kraft, 2016).
Every day, unanticipated issues will challenge principals' plans and priorities. While principals readily drop everything to respond to school emergencies, they often fail to prioritize their laundry list of more mundane activities, such as returning phone calls, responding to email, or speaking with teachers. Rather than completing ordinary time demands by order of receipt or difficulty of the task, principals might instead assess them by time-sensitivity or how important the task is to the educational climate of the school. They may also consider delegating certain activities to other individuals so that they can identify issues and engage in tasks that will benefit teaching and learning.

2. Close the Door

Remarks by principals to faculty and parents routinely include an offer like, "If you have questions or concerns, my door is always open." I understand and admire the sentiment behind such a policy. However, I have also observed how unfettered access disrupts the effectiveness of principals.
An open door is fine … sometimes. But principals need to be purposeful about scheduling uninterruptable blocks of time. These sequestered periods enable leaders to devote their full attention to central tasks. Rather than haphazardly searching for tasks that can be satisfied during rare and brief moments of "down time," principals can use the scheduled blocks to methodically and systematically address identified priorities.
Moreover, as cell phones, email, and social media have resulted in 24-hour communication channels, many school leaders feel pressure to provide immediate responses (Pollock & Hauseman, 2018). But principals need to resist the urge to respond at all hours of the day and establish reasonable parameters about expected response time. At new family orientations and faculty meetings, principals can explain emergency contact procedures and outline how and when they will respond to more typical requests. When teachers, parents, and other school constituents understand when and how a principal will address their concerns, they are less likely to feel neglected or ignored.

3. Manage for Instruction

The inefficient, unreliable, and often counterproductive operations of a school impede the cultivation of effective instructional environments. As Scott, Ahadi, and Krug (1990) found, principals do not often recognize the instructional value of managing school operations. Streamlined bus arrivals, organized main offices, efficient master schedules, coordinated communications to students' homes, and other well-planned procedures produce intangible, as well as concrete, instructional benefits.
As noted, principals often perceive their daily operational duties as an impediment to instructional leadership. However, withdrawing from the management of school operations reduces principals' abilities to coordinate policies and procedures that support teaching and learning. Fielding and addressing non-instructional concerns provides principals with a wider perspective about issues that impact students and teachers.
For example, Scott Cole, the principal at McKinley Elementary in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a student in my Evidence-Based School Improvement course at Lehigh University, was frustrated by low attendance rates at the school. He noted that many students' families did not own a car, and that in adverse weather, students were more likely to miss school. So he worked with a group of scholar-athletes involved in local community outreach initiatives to raise money to purchase high-quality umbrellas for students. His management of student transportation could potentially impact student learning in a big way if students are coming to school more often despite the rain outside.

4. Create Checklists

In the Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande (2009) describes how pilots, surgeons, and engineers rely on simple checklists to ensure successful completion of complex tasks. Checklists help leaders efficiently and effectively address emergencies, as well as more routine issues.
Whereas to-do lists identify tasks that require principals' attention, checklists specify the steps necessary to satisfy that task. This not only helps improve efficiency, but it also frees up mental energy for more challenging problems. Creating, updating, and following checklists prevents leaders from overlooking critical steps, and reduces the need to return to "loose ends."
Although principals might have established and used checklists for building emergencies, weather disruptions, and state-administered testing, more typical and routine tasks often lack similar standardization. For instance, during an elementary school visit I witnessed how an unanticipated teacher absence compelled a principal to delay or cancel morning meetings in order to attend to the unsupervised class. With a checklist that detailed protocols for addressing an unsupervised classroom, that principal could have found a timelier, more organized, and more instructionally effective solution. Comprehensive yet concise checklists can help principals and staff members efficiently and effectively complete bus duties, distribution of supplies, discipline referrals, student registration, and other common activities.

5. Track Your Time

As a result of the hectic pace of the workday, principals can easily lose track of how, where, when, and with whom they are spending time. Accurately accounting for the minutes of their workdays enables principals to evaluate how they allot their budget of time.
One way to do this is to record over one week your daily activity in 15-minute increments. Or track your communication efforts by plotting the time stamps of sent email messages by day of the week. Another simple tracking activity is to use a school map to highlight visited locations over one week's time or a personnel roster to highlight faculty and staff with whom you have had meaningful interactions. Resist trying to label your results as "good" or "bad." Instead, use the tracking to consider why some aspects of your school might require more attention, as well as to identify neglected programs, places, and people.
Results from such basic collections will not provide a complete or robust accounting of your workday. The inherent nature of leading a school includes solving unanticipated, disruptive, and complex issues. However, assessing the time dedicated to addressing routine issues can help principals develop practices that are more capable of absorbing novel, unexpected, or urgent time demands. With a record of their time use, principals can assess when to address priorities, when work periods could occur, what managerial duties contribute to teaching and learning, and which time demands could benefit from a checklist.

Time Is on Your Side

Without question, principals possess the power to lead instructional activities that result in positive student, teacher, and school outcomes. Yet the day-to-day tasks needed to run an efficient, safe, and thriving school still need to be completed. By rethinking the real priorities of their jobs and how they manage their time, school leaders can find ways to not only file necessary paperwork or make sure the buses are on schedule, but also support and guide effective and innovative teaching and learning.

Gawande, A. (2009). The checklist manifesto: How to get things right. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Grissom, J. A., & Loeb, S. (2011). Triangulating principal effectiveness: How perspectives of parents, teachers, and assistant principals identify the central importance of managerial skills. American Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 1091–1123.

Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective instructional time use for school leaders: Longitudinal evidence from observations of principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433–444.

Horng, E. L., Klasik, D., & Loeb, S. (2010). Principal's time use and school effectiveness. American Journal of Education, 116(4), 491–523.

May, H., Huff, J., & Goldring, E. (2012). A longitudinal study of principals' activities and student performance. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 23(4), 417–439.

May, H., & Supovitz, J. A. (2011). The scope of principal efforts to improve instruction. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47(2), 332–352.

McClure, W. (1921). The functions of the elementary-school principal. The Elementary School Journal, 21(7), 500–514.

Papay, J. P., & Kraft, M. A. (2016). The productivity costs of inefficient hiring practices: Evidence from late teacher hiring. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(4), 791–817.

Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2018). The use of e-mail and principals' work: A double-edged sword. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 1–12.

Scott, C., Ahadi, S., & Krug, S. (1990). An experience sampling approach to the study of principal instructional leadership II: A comparison of activities and beliefs as bases for understanding effective school leadership. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign University High Laboratory School.

Sebastian, J., Camburn, E. M., & Spillane, J. P. (2018). Portraits of principal practice: Time allocation and school principal work. Educational Administration Quarterly, 54(1), 47–84.

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