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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

The Principal Connection / So Little Time, So Much to Do

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      Every day for the past week I intended to work on this column. Each morning as I headed off to school, I put the folder labeled EL Column into my tattered Lands' End pouch. Each day as I arrived at work, I placed the folder in my MUST BE DONE pile in the center of my desk. Leaving school each day, I sighed and put the untouched folder back into my pouch to bring home. Each evening, I pulled the folder out as I began to work on other things. Later each night, I turned off my computer and frowned at the unopened folder. It's Saturday morning when I finally begin to write this column.
      What's going on here? Nothing unusual, really. Our jobs—as teachers, administrators, curriculum supervisors and developers, and university faculty members—are never really finished. However much we are doing, we could always do more. This is one of the beauties of our jobs, and also one of the frustrations. It means that we're never bored; it also means that we're never caught up. It means that there are always new challenges awaiting us; it also means that we never get closure.
      It took me quite a few years to understand this phenomenon. The school year begins and the school year ends. But our relationships with students and with our profession don't end in June. Indeed, what sets apart good educators and administrators is their never-ending desire to grow and learn. Summers aren't all “off” any more than evenings are all “free.” The downside of this pace is that we often bite off more than we can chew. Thus, the folder I carry back and forth to work—one of many that taunt me because I haven't given them enough attention. I am sure you are in the same boat: too much to do and not enough time to do it; doing your job well but wanting to do it better.
      Over the years, I have found some strategies that help me better manage my time. One approach is to focus on the obvious: prioritizing the pile on my desk. Given that there are too many things to do, success depends on correctly determining which tasks can remain undone. By not prioritizing, we are in effect marking everything as “urgent”—which means that the really urgent issues don't get the attention they need. Each morning I write down the things that must be done that day. Before adding an item to my to-do list, I ask myself, “What will happen if I don't do this today?”—and I find that many issues can wait. The key is knowing what is urgent, what is important, and what is get-to-later. The fact that something lands on your desk doesn't make it a top priority.
      Then there are the meetings. I seem to spend more time attending meetings than doing anything else. One day this past September, I attended meetings that variously addressed differentiating instruction, planning our Open Houses, involving newly enrolled parents, recruiting and retaining faculty, and cutting the school campus's grass. This list of meetings doesn't include the ad hoc discussions in the hall or in the teachers lounge. For our own sanity, we need to start asking ourselves, “Which meetings must I absolutely attend? And which meetings do I attend primarily to show that I value the topic or the participants?” Too often we show up without considering whether we really need to be present. Just as we prioritize the papers on our desks, we also need to prioritize our meetings. Time is the most precious resource we have, so we need to be fearless in deciding how to use it.
      I've often found that meetings I don't attend go just as well as those I do attend. I like to think that this is because I have shared my thoughts with the “right people” ahead of time. When I need to miss a meeting, I make sure to talk to the stakeholders—not just those who run the meeting—and let them know that I value what will be happening even though I cannot physically be present. If I can successfully communicate to participants the general outcomes that I hope will emerge from a meeting and let them know the range of solutions with which I'm comfortable, then my time is better spent elsewhere.
      Sometimes I attend just the beginning or the end of a meeting. Opening a meeting enables me to discuss tactics for addressing a given task; closing a meeting allows me to hear what happened and to plan the next steps. In either case, it's important to be clear about why I couldn't be there throughout—and to listen. Participants don't mind repeating themselves; they do mind thinking that what they said doesn't count.
      Paperwork or meetings, the point is the same: We have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Our jobs require us to use our time efficiently and effectively. By learning how to prioritize, we can achieve both.

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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