Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
December 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 4

Principal Connection / What's Important?

author avatar
We must focus on what's truly important—not just what's urgent.

LeadershipSchool CultureProfessional Learning
Principal Connection / What's Important? thumbnail
When was the last time you ended the day by thinking that you had done all the things you needed to do? When was the last time you felt caught up? (Have you ever felt caught up?)
Every principal I know spends a lot of time responding to things. Every principal I know puts in more hours than in the past, yet always feels further behind. This is partly because it's very hard to determine what's important.
The demands on administrators have increased while our time to think and plan has become increasingly fragmented. As a principal, I found that too often, the things that couldn't wait—responding to deadlines, meeting with a parent who had to see me, seeing a student while an incident was fresh—squeezed out the things that could wait, even when those things were important.
Our reliance on e-mail has exacerbated this situation. I received about 200 work e-mails daily when I was a principal; I added to the flurry of messages by sending well over 100. Every e-mail felt urgent to me, and I felt remiss if I didn't respond quickly. Unless I consciously worked at it, my priorities were largely determined by who and what showed up at my door or appeared in my inbox.

When the Urgent Drowns Out the Valuable

In his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Coveysays leaders must force themselves to focus on what is important. That's difficult because all urgent issues demand a quick response. However, not everything that's urgent is important. We need to determine which urgent demands are important and resist giving our time to those that aren't. Unless we're careful, urgency will rule the day, and those items that are important but not urgent will always remain on tomorrow's to-do list.
It is easy to procrastinate on issues that are important but not urgent because they can be extra challenging. Such issues are usually more amorphous, and without deadlines. For example, building the relationships essential to leadership by making the time to talk with and listen to teachers is extremely important, but not urgent. Unless I mark times to initiate these informal interactions on my calendar, I mistakenly think that I'll get to them tomorrow. Likewise, taking the time to assess, reflect on, and plan for our work is important but not urgent. Yet if we don't engage in these activities, we won't improve. It's that simple, and it's that difficult.

What Aren't We Doing?

Principals give lots of attention to curriculum and test preparation; that's understandable because these issues are urgent and important. But too often, we fail to give time to an issue that is terribly important but not urgent—pedagogy. True, our schools aren't rated on pedagogy scores, and teachers who feel comfortable teaching the way they've always taught don't press for change. But ignoring pedagogy is a missed opportunity. How we teach has a direct affect on how children learn. Children learn differently, so we need to design our lessons in ways that will increase all students' opportunities for success. We need to give more attention to questioning strategies, teaching through multiple intelligences, and social-emotional learning.
Similarly, being an instructional leader is very important to a principal but not urgent. Although we often hear rhetoric valuing instructional leadership, principals are rarely evaluated on how well they play this role. In contrast, people always note when a report is submitted late or a parent is unhappy. But if principals were to focus on improving pedagogy and providing instructional leadership, they'd spend time in very important ways that would also likely improve achievement and test scores—and many parents' satisfaction.

One (Important) Way to Get More Time

With principals already working long hours, they'll need strategies to get more time to spend on what's essential. Here is one: Taking the time to develop and support faculty collegiality. Principals are trained to observe teachers and give individual feedback. Although that has merit, it's not very efficient and—especially in a large school—not realistic. Instead, principals need to view teachers as resources for one another. How can we create a school culture in which teachers grow and learn together? The time spent doing this important-but-not-urgent task will free up some time for the principal, as well as benefit everyone in the school.
One way to pursue collegiality is by working to ensure that faculty and committee meetings are learning meetings. Administrators need to give the same thought to how our teachers learn as we want teachers to give when they design learning activities for their classrooms. For instance, imagine if the topic of a faculty meeting was how to frame questions and pose throughlines to arouse student curiosity and inspire investigation. What if, during part of the meeting, teachers met in small groups to watch videos of teachers delivering good lessons (either homegrown video or videos available online) to identify what was effective and why? Or what if teachers set and shared a pedagogical "challenge goal," one so difficult they'd almost certainly learn from pursuing it even if total success wasn't likely? Think how important these times would be.
There's always more to be done than we can do, so we should define success by whether we spend our time on the activities that matter most. I'm willing to bet that time spent developing collegiality and improving pedagogy in your school will have a big payoff. It's terribly important!
End Notes

1 Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
No More Vague School Action Plans!
Chris Briggs-Hale
2 months ago

undefined
Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
2 months ago

undefined
Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
2 months ago

undefined
The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

undefined
The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
2 months ago
Related Articles
No More Vague School Action Plans!
Chris Briggs-Hale
2 months ago

Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
2 months ago

Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
2 months ago

The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
2 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 117040.jpg
The Global-Ready Student
Go To Publication