This is a familiar scenario for anyone who has held a position of leadership in a school building.
You’re in your office trying to return some phone messages. There’s a faint tap on the door frame, followed with: “Have you got a minute?” The polite response from you is “sure, what’s going on?” And for the next several minutes your visitor unloads a concern that they believe is deserving of immediate attention… from you. What they are really saying is “I have a problem that I need you to fix.”
Most of us who have held these kinds of positions are people pleasers. We want our colleagues to share their concerns with us. We appreciate that they see us as competent problem-solvers and we aspire to support each of them and to mitigate any obstacles they may face. However, unless one is strategic about how they react in the five seconds following the visitor’s exit, we can either prepare for a reasoned response or be sucked into a rabbit hole.
Being a school leader is a very complex and complicated enterprise. I know. I was a site administrator for twenty-one years, eighteen of those years as a building principal. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, or said, “there aren’t enough hours in the day. I can’t seem to get done what I need to do.” And, you know what? It’s true. Stuff comes at you hard and fast. Some of it you can anticipate, but a lot of it just comes out of nowhere. Yet, all of it must be dealt with (well actually most of it), but the question becomes how?
It the words of R.C. Victorino in a September 23, 2020 blog post appearing in Slab: “Being busy is not the same as being productive. You could spend hours putting out fires and at the end of the day be no closer to reaching your long-term goals.”
You could immediately jump out of your chair and chase after the concern your visitor left with you. And it could consume your day, drain you in the process and distract you from what is truly important in your role.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a useful tool to assist leaders in the prioritization of tasks and all of the stuff coming at them. It really came to light in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But, it bears the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. president, because he built his staff with the expectation that the only items that would come across his desk were both important and urgent.
Take a moment to study the Eisenhower Matrix quadrants, as illustrated above. It easily differentiates those issues that are important vs. unimportant, and urgent vs. not urgent.
Upper left: Important/Urgent. Issues that qualify for this quadrant are deserving of, and require, the immediate and thorough attention of the site leader. This might appear as a true emergency (ambulance on site, active shooter in the neighborhood, specific and strict deadline for an action imposed by the district office) or an upcoming issue. No one can attend to it but you, and the required time frame is “now” or “yesterday.”
Upper right: Important/Not Urgent. Planning is the key element in dealing with issues in this quadrant. Attention is clearly necessary, but the timing of any appropriate intervention is flexible.
Lower left: Not-important/Urgent. This is the tricky spot, the one that can easily distract the leader from what is really important and toward an activity that may seem urgent, but in the longer view it is one that can be deferred and/or could be assigned to someone else. Remember our visitor? The concern they dumped into the leader’s lap probably falls into the category of both urgent and important in their mind, when, in fact, it may fall short in one (or both) of these criteria. If the issue requires an immediate response, but the substance of it isn’t such a big deal, Not-important/Urgent, should be considered. While this needs to be addressed, the question becomes by whom? It probably doesn’t require the active touch of the leader?
And finally, the lower right: Not Important/Not Urgent. Let it go. Don’’t spend a second thinking about it. Don’t expect that the expertise of your staff should address it. Be prepared to articulate and defend your response, but don’t succumb to the pressure of action.
Of course, a tool is only as useful as its application. In the case of the Eisenhower Matrix, it can be applied both reactively and proactively. Let’s start with reactive.
Your visitor dumped an issue in your lap, one that he believes to be both important and urgent. Do you agree? How important is it? What do you see as the degree of urgency if you agree that it’s important? Your answers to these questions will frame your response and level of commitment to your visitor as he leaves your office.
“You’re right! I need to look into that. I’ll get right on it.”
“This is an important issue. Let me give it some thought, do some checking around and I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.”
“I’ll have Sally take care of that. Consider it done.”
This matrix can be a powerful tool if applied proactively to help a site leader prioritize his/her/their work. First, take a two part self inventory.
What are the most important responsibilities of my role as the site leader? List them. For example: (certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list)
Hiring, retaining and supervising quality staff
Budget and fiscal oversight
Alignment of local strategies with district priorities
2. How do I spend my days? What tasks occupy my time? Again, write them down. Your list might include:
Dealing with parent concerns
Writing the school newsletter
Conducting staff meetings
Being present, visible, out and about
Being responsive to staff needs and concerns
Building relationships with kids
Now, assign each item from both lists a position on the matrix and compare the two lists. Are you operating, from both the aspirational list and the daily routine inventory exclusively in the two “important” quadrants? Or do you find yourself being sucked into activities that just aren’t that important? Finally respond to this: Are my daily routines aligned with the important responsibilities of my position, or is “stuff” getting in the way of me tending to them effectively?
Be brutally honest with yourself in your assessment. If you’re not happy with your conclusion, be prepared to do something affirmative about it.
Sadly, this process frequently exposes a mis-alignment between instructional leadership and supervision of staff, due to the onslaught of daily disruptions, “brush fires.” If the result of honest reflection yields “I don’t have time to get into classrooms to observe instruction and offer appropriate instructional feedback,” then there needs to be a serious re-prioritization of the tasks that are consuming so much of one’s time. Re-visit the matrix, rethink your priorities, enlist the creative ear and perspective of a trusted colleague. But, in the end, time must be found for the important work.
Here’s a suggestion that may be helpful, based on my own experience. For a period of five years, my district made the financial decision to keep the assistant principal position in my school vacant. (Should have I been flattered?) Consequently, I was the student manager, the disciplinarian, the staff supervisor - the list goes on, trying to keep the “wheels on the bus” as the sole administrator. To give myself a fighting chance, I adopted the following practice. If I needed to meet with a student, I would consult his course schedule to determine where he was throughout the day. I would schedule myself to visit one of his classes for the last 15-20 minutes of the period, not to engage with the student, but to simply observe. As the class ended, I would connect with the student on our way out. This strategy allowed me to clear my important business with the student and to have gathered evidence or perspective to offer the teacher meaningful instructional feedback. A true win-win.
“What a day!” That’s a common feeling as the site leader settles behind the steering wheel to head home. But, in the same breathe, one must ask “what did I accomplish?”
Remember: “Being busy is not the same as being productive.”