justinbaeder, Author at The Principal Center

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The #AnnaKarenina Challenge

Announcing an all-new mini-challenge as part of the Instructional Leadership Challenge…

It's called the Anna Karenina Challenge, or #AKILC.

Tolstoy's 1878 novel, which has been called the greatest book ever written, starts with this unforgettable line:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

You might be wondering…what on earth does this have to do with the Instructional Leadership Challenge?

Here's the parallel:

It's teacher evaluation time—the home stretch.

Administrators are scrambling to conduct observations, schedule post-conferences, and…the kicker…write final evaluations.

We know it's coming, and it always brings a little bit of dread, because it's…

Such. A. Huge. Task.

Yes, you have to rate each teacher, but you also have to write a bit about each teacher…

You often have to write a blurb for each of several specific topics, such as:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Instruction
  • Classroom management
  • Assessment
  • Professional responsibilities

You can't just check a box that says “satisfactory” and move on.

It's like an essay test with 5 questions…that you have to take 30 times—once for each teacher.

Or…do you?

Think of Tolstoy's opening line again—let's start with the second part:

“every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

So yes—every struggling teacher is going to need a custom-tailored, carefully-written evaluation that's unique to their struggles.

But what about the “happy families”?

What about the strong teachers—are they all alike?

Not exactly, of course…

…but they're not 100% unique, either.

Think of it this way: in any given performance area, teachers fall into one of just a handful of “types.”

Remember those “Which Spice Girl Are You?” or “Which Ninja Turtle Are You?” online quizzes? Kind of like that.

Great teachers are a LOT alike within a specific area—let's take classroom management. What are the types?

  • Strict and no-nonsense, but still beloved
  • Wacky but warm and accepting, with endless patience
  • Not strict or wacky; just clear, consistent expectations

You can probably describe 80% of your staff with just 3-5 “styles” or “types” of classroom management.

For each type, you can just write one summary blurb:

“Mr. Baeder's classroom management is characterized by clear expectations, well-rehearsed routines and procedures, and a sense of humor that makes all students feel welcomed and accepted.”

If that's true for one teacher, it's probably true for a dozen others, too.

So re-use the blurb, because Mrs. Smith's classroom management is also characterized by clear expectations, well-rehearsed… etc. etc.

Then, you can do the same for their, say, planning and preparation skills.

3-5 types will cover most of the bases for a given area.

If you have to write blurbs about 5 areas per teacher, that's 15-25 blurbs in all—not the 150+ you'd normally write for 30 teachers.

These blurbs are the most time-consuming part of the writing process. So if we can save some time, it'll add up fast.

(The rest are likely your struggling teachers who will need much more customized language in their evaluations).

Now, can you just slap a label on a teacher and call it a day?

No, because teacher evaluations must be evidence-based.

So after the re-used blurb, you mention specific evidence from your observations:

“For example, on March 1, several students were off-task at the start of a lab activity, but they were immediately reminded of class expectations by their peers. This reflects Mr. Baeder's efforts to establish clear routines and procedures, and to create student ownership for them.”

If you have your observation notes in front of you, adding evidence should take about 90 seconds per blurb.

So here's where this is going to get fun…

We're building a collaborative list.

A list of areas of performance that you have to write about, with “types” ​for each area. ​​​​​​

You can see what others have added, and contribute your own ideas.

I've drafted the document hereregister for the Challenge, and we'll add you to the group as fast as we can, so you can edit the doc.

To summarize, the Anna Karenina Challenge is this:

Re-use your “blurbs” for teachers whose performance in a given area falls into the same category.

If two teachers are exactly alike in, say, their classroom management style, or their use of formative assessment, or their contribution to PLCs, you can use the same blurb to describe them both.

The evidence you provide will still be unique to each teacher.

But the hard part—the summary statement—can be re-used.

This can save you hours upon hours of writing…

Especially if we tackle it together.

Ready? Sign up for the Challenge here, we'll add you to the ILC group, and you can start contributing to—and getting ideas from—the collaborative document.

If you're already in the new ILC group, here's the doc to start editing.

I'd love to have your input on the “types,” especially if you're an instructional coach or classroom teacher. So sign up here—even if you don't actually evaluate teachers.

Rick Jetter—Let Them Speak: How Student Voice Can Transform Your School

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Visit the Let Them Speak! Website

Follow Dr. Jetter on Twitter @RickJetter

Visit Dr. Jetter's Website

Follow Rebecca Coda on Twitter @RebeccaCoda

Visit Rebecca Coda's Webisite

About Dr. Rick Jetter

Rick Jetter, Ph.D. is Lead Consultant and Partner at Pushing Boundaries Consulting. A former teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent, and the author of 6 books.

Nathan Lang—Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Visit Nathan's website

Follow Nathan on Twitter @nalang1

Get Nathan's book, Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness (Instructional Leadership and Coaching Strategies for Teacher Support)

About Nathan D. Lang

Dr. Nathan Lang is former science teacher and NASA educator, administrator, and ultimately director of Curriculum & Instruction for Nashville City Schools. He's currently Chief Education Officer for WeVideo, a platform for student video creation.

Jonathan Eckert—Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes

About Dr. Jonathan Eckert

Dr. Jonathan Eckert is associate professor of education at Wheaton, and previously served as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education under the Bush and Obama administrations. He works in teacher education at Wheaton, and with schools across the country to improve policies and teaching practice through the Center for Teaching Quality. He's the author of two books.

The #EveryClassroom Challenge

The #EveryClassroom Challenge is part of the Instructional Leadership Challenge. Sign up here.

If you want to make a consistent habit of getting into classrooms and having feedback conversations with teachers, don't start small.

Instead, go big—visit every classroom within a 5-day period. Even better, visit every classroom in one day.

At the beginning of a new school year, at the start of a new semester, or even after returning from a break, visiting every classroom is a powerful way for administrators to exercise instructional leadership.

It's also an effective way to bypass the most serious form of resistance administrators encounter: internal resistance.

Overcoming Internal Resistance

In my experience, most administrators start by visiting the “easiest” classrooms, where they'll see the most competent teaching and the fewest problems.

For me, this meant visiting Kindergarten teachers—they were outstanding, they were always happy to see me, and I never encountered any major problems I'd have to deal with.

But eventually, you work through the “easy” classrooms, and when you do, who's left? The hard cases. The teachers you'd rather not see, lest you discover something you need to address.

At this point, something else always conveniently comes up. We get busy. And our grand plans to visit classrooms every day fall by the wayside.

When we fail to plan how we'll deal with our internal resistance, we're planning to fail in the quest to make daily classroom visits a consistent part of our practice.

If you're a school leader, there's no avoiding the uncomfortable realities of teaching and learning. You're going to see things that you'll have to address.

But you can approach your classroom visits in a way that prevents these challenges from stopping you in your tracks.

It's all about starting strong and building momentum.

But don't “start strong” by lugging around a huge rubric and giving yourself a laborious task, such as providing written feedback to every teacher.

Start light, by just making enough of an appearance to break the ice.

Keep It Light

When you start visiting classrooms, minimize your chances of seeing something that you'll need to stop and address by keeping your visits brief.

If there's all-out chaos in a classroom, you may need to deal with it on the spot, but most teachers are mostly in control most of the time, and a quick visit won't uncover anything too serious.

Make it your goal simply to show up, and to start forming the habit of visiting classrooms. Get teachers used to seeing you, and get yourself used to being in classrooms.

In this first cycle, don't take notes or attempt to come up with feedback. Just pop in with a smile on your face, make eye contact with the teacher, stay for a moment, and leave.

No documentation (other than checking the teacher off your list).

No compliments or suggestions for improvement.

No ratings or rubrics.

Just make an appearance, and make sure you get around to everyone.

Get To Everyone Quickly

Give yourself a maximum of a week—five school days—to make it around to everyone. Five to ten visits a day should do it.

For future cycles, I recommend only three visits a day, so you can spend more time with each teacher, and have a substantive conversation—but not yet.

For now, focus on speed.

In fact, you may even want to knock out this entire challenge in one day. It's certainly doable—in fact, you could probably drink a tall glass of water and make it around to every teacher before that water even makes it through your system.

Give yourself a sense of urgency—go, get into classrooms, and break the ice. Just start.

Keep Track with a Staff Roster

A quick tip: print out a staff roster and use it as a checklist, to make sure you don't skip anyone.

Your internal resistance won't wait—you'll find no shortage of excuses to avoid so-and-so today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

And if someone is absent, or you stop by during their prep, or you otherwise miss them, your checklist is essential.

Grab a staff roster, or ask your office team to print one out for you. Don't get fancy—just get a list, and start getting into classrooms.

The Alternative: Avoidance

If you don't get around to #EveryClassroom, what will happen?

If you're like me, you'll somehow find ways to avoid those difficult teachers. Weeks will go by, then months. You'll continue to visit classrooms, but not all of them—just the easy ones.

Mediocre teaching will go unnoticed and unchallenged, because you're simply not putting yourself in a position to see it.

But eventually, it'll come to your attention. A parent will complain. A student will let something slip. And you'll have a mess on your hands that could have been prevented.

You don't need to deal with every imperfection on your very first visit—in fact, you'll be far more effective in addressing problems later, when you have more perspective.

That perspective—and the opportunity to address problems as you come to understand them more deeply—comes from the habit of visiting every classroom on a regular basis.

So for now, just start.

Visit #EveryClassroom.

And when you do, report back in our Facebook group and let us know how it went!

Start here »


Mitch Weathers—Tier I Supports for Executive Functioning

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Learn more about Organized Binder

About Mitch Weathers

Mitch Weathers is a high school teacher, adjunct college professor, and the creator and founder of Organized Binder. Mitch designed Organized Binder to help all students achieve. Together with the Organized Binder Team he now helps teachers, parents, schools, districts, and colleges implement the system both nationally and internationally.

3 How Instructional Leaders Can Create Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

Principal stress seems to be at an all-time high, as a recent tragic story out of Western Australia illustrates. The West Australian reports:

It was not unusual for Laverton School principal Trish Antulov to stay at work until late at night, even on weekends.

So when she did not come home on Sunday before last her husband, John, did not become too concerned until several phone calls went unanswered.

About 10pm, he went to the school, where he found that his wife of 26 years had died at her desk.

Mr Antulov said the long hours she worked had contributed to her high stress levels.

“She just didn’t have time to look after herself properly,” he said.

“She was under a lot of stress and terrible pressure just to be successful in her job.” link

Now, certainly the sheer number of people who are principals, and the fact that we spend a good portion of our lives at school, means that a certain number of people will, understandably, pass away while at work.

It's jarring—but is it a sign of a troubling pattern in our profession?

Evidence is starting to emerge that stress isn’t just endemic to leadership—it’s an epidemic.

The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, conducted by Associate Professor Philip Riley and his team at Australian Catholic University, recently released a massive report on the state of principal health and wellbeing in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. You can follow @PrinHealth on Twitter to stay abreast of this important work.

The reality is that some jobs are more stressful than others. Some schools are more stressful environments than others.

And within a school and role, we all go through times of varying stress levels.

The societal forces creating stress on the principalship may be beyond our individual control, but we can act to reduce their impact on our health and well-being.

What can we do to protect ourselves from life-threatening levels of stress?

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First

We’re familiar with the flight attendant’s directions to “put your own oxygen mask on first” in the event of an emergency.

If you want to help others, the reasoning goes, there’s no point in heroically putting others before yourself to such an extreme degree that you lose your own life in the process.

But even if we’re not talking about extreme, life-threatening levels of stress, should we be worried?

Many hard-working educators seem to feel a strong sense of guilt around the idea of self-care, as if a “whatever it takes” attitude toward student learning rules out any effort to limit one’s own stress.

Is there an unselfish reason to limit our own stress, even as we do our best on behalf of students?

To answer this question, we must ask a fundamental question: how do we make a difference in student learning?

At its core, is our work the work of heroes, or the work of professionals?

To explore this question, let’s take a cue from a line of work that has made extraordinary gains in outcomes over the past century: firefighting.

How Firefighters Saved More Lives—and Made Their Own Work Safer In The Process

A century ago, firefighting was largely reactionary. Firefighters saved lives by rushing into burning buildings and carrying people out—and of course, by dousing fires with water.

As you can imagine, this is dangerous work, and since many victims suffer grievous burns or smoke inhalation, even someone who is heroically saved from a fire may ultimately die from their injuries.

Today, how do most firefighters save the most lives?

In a word, prevention.
Steven Pinker writes:

“In the middle of the 20th century, fire departments turned from just fighting fires to preventing them… Fire was designated a nationwide moral emergency in reports from presidential commissions with titles like ‘America Burning.’

The campaign led to the now-ubiquitous sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors, fire escapes, fire drills, fire extinguishers, fire-retardant materials, and fire safety education mascots like Smokey the Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog.

As a result, fire departments are putting themselves out of business. About 96 percent of their calls are for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies, and most of the remainder are small fires. (Contrary to a charming image, they don't rescue kittens from trees.)

A typical firefighter will see just one burning building every other year.

—Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 183

Consider this parallel to our own work: firefighters figured out that it's far better—for everyone, not just themselves—to prevent fires, rather than wait until they break out. And countless lives have been saved as a result.

To accomplish this feat, firefighters had to set aside any fear that they’d be seen as lazy or self-interested by promoting prevention. They had to set aside any pretensions of heroic martyrdom.

In effect, they had to become professionals, demand professional respect, and advocate for policies that would achieve the best possible results.

In every major city today, fire departments are highly professionalized. Firefighters spend most of their time on proactive work, like visiting schools and supervising fire drills, or inspecting sprinkler and alarm systems to ensure that they work.

Does every firefighter get to look like a Hollywood hero, carrying limp-bodied victims to safety, and bringing them back with CPR?

No. That hardly ever happens—and that's a good thing.

Professionalism outperforms heroism, every time. It's not as flashy, but it works far better.

What does a more professional approach look like in our line of work?

Defining and Protecting the Leader’s Work

For school leaders, professionalism means staying focused on a well-defined leadership agenda, and having systems to prevent and deal with distractions.

Who determines your agenda? Who determines what leadership work most deserves your time?

Ultimately, you do. You must decide what actions will make the greatest impact on student learning.

Then, you must protect your time to take those actions, and not allow yourself to be pulled off-course by distractions and minor emergencies.

When the alarm bells ring, of course you can still react. Classroom observations are important, but you can always reschedule them if you get interrupted to deal with an imminent safety situation.

But if you're fighting fires all day, every day, it's time to step back and look at the system you're dealing with.

Do you have a wooden building with no sprinklers, metaphorically speaking? Are you plagued with perpetual emergencies that could and should be prevented by proactive leadership?

For example, numerous stressed-out leaders have written to me to tell me how much time they spend dealing with substitute teachers:

  • Recruiting
  • Training
  • Calling them in when they're needed
  • Dealing with sub shortages by covering classes personally, or otherwise scrambling

If you're dealing with this now, don't just fight the fire. Install a proactive prevention system.

If you’re a principal, your core work should not be worrying about sub coverage every day. You have more important priorities—but if no systems are in place to seamlessly ensure sub coverage, it’s your job to build them.

Could you solve your sub shortage with 10 or 20 hours of really focused work? Could you consult colleagues in other schools and discover how they’ve solved their sub challenges? Could you recruit a good pool of people? Could you train someone else to train them? Could you train your teachers and office staff to secure subs whenever there's an absence?

Yes, you probably could. 90% of schools have already done this, and you can too. I don't have all the answers on solving sub shortages, but I know as a profession, we collectively do.

In fact, we have the knowledge and the ability to solve virtually every problem that's currently stressing principals out.

The key to sharing that knowledge and implementing it everywhere is to drop the pretention of heroism.

We must instead adopt a mindset of professionalism, stop tolerating the endless cycle of burning buildings, and install the “sprinkler systems” we need.

With the right preventative systems in place, we can create boundaries that protect against unhealthy levels of stress. Here’s how.

Create Boundaries with Low Walls

When you've decided what's rightly on your plate as a leader—so you're tackling the right work on behalf of kids—go for it. But how can you protect your focus on that core work?

To be sure, other people's agendas will crowd their way in—if you let them. Our commitment to our core work on behalf of students, plus everyone else's priorities, is a recipe for burnout.

Of course, we can't just ignore everyone. We can't just say “Leave me alone! I'm focused on PLCs this year!”

A wide range of issues will come up, and it’s our job to deal with them. So how can we handle these issues, without distracting us from our core focus, and without working all the time?

As I’ve been immersed in the work of school leadership for the past decade, I’ve noticed that the most overwhelmed and stressed-out principals seem to be in a constant state of emergency.

It’s not just that they’re dealing with a few emergencies. It’s that everything is an emergency, all the time.

Yet in other schools, these same issues aren’t emergencies. They may or may not occur less often—that’s not the real difference.

The difference is that in effective, high-performing schools, systems are in place to deal with those issues, so they don’t become emergencies that warrant constant and immediate intervention from administrators.

Let’s return to the example of substitute teachers. In my school, finding subs was never something that took up my time or caused me stress.

Why? Did I luck into a staff of perfectly healthy teachers who never got sick?

Of course not. In fact, I can’t take any credit at all, because these systems were place when I arrived—a combination of technology, delegated responsibilities, and resources that made subs a permanently solved problem.

Did I occasionally have to become involved when the system failed to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances? Of course—but not very often.

This system for obtaining sub coverage, like other effective systems, created boundaries to protect my time. Think of the stone walls around a pasture.

These walls aren’t especially high, but they’re high enough to deal with 80%-90% of what might otherwise reach us. Instead of taking up our time immediately, these minor issues are directed to what we might think of as the right “gate” or gatekeeper.

For example, teachers who need a sub are directed to our online SubFinder system. If that doesn’t solve their problem, they move onto the next gate, our school office manager, who can work her magic when the automated system doesn’t get the job done.

Can people still leap over the wall and reach me directly? Yes, that’s always an option—and that’s why there’s no real risk of becoming aloof or unresponsive with systems like this. With low walls—modest barriers protecting our time and attention—we can see what’s happening on the other side, and we can ourselves leap over to lend a hand when necessary.

Of course, other problems can’t be permanently solved in the same way, because they’re one-off situations that warrant an individualized response. How can we keep these situations from becoming an onslaught of emergencies?

Designated Exception-Handlers

One of my summer jobs in college was dealing with “exception” mail at a multi-national corporation.

Customers would send in their payments by check to a national payment processing facility in Nevada, and if those payments didn’t contain anything out of the ordinary, the payment facility would process them with mind-numbing efficiency.

But if a customer enclosed a note, such as a change of address or a question, it would be an “exception” to what they normally handled, so it’d come to me and the rest of the “exception mail” team in Houston.

We’d open it, figure out what to do, and solve the problem. Many of these issues, such as address changes, were routine and easily handled, but others required some consultation or even management approval.

What’s the parallel in schools? If the designated point person can’t handle an issue, does it need to go straight to the principal?

Usually, no. The best next step for many kinds of “exceptions” is committees and meetings.

For example, let’s say we’re having a traffic issue around the school at drop-off time. Does this need to immediately go to the principal?

Again, the “wall” protecting our time shouldn’t be so high that we’re fully insulated from every issue. But the wall should gently guide issues to the right “gate.”

This means our traffic issue should probably go to the safety committee first, assuming there’s no immediate emergency.

And even if there is an emergency that requires a rapid admin response, the ultimately task of solving the problem long-term may be best handled by the committee.

“Let's put that on the agenda” is a magical phrase. It shows responsiveness and concern, but also a disciplined, measured response—you're not dropping everything in response to someone else’s issue.

Of course, sometimes we need to drop everything momentarily, but still delegate the solving of the long-term problem to a committee.

Low Walls In Action

Sometimes we’re the first responders to urgent issues, and may bear ultimate responsibility for installing the right preventative systems, but it’s still best to involve a designated team or committee.

For example, if a parent comes to you saying “My kid is being bullied. What are you going to do?” You’re probably going to talk to the students involved, and come up with a short-term resolution.

But if the ultimate solution is implementing a school-wide PBIS system, that's going to be far more work than it was for the parent to report the issue. That may be your real work.

But you may also have situations where you do have a good system in place, and the parent is just having a bad day, or is coming to you because you're an easy target.

So we need a bit of a “wall” to keep people from dumping too many of their issues on us too easily.

Again, think of these as low walls like you might find around a pasture.

Some issues are big enough to get over them—and interrupt you immediately—like if there's a fight, or a serious complaint about a teacher, or some other emergency. But other issues aren't big enough to go over the wall, so you route them to the “gate.” They walk around for a bit, come to a gate, and try to get in.

“Have you spoken with your child's teacher about the bullying you're seeing?”

The gatekeeper may be an individual, or may be a committee with a process. Either way, the issue is handled in due course.

Let’s consider another example, of a parent who comes to you saying “My kid needs to be in the gifted program.”

If I’ve implemented the “low wall” approach, and I’ve decided that I am not going to spend my day worrying or arguing about whether this kid should be in the gifted program, I’m simply going to follow our established system. I'm going to tell them where the gate is, and they can fill out the relevant forms and follow the process according to an established timeline.

As much as possible, that process is not going to take up my time or rely on my judgment—because the more it does, the more people are going to suck up my time by lobbying and haranguing me.

Now, “process” is an idea that a lot of people don't like, because it sounds bureaucratic. And bureaucracy is bad, right?

Actually, no. Inefficient bureaucracies are bad, to be sure. Bureaucracies that don't effectively achieve their intended goals are bad.

But bureaucracies that are well-run are incredibly effective at solving problems at scale, without stressing anyone out.

Take the passport system, for example. Last year, we wanted to get/renew passports for our whole family. A nightmare of red tape, right?

Not at all. We went to Walgreens, got photos taken, and sent off the forms in the mail. A couple weeks later, the passports came in the mail. No drama—the process simply worked.

But imagine if, to get a passport, we had to appeal directly to the Secretary of State—phone calls, emails, trying to stop him in the parking lot or the grocery store. (Sound familiar? 🙂

Right now, too much relies on you, and there's no “low wall” to direct people to the right “gate” to get their issue resolved.

How do I know?

Because there's always an opportunity to become more systematic and professionalized in the way we serve kids.

Does it feel “bureaucratic” sometimes? Well, yes. But it feels bureaucratic when the fire marshal comes and scolds you about using door stops on fire doors, and asks to see your fire drill logs.

Would it look more “heroic” to carry people out of burning buildings? Absolutely. Holding a clipboard looks downright geeky in comparison.

But which saves more lives—the professional process, or the heroic rescue?

So if something is routinely taking up too much of your time, put up a low wall—not a wall so high that it's keeping out issues that should rightly reach you, but a wall that encourages people to use the right process to get their issue handled.

And if you don't have enough of those processes in place, focus some of your attention on developing them.

Did some firefighter sit down one day in Excel and design a form to track school fire drills? Probably so, and it probably didn’t feel like a very heroic day at work.

But that's the work: building systems to do the work.

The Bottleneck Problem

As leaders, we face an asymmetry problem—there's only one of us, and there's a large number—hundreds, if not thousands—of other people who may make claims on our time and attention.

And there's an additional layer to this asymmetry problem—people can very quickly dump their problems on us, giving us work that's not quick to do. One quick email from a stakeholder can lead to days or weeks of work.

Even if we have great systems—low walls, and appropriate gates to send people around to—we’ll still get inundated with other people’s issues. It’s just the nature of leadership.

It’s important to recognize that this work is endless. There is no hope of every being free from this work, or ever finishing it all. Organizations naturally create work for themselves in the never-ending process of improvement, and most of this work will involve leaders in some way.

You’re often the bottleneck in your organization. So how can you keep these pressures from eating you alive?

Here are a few suggestions for specific boundaries to protect your time, attention, and well-being.

Keep Regular Working Hours

It's often said that the principalship is a 24/7 job, and to some extent, that may be true.

But it's only as true as we allow it to be. If you’re willing to stay at school until 9pm every night, your work will oblige you by expanding to fill whatever time you give it.

This phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s Law, and briefly stated, it says “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson was an administrator in, and observer of, British bureaucracy in the middle of the 20th century. He noted that bureaucracies have an endless ability to make work for themselves—for example, he noted that the office responsible for managing Britain’s colonies continued to grow, even as the number of colonies in the British empire dwindled down to zero.

Our schools face this same relentless pressure, to make up work for ourselves to do, even as we’ve solved many of our most pressing problems. As leaders, we must ensure that we’re directing this energy toward worthwhile improvement efforts, and not mere busywork.

And just as this is true at the organizational level, it’s true of our work as individual leaders—and protecting our time is even more urgent at the personal level.

Committees can live on forever, and can’t have heart attacks or strokes. People are much more vulnerable to overwork and stress,

So one boundary that you must create for yourself is working hours—and by the same token, non-working hours.

If you feel guilty leaving at 5pm, just remember this: you’re never going to get everything done, and the longer you work, the more time you waste. You’ll approach each additional task with less mental energy, and you’ll be working on less and less important tasks as the evening wears on.

Do the most important work first, and give yourself a hard deadline for going home. You’ll work faster and more efficiently, you’ll prioritize more rigorously, and you’ll be more effective.

Why not get the most important work done, save the rest for another day, and go home happy at 5pm?

But giving yourself a firm quitting time is just one of many steps you can take to establish better boundaries around your work life.

Email, Not Texting

I could list dozens of other tactics for protecting your time, but I’ll close with just one more: don’t allow other people to make requests via text message.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a remarkable rise in texting in a professional context.

This increase in texting has been accompanied by a decrease in reliance on email, even when email is the better communication medium.

Texting is great for quick questions, just as phone calls have been for decades. But text messages are a very poor way to manage work, because:

  • They can’t be marked as unread
  • They’re difficult to forward or CC people on
  • They’re difficult to manage on your computer and other devices
  • They don’t integrate well with productivity tools like Outlook and Google Calendar

I'm convinced a lot of our stress—and the perception that we need to be working all the time—is coming from our smartphones.

Do we love them? Absolutely—I'm on my phone all the time. But that convenience comes at a cost.

I'm not suggesting that you get rid of your phone, but do enforce some boundaries. Specifically, don't let people text you at 10pm and expect an immediate response.

Don't let people text you random requests that you'll struggle to keep track of.

Text messaging wasn't built for productivity. Email was, so insist that people email you if they need you to do something. And model this by treating your staff the same way.

For more tips on managing text messages, see this great blog post from Dr. Frank Buck.

Professional Work Has Boundaries, But Only If We Create Them

Boundaries are key to professionalism. If we're martyrs, we don't need boundaries. If this is a profession, and we want to retain professional people to do professional work, the boundaries are essential.

Those boundaries, like the low stone walls around a pasture, don’t build themselves. It’s our job to build them.

I believe we have the same opportunity today that firefighters had in the middle of the 20th century. We can admit that it’s better if we’re not fighting fires all the time, and we can build the preventative systems that not only get better results, but save lives.

Your turn: What are some boundaries that you have put in place to protect your time and your focus on the most important leadership work?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

1 Barbara Blackburn—Advocacy from A to Z

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Follow Barbara on Twitter @BarbBlackburn

Visit Barbara's Website 

View a collection of Barbara's publications at Routledge.com

About Barbara Blackburn, PhD

Barbara Blackburn, PhD is the author of 18 books and a full-time consultant who works with schools around the world to help raise the level of rigor and motivation for professional educators and students alike. Dr. Blackburn has been named to the Top 30 Education Gurus by Global Gurus for 3 years running, and she’s co-author of the new book Advocacy A to Z.

Daniel P. Kelley—NASSP

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Follow Dan on Twitter @danielpkelley

Visit Dan's website

About Daniel P. Kelley

Dan Kelley is President of NASSP, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and principal of Smithfield High School in Rhode Island. As a leader in education, Dan believes in challenging current instructional practices to provide creative and effective opportunities for students to learn, grow, and succeed. He is passionate about educational leadership that builds strong relationships with faculty and the community, utilizing social media to foster connections between educators, and establishing Personal Learning Networks for collaboration and professional development.

Brad Balch—Building Great School Board–Superintendent Teams A Systematic Approach to Balancing Roles and Responsibilities

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Follow Brad on Twitter @Bradbalch

Get the book, Building Great School Board–Superintendent Teams A Systematic Approach to Balancing Roles and Responsibilities

About Brad Balch

Brad Balch, PhD, is a professor and dean emeritus at Indiana State University. A former superintendent, principal, assistant principal, teacher, and school board member, as well as a board member of higher education governance bodies including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, he's the author of several books.

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