3 ways overwhelmed school administrators can create more time to lead

By Devin Vodicka

There was a very clear theme in my conversations with school administrators this week: They are overwhelmed.  The context is ever-changing with rising COVID cases in many communities, floods in New York, fires in California, and severe staffing shortages that are affecting everything from substitute teachers to principals and district office administrators.  In Massachusetts they activated the National Guard to help deal with a bus driver shortage.  

“We were expecting this year to be 2019 with masks and instead we have 2020 with open schools” was how one school leader explained the current situation.  One central office administrator is also serving as interim principal while she also teaches five sections of online classes.  A technology leader in another district is now running a certified medical clinic to do COVID testing for staff and students.  When I asked how he ended up with this role, his answer was simply that someone had to do it.  

Greg Little, the Superintendent of Lexington County School District in South Carolina, shared this alarming post as just one indicator of the stressors that are impacting schools.  

School administrators have been pushing through this pandemic, frequently running on adrenaline and powered by a strong sense of service and responsibility.  I have heard from many who have pressed on for long stretches of time before their body shuts down and they end up with an exhaustion-influenced illness.  

Clearly this is not sustainable nor is it likely that tired, multi-tasking administrators are going to be functioning at their best as critical decision-makers.  Paradoxically, while time and staff are scarce, schools are also uniquely funded right now with an influx of one-time dollars which provides an opportunity to think about using those resources to improve the conditions for effective leadership.  As a result, while this is not necessarily a resource-constrained environment, it is one that requires thoughtful strategy and a disciplined approach.  

Photo by Valentin Antonucci on Pexels.com

So what can be done to create time for school leaders to effectively address the challenges of the current context? Here are three suggestions that can help administrators to create time for themselves to be more effective leaders:

  1. Defer: Can something be deferred until a later time frame? If so, push it back! Obviously this won’t work for all of the tasks and projects that administrators are responsible for in the course of their duties, but a truism of change management is that during times of rapid change leaders should not add unnecessary complexity.  Projects and tasks that are not time-sensitive should be put on hold until the conditions improve.  Pro tip: Be sure to communicate with others to maintain high levels of trust. People tend to be quite understanding provided that are informed.
  2. Delegate: Like many school leaders, this is an area where I have struggled to be effective, especially during very busy periods when it feels more expedient to simply do things myself.  As we know, that ultimately proves to be a poor approach and it is far better to invest the time into effective delegation systems.  Given the staffing shortages, now is a time to also get creative by offering stipends, extra hours or day, or temporarily elevating job titles to incentivize existing staff to lean into growth opportunities where they can take on more responsibility.  Where staff bandwidth is nonexistent, consider bringing in retirees or consultants as another temporary solution.  
  3. Get a coach: Given the challenges of the moment, leaders run the risk of being isolated “sprinters” who are always on the go.  Having a coach will create space for periodic reflection, thought partnership, and it will also be a non-evaluative accountability method that will help administrators to follow-through on deferring, delegating, and prioritizing what matters most.  

If you are interested in further conversation, you can contact me at any time.  

School administrators make a difference in the lives of students and staff.  They influence communities and society.  Now is a time for us to be creative in how we use the precious resource of our time to make the biggest impact.  It is quite possible that it is needed now more than ever. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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