Making the Most of a Principal’s Time, Tasks, and Professional Development

Guest post by Donald Gately

I read with great interest the letter from NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti in this January’s issue of Principal Leadership. She references a report issued recently by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) about how principals spend their time. I want to react to the three key findings noted in JoAnn’s letter.

The first of these findings is completely unsurprising: The average principal spends 59 hours a week on the job.

As I write this, I am probably on hour 56 of this week, and it’s only Thursday! The job of the principal is complex, challenging, exciting, and sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding. I’m guided by what my own dad—a man who worked his own share of 60-hour weeks—told me: “Make sure you find a job that you love because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it.” It would be impossible to be a principal if you did not have a passion for learning and a commitment to the success and well-being of kids.

I recently sat in on a meeting in which a young lady and her mother chose her high school electives. The girl said she wanted to take our gourmet foods elective at the high school because her aspiration was to be a chef. I said that is great, but you better be committed because that takes long hours and hard work. She smiled at me and said, “I know, I love it!” Being a principal is the same way—it’s too hard a job not to love.

This second finding was not surprising but rather dismaying: The largest chunk of the principal’s time (31 percent) is spent on administrative tasks.

Every school leader I have ever admired became an administrator to be a leader, not a manager. I’m not sure I can assign a percentage to these administrative tasks, but in the course of a week, I sign scores of timesheets, arrange buses and field trips, manage our awesome custodial staff (and clean up lots of paper in the hallway myself), and complete a host of other administrative tasks. While these are not the most rewarding aspects of the job, they are necessary and support the well-being of our students and their success as learners.

On the Martin Luther King National Day of Service, I saw President Obama painting inside the lines of a mural of Dr. King outlined on the wall of a hospital. Through his obvious commitment and apparent joy in this task, he modeled a powerful lesson on leadership: To be a leader, one must also be a servant. Servant leadership is found in the innumerable administrative tasks that are required of principals. This work should be embraced equal to the lofty toil of “leadership.”

I found this third finding somewhat anachronistic: Principals pursue formal workshops as their primary manner of professional development.

I have nothing against workshops, but there are so many dynamic tools for leaders to learn. As a connected educator, I have come to embrace the value of social media and myriad 21st-century tools to learn and connect with other educators anytime, anywhere. Twitter is the 7-Eleven of professional development, always open and found everywhere you go. I participate in various Twitter chats every week and enjoy a steady stream of useful resources from high-performing colleagues whose endorsements I know I can count on. Google Hangouts and similar tools (Facetime, Periscope, Skype) allow me to connect with voices in the field traversing wide geographic boundaries. I connect with fellow principals across the country via several Voxer groups to which I belong. I even learn during my daily commute or when I’m running by listening to podcasts by educational thought leaders.

As an educator connected through these tools, I am literally always learning. I’d like to see these approaches emerge more prominently in future surveys of principals’ professional development. The IES study on how principals spend their time was published in 2012 and social media in education has since expanded exponentially. I suspect that if this study were repeated today, the use of social media and other digital tools as a means of professional development would be much higher on the list among principals.

I don’t have the answer for the problem of time in the professional life of a principal but, like everyone else, I know there’s not enough of it. Successful principals must embrace the challenges this highly rewarding role presents and look for opportunities to make every single moment count to improve student learning.

Donald Gately, EdD, serves as the principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY. He is the 2016 New York Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @donald_gately.

1 Comment

  • Michael Thomas says:

    It’s easy to get frustrated about the time we spend on minutia. It’s similar to the frustrations our teachers have on the time they spend on these types of tasks too. Do you know if there has been a survey about how teachers spend their time? It would be interesting to see if the percentages are similar.

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