January 29, 2019

Reclaiming Your Time as a School Leader

By Bellwether

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“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got so much to do and no time to get it done!” I can’t count the number of times I found myself at the end of a school day sitting at my desk and wondering where the hours went. As a young school leader, days went by in a poorly managed blur that left me working late into the evening and on weekends. But even though I worked all the time, tasks still slipped through the cracks at school and at home. I needed to do a better job of accounting and planning for my time if I wanted to get a good night’s sleep, endure as a school leader, and, ultimately, serve my students well.
black and white image of a clock showing 5:40
In order to increase their effectiveness and sustainability in the role, school leaders (actually, all leaders) need to ensure that their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules and calendars are planned in a way that reflects their priorities and maximizes every minute. I see this as a consistent roadblock with the leaders I support. With all of the competing and seemingly urgent needs at a school, focusing on your priorities and rigorously maximizing your time can feel easier said than done. The job of a school leader can feel never-ending and everyone wants some of your time.
Thankfully, January is prime time for setting resolutions, establishing new habits, and hitting reset on the school year. Here are a few strategies I used as a leader (and still use!) to help me be more effective, get the most out of the day, and ensure I have chunks of guilt-free time to spend with my husband or do other things that make me happy:
Get clear on your priorities
Ask yourself: What are the 2-3 most important things my school needs to achieve this year, this semester, or this quarter AND what is my unique role as the school leader in helping achieve these goals? Having a crisp answer to this question is the first step to reclaiming and reprioritizing your time. Your school may have several priorities, but they don’t all require your involvement — or your involvement 100% of the time. Getting strategic about your unique value add will help you decide what you need to engage in.
Know the capacity of your team
The next step is assessing the strengths and gaps of those who can help drive your top priorities. Knowing the capacity of your team will help you determine what to delegate and to whom versus what may need to be rolled out more methodically. If members of your team are more seasoned, your energy should be spent aligning on expectations and then checking in on progress or problem-solving. If your team members are less experienced, you’ll spend time teaching, modeling, or coaching on new tasks. And because all delegation is not created equal, you will have to differentiate between “reviewing and giving feedback” and “co-developing.” One takes approximately 30 minutes, while the other is more like 60 minutes.
Schedule time to schedule your time
Have a regular chunk of time where you plan ahead for at least the next 2-3 weeks. Additionally, have a regularly scheduled time each week where you do some “calendar maintenance,” moving appointments around and getting set for the week ahead.
Plan for every minute in the workday
When I ask leaders who say they “have no time” to look at their calendars, I’m always surprised when I see only a sprinkle of appointments across their calendar and a ton of open white space. Unaccounted time is the first place minutes get lost. These were the times when I found myself aimlessly walking the school hallways or, worse, getting lost in the black hole of email (which is a whole other topic!). Usually, I left these unplanned activities with more things to do rather than less!
After you have added calendar appointments for personal needs (drop kids off, eat lunch, workout, etc.), fixed meetings (principal meetings plus travel time), driving your priorities (classroom observations, check-ins, coaching sessions, professional development), work time, and email clean-up time, you will have white space. Don’t leave this space blank! Instead, account for it as “flex time.” In the appointment, list 3-4 things you could get accomplished during this time. That list could look like: “Meet with parents,” “approve expense report and payroll,” “draft leader professional development,” or “send check-in emails to X, Y, Z.” This list can be helpful when you find yourself sitting at your computer drawing a blank about how to use a sliver of time. These flex-time blocks are also great to schedule time to “be visible” around your building or do things that bring you joy, like hitting the recess yard or hanging out with students. Just account for this time in your calendar!
During your weekly “calendar maintenance time,” look ahead at the flex blocks for the coming week and fill them in with your 3-4 to-dos.  
Color-code the items on your calendar
Avoid having your calendar look like one lightly colored blob of boxes. Categorize and color-code your appointments so you can easily see how you are spending your time in a given week. Some categories for color-coding can include “work blocks,” “classroom observation time,” or “leader development time.” This is a good way to assess if the way you spend your time actually aligns with your priorities.
Share your calendar with your leadership and front-office teams
Once you have your calendar filled out, share it with your leadership and front-office teams. This helps build transparency (and empathy) around how you are using your time and lets your team know what blocks of time are available for scheduling parent meetings or other tasks. Teammates will be able to understand what appointments are important on your calendar and why, how you are moving the school towards your stated priorities, and where flex time may be used for unexpected drop-ins. Sharing your process models how your team should manage their time and build their own calendars. It also helps them align their calendars to yours and not the other way around.
Give yourself grace
Some weeks in the school year are just going to be overwhelming and you are not going to be as productive or use your time optimally. Acknowledging this fact and having strategies to step back and reassess will help you from getting stuck in those moments too long.
For those interested in getting more tools and strategies, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Maia Heyck-Merlin’s book The Together Leader or checking out her website.

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