- Districts should have an onboarding process that includes coaching and support for beginning administrators.
- Develop a plan and don’t let email become a distraction to your role as a district administrator.
- Use time blocking to become more disciplined and focus on the district’s priorities.
When educators begin working in the district office, there are several common pitfalls they encounter. Graduate school may prepare someone to be a principal, director of English, or associate superintendent; however, content knowledge is different from the soft skills and decision-making abilities that are essential. Once the school year begins, a leader may be in charge of multiple meetings, curriculum design, finance, and supervision of staff without a great onboarding process to prepare them for these distinct roles.
Over the past fifteen years, I have worked as a district administrator in three school districts. I’ve observed common leadership pitfalls in each district. The purpose of this article is to highlight how districts can provide mentoring and support for beginning district administrators. Leadership is challenging, but coaching and support can provide district administrators with clarity, confidence, and courage.
“Great leaders must have the essential long view that
a systems understanding brings.”
– Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence
In the 1960’s movie Cool Hand Luke, actor Paul Newman shared, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Beginning administrators often focus on learning a new system, planning meetings, and developing procedures. Schools become frustrated when they do not receive communication efficiently or when it’s not clear.
Beginning administrators should communicate with staff early and often, especially if the school district is implementing a program, seeking to involve school staff, or providing timely updates. The absence of communication can create confusion and a lack of trust. Veteran educators use blogs, email, newsletters, videos, social media, and face-to-face communication. When districts provide onboarding for beginning administrators, they should provide examples and non-examples of clear communication. They should provide expectations for communication with staff.Leadership is challenging, but coaching and support can provide district administrators with clarity, confidence, and courage. Click To Tweet
Email can cause employees to lose 3-5 hours of time daily if district administrators do not develop systems and block time dedicated to responding to email. Most administrators carry a smartphone, wear an iWatch, own an iPad, or another device. They have the ability to check email 24/7. This is a blessing and a curse.
Time management techniques can support staff with managing email, rather than stopping work each time a new email arrives. Some administrators begin their day by replying to emails. Other administrators spend the first hour of their day focused on the district’s goals and priorities. Then, they transition to email later in the day. Develop a plan and don’t let email become a distraction to your role as a district administrator.
Beginning administrators often feel like every phone call, email, meeting, and request is urgent. They feel the need to make staff and families happy and to respond in a timely manner. One staff member told me, “I feel like I am two days behind and I am taking quite a bit of work home every night.”
One strategy that supports planning is “blocking time” on your calendar. “Time blocking is the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks and responsibilities” (MacKay, 2019). Common time blocking includes the following areas:
- Change Leadership
- Classroom Observations
- Creating Newsletters, Communication, or Procedures
- Curriculum Design
- Lunch Break
- Meetings with Co-Workers
- Planning for Board Meeting
- Planning Future Meeting Agendas
- Priority Projects
- Reflecting on District Goals
- Responding to Email
- Review Meeting Notes
- Writing Thank You Notes
“We tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.”
– Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization
Beginning administrators can work long hours, yet feel like they are not making progress. By using Time Blocking, they can become more disciplined and they will be able to focus on the district’s priorities.
Most administrators have been teachers prior to entering a district administration role. In a classroom, a teacher gives students assignments, but there aren’t typically other staff members to delegate tasks to or to ask for support. Delegation is one of the biggest pitfalls for beginning administrators. There are specific tasks that an administrative assistant can support.
Most administrators admit that they feel bad asking someone else to complete a task that they could do in a short amount of time. It is important for district administrators to focus on all of the schools in the district and to see systems from a 90,000-foot view. If a district administrator is micromanaging staff or focused on every detail in the office, they will not be as effective as a leader. This will also lead to time management issues. If a leader is feeling overwhelmed in the first two months on the job, it may be due to a lack of delegation skills.
During the first year, several district administrators admit that they have not read a journal article, education book, or attended a conference. They are so focused on planning and developing professional development for others that they fail to focus on their own professional growth.
Most educators were good at taking time to reflect when they were teachers or building principals. Analysis paralysis seems to be a pitfall for beginning administrators. Rather than focusing on a single school or classroom, administrators are required to support 5-150 schools. They begin addressing needs, checking items on their to-do list, and planning meetings. A lack of reflection is akin to an unexamined life.
Common Reflection Stems Include:
- How did I add value to others this week?
- What were the highlights from this week?
- Did my calendar reflect my priorities and goals?
- What was the most challenging part of the week?
- Which hurdles need to be addressed or cleared for future success?
- What is the low-hanging fruit?
- What does a successful week look like, if I focus on next week?
Beginning administrators often experience weight gain and changes in mood or sleep habits. A desire to meet the needs of others often results in making sacrifices related to self-care. It is not uncommon to see a district administrator eating fast food in their car while traveling between schools. They may work later hours or take work home. Once they slip into bad habits, they quit exercising. The fact that a district administrator sits at a desk during meetings and has far less built-in walking time daily complicates fitness.
If an administrator makes sacrifices in one or more areas related to self-care, it will eventually impact their leadership ability. Decision-making, crucial conversations, data analysis, and leading professional development require administrators to be focused and alert. Rarely do superintendents of district leaders encourage beginning administrators to eat right and exercise.
“If you want to become the best version of yourself — and inspire those around you to do the same — investing in your own well-being is worth making time for.”
– Neale, 2020[scroll down to keep reading]
If everything is important, then nothing is important. There is a classic video on YouTube with Stephen Covey. Dr. Covey asks a guest in the audience to identify the “Big Rocks” or the priorities in her life. With a live audience, the guest sorts her smaller tasks, daily tasks, and “Big Rocks.” Too often, beginning administrators approach each morning by checking email. Then, they attend 2-3 meetings. By noon, they feel like they are already behind schedule. As a new employee, every task and deadline feels like it must be completed today. It is difficult for beginning administrators to decipher between a ‘today issue’ and something that can be completed next week.
Some district administrators have an administrative assistant. A good administrative assistant can support scheduling, answering phone calls, and coordinating events. In the event that a district administrator does not have an administrative assistant, other planning tools exist.
Covey’s Time Management Matrix contains four quadrants and is a powerful tool for identifying and scheduling priorities. Monday.com is a tool that supports planning and helps staff track goals in real time. “Remember that the 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, says that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts. Therefore, the key to maximizing your efficiency is prioritizing the tasks that contribute to the majority of your gains” (Tracy, 2019). Finally, a white board is an effective tool for district administrators. Use the whiteboard to create project timelines, identify district needs, reflect, and brainstorm.
“People without clear vision are easily distracted, have a tendency to drift from one idea to another and often make foolish decisions that rob them of their dreams” (Stanley, 2005). The role of a district leader is to see 3-5 months down the road and to begin planning for the future. If a district administrator is planning for today or next week, they may be focused on planning, but not visionary leadership. This skill is not taught in graduate school and it takes practice. Onboarding programs should teach visionary leadership and should provide beginning administrators with tools for becoming a visionary leader.
About Steven Weber
Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.