I’ve read a number of articles recently about principals resigning from their position mid-year, mostly due to burnout and anxiety. As I type this, Carney-Sandoe, a national search firm for private and Catholic schools, has well over 130 administrative job listings, most I've ever seen. Indeed, the last couple of years, exacerbated by the stress over Covid protocols and our increasingly polarized society, have been the most difficult in my 34 years as a leader in our schools.
What, then, can we do to make our jobs less stressful, and less “crushing” in our many tasks and duties? Here’s my top ten list.
10. Tackle the paperwork once/week with a standing appointment off campus.
Put all the paperwork we must do in a stack on our desk. Once a week, during a standing appointment time, take that stack, leave campus, and knock it out. I used to go to the public library a few miles from school and cloister myself in the "stacks." Tell our secretary to tell others we have an “off campus appointment” if someone asks. She can contact us for an emergency. Paperwork comes at us constantly, and it nags at our psyche, sitting there, staring back at us! It's enormously satisfying to “catch up” once/week, and it gives me peace to put incoming paperwork aside until my next "appointment."
9. Develop first and second level responders.
First level is the teacher or a team of teachers. Second level, if a school can afford it, is an assistant principal or someone similar. The third level is the principal. As a general rule, consistent with the long held Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity, things are best handled at the most local level possible, meaning as principals we should develop procedures that direct issues to the teacher or a team of teachers as the first step in handling things, then the assistant principal, then us.
But it isn’t quite that easy, because parents are also more stressed, meaning they are inclined to meet more often with our teachers, upset about something, and our teachers are weary from the many contentious meetings. This is why I think it’s important to emphasize a team of teachers.
Here’s what that could mean: Instead of thinking about a “kindergarten teacher, a “first grade teacher”, or a “second grade teacher,” think instead of a K-2, 3-5, or 6-8, or 9-12 teacher “units” of three teachers per unit. (Larger schools could create multiple 3 person unit teams). That unit could agree on a common one hour meeting time each week if a parent wanted to address a concern at any one of those levels, and the three teachers would meet together with that parent at that designated time for 15 minutes—no more than four of these meetings per week, but all within that hour. If there were more meetings necessary, it would need to be pushed to the following week. I believe from the viewpoint of our teachers, this would be a greatly preferred “structure” that allowed them to mutually support each other and “protect” their time, and I believe from the viewpoint of parents, it would seem like a fuller “hearing,” which has a better chance of not being shuttled up to the next level.
The other advantage is there would likely be one teacher among the three teachers who is more experienced and could be designated a “lead teacher,” perhaps with a small stipend to recognize him or her as such, who could help the meeting become more productive and helpful than it otherwise might.
I once heard a successful C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company say that he tries to "focus on the things that only he can do," and then he tries to delegate the rest. The more substructures, the healthier our schools and the healthier we are as their leaders!
8. Create as many recurring processes as possible
...with others as the "trigger" to make something happen. The principal takes on the role where-ever possible as the musical “conductor,” but someone else is playing the instrument!
Here’s what I mean: When I was a young principal, every time we had a special schedule, our office had to ring the bells for changing classes manually. Inevitably, either I or my secretary would become engaged with a student and didn't ring the bell on time, which greatly upset a math teacher on staff. He’d walk across the hall into the office, flustered, pointing at his watch. After three years of this, I finally asked him if he’d like to ring the bells for special days. He was delighted to do so, and I never had a problem with him thereafter. One less thing!
Who opens and locks up the school? Is that our job? Is there a faculty member who likes getting to school early and will open up each day for us? Is there a coach who finishes out practice at 5 p.m. and will lock up?
Is there a person we can designate as the one to call if a teacher is sick, absent or late to work? If we can give that person a stipend that acknowledges his or her role, it’s money well spent! Nothing worse for us than to get a call that a teacher is absent at 6 a.m. ! Is there an administrative assistant role that is not time sensitive, like a service coordinator, or a registrar, who can be paid to also be the “first sub” for teachers who are suddenly absent?
If we as principals are the “trigger” that fires every gun, we have no time to attend to the unscheduled things—a student in despair, a disciplinary situation, a parent in need of our attention—that are sure to occur in our schools. It’s in being responsive in these situations, where we can be true ministers to someone, that we derive satisfaction. Otherwise, we run around with our hair on fire, which wears us down.
7. Get everyone in the habit of sending you emails
...instead of phone calls or asking you to do things during “drive-by’s.” First, an email can be responded to according to our schedule, not that of the caller or a person who "pops in" for a meeting. Second, we’ve got a written reminder of what someone has asked us to do. Third, we have a historical record if we forget something, or forget what we said we would do in response. I hate phone calls, and avoid them whenever I can. I also ask the school secretary to try and schedule a meeting with a person who "pops in," but leave it to her discretion if the parent seems to truly NEED to meet with me at that moment.
I don’t mean emails should be used to resolve problems. Face to face works best for that. But if I can get parents to preview their concerns in an initial email, it gives me time to prepare for our meeting. In those meetings we try and develop an action plan—what the school will do, what the parents will do, and what the student will do. It’s best if everyone has skin in the game! I usually follow these meetings up with an email that summarizes what we agreed upon and who’s doing what, so there is no misunderstanding, and I have a written record I can refer back to if issues persist and need to remind myself what we did earlier.
6. Leave campus once/day.
Go home, or go to lunch with someone, or go for a walk. But go!
People don’t fully understand how taxing it is to be ultimately responsible for everything that happens in a school during the school day. If we eat in the faculty room with faculty, we are still very much “on duty.” If we eat in our office, we’re likely reading emails. Getting away for just an hour is huge for our inner sense of peace. Most of us work from 7’ish until 5, which is a ten hour day, not counting night time engagements! Taking back one hour each day is OK!
5. Schedule all needed meetings early in the week. Leave Thursday and Friday as free as possible.
I meet once/week with the administrative team for 30 minutes, with each administrator individually for 30 minutes, and with our new teachers once/week for 15-20 minutes. Every two weeks I meet with our campus minister and faculty leadership team. All of these meetings occur on Monday or Tuesday, and if parents need to meet, I generally try and do these meetings on Monday or Tuesday also, unless we can’t work out a time, in which case my fall-back day is Wednesday. This gives me freedom on Thursday and Friday, days I look forward to for longer term projects, or off campus visits with donors, or thinking through new structures or new ways to do things.
4. "Re-baptize” or re-purpose existing events for dual purposes
...Instead of adding new events to the calendar. Rather than a banquet to honor volunteers, for example, use half times at football games or basketball games to honor them with a few words and a plaque, inviting others to share their appreciation. Instead of inventing new “celebrations” for Catholic schools week, use existing school events, like the weekly school mass, to invite people to celebrate with you, perhaps with some cookies in the gym after, or a few words at the end of mass to celebrate the event. Instead of large "open houses" for high schools, use the Saturday morning entrance test to give parents tours of the school while they wait for their kids to finish. A good rule of thumb for us: every NEW event added to our calendars must have an existing event taken OFF our calendar!
3. Get a “‘google voice” telephone number
....so that when you call people back on your cell phone, they won’t have your actual number. A few years back, I called a mother back on my cell phone, and within a week, she was calling me at 6 a.m. to ask me questions about her son. No joke. And too often, we get phone calls later in the evening that begin “Sorry to bother you, but…”
Too much access is a curse. Be careful with your phone number! Google will let you create a new telephone number which you can use on your cell phone to dial out instead of your real number. If someone calls you on that number, you can allow it to go directly to voice mail, and google will transcribe the message and send you a text of it. You can decide if it needs to be responded to at that moment.
2. Use Fridays for the bad news.
Often, we have to respond to angry parents when they haven’t had a chance to process what's happened, get a hold of themselves and regain their sense of balance. Meetings too close to the event are full of stress on both principal and parent alike. That’s why I insist that cheerleading try-out results, for example, are posted on Friday afternoon, after school is closed for the weekend. By Monday, the angry mother of the cheerleader who didn’t make it is usually in a better place! All team cuts, in fact, are posted on Fridays. If I am telling a faculty something I know will upset him or her—a reprimand or a non-renewal, for example—I will schedule the meeting for Friday afternoon, so that he or she is composed for teaching by Monday morning.
1. Take care of yourself!
Most of us are oriented to serving others, but not ourselves. We don’t sleep enough, don’t exercise enough, carry around a lot of stress, and gain weight over time. That’s not the formula for a long career! Though as a younger man I was embarrassed to do so, I walk now, every morning, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., three miles each day. I am more energetic and less stressed. During that walk, I pray, which centers me and gives me some peace. “Lord, your will be done today” is my consistent theme, and that allows me to let go of some of the worries I carry. I’m still a little too heavy, but I am much healthier!