There is a significant difference between working IN your school and working on your school. Non-association independent school leaders inevitably find themselves working in their schools for a disproportionate amount of their time. Yet, they know they need to carve some time out to work on their school too. Of course, there are too many constraints and circumstances conspiring against them. It’s an unfortunate reality for many.
When I speak to school leaders in this position, they’re fully aware of all the above. However, they feel their hands are tied: “What can I do? We have limited human resources and I don’t think the top brass will hire any additional staff this year.”
It’s not uncommon, and I completely empathise with the difficulty of their situation.
That’s why I’m always happy to share ideas about how to address the problems they face. Ways to create time to work on the school, not just in it. Strategies that have worked for others many times before.
Strategy sessions like this normally form part of my school improvement workshops and, to a greater extent, my school improvement consultancy. However, here I’ve decided to share some of the quickest and easiest techniques you can begin to apply today. Strategies and techniques that you can apply straight away. Ones that will have an immediate impact on the work you're able to do on your school.
So, what can school leaders do to reduce the amount of time spent working in the school and create more time for working on the school?
Let’s Get to Work ON Your School
What follows is a selection of tried, tested and proven strategies to help get you working on your school. They are not at all onerous. In fact, they are quick and actionable. And best of all, they’re effective.
First of all, take stock of what you do. I'm not talking about sitting down with pen and paper one afternoon and listing everything you do. Instead, document everything you do at school and at home (for school) for a minimum period of 1 week. Choose the week carefully. It needs to be a typical week. During that week, after completing every little task, make a note of it and how long it took (approximate if necessary). You might find it easier to use an app for recording your voice so that all you have to do is speak into your phone. (Efficiency is key here. You want to work SMART, not add to your overflowing plate.)
Once you've completed your list, look at everything that you've done during the week. Identify the tasks that are your tasks. These are tasks that are on your job description. Tasks that only you can do.
What proportion of the tasks you do, should you be doing?
Now, look at the remaining tasks.
Are you doing somebody else's job? If so, why? Is it because you think they can’t do a good job or because there is no person in that role? If it’s the former, then there are important questions to be raised about the person that should be doing those tasks:
Are they suitably qualified and experienced?
Do they need additional training or coaching?
Or is it you?
Do you struggle with delegation?
Do you require things to be just so and nothing else will do?
If this is the case, then it’s a question of your personal development. Maybe you need the support of a leadership coach.
However, if there is no one to fulfil that role, then you need to have a conversation with the board of governors. Using the information you gathered about what you do, make it clear that an additional staff member is needed. Help them understand the impact of not having time to work on the school.
All Systems Go
Another strategy you could use is to build systems.
We’re both aware of all the work that you need to do in the school as well as on the school. However, if this work is not prioritised and scheduled effectively, you will struggle to complete it. And ultimately, what always suffers is work on the school.
Of course, who has time to build systems, as well as do everything else on that neverending task list?
Well, in true Blue Peter style, here’s one I made earlier.
To help ease the burden on school leaders, I have created a guidance document titled, ‘How to Build a System That Drives School Improvement’. In it, I outline clearly how you can monitor every aspect of your school’s provision to inform self-evaluation and improvement planning. In addition to this, I have compiled a tool to help you put together a monitoring schedule. This outlines what you need to do every month of the year in order to get all your jobs done.
Essentially, it all boils down to accountability.
We all need a little nudge every once in a while. Having such a schedule in place will help prompt you to do work on the school whilst distributing your tasks evenly across the year. This way you avoid end-loading your year with catch-up paperwork.
Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop
The final strategy I’m going to share is removing pop-up tasks from your day. These tend to include dealing with behaviour issues, managing critical incidents, and unscheduled meetings with parents or visitors. Of course, you should do all these things. But it’s how you approach them that makes a difference.
As a senior leader, you can't be the first port of call for pupils who have concerns or are presenting extreme behaviour.
This may seem counterintuitive given the complex needs and dynamics within your student population. Naturally, you’ll want to be as accessible as possible so you can build strong relationships with them. It’s important they feel safe in the knowledge that there is someone who is always there for them.
As is often the case in these circumstances, senior leaders like to promote an open-door policy. Which is, of course, a good thing. That is, except when pupils pop into your office every time the slightest thing goes wrong. If this is encouraged, you will find it impossible to find time to do other parts of your job. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
So, what do you do?
Some schools use key workers, so every pupil at the school has a go-to adult. Someone they can trust. Someone they can talk to when they have concerns. Someone who is called in, whenever the pupil presents extreme behaviour.
Alternatively, schools sometimes choose to use floating staff. That is to say, as long as the school is open, there will be some members of staff walking the corridors available to deal with any issues of extreme behaviour.
As a result, teaching staff can feel confident that when they need to send pupils outside of the classroom there will be someone there to take care of them, to de-escalate the problem, to calm them down, or maybe even to deliver some one-to-one tuition until they can safely return to class.
Once these procedures are in place, by the time behaviour issues reach your door it is as a last resort. More importantly, the pupils will arrive accompanied by their key worker or a floating staff member who’ll be able to outline the intervention strategies that have already been used, and to what degree of success. Thus, making your job simpler, and far more targeted.
One final way of approaching this problem is to have senior support staff (or even a middle leader, where possible) responsible for managing behaviour. In this scenario, all your job entails is offering oversight.
Keeping Parents Onside
In terms of meeting with parents, again, I know that all senior leaders want to maintain a good relationship with home. In order to be more accessible, once again, many school leaders may choose to operate an open-door policy. This is, of course, admirable and it goes a long way towards building those desired relationships. Except when it takes up so much of your time that the rest of your work suffers.
So, here are a few suggestions for getting around this.
First of all, in the politest way possible, communicate with parents and let them know that they are very important to the school. Make it clear that, of course, you want to hear what they have to say. But, at the same time, during school hours, you also need to take care of their children, making sure that they are safe, that they are learning and achieving, and that they are enjoying their school experience.
Then, respectfully suggest that, when parents need to talk, they should let the school know in advance. This will allow you to set aside time to see them without any interruptions. You can even use an app like Calendly or Acuity to send parents a link so they can book an appointment. This way, the appointment is automatically placed in their calendar and yours.
Naturally, this system only works well if you are very clear about your availability beforehand.
Conversely, you could also offer an “office hours” type of arrangement where, if parents need to see you urgently, they can pop in between established “surgery” hours on any given day when you’ll be available. This has to be done very delicately, making it clear that you value parents and you want to talk to them, but also stressing the need to keep to the predetermined hours so as not to encroach on the rest of your work with their children.
Finally, make sure that you have a quiet spot in which to work. I know this sounds obvious. But if you share an office, or if your office is next to a high traffic area of the school, even if you manage to carve out time to work on your school, you won’t be able to do so because you can’t focus.
The CEO of a long-standing client of mine advocates away days. A chance for a Senior Leader to spend the day at a venue away from the school doing the kind of work that needs focus. (Estelle Dimelor - That strategy works brilliantly. Thank you.)
Conversely, if you can’t find peace and quiet at school but also happen to be one of those people who focuses better when listening to classical music (or any other type of music), bring your headphones in. And zone out while you work on the school.
My Open-Door Policy
So, these are some of the strategies you can use to reduce the amount of time you spend working in your school and increase the amount of time you work on your school.
I like to operate an open-door policy of my own via email and across my social channels (Twitter and LinkedIn). Feel free to message me any time with questions, concerns or requests for help. I will always get back to you.
Good luck working on your school.
Let me know how you get on.