By Aaron Butler, PhD
October 13, 2021
Monday morning. Your alarm clock is buzzing as it flashes 5:30 a.m. You want to hit the snooze button but realize that you might need those 10 extra minutes to make some progress on your tasks for the day. You begin working through your morning routine and immediately start to wonder: Will we have enough teachers available to cover all of our classes today? Are all of our bus routes covered for the morning? Do we have enough support staff to cover drop-off, lunch, and afterschool activities? Did any students or staff get sick or test positive for COVID over the weekend? You hope that you will at least be able to get the school day started and then see what happens for tomorrow and the rest of the week.
Does that scenario sound familiar to you? If so, you are definitely not alone as your peers who are leading schools and districts across the country are experiencing similar situations every day. We are all working as hard as we can as this school year is humming along, trying to hit moving targets that will undoubtedly adjust up, down, and sideways throughout the year. No matter how hard you try though, you can’t do it alone. It’s going to take a team effort and a lot of support from you as the leader to inspire and lead. So, how can you help yourself stay focused as a leader as the demands of the school year continue to grow and fill more of your time? How can you ensure that students, teachers, and staff are receiving the support they need to perform at their best throughout the year?
One of the most helpful habits that I used during my days as a school and district administrator was to dedicate time once a week to examine my own leadership. I didn’t use this time to surf the internet, look at student data, or make parent phone calls. I used it to take a short pause and self-examine how I was prioritizing three key responsibilities for myself as a leader that week: communicate, model, and reflect.
Now, you may say, “I communicate very well with my staff and always try to model what I ask them to do.” If so, that is fantastic and you should definitely keep up your great work. But, whether you are fulfilling all, some, or none of these responsibilities on a consistent basis, there is always room for continuous improvement, right? So, whether you engage in a similar reflection time each week or not, I encourage you to consider pausing once a week over the next month and asking yourself some of the following questions.
The responsibility of communication for a leader is never finished and can never really be too much as long as the formats you use are varied. Too often as leaders we trick ourselves into thinking that sending emails, memos, and newsletters about upcoming events or expectations make us “effective” communicators. While those are all great tools to use and your team needs to be aware of what to expect in the coming days or weeks, take some time to consider multiple forms of communication and how to keep your team focused on the big picture.
In what ways have I reinforced our purpose, mission, and goals this week?
What type of information or feedback have I gathered or should I be gathering from my staff?
What have I done with this information or feedback from previous weeks?
How can I do a better job of listening or “checking the pulse” of my school or district on a regular basis?
What stories can I share to help motivate my staff, parents, and students?
I’m sure you’ve heard or possibly even repeated those old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and leaders should “walk the talk.” Although those phrases may border on cliché status at this point, they still express the concept of what a leader should consistently strive to do to build credibility and trust with your team. Consider a few of these suggestions and try to have some fun with them!
Be visible and engage with different team members in different locations every day.
Take time to get to know your team members, their names, and their stories.
Promote the accomplishments of team members early and often.
Let your team members see your values and priorities through your daily actions.
Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability (sometimes).
Why is it that something that nearly everyone would agree is one of the most important things for a leader to do, is also the most difficult to do consistently? Maybe it’s because when there is so much work to be done, who has time to sit quietly and not give in to the temptation of checking emails or social media, making phone calls, or filling that open 15 minutes on your calendar with another meeting? I suppose you can blame our workaholic culture, social media, or a demanding boss or board, but at the end of the day, as a leader, you probably have enough control over your calendar to build in some reflection time each week, right? So, go ahead, open up your calendar for next week, and find an opening. It may just be 15 or 30 minutes, but some time is better than none. Block off that time and put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door if you have to. Then consider asking yourself some of the questions that I shared earlier, consider how you’re serving as a model for your team, and if all else fails, consider these three questions inspired by leadership expert John Maxwell:
How am I showing my staff that I value them as people?
How have I added value to my staff this week?
How have I added value to myself this week?
Make no mistake, taking time to address each of these three responsibilities every day of every week will take extra time and effort on your part, especially in the beginning. However, the goal isn’t or shouldn’t be that you will spend less time leading your school or district. We all know that just isn’t possible. What is possible is that the time you do spend is focused on valuing people, adding value to your team, and adding value to yourself so you have even more to pour into your team throughout the year.
About the Author
Aaron R. Butler, PhD, is the director for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education spanning school, district, state, and national levels.