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Optimizing Patterns of Professional Life

A school head is the caretaker of many people: teachers, other administrators, parents, students. Beyond people, he is also responsible for the material aspects of a school, not to mention the many programs offered at the school. Due to the nature of his work, the hours of his day may often be spent in response mode, making it easy for him to feel like a short order cook. In this mode, success may easily seem like a matter of mere efficiency—getting things done—and a school head may lose that contemplative spirit which he ultimately hopes to see in his students.

The aim of this article is to offer guidance to school leaders, especially heads of school, who find themselves in such a position. It is the fruit of discussions with several experienced administrators at The Heights School. In this article, I have gathered and organized their practical wisdom into a single place for the benefit of others in the same or similar professional positions. While much has been written generally on habits for professional success and on working optimally, this article is intended for a specific audience: those who lead schools. 

Because each school leader finds himself in different particular circumstances, rather than offer a model to follow, this article proposes a few practical principles, together with some examples, which may inform how he chooses to organize his professional life. The article is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather exhortative: it ought to be a spur and an aid to self-reflection. 

Principle 1 – Avoid Doing too Much

The most important job of a school leader is to hire and develop faculty and staff. If he is to develop teachers and administrators, they need to be given the freedom to develop. If he is doing his job well, therefore, he will become the most dispensable person at the school. To say that a school leader should make himself dispensable may seem counterintuitive; but, in an ideal situation, were he to be missing for a few days, the life of the school should continue as usual. This is not to say that he cannot choose to teach a class, coach a team, or mentor several students; but, ideally, doing this ought to be a choice. 

Practically, this point will be more aspirational for younger schools and will look different for heads of school divisions or other forms of school administration. It remains, however, an important aspiration and frame of mind for a school head. Just as with students, it is not enough to identify and tell a teacher how he should improve or what exactly he should do; he must come to see for himself and do for himself if he is to improve. The teachers can do this because the school leader has effectively communicated the mission.

Avoiding overmanagement of the school, moreover, prevents a school leader from developing a myopic vision. All too common are stories of schools losing sight of their missions over time. Focusing too much on one aspect of a school at the expense of others is a potential cause of this slow change of course. The key and non-transferable role of a school head is to understand, believe in, and communicate to others the mission of a school. While others may have ideas that would advance a specific aspect of the school—some athletic initiative or a particular curriculum development, for example—an important job of a school head is to receive these ideas with an eye to the bigger picture and determine whether and in what way an idea would fit into the bigger picture, always keeping in mind the school’s mission.

Another important aspect of school leadership that this principle supports is presence. Beyond doing anything in particular, simply being present for teachers, parents, and students—by standing out in front of the school each morning, for example—is an important aspect of the job of a school leader. And presence is improved the fewer things one has to do.

Principle 2 – Avoid Not Seeing Enough

It is common for a school leader to only react to the problems that are brought before him and lose sight of other areas that the school can and ought to improve. For example, a school head may deal with the disciplinary issues that are brought to him but forget to consider the overall tone of the school and how to improve it.

A simple and effective way to mitigate this problem is to make a list of important aspects of the school and periodically check it (once per month, for example), reflecting on what is currently being done and how to improve it. Doing this will help a leader move from response mode to strategic thinking. Indeed, it is better to improve a structure that is still standing than to fix a roof once it has already collapsed.

For a school head, this list could include:

  1. Strategic plan
  2. Curriculum review
  3. Facilities: maintenance
  4. Facilities: upgrades
  5. Fundraising: annual fund, major donors, capital campaigns
  6. Business office operations 
  7. Tuition, financial aid, faculty compensation
  8. Admissions and marketing
  9. Student programs: mentoring, athletics, arts, clubs
  10. Tone and culture
  11. Faculty hiring, development, evaluation
  12. Parent formation
  13. Personal professional growth: study, conferences, etc.

Principle 3 – Set Clear Priorities

Having clear priorities is necessary if one is to put order into his day. Before a school leader can set priorities, however, he must first decide what kind of a school head he wants to be. In this respect, there are two principal areas to consider:

  1. Will he be a more internally focused or externally focused leader? In other words, will his role mainly be to represent the school to the outside community—at conferences, to donors—or will his role be to build a culture within the school itself? 
  2. Will his focus be primarily persons or programs and systems? 

Each of these types has its relative strengths and weaknesses and, of course, all school heads will need to spend time on both sides. But deciding what kind of school head to be will inform how he prioritizes different tasks and what tasks he chooses to delegate. For example, a school head who chooses to focus on programs will spend more time working in solitude, and his meetings will have definite, practical purposes; a school head who sees himself as primarily a caretaker of persons will fill his schedule with more one-on-one meetings—with faculty, parents, students—and some of these meetings may not have any clear, practical purpose. To be sure, leaders could transition from one to another depending on the particular needs of a school and their own dispositions.

For a school head who decides to focus on programs and systems, persons nevertheless ought to remain in an important position. Since education is an essentially personal profession, the person in front of a school leader must to a certain extent always take precedence. Learning to deal with persons—whether students or parents or teachers—in a contemplative manner, inspiring them to higher possibilities, is crucial to the art of school leadership.

Setting clear priorities, moreover, will help a school leader decide what kind of team to build around him. A leader who decides to focus his time on personal meetings, for example, will need to hire the right people to manage the various programs the school runs.

Principle 4 – You Cannot Give what You do not Have

Being a caretaker of many souls is draining. If a school head is to attend to the faculty, parents, and students in his care with a contemplative and optimistic outlook, he must have deep wells from which to draw. This means he ought to dedicate time for concentrated, silent prayer each day, as well as find small ways for this concentrated time of prayer to flow into the rest of his day. For example, in addition to a more extended time of quiet prayer at the beginning of the day, he may resolve to say a brief prayer before his meetings with parents or to offer a short aspiration for each student he passes in the hallway. Developing practical patterns of contemplation such as this will help a leader remain recollected even while responding to the many unforeseen circumstances that inevitably arise each day. 

In addition to fostering a life of prayer, if he is to coordinate the development of curricula and support the intellectual formation of teachers, a school leader must be a man of broad learning; he ought to cultivate a rich life of the mind. Study and reading are, therefore, essential to his professional life. To this end, it may be helpful to have a few different kinds of books going at the same time. At different moments of the day or week, one might have more energy for certain ones over others, so working through multiple books at the same time can be a realistic way to facilitate continued intellectual growth in the midst of a busy schedule. The summers, moreover, offer opportunities for more extensive study related to larger changes—such as developing a philosophy sequence, for example.

Principle 5 – Begin with the End in Mind

As Aristotle and Aquinas remind us, the final cause is the cause of the causes. That is, if a school head is to determine what his short and midterm goals are, he needs to also have in mind what his long term goals are. And besides having a vision for where his school can be, he must also take the time to study his current, material reality. As an aid to both thought and perception, writing is an indispensable tool. 

Once a particular project has been identified, and its end goal determined, then school heads should clarify the scope and schedule of the project. This is especially important for items that do not in themselves have a definite shape or deadline. For example, if it has been determined that a college counseling program needs to be improved, a helpful preliminary step to the project would be spending ten minutes breaking down and enumerating the steps of the project. These could be: 

  1. Clarify what the priorities of a college counseling program are. Write these down. 
  2. Find out what his school’s current program is doing by speaking with certain people. Write their comments down. 
  3. Compare aspirational priorities with material reality. 
  4. Determine how to close the gap. Write this down.
  5. Meet with program leaders at a set time for a set amount of time. At that meeting, communicate ideas and receive feedback. Collaboratively determine clear deliverables and a timeline for action. 

To be sure, many aspects of a school will take time to change and develop. Developing a mentoring program, for example, may take fifteen years to reach a point where all the pieces are in place between personnel, scheduling, and faculty development. In such cases, having the ability to keep one eye on the ideal and another eye on the present reality is an important part of school leadership.

Practical Points for Consideration

With these principles in mind, the following are a few questions for consideration as school heads determine the best ways to structure their professional life:

  1. Is my school set up such that I do not need to do anything myself? 
  2. Have I hired competent people to organize and run the various programs of the school? 
  3. Do I feel the need to be in control of all that happens in the school? 
  4. What jobs can I delegate and what jobs are non-transferable?
  5. Do I make time for reading and studying?.
  6. Are there times in my day reserved exclusively to silent meditation and contemplation?
  7. How do I spend my summers? Do I dedicate some time to continued study?
  8. When do I make time for strategic thinking? 
  9. Do I know which times of my day are better for different kinds of tasks? For example, for some people, the morning is best for deep study while the early afternoon is better suited for personal interactions. As much as possible, organize the day accordingly.
  10. When do I respond to email?
  11. When am I available for unplanned meetings?
  12. How attentive am I to people?
  13. What steps do I take to reset after the work day before returning to my family?
  14. What are the biggest motivators for my work? What causes me to finish my work?

About the Author

Nate Gadiano

Executive Director

Nate is the Executive Director of The Heights Forum. In addition to his work at the Forum, he has also taught Natural History in the Lower School and Writing Workshop in the Middle School; he currently leads a philosophy seminar for high school seniors.

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