The thing I’ve found most exhilarating and terrifying about becoming a Vice Principal is just how what happens in the school is, whether directly or indirectly, my job. Whereas in the past I could despair at a policy or way of doing things, now anything that isn’t working as well as it should is evidence I could be doing my job better.
A short walk down any corridor can present SLT members with a to-do-list as long as their arm. A walk around the whole school can make the to-do-list seem like a skyscraper, ranging from the coaching of a new teacher, to a discussion with a colleague about how well a new curriculum is being received by pupils, to a chat with the school’s SENCO about how one particular boy is being helped in PE.
The problem is that the number of hours in the school day doesn’t change. While SLTs are ultimately responsible and accountable for a wider range of things, the volume of work is pretty much the same, as is the time in which it can be done. Making things tougher is that many schools work in what I’m calling an “everything urgent, everything important” culture in which documents and policies are almost invariably more numerous and longer than they need to be, and written in solemn legalese that makes everything seem like it is of life-or-death importance. In such contexts to show they are taken seriously all tasks, of course, must take ages. This culture, mercifully not the one in the school at which I currently work, has bitten deep into teacher psyche and identity. In her excellent talk on making teaching sustainable at ResearchED a week ago, Jo Facer spoke on exhausted rank-and-file teachers telling her that every task they did was essential and that there simply wasn’t any fat that could be cut.
Whether we are in SLT or in an unpromoted post, it simply isn’t possible to spend ages and ages doing everything, especially if we want to spend our whole working lives in school and not burn out. We must prioritise.
We must keep the most important things the most important things.
This doesn’t mean just doing less. It means identifying what is genuinely most impactful and doing these things well.
Over the years I’ve been teaching, in different roles and in different contexts, I’ve seen a few bear traps that those failing to prioritise well (and of course I’ve been one of these people) fall into.
The first of these is a retreat into minutia. In my years as a VSO in Ethiopia I was astonished by the sheer number of handbooks, policies, guides and even whole books volunteers had written. These, often professionally bound, could be found in a dusty room at the head office in Addis Ababa and often had titles like “Pedagogical Guide to Active Learning at X University” and “Handbook for Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Y College.” Nobody ever read them. My hunch, at least partially borne out by the answers to questions I asked my local colleagues, was that these were usually written by those in failing placements; lacking the ability to effect real change, often for circumstances that felt out of their control, the volunteers had locked themselves away and written reams and reams about how they thought things should be because they’d lost faith in their ability to deal with the chaotic, complex reality of education in a developing world setting. I think this can happen to SLTs too. When the world feels flawed and imperfect it can be easy to convince yourself that if you create a perfect reality on pristine paper and then simply disseminate it, things will get better. This, of course, isn’t true. More often this just results in an even more unwieldy, bureaucratic system that soon collapses under its own weight.
This sort of behaviour isn’t prioritisation at all; it’s rabbit-in-the-headlights paralysis.
Another trap is lack of knowledge or expertise, which leads to hobby-horse prioritisation in which whatever an individual happens to be most interested in at the time assumes an importance it really doesn’t warrant. This is most obviously manifest in examples in which someone, SLT or not, attends a course, is blown away by what they’ve learned and then sets about making whole-scale changes that affect everyone in the school, right up to the point they either lose interest because it doesn’t work immediately, or find their idea swept away by something even snazzier and more fashionable.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the day-to-day reality of running a school can cloud and muddy really sensible priorities. This is really hard to avoid when things get tough; the best laid plans can go awry in November when it seems quarter of your teachers are off poorly and it’s a struggle just to keep the tanker afloat let alone steer it.
So prioritising is hard. So how can we do it well? Here’s a few suggestions, which I’m hoping will invite more from others. It would be remiss of me to imply that I’ve come up with any of these myself, and unforgivable for me not to say that the team I’m lucky enough to have recently joined does just about all of these already. Thanks team TNA and the Midland Academies Trust; I’ve learned so much already.
- Have a proper vision.
It’s easier to prioritise well when your school has a proper vision because it make it clear and explicit what you are trying to achieve. Without one or, arguably worse, having a reductive vision like “all pupils to get a positive progress 8 score” makes it much harder because it isn’t clear what the school should actually be doing, which means there just isn’t a road to follow. This makes it almost impossible to work out which tasks are more important than others.
- Prioritise systems and make them work.
Anyone working without a system for behaviour, or homework, or how pupils get from PE to maths in five minutes, will find themselves behaving reactively a lot of the time. Reactive behaviour and habits are a threat to prioritisation because they create unpredictability and stress, which makes it harder to find time and to use time effectively when it does exist. Systems also make it clearer what work can be delegated and what can’t; without one it may soon feel as if the only person who can deal with who spat in Bilal’s sandwiches is the Head, which will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it seem as if there can never be enough time.
- Work as part of a team.
In an SLT, or indeed in a department, working as separate individuals is a mistake because it means people pulling in different directions and tripping each other up as they do so. For a school or department to move rapidly and meaningfully it isn’t possible for it to have loads of different priorities because, inevitably, all of them will be eroded. Better for a team to decide what they’re working on together and do fewer things better. This means working with everyone; from teachers to the kitchen staff, to the site team, to technical services; while this can seem time consuming to begin with, anyone who’s worked in a school where a policy has collapsed because nobody bothered to check with those applying it for holes will know it’s worth the effort.
- Work out priorities in times of quiet and calm.
Times of stress and fatigue are not times to make big, strategic decisions. A disappointing, frustrating afternoon should not automatically become the moment an SLT decide to rethink everything and make wholescale changes to systems and policies. This, of course, is better done when everything is less raw and time has given useful perspective. My wonderful old Head Teacher in Ethiopia taught me that almost everything, bar safeguarding issues, can wait until the next day and there’s usually more time to make a decision than you think.