One of the teachers I supervise recently invited me to visit their classroom for the introduction of a lesson called the One Sentence Project. Students were asked to think critically about their role in the world and define the impact they would like to make—all in one sentence. There was scaffolding in place to help students reflect and project their skills into the future, and there were graphic organizers and other tools to assist with the process as well.
Prior to the initial brainstorming, the teacher asked if anyone had any questions or concerns. One of the learners in the room lamented, “This is going to be really hard. It would be easier if we were allowed to write more.”
Hearing this student’s insight prompted me to consider one of my own professional growth goals. A big challenge I face as a principal lies in striking a balance between effort and efficiency—not only for myself, but also for the staff I serve. It is essential that our work have the greatest possible impact on students while still enabling us to conserve our energy. We walk a tightrope to establish goals that are rigorous yet attainable, that keep our workload manageable yet challenging enough to stimulate progress.
Much like the students in the class trying to concisely capture their most meaningful aspirations in only a handful of words, educators need to prioritize effectively so that our efforts lead actionable outcomes. I’ve learned that doing so takes practice, patience, and careful planning—and certain approaches can make the process easier.
Use Time Well
Prior to starting a project or implementing an initiative, it’s crucial to determine the potential return on investment. Though this concept is often applied to finances, I find that it’s trickiest for matters involving the use of time, which is an educator’s most precious resource.
One of the simplest ways to avoid misusing time is to be clear about goals from the start. If we as educators are not sure what we want to accomplish—whether we’re discussing the development of benchmark assessments or analyzing the effectiveness of our school schedule—the project is likely doomed to failure.
I’ve found that target statements can be useful to guide conversations. Sentence stems such as, “If we do this work, our students will _____,” or “The collaborative efforts of this committee will enable us to _____,” give a common language to the work ahead. These target statements are great as formal agenda items; they can also be used as guideposts to provide clarity and focus in conversation.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
When trying to optimize for efficiency, ensure that tasks are manageable. If a task is overwhelming, the work required to see it through could be more trouble than it’s worth—worse yet, it could cause the whole project to stall. For instance, while a large-scale data review may initially sound great, an abridged review of key outcomes based on specific standards may yield more actionable results, in less time and with less personnel.
When a project’s scale is a potential pitfall, I find it helpful to employ what I call the Wright Brothers Effect. The Wright brothers had a very clear goal: to create the first flying machine. They knew what they wished to accomplish, and while the work required to achieve it was demanding and complex, they didn’t waver in their goal.
Applying this concept in schools is helpful. The very nature of the work is complex and the path to continuous development is demanding. Focusing on goals and eliminating distractions increases the likelihood that we remain committed and flexible.
It is also essential that we invest more in people than in products or processes. In order to focus on the big goal—improving outcomes for students—school leaders must prioritize having positive interactions with all members of a learning community.
For instance, I recently sought feedback from a teacher I trust about my performance as principal. We discussed ways that I could optimize the evaluation process. I told the teacher that I wanted to add more feedback in written evaluations.
To my surprise, the teacher responded, “Please don’t do that. It would mean more time for you in your office with your door closed—and we’d much rather have you in our classrooms and the halls.”
This resonated with me. I had to ask myself where and how I could best use my time. I realized that devoting more time to processing paperwork was inefficient. Instead, I chose to prioritize classroom visits and relationship-building throughout the day. Rather than write longer evaluations, I decided to spend more time doing classroom visits and to implement shorter feedback cycles.
This was yet another reminder that keeping the learner at the center of the conversation will always steer you toward doing the right thing in the right way.