For years we surveyed teachers and parents about how organized their schools’ principals were, and these data provided little clarity on how principal organization related to school outcomes. In a study conducted by Rich Moore (2007), he found that even superintendents’ impression of principal organization was unrelated to important school outcomes. This would suggest that organizational skills of the school principal do not predict how well the school achieves its goals.
Unfortunately, in each of these studies, the interpretation of “organized” was left up to the survey respondents. Thus, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that these data were too full of interpretative noise.
More recently, we changed the way we measured principal organization by aligning it with the conditions for teaching. By doing this we clarified the metric, and participants could better discriminate principal efforts that lead to better school outcomes. Our most recent analyses confirm the importance of principals being organized. The more organized school principals are, the better the school environment is for everyone connected to the school, and those environments predict all school outcomes.
Of course, being organized is much more than having all the school’s pencils sharp. It is about creating systems to promote best practice, to accommodate anomalies, and to monitor outcomes. Also, it may be just as important to look organized as it is to be organized. Here are a few things principals can do to get and stay organized. Warning: this is a long list, and it may seem a bit daunting, but if you are a principal looking to get more organized, tackle one or two things at a time. Good luck.
- Personal Appearance – Simply put, look like you care about your appearance. You don’t have to look like a movie star, and you don’t have to have plastic surgery, but it is important to have an ethic of personal hygiene as well as a style of dress that does not distract from your mission. This is no more than we expect from the students.
- Personal Environment – Your personal environment is your office, desk, computer, and any space that you are solely in charge of. An organized personal environment is certainly not about making your space museum perfect, and heaven knows your desk should not be empty, but the old motto, “a place for everything and everything in its place (when you are done working with it)” is wise. Make putting-things-away part of your daily routine.
- Written and Spoken Communication – Having high quality communication skills is on every list of successful leadership and management, and in an educational setting it is fundamental. Specifically, you should use proper grammar and comfortably employ a reasonably large vocabulary without patronizing anyone. You should not use profanity while at work or in the presence of people you know from school. And you should have some facility with current educational vernacular and popular culture. Take the time to read and write.
- Academic Development – It is very hard for people to perceive you as an educator if you don’t continue to learn. There is no question that time is a premium, but you will struggle to organize an effective professional development program for your faculty and staff if you don’t provide the model yourself. Go to conferences and read both journals and professional books.
Organization for Faculty and Staff
- Faculty Meetings – Meetings can often be thought of as necessary evils. But, when conducted efficiently, they can serve to build momentum and teamwork. Faculty meetings are a critical component in how faculty members perceive your organizational skills, and it is one of the best opportunities to make others accountable. First, decide what the purposes of these meetings are: scheduling, policies, school announcements, curriculum, programs, budget, computers, maintenance, and so on. Second, make and stick to an agenda that is completed ahead of time and distributed to the faculty. Third, start on time and allow meetings to end early, never late. Fourth, set a meeting schedule (e.g., weekly) and make the meetings a priority over everything but a building fire (even if you are not there). Finally, allow input from members at each stage, and follow through on all assigned tasks.
- Staff Evaluations – Do them. Too often, staff evaluations take on the role of recognizing shortcomings and pressuring employees to shape up. This can destroy your relationship with your employees. Don’t let that happen. Staff evaluations should be conducted with the same enthusiasm as Student Educational Plans. Recognize success, help set measurable performance goals and provide the tools and training to achieve them. Meet regularly so that when it is time to complete the evaluation cycle there are no surprises and everyone feels good about what is accomplished, not feeling bad about what isn’t. Your employees’ successes are your private reward, and their shortcomings may be your fault.
- School Improvement Planning – Although every individual and group in a school are capable of school improvement efforts, and it is often assumed that school improvement happens informally all the time, school improvement planning needs to be systematic and monitored. If your school does not already have a community council, create one. Use faculty groups, student leaders, and others to make noticeable changes within their capabilities, and make each effort part of a larger strategic plan that is evaluated regularly. This process gets people invested, and they will thus become your supporters not your detractors.
- Professional Development – There is so much of professional development that is out of your hands. And certainly training to complete licensure, certification, and other mandated qualifications take priority. However, allowing faculty to train in underwater basket weaving to use up leave and accumulate training for training’s sake is not in the best interest of students, the school, or that faculty member. Work with district professionals to identify and organize professional development efforts that support school goals, improve the school environment, and generate academic achievement. Where possible, allow faculty members and other school employees training opportunities to advance their careers. This kind of support can energize the entire staff. Finally, make professional development part of staff evaluations.
Organization for Parents
- School Environment – Without ever speaking with someone at the school, parents can observe many elements of the school environment and come to sweeping conclusions about its organization and health. Keep the school clean, have graffiti removed, and persistently eliminate attractive nuisances. Don’t allow students to frequent areas that cannot be supervised appropriately. And, take a walk. Put your eyes, ears, and nose on every part of the school environment at least once per day. Make your walks a chance to clear your head, to make a plan, to sing a song, or better yet, to hold a meeting with someone.
- Office Staff – Often times, the first person a parent encounters at a school is part of the office staff. These individuals are a very direct reflection of school organization. Make sure there is someone to greet parents during all open hours. Train staff and student help to answer the telephone professionally and politely. Hire staff or use parent liaisons to provide parents from minority cultures or those who use different languages or have different abilities a familiar approach to the school. Everyone who works at the school should treat parent visitors like guests in their home. And, recruit spies. Get “unmarked” people to call or visit the school to see how well the school is doing. This type of pop quiz will reveal flaws in the system as well as provide a chance to congratulate the staff on a job well done.
- Temporary Guardianship – In both a legal and real sense, the school becomes a temporary guardian of each student the moment they climb on the bus or arrive at school in the morning. There is nothing more embarrassing than the moment when a school must admit to a parent that they do not know where their child is. Make guardianship a priority. Office staff should have access to student schedules, and teachers should be acutely aware of student presence or absence. Practice finding students regularly.
- Accessibility – Many parents like to feel that you are accessible to them. But be careful. Although an open-door policy might work for some managers, it shouldn’t be expected to work for school principals. Schedule times during the week when you can meet with parents without distraction. And schedule other times when you can talk to them on the telephone. Then advertise these times through newsletters and your website. Your circumstances will dictate how many hours and when. Remember to pick some times that will accommodate working parents. Allow for special appointments, but have your staff help direct parents to scheduled hours so you don’t have to be the bad guy/gal. Most parents will come to realize that you are a professional that requires time to do tasks that do not include them.
- Parent/Teacher Conferences – Too many schools, more often secondary than elementary, find unintentional ways to make these meetings as uncomfortable as possible for parents. Picture parents standing in long lines in the gym waiting to have a couple of meaningless minutes with teachers dressed in casual clothing leaning back in comfortable chairs eating junk food: the No-Win scenario. Two thoughts come to mind. First, increase the number of times parents are informed about their child’s progress. How does weekly sound? This will lessen the need for One-Night-Does-It-All conferences. Second, if you decide to continue the traditional parent/teacher conferences, make sure parent time is valued. Information teachers provide at these conferences should be less technical, as well as more meaningful in summarizing how their child is doing, and more useful in providing parents with tools and suggestions to help their child improve. These meetings can hold opportunities to build partnerships between teachers and parents.
- Information Portals – Nowadays, there are many ways for schools to provide information to parents (e.g., newsletters, website, email, snail mail, telephone calls, etc), so there are few excuses for not communicating. These information pathways can be used to inform parents about events, to provide feedback to parents on student progress, to invite families to participate, or to update parents on any number of school efforts or accomplishments. Get involved in their composition. Poor examples tend to come from schools that let students or untrained employees have unfettered control over them. Make sure that these information portals are up to date, visually pleasing, grammatically correct, spell checked, catering to appropriate languages, cultures, and abilities, and also reflect design elements decided at the district level to make your school seem part of an organized team.
Organization for Students
- Policies – Here is another necessary evil, but this is the place where rules meet students, and where students get their initial sense of your organization. Too many schools employ policies to police and punish students. Others have policies, but they are not uniformly enforced, and students figure this out quickly. Individual misbehavior is best dealt with at the individual level, not in a broad policy. In any case, policies (e.g., dress code, attendance policy, and honor code) are typically mandated to provide legal remedies for aberrant behavior. However, it should be clear that policies by their nature are typically statements of minimum acceptable behaviors without consideration for their relationship to school outcomes. Make your policies different. Although policies should reflect low tolerance for unacceptable behavior, they should outline what faculty and administration are willing to do to help students meet and exceed the minimums. Policies should consider providing tangible rewards for exemplary behavior as well as clear consequences for inappropriate behavior. And, if the behavior of interest is not related to the mission of the school (e.g., student safety and academic excellence); don’t write a policy to control it. Imagine policies as cliffs. Some cliffs have ill defined edges, making it easy for students to fall. Some cliffs have short drops making the fall no big deal. Some schools allow students to play near the edge! Make a cliff only when you need one. Make it clear where the edge is, how serious the consequences of the fall are, and use incentives to keep students as far from the edge as possible.
- Classroom Coverage – Continuity is part of successful instruction. Having teachers absent for illness, professional development, and personal leave adds to discontinuity in academic presentation and reduces test scores. Decades ago, teachers were seldom absent because school environments were less aversive and leave could be accumulated and used toward retirement. Those days are over, and these days teacher absence is encouraged by leave policies, common, and expected, making continuity difficult to achieve. This means that school principals need to work closely with faculty to make teacher absence as planned as possible. Teacher contracts control how you can do this, but within those guidelines, encourage teachers to help you plan ahead. Build strong relationships with your faculty so that they will work with you to schedule leave so it can be covered efficiently. Make sure that there is a system in place to allow teachers to inform the school of illness in time to cover classes seamlessly. Make sure that all substitutions are done by trained individuals who can manage a classroom well enough to facilitate practicing skills already introduced. Also, evaluate your substitutes with an aim to improve their contributions, not just to cull the weak from the herd.
- Crisis Preparedness – We all remember being young students filing outside for fire drills, or huddling under our desks for earthquake drills, but I’m quite sure we didn’t do it very often. Nowadays schools are responsible for much more than fire and natural disasters, there are manmade threats, and even the need to handle the fallout from tragedies like bus accidents or the death of a student. There is not enough space here to deal with the legalities of school responsibility, but it should be clear that students’ sense of your organization can be radically altered if you are not prepared for these rare moments. Practice appropriate drills with students and work with teachers to plan for and handle the other crises. Don’t assume anyone will know what to do without formal procedures in place and practiced.
Organization for District Administration
- Being Data Driven – This is becoming a common buzz phrase for schools, but why do you need to be data driven, and how do you know you really are being data driven? First, having data to demonstrate success or progress at your school will allow district supervisors to show off that data as well. As for knowing you are data driven, make sure you assess needs, collect data, summarize those data in a format that can be understood by a broad audience, make decisions and design interventions based on that data, then collect new data to help determine if the target of your intervention is changing, or if the intervention needs a redesign. Alongside the mandated data collection activities every school must do, always have at least one project unique to your school running in research mode. Make sure that project is planned, monitored, and summarized in a short written form that can be shared with the district. This is not nearly as much work as it sounds, and the benefits help more than just the students.
- Being Accountable – Being accountable is more than taking blame when things go wrong. Accountability is the obligation administrators, teachers, students, and other school staff members have to take responsibility for their actions and the state of their responsibilities. So, beyond what you are responsible for, you should ensure that everyone else is clear what their responsibilities are, that they have the necessary tools and training, and that there is enough recognition for their success. Make sure that staff evaluations describe responsibilities and how both of you will know that all is well. Communicate to teachers the need to voice student academic, social, and civic expectations and the consequences for both misbehavior as well as appropriate behavior. Make accountability part of your strategic plan.
Matthew J. Taylor, PhD