TIME MANAGEMENT TIPS FOR FRAZZLED DAY SCHOOL HEADS
In all my years of work in Jewish education, the one thing I never heard anyone complain about is having too much time. Education is a field deeply enmeshed in time. We study in semesters, prepare for class periods and schedule countless meetings. But even as time defines the framework of our professional lives, every administrator I know struggles with finding enough of it to accomplish everything we need to do.
The demands on our time are tremendous. We speak with parents, teachers and students. We deal with discipline, maintain classroom standards, review curricula. We put out the inevitable fires that arise, respond to countless emails and do it all while leading our schools not just through the daily grind, but hopefully toward a wiser and more perfect future. And that’s before trying to find time for our families and ourselves. I know I am not the only school administrator who has subsisted on coffee until after school hours, not having even a moment to sit and eat a small meal.
If it’s any comfort, the scramble for time seems to be a widespread problem in the field of education and far beyond. “You basically just always feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything,” a parent told The New York Times for their piece on professional burnout a few years ago. “You’re not spending as much time with your baby as you want, you’re not doing the job you want to be doing at work, you’re not seeing your friends hardly ever.”
While it’s nice to know that those of us in education are not suffering alone, I think it’s time that we challenged the necessity of suffering at all. We need to stop viewing the impossible calculus of time management as an ordinary side effect of modern work. Extreme stress, lack of wellness and disproportionate work-life balance are real and corrosive problems that don’t just affect us, but the entire enterprise of Jewish education.
One statistic highlights how pervasive premature career exhaustion can be. The average tenure of a head of school working in Jewish education is just three and a half years—not even long enough to guide one high school class from orientation to graduation. The position is extremely demanding. Heads of school are expected to be responsive to parents, students, teachers, administrators, the school board and the community 24 hours a day, six days a week. (Thank God for Shabbos!) The idea of work-life balance is mostly theoretical; heads of school are connected, always, to their work.
This kind of rapid burnout threatens administrators across the span of Jewish education. Not only is it toxic to those in the system now, but it makes recruiting and sustaining the next generation of Jewish educators profoundly difficult. Many young adults have grown up watching the impact of this demanding life on their own parents and families; is it any wonder they are choosing other career paths for themselves?
The system demands a change. But it’s vital that any solution be real, practical and implementable. Lip service and good intentions alone will still leave you working 60 to 70 hours a week—and at the end of all of those hours, still lacking the concrete accomplishments that are so critical to moving your school forward. Following are two conceptual recommendations that may prove of value.
Concept 1: Intentionality
The busier we are, the easier it is to go through our days without intentionality. We tend to do most things without strategic thought; we arrange our calendars, structure our offices, schedule meetings and deal with calls and email as the need arises. But the more these daily chores are thought out and connected with our priorities, the more effective we will be. There are a few key ways to implement intentionality in our busy lives.
The key to prioritization is less about determining what is most important to you, and more about making sure that you select goals that are practical and measurable. We need to be aware of what accomplishing these goals will actually entail and create effective strategies to meet them. For example, wanting to spend more time observing teachers is a worthy goal, but before committing to it, it’s critical to come up with practical strategies for making the time and accomplishing this goal.
Once we have our priorities broken down into their practical component parts, it’s time to take that information and turn them into time slots. Put these slots into your calendar, and make sure that you not only devote the necessary time to your goals, but that you do so on a regular schedule. This ritualization is a significant factor in reducing stress and the daily upheaval of our demanding careers. The more you calendar, the more manageable and predictable your daily schedule becomes.
Don’t just focus on the workday; calendar the time it takes to shower, a few minutes of exercise (including the drive back and forth to the gym), dinner with your family. Get a real sense of how much of your time is devoted to which parts of your personal and professional life, and use that information to plan ahead. Review your calendar at the end of each day, so that you can continue to progress in your goals. If something didn’t get done today, make sure to calendar it for tomorrow. Last-minute surprises are inevitable in our field, and the process of reflection and planning ahead will help you remain both flexible and effective.
The payoff matrix
Another important concept of intentionality is payoff. Effective time management involves understanding how our efforts contribute to our goals and to the goals of our organizations. No matter how practical and well-planned our goals are, ineffective methods are often inevitable as our ideas and values transition to the real world. It’s important to take an opportunity to better understand the demands of the goal and approach it in the most effective way. Taking time to reflect on which ideas get “great bang for our buck” and doing more of those is valuable, but just as important is figuring out which ideas require a ton of our time and yield limited results.
Finally, involving your supervisor in evaluation of your tasks can be an important piece of the intentionality puzzle. Have a conversation about what you’re doing, and evaluate together whether you are making the best use of your time. Establishing clarity on the effectiveness of your work relieves stress and also allows for tasks to be added or left behind in a judgment-free manner. Of course, be respectful of your supervisor’s time. Prepare for a management meeting carefully, and be specific with the questions and issues you address.
Concept 2: Delegating
Delegating is simultaneously one of the simplest and most challenging solutions for managing our time as educators. We all know that we are not superhuman and can’t personally see to every single demand of our jobs, yet it seems like 95% of Jewish professionals avoid delegating at all costs. There are a few reasons for this and solutions for each cause.
We feel guilty asking others to do “our work” for us
This is a major mental obstacle that I don’t mean to minimize. It’s hard, especially for responsible, career-minded professionals, to shift tasks from our plate to those who support us. How can we get past this mental block? While everyone will have a different strategy, I find it most useful to remember the top-line realities of my career. I am paid to do a specific and important job, not to take care of every small task under my purview. If I choose not to delegate those tasks, I will inevitably underperform in critical areas and fail to provide my employer the services that the organization needs to function.
Keep this in mind, too, when delegating for purposes of family time. Effective leaders don’t delegate to “get out of” their responsibilities but rather to perform those responsibilities as well as they can. Your time with your family, be it a long vacation or a coffee with your spouse, is an equal responsibility to your career, and it is entirely valid to delegate appropriately so that you can be present for the most important people in your life.
We want tasks completed to our absolute personal satisfaction
Again, this is a legitimate issue. “If you want something done right, do it yourself” is a pervasive mentality in professional environments. But this isn’t just personally unhelpful, it undermines the mentorship process that allows Jewish education to thrive. So how can we talk ourselves out of this mindset?
First, be honest. If the people working under me can’t handle my delegated tasks to my satisfaction, I have to ask: Have I appropriately trained my support staff? Have I made my expectations and needs clear? Have I given them time to grow into these roles and made productive critiques? It can be hard to accept, but very often, disappointing efforts by staff are a result of the boss’s failure to properly train and communicate. If you find yourself frequently hesitant to delegate, first make sure that you are doing your part as a leader to empower your staff to perform to your satisfaction.
Second, remind yourself why you need to delegate. My accounting professor used to say, “Pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, the price for perfection will be exacted somewhere. Yes, sometimes you might have to redo tasks, or learn to accept a less-than-perfect outcome. Yes, it takes time to train people effectively. But being willing to “pay” in these forms ultimately adds our most valuable commodity—time—to your account and allows you to become more effective at the items that are your priority.
Though each of us has a standard of perfection, we will not reach it if we alone do everything. Delegating allows more to get done, and to get done better, without exhaustion or burnout.
We do not work in an environment that allows delegation
This can be a real problem, especially in the staffing-conscious world of Jewish education. I absolutely understand that many people don’t have an assistant, or people who work for them, and thus don’t feel they can delegate tasks in the same way as other administrators.
What I suggest in this case is active cooperation. Sometimes the most important thing we can do when we need help is simply to ask for it. Find colleagues who are good at the things that take you extra time, and offer to help them in the areas they aren’t as skilled. You will often be amazed at how your colleagues will rise to the occasion to provide needed help. If you are sure to reciprocate in turn when the need arises, you can contribute to a workplace culture of cooperation, one of the best ways that any organization, regardless of resources, can allow its employees to perform in a healthy way.
Keep in mind parents as a delegation resource as well. In my experience, parent bodies are often more diversely skilled than even the best-curated school staff, they love being involved in the daily work of keeping schools running, and they want to help—so let them. Do keep in mind that managing parents can be trickier than standard employees, and a rogue parent helper is often counterproductive. But as long as you are clear in expressing your needs and expectations, parent helpers can be an invaluable asset to productivity that benefits everyone.
Actual outsourcing is also an option. I’ve used services like www.odesk.com and found them very useful, especially for specific, limited tasks beyond my skill set. There is a dollar cost to this, of course, but often the price-benefit ratio is worth it.
Rule #1 of delegating is be very clear about what you want accomplished, when you want it done and what you need to be satisfied with the final product. Then step back with the understanding that it may not be perfect but it will be acceptable. Being unable to do this means you will try to do everything yourself and will be forever overwhelmed.
If you supervise people, do not tolerate employees who do not deliver on their promises. It is not worth your time; I typically fire those people.
Remember that delegating has benefits beyond your own accomplishments. Delegating allows the next group of leaders to grow into their responsibilities. It is about building the health and capacity of your organization. And delegating provides an important lesson for parents and students, showing that you are dedicated to empowering others to grow, even if that means tolerating a few bumps along the road.
There are many other solutions for time management that are helpful in solving issues in modern Jewish education. But more important than any specific technique is this message: The holy work of Jewish education is phenomenally challenging, demanding and intense. All of us who labor in this field have chosen to shoulder this challenge—and to embrace it as the uniquely fulfilling, world-changing work it is. But we should not shrug away or accept burnout and overwork as inevitable side effects of this career. They are signs that our system is not working optimally. If we aren’t able to create equilibrium for ourselves, our assistants and our schools, this entire precious project faces real danger.
Jewish education is about taking care of others, and we cannot take care of others without caring for ourselves. Implementing time management techniques can be a part of the care that allows our field to flourish far into the future.