As leaders, we spend some of each day—perhaps more than we’d like—on various duties, rather than on new work. Think of all the duties that fill your calendar:
Lunch duty. Hallway duty. Sporting events. Ceremonies. Routine meetings that just need an administrator to be present. Recess duty. Bus duty. The list goes on.
Often, we don’t even have to do anything when we’re covering these duties; we merely need to be present, and hopefully we can use the time strategically to accomplish multiple goals at once, as I suggested in my article Turning Student Supervision into Instructional Leadership.
Other duties involve more symbolic work, such as when we show up at a PTA, school board, or community meeting, even when we aren’t on the agenda.
We attend these events out of duty, not because we’re really needed, but because it’s expected. And that’s not a bad thing, but we have to be careful.
Other Duties As Assigned
It’s a running joke among administrators that virtually anything can fall under that all-inclusive clause in our job descriptions: “…and other duties as assigned.”
The life of an administrator is filled with wild cards, and that’s part of what we love about the job, isn’t it? Without a little variety and unpredictability, I know I’d get bored.
Even so, we need to be very careful about what duties we allow to be assigned to us.
I’m perfectly willing to deal with any problem that comes up—I’m happy to be responsible for dealing with just about anything—but I’m extremely wary of committing to a new duty.
Responsibilities vs. Duties
As a leader, you’re accountable for results—for what actually happens. You aren’t accountable for merely trying, or being on duty, or just showing up.
In other words, we get very little credit for covering our duties. As leaders, we’re expected to take care of our responsibilities.
There’s an unavoidable tension here: duties—the stuff we do just because someone needs to do it—compete with our responsibilities.
A Vicious Cycle
If we’re not careful, we can become so booked up with duties that we can’t effectively be responsible for everything we oversee, and this can create a vicious cycle: poorly functioning systems in our schools require more regular involvement by administrators, and that means more duties—and less time to manage our responsibilities.
It means more time in firefighting mode, more stress, and less…well…leadership. Leadership requires perspective and strategy, which are difficult when you’re constantly on duty and constantly having to intervene to address problems.
To reverse this cycle, we need to invest in system-building, so that fewer problems require our regular attention. And that means we may need to cut back on duties that aren’t a good use of our time.
Cutting Back on Duties
Here are some simple questions to ask yourself to decide whether you should keep your current duties or delegate them:
- Does it let me accomplish multiple goals at once?
My friend and mentor Heather, a K-8 principal, did curb duty every morning, helping students get out of their cars and into school safely, because it allowed her to connect with parents and students.
- Does it serve a symbolic as well as practical purpose?
The SPED teachers I’ve worked with have done a great job of letting me know which IEP meetings I should attend, to communicate the school’s commitment to the student as well as contribute to decision-making. The other meetings? I can send another staff member to meet the legal requirements and serve on the team.
- Is it of great ceremonial importance?
At these events, like award ceremonies, I may serve little or no practical role, but it’s exceedingly important that I show respect by being present.
- Am I the best person for the job, or was I just available?
Often, we cover duties because we’re free and no one else is, but as a leader, your time is incredibly scarce and valuable, even if you’re “free.”
Availability vs. Affordability
This last point deserves special attention. Too often, we take on new duties because no one else can.
But ask yourself:
Would I go and get a minimum-wage job at a fast food restaurant to raise money for the school to solve this problem?
No. Of course not. Your school has a budget that’s probably in the millions of dollars, and it’s your job to ensure that enough of that money is allocated to cheap-to-solve problems that you aren’t effectively doing minimum-wage work.
If you’re tutoring individual students because it’s a powerful form of professional development for you as an instructional leader, great—go for it. But if you’re tutoring because you can’t scrape together $8 an hour to hire college students to tutor, it’s time to step back and re-assess.
As a leader, “doing what needs to be done” can actually be a mistake. It’s our job to ensure that the work gets done, and to ensure that the entire system functions smoothly on behalf of students.
So if something needs to be done, do it today, then create a system—through delegation, better procedures, or even new staffing—to ensure that it’s taken care of.
What duties do you need to unload so you can be more available to fulfill your responsibilities?