Impossible feat – Balancing workload as a school manager

I’m not sure if I really believe in work-life balance. I do for staff, of course. Not for Senior Leaders – I truly don’t believe that you can reach Outstanding with half an eye on the clock and what’s for tea. The Headteachers I have known have all had their foibles, some were much more effective than others, some were even outstanding. The NPQH teaches you that the Hero Head is defunct; I would argue that staff, parents and kids actually want a hero head – you do need to lead by example, and working hard and tirelessly is one crucial element of the job. Being human does sometimes get in the way, though!

The best Headteachers I know find the time to speak to staff and students – and are always high profile on Parents Evenings. As the figurehead for the school, stakeholders need to have every confidence in you – their future lies in your hands to a large extent, and this is a PR job that no one else can do. Similarly, there are some meetings and events that you absolutely must attend. But part of your role is succession planning – if only you attend these meetings how will other leaders develop the knowledge and confidence needed to step up to their next role? Especially if, like many of us, your CPD budget is minimal, it is one way of evolving the institution and empowering staff as well as spreading the load. Many people will be keen to do this; just make sure that they know the parameters of their decision-making, and ask yourself “What’s the worst that can happen??”. You can always read the minutes, and meantime you are at the heart of where you should be – in school.

As a Head you will have due regard for the work-life balance of your staff. Governors should have due regard to the work-life balance of the Headteacher.  Governors meetings are often scheduled for the evenings, and can last for hours. That makes for a very late night for all concerned – but  the Headteacher is likely to be the only person around the table to be attending four after work meetings that week.  The age profile of Governing Bodies varies, but in my experience many Governors are retired, and able to attend meetings much earlier. Scheduling meetings earlier makes the difference between getting home at 7.30 ish or 9.30 ish, and will make a difference to your effectiveness the following morning. Even if you can only get one or two scheduled for earlier it will make a difference. You will still have some quiet working time once school ends, but it will help keep you sane and a little more popular at home!

The most effective Head I ever worked for was in school, doing a ground inspection every morning at before 7.30. He always made time for you if you went to see him but soon gave you short shrift if he thought you were whinging or wasting his time. Another far less effective HT was employed by the governors because they thought him a listening Head, a really nice person. He was – unfortunately though, he spent the whole of the day dealing with staff, parents, kids – was never seen doing anything else. The door was always open. My Performance Management interview was postponed when a governor walked in without an appointment. Many more serious discussions were interrupted by kids. As time went on it became clear that because this person was spending so much time listening and having a chat  they were not actually getting the job done. Of course you need to make time for staff, of course you need to meet governors – but all the way through, you need to get the balance right by asking if you are actually the right person to be dealing with the issue?

How many times have you been told that a parent insists on speaking to you, only to find that the form tutor or head of department is the person they need? There has had to be some re-education on this one, and I have had to be quite hard-nosed at times. You shouId not always be available to all and sundry. A parent or governor may well want to speak to someone now, and if they really do need me I can soon call them back. But just because the form tutor is teaching and I am not doesn’t mean that I am sitting around doing nothing and therefore need to pick up the call. It’s called delegation. And common sense.

I have a great PA who I know I can trust to write letters for me. I don’t need to word them for her, I just ask her to write saying whatever and she will do it. Occasionally the wording doesn’t sound like me, I did have to ask her to change the phrase “Thanking you” at the end of one letter, and I cannot bear “Contact myself…” but those are minor issues and giving her that responsibility has saved me hours of time. It is empowering for her too, and so it’s a winner all round.

Now, this next point might be a difficult one. Do you open your own post? My guess is not. But – do you spend hours sifting through emails? I bet you do! Step away from the keyboard! I check my emails first thing, before 8.15, then I take another 15 minutes or so after lunch. I confess to checking them from home in the evenings as well. Often, issues raised in emails during the day will be resolved in person. If you respond as soon as you receive the email you are doing the work or answering the question twice. Some emails I know I do need to read and so I ask my P.A. to print them off for me and not bother sending them at all to my email address. She also puts all of my emails into a folder for me which makes them much more easily accessible when I do need to read them. I won’t have a phone which accepts emails – the temptation would just be too great. It may feel as if you are making good use of time – I believe that you are actually wasting time, when sometimes it is just better and more efficient to pick up the phone.

Finally –  a few years ago when I was carrying a lot of responsibility at work but also dealing with a lot of painful issues at home I was busy moaning about how much I had to do, didn’t know where to start, etc. My Beloved’s response? “Just do it”. My first reaction was unprintable, frankly. What a lack of understanding, empathy, sympathy … In fact though, when I thought about it, I realised that It was actually very sound advice. There are times when there is simply no choice. Wondering how you can do it, when you are going to get the time, is actually wasting time you could be putting to good use. There are times when you simply have to get on with the job and do it.

The author qualified in Modern Foreign Languages and English teaching over twenty years ago. With a background curriculum and pastoral development, she has been a Senior Leader for over five years. Working in a small town in Leicestershire, she still looks forward to seeing her students every day and is passionate about making a difference to young lives. “ However difficult my day has been, there is always something in the day that the kids do or say which makes me laugh, and which makes doing a tough job worthwhile”. 

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