Where do I find the time?

I had a fascinating discussion with some headteachers recently about the time they spend on their jobs, the difficulty of their jobs and challenge that such time pressures and other demands present.

I know I’m presenting a significant challenge by asking headteachers to spend up to two days a week focusing upon the teaching process by observing what’s going on in their schools’ classrooms. The obvious response is “where do I find the time?”

So what are the personal outcomes of such pressures? – 60-80 hour working weeks ; 4-5 hours sleep a night; disrupted sleep patterns were not uncommon – what sort of work/life balance is this? – is it any wonder that people don’t want to become head teachers?

So what are some of the expectations which headteachers have to live up to? (in no particular order):

Have a high profile in and around the school means that you undertake duties such as dinner duty, break time patrol, stair duty, detention duty, gate duty, bus duty

Evening work connected with parents’ evenings; community meetings; parents’ council meetings or school events – usually meaning that you have worked through from 7.30am – 9.00pm – on occasions up to three times a week

Open door policy means that you are often disrupted when trying to complete a task – meaning that you either have to do it when everybody has gone for the day, take it home or get in even earlier the next day before anyone else – that’s why headteachers are usually in first and leave last

Correspondence – mail and e-mail are never ending with requests for surveys, responses to the authority, government or other agencies, requests/queries from parents or the  community can fill a day themselves

Managing the consequences of pupil misbehaviour can take up huge chunks of time, with interviews, investigations, phone calls, parental meetings and reporting back to teachers all arising from one incident;

Financial management can be a big burden – even with a business manager – with worries arising from discrepancies causing sleepless nights

Personnel issues ranging from grievances, capabilty, competence and recruitment and associated paperwork are tasks which regularly require significant attention

Meetings outwith school can take up large amounts of time in a week – as the school’s major representative you are often required to attend

Writing policies, plans, letters to parents, newsletters, speeches

Analysing attainment data and the subsequent meetings with principal teachers or teachers

Completing the school improvement paperwork i.e. Planning, self- evaluation and monitoring

Timetabling and curriculum issues are significant issues at certain times of the year – especially if the headteacher is the timetabler

Complaint handling involves investigation, responding and on occasions repeated meetings

Reviewing forward plans from teachers and departments

Requests/demands from parents to see the headteacher “I won’t be fobbed off with anyone else”

Meetings with the senior management team, principal teachers, and staff and individual meetings with senior management colleagues

Teaching can also feature on some headteachers list of duties as they like to maintain credibility with colleagues and maintain contact with the classroom by taking on a class for the year, of course a teaching headteacher in a small school has no such option.

The question which jumps off the page for me here is – “Is it reasonable to expect any person to undertake such a range of competing and cumulatively impossible demands?”

The key driver for this review must be the well-being of our headteachers.

In my next post on this topic I’ll try to explore how we (it needs to be a collective solution) try to create some time within such a pressured existence to be involved in the kind of work that really makes an difference to learning and teaching for children and colleagues.

8 thoughts on “Where do I find the time?

  1. When you put it all in a list it does look rather preposterous doesn’t it? It does amaze me that people want to become head teachers, but I’m glad that they do – otherwise I might have to deal with more of that stuff 😉

    As a teacher and parent, an important expectation I have of a head teacher is that they have a clear vision of what they want to achieve.

    Heads have to prioritise, and the way they do that determines in some part what kind of head teacher they turn out to be. Good heads prioritise base on their own compelling vision. This makes them decisive and credible. There’s nothing so inspiring as a manager that believes heart and soul in what they are asking you to do (and nothing so dispiriting as being told to do something by a manager that doesn’t really believe in it, just because the manager’s manager told them to).

  2. I’ve been reading your blog with great interest for a wee while now Don. I’m a primary Head in another authority.
    This weekend I counted up how many hours I worked this week and it was at least 84. This was a week when I had no parent council etc. So I’m guessing that’s pretty normal for me as I don’t feel it’s been anymore or less than usual!
    What I would say is that I absolutely love my job and don’t grudge a minute of what I do. I just need to keep myself on the right side of the pressure line – not enough and I get a bit anxious, too much and I could get stressed- but knowing that helps!
    How do I check my own well being? Here’s my list
    Prioritising is top of the list – if it doesn’t impact on learning and teaching – don’t do it.
    Develop a self check system for when you need to rest! I have “easier” weeks every so often when I take the foot off the throttle and try to wind down more. In turn this means there are weeks when I really go for things! Knowing myself is crucial here! I need to know when I have to rest/sleep/take time out.
    Develop networks of people at the same level/post who you can share/download onto – helps stress build up.
    Ask for help when I need it – this is from everyone – staff, line leaders etc. Know when you need to have help! Delegate and help others grow into leaders with real leaderly tasks.
    Don’t become an HT for any other reason than you really want to make a difference to the children’s learning – its not about career development, power etc etc. Unless you have a moral or ethical pinning/belief in what you’re doing you won’t be able to stay the course.
    Don’t always react immediately – most things will sit, wait a while and often even resolve themselves…
    Have a real vision of where you want to go and share, share, share.
    Like people and really believe that everyone can improve themselves.
    Find ways of multi tasking which allow you more contact with the children, staff, parents – spend time working in corridors/open areas instead of your office – not formal class visits but allows more informal monitoring.
    Build up money in the bank with teachers – giving praise, or a five minute tea break if they look tired etc pays big dividends when you’re tired!
    Laugh! Have a sense of humour!
    Very little is worth losing sleep over – a lot is to do with developing a mindset where helping grow others is your top priority, every mistake, crisis etc leads to some growth. Try to keep remembering that.

  3. I am currently working as Business Manager in a primary school in Edinburgh. In the short time I have been in post I have observed what the Head has to do in a day. Even when I am taking responsibility for the financial management, people issues, relationship with the facilities management company and other admin issues she incredibly busy. I have no idea how she managed in the period between the permanent BM going on maternity leave and me joining. I appreciate that people in senior positions in organisations generally often have heavy workloads . The added dimension for Headteachers of course is their personal impact on the education of the children in which they are entrusted.
    As Andrea says – a sense of humour is vital!

  4. There seems to be a competing demand between being a leader and a manager. It’s very hard to be both at the same time, hard to be a leader if you’re too locked up in the details of day-to-day management. I wonder if there are any surveys of the kind they have in the business world (“habits of the most effective 100 CEOs). Everyone has the same amount of time in their day, yet some seem to have more than others 🙂 It’d be good to know their secrets.

  5. Well said Ewan!That’s the key.
    Management and Leadership need clearly defined and HTs need to understand the difference between the two – this is where shared leadership etc is crucial.
    Michael Fullan has lots to say on leadership and how to survive! Tim Brighouse also has a handy wee leaflet out just now on How successful head teachers survive and thrive which is a nice quick read. Alma Harris also sets things out well.

  6. Dear All

    Thanks for the helful comments.

    I think one of the key things we need to manage collectively are the expectations which people have about headteachers.

    I wonder if this might be fertile ground to start a dialogue about how headteachers might be released to undertake more work connected with learning and teaching?

    Would teachers, parents, pupils, employers and the community change their expectations if they knew why the headteacher was prioritising such activity – over other, more traditional roles? It would be very difficult to change these expectations as an individual headteacher – but what if we raised the profile of this role across the authority and engaged in such a conversation?

    Of course that still presumes that the work outlined in the above post could still be done – although not necessarily by the HT – but perhaps that’s where some of the other ideas come in?

    Andrea – I’d like to see a copy of Tim Brighouse’s leaflet – did I mention he is one of my heros?

  7. I think the point about expectations of headteachers is an important one. Headteachers are charged with setting the tone of the school. If that means working extremely long hours then there is a real danger that it becomes an expectation amongst staff, potentially starting a spiral of stress and discontentment. Commitment being seen as the number of hours you ‘put in’ I do not believe is a healthy model.

    We have to allow headteachers to ‘have a life’ too, therefore focussing upon effective management of time and resources is key(David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ is a good start). The inability to effectively manage workload dramatically reduces the time and energy available to think ‘big picture’.

    This is a real challenge for every school community and local authority, because I would argue that currently the job of headteacher does not appear to be a hugely attractive one.

    As someone who has committed myself to the Scottish Qualification for Headship and possibly becoming a headteacher some day, the enormous expectations and long working hours currently experienced by most headteachers I know are counter to my own personal view of a healthy family life.

    This may also be something to do with my own stage in life so I’m not saying my comments are anything but a personal view.

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