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How I Handled...

Covering for a Secretary
Who Was Hospitalized

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Many secretaries perform a wide variety of very specific responsibilities. Those responsibilities might include sensitive duties related to budget, payroll, or special education. But what happens if a secretary is hospitalized for several weeks? If she or he is the only person trained in some duties, an absence could spell d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r. Disaster can be prevented if you have a plan.

The Problem:

We are a large middle school with four secretaries who cover the offices of our three grade levels and our special education office. The majority of their duties are pretty straightforward: they answer the phone, record tardy students, and fill out discipline forms In addition, however, our school has several office specialists who have a variety of very specific duties: those duties include handling budget, managing payroll, calling substitute teachers, registering new students, doing data entry, and completing special education forms. But what happens if one of those specialists ends up being hospitalized or having to deal with some other emergency? Recently, we had that problem. Our secretary in charge of registration, data, and records was hospitalized for several weeks.

The Solution:

Most districts have training for substitutes who replace teachers, but they do not have in place similar training for members of their office teams. Yet many of our secretaries' jobs are so specific that even if we could hire a retired secretary or a temporary secretary to fill the void, it could take days or weeks to train a replacement to do some of the most sensitive daily responsibilities.

We recognized this potential problem a few years ago. My secretary (our office manager) set up a cross-training program. Taking the time to do that has served us very well; it has ensured that we will always be covered in a "crisis." Now that our secretaries have been crossed-trained, my office manager was able to quickly and easily shuffle the hospitalized secretary's duties to others. Each secretary was charged with covering one or more of the absent secretary's duties. Since they knew how to do the jobs, and that this was only a temporary situation, the transition went very smoothly.

The Reflection:

I was pleasantly surprised how well everyone rallied around the sick secretary and how quickly they picked up her responsibilities. This was a great lesson in morale building; everybody pitched in to help. And everyone was happy to do it. Our office team realizes that something like this could happen to any one of them. If the staff was not trained to do each other's jobs when an emergency arose, then the results and attitudes might have been much different. My advice to all principals: If you have not done so already, you must be sure your office personnel are cross-trained as soon as possible!

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.

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