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Principals Offer
Practical, Timely
"Time Management" Tips

Have you mastered the 3 D's (Delegate it, Dump it, or Do it)? Could a "closed-door policy" help you better manage your time? Maybe you should set up "satellite offices" -- or find a hiding place? Education World's "Principal Files" team offers those time management tips and more.

Everybody knows that principals put in long hours. The school day is constant go-go-go, so most principals arrive a couple hours before students and staff and stay at least that long at the end of the day to tackle the email, phone calls, paperwork...

While long days might be a fact of life, most experienced principals have learned some time management tricks and shortcuts to keep long hours under control. That's why we recently asked our Principal Files team of principals to share what their experiences at the helm have taught them about managing time.


"Finding time for what is important is a huge issue for principals," confessed Nina Newlin, principal at Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School. "It has never been more crucial than it is now for principals to be true instructional leaders in their buildings, and at the same time there have never been more paperwork requirements piled on."

That means that principals must set priorities about what's most important.

Finding Time

Time management consultants agree that to effectively manage time, people must plan, delegate, organize, direct, and control. Here are some tips on getting started.
--- Learn to say "No."
--- Control interruptions.
--- Plan.
--- Delegate.
--- Use a to-do list.
--- Ask for help.
--- Don't procrastinate.
--- Use e-mail.
--- Keep the paper moving.
--- Outsource.
--- Be visible.
--- Use technology.
--- Hire good staff.
To read more about each of those tips, see Finding Time, an article from the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). (This archived copy of the article might be a bit slow to download.)

"I make decisions about what is most important for the current school year, and then I focus on those goals all year long," said principal Teri Stokes. "Setting firm, appropriate priorities and truly following those priorities leads to a less stressful year. If I don't keep a strong resolve about my priorities, those goals can be subterfuged."

This year, Stokes has made reading achievement a priority at Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama. "I have tried to attend all grade-level data meetings led by our reading coach because I want to keep informed, and I want the teachers to realize that I consider the data meetings most important in guiding reading instruction."

At Jackson (Georgia) High School, principal Duane Kline sets firm priorities too. "In the end, it's all about deciding what's important," he told Education World. "I spend time working on the important things that will pay long-term dividends. For me, time spent with people, building relationships, is the most important time I can invest in my school."

"Once the priorities are established, saying no to other things gets fairly simple," Kline added.

For Roy Sprinkle, principal at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, a K-5 magnet school in Sarasota, Florida, "duties related to safety and security for students and staff take priority. There are some things that principals just have to have a firm grip on, and safety is one of them."

Another high priority for Sprinkle is getting into classrooms. "I block out an hour each morning for classroom walkthroughs," he said, adding, "I feel it is imperative for students and teachers to see their principal in the classroom as much as possible.

"I do not make it into every class each day, but I do cover a large part of our campus. I keep this time sacred. I do not allow unscheduled appointments or phone calls to interfere."

Making sure that other things do not interfere can be difficult for any principal. "It's easy to get swamped under any multitude of other things," admitted Lolli Haws, principal at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. "For me, meeting with teachers about student progress in reading each quarter is very important. So are regular grade-level and team meetings to keep in touch with teachers' needs and concerns."


Visibility is also very important to Haws. "It's easy to get confined in the office, so I make sure I'm out and about at least an hour in the morning. Also, I stop in the cafeteria during at least two lunch periods each day and go out and about again for 30-45 minutes each afternoon."

Visibility is key for Nina Newlin too. "During the school day, the focus has to be on people -- kids, staff, and parents," she told Education World. "In order to give enough time to kids I find it helps to dedicate time each day to class visits. I like to just 'disappear' into a classroom and rediscover the reason I got into education in the first place."

Jack Noles, the principal at Shallowater (Texas) Intermediate School, builds into his schedule at least two full "coaching days" each week. "Those are days in which, except for emergencies, I spend time in classrooms, at recess, at lunch, and in other areas of the school. The entire staff knows that nothing else is scheduled during my coaching days.

"Making visibility a priority has helped me gain a much better understanding of the goings-on of my school."

Tracey Thomas has found that creating "satellite offices" throughout Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore can help her achieve several goals. "I might take my laptop into a classroom to type observation reports as I see a lesson taught, or I might set up a desk in a busy hallway where I can complete paperwork and still be visible to students and staff. In that way, I get my work completed and, at the same time, I am able to observe teachers and manage student behavior."

Having a visible presence enables principal Teri Stokes to engage students in "preventive interaction." That is most important with students who need behavioral support, said Stokes. "It takes less time to check in and talk with a few students on a regular basis than disciplinary interaction takes."

For Les Potter, principal at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, time is always an issue, especially when it comes to the many extra-curricular activities that he must attend. "I could delegate some of those responsibilities, but parents, sponsors, coaches, and students want to see the principal at those events. So I go to as many activities as possible. If there are several sports or other activities on one day, I try to go to them all. If I must arrive late or leave and event early I try to let parents know that I am off to attend another school function. Otherwise, some parents with tunnel vision might think that I am rude, bored, or don't care about their child."

Going to events and mingling with parents is a great PR tool, added Potter. "I have learned that I can resolve issues, put out fires, and squash rumors while attending extra-curricular events," he said.

But no principal can be everywhere. "I have finally realized that visibility doesn't mean having to be everywhere," said Duane Kline. "I have also realized my time management follows directly my ability to hire well. When I hire good people, they are able to help me with the 'urgent' tasks so that I can focus on the 'important' ones."


As a new principal, Tracey Thomas has been involved in many training sessions and discussions about time management. "The recurring solution is delegation," she said. "As busy principals, we must find responsible, trustworthy people on our staffs who are leaders or aspiring leaders to handle tasks that we can not tackle due to time limitations."

Les Potter has more than three decades in school administration under his belt, and his advice is the same: "Delegation is very important. Trust your administrators, counselors, secretaries, and teachers to do their jobs. Let them grow in their job responsibilities."

Principal Teri Stokes has learned the same lesson. "It took several years as a principal for me to realize it, but the one major epiphany I have had is that I just can't do it all. I have learned that I don't have to be in charge of everything, and that I can allow others to be in charge of some things -- especially things they are good at and enjoy."

Stokes' leadership team, comprising all grade-level team leaders, meets monthly to give input in a variety of areas, and they frequently volunteer to see things through to the finish. Special activities and projects always have a staff member spearheading them. The school's reading committee is one of the most important and active committees; they plan and oversee yearlong reading activities, incentives, and rewards as well as arranging guest speakers.

Whenever possible, Stokes tries to provide perks for those who put in a great deal of time. For example, members of the reading committee might get first dibs on attending local or national reading conferences. If she can, she sends teachers to district meetings on topics with which she is already familiar. The teacher she sends serves as the school's representative. Giving teachers that kind of exposure at meetings with other school leaders can be a positive incentive.

Lolli Haws also finds that most teachers are willing to be asked to do more challenging and responsible things. "Once you know who those people are, they can be a huge help and support," said Haws. "Of course they should always get the credit for quality work and help they provide."

At Bay Haven School, Roy Sprinkle considers himself fortunate to have a very experienced guidance and special education support team. Having that competent team has allowed him to delegate some duties. "In the past I sat in on all student-study team meetings, which can take up the better part of one day a week," said Sprinkle. "Now I only attend those meetings about students who are considered high-risk or meetings that might present a volatile situation."

Assistant principal Bonita Henderson tries to delegate as much as possible, too. "There is no way administrators can do by themselves all that is required of them. We sometimes don't possess all the skills or time to get every job done, but other people are good, even exceptional, at some of those things. So I try to find those people and let them shine."

Henderson says the staff at the Parham School in Cincinnati is always willing to give when it comes to students. "When students are involved, we can always find someone who is willing to go that extra step -- or mile," she said. "They have even volunteered their Saturdays for 6 weeks to tutor for the state tests."

Most teachers do this without expecting recognition or compensation, Henderson added. For those who go way above and beyond, "we always work through that some way, maybe by offering comp time in the form of certificates that a teacher can use to come in an hour late or leave an hour early."


As much as school leaders must learn to delegate to other certified professionals, most principals have also learned how a strong and involved secretary can be a big help in easing the workload.

Principal Beth Burt's secretary has taken on some responsibilities that end up saving Burt valuable time. Burt's secretary organizes all the mail, then they do it together. "First, we do all things that need to be signed, then we go over any communication from the district office, then other important mail, then things to read, and lastly junk," explained Burt, principal at Scott Johnson Elementary School in Huntsville, Texas. "As we go through it together, we accomplish the mail and signing of papers very quickly."

For 14 years, Teri Stokes called school to check in whenever she was out of the building. "I don't call the school anymore," Stokes confessed. "I would call several times a day, but my secretary finally asked me what I what I would do about a problem if I was at a national conference on the other side of the continent. She gently reminded me that if I had left someone I trusted in charge, there was no need to constantly call.

"My secretary knows how to reach me when I am out of the building, but our office staff is dedicated to making sure that the school runs smoothly. They are all excellent problem solvers. I have also given them the responsibility of making sure that all work and maintenance orders are put in without telling me first."

Jack Noles has come to the same conclusion about the value of good secretarial support. "I have considered myself a very organized person for quite some time, but I had known that one area I needed help in was using my secretary more efficiently. After sitting in on a half-day session with 'breakthrough coach' Malachi Pancoast, I signed up my secretary and I for a two-day workshop for administrative teams [principals and their secretaries]."

From that workshop, Noles learned that he could save time by making better use of his secretary's skills. Time saved there was used to commit to establishing his two coaching days each week. In addition, Noles learned how a clean office, one absent of all unnecessary items, has helped him be a better time manager. "Keeping my office pristine has helped more than I would have imagined," he said. "If my office was too comfortable, I would want to spend more time in there than necessary."

With a clean office, Noles says he has more time to devote to what is really important.


Dr. Ivan Fitzwater, author of Time Management for School Administrators, is often asked if there is one most important idea in managing time. "I always reply Planning!" Fitzwater told Education World. "One minute in planning can save twenty of doing. Start every day by making a list of the most important things that must be done. Put a check beside the one that's most important and start on that item. Then do one thing at a time and never work on several at once. That will help block interruptions and it will help you stick to your priorities."

Beth Burt recently attended a workshop titled "How to Work Less, Play More, and Still Get the Job Done in a Normal School Week." The workshop was presented by -- guess who! -- Malachi Pancoast. "I would highly recommend [the workshop] to any principal," Burt said.

Several other members of Ed World's "Principal Files" team have received special training that has helped them do a better job of managing time. For example, principal Duane Kline has trained in the "seven habits of time management" espoused by Stephen Covey. "Reading his books, particularly Principle-Centered Leadership, had a big impact on my time thinking."

"I am always interested in learning new ways to save time," added principal Michael Miller of Saturn Elementary School in Cocoa, Florida. He considers himself fortunate to have been exposed to one of his district superintendent's favorite speakers. "I heard Dr. Ivan Fitzwater [see sidebar] speak on time management, and then I purchased several of his books. He has really good ideas. He introduced me to the concept of the 3 Ds: Delegate it, Dump it, or Do it. I try to live by that motto even though it can be very difficult given the amount of input I need from those around me."

Most principals use time management "tricks" such as the 3 Ds to guide them. Just remembering a simple trick such as that when handling the mass quantities of paper, emails, and ideas can be a great help.

As valuable as some workshops are, time management need not always be "taught" in a workshop setting. "At our monthly principals' meeting we work on the essentials of the job," Roy Sprinkle told EW. "We talk about what must be done, what can be eliminated... It is always a good idea to take a critical look at how we structure our days and what can be eliminated."


Sometimes a principal just needs to make time during the school day to tackle email, reports, or other tasks. To that end, many principals find they must set aside a special time to handle those tasks.

"My secretary schedules all of my time," said Jack Noles. "She plans a time for us to meet each day, during which we run through all the mail and decide together how much time is needed for each of that day's tasks.

"Another important aspect of our time management plan is that even the staff schedules time with me. That keeps them from having to waste time waiting around the office for a 'minute' of my time, and it allows me to get much more work done because there are no unscheduled interruptions."

Some principals who pride themselves on having an open-door policy might not understand this approach, but "the staff here has come to appreciate it a great deal," added Noles. "They value their appointment times, since that is their time and their time alone. I put all work aside, do not take phone calls, and give my undivided attention to that staff member for the amount of time necessary to accomplish what is needed.

"Another lesser benefit of scheduling time with staff is that often staff members realize they can actually take care of many things that come up on their own or through some other means. The plan has emboldened some to become more self-sufficient."

Tracey Thomas has learned that much of her time can be "stolen" by staff members and others who come into her office when she is working or eating. "I have learned to close my door and to inform the secretary that I am not available. Staff members will need to return. Phone messages will need to be taken.

"The biggest thing for me was to realize was that it's OK to close my door from time to time. I used to feel guilty, but now I know that I deserve to take the time that's necessary to complete my assignments."

Thomas has found other ways to create time during the school day. "Sometimes, I even find a 'hiding place' within the school to do work if I really don't want to be disturbed," she added.


Does Technology Save Or Create Work?

Some principals couldn't live without technology. Others have tried it and dumped it. Click here to read what our "Principal Files" principals had to say about technology.

For principal Gretchen Schlie, the best timesaver is also a space saver. "I learned from a mentor administrator to deal with each issue or sheet of paper or email at hand as soon as I can -- instead of setting it aside and saying I will get back to it," said Schlie, who is principal at the International Christian School in Seoul, Korea.

"It is a hard habit to get into," added Schlie, "but I have also come to realize that it cuts down on clutter and having to go through piles of papers looking for something I was supposed to do."

Lolli Haws learned the touch-it-once technique long ago at a time management workshop. "I decide immediately to keep, file, toss, or act on every item as it come across my desk so piles don't build up. For the most part I do that without fail -- except for those big projects like our school improvement plan," Haws told Education World. "I hold all memos, notes, email, and mail for a time in the day when I can set aside time -- usually 20 minutes or so -- to go through each item. I take care of it, sign it, respond to it, or pass it on."

Haws said she checks email and voicemail when she arrives early in the morning, then again when she eats lunch and before she leaves for the day -- and rarely between those times. "They're addressed in the same manner as memos and mail -- I deal with each one once, when I first read or hear it."


  • Principal Tim Messick uses a common tool -- the to-do list -- to great success, "especially during those occasions when the plate is very full with projects and activities." Nina Newlin does too. She uses her early-morning time to focus herself by listing the things she would like to accomplish that day. "I find that if I write a list for myself, I am much more likely to get tasks accomplished," said Newlin.
  • Lolli Haws lines up phone calls to be made and makes them as much in a cluster of time as possible. "Of course there are always urgent calls that need to be made when the message is received, but I think it goes faster when I can just sit down and make phone calls all at once, usually early in the afternoon and again before I go home," Haws explained. "I always return phone calls the same day they're made and keep a list of follow-up calls I need to make when further information is needed. I always let callers know when I will get back to them, and rarely do not follow through on that."
  • Haws also keeps files and folders for committees, regular meetings, events, and newsletters. Those folders are always at hand and keep her desk clear of paper.
  • "I also stick post-it notes on my computer screen to remind me of urgent things I need to do, and I take them off once the task is completed," added Haws.
  • From a people management standpoint -- kids in hallways or lunchrooms, at ballgame crowds, and in other places -- principal Duane Kline follows Civil War hero Nathan Bedford Forrest's "get there firstest with the mostest" admonition. "Whenever we have a rivalry game or another crowd situation, I make sure that I am there with as many of my assistants and security folks as possible. Of course, that holds true for the lunchroom, too. Our rule is always 'go where the biggest concentration of our students is.'"
  • There are many days when Teri Stokes' mail is not looked at, but her office aide knows to hand her directly any mail from the central office or other important-looking mail. "Parent correspondence is always hand-delivered and looked at," said Stokes. "Having a desk that is clear of mail is not as important to me as being in every classroom every day."

'The most important time-management lesson I have learned is that I must take time for myself," said principal Tracey Thomas. "My health is just as important as time-stealing tasks. If I am emotionally or physically exhausted, I am not capable of doing an effective job. So, I find some enjoyable things to do for myself. I might get a massage, go out of town on a weekend, or just play music in my office."

Recognizing that there are things that just cannot be done, and setting proper priorities, is key, concluded Nina Newlin. "There is no way I can do everything I would like to do," she said, adding, "I have to forgive myself for not being perfect."


The Break-Through Coach
Learn more about Malachi Pancoast, the break-through coach who two principals in this article recommended.

Dr. Ivan Fitzwater's book was recommended by one of the principals who contributed to this article.

Finding Time
This article from NAESP's Communicator provides helpful time-management tips.

Time Management: Beat Work Overload, Increase Your Effectiveness, Achieve Much More
This section of Mind Tools teaches you personal time management skills. These are the simple, practical techniques that have helped the leading people in business, sports, and public service.

Time Management
Like any executive responsible for the efforts of others, you will find that managing time yours and the students' is one of your biggest challenges. (Article from Scholastic, Inc.)

Seven Time Management Sanity Savers
"Each time I ask teachers what their biggest stressor is, they say: "There aren't enough hours in the day!" I can relate. I used to be a teacher, and on a typical day..." (Article from Scholastic, Inc.)

Do It Yourself!
Retired principal Allan Vann unashamedly reflects on his career as a hands-on principal who just couldn't delegate. (Note: This archived copy of the article might be a bit slow to download.)

"Principal" Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education World's "Principal Files" team contributed to this article. The fact that they found time to respond must be a clear indicator that they have top-notch time management skills!
  • Laurance E. Anderson, principal, lower school, Kew Forest School, Forest Hills, New York
  • Beth Burt, principal, Scott Johnson Elementary School, Huntsville, Texas
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, principal, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
  • Bonita Henderson, assistant principal (retired), Parham School, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Duane A. Kline, Jackson High School, Jackson, Georgia
  • Tim Messick, principal, Providence Day School, Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Michael D. Miller, principal, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, principal, Rock Hall Middle School, Rock Hall, Maryland
  • Jack Noles, principal, Shallowater Intermediate School, Shallowater, Texas
  • Joan Pinkerton, principal, Kent Primary School, Carmel, New York
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Gretchen Schlie, principal, International Christian School -- Seoul, Seoul, Korea
  • Roy A. Sprinkle, principal, Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, Sarasota, Florida
  • Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Tracey N. Thomas, principal, Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore, Maryland

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Last updated 12/30/2012