Search form


How I Handled...

Feeling Overwhelmed
By the Job of Principal


There were days when it seemed like I was working in a zoo. I felt overwhelmed by all the problems that came to the principal's office. There never seemed to be enough time in the day. I knew something had to change, but couldn't envision a clear strategy.

The Problem:

There were days when it seemed like I was working in a zoo. I felt overwhelmed by all the problems that came to the office. I couldn't keep up with the increasing expectations, and the staff seemed to be growing more and more dependent on me. School operations reached gridlock when I got bogged down making decisions and dealing everyone's problems. On the most trying days, it seemed the students (and adults) acted like monkeys out of their cages.

I was an experienced principal, but relatively new in my assignment. Despite my experience, I was feeling overwhelmed. There never seemed to be enough time in the day. I had to deal with myriad issues from a continuous parade of students and adults through my office to dozens of phone calls, emails, and mounds of paperwork. My time management skills were being stretched. People seemed so needy and dependent. I knew something had to change, but couldn't envision a clear strategy.

The Solution:

One day I stumbled onto Blanchard, Oncken, and Burrow's The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. The authors described 'monkeys' as problems on the backs of people. As students and adults revolved through my office, they each had their 'monkeys' solidly on their backs -- and they wanted to place them squarely on mine. I realized that by keeping other people's 'monkeys' in my office, I was sending the message that I wanted their 'monkeys.' I often collected so many 'monkeys' I couldn't attend to my own. And when others' 'monkeys' were being kept in my office, my staff and students were denied the opportunity to care for and feed their 'monkeys.' I had failed to empower them. When I procrastinated and failed to quickly return 'monkeys' to their owners, everything in the school seemed to stall. No one seemed to attend to the needs of the 'monkeys,' and they were often out of their cages. My school environment resembled a poorly operated zoo.

Then, I read the book's profound words. I immediately envisioned my dilemma and was filled with ideas for solving my problems. From hereon, all monkeys must be handled at the lowest organizational level consistent with their welfare. Since most 'monkeys' seemed to be related to student discipline and management, I needed to focus on teacher empowerment. I learned to

  • have focused dialogues with teachers -- or students -- and completely describe a problem.
  • assign ownership of the problem to a person at the lowest, most appropriate level of the organization.
  • paraphrase problems and ownership and determine the 'next moves' for dealing with them.
  • understand that teachers -- as well as students -- more often than not merely needed reassurance before risking 'next moves' with their 'monkeys.' That reassurance was often in the form of a recommended action, or, where there was confidence, permission to take action with an eventual report about outcomes.
  • allow time for the 'monkeys' to be fed and cared for by others before establishing regular checkups.

    It all seemed so simple. The authors' rules for monkey management were clearly summarized:

  • Describe the Monkey
  • Assign the Monkey
  • Insure the Monkey
  • Check on the Monkey

    The Reflection:

    In my college courses, I had learned that principals must delegate and empower others. But in a new school, despite what I knew, I had tried to do too much too fast. I had allowed myself to get bogged down. I procrastinated. And I dragged everyone else down around me. Fortunately, however, I took time to read and reflect

    One day, during a staff meeting, I talked openly about the book and what I'd learned from it. I explained how I planned to revamp my approach to solving problems. By refocusing on the delegation and management of 'monkeys,' my teachers were empowered to deal with their own 'monkeys' -- most often their students, thus reducing the time they needed to involve me. They became more confident and self-reliant, they wasted less time waiting for others to act, and they experienced less stress. They learned to move and keep 'monkeys' at the appropriate lowest levels of the organizational structure.

    Indeed, teachers eventually learned they could effectively deal with whole classes of 'monkeys,' and when they did, the productivity of the school dramatically increased.

    We all learned that when 'monkeys' are well managed, fed, and cared for in their own cages, the school operates like a zoo -- one where everyone enjoys working and visiting.

    Reference: Blanchard, K. Oncken, W., and Burrows, H., The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey (Quill William Morrow, New York), 1989.

    See our How I Handled Archive to read about problems that other principals have solved.

    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. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.