Principal Helpline: “Everyone Wants Answers Immediately!”

Help! Making good decisions requires more thinking time than I have.

Principal Decision Making Time

Q

I’m a high school assistant principal whose days are filled with lots of things demanding my immediate attention. Sometimes teachers complain that I don’t get back to them in a timely manner. I do get back to them as soon as I know the answer to a question or have investigated an issue. But principal decision making sometimes takes time. It seems that people want immediate responses, but it’s just not always possible.

A

People always want a quick fix to a complex problem. As if you could just look up the answer on the Internet! Taking your time to find a good answer is better than having to backpedal if you’re too impulsive.

One of my assistant principals was often criticized, I thought unfairly, for exactly the same thing.  Mike always took care to investigate a question or complaint thoroughly. Consequently, teachers often complained that they had talked to Mike about a problem and he didn’t do anything about it.  When he finally did come up with an answer or solution, teachers weren’t saying, “Oh, I was wrong. Mike did take care of my problem.” Instead they said, “Finally.”

For example, teachers complained to Mike that kids were parking in the teachers’ parking lot. This problem required Mike’s being out in the lot on mornings when he was already busy or assigning that duty to someone else, checking parking stickers or license plates against student records, getting kids out of class to move their cars … etc., etc.  It wasn’t a one-day fix, but when kids were still parking in the lot the next day, teachers thought it was another example of Mike “doing nothing.”

It turns out that there’s a way to mitigate people’s impatience about a principal’s perceived unresponsiveness. A little communication goes a long way. You don’t want to be one of these principals. Get in touch with the person with the issue and tell her that you are still working on it, but don’t have a solution yet.  It may seem counter-intuitive to call or email people and tell them you don’t have an answer, but what people really care about is that you’re working on it. They want to know that it’s still on your agenda and that you’re making progress. In my experience, knowing they’ve been heard and that you care enough to bring them up to speed (even if nothing’s happening yet) is very much appreciated.

Silence suggests either you forgot about the issue or just didn’t care enough to find a solution. When I suggested to Mike that he try touching base with people, he thought it was a waste of time. But the day he did send a quick email explaining that he was working on the parking problem––though it took a week to get fixed––no complaints! Mike had found another tool for his toolbox.

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Suzanne Tingley

Posted by Suzanne Tingley

Suzanne Tingley has been a middle/high school teacher, department chair, principal, and superintendent. She taught graduate classes in education administration for the State University of New York. She developed a series of education videos and has been a Scholastic Administrator blogger.