Posts Tagged ‘urgency’

This is the sixth in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

British Columbia school superintendents described the frantic nature of running from crisis to crisis in their daily work.  Whatever plans they might have for the day, week or month were often quickly derailed by something urgent – and there seemed to almost always be something urgent.  It was striking that while some saw their job as a very proactive job, one where you are looking around the corner to what is coming next, many see their work as reactionary, each day responding to a new item of top importance.

“The tyranny of the urgent” was commonly used as a comment when BC school superintendents were asked to reflect on their ability to control their own time. Whether it was human resources issues, health and safety, or very often board topics, superintendents were challenged to stay focused on their plans, and they are often derailed to deal with an emerging crisis.  One superintendent argued, “My to do list is usurped the moment I arrive at work with other urgent issues.” This view was corroborated by a second superintendent, who said, “I feel like I am trying to put out fires all the time. When something comes up in the district, it takes over everything.” And a third superintendent also shared a similar sentiment, “Priorities are often dictated by emergent situations.”

One BC superintendent described experiences that were common among many of the respondents:

I do have control over how I spend my time. Each day I have a list of the things that I need and want to accomplish and for the most part each day I achieve that list. The complexity is that each day a large number of things get added to that list, which I also accomplish. The result is that the day continues to get longer as I seek to achieve those things that I had put on the list. As I reflect on my eleven years as Superintendent, I think the days, weeks and years are getting longer with new additions and rarely anything being removed from the overall list. So, I guess I have control over how I spend my time, what I am not sure I have control over is the amount of time needing to be spent. This is because I do not want to shift focus from what is a priority for the team and district to accomplish tasks for outside systems and/or organizations.

Many shared this view that the time needed to be an effective superintendent was growing as the tasks that were viewed as urgent took more time. Community concerns and board matters were the drivers of the urgent on the list of items that superintendents identified as most commonly having primary responsibility. 

One superintendent described the experience as “a crisis every day” that needs to be dealt with. Superintendents recognized the political significance of certain issues that required their specific attention. While many items could be delegated, if the issue involved local or provincial government or had a media angle, they often took responsibility.

While many of the tasks of the superintendency, like budget planning, strategic planning, recruitment, and working with partners, appear to be the kind of tasks for which one could close their door and work on for eight hours in a day, the reality of the experience that superintendents describe is one that is often a frenzied pace moving from item to item.

There was a sentiment among respondents that outside officials, like board trustees and BC Ministry of Education officials, were creating unrealistic timelines with often changing demands that needed the superintendent’s attention. For further study, it would be useful to look more closely at the specifics of the tasks that are falling into the urgent category and whether they truly require urgent attention. It is also important for outside agencies who interact with superintendents to know that they are looking for greater predictability, so they can plan with their time appropriately on various tasks.

While there was a lot in the data and commentary from my colleagues that was invigorating and exciting, this impact on the urgent was depressing.  I do think some superintendents crave the urgent and run towards the problems.  For others, it may be passivity or just difficult circumstances.   My bias is that I see a key job of the superintendent is to play the long game, while others around you are focused on the immediate wins and losses.  If our job is simply keeping the balls in the air and trying to do that again tomorrow, the longer term shifts and innovation in education will be impossible.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the question of whether BC School Superintendents actually have control of their time and the impacts of COVID-19 on the work. 

Read Full Post »