The Spinning Plates, Managing vs. Leading

By Tina Noe, Cohort 8 Mentor, Principal at Danville South Elementary

I’ve been a principal for 19 years now. As with any role, over time, we strengthen and develop the skills of our jobs. Leadership is one of those skills that comes with being a principal. If you’re good at it, you motivate others, build momentum, create change for all stakeholders’ betterment, and truly impact a school’s culture. At the start of my career, I was far from being an exceptional leader. I would have qualified myself as a sub-par manager. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have a strong vision yet, and I was trying to survive.

At the beginning of this year, as we returned to school with new procedures and guidelines to follow due to Covid-19, my teachers, colleagues, and I felt like it was our first year. It’s as though we are all starting over and building this year from scratch. I was a manager again, not so much a leader anymore.

This year, I have felt that most of my time has been spent managing people, tasks, and procedures. When I get up, the first thing I do is check to see the most current list of staff members that will be absent for the day and how many subs I am short. As I get dressed and ready for the day, I’m figuring out who I will pull to cover specific classrooms, running through the list in my head of who I will have cover lunch duties, recess duties, custodial duties, etc. While en route, or as soon as I arrive to work, I typically find other issues or shortages that need to be filled. I’m plugging holes. I’m managing.

Initially, I had high hopes that my job’s management side would lessen and I could get back to leading. I’m finding that I can’t seem to get my footing under me to lead indeed as I want. It’s not a typical year; it is a year of survival.

So, I’ve decided if I’m going to spend most of my time managing, then I might as well try to be the best darn manager around! I Googled “top management skills” and feel the following summarizes the best management skills that fit this year’s situation.

1) Communication. With daily changes to the staff and who is assigned to cover, it impacts many in the school setting. For example, if I pull my Title I teacher to cover a class, then those RTI groups need to be canceled. It is critical to communicate out consistently each day so that staff members know where to look for changes that may impact them or their students.

2) Problem Solving. This goes without saying! This year we have had to get creative and stay flexible. I don’t normally empty the trash bins around the school, but when I’m short, three out of the four custodians, I do. I have also found that keeping a copy of everyone’s schedule in my bathroom at home helps. This may sound silly, but if I can straighten my hair, put on my makeup, and solve problems simultaneously, it helps plan for the day’s challenges.

3) Forward Planning. Our school has been fortunate enough to be entirely in-person since August. We haven’t had to shut down yet, but a plan is in place when we/if we do. Planning for potential pitfalls can help you be prepared for when they happen.

4) Organization. I am currently living by my calendar, to-do lists, and keeping a log of the day’s events. This allows me to look back at the end of the day or week to better prepare for the next.

5) Interpersonal Skills. Even in a socially distanced time we live in, it is essential to connect with those you serve or manage. Taking time to check on staff, connect and hear their struggles creates a better working environment for everyone.

Each year I strive to be the very best leader I can be. For this year, I have decided to give myself (and my staff) some grace. I’m not giving in. I will lead in any capacity I can lead, but I am permitting myself to say that managing these spinning plates is good enough for this crazy year!