Monday, September 01, 2008

Tidy desks vacant minds?

Albert Einstein apparently maintained his desk in stupendous disarray. When it was suggested to him that a cluttered desk equates to a cluttered mind he replied,'And what does a tidy desk signify?'

I was returning from doing some work in one of our major cities when I ran across a principal I used to know in earlier years. He had just returned form the annual New Zealand Principal's Conference. I asked him what did he pick up from it all. He went on to talk about tidying his desk, passing more executive work onto his secretary and getting into the classrooms more. When he saw the look of amazement on my face he changed the subject.

Back home I asked the same question of another principal friend of mine and he went on to say similar things and how it had changed his life as a principal. I couldn't resist pulling his leg and I hurt his feelings. Didn't he already know this? I thought it was common sense? But it seem all over New Zealand principals are now Malachi Pancoast converts.

I had to search 'google' to find out Pancoast's hardly new 'powerful' message. It seems principals worldwide have become locked in their offices managing, or complying, obsessively to everything that goes on in their school with no time left to focus on what Steven Covey many years ago called, 'the main thing'. Covey wrote about the unimportant but urgent taking up time that ought to be spent on the important but not urgent; focusing on learning and teaching rather than fighting fires.

A few years ago a fellow principal asked me how many hours I spent on the job ( this was following a graph showing some principals working every hour God gave them!) and I said I was at the bottom of the graph. He admitted so was he and we both wondered what were the others actually doing? We, of course, agreed we were both effective pricipals!

Back to Pancoast 'enlightening' advice. It was all about reducing principals workloads; to work less but to be more effective. He told the principals that that they had absorbed the secretaries job as well as their own; that they needed to be out in the classrooms as a learning coach for their teachers.

Then came the big stuff.He advised principals to clean out their offices of anything personal and reeducate the secretary to take over work that they had been doing. Get her to handle all mail and paper work, get her to decide who gets to see you, meet with her daily to sort out actions for her to complete.

This was followed up principals re assigning two days to classroom coaching and support, three days in the office and and no work to go home in the evenings or weekends.

This is one book I could have written. Not the neat and sterile office stuff but leaving as much to other as possible so as to focus on being in classrooms. This is how I used to work and was also the case for other creative principals who believed it was all about teaching and learning - not endless clear folders. I was just discussing yesterday with my old secretary how we worked. She thanked me for empowering her.

I take up defence though for messy offices and thinking. Messy is just more effective than neat and tidy when it comes to creativity. Obsession with order is becoming a malady in modern management. Compulsive tidiness has its downsides and although it might suit the left brained 'control freaks' it is counter productive for right brained individuals who thrive in a mess that makes sense to them. Ironically when people tidy up things you often hear them say,'Since I have tidied up I can't find a thing!'

I can't see Pencoast's ideas being much use at a creative environment such as Google Headquarters which is anything but sterile and impersonal. There creative disorder is the name of the game to powerful effect. Google has a lot of 'play' in their system. The talented and trusted individuals who work there are given 20% of their time for their own pursuits. For all this Googles over all aim is the fierce pursuit of creativity, excellence and innovation; the results are anything but a mess.

So my advice is for principals, by all means return your focus to where it always should have been - teaching and learning but don't lose your creative soul in the process.

Remember a pinch of mess is an important ingredient in the creative process. As Einstein is claimed to have said , 'an empty office may only be the sign of an empty mind'.


gregcarroll said...

Hi Bruce.
Like the principals you have discussed Pancoasts' stuff with it was good to be reminded of the important stuff, but his message was also a bit culturally centred. The principal role in the States is often very different from what WE know as principalship. I doubt many of them are teaching, have only part time Office support, etc, etc, etc, and the other realities we deal with across many of our schools. It is more like our U5/6+ role in NZ.
His message was simple enough - get out and do the professional leadership stuff and don't get bogged in the Office. Deal with the important stuff, not always the urgent. I did like his analogy of the All Black coach not playing on the field, they 'COACH' and get the conditions right for the 'players' to do the job they do, and to the best of their ability. They tweak skills and practices in many different ways and mentor at personal as well as professional levels. Sounds like principalship to me :-)

Bruce said...

Hi Gregg.

I think you are right.Principals in the US are all too often administrators of huge schools and God knows what help they would be to classroom teachers - focus on getting good test scores no doubt. One of my favourite principals in New Plymouth talks about schools being led 'classrooms in' not 'office out'

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bruce!

What you have described about the principals with the tidy desks is that they have satisfactorily categorised everything. Sorted all the pencils and sharpened all the tips, but not actually used them.

But the workaholics are in trouble too. I believe that it is a fallacious assumption that every problem is solved through non-stop classroom education. To listen to some of my colleagues who tend to get on their high plinths with this, you might start to believe that things all go to mush when the teacher/principal takes a day off or goes on a holiday.

I am of the belief that if things turn to mush when the teacher is away, then the teacher isn't doing the job right when they're there.

Teachers should not be the heart and lungs of the school. If the heart stops that's the end of the school. The same can be said for the lungs.

Teachers should be providing more sustaining support. The adage, "give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day; show a man how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime", applies as much to the day-to-day routine, as it does to the routines of a lifetime.

Ka kite.

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Joel said...

You sound very defensive. I wonder if you feel attacked by the call to declutter because perhaps you are a messy person. I don't confuse creativity with disorder.

The big idea here is that by design, principals are executives. That means providing direction but working through others.

So many principals need to start being present where the action is: the classrooms. The also need to stop acting like technicians and start thinking about vision, purpose, and accountability.