Thoughts on Principle 1: The Priority Principle
by Jeffrey Zoul
“If everything is important, than nothing is important.” – Patrick Lencioni
“Everything is important. That success is in the details.” – Steve Jobs
When I served as principal at a middle school several years ago, our leadership team was discussing time, specifically, the lack thereof and a perception that we allowed too many interruptions to instructional time during a typical school day. We were brainstorming ways to maximize instructional minutes and minimize class interruptions of any kind. It was my first year as principal and (following the practice of the previous principal) I had been making morning announcements a few minutes after the school day started and afternoon announcements a few minutes before the school day ended. After the leadership team meeting, I met with the assistant principals and our school secretary (who, as a true leader in our school, also served on the school’s leadership team) and we decided we would stop making afternoon announcements–unless it was an announcement that was extremely important.
At the next school leadership team meeting, we all shared ideas for maximizing instructional time gathered from our respective teams. I shared the idea to cease afternoon announcements, with the caveat that we would still make an announcement if it were of true import. Everyone seemed pleased and lauded the idea, which would likely save five minutes of instructional time most days. Then, one team member had an epiphany, suggesting, “Umm…shouldn’t that actually be the bar for any announcement we make at anytime?” His point was that if it were important enough for the entire school to hear at a certain time, we should go ahead and make the announcement. On the other hand, it it was not truly important that the entire school hear an announcement, we probably should not waste instructional time to deliver it, whether it was in the morning, afternoon, or any other time.
This story is a simple, but real, example of something my friend and colleague Anthony McConnell and I write about in our book, The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exemplary Schools. The first principle we examine is what we term, “The Priority Principle” and, frankly, this remains a conundrum as evidenced by the two seemingly contradictory quotes at the top of this post from two men whose leadership insights are beyond reproach. On the one hand, if everything is important, nothing is important, meaning that there can only be so many things we do that are truly important to our core work. On the other hand, if we are actually spending our most precious commodity–time–devoted to something, then that “something” ought to be important or we ought not be wasting our time doing it.
As school leaders, we obviously need to prioritize our time. What we cannot do, however, is send the message that something we are doing at our school is not important or less important than something else we do. We should prioritize how much time we devote to every important thing we do, but we should not say one is more important than the other. School safety and crisis planning is extremely important, perhaps now more than ever. Is it more important than academics? Nope, but guess what? Academics are not more important than school safety and crisis planning either. They are equally important and we must do each to the very best of our abilities as educators. Although they are both important, it is foolhardy to debate whether one is more important than the other, What is appropriate is prioritizing how much time we devote to each. Although school safety is every bit as important as academic learning, over the course of a full school year we need not dedicate nearly as much time to crisis planning as we do to academic learning. So many things we do in schools are like this, yet we fall into the trap of saying this is more important than that. There exists a subtle, yet important, distinction between prioritizing something’s importance versus prioritizing the time we dedicate to something that is important.
When faced with the false dilemma of devoting time in the school day to competing demands upon that time, the answer might be, “Lets do A,” or “Let’s do B.” However, if they are both important, the answer must be, “Let’s do both–and do them with 100% commitment from every staff member.” Although we may not dedicate the exact same amount of time to everything we do in schools, everything we do in schools must be considered equally important, from academic learning to innovative instructional practices, to social emotional learning, to school safety, and even to standardized testing. Yes, even that. If we are investing time in the school year to administer these assessments, we should commit to ensuring our students perform to their highest potential.
So, Lencioni and Jobs were both right. Everything we do in schools is important, yet not everything merits the same amount of time devoted to it in order for us to ensure we have given it our best. A final challenge, though: I suspect we should periodically audit how we spend our time in schools, to make sure that everything we are doing is, indeed, important. I suspect we will discover some things that, upon reflection, are not important. When that is the case–as it was with the announcements we were making at one middle school years ago–we should stop devoting a single moment to them. There are too many things we must do each day that are “all-important” to the kids we serve. Prioritizing what is important–and eliminating what is not–is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!