Leaders- Don’t get caught in the Busy Trap!

September 6, 2019

Could research help us find a way to avoid the Busy Trap?

How many school leaders have you met who would say what a difference having more time would make to their leadership and to their school.


“If only we had more time to embed this new strategy.”

“If only we had more time for reflection and consideration of what went well before we move onto the next thing, then we could be better informed of what is working well and what isn’t!”

The concept of “busy” is an interesting one because as school leaders, we  make an active choice each day, each week, each term, where to spend our time, energy, human resource and personal capacity with a view that it will lead to school improvement.


But sometimes as school leaders we get caught in the “busy trap” where we spend time without considering the direct or indirect impact on school improvement and learning. We find ourselves replying to emails late into the night, have full diaries, back to back meetings, getting caught up in parental complaints - all far removed from our core reason of why we joined the profession and that is …. to make a difference in the lives of the children and young people we teach.

So how can we escape the “Busy Trap” and focus on what is important. I look to the research of Viviane Robinson from the University of Auckland,  as an example school leader could use when deciding budget allocation, staffing, emotional commitment and that all important factor time, as a filter to choose where best to focus their time and energy with a link to improved student learning.


In her 2011 book, “Student-Centred Leadership” Robinson provides research-based guidance on the leadership practices associated with increased learning and well-being of students .  At its core is a meta-analysis of 30 research studies which have examined the links between various types of school leadership and students’ academic and social outcomes. From this research, while there are  no hard and fast rules about how to interpret this statistic in educational research, an effect of 0.2 is usually considered small, 0.4 a moderate effect and 0.6 and above a large effect (Hattie, 2009).


Some, if not all, of the five dimensions  will be familiar to many school leaders. After all, the importance of leadership that is focused on teaching and learning has been a recurring theme in much recent leadership research and policy thinking. Robinson  found in her research that  if  school leadership were to focus on leading teacher learning and development there would be a greater impact  on student learning.  


Robinson  found goal setting per se is not an outcome itself without the fundamental “buy in” from staff and the creation of collective responsibility. She argues that without clear goals based in reality, staff can get caught in the “busy trap” themselves, following multiple agendas and rabbit holes that can lead to disengagement and frustration.


Having clearly established goals allows everyone to know what the priorities are and not allow distractions to seep into the day to day life of the school. These goals need to be strategically resourced and Robinson recognises this as key too. There is a greater alignment about what is being spent both financially, emotionally and in terms of time management, as there is greater clarity around the goals being set. Further there is thoughtfulness and mindfulness around which resources can best be used to ensure the goals can be realised.


Looking closely at her third Dimension, which involves quality of teaching, Robinson argues this type of leadership requires a shared theory of effective teaching that forms the basis of a coherent teaching programme in which there is collective rather than individual teacher responsibility for student learning and well-being. She argues it has  to be more than just  classroom visits, teacher observations or more discussion of teaching and learning at staff meetings. More classroom visits and teacher feedback could make matters worse if the feedback was based on a faulty theory of teaching quality and this needs to be clear from the outset and expectations set so there is a clear understanding of expectations of teaching in the classroom.

It is the fourth dimension which sees the greatest impact on student learning. Robinson  argues that central to this dimension is a leaders’ knowledge of the types of professional development that are more and less likely to make an impact on the students of the participating teachers. Further, Robinson argues this dimension is about a strong focus on collaborative analysis of the relationship between what has been taught and what students have or have not learned and how this can be best shared with all teachers.


The fifth dimension of effective leadership provides a foundation for all the rest. Effective leadership ensures a safe and secure environment for both staff and students


But  if we were to  use these 5 dimensions, could we as school leaders reframe our diaries for next school year and our strategic thinking and planning ahead so as to invest our time, energy and human resource that allows us to see the impact of our leadership and allows us to stop falling in the “Busy Trap”?


Could we as school leaders now make an informed choice where to spend our time, energy, human resource and capacity on those things proven to impact student learning and the refocusing?  Could we rethink how we can lead teachers and teacher development in our school to  create coaching and mentoring systems and structures with setting goals in our quest for improving teaching and learning as it signals to everyone on our school community which things are the most important?

That is the challenge which will allow us to move away from the “Busy Trap” and turn our focus back to our core values of improving student learning.


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