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  • by Blaine Helwig

Managing Takes Effort!

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

My mother-in-law has long since retired, but she cleans a small two-story concrete supplier’s office every Friday to supplement her fixed monthly income. The management offices are located on the second floor; whereas; the employee lounge, meeting room and reception are housed on the first floor, with one bathroom on each floor. She started this work many years ago, and at that time, the business owner restricted the workers from using the second-floor office space and bathroom. The cement dust and mud that drivers tracked-in over the course of the normal work-week resulted in the extensive cleaning of both floors, instead of only the first floor.

Over the last year, the company changed owners, and the new management allows concrete truck drivers to use both floors. She spoke to the new owner explaining that allowing both floors to be used indiscriminately by the drivers doubles the cleaning workload. The new owner indicated that it takes energy and time on their end to manage their workers movements after their concrete deliveries. Thus, they would rather not expend that effort, and the office now requires additional cleaning – without an increase in her weekly compensation.

In my first year as an elementary urban Title 1 principal, the academics at the school had continued to track lower each school year for three consecutive years. Over the summer in preparing for the upcoming school year, I surveyed teachers and discovered that they would support significant academic changes, so we aggressively implemented supplemental resources and pedagogy initiatives – and it paid off by the end of the school year. However, what I did not anticipate, until the first week of school, was the poor student arrival system in the cafeteria. The school’s arrival system was completely unstructured, as it had been for the last decade. Students sat in circular groups talking and eventually as the year progressed, misbehaving. I had changed so much at the campus with the academic content that I was reluctant to make serious modifications to the arrival system. The necessary adjustments to rectify the arrival process would have involved both parents and students – in mid-stream of the school year. I was in my first year, and I had not fully gained the parents’ trust, so I chose to wait until year 2, and I dealt daily with the self-inflicted discipline issues and chaos of this unstructured system.

In my second year, on day one, we were ready for a new arrival system. The students entered the school, ate breakfast and calmly were directed to a placard with their teacher’s name. Children were seated in grade level lines by their teacher facing forward – cross-legged – and they were required to read quietly until their teacher arrived at the cafeteria to pick them up. (Note: Students were required to have a library book in their backpack at all times – if not, we had milk carton crates full of books in the cafeteria prepared to hand them a book to read. Coincidentally, our school culture and mantra Show-up, Work Hard, Read!” was born.)

As the principal, I was on cafeteria duty everyday along with the three instructional coaches actively monitoring and holding all students accountable for expectations. I personally monitored the children eating breakfast, and since we were a large elementary school with almost all of our children on free and reduced lunch status, there was not sufficient room for all students to eat as afforded by a staggered lunch schedule. Consequently, I actively encouraged students to focus on eating their breakfast and transition to their grade level lines, read, and wait for their teacher to arrive. To my surprise, it was not only quieter in the cafeteria at arrival, the children sitting cross-legged in their grade level lines got bored and began to read their books every morning. Of course, parents had their own tables and were allowed to eat with their kids as long as their own children were with them. In effect, I initiated selective civil inattention toward that group of kids and adults. Parents loved this system since they had a quiet place to eat with their children, and they enjoyed morning small talk with other parents. In short, I was not fighting parents at arrival – only the students had to learn the new system.

Positive Outcomes of Effective Management Systems – In General

First and foremost, managing human beings of any age expends time and requires continual effort! A lot of effort, actually, so the outcomes have to justify the levels of expended input. Thankfully, once a system is set-up and expectations are clearly established, in general, only maintenance is required – a fraction of the time needed in comparison to the front-end loading of initiating any new system.

Second, once the system is established and rolling, people generally observe a system’s smooth organizational structure. In this case, the teachers at my school noticed, and during the first week of professional development, I conveyed the significant effort and time the administration team were prepared to invest into student arrival each morning. As a result, teachers could walk-in to the cafeteria each morning, pick-up ‘calm and ready’ children prepared for a productive instructional day. In my personal and professional experience about human inertia, what starts good usually remains good. Thus, I wanted students’ mental and physical preparedness to continue after they reached the classrooms. Consequently, I required each teacher to readily prepare a consistent daily staple of independent and active engagement activities; so, as the children entered the classroom, they were prepared to continue their learning as the day unfolded.

The organization and student behavior of more than 900 students by only 4 people in one large room served as a general model to the teachers. If this system could be accomplished with so few personnel, it implied that 20 to 25 children should not be a problem for any one teacher in their classroom --- with appropriate administrative assistance for highly disruptive students and/or entry level teachers. Professional development was specifically presented and connected to our morning arrival systems on the importance of effective classroom management and efficient daily routines in their classrooms. Specifically, viewing ‘time’ as a valuable commodity. For every 15 minutes that is lost every school day in the classroom due to downtime, student disruptions or poor classroom management systems, it translates to a multiple of 8.5 days of cumulative instructional time lost by the end of the school year in May. Of course, the children were not physically absent on any of those multiple of 8.5 days, but pragmatically, they were absent when it came to productive and meaningful learning. Thus, we stressed the paramount importance of time on task with efficient and structured daily routines as well as effective classroom management, and how it preserves valuable instructional minutes of student learning - as it did during the 30 to 45 additional minutes of student reading each morning in the cafeteria at arrival.

Third, unstructured systems involving people of any age foments the existential reality of the following Proverbs reference: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, if children are not engaged, whether alone or in a group setting, they will find something to do to fill that time. Sometimes they may discover a productive engagement, but all too often, they do not. Then, that avoidable disruption forces either a teacher or a campus administrator to expend valuable time in a student ‘corrective’ conversation or possibly a parent meeting in addition to following up with the student to ensure the behavior was indeed corrected. Unstructured class or school systems can monopolize educators’ time handling student misconduct. Thus, the educator expends more time reactively addressing student conduct than proactively, simply by not implementing a sound management system in the first place.

Negative Outcomes from Happenstance or Indifferent Management

The negative outcomes of failing to set-up sound management systems are usually readily apparent. Employees quickly come to the conclusion that either management does not know what it is doing, or management does not sufficiently respect their direct reports’ issues to address their concerns. It is the lost time and reoccurring problems that fuel frustration, and it is one of the main reasons that quality personnel initiate job searches for new employment opportunities. In the case of my wife’s mother, she quit her cleaning job and found a new one. In the case of public schools, negative outcomes are non-linearly amplified due to poor management practices either at the administration or classroom level. Students do not learn as much, and the intervention time in both academics and undesirable student behavior can become overwhelming. Additionally, parent dissatisfaction with the school significantly increases. If parents feel their children do not feel safe at the school or they have concerns on their child’s learning, they usually choose one of two options. Either they withdraw them and enroll them in a new school, or they elevate their dissatisfaction with repeated phone calls to the principal’s supervisors.

Overall, the one takeaway of paramount importance in this short writing is that in any type of human gathering, one element always remains true, managing takes effort. It must be intentional, consistent and purposeful or functionality and overall performance are adversely impacted. Heightened and stellar outcomes are invariably a direct result of soundly implemented systems that are thoughtfully managed, regardless of the type of organization.

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