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One of Those Days – Let’s Prioritise

This post won’t make that much sense without reading One of Those Days – The Challenge.”  The challenge was about how you would cope with the day from hell – an angry and aggressive parent, an unhappy member of staff, a meeting about progress data that you are unprepared for, a middle leader who is seeking your support to get an increase in capitation and a complaint from a parent about a member of staff.

Stephen Covey's Urgent & Important Prioritisation Matrix

Stephen Covey’s Urgent & Important Prioritisation Matrix

This can be difficult with an empty day and nothing else to do but you are observing period one, teaching period two and due at a local networking meeting period three (we operate a three period day).  The progress data meeting is straight after school with the Assistant Headteacher.  This was the scenario we set for internal and external applicants who applied for middle leadership positions at St. Mary’s.  They had forty five minutes to organise their thoughts and produce an introduction to their departmental handbook.


The challenge of prioritising can easily be turned into a simple ranking exercise.  What order should I do the tasks in?  There are lots of different pieces of advice ranging from tackle the one you don’t want to do first, pick the most challenging or do the most important one early in your day and so the advice goes on.  To be honest I don’t think the order you do tasks in is at the core of prioritising, as long as you do them by the deadline you can suit yourself.  This task was deliberately set up so that it is not possible to do it all.

The real challenge of prioritising is deciding what you won’t do as you simply don’t have time to do everything. 

This urgent/important matrix I first came across many years ago when reading Stephen Covey’s, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I used it for many years so now it tends to run like a preloaded piece of software in my brain as I decide what I will and won’t do and in what order.

Keep the Main Things the Main Things

Using Covey’s matrix I would tend to classify the issues as follows:

My suggestions for prioritising the issues

My suggestions for prioritising the issues

I’ve interpreted “urgent” as must be done today, “not urgent” as can be done tomorrow.  There is no totally right and wrong answer here as we may all see priorities differently – what would you classify where? 

The three main issues that need addressing first would seem to be the angry and aggressive parent, the lesson observation (whilst this could be put off it would seem very hard on the teacher who has got all prepared for it and possibly all worked up about it) and the preparation for the progress meeting.

If you go back to the original post you will see you had your usual weekly chat with the Assistant Headteacher at 8:00 a.m. – that was deliberately placed there.  This is an opportunity to discuss the day but also what about handing over the irate parent to the senior leader to meet, defuse the situation and find out what it is about?  You can then pick up the issue with the Assistant Headteacher in the progress meeting at the end of the day and meet with the parent to resolve it once the initial angst has been dealt with.

You may have noted that our lessons are ninety minutes in length.  Why not watch the first and the last thirty minutes of the lesson and use the middle thirty minutes to find out about the potentially inappropriate comment by the member of your team?  There is then time at the end of the day to quickly speak to the member of staff, tell them what it is about and arrange a time to meet with them and get their perspective.  Most Complaints Policies have a ten day or so window in which to respond at the informal stage.  It’s more important to get it right rather than rush it.

You need time to prepare for the progress meeting immediately after school and it is either do the preparation or go to the local cluster Head of Department Meeting – it’s a no brainer for me.  You can easily catch up on the meeting from the minutes or chatting to a colleague who did attend to find out what happened.  I’m not saying this is right but I went a whole year without turning up to the joint local authority/headteachers’ meeting – the agendas just didn’t ever seem that relevant – the World didn’t stop turning, the sky didn’t fall in and the school seemed pretty unaffected.  Send your apologies to the meeting and get that preparation done.

Hi-jacks & Bear Traps

If you’re not careful the best laid plans of mice and men can be rendered useless.  The hi-jack here comes from your colleague the Head of History who is desperate to get some more money for the History Department – without appearing unfriendly is this really a priority for you given the day ahead?  If you need a bit more convincing, the increased History Capitation has to come from somewhere – what about the Geography Department’s capitation?  Be polite, friendly but firm when other people often unwittingly attempt to hi-jack your day.  Unless the new issue presented is a greater priority than the ones you already have you can’t just take on any more.

Photo Credit: hmvh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: hmvh via Compfight cc

The potential bear trap here is wading into, without thinking, the issue with the member of staff who is unhappy about the RI lesson grading s/he has just received.  Having not seen the lesson there is a real danger you seek to support the member of staff and inadvertently undermine the lesson observer!  The teacher maybe hurt, disappointed and possibly angry about it.  They need to discuss it with the observer and look at the way the lesson could have been improved or present the evidence about why the grading maybe inaccurate to the observer.  A middle leader then has a key role in supporting the development and improvement process alongside the teacher.  This is possibly one for another day but only once you have given a bit of TLC.

Departmental Handbook

The second part of the task, only forty five minutes to complete both parts, is the writing of an introduction for the Departmental Handbook. It is fascinating to read what people have written, it gives you a window into their thinking, what they see as important and how they might operate as a subject leader.

The response to the task can be very different from one applicant to another – I rather like departmental handbooks to have a bit of vision about the subject and an introduction that includes something about standards and teaching & learning.  I don’t think I will be alone on this one amongst headteachers.


The interview process is an opportunity to quiz and interrogate the applicant’s thinking about the task. 

Governors have become used to me debating it one way and then taking the opposing view in the very next interview.  I’m equally impressed by candidates who once challenged can immediately look at what they have written and can explain the error of their approach and what they would actually do, also those who stick to their guns and explain the rationale behind the approach they have taken.  This is also a point in the interview where I’m simply looking at the person – does s/he remain calm under pressure?  Being a middle or senior leader is a challenging role, you need to maintain a sense of calm when things get stressful, set a sensible course of action and take the team with you.  If you can do it under the stress of interview it suggests you’ll be able to do it if appointed.  Occasionally a candidate ends up all over the place.  It isn’t necessarily the end of the process – this is only one part of the interview – but it does beg the question, “Is s/he quite ready yet?”

Photo Credit: Caro Wallis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Caro Wallis via Compfight cc

Often candidates have told the panel that they would never arrive in the morning having not prepared the data.  I tend to believe them but sometimes things go wrong.  The night before a successful interview for a deputy headship I ended up in A&E with one of the children (allergic reaction to some sweets) which coincided with a much more serious road traffic accident in the area.  All my plans to spend the night doing final preparations went out of the window.  Fortunately, I already had my question cards prepared and had time to go over them in the morning.  Things do go wrong and you have to adapt but you probably know this already.

Whilst hopefully you’ve enjoyed looking at the task and my response – whether you agree or disagree with my suggestions – the real point of this post is about how you prioritise and organise your own work on a weekly basis.  Covey’s grid is useful.  How much time do you spend wondering what to do next or faffing about on the equivalent of Twitter, Facebook or Candy Crush (not urgent, not important) rather than tackling the important issues?

The challenge is to get yourself into Q2 – the important but not yet urgent quadrant. 

However, we all have one of those days sometimes.

If you want to read more about our interview process you can find details here:

Right Person, Right Job, Right School



5 thoughts on “One of Those Days – Let’s Prioritise

  1. I enjoyed this, I wondered if the parent complaint had something to do with the inappropriate comment made by a member of the dept.

    Posted by wendy daly | May 31, 2014, 6:08 pm
  2. This is my life as a dht in an inner city primary school, any advice on how to be the mediator between an angry observee and observer who disagree on the grade for a lesson?? Heading into that situation on Monday!!
    Loved the grid will use, have developed own set of criteria for prioritising but it may be useful on one of those days that completely exceeds previous one of those days- am sure you have had many!

    Posted by Jane Matthew | May 31, 2014, 9:09 pm


  1. Pingback: The Life of a Deputy Headteacher by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit - May 15, 2015

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