Does your ‘To Do’ list seem never-ending and continues to grow by the day? Well you are not alone, this is the case for most, if not all, school leaders. The problem can affect us to varying degrees, the most common of which we see is burn-out, frustration and despair, as we struggle to keep on top of the requests and tasks we are being asked, or need to address.

So, what lies behind this problem? Well, the first part is not good news. Our work is never complete in schools. Improvement is a continuous process, meaning that there will always be more work to do. When leading schools, we also need to understand that the behaviour of others (students, teachers, parents) goes way beyond our control. Granted, we can try to shape behaviour by setting expectations and modelling the way for others to behave. In all likelihood, however, a student, teacher, or parent, will behave in a way that we will have to respond to from time to time, which adds to the ‘To Do’ list, as take time to address the issue(s) that has arisen.

There is good news, however, as we do have some choices in terms of how we determine what goes on our ‘To Do’ list and how we respond to each task. Some of our choices we can make relate to a ‘can of worms’ syndrome.

Many school improvement initiatives are closely linked to solving problems, either by changing what is going on in our schools through the modification of an existing practice, or bringing in a new one, as the school does not yet have what is wanted or needed. The latter is quite well represented by numerous IT initiatives in schools, many of which did not exist 10 to 15 years ago. A modification of a practice could, for example, take the form of re-shaping collaborative expectations and practices for teachers. Regardless, both require implementation action steps that will be added to the ‘To Do’ list of school leaders.

One of the challenges school leaders face is making sure that the size and scale of the problem to be addressed is not underestimated and this is where the ‘can of worms syndrome’ comes in. On first appearance, certain problems look like they can be fixed quickly when, in fact, quite the opposite is the case. If leaders are impulsive and dive in to solving a problem without giving it enough consideration, other problems may begin to emerge very quickly that may appear equally compelling to fix. The ‘can of worms’ has now been opened and some choices need to be made.

Firstly, is the root of the problem clearly understood? Many problems that present themselves in schools often are only temporarily resolved because leaders find it too difficult, or inconvenient, to take the necessary time to solve the problem properly. This is where a leader’s ability to avoid impulsive tendencies when problems present themselves. Taking time to get to the heart of a problem and setting action steps from there will, most likely lead to a better outcome. So, a firefighting approach to school leadership is required.

Secondly, if a ‘can of worms’ has been opened, which of the worms need to be put back in the can first and which ones can be left alone to address later? When we look at problems everything can appear a priority. The skill comes in knowing where to start. If we do not prioritise effectively, then everything seems important, which creates huge frustration for everyone, as leaders and those they lead feel pulled in all directions. It takes a skilled and courageous leader to prioritise well. Prioritising often means disappointing someone, especially if it is their problem or priority that falls down the list. School leaders also have to be acutely aware of the capacity of the team to put the worms back in the can and how this may impact on the other tasks school leaders and teachers are asked to perform.

Our role as leaders is to consider more carefully what it is we are trying to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ to ensure that the energy we devoted to problem-solving is sustainable. The question we have to ask ourselves frequently is whether those we lead and work with are struggling to keep up? If the answer is yes, then we need to slow down and reconsider our approach to solving problems in our schools. Our responsibility, as school leaders, is to take care of the team we rely so heavily on to get things done. Our ‘To Do’ list may well grow but we have control over how quickly it grows.