School & District Management

Is Your Head Spinning? 7 Decisionmaking Tips for Principals

By Kevin Bushweller & Arianna Prothero — August 16, 2021 10 min read
Man tries to find exit from complicated path.
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Delaware high school principal Kristina Macbury wrote an essay in September of 2019 for the National Association of Secondary School Principals that posed this question: “How do you make the most difficult decisions?”

Little did she know at the time that just six months later she would be making a dizzying array of some of the most difficult decisions of her career during the pandemic.

“That has been super difficult, and it takes a toll,” said Macbury, the principal of Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, Del. “We’re weary.”

But the fact that Macbury was already thinking about and asking that question before the pandemic even started helped her make those tough decisions with a sense of purpose and a level of flexibility that is being put to the test again as the Delta variant spreads across the country and schools wrestle with big social justice and equity challenges and hot button issues such as critical race theory.

Her advice for her fellow principals is to always put students at the center of every decision: “Make sure you really know what your values and vision and mission are. That is my grounding point.”

Education Week recently interviewed principals and school leadership experts to get their takes on how principals should tackle tough decisions this school year. Those interviews are distilled in these seven decisionmaking tips:

1. Resist the temptation to issue or embrace edicts about how your school will operate. Always have a Plan B.

Rigid, inflexible leadership is a relic of the past. But even so, some states, districts, and schools around the country earlier this summer embraced the idea that the only path for K-12 schools would be a “return to normal” this fall. In many places, decisions were made to scrap any plans to use remote or hybrid learning or to require students and staff to wear masks.

Now, many of the leaders who took that approach—including the Republican Governor of Arkansas—are scrambling to figure out how to put those options back on the table if the Delta variant continues to get worse. Add to that uncertainty questions and concerns about when COVID-19 vaccines will be available for children under age 12, how much the virus will spread in school communities this fall, and how local and state health officials will react if it does.

It is a decisionmaking environment for principals that is full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or VUCA, a concept about complex decision making that arose in the military, is now popular in the business world, and is increasingly part of conversations in the K-12 community.

The better decision makers are the ones who balance risk and have a Plan B.

“The better decision makers are the ones who balance risk and have a Plan B,” said Alicia Tate, the director of leadership services for TregoED, a leadership-consulting group that works with principals as well as school district leaders. “They are strategic and always thinking about the ‘what ifs.’”

Andy Bradford, the principal of Foxview Intermediate School in Depere, Wis., added: “If we’ve learned one thing, it is don’t get married to any one plan. Any time we put together a plan, we have an asterisk next to it that basically says: ‘subject to change.’”

2. Listen carefully to students, teachers, and parents.

Jessica Cabeen, the principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., scheduled virtual listening sessions during the pandemic for students, parents, staff members, and non-English-speaking families. The school made recordings of those listening sessions so they could be available on demand for people who could not attend the events live. The listening sessions covered a host of issues such as what class schedules would look like, how bus transportation would work, and what mask requirements would be in place.

As a result of the listening sessions, the school decided to move from an eight-period daily schedule to a four-period block schedule to lighten the “cognitive load” for students, Cabeen said.

The Minnesota principal recognizes that the school might have to pivot back and forth between in-person and hybrid or remote learning this school year, but is confident that the four-period schedule will make that much easier to do.

We aren’t going back to normal. We said that in February and March.

Cabeen, who wrote an essay for Edutopia in January titled “How School Leaders Can Frame Tough Decisions,” said she plans to continue running listening sessions this school year, because she knows they will generate valuable feedback on other important decisions ahead.

“We aren’t going back to normal. We said that in February and March,” she said. Looking ahead, Cabeen is worried about burnout and exhaustion among students. “I am not as concerned about September—I am concerned about November.”

3. Use surveys to take the pulse of the school community.

During the pandemic, some principals have used Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, or their own online survey platforms to get a better read on the needs of students, parents, and staff members.

Macbury, the Delaware principal, uses Google Forms to conduct surveys. She recommends surveying students and parents at least monthly and staff members weekly if that is realistic.

If we’ve learned one thing, it is don’t get married to any one plan.

Macbury said the surveys should try to get feedback related to some key questions, such as: What can we do better? What is unresolved? The reality is that, in this VUCA environment, the answers to those questions can change from month to month or even week to week.

Unfortunately, Tate from TregoED said surveys are underutilized by many principals in the current environment. That often leaves them unable to make informed decisions on the fly, which they will be forced to do this school year.

4. Take a hard look at your staffing and curriculum needs and focus on the high priority areas.

Chad Sova, the principal of Oriole Lane Elementary in Mequon, Wis., said even in a typical year it can be difficult finding substitute teachers. So last school year, Sova made the decision to hire a full-time substitute teacher just for his building, an approach he plans to keep in place this school year. The school also plans to share another substitute teacher with other schools in the district.

Due to a lot of “unfinished learning” from last school year, Sova said his school is taking a hard look at summative assessment data to identify where the greatest needs and opportunities are. This school year, the biggest priority standards to address will be around literacy and mathematics.

We need to take something that may seem inherently subjective and make it objective.

“Everyone comes to the decisionmaking process with a lived experience,” Sova said. “We need to take something that may seem inherently subjective and make it objective.”

Sova said he will use that kind of thinking to make decisions about how to use the wider array of technology tools now available to students and teachers to enhance learning. “There are a lot of opportunities there,” he said, but cautions educators not to simply use technology as a substitute for other teaching approaches.

5. Be ready to pivot quickly but recognize the toll it takes on everyone

Kimbrelle B. Lewis, the principal of Cordova Elementary school near Memphis, Tenn., was fully remote until early this spring when students returned to in-person classes. Lewis was at her school when the pandemic first hit. Then she left for the 2020-21 school year to serve as the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“The toughest thing then and now is making informed decisions quickly,” she said.

In her position at NAESP, Lewis has seen that constantly making these calculations around safety, staffing, and student well-being is taking a toll on principals.

“It is a great challenge,” she said. “I would say for most of us, we’re used to making complex decisions; it is a part of our job, in order to ensure that your school is doing what’s best for students,” she said. “However, it’s added a layer of complexity because you have to make sure there is a greater consideration for student social and emotional needs, a sense of loss of family and friends and what was our normalcy.”

The toughest thing then and now is making informed decisions quickly.

Ray McNulty, the president of the Successful Practices Network, works with principals and district leaders on building better decision-making approaches.

For a very long time, schools served as institutions of predictability and consistency, McNulty said. They usually had the same school year start dates, they ran on the same bell schedules, they followed a curriculum, and delivered instruction almost entirely in physical classrooms.

Now, principals are in an environment in which they are re-evaluating decisions on the fly constantly. “Everything is becoming amazingly complex,” he said.

But, he said, when making those decisions, principals’ first priority should always be “making sure everyone is safe.”

6. Lean on others for guidance and feedback. And have a direct line to someone in the central office.

The most persistent and complicated decisions that Robert Motley, the principal of Atholton High School in Columbia, Md., said he had to make during the pandemic have been around student grades.

There was a constant tension, he said, between maintaining standards while also not failing students because they had to look after younger siblings while trying to attend their own classes virtually.

Motley, who is also the immediate past president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that when faced with complex decisions he leans heavily on his team of assistant principals and student support staff.

“There’s that expression that it’s lonely at the top, but my interpretation is that it’s only lonely if you allow it to be,” he said. “Never make a rash decision. You should definitely vet it with at least another ear or ears as you work through that whole process of making that tough decision.”

There’s that expression that it’s lonely at the top, but my interpretation is that it’s only lonely if you allow it to be.

Heath Oates, the superintendent of the El Dorado Springs R-2 School District in Missouri, holds 10-15 minute weekly, in-person meetings with new principals and meets with veteran principals every other week.

In a small district like El Dorado with 1,200 students, it is realistic to have the superintendent meet with principals regularly. But even in a large district, Oates said principals should have somebody in the central office who is listening to them, especially in the current decisionmaking environment. “That’s critically important,” he said.

His principals are facing a school year in which students are returning to school in person in a community where less than 50 percent of eligible adults as well as teachers are vaccinated, he said. In addition, there are no mask requirements in place for the first day of school on Aug. 25 and there is growing vocal opposition in the community to the idea of teaching critical race theory in schools even though the district makes it clear that its academic program focuses entirely on teaching to the Missouri academic standards, according to Oates.

In one case last school year, a principal had to instruct a student that he could not wear a specific COVID mask because it featured white supremacist imagery, Oates said.

7. Be transparent, own your mistakes, and move on.

Annette Sanchez, the principal of Hampton-Moreno-Dugat Early Childhood Center in Beeville, Texas, uses this simple question to help her navigate through complex decisions: What is in the best interest of students? Go with the answer to that question, she recommends, even if it will make you unpopular.

If you can’t do something, don’t say, ‘let me look into it.’ Be transparent, and always make sure that you’re making decisions in the best interest of the students.

A crucial part of taking that approach that often gets ignored is communicating those decisions in the most transparent way possible.

“Sometimes administrators make decisions but then are not transparent about those decisions,” she said. “If you can’t do something, don’t say, ‘let me look into it.’ Be transparent, and always make sure that you’re making decisions in the best interest of the students.”

McNulty from the Successful Practices Network recommends creating a culture of “versions” of decisions, meaning you make a decision to go in a certain direction and you assess how that decision is going. If it is going well, you keep moving in that direction. If it is not, you pivot to a different version of that decision, and tell people why you made that change.

“That’s why it’s important not just to have a Plan B, but a Plan C and D, too,” he said.


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