George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

4 Crucial Lessons for School Leaders Facing a Difficult Year

For administrators guiding schools through uncharted terrain, working deliberately on two or three schoolwide goals will be key.

August 31, 2021
kali9 / iStock

After a tumultuous and unprecedented 18 months, schools are again opening their doors and welcoming back students for another year filled with changes, opportunities, and challenges. It would be easy to feel scattered in this moment and lost in what feels like unfamiliar terrain.

In my experience as a specialist in leadership development, the best way to equip educators and students for success is for administrators to take control, intentionally reduce that frenetic energy, and slow down. The most productive path forward on unfamiliar ground is to move deliberately toward clear, aligned, and collaborative goals. In schools, just as in life, goals keep us grounded and centered. When people are invested in clear goals, they are better able to withstand challenges because they know where they’re headed.

As educators focus on understanding their students and rebuilding nurturing and equitable classrooms, administrators should focus on enabling that work by setting schoolwide goals that move all students forward. While there is no single model for schoolwide goal setting, there are some crucial lessons I can share with administrators about what sets school communities up for success.

4 Leadership Tips for This Year

1. Less is more: The most common barrier to school improvement is initiative fatigue. When you have too many goals, it decreases your energy to build momentum toward any single outcome. In a time when so much feels urgent, it is critical for administrators to narrow their school’s focus to two or three concrete, schoolwide goals that give them the highest leverage to serve students. Schools will have many goals, and each one will be important, but if you want true momentum, it’s critical to prioritize only those that are most critical.

Those goals could be focused on reducing chronic absenteeism, improving literacy, or increasing students’ sense of belonging and safety. No matter what goals administrators select for their school, they should be based on data, be concrete and measurable, and be targeted toward creating the greatest impact on student learning and well-being.

2. Provide the how, not just the what: Once goals are set, administrators should get specific by providing relevant exemplars. Achieving meaningful goals requires substantial changes in practice and behavior, so school leaders need to show educators not just where they are going but what it will look like when they get there.

If one of your goals is to “cultivate respectful and affirming environments in all classrooms,” spend time finding or creating exemplary planning processes, lessons, and tactics that will actualize that goal. What actions do educators take to create learning environments that demonstrate respect for all learners? What student behaviors are observable when children feel seen and affirmed for their unique identities?

Share concrete resources with staff, deconstruct them in team meetings to make them relevant and actionable, and provide collaborative environments where educators can observe one another and discuss best practices.

3. See the unseen: As schools work toward achieving these goals, they should do so in a way that honors every student, especially those from historically marginalized communities. Traditionally, we look for success in the aggregate, but real improvement comes in leaving no one behind. Prioritizing equity forces us to think about all students and pushes us to be innovative, compassionate, and resourceful in a way that benefits everyone. Disaggregating and analyzing school level data to look at different groups of students allows administrators to identify specific problems, begin to diagnose causes, and then instruct appropriate shifts in behavior.

What’s more, these kinds of changes often benefit not just the targeted group but the entire student community. Tackling those learners most struggling with literacy, for example, might lead a school to introduce more diverse and engaging texts in all classrooms and/or uncover other barriers to learning that when fixed could benefit additional students, or lead administrators to initiate targeted supports that could be applied in other subjects where different students lag behind.

This approach, when applied schoolwide, ensures that all students are given equal opportunity to thrive and succeed.

4. Honor the learner: Through all this work, administrators should be persistent but patient with all learners—both students and educators. When we teach children, we give them multiple opportunities to practice, allow them to make errors, and support them to learn from each experience. Sadly, we often don’t honor that same process for adults.

If we are going to set big, audacious goals for our school communities, we must also honor the time it will take teachers to learn, adjust, and see impact. Administrators should make time to observe educators in action, engage in investigative and reflective discussion, and provide compassionate and concrete feedback.

We know that all students—and educators too—are reentering school buildings this fall having faced many challenges over the past year and a half. As they set goals and strive toward recovery, school leaders should be careful not to frame those challenges as deficits, but rather as assets. Administrators can embark on goal setting unafraid to leverage the strengths of their communities, analyze all that they’ve learned and gained during this time, and capitalize on that to build stronger and more productive learning environments for all students.

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