George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

How School Leaders Can Navigate Conflicting Demands This Year

Principals are being pulled in all sorts of directions, but it’s crucial that they prioritize what will do the most good for students.

October 15, 2021
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

The changing landscape of leading schools through the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted school leaders to temper optimism with a strikingly sobering reality. While face-to-face instruction has resumed for many children, school administrators cannot hold on to the comfort of teaching, learning, and leading the way it was done before the pandemic. Not while Covid exposure email notifications tick-tock like metronomes establishing schools’ tone and tempo.

One of the biggest challenges for principals is navigating the conflicting demands of leading a school this year. We want to establish a tightly knit community while keeping everybody safe. We want students to close any learning gaps that widened last year without burning out our staff, and we want parents to feel that they’re in partnership with us even when we might have differences of opinion about how best to do things.

School leaders must be realistic about the time, attention, and energy that the challenges we face will require. Leadership is second only to teaching among factors that contribute to students learning at high levels. The Wallace Foundation has published research illustrating that school leaders spend most of their time on management tasks instead of instructional leadership. Covid has exacerbated this. Walter Larkin Jr., a charter high school principal in the Northeast, explained how addressing students’ academic needs amid Covid-19 has defined his leadership priorities.

“Most of my students have been home for a year and a half,” said Larkin. “For us, it has been communicating how important it is that everyone that can be vaccinated is vaccinated and ensuring everyone follows through, so we can have a safe space and keep the school open.”

Energy and Time Management

Schools are multimillion-dollar organizations that require numerous structures, processes, and functions to operate. As leaders, we must remain mindful of the time and energy that tasks will take. Energy management is equally as important as managing our time. I delegate as many management tasks as I can, such as day-to-day grounds and facility oversight, to others, and identify tasks that allow me to do the greatest good for the greatest number of children and their families. Effective leaders work on tasks that create high value for their staff or their organization, and we must do the same to maximize our positive impact as school leaders.

“I think the right work right now is putting the social and emotional needs of students first,” said Tawana Hughes, an elementary school principal in the Midwest. “My communication is clear with my staff. They understand the importance of prioritizing the social and emotional needs of students, but not using students’ social and emotional needs as a crutch for low expectations.”

Challenging, sometimes unpopular decisions may be the most educationally sound. We have to prioritize helping children and their families over keeping our staff in their comfort zones.

At times, tasks you prioritize may not relate directly to improving instruction, but resolving them positions children and teachers to achieve at higher levels. It’s helpful to see our decisions and their outcomes as interconnected steps along a path rather than isolated events. The domino effect of seemingly minor leadership decisions can be gargantuan in a school. Small changes that result from a school leader’s decisions can cause significant changes in other school structures, processes, and functions. These steps are vital to the transformational power of schools.

“In the end, we must transform our schools into community learning centers that are led and valued by the students, families, and communities they serve,” said Sonya Douglas Horsford, an education leadership professor at Columbia University. “The pandemic reinforced the essential role that schools play as the heart and hub of community and the role that leaders play in building and sustaining these relationships over time.”

Outside Pressures

Your supervisors and influencers outside of your community may not understand how you prioritize your work because they don’t work in your school. Stay the course and focus on children.

“There are some district-level things I have to deal with as the principal,” said a principal who wished to remain anonymous. They pointed out that the two sides of their city are different, and what is effective on one side may not be on the other. “Sometimes I have to say to district personnel, ‘No, that does not work here. This is what works, and this is what we can agree upon.’”

Don’t take it personally when district-level officials charged with supporting you and your school provide advice that isn’t helpful or try to persuade you to focus on the “wrong” work. They may lack experiences that would help them understand your school and decision-making. They may also be following directions from their supervisors and don’t have a choice in the guidance they give you. Be prepared to stand your ground when you encounter those who can’t see or refuse to see your vision.

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