Improving the Readiness of Aspiring Leaders Through the Use of Simulations

May 24, 2020

By: Thomas G. Evans

Working with graduate students who are preparing for administrative careers and school leadership presents the need to balance academics with practicality.  Understanding theories of leadership is important.  Practicing what to do in decision-making situations is critical. For the last two years, much of the practicality has come from the use of simulations.

I worked in the public-school system for 46 years – serving as a teacher, administrative intern, assistant principal, and principal. Included in the 35 years in which I was a secondary principal, I have had 27 of my former assistant principals go on to become successful principals and leaders in various other system positions. It is important for principals to provide future leaders with the skills and assignments to help them grow. I’ve always taken that as one of my most important jobs, i.e. growing suitable replacements. One of the ways to do that is to provide them with opportunities to make decisions, to discuss choices and possible outcomes of various choices, and to give them the confidence to decide. The use of simulations has allowed me to continue this work in the classroom.

My students often share how much they have enjoyed the use of the simulations. Many have said how much they appreciate having the opportunity to practice the behaviors found in the leadership standards in real-life situations. They value the discussions and how much they learn hearing why others chose a different response than their own or just listening to how others processed the same information. They recognize that those conversations offer significant learning experiences. They like having the opportunity to think through such situations in our “no fault, no penalty” classroom rather than facing such a problem for the first time on the job – where career penalties can occur. They have expressed interest in having simulations in each of their courses, indicating how valuable such practice is to really understand how to apply the content and theory they have learned.

We have used the simulations in a variety of ways. Initially, I facilitate the simulation with the whole class, using established groups for discussion of choices. My groups have varied from being ‘level-based,’ e.g. high school, middle school, elementary school, to having a K-12 focus in each group. Once students know how to work through a simulation, I have the groups focus on the simulation using one computer per group and working through it at their own speed. I ask them to keep track of the decisions made by the group, record the vote tally on decisions, the reason(s) why a choice was made, and the reason(s) why other choices were rejected. If there are options that they would like to have that are not presented, they are to make note of it and record the choice. The review as a class with each group having the opportunity to share their choice with the class.

During the COVID-19 school shutdown, I have assigned the simulations to be completed individually between our classes and then we debrief as group when we meet. I encourage students to call and/or text each other to discuss the simulation and the choices. Those who have chosen to work alone have indicated that was a bad decision as it is the discussion with others that brings the content to life.

Our semester ended with a letter from our Dean indicating that I was this year’s College of Education winner of the Gloria A. Neubert Award. The Gloria A. Neubert Excellence in Teaching Award recognizes faculty who have impacted academic and personal growth in an outstanding way, promoted an exemplary learning environment, and made real-life connections between academic theory and daily classroom experiences. This award is voted on by all university students and it is my strong belief that the use of the simulations in my classes led me to earning this award.

About the author: Mr. Evans is a retired high school and middle school principal. He is currently teaching graduate students who are in pursuit of their Administrative I Certification. At the conclusion of their Administrative Internship course, he conducts a conference with each intern and their school leader (usually the principal). It is from those conferences that Mr. Evans has gathered and compiled feedback from his students who have worked with various simulations over the course of their monthly seminars.