By Ken Spero
By Ken Spero
Much attention was drawn to the challenge of learning loss over the last couple of years as schools and the entire country have wrestled with COVID-19 and the best ways to navigate it. It has certainly been a learning experience, an entire school of hard knocks, with lots of bumps and bruises along the way. One of the most significant manifestations in the broader marketplace has been termed “the great resignation,” and K-12 has not been left out. Many teachers and administrators have decided to leave the profession, leaving significant experience and skills gaps to complicate the daunting challenge further. With the myriad forces buffeting our schools on top of the staffing issues, the importance of school climate as a vehicle to support decision-making from classrooms to departments to buildings and the top of the district is paramount. Additionally, a good climate can enhance the resilience required by educators to deal with the range of emotions being faced and experienced and the incredible rate and magnitude of change.
Last year, the Wallace Foundation released its most recent research highlighting the importance of leadership in increasing student achievement. This research supports what has been known; teachers can have the most significant impact on a student’s achievement, but the principal can expand that impact across a building or district of children and improve the well-being of their teachers so that those improvements are sustainable. We need this combination more than ever (Paying for Principal Pipelines: Tapping Federal Funds to Support Principals and Raise Student Achievement).
The Wallace Foundation Research demonstrated that using a leadership pipeline as a tool for improving, supporting, and building a strong “bench” of up-and-coming leaders can be a crucial strategy for building a favorable district or school climate. That positive climate is sustained by ensuring that schools have the necessary quantity and quality of leaders steeped in the district’s culture and eager to shape and maintain the desired climate. This “grow our own” approach enables finding and recruiting appropriate candidates from within the district who have the education, skills, and experience required for the job. This approach also focuses directly on development and communication among the sitting and aspiring leaders in a district rather than enculturating new hires.
Given the current unprecedented teacher shortage, this “grow our own” needs to be changed to “rapidly prepare our own” as schools need teachers who can ably step into the classroom to support the increasingly diverse needs of the students. This rapid preparation targets new teachers, and existing staff are pulled into the classroom to fill in the shortages and absences due to persistent illnesses. Schools need to be able to prepare and support, in a compelling and just-in-time manner, the necessary skills to, at least, manage this challenge. The first and most crucial step in this challenge is establishing a supportive climate, engendering trust, and collaboration.
The current educator development and certification processes do not always prepare aspiring leaders and teachers for the power and influence of context in leadership (be it building or classroom). Although context can relate to tactical elements like the nature of the classroom, building, demographics, and the like, it is a subset of the district climate. In addition, aspiring leaders and educators are not always prepared for the emotional consequences they experience, which challenge their ability to exercise sound judgment and require them to be resilient.
Given these challenges, more and more districts are looking to grow their leaders from existing staff, enabling aspiring leaders to be more familiar with the context of the district. Getting the right people into leadership positions and supporting them with solid professional development is pretty straightforward, mainly when districts use leadership simulations.
Leadership matters, and nowhere does consistent leadership matter more than within our classrooms and schools. In addition to the recent Wallace results, numerous studies have concluded that school leaders drive youth outcomes. Without effective principals, school culture is lost, teachers become disenfranchised with changing priorities, and student achievement suffers. When principals are prepared, feel supported, and have the skills necessary to establish and maintain highly effective school settings, students prosper.
In a simulation, participants take on a leadership role (in the building or classroom) and exercise their judgment as they are presented with a particular classroom, school, or district administrative situation. They are provided with contextual information regarding their problems through other characters in the sim and supplementary materials. Each participant’s decision leads to different consequences and feedback as their path branches to develop critical thinking.
What makes online Sims unique is that they simultaneously promote skill development and team-building. By engaging educators in an exercise that requires collaborative decision-making and provokes organic peer-to-peer discussions in a realistic context, districts reinforce and expand the climate in a consistent and unforced way. When appropriately blended with instructional content, professional development, or PLC meetings focused on the necessary competencies and skills, sims provide a safe space for sitting and aspiring educators to experience what it might take to be a leader in their classrooms and schools. By sharing their different perspectives in a facilitated simulation setting, participants appreciate collaboration and a deeper understanding of aligned decision-making in the context of the evolving district climate. The shared experience helps provide depth and meaning to the importance of consistency in making decisions about a range of practice problems.
An additional benefit of simulations is how easy they are to deploy due to the engagement power of underlying stories in simulations. This allows leaders to actively perpetuate the desired climate and bring their experience and expertise to the process of building and maintaining a leadership pipeline.
Paying for Principal Pipelines: Tapping Federal Funds to Support Principals and Raise Student Achievement. 2021.