How School Leaders Can Frame Tough Decisions

When school leaders know how to ask themselves the right questions—and when and how to ask for help—the path forward becomes clearer.

By Jessica Cabeen
January 20, 2021

The pandemic has provided school leaders with multiple opportunities to make quick decisions that have lasting impact on student learning, teacher well-being, and family engagement. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed in the face of that responsibility, but it’s critical to maintain our grounding and move forward in a clear direction.

While things can be challenging, and it seems that just about anything can change at a moment’s notice, I’ve found that a preexisting framework helps me to craft a clear vision and enhance communication and clarity for everyone involved.

As I am thinking about an idea, a program, or a change I need to make, I try posing these questions to guide my response: Do I need to modify what I am doing? Should I adjust the order in which things are done? Do I need to accept help from someone else to move this forward? I call this the Adapt, Adjust, Accept framework, and I routinely call on it to make decisions large and small.

When you adapt something, you modify it. This year, educators and school leaders had to significantly adapt their traditional school schedule, calendar, and model of learning. From in-person to hybrid to elective distance learning, schools across the country have modified schools to fit within Covid-19 governance from local and state agencies.

When considering making additional shifts in this school year, or looking forward to when face-to-face, five-days-a-week (in person) learning returns for all, I considered the following questions with respect to each model that my school relied on during the pandemic:

  • What did we learn from teaching this model?
  • What are students able to do now because of this model?
  • What are teachers able to do better because of this model?
  • What resources or supports are families better able to navigate because of this model?
Recognition that we significantly adapted our school learning model due to Covid-19 provides an ongoing opportunity to reflect on what we learned and carry the successes into the future.

When you adjust something, you alter its order. During the 2020–21 school year, leaders shifted from directing emergency distance learning to directing remote learning. By taking what we learned from the spring of 2020, leaders can assess what worked and what didn’t, and then make informed decisions about how to adjust to support students, families, and educators as models shift this year.

What was parents’ and students’ primary complaint from last spring’s emergency model? Not enough structure. In response, we adjusted.

The adjustment meant adding live classes. Students logged into Advisory first and for each course in the schedule had a 30-minute virtual meeting with their teacher. Topics ranged from checking in to getting support on work to offering extensions or enrichment activities.

The shift to full distance learning also impacted how we collaborated as staff. The challenges of creating time for meetings, coupled with the loss of connection among staff, required us to adapt how our meetings were held. Instead of multiple meetings per week in person, we adjusted our schedule to have one team meeting per week. And while topics still included building updates and student concerns, we added components to support staff well-being, check-ins, and time to virtually connect with each other.

Traditionally our team meetings have prioritized student needs; this year we adjusted them to prioritize self-care. Our counselors made a conscious effort to start each meeting with examples and strategies for resilience, which ranged from setting boundaries with all the beeps from our devices to healthy weekend plans. Self-Care Bingo, resilience activities, and videos we share support self-care, demonstrating that health takes precedence over more procedural or logistical matters.

When you accept something, you receive it from someone else. Leadership during the pandemic shed unprecedented light on one of the most essential characteristics of a school leader: vulnerability. No amount of gift cards, Zoom happy hours, or supportive virtual class visits can ever help a leader fully recognize the stress our teachers are under. For me, the more I tried as a leader to do it alone, the more awful I felt. I thought I needed to be it all, do it all, and be available all the time for everyone. That quickly turned into burnout, exhaustion, and a sense of failure that I hadn’t felt in my 20 years in education.

Here is a gentle reminder that I have learned to direct toward myself: You do not know it all. Allowing myself to believe that and release the pressure of being perfect in a pandemic has been not only a lifesaver but necessary to leading and finding a way forward.

Knowing this is one thing, but applying is it another. It’s taken time, but I’ve learned that I need to accept help when it’s offered and ask for it when I need it. Connecting with others on a regular basis has made this easier. During the summer, the intermediate school principal and I committed to walking meetings. This was a great time to process questions and concerns and to exchange feedback.

I’ve also connected with other principals through social media and podcasts: I routinely join a Twitter chat with groups like the Principal Project and Future Ready, follow the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ #PrincipalingInPlace hashtag, read and share comments in a Facebook group, and take some time to listen to podcasts from school leaders, such as Ken Williams, Better Leaders, Better Schools, Dr. Bill Ziegler, and UnearthED School Leadership. I also watch video blogs from leaders like Thomas Murray and Joe Sanfelippo to help me see beyond my immediate circumstances. These routines help me feel more comfortable asking for help—and more comfortable receiving it.

I know that recognizing that I need help will prove useful even as we move past the pandemic. I like to think of it as a season to build resiliency. I will be stronger, and so will the community that I serve.