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Principals: What you can do now to make next school year great

By March 5, 2021No Comments

Back in the day, when I was just starting out as a new principal, I was told by my supervisor to work three months in advance. I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but quickly realized that if you don’t plan your leadership work three months in advance to control the things you can control, then the many things you can’t control will get in the way of accomplishing anything.

As an example, in early August, when school was starting, I was already thinking about the professional learning we would offer to staff in late October, and gathering input and support from our teachers, based on the needs of our students.  If I had waited until October to start this work, the agenda for our PD day risked becoming a time-filler focused on isolated “in the moment” issues rather than the meaningful, collaboratively developed professional experience the staff deserved.

Because of all the changes we’ve all experienced in the last year, I’m going to literally double down on my mentor’s advice for the 2021–22 school year: Start planning six months ahead. In other words, right now. Here are some tips:

  • Not everything about the past year has been negative—many schools found a few bright spots while working through the pandemic challenges. So start with an  asset-based mindset and make a list of all the things that went well for students, staff, and/or parents. As an example, I’ve heard from many school leaders that  parent participation rates for teacher conferences increased over the last year due to the ability of parents to use Zoom and not have to take time off work to attend conferences. Consider what teachers and students have gained from virtual learning. What are the best practices from this experience that you want to take forward, even when you return to in-person learning?
  • Hopefully, you’ve come up with quite a few bright spots. Now winnow your good-things list into items that you want to continue in the new school year.
  • Since you probably don’t yet have absolute certainty about whether the coming school year will begin face-to-face, virtual, or hybrid, you’re going to have to plan for multiple learning environments. In each environment, think about what your students will need to be successful. How about staff and parents? Which aspects of instruction can remain consistent in any model; which require simple adjustments from one model to the next; and which need to be substantially different? Getting some clarity now about what will be expected will help you, your teachers, your support staff, and your students succeed, regardless of what school “looks like” next year.
  • Talk to all your constituencies: teachers, parents, support staff, students, community partners. This can be done informally or through small focus groups. Find out what they need. Ask them what they’ve learned in the last year about teaching, learning, and school—and what they wished they knew then that will help them now and in the future
  • Lastly, share your ideas with your school leadership team and ask them to help you develop a plan. Be clear about the “why” of your plan. It’s much easier to cultivate momentum when people understand the purpose of what you’re asking them to do. Brainstorm a picture of success; make it visible so everyone knows what the goal is. Outline the steps everyone will take to advance the plan and be sure each person involved knows their role in seeing the plan to success. Get others to take on various aspects of the plan and begin to implement it.

The recent news on vaccination rates and availability looks positive, and I think we’re all hoping for a more “normal” start to the next school year. But we also know that every school year brings its own set of unexpected challenges, large and small. The more you can plan now, the better able you and your team will be to respond quickly and calmly to those complexities, and retain your focus on delivering great learning experiences for all your students.

Have a question about planning for the future, managing change within your school, or helping staff see the “why” behind your activities and initiatives? Post a question in the comments below or email me directly at

Kent Davis is the associate director of learning services at McREL International. Before joining McREL, Kent was a school principal and district administrator for more than 20 years.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.