Each year, new recommendations are handed down to schools.
Recommendations usually originate from a government entity (whether it be the local, state, or federal level) and cover a wide range of topics including standardized curriculums, state assessments, budgeting guidelines, safety standards, and nutritional requirements.
Although recommendations are defined as "suggestions as to the best course of action," many educational leaders don't treat recommendations as such.
They treat recommendations as gospel.
Leaders who immediately enact guidance without understanding their ramifications create a cycle of dysfunction: Building leaders demand staff quickly implement new initiatives, leading to overwhelmed employees scrambling to follow demands, leading to students learning in adverse conditions, leading to parents who are angry at the school.
And just when a building has one recommendation figured out, another comes along. The more cycles that occur, the further morale tumbles and culture deteriorates.
It doesn't need to be this way.
The longer I have been in school leadership, the more I have witnessed the bureaucratic world of public education. As a teacher I was somewhat protected from the oversight that hinders our profession. But now as a superintendent, I have a first-hand look at the litany of policies schools are expected to follow and the endless paperwork districts are asked to complete.
As leaders, we must protect our employees from administrative burdens so they can focus on completing their jobs at high levels. When staff have questions about regulations, leaders should encourage staff to trust their gut and do what is best for kids. In the meantime, leaders can search for answers and provide staff with guidance at a later time.
"Allow staff to trust their gut? You're just asking for trouble!" First, if you can't trust staff to make wise decisions, you probably hired the wrong staff. Second, as much as school leaders love to freak out about "rules," I have yet to see administrators get fired because they ignored the Healthy Kids Act by allowing students to eat candy or broke FERPA law by posting pictures of students on social media.
Unfortunately, too many school leaders get caught up in what the “state” thinks. Rather than do what is best for their school, they focus on compliance to please lawmakers in a far-away city. When leaders look at every situation through a compliance lens, this mindset trickles down into all employees in the organization.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting leaders should ignore recommendations. Those who stubbornly disregard every bit of governance don't fare well in this profession. Instead, leaders must monitor their reaction to recommendations and realize that staff will feed off their response.
One example when leaders were asked to interpret recommendations came during the summer of 2020.
If you live anywhere in the northern half of the United States you realize snow days are a part of school culture. Snow days have been around forever and - for many students and educators - are one of the "perks" of living in the North. For students, snow days are seen as a chance to play outside (or Fortnite) and for teachers, snow days are seen as a much-needed mental health day during a grueling stretch of winter months.
But with the proliferation of access to virtual learning as a result of the COVID pandemic, many states recommended districts treat snow days as virtual learning days, asking schools to complete a day of learning when weather prohibits access to the physical classroom.
In some cases, school leaders heard the guidance and promptly declared, "No more snow days!" This knee-jerk reaction created quite a stir in many school districts. Staff - many of whom hadn't even returned from summer break - were told, "Get those virtual lessons ready" adding another expectation to their plate during an already-chaotic year.
In other situations, school leaders calmly interpreted the suggestions. Realizing the guidance gave districts flexibility, leaders went to staff asking for feedback on what transitioning from snow days to virtual learning might look like. Following these discussions, some districts followed the recommendations, while others opted to continue snow days as normal.
Leaders who acknowledge guidance while also considering their local implications do wonders for school culture.
In The Principled Principal, Jeffrey Zoul and Anthony McConnel suggest, "The leader’s voice should never be the voice raising the level of stress and anxiety. Some people adhere to the faulty belief that strong leaders are people who discover a crisis and then run around yelling to solve the problem. Sadly, leaders who believe this way often end up creating a crisis when one doesn't exist."
Leaders, stop creating crises when they don't exist.
The next time a recommendation is handed down, don't jump to conclusions. Instead, determine what is feasible in your setting.