Thursday, September 3, 2020

As Schools Reopen, Beware These Five Bad Management Approaches

Not all schools are blessed with excellent management teams (a million teachers just rolled their eyes and said, “No kidding.”) But while schools can succeed in spite of bad management in the good times, in times of crisis, bad management can really derail the whole train. Trying to launch a school year during a pandemic with little to no help from state and federal governments will test every school district’s leadership team. Here are the management styles most likely to lead to disaster.

Just Hold Still And Maybe Nobody Will Notice

In some districts, the standard management response to a new crisis or controversial decision is to simply keep everything quiet and under wraps. In this management theory, the actual problem isn’t the real problem—the real problem is the public finding out about what’s going on and then saying things about it, in the news, on social media, or (worst of all) in phone calls to the administrator’s office.

We don’t have to imagine how this would look during current pandemic re-openings. In Paulding County, Georgia, the school district achieved sudden viral status for cramming mostly-not-masked students into crowded halls against CDC recommendations. Administration’s reaction? Clamping down on students for showing the world what is actually going on, and threatening any student (or, allegedly, teacher as well) who posts anything that portrays the school in a “negative light.”

Management that focuses on avoiding bad optics will be disastrous during this Covid-19 autumn. Principals and superintendents who favor this style will feel the urge to hide results for staff or students who test positive. At the very moment when families and staff desperately need those leaders to solve problems, their first impulse will be to hide the problems, instead. So far in 2020, that’s not working well for anybody.

There Is No You In Team

Good school district plans are going to be complicated and filled with building-specific details. It will be impossible to craft these plans without teacher input, and even harder to implement without teacher participation. It will require a team, and some superintendents and principals aren’t very good at the whole team thing.

If your district’s plan was designed by a committee of administrators, it will be loaded with blind spots and problems that teachers could have anticipated. That’s doubly problematic, because every spot that the committee missed will signal to staff that the plan can’t be trusted as a whole.

Staff members know the difference between a leader who really sees them as part of the team and an autocrat who just says the words. Your school’s staff will bring plenty of history back with them when school re-opens, and that will affect how well everyone pulls together. The biggest problem with even benevolent top down management in crisis is that the autocratic leader has to be right 100% of the time. That’s a big ask; if your district has never been built on real teamwork, managers had better figure out how to get it done quickly.

Floating Without A Rudder

For some school leaders, there is no vision beyond “Keep on doing what we’ve always done without rocking the boat.” Most of the time, staff doesn’t necessarily mind this—it gives them the freedom to use their own best judgement and do their job with minimal interference. But whenever there’s a problem, it can be scary to be riding on a driverless bus.

A school leader’s job is to make it possible for teachers and staff to do their very best. That can’t happen if they are managing crisis conditions on their own, particularly if the crisis is completely unlike any ever before encountered. If your school’s plan is, “We’ll just show up and do our thing and hope for the best,” that plan is not going to last past the first hour on the first day.

The only time this will end well will be when somebody with real leadership talent steps up to do the floating administrator’s job.


Over the course of a career, it is easy for school administrators to become firefighters, reactively attacking whatever conflagration just erupted somewhere in the building. But Covid-19 autumn re-opening is going to involve so many fires, all at once, mostly unlike any fires the administrator has ever put out before. This style of manager will be overwhelmed by the end of the first day, and their frantic running back and forth will just lend an air of panic and chaos to the proceedings. (Note: Even worse if they’re a shouter.)

Data Driven

Nothing about how we ended up at this point has anything at all to do with being data driven. Nor are most schools being given any tools that can be used to collect useful data for this re-opening. This means that the data driven administrator will have to either A) make up data, B) use bad data or C) abandon their data-loving management style. None of these options are going to be pretty.

If your administrator can’t make a decision without leaning on a batch of numbers splayed on a spreadsheet and just doesn’t know how to lead based on personal, professional judgment, they will be incapable of making useful decisions during this re-opening.


All of this still applies if your school’s re-opening is going to be virtual.

More note

All of these philosophies come with an overlay of management's emotional approach. In other words, your principal can be a data driven rage addict, or a data driven passive-aggressive twit.

Important note

Really poor administrators will display more than just one of these five styles.

Another note

The plan that your district submitted to the state probably doesn’t have anything to do with any of this. It’s a piece of paperwork meant to satisfy the state’s requirement, and may well have no relationship at all with reality.

The Only Bright Possibility

Many bad administrators are about to out themselves in the weeks ahead (and many very good ones are about to shine, as well). If your administrator turns out to be one of the lemons, don’t just blame Covid-19. Believe the evidence of your eyes and start looking for a way to trade up, fight back, or work around.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. We have been virtual for about 4 weeks minus 1 for the hurricane in Louisiana. Our school year started with a full week of PD where, “how to do virtual learning,” was not mentioned until day 3 or 4. We were told the school would have 10 webcams for the teachers who are working from school and did not opt to teach from home for health reasons. We have over 60 teachers at a school of 1000 students. Leadership has been a real concern of mine for as many years as I’ve taught here. Yes, there’s definitely more than one leadership style under our roof. However, it makes me glad to know that we are not the only ones looking for leaders and finding none.