Answer these 4 Key Questions Now to Lead Your School into the Future
By Mike Zavada | April 28, 2020
The year was 1997 and I was desperate. I had been working as a graduate assistant coach at a Division II school in a remote part of West Virginia and was making the grand sum of $3,600 (plus room, board, graduate school tuition, and the use of a car). So when a coaching change occurred at my alma mater, George Mason University, I jumped at the chance to interview. I desired to be the fourth assistant for the new staff and would perhaps make about 20k per year. “This was my big chance,” I told myself.
In the days leading up to the interview, I researched everything I could about coaching, interviewing, and the new coach on the internet. Coach L happened to be a grizzled veteran of the ACC and other coaching stops. In my extensive research, I learned that Coach L attributed much of his recent staff’s success to a religious keeping of a DayTimer. These were all the rage in the 1990s before we kept our lives on our phones.
That evening, I raced out to the mall, purchased the shiniest mid-level DayTimer I could find, and made sure I filled it with all of the blank premium inserts I could get my hands on that evening. All told, I probably spent five percent of my annual salary on what I was regarding as my way into Division I coaching. I was all in on the DayTimer and pushing my chips to the center of the table so I could get that job.
Nevertheless, in the rush to be relevant, I forgot something very important. The best DayTimers accumulate data, experience, key lessons, completed projects, and most importantly, key relationships captured in the “contacts” section of the book. Since I had just acquired mine days before the interview and since I was only about two to three years into my coaching career, I had a paucity of entries into my book.
I showed up at the interview in my only suit (I can still picture the sleeves being a wee bit short as I was a 42 long, but the discount store only carried regulars). Coach L greeted me and we sat down for about 45 minutes in his office. After a bit about the future of the program, his approach, my background at the school, and the role of the 4th assistant, Coach looked at my DayTimer and asked to see it. He was very impressed that I had one and shared how all his coaches are required to keep one up. But then he said something that made my heart sink. “I know a lot of people who have these. I see a lot of guys walking around with them at recruiting events. But, I also see a lot of guys who just carry these for show and don’t really have much in them. What is yours like, Mike?”
Well, of course, my face turned red and the sweat crept down from my brow. I had no choice but to give him an honest answer. “Coach, I learned that this is how you run your program, so I ran out and got one for the interview. I haven’t had time to fill it.” He graciously respected my honesty and then shared with me the reasons I would not get the job. He said he liked to have guys on his staff who had been head coaches at the high school level, because they knew what it was like to run a program and the pain involved. He said he liked to hire guys who had played at the level they were coaching. Finally, he shared that he hired guys he trusted based on a track record of success regardless of what level they worked. Coach L suggested that I come back in three or four years after having done those things and maybe we could talk again.
Needless to say, I learned a lot about life and leading from that interview. Much of it is applicable to school leaders. I think what I learned is particularly poignant today as school leaders wrap their minds around the future post-COVID-19. Here are the 4 things I think we should ask as we head out of the COVID-19 fog and race to a new normal:
1. What can we authentically add or authentically change in our educational delivery that will be a value increase to our current families and prospective families?
Due to potentially lower enrollment and lower incomes of the families represented in our schools, there will be a temptation to be all things to all people to get more students in our schools. As we saw with the concurrent oil oversupply crisis during the pandemic, our schools will face high supply competition from online delivery and lower demand for our schools. Some schools will strike out into new offerings to meet the needs of a bigger market. If they do so without thinking through their core values and ensuring they have strong infrastructure, they will not likely be effective.
2. Are we spending money on technology in a manner that authentically helps faculty and students connect and that enhances pedagogy, or have we just purchased high-end worksheet storage units?
The DayTimer was a shiny new toy for me in the story, but I really had not spent time learning the nuance of what it fully had to offer me. In the same way, schools that jump onto technologies like Learning Management Platforms to deliver distance learning should invest time and energy as they dive into the platform. While many have jumped into free source items like Google Classroom, I think most will find that these free sources are limiting, come with little support, and do not enhance pedagogy. It is probably wiser to go with a nominally priced firm like EPIC that builds in support and pedagogy.
3. By what means have we authentically reached out and listened to our current and prospective families about their needs going forward?
I thought that I would be giving Coach L what he wanted when I came to the interview with the DayTimer. At the interview, he shared he actually needed more than an inexperienced guy with a shiny toy. If we ask (through well-designed survey instruments and social media queries), we might find that our schools could easily meet the now unnoticed needs of our families, both current and prospective. This would help strengthen our value proposition in ways that would not diminish our missions. Similarly, our schools offer a lot more than pop-up online schools since we have seasoned faculty that have long and deep relationships with families and the community at large. Our schools should double down on those relationships by ensuring our students and parents have ample access to and meaningful time with our faculty whether that comes in person in a few months or from remote if the new normal makes that temporarily impossible.
4. Are we running to authentic practitioners as sources for best practices going forward? If not, who can we run to?
I ran out to the internet to prepare for my interview. What I really needed in the situation, though, was expertise. I should have sought mentoring and counsel from seasoned professionals before I went to the interview. Similarly, there are a lot of resources on the web and through social media that school leaders can go to for information. However, schools and school leaders venturing into new areas of delivery should seek out those who have done it before like seasoned educational advisors. Such folks have years of project experience doing the kinds of things you may be thinking through now. They can help you think through the things you would not have otherwise thought of getting you to your true north more efficiently.
Ultimately, I am glad I did not get that job. If I had, I would not have met my wife. I also would not have had the opportunity to teach and live in the wonderful communities I have enjoyed. Furthermore, it excites me to be able to serve you and the students you serve. We can team together to get through this pandemic and the economic side effects. Ultimately, we will come out of this with better data, relationships, and experience for our new, shiny virtual DayTimers.
Michael Zavada (@MikeZavada) has spent the last 20 years in schools, the better part of that in school leadership roles. He is also a writer and the Founder and Chief Strategist at Roundtable Educational Consulting. Mike resides in San Antonio, TX with his wife and three kids, where he enjoys biking, fishing, reading, and coaching hoops.