How I Navigate the Principal’s Gambit to Keep Everyone on the Board

A few years ago, I was asked to sit on a school board. It was a nice thing to do, to be sure, but also rather daunting. A whole host of special interests swirled around the school, several of which I had to oversee.

I have a new principal at my school, who recently told me that I had to send out an email to all of my students about the importance of attendance. I started thinking about how I would explain this new policy to them and this is what I came up with:

This is not a game of checkers. It’s chess.

This was the advice of Wayne Greer, an experienced director and mentor, when I joined the ranks of directors in the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t explain what his advice meant or in what situations I should apply it, but over time I understood what he meant. He subtly reminded me that quick decisions or the path of least resistance does not bode well.

Last year was a year of intense failure. The decisions the directors had to make were unprecedented. We are called to take the helm of ships in a vast sea of change. As we prepare to reopen our schools in the fall, many of us use this time to reflect on how we have grown and what aspects of what we have learned should be carried into the next year. In some cases, this means that our teachers travel with their students from class to class. In other cases, I move teachers down a grade because they know what skills students need to develop over the next two years and can work with those students in 2022.

In chess, you have to think several moves ahead. Chess is about anticipating challenges and counter moves. Chess is a matter of patience.

Gambit Target

In chess, a gambit is the sacrifice of a piece at the beginning of a game. The goal of the gambit is to gain an advantage in terms of space or time. This opens up the board or allows stronger pieces to influence the game. During what many would call the off-season of education, school leaders quietly sacrifice part of their summer to recruit new staff, plan for future professional development, and develop a strategy that sets the tone for the rest of the year.

In her book Unleashing the Imagination, Maxine Green describes the balancing act that educators face when dealing with the stormy sea of change in the profession. School leaders must recognize and manage the policies that guide our work and the indicators that flow from them.

Invisible Empire

Our children and teachers are not pawns. In chess, the pieces on the board compete to defend an invisible kingdom. Teachers and policy makers need to understand this. Behind the results and the numbers are real kids, dedicated teachers and hopeful parents.

Let us never lose sight of the children, families and communities we serve, protect and represent. The context of the school is equally important. When we understand the trauma of homelessness, addiction and domestic violence, we can also begin to see our schools as beacons for families in need.

The global pandemic has had a real economic impact on our community. Job losses due to plant closures and downsizing are having a tangible effect. There have been a number of violent incidents in Atlanta this summer. There have been shootings, robberies and an increase in theft. In schools, including the one I run, teachers’ cars have been stolen while they were inside teaching the children of the community. The dangers of our society are visible every day in the hallways and classrooms of our schools.

Maxine Green reminds educators, administrators and district leaders to stop decontextualizing that distorts so much. This ongoing decontextualization resurfaces when we look at the achievement gap. Data analysis is an important part of the principal’s job in reviewing data from his or her school. What methods don’t work? What initiatives should we sacrifice in order to focus our energy on the most important priorities? School leaders are trying to figure out what they need to do to improve student outcomes.

Software and technology are purchased en masse, but the reality is that Title I funding does not change the context of our schools. Learning tools, document cameras and interactive whiteboards do not help our children sleep safely in the back seat of cars. There is much to be done this year to deal with the traumas that our children and families have experienced this year. Education cannot continue to look for simple answers to our most complex problems.

Kotow syndrome

In chess, there is a phenomenon called Kotov’s syndrome. This is the case when a chess player thinks about a move for a long time and cannot find a solution, and then, when time is up, makes a bad move. Perhaps the most important summer assignment for a principal is the school’s staff.

Reviewing resumes, interviewing candidates, and thinking about the role they will play in the success of your school is a very responsible task. A team is only as good as its players. Hiring an effective teacher may take a week, but eliminating an ineffective teacher may take years.

With the start of the new school year approaching every day, school superintendents with open positions may face the Kotow syndrome, having to debate multiple candidates and facing the dilemma of losing candidates to other districts. The ability to be incisive yet thorough in the interview process helps to avoid the Kotov syndrome in hiring. I also involve members of my management team in the interview process to vet candidates.

I have been teaching chess to a small group of students every year since 2002. This game helps them develop their critical thinking skills, delay gratification, and become more strategic in their lives off the board. When they learn chess in school, most of them teach their siblings or their parents chess – because the best way to reinforce learning is to teach it.

When you teach students about the types of gambits, you help them understand the possibilities that come with sacrifice. Sacrifices are part of life and success in chess. School leaders make great sacrifices to maintain continuity of learning and keep our communities safe. While they should be commended for keeping the schools afloat this year, most of them would not have turned down a well-deserved vacation.

This fall, we have to sacrifice some pieces from our chessboard. Let us not get involved in too many initiatives that we cannot successfully support. We should have thought about how to take some of the pieces out of the picture, streamline our work and move forward with our key initiatives to develop, engage and thrive in our communities. The Director’s Gambit concept involves simplifying our work to move forward with greater flexibility and efficiency in management.


About the Author: Prateek

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