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It’s not a game

Some say the best way to train principals is by telling them what to do. New York City is going a different route--training principals to think, using computer simulated events.

7 min read


It's not a game


Preparing new school leaders and further developing those who’ve already found roles in administration is a broad task. There’s no single tool or approach that covers everything. The responsibilities of school leaders are varied and the decisions they make affect different constituencies with sometimes competing interests. As a result, it’s impossible to train new and aspiring leaders how to respond to every specific challenge they may face in the course of their careers.

For the basics–and many of the not-so-basic elements of leadership development for potential school leaders –we use a couple different models. One is a 10-session institute for assistant principals who we believe are on the cusp of becoming principals. That includes four hours per month in person, and a fair amount of work on the outside before they come to class. The other, run in conjunction with the Bank Street College of Education, is LEAP, our School Building Leader Certification program. in LEAP, students attend a five-week summer institute, followed by weekly classes during the school year.  Our office also provides first-year coaching to new principals.

As we prepare future principals and current administrators for some of the more complex challenges they will face–those in which there may be many things happening at once, or in which there is no single right answer–we ask our leaders to participate in computer simulations, from Ed Leadership SIMS.

Finding Collaborative Solutions to Complex Problems

Our standard process for using simulations is to have a couple of facilitators guide a group of people through the sim, with the option to follow up later and retake the simulation individually. This model allows us to bring together people who don’t know each other well or pair people with existing relationships, such as a mentor principal and their mentee, and build a robust dialogue during the sim regarding the choices to be made.

Encouraging principals to share their experiences with the people they’re mentoring is a central theme of all our programs. We’ve noticed in one-on-one sessions that people may be somewhat careful about what they say. When we work with the simulations in a larger group, however, people seem to open up more. They watch a scenario happening to “other people” that are a part of the simulation, and they feel more free to share their own experiences.

One of our main goals with these simulations is to get participants to start thinking about how they would react in certain situations. To that end, our favorite kind of simulations include a number of issues happening at the same time, forcing participants to make choices about what to deal with first to satisfy different stakeholders. That resonates with us because school leaders are making choices about what to prioritize every day. If you don’t become acclimated to the idea that you’re going to have to make choices with a lot of other things happening at the same time, then you won’t end up being a very effective school leader.

The Spring Planning Scenario

One simulation that we’ve developed to acclimate our principals to handling multiple competing decision points is our spring planning scenario. In the spring, school leaders have lots of different things happening at the same time. They have to deal with the present-day tasks of running a school, along with planning for the end of the school year and for the next school year. Additionally, issues that have been brewing throughout the school year tend to come to a head in the spring, and the ways leaders address them can have a big impact on how well the school year ends. It’s a very complicated time for a principal.

To help them think through those issues, we have a simulation that takes new principals through the last 10 weeks of the year, as they are actually going through it themselves. This gives them an opportunity to discuss the various challenges they encounter, share how they’re approaching them and, hopefully, learn from the experiences and perspectives of one another and their mentors.

A Safe Way to Learn About School Safety

When we use simulations in which more than one thing is going on at the same time, we find that leaders interpret certain events and people in different ways. For example, we’ve used some simulations that involved school safety issues. In those cases, safety has always been paramount, of course, but what is interesting is how people choose to go about getting the safety issues resolved. Some people take a strictly top-down method, while others focus more on team-building and developing a common approach.

Many principals often operate in situations where they can feel isolated. When you have them in a large group and they’re doing a sim together, however, they realize they are not alone and they are not the only one who can think of solutions. They also realize the other people in the room do what they do and face the same types of challenges.  From our perspective, that’s a huge positive because, when they realize they have commonalities with the people around them in the exercise, they’re able to open up more during the simulations and in the discussions afterwards. These discussions can be very revealing about the challenges they face, but it can also help principals feel less isolated. This is especially important in a system as large as New York City, where we have 1,800 schools and serve 1.1 million school children.   

Exploring Issues of Racial Equity

One area in which we haven’t had an opportunity to use simulations, but are eager to do so, is around issues of racial equity. It’s a prominent area of concern for our new chancellor and for our system as a whole. Getting new leaders to think through those issues is going to be important, so too is getting more experienced principals to expand their capacity to address them.

Many of the situations that involve a principal in these issues would be well-suited for a sim. They involve encounters with students, teachers, parents, and community stakeholders. These are also issues people find difficult to talk about, but can benefit from a range of experiences and perspectives.

Simulations could really help in terms of hashing those issues out, and providing an opportunity to brainstorm as a group to come up with approaches. This is a thorny area where school leaders haven’t received a lot of training in the past, so simulations could play a valuable role here.

Not a Game

The biggest challenge we’ve experienced in the use of sims so far is getting other people within our school system to see the value. It’s taken some advocacy on our part, and there are still some who think that the best way to train principals is by telling them what to do. Some people think simulations are too similar to games. I see simulations as a tool for training leaders without the risks that come when actual students and schools are involved, so I will continue advocating for training school leaders by encouraging them to think through problems for themselves with the support of their enthusiastic colleagues.

Larry Woodbridge is the executive director of principal preparation programs in the New York City Department of Education. He can be reached at [email protected].


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