Close the Book on this School Year in Style: The Definitive Four Strategies that Every Principal Must Master To Finish with Peak Performance

by | May 9, 2021 | 0 comments

11 min read

Finish Strong: Make May Memorable

In schools, the month of May can be likened to grade-5 whitewater rafting conditions—large waves, volumes-upon-volumes of water, the possibility of large rocks and other hazards, and the nearing of a large drop off at any point. Each obstacle requires precise maneuvering. The only quality of May that is similar to other months in the school year is its length. That said, we can’t just ride the wave, hoping or expecting for it to be a great finale. School leaders need to explicitly and intentionally end the school year strong, and specific to a year of COVID, on a higher, brighter, and better note than the way we started.

One of Our Favorite Quotes About Finishing Strong Comes from Robin Sharma

One incredible quote that we appreciate comes from Robin Sharma, best selling author of The World-Changer’s Manifesto. Its simplicity sums up the goal of this post: “Starting strong is good. Finishing strong is epic.” The issue is that May will challenge the greatest of principals and will leave many of our most well-intentioned leaders with their heads hung low in defeat. We’re excited to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Executive Functioning Skills for School Principals

The month of May demands a highly effective principal leader with excellent executive functioning skills. Time management is crucial, maintaining momentum is essential, relentless communication is a must, and connecting with staff is imperative. Throughout the month, school administrators are planning and delivering a variety of year-end culminating events, completing both formative and summative observations, ensuring that we maintain high engagement and strong classroom instruction, and orchestrating the completion of multiple standardized assessments. There is simply not enough month compared to the work.

To complicate matters, let’s add what appeared at first to be one of those insurmountable grade-5 white water conditions–Covid19–which showed itself like a waterfall that has a turbulent plunge pool at the bottom ready to devour you. Now, with the year coming to a close, schools are considering any of the following this summer:

  • Grade level reading exposure
  • Empowering families to support summer learning
  • Summer learning opportunities from accelerated learning academies to tutoring
  • Social and emotional support
  • The implications of retention 
  • Filling gaps during 21/22

The unique challenge for school leaders within this hectic environment is that we must also finish the current school year strong, bringing everyone to their highest level of performance before students, and then teachers, take off for the summer. As you work through these final weeks and hours, consider Kahneman’s peak-end rule: “The way an experience ends determines the happiness we ascribe to it.” This has implications for all of our year-end events, activities, and meetings, and it sets the tone for the students and the faculty for next school year. Ending this year strong is the single greatest way to starting summer programs and beginning the upcoming school year right.

Four Strategies that Any Principal Can Employ for End-of-Year Peak Performance

Stay Connected to Know What’s Going On

Despite being an overall good practice, being visible to connect with the staff and students during the last month of school is critical. We promote three primary ways for administrators to move throughout the building with purpose:

  1. Teacher observations: Arguably the vast majority of observations should be done, but this is also a great time to have end of year conferences. Be sure to go to the teacher’s room to have the conference. This practice not only creates a comfortable environment for the teacher, but it creates an opportunity for you to get out of your office. 
  2. Walkthroughs: These short classroom visits–12 to 17 minutes each–should be done till the end of the school year. The end of the school year should be filled with a lot of fun activities, even during Covid, but these activities should not come at the expense of learning or classroom instruction. It’s critical to use time at the end of the school year wisely, and being in classrooms is always a good use of time. 
  3. Management by Walking Around: This is great practice to use so that you can touch base, connect, and see all of the operational functions of the school. The primary purpose of MBWA is for you to learn about and improve the systems in your school.  

Teachers and students should feel your presence in a positive and supportive way. Not only will you continue to keep your finger on the “pulse” of the climate, but it also sets the tone that instruction is still the priority. 

May poses many obstacles that can increase frustration, which can end the year with a negative vibe. That’s the opposite of what you want. Stay connected by keeping the routines of being in classrooms and halls (or virtually on Zoom or Teams), by participating in PLCs, and by generally being available. 

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

How will you structure your calendar to get you into classrooms, both in-person and remote? Remember, there are times of the day that best match productivity for certain tasks. Try to organize your day in a way that maximizes your effectiveness and still reaches your visibility goal. 

Reinforce Consistency to Ensure Quality Instruction

Despite all the May-hem, the primary focus should always be on teaching and learning. One way to ensure a smooth May is by following the routines that have been in place all year that reinforce quality instruction and student engagement. If learning remains the primary focus, and all of your faculty members embrace this mentality and work together to ensure a strong finish, the likelihood of success is much greater. 

This year presents another unique challenge because of the various modalities that are being used for learning. Schools are working to understand the impact of Covid19 and the potential learning loss. Don’t miss what Richard Elmore says about that. Whether it is a slide, a couple months of lost learning, or a slowdown, a couple weeks of lost learning, schools must finish the year strong and also find ways to understand and determine how much the students have and haven’t learned throughout the school year. 

Students can make significant gains this time of year, so using every second of the day is vital. School’s that understand this concept–end-of-year gains–see the month of May and early June as “time is running out.” This means that we’re in full engagement mode. Instead of hanging on for dear life as the rocks and waves pummel the boat, navigate with a clear focus on getting to the end with success in mind. We can’t slow down when the waters get rough, we need to increase our response rate for the sake of success or failure.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What assessments will you use to determine what students have learned this year? And, how will you use that data to inform summer programming and learning in the fall? These assessments can range from in-house assessments to standardized assessments. 

Over-Communicate to Inform the School Community

The key here is to provide ongoing and routine communication on all available platforms. That being said, staff should be informed through one primary tool. A weekly principal’s memo is a tried and true method that works amazingly well. The memo should be organized  in such a way that is informative, uplifting, and reinforcing of key practice and ideas.

It’s incredible to think about all of the information that schools communicate, but as the school year wraps up there are several pieces of information that also help end the year smoothly. Daily and weekly schedules with activities, events, and reminders that are purposeful and valuable should be sent each week, ahead of time. This information should complement the school’s online master calendar, and when applicable, should also identify key people associated with the event. This lets everyone know exactly what is going on so that folks aren’t left with any uncertainty, including staff, students, and families. 

Because Covid has created an enormous amount of uncertainty, over-communication will also reassure people in terms of what to expect and when. Especially if you are offering various programs throughout the summer to support learning, communicating ahead of time is a key way to put people at ease about what’s happening and where they fit into the work. Clear communication should be the goal throughout the year, but in May, with so much happening, it needs to be abundantly clear. 

Lastly, this communication effort needs to come in many forms—morning announcements, website notifications, memos, emails, etc. The school itself and the main office need to be the lighthouse in the storm, directing the way to calmer waters.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What is your system for collecting all of the pertinent information from key people in your school so that you can put together a single message (put out in multiple places)? Pro Tip: Always keep your main office secretary in the loop about everything–even the stuff you don’t think they need to know. They are a primary connection to the community and can create a very receptive environment for staff and families. 

Celebrate Often to Sincerely Offer Praise

This is the most important suggestion for finishing May on a high—celebrate. Find appropriate times to celebrate and recognize staff and students in meaningful and purposeful ways. Teacher appreciation week is a great way to launch May and to maintain a month of recognition, positive reinforcement, and the desire to highlight the “bright spots.” 

Make May into an all encompassing Staff Appreciation Month. May is the month to make your school come alive through recognition and the positive story that you have to tell. Strive to create an energetic and warm environment. Again, this is a strategy that can be used year-round, but May needs to be the icing on the cake. Covid definitely places some limitations on what can be done to celebrate, however, there are still ample opportunities to lift the work that you school is proud to share. It’s also a reminder that your school has a brand, and May can make or break how people feel about it. 

Teachers have been working tireless hours doing what they can for their students and celebrating is a great way to demonstrate that you recognize those efforts. People need to leave for the summer thinking that they have a great place to return to in August. It is very easy to end the school year abruptly with confusion and dismay because of a disorganized hectic month so make May special as a positive reflection of all of the good that has happened this year. If you’re not intentional, we warn, people will remember the worst parts, not the best.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What opportunities do you have to offer sincere praise and recognition for your staff–individually and publicly? Be strategic with celebrations as often and as authentic as possible. Make May memorable by making it fun and commemorative.

Leaders need to be mindful of the peak-end rule. May is both the peak and the end of the school year, which will be what people remember as they head into the summer and beyond. The month of May has implications for students learning, teacher satisfaction, the way you start next year, and even the overall brand of your school. Don’t miss this important period of time to reinforce all of the great work and positive reasons to be an educator . 

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

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TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 


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