Undercurrents, Riptides, and Swells: Navigating the Seas of School Leadership

by | Oct 25, 2023 | 0 comments

10 min read

“Do you have a minute?”

School leaders make countless decisions every day, and every decision impacts something or someone. Great leaders are very aware and sensitive to this truth because they understand that even the most benign decision may have undesirable and unintended consequences. For this reason, effective school leaders develop the ability to zoom out from a situation so that they can see the bigger picture before making a decision, answering a question, or working to solve a problem. 

The skill to step back, be patient, and not respond too quickly is definitely one that every school leader needs as they walk the halls of their school on any given day. As former principals ourselves, we can vividly remember the number of times that members of our school community would approach us with this simple question: “Do you have a minute?” We’re fairly certain that this question ranks as the most commonly asked question to school leaders. 

Every time those words are uttered, a request, an idea, a complaint, or an issue usually follows. That’s the nature of schools and the demands that get placed on school principals. In many ways, though, that’s also the joy of the position; within every question, every minute, lies an opportunity. As school leaders, we can do so many wonderful things through the decisions we make. We can open doors that were once shut, we can provide opportunities that may not have existed, and we even create possibilities that help people dream big.   

As school leaders, it’s essential to recognize the dynamic nature of leadership and the challenges that come with it. Just like the vast ocean, school leadership can be compared to various elements such as undercurrents, riptides, and swells. Each one offers valuable insights into our journey as educational leaders. From the decision you must make in a moment’s notice to the challenges that distract your efforts to the unforeseen ups-and-down of the ride, we must always set sail for the best possible outcomes for our students. Let’s dive even deeper into uncharted waters.

The Undercurrents of Decision-Making

Two of Joe’s sons are ocean lifeguards in the beautiful town of Fenwick, Delaware. As lifeguards, they’re trained to see issues before they develop into real problems. The ocean is as powerful and deadly as it is beautiful. And much like the unseen undercurrents that shape the movement of the ocean, every decision a school leader makes creates ripples that impact the staff, the students, and, ultimately, the direction of the school. 

Whether it’s deciding who will serve on the instructional leadership team or implementing a new bathroom policy, each action sends waves through the school’s ecosystem. It’s crucial for school leaders to be mindful of how their decisions create undercurrents. Each undercurrent we generate changes our school community in ways that we may not even recognize at first

School leaders must never underestimate the profound influence that they wield and the weight of their decisions, even quick one-minute discussions in the hall or office. Every choice, every word, sends ripples throughout the school community. These ripples shape the culture, morale, and even the brand of the school as a place to work and learn. 

Like ocean lifeguards, who must be vigilant in identifying potential dangers, school leaders must be mindful of the far-reaching consequences of their actions, as they have the power to either enhance or hinder the growth and well-being of staff and students.

3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Undercurrents of Their Decisions:

As we navigate these undercurrents, we must prioritize transparency, collaboration, and thoughtful consideration of minute-to-minute decisions to ensure that our actions propel our schools in the right direction and don’t alter the vision that we’ve established for success. We suggest asking these three questions whenever a “quick” decision comes your way

    1. Who else should be included in this conversation before I make a decision about this item? Is this my decision to make, or are others more involved in this work?

    2. How fast does this decision need to be made? Is speed important or is thoughtfulness the key?

    3. What else should we consider? Are there alternatives to our current program, process, or policy?


    Caught in the Riptides

    Riptides, notorious for their powerful currents, can swiftly pull swimmers away from shore. They are a constant threat and commonly can be found on the East, West, and Gulf Coasts. Rips, as they’re often referred to, can be likened to the challenges and distractions that divert school leaders from their educational vision, mission, and core values. As educational leaders, we can find ourselves caught in a metaphorical riptide–situations that threaten to pull us away from our core values and previously set objectives. 

    One of the most recent rips that we can think of and cannot hide from is the politicization of education. Here’s what that means for school leaders: To politicize something is to focus on how to play it for an advantage in the pursuit of power and prestige. Although education is highly political, it doesn’t mean that it has to be politicized; however, this is what has occurred in many school communities in America. 

    In a highly politicized local school community, school leaders may find themselves pulled in different directions and distracted from their core educational values due to external pressures to conform to certain political ideologies or agendas. This can lead to decisions and policies that place political considerations first over the best interests of students and the quality of the education that we provide them. 

    We could easily play the game, Name that Riptide, to identify what is threatening our success this year. These could include budget constraints, external community pressures, policy changes, staff shortages, and more. It’s vital to recognize these distractors as riptides so that we can develop strategies to navigate them effectively. Otherwise, they pull us out to sea rather than allowing us to stay the course. By anchoring ourselves to our educational compass–our vision, mission, and core values–we demonstrate resilience in the face of conflicting priorities.

    3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Riptides that Can Take Us Off Course:

    As we identify and recognize the riptides within our schools and systems, we must prioritize and solidify our vision, mission, and core values. These three areas provide the solid foundation necessary for leaders to chart their true north

    1. What are some common “riptides” affecting your school community that can divert you and your team from their core values? How can you and your team best identify these challenges?

    2. Which recent riptide distracted you from your goals, and what can you do differently in the future when a riptide seems to take hold?

    3. How can you communicate your vision, mission, and core values in a way that deters people from even attempting to alter your direction?


    Riding the Swells of Adversity

    The third oceanic element that we want to dive into is the swells. Just as experienced sailors navigate the swells and waves of a rough sea, educational leaders must handle challenges and adversity with skill and precision. Swells represent the highs and lows that inevitably come with the educational territory. Every year, school leaders will face a variety of issues. We’ve mentioned a few already–budget cuts, managing a variety of different conflicts, adapting to new educational initiatives, special education policy changes, etc.–all can be compared to rolling on a stormy sea. 

    Let’s consider technology integration into the classroom, as an example. This can be an ongoing challenge, especially with the rapid evolution of the available tools to support teaching and learning. One recent swell is the advancement of artificial intelligence. As AI becomes more accessible and easier to use, it poses a number of threats to how students can gather and present information, including inaccurate information and the opportunity to cheat. 

    Albeit scary for teachers and school leaders, we must navigate the use of ChatGPT, and similar AI tools, rather than pretending that we can avoid them. We appreciate Wharton Professor Ethan Mollick who pivoted to requiring his students to use ChatGPT in his class rather than penalizing them for its use. As Professor Mollick says, using AI effectively is an “emerging skill.” This is a great example of “riding” the swell rather than being pummeled by it. 

    With the right mindset, effective school leaders view these swells as opportunities for increased collaboration, professional growth, and even innovation–ultimately, steering the school community toward calmer waters. By understanding that change is inevitable, school leaders can guide their schools through even the most tumultuous ups and downs.


    3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Swells of Adversity:

    As we identify and recognize swells, it’s vital that the school leader navigate them well by focusing on the broader context and not just the particular issue at hand. The swell can beat against the boat or we can use it to create momentum in our already established direction. 

    1. What are some examples of “swells” in your school that you are currently facing?

    2. What does it look like to embrace one or more of the swells you’ve identified, rather than trying to avoid them?

    3. Who on the team can become an expert in the swell so that we understand what it means and what the future will look like when it hits?


    The High Seas of Leadership

    In the realm of school leadership, drawing parallels with some of the toughest oceanic elements provides us with valuable perspectives. As a seasoned captain navigates the seas with skill and intuition, educational leaders must also chart a course that recognizes the power of their decisions and the undercurrents they create, the potential of being caught riptides, and the ability to ride the swells of adversity. 

    Our journey as school leaders is filled with intricate dynamics. Every decision, every challenge, and every triumph shapes the future of our students and our communities. 

    It’s our job to evaluate our decision-making process, avoid the distractions that take us off our path, and embrace challenges as opportunities to enhance our efforts. Great school leaders take advantage of the conflicts associated with school improvement rather than allowing the storms that arise to capsize the ship. 

    As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

    We can’t wait to hear from you. 

    Joe & T.J.



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