Navigating Educational Riptides: 3 Strategies for School Leaders

by | Apr 9, 2024 | 0 comments

9 min read

Effectively navigating the high seas of leadership requires a seasoned leader who can manage high-pressure situations where quick and decisive decision-making is necessary for the well-being of their schools. The savvy and wise leader is attuned to the school and navigates the waters like a seasoned captain. As we introduced Brian in a previous post, we indicated that he was in his third year; he was learning and feeling his impact and the undercurrents of his decisions. A critical first step in becoming a great leader is knowing how big the waves are that you’re making, good or bad. Yet, not all rough seas that we experience are generated or even within the control of the leader. Worse yet, many decisions cannot even be avoided, and if you struggle against them, the situation is likely to only get worse. 

The ocean has wicked currents that are essentially channels of water that can pull a person completely into deeper, dangerous conditions. In fact, the United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on our nation’s beaches exceeds 100. What’s fascinating about riptides is that they are commonly found near the shoreline, where people feel safe; yet, an unknowing or unassuming beachgoer can quickly find themselves getting pulled way out into the ocean. Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards and are referred to as “drowning machines.” And interestingly, you can’t fight your way out of a riptide; you have to swim with the current until you can find an exit. Tell that to someone who feels like they’re being pulled into shark-infested waters. Yikes! 

Our goal isn’t to be overly dramatic or suggest that leaders need to walk around with life rafts. First, that would be weird, and second, a liferaft isn’t a very useful item to have in a school. But, similar to the perils of ocean riptides, the educational challenges that we encounter have the potential to be detrimental, significantly diverting a leader and a school from their intended course.

Thinking back to Brian, as he becomes more perceptive and mindful of his decisions, he must also be aware of the riptides that seemingly come out of nowhere and can completely pull him and the school in the wrong direction. Consider for a moment the narrow definitions and measures used to account for student achievement and school success that are used by most communities. Very often, it is a one-sided equation–over-emphasis on standardized testing that casually overlooks many of the successes that a school is achieving. Not only does this taint the public’s perception of the school, but with enough pressure, it can force a school to abandon certain initiatives to double down on raising test scores.  

Principal Brian was, in fact, impacted by this very scenario. He initiated a robust student-centered activity period that emphasized social and cultural awareness, which included club meetings and student government to hold various student-led events. Unfortunately, this effort was viewed as nonessential and unimpactful toward student growth, causing the school to change course. The following semester, the activity periods were turned into study periods and test-prep sessions to improve student performance on standardized assessments.

Please don’t think we’re opposed to strong performance on assessments or efforts to ensure that our students are learning each and every day. Rather, it’s the single, convenient measures used to drive agendas and over-politicized change that fail to account for some of the incredible work being done by phenomenal educators. Phew! We said it. 

The problem with Brian’s scenario is that the riptide of test score accountability pulled the school away from something that had major benefits for young people. The riptide itself was probably unavoidable, but fighting against it was. As you’ll see in the following piece, Brian should have leaned into the riptide, held onto the activity period, and stayed the course for calmer waters. 

3 Strategies for Working Through the Riptide

We’ve already said it, but it’s worth repeating: you can’t fight rip currents. In a recent blog, we mentioned the game, Name that Riptide, as a means of pinpointing the factors that pose a threat to our success this year. We identified a few that are common:

  • budget constraints
  • external community pressures
  • policy changes
  • staff shortages 
  • lack of resources

We could list more, but you get the point and could probably add a few of your own. It’s vital to understand that these issues act as riptides; we need strategies to navigate them effectively rather than trying to avoid them and allow them to take us out to sea. This is crucial because leaders can survive any given rip as long as they have tools. That said, let’s look at the best 3 ways to navigate riptides as an educational leader. 

#1 — Open Communication

We know what you’re thinking: open communication is a very common recommendation that’s become trite. That said, it’s still true and unfortunately, many leaders still get it wrong. Don’t confuse more communication with better communication. We stress effective, open communication because misinformation or, worse yet, a lack of communication are two powerful riptides that can pull people in the wrong direction. 

How to build a culture of open communication:

  • Be transparent. Transparency is about sharing relevant information with key stakeholders. This sounds easy, but many school leaders struggle with transparency because it requires vulnerability and a willingness to share challenges, mistakes, and uncertainties. The last thing a leader wants to do is reveal information that could make them appear incompetent, undermining their authority. Done skillfully, though, the leader will build trust and unite the community. Brian could have been more transparent about the activity period’s benefits, working on adding the study sessions rather than replacing the school’s initiative. 

#2 — Continuous Improvement

Too often, the negative “we’ve done that before” mentality can create serious riptides within any organization, literally dividing a staff. If we’re being totally fair, the sentiment is not completely wrong, but that’s because the problems and challenges remain the same. They’re constant. We will be the first to admit that we cannot lilypad our way out of problems by jumping from solution to solution, hoping that one will work eventually. Rather than being so focused on solving problems, what we need is a culture that reinforces expectations for better performance and goal attainment. The key to successfully navigating riptides is to make incremental gains. We should be looking for progress, not a quick escape. 

How to build a culture of continuous improvement:

  • Establish clear feedback mechanisms. This strategy also supports and reinforces open communication because it requires transparency with things like updates on progress toward established goals. If you survey a bunch of staff members, they’ll likely reveal that they are in the dark on a number of issues. We know this is not intentional from school leaders, but in order for people to consistently support efforts, they have to be in the know. Clear feedback on progress will help everyone understand and accept necessary changes and small steps toward success. Imagine the difference had Brian been clear on what the activity period was doing for kids; no one would have argued that it wasn’t helpful. 

#3 — Self-Development

This is an often overlooked strategy because so much of professional learning is geared toward the system and not the individual. Although that’s important, a self-development mindset positions you to navigate the complexities of education more effectively. The relentless dedication to self-development can become the cornerstone of transformative leadership, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and success. We ought to be strong before the riptide hits, diminishing its natural strength against our own understanding of it and the power we have to navigate it. 

How to build a culture of self-development:

  • Lead by example. It’s imperative for leaders to showcase their commitment to self-improvement through visible actions. Share success stories of your own personal growth to inspire others. Let them know what you’re reading, the webinars you’re attending, the professional learning you’re embarking on, and, most importantly, why! Human connection is powerful and no more powerful than in education. Be a connector through vulnerability and a willingness to share your journey. Brian was probably steeped in the research about student connection with school beyond academics, even what that can do for test scores. He should have been open and adamant about it. 

You can’t avoid riptides, but you can navigate them effectively. Fight against them, and you’re doomed. Understand them, provide feedback as you experience them, communicate transparently about their impact, and you’re bound to find your way back to the safety of calmer waters in no time. 


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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