Navigating Educational Riptides: 3 Strategies for School Leaders

Navigating Educational Riptides: 3 Strategies for School Leaders

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.


Season 5, Episode 11 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Mitch Weathers

Season 5, Episode 11 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Mitch Weathers

Teaching Executive Functioning Skills to All Students with Mitch Weathers

This is Season 5, Episode 11 of FocusED, and it features our guest, Mitch Weathers. Mitch defines executive functioning skills, why they are so important to teach students in school, and how to do it in every classroom…and much more.


Mitch Weathers Brings a Tons of Experience to FocusED Listeners

Mitch Weathers became a gifted teacher because he was a mediocre student. Despite taking seven years to graduate college, he navigated the classroom with discomfort. 

This unique perspective fueled Mitch’s teaching approach. Recognizing the importance of laying a foundation for learning, he created Organized Binder. This research-backed strategy empowers teachers to impart executive functioning skills efficiently, preserving valuable instructional time. 

By establishing a predictable routine, Organized Binder fosters safer learning spaces, shaping Mitch’s journey from a struggling student to an innovative educator.

Mitch’s book helps educators understand and implement executive functioning skills in the classroom. It’s called Executive Functions for Every Classroom, Grades 3-12: Creating Safe and Predictable Learning Environments. You can find Mitch on X @organizedbinder. 

FocusED Show Notes with Mitch Weathers

Mitch talks about writing the book because not all teachers can access his company’s resources, Organized Binder, but they can design lessons that help students gain executive functioning skills. The book helps with that. 

Mitch says that we can’t hope that students will pick up executive functions (EF) skills by chance. 

Joe reminds listeners that we interviewed Curtiss Murphy, and we must assume confusion. With that in mind, Joe asks Mitch to define EF. 

Mitch said that one of the schools he works with calls EF skills “studentness.” The reason for this is that not all kids know how to “do school.” EF teaches how to do school well, and they translate to life skills. 

Don’t miss the 6 skills that Mitch says matter for all other skills to fall in place. 

We discuss predictable learning spaces and the need for the environment to be safe for risk-taking and other factors required for learning to take place. 

Mitch calls for more routines so that kids aren’t spending their cognitive load on processing the demands of the classroom and the teacher so that they can place that demand on the learning intentions. 

Don’t miss what he says about “shared routines” in schools and collective teacher efficacy. When we build shared routines, we’re also collectively rallying around something that we all care to deliver to kids. 

EF skills are not necessarily something that should just be taught in isolation, but rather they should be used in the context of all learning scenarios. 

Joe asks about the trouble with collective efficacy and why we don’t share practices for predictable learning environments. Mitch has a simple answer: too much isolation. 

The rhythm and routine of the day shouldn’t change. ~ Mitch Weathers 

Several times, Mitch mentions Visible Learning MetaX. All instructional leaders should know about this and how some strategies have larger effect sizes than others. 

You want to listen to Mitch describe the need for continuity in schools. 

Mitch says that when you pick a routine to implement, you should explore why. The rationale is as important as the strategy itself. 

Mitch mentions the following resources: Organized Binder and Teach Better’s Grid Method

Mitch talks about CTE being the future of secondary education. 

He tells us that too much of school is focused on content and teaching and not enough on the environment. 

Books that Mitch Weathers Mentions on FocusED

Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit 

Powerful Teaching by Patrice Bain and Pooja Agarwal 

Niche Down by Christopher Lochhead and Heather Clancy

Related Content from TheSchoolHouse302

Our Leading Better and Growing Faster Podcast with Mitch Weathers


Thanks for listening to FocusED, an educational leadership podcast brought to you by TheSchoolHouse302 @, where we publish free leadership content. Go to the site, subscribe, and you’ll get all of our content sent directly to your email. 

FocusED is your educational leadership podcast where our mission is to dissect a particular focus for teachers and school leaders so that you can learn to lead better and grow faster in your school or district. Let us know who you would like to hear from next. 

Stoic Leadership and Remaining Calm in Times of Chaos with Guest Glenn Robbins

Stoic Leadership and Remaining Calm in Times of Chaos with Guest Glenn Robbins

About Glenn Robbins

Glenn Robbins is the proud Superintendent of the Brigantine Public School District in Brigantine, New Jersey. He has served as a public school superintendent in New Jersey since 2016. Prior to becoming a superintendent, he was a middle school principal, a high school assistant principal, a high school social studies teacher, and a varsity coach. He is a best-selling author of Calm In The Chaos: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Successful School Leadership and a sought-after speaker.

Glenn has been awarded numerous administrative national and state recognitions, including the National Exemplar of Education Award, Northeast Innovative Superintendent Award, NJ Visionary Superintendent Award, Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools Member, NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Winner, and SETDA Student Voice Award Winner. 

He has been invited to the White House and the US Department of Education several times. He is also the proud recipient of a National Superintendent Certification and serves as an AASA National Governing Board Member, AASA Aspiring Superintendent Mentor, and Chair of NJASA Technology Committee.

Glenn has been recognized across the globe for his innovative school and district improvement methods and has been featured in numerous conferences, books, podcasts, and other publications. Glenn is passionate about helping school leaders create schools where every student and educator can have the opportunity to succeed to the utmost potential in a VUCA world.

What You’ll Find in this Episode with Glenn Robbins

Glenn starts with the connection between stoicism and school leadership. He takes us back to ancient philosophy, including Epectitus

The book is short and powerful. A practical read and guide for school leaders. 

Glenn talks about how the world is so chaotic and how the wisdom in his book is a friend to new and inspiring leaders.

Listen to what Glenn says about being a Superintendent in a shore community and what he takes from the waves.

Glenn poses a great reflection question: How do we react when things hurt us? 

Expressing gratitude once again is a primary habit and mindset people must embrace. 

Don’t miss what Glenn says about the imposter syndrome. 

Glenn mentions following Robert Greene’s work, Damon West, Chris Singleton, Danny Bauer, and other friends who have supported his leadership. Check out Billy Oppenheimer’s Sunday Six.

Glenn talks about the future. Don’t miss what he’s done with the school furniture. 

Lastly, Glenn reminds us that running schools is not a zero-sum game; reach out to a leader on social media and connect about school leadership, personal growth, and human connection.

Joe & T.J. Are Now Booking Summer and Fall Events!

Space is limited, but dates are still available. If you’re ready to take your leadership skills to the next level or you want to build the capacity of the folks on your team, we have the solutions that you need. Our engaging keynotes and interactive leadership workshops are designed to equip you and your leaders with the tools and strategies you need to thrive in today’s complex and ever-changing educational environment. Contact us to learn more about our offerings and book a session for your organization today!

A few ideas: 

  • Join one of our Mastermind groups
  • Book us for a keynote to kick off the year with your teachers
  • Allow us to train your school leaders on any number of our proven models 
  • Have us join your retreat to kick things up a notch with practical takeaways 
  • Bring us in virtually or in person to talk about one of our books
  • Call us for something unique

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J. 

Season 5, Episode 10 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Suzanne Dailey

Season 5, Episode 10 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Suzanne Dailey

Teach Happier this School Year with Suzanne Dailey

This is Season 5, Episode 10 of FocusED, and it features our guest, Suzanne Dailey. Don’t miss what Suzanne has to say about teaching happier, gratitude, the brain, tons of book recommendations…and much more.


Suzanne Dailey Brings a Tons of Experience to FocusED Listeners

Suzanne Dailey has been a teacher for 22 years. She is currently an instructional coach in the Central Bucks School District, where she has the honor and joy of working with over 500 elementary teachers and 8,000 students. 

She teaches model lessons, facilitates professional development sessions, and mentors teachers to be the best for the students in front of them. Suzanne is a Nationally Board Certified teacher, a fellow of the National Writing Project, and has a Masters’s Degree in Reading. 

She is dedicated to nurturing and developing the whole child and teacher and presents these topics at the local, state, and national level. Suzanne is the author of Teach Happier this School Year: 40 Weeks of Inspiration & Reflection and the host of the popular weekly podcast, Teach Happier. You can follow Suzanne Dailey on X: @DaileySuzanne.

FocusED Show Notes with Suzanne Dailey

Suzanne starts off by defining that teaching happier is also coaching happier and leading happier. Happier is not about toxic positivity but rather contentment and alignment. 

When we feel happier as a person, we’re better coworkers, teachers, friends, etc. 

Suzanne talks about the research- behavioral psychology and neuroscience- and says that there are very specific strategies that we can use to be happier. 

Two practices she mentions early in the podcast are getting moving and practicing gratitude. 

Every good teacher sees the person behind the student. ~ Suzanne Dailey 

Don’t miss what Suzanne says about a leader’s ability to discern how each person is motivated. We were thrilled to hear her mention energy as something we need to manage. 

Suzanne talks about her work in the 4th largest school district in Pennsylvania and a document that the superintendent uses to celebrate staff. This is practical and can be used by anyone. 

She describes the book as broken into 40 small parts to be able to read a quick 2-3 pages per day and set goals. What are your weekly wins? Based on your reading, what will be your next right thing–2 degree shift in your thoughts, language, or actions? 

Teach Happier This School Year is now an ASCD bestseller. 

If you want to take care of the students, take care of the teachers. ~ Suzanne Dailey 

Because Suzanne mentions so many books and research, Joe asks about how she digests books to become practical in her life. Listen to her strategies. 

Suzanne calls for more books about people who work in spaces that care for others. She calls them “caregiving professions.” We can learn so much from people in these callings, and she says that the only way forward is to learn from them. 

Joe catches a nuance that Suzanne is an instructional coach, but she also works at the cabinet level in her district. 

Suzanne ends with her favorite impact, which is working with new teachers. 

Books that Suzanne Dailey Mentions on FocusED

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor 

Big Potential by Shawn Achor 

Atomic Habits by James Clear 

Strive: for Happiness in Education by Robert Dunlop

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown 

Related Content from TheSchoolHouse302

Learning to Lead Like a Teacher with Miriam Plotinsky

Inspiring Educators to Enjoy the Job They Once Loved with Debbie Silver


Thanks for listening to FocusED, an educational leadership podcast brought to you by TheSchoolHouse302 @, where we publish free leadership content. Go to the site, subscribe, and you’ll get all of our content sent directly to your email. 

FocusED is your educational leadership podcast where our mission is to dissect a particular focus for teachers and school leaders so that you can learn to lead better and grow faster in your school or district. Let us know who you would like to hear from next. 

Season 5, Episode 9 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera

Season 5, Episode 9 of the FocusED School Leadership Podcast with Guest Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera

Creating a Culture of Equity in Schools with Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera

This is Season 5, Episode 9 of FocusED, and it features our guest, Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera. Don’t miss what Dr. Buchanan-Rivera says about amplifying student voice, power and inequities in schools, making learning joyous…and much more.


Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera Brings a Tons of Experience to FocusED Listeners

Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera has served as a teacher, principal of an international magnet school, director of curriculum, and director of equity and inclusion in her 17 years as an educator. 

She is currently a DEI project specialist and adjunct professor in the College of Education at Butler University and consults through her business, EBR Educational Consulting, LLC. 

Dr. Buchanan-Rivera’s research centers on identity-affirming environments. She completed a doctoral degree at Indiana State University in 2017, where she developed an instrument to measure inclusivity in classroom environments. She has written award-winning publications, and her work has been featured in Education Week, Edutopia, Educational Leadership Magazine (ASCD), K-12 Dive, educational journals, and national podcasts. 

In April 2020, she was recognized as the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Education at Butler University due to her contributions to the field on a local and national level. Her first book, Identity Affirming Classrooms: Spaces that Center Humanity has spread her reach and consulting work internationally. In 2023, she won the Arnold Mickens Black Excellence in Leadership Award, and we invite you to follow her on X @ericabrivera.

FocusED Show Notes with Erica Buchanan-Rivera

Erica started the conversation about her own experiences in school where the educators had good intentions, but those intentions didn’t result in an inclusive environment. In fact, none of her teachers or school leaders were people of color. 

She aims to amplify student voices, which she does throughout her text. Students don’t just talk about their trauma, but they identify opportunities to support all students in schools. In many cases, all we need to do is to listen to the students. 

Dr. Buchanan-Rivera breaks down what it means to talk about “culture” in schools. We’re talking about “the ways of being” in schools, which includes the roles of power and inequities that exist within schools. 

She says that there’s no real right or wrong way to amplify student voices but that the key is to ask students about their experiences in schools and the ways that we can improve the environment. Listen to what she says about her own listening tours. 

Once we listen to our students, we should build what they say into our strategic plans for school improvement. ~ Erica Buchanan-Rivera 

Joe asks about general threads in what Erica finds when she talks to students about their experiences in school. One common thread is that students want to know how they’re doing in school–they are curious to receive more feedback. 

Just like adults, kids want to know about their strengths and areas for improvement, and they often don’t get that from school. ~ Erica Buchanan-Rivera 

Erica tells us that we can drive change to a more joyous environment by unpacking our own belief systems. Do we truly embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in action? Do we believe that all students can learn? Are we treating students like humans? 

She calls for equity audits as a fresh set of eyes on what teaching and learning really feel like in our schools–tools that assess systems. 

As administrators, we often learn to manage dysfunction rather than learning to clean house. ~ Erica Buchanan-Rivera 

Don’t miss what she says about outcomes that indicate that our effort in this space is working. 

Erica says we need more support for administrators on leading change, having critical conversations, and growing as equity warriors. A needed book title: Navigating the DEI Space for School Leaders

Accountability should be seen as an act of love. ~ Erica Buchanan-Rivera  

Erica ended by talking about the areas in which she would like to grow as a school leader–helping principals navigate DEI successfully. 

Books that Erica Buchanan-Rivera Mentions on FocusED

Punished for Dreaming by Bettina Love

Leading Your School Toward Equity by Dwayne Chism 

All About Love by Bell Hooks 


Related Content from TheSchoolHouse302

Check out our very popular interview with Principal Kafele. 


Thanks for listening to FocusED, an educational leadership podcast brought to you by TheSchoolHouse302 @, where we publish free leadership content. Go to the site, subscribe, and you’ll get all of our content sent directly to your email. 

FocusED is your educational leadership podcast where our mission is to dissect a particular focus for teachers and school leaders so that you can learn to lead better and grow faster in your school or district. Let us know who you would like to hear from next.