Great School Leaders Know How to Make May Matter

Great School Leaders Know How to Make May Matter

Whitewater Rafting for School Leaders

In schools, the month of May and early June can be likened to grade-5 whitewater rafting conditions—large waves, large volumes a water, the possibility of large rocks and hazards, and the chance of a large drop at any time, which all require precise maneuvering. The only thing that makes May similar to other months is its length. May demands time, expertise, will, grit, and precision. Throughout the month, you are planning and delivering a variety of year-end culminating events, completing both formative and summative observations, ensuring high engagement and strong classroom instruction, and conducting multiple assessments. The workload grows in intensity as the time to get it done decreases. The challenge for school leaders is finishing the year strong and getting everyone to the highest level of performance before students, and then teachers, take off for the summer.

As you work these final weeks, consider Kahneman’s peak-end rule: “The way an experience ends determines the happiness we ascribe to it.” This has implications for each 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 one key way of starting next year off right.

That’s why we put together these reminders for strategies that work and can keep you in the raft and floating smoothly down the river.

Stay Connected

Despite being a routine suggestion and overall good practice, being visible and connected with the staff and students during the last month of school is critical. 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. When the rapids rock the boat, it’s even more important for the lead sculler to call the shots. Keep an eye on every move to know which way we need to lean to get to the next calm spot. May poses many obstacles that can increase negativity, 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, participating in PLCs, and generally being available. The trend can be toward managing through to the end, dropping normal activity to get through it all. Avoid that by keeping connected and staying the course.

Take-away: Lead May, don’t manage it. Stay connected in the same way you have all year.

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 through quality instruction and student engagement. If learning remains the primary focus, and all faculty members embrace and work together to ensure a strong finish, the likelihood of success is much greater. Research also demonstrates that students can make significant gains this time of year. After the “summer slide,” students are slow to get started but once retention is high and routines are in place, months like April and May can yield great results in student achievement. Using every second of the day, means setting students up for success during the following year. School’s that understand this 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.

Take-away: Create a sense of urgency around instructional time so that teachers and students are using every second for engagement. By the way, our friend Todd Whitaker like to say that “the best way to ensure that the kids don’t quit early is to ensure that the adults don’t quit early. 


The key here is “over-communication.” Daily and weekly schedules with activities, events, and reminders that are purposeful and valuable should be sent every Monday. This should compliment 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 “I have no idea what’s going on,” which is what we all say in confusing and tumultuous times. It should be clear throughout the year as to what is happening and when, but in May so much is happening, that it needs to be abundantly clear. This communication effort needs to be for teachers, parents, and students—morning announcements, website notifications, memos, emails, texts, etc. The school itself and the main office need to be the lighthouse in the storm, directing the way to calmer waters.

Take-away: Over-communicate events through various platforms by sending out messages to all stakeholders.


This is the most important notion for May and June—celebrate. Find appropriate times to celebrate and recognize staff and students in meaningful and purposeful ways. Teacher appreciation week is great way to launch May and maintain a month of recognition, positive reinforcement, and the desire to recognize the “bright spots.” Make May into an all encompassing Staff Appreciation Month. May is the month to make your organization the best place on Earth to work. We think this should be strategic year-round, but May needs to be the icing on the cake. This can include a fun retreat, off-site staff meetings, potluck lunches, buying breakfast or lunch for the staff, having fun after school at socials, etc. People need to leave for the summer thinking that they have a great place to return in August, not the opposite. So many of us leave with confusion and dismay because of a disorganized hectic month that doesn’t really reflect the school year. Make May special so that it reflects all of the good from this year and none of the bad, which can easily be the focus if we let it.

Take-away: Be strategic with celebrations as often and as authentic as possible. Make May memorable by making it fun and commemorative.

Let us know if you plan to use any of these strategies. We want to know what works as we help you to “get to simple” with school leadership.

T.J. Vari & Joe Jones