Author Archives: Sandy Wozniak

Top 5 Critical Issues in Education in 2023 – link to –

Critical: (crit·i·cal)

  1. having the potential to become disastrous, at a point of crisis
  2. having decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence of something.

Education leaders are facing serious issues in 2023 driven by a period of disruption – a worldwide pandemic, divisive politics, prevalent gun violence, and financial crisis.  Looking at a study of trends to watch in 2023 at least 5 of these trends have risen to the definition of critical in every sense of the word:

  1. Student safety– just when you think that you have heard the worst possible gun violence headlines, events that “could never happen in your district” have happened in districts that have said the same thing.  What will you do to pre-emptively ensure the physical and mental safety and security of the children in your school?
  2. Mental health – the mental health issues our children, staff members, family members, community members have all been exacerbated by the past years of polarizing politics, isolation, and fear. Besides the extreme results of poor mental health (see #1) student mental health issues are now considered the #1 learning obstacle.
  3. Teacher and staff shortages (see 1 & 2) – staffing shortages, especially in the area of special education, have forced districts to look for creative and innovative solutions. The difficulty of finding, hiring, and retaining staff has affected the daily operations of many school districts.
  4. Academic Recovery – a new study indicates that our students have lost up to 1/3 of a school years’ worth of knowledge and skills. What will student assessment look like and how will we address the inequitable legacy and economic disparity that have been compounded by the pandemic?
  5. School Finances – Significant changes to school finances due to the looming Covid spending deadlines, the implication of the May 11th end to the Covid public health emergency, shifting student populations, etc. will force decisions with wide implications and potential polarizing outcomes including school closings, staffing issues, etc.

On the heels of COVID, education leaders are facing an inordinate number of critical decisions and issues. Critical decisions require critical thinking – “exercising or involving careful judgement or judicious evaluation.” These issues call for collaborative work and creative solutions.  They call for transparent thinking processes – the ability to break down problems into manageable pieces – and the ability to “show your work.”  They call for deliberate and step by step approaches that guide the discussion, clarify your understanding, prioritize your criteria according to your district’s needs and wants, creatively develop options, weigh the risks and determine what needs to be done.

All district actions, big and small, are facing intense scrutiny …..from selecting a book to closing school buildings…and all deserve the benefits of critical thinking – a judicious evaluation – using solid processes like Situation Appraisal or Decision Analysis.  Critical thinking will enhance your efforts and elevate you solutions to ensure that you get the best possible results for your district with transparency and support.


Making Decisions Under Pressure Requires Patience

“Pressure!”(With apologies to Billy Joel)

Spending deadline’s coming up


You had better not screw this up


You have the money, now’s the time to spend

But here you are with your wants and your needs and your shortages and such

Your regulations and your tests and your parents and the rest

It’s all just



Superintendents, new and experienced alike, are faced with unprecedented funding and opportunities to remedy some of the effects and inequities caused by or brought to light by the Covid Pandemic.  With deadlines looming there is a lot of pressure to both spend the money and get it right!

Time is of the essence

Time seems to be a major source of that stress – time to assess what’s working, what needs are, and what can be done in the time allotted. Slow reimbursements, confusing requirements, materials delays, staffing shortages, and changing legislature have added to the pile. As the National Report Card just reported huge losses in math and reading, the urgency for investing in academic recovery, demonstrating positive results and planning for the future are now even more apparent.  Hardly seems like the time to slow down the decision making, does it?  But that is exactly what needs to be done to achieve the results that you are looking for.

With great spending comes great responsibility  

Take the time to get it right.

Take the time to:  Clarify your goals

Take the time to:  Define what you need in the results

Take the time to:  Consider your objectives and evaluate each alternative against your objectives or criteria

Take the time to:  Weigh the risks

Using a process (like Decision Analysis) that incorporates all the above considerations is the key to making the best possible decision for your American Rescue Plan spending as well as other crucial decisions involving investing in materials, building renovations, transportation, and personnel.  Shared decision making (not the “we made the decision and now we’re sharing it with you” type) is the key to collecting the best information to drive your decision making.  While it may take more time, having the right information and people involved saves you both time and money and the possibility of getting it wrong in the long run.

Make Your Meetings Matter

Looking forward to your next meeting?  In many cases, the answer to that question is “nope.”  Many meetings have been viewed as at worst – time-sucking obligations, mind-numbing information dumps, frustrating rehashes and/or contentious public forums of off-track topics, or at best dull and uninspiring.  Holding meetings in an online platform has only amplified those negative views. So, how do you make meetings matter?

How do you avoid the most common pitfalls of meetings? Let’s tackle each, one at a time.

Pitfall #1:  The Time Suck or “my time could have been spent better or this could have been done in an email.”

Solution:  Planning, planning and more planning. Determine what the purpose of the meeting is, who needs to attend it and what is the best format or process to use. Meetings that are efficient in design start with an agenda based on efficient and proven processes like Situation Appraisal, keep discussions focused on the business at hand and are driven by powerful questions that are designed to gather information and perspectives.

Pitfall #2: The unproductive meeting or “didn’t we talk about this last week? Month? Year?”

Solution:  Build accountability and tracking into your action plan.  When you record each issue and the action you need to take to address it, you also need to determine “by whom? And by when?”  Including a responsible name next to each action and a due date keeps people accountable and makes supervision or “checkups” or “report ins” both automatic and expected.

Pitfall #3 Conflict or “we’re going to need a bigger room”

Solution:  When you know you are stepping into a meeting where the issues being addressed are liable to be emotional, plan ahead to ensure that situation will be addressed in a transparent, collaborative manner.  Frame the discussion in a way that reflects an unbiased approach.  Listen and record input to build a shared understanding of the issues and keep the discussion from devolving by using a clearly delineated and understood process.  In Paul Axtell’s book Meeting Matters, he outlines the 4 C’s of effective meetings:  Clarity, Candor, Commitment, and Completion.  We might also add collaboration and conversation driven by a predetermined set of powerful questions.


Pitfall #4 Poor Communication or “did you hear what happened at the meeting last night?  I saw on Facebook that….”


People have their own perceptions, hidden agendas, interpretations, self-image, values, priorities, experience which can determine both what they say and what they hear.  Make it part of your plan to clearly communicate about decisions that are made.  Determine who needs to know what, in what sequence and time frame.  Include clear rationale for why certain actions will be taken. Nothing erodes trust and confidence quicker than hearing about the new policy that directly affects you from the kids or reading it on social media.

Plan for success

The key to meetings that matter is planning every step from determining the purpose of the meeting to communicating the results using a clear and transparent process that allows you to get the best thinking from all involved.  Taking the time to think through the entire meeting process will help you gain the trust and understanding that you need to get the commitment for success.


3 Tips for Leading Difficult Conversations

Gun violence, Student safety, CRT…oh my!  Issues that bring out resistance, reactions, strong emotions, frustration can make for difficult decisions and daunting conversations. Using a well-thought-out approach can help you lead/facilitate those conversations resulting in collaborative solutions.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explores the intriguing and well‐substantiated idea that the collective judgment of many people is almost always better than the opinions of just a few even the experts.  People have their own perceptions, interpretations, values, and experiences which can help us get a more well-rounded understanding of the problem at hand.  Collaboration improves quality, increases commitment, and sends powerful messages about value for others (Creating and Sustaining Decision-Making Excellence).  When anticipating difficult conversations, plan your approach with these 3 steps in mind:

  1. Listen and learn. “Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.” (Krista Tippett on Listening) The need to be heard is one of the most powerful motive forces in human nature…” (Why Listening is So Important).   Listening gives you the opportunity to learn perspectives, goals, content, intentions, and plans.  Acknowledging other perspectives without judgement gives rise to respect and appreciation.  That respect and appreciation go a long way in helping improve staff and community relationships essential to successful implementation of action plans.


  1. Gain clarity. Asking the right questions, for example, from the Situation Appraisal Process, can help you develop a comprehensive, shared understanding of the issues at hand. Probing questions like:  What seems to be important? What threats and opportunities do we face? What do you mean by? What else is of concern to you?  What is the seriousness?  What is the urgency?  What is the potential growth?  can help you delve deeper into understanding the issue or problem at hand.


  1. Stay focused and centered. When you have a clear road map or process to follow up front, you can steer the conversation back to the main objectives to avoid getting stuck or lose focus to those who are trying to drive the conversation elsewhere.  Keeping the conversation focused on the issues at hand helps you continue to move forward efficiently, removing high emotions from the table.

The benefits of different perspectives and experiences can bring greater understanding of the issues at hand and more successful actions taken.  The risks inherent in divisive topic discussions – wasted time, outburst of emotion, and conflict- can be avoided by being prepared for difficult discussions with a pre-determined process.

Investing in Building Capacity Pays Off in Good Times and Bad

The pandemic has laid bare many faults and inequities in education systems, but it has also highlighted essential skills and successful leadership practices that have proven successful in addressing pandemic-related problems.  We have seen firsthand how proven decision-making and problem-solving processes have been the linchpin of success for leaders during times of crisis or stability.

Hallmarks of Good Leadership

  1. Crisis and change management – Superintendents with crisis decision making experience like Vic Shandor in York County Schools (VA) had systems, skills, and processes already in place giving them an advantage when the pandemic rolled in. Other districts called upon expert consultants to help them as serious issues came to light. Either way, those districts that invested in building the capacity of staff (before, during, or after) gave them the benefits of confidence that things were being taken care of in a meaningful systematic way – and better prepared them for anything they face in the future.


  1. Two-way communication – Leaders need to find ways to take on tough issues (CRT, equity, gender, race and sexuality issues, health and safety protocols, staff retention, and academic recovery) and provide ways to get meaningful input from stakeholders. Having transparent processes (like Situation Appraisal) for dealing with complex issues or hiring an outside facilitator can help you remove some of the emotional heat from the conversation, helping you gain trust and transparency and better solutions to the issues at hand.


  1. Effective collaboration – Going it alone is no longer a viable option as leaders take on increasing responsibilities as a conduit between government health and safety rules and recommendations, staff, students, parents and community members. With fluid staffing situations, all staff members have had to step up to keep students safe and learning. Having a system that helps leaders connect, share, learn and network their way through issues is a matter of necessity.


Throughout this crisis period, the demands on school personnel have changed.  Leaders that rely on proven processes of problem solving and decision making will continue to make rational decisions, find enduring and practical solutions, gain trust and confidence, and save time and money by avoiding mistakes and using the best thinking of their surrounding community. Finding the best solutions, the best actions, and preparing for the implications of any actions demands careful and systematic thinking.  Having a ready process with that good thinking built in saves time, money and upheaval and will serve leadership and staff well in good times and bad.






Future-proof your workforce

Anyone familiar with theater recognizes the concept of the understudy – the person who learns another’s role to be able to step in on short notice and play the part.  Preparing for sudden departures, turnovers, and the Silver Tsunami in education, means building the leadership capacity for succession.  Succession planning in education is an essential investment to avoid the costs of having an “empty chair.” After all, life happens, and the schools must go on!

Why prepare for succession?

There are dozens of reasons that chair will someday be empty.  The roller coaster ride caused by the pandemic made many rethink their career choice. Some leaders who, preparing to retire before the pandemic, stayed to help their districts weather the storm.  Now that pandemic life has become the norm, they may feel more comfortable leaving.  Certainly the “silver tsunami”– the tidal wave of retirements coming our way will intensify as every single day, 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age.  Whatever the reason for turnover, it is disruptive and costly –organizational costs are estimated to be 100%-300% of the employee’s salary (source).  Furthermore, as baby boomers retire, younger and often less (or under-)-experienced worker are moving into decision-making roles, increasing the risk of costly mistakes.  Disconcertingly, a recent survey of organizations found that 93% are not building the next generation of leaders in an adequate or robust way (source).  This becomes all the more critical when you consider that it typically takes eight months for a new hire to reach full productivity (source).

How do you prepare?

So, who is your understudy? Who is it that is waiting in the wings in case you are unable to do your job – or if you move to a different job or retire?  What are you doing today to help others prepare for tomorrow? Planning for succession of any position in your organization should be an integral part of preparing for the future.

What are you or your district or organization doing today to be sure that whoever fills that chair – or takes center stage – on your behalf, is ready to seamlessly make that transition – ready to effectively make the decisions and address the issues that they face?

Start here:

Here are 3 things you can do today to prepare for the empty chair:

1 – Identify possible successors

2 – Consider their strengths and skills gaps

3– Involve them in work and professional development that will build their capabilities and knowledge

I once worked for a manager who enthusiastically and convincingly claimed that his goal with each job was to work himself out of a job – to develop others enough to move up or over and take over his responsibilities.  Part of how he assessed his effectiveness as a leader was based on the quality and caliber of those waiting in the wings.  Yet his goal was to help them gain the leadership capabilities to get them out of the wings and onto center stage.  Far from being threatened by others’ growing capabilities, it is how he assessed not only his own effectiveness but when it was time for him to move on.  Making succession planning your goal will future-proof your district from the cost of staff turnover.

Protecting your Decisions with 4 Key Questions

Red UmbrellaHave you decided where your ESSER money investments will be most beneficial?  If so, how do you ensure these decisions actually reach your goals?  How can you prevent outside factors from “raining on your parade”? The success of a decision depends on the success of its implementation and the active management of the risks.  An ideal decision poorly executed will ultimately look like a poor decision.

Preparing for Rain

Once decisions are made, we look forward to reaping the rewards, but like the potential rain on the celebratory parade, smart leaders prepare for all possible eventualities.  We have recently worked with several districts that are using Potential Problem Analysis to ensure successful implementation of ESSER-funded projects/products/programs. As an example, Special Education Leaders in Cumberland County (NC) recently used Decision Analysis to determine which technology products would give them the best possible results with the Exceptional Children in their district.  A good decision-making process gave them confidence in their choices.  But they wanted to go one step further to ensure the successful deployment and implementation of their purchases. They used “potential problem analysis” questions to consider the risks and mitigate possible roadblocks.

Ask first…

The decisions you make about ESSER funds have an impact on instruction, personnel, programs, students, etc.  How can you help support the staff who are essential for this implementation?  Here are 4 key questions to ask before planning for implementation:

  1. If we choose to spend ESSER funds in this way, what are the potential problems that may arise?  What could get in the way of success? What could possible rain on your parade?  Think in terms of the risks to various stakeholders, the schools and district. Of these risks, which pose the highest threat?
  2. What could cause the highest threat potential problems to become reality?
  3. What actions can we take to prevent the likely causes of our potential problems? By when and who will be responsible?
  4. And finally, If the potential problem does occur, what actions can we take to minimize the damage?  Ah, yes – “plan B.”

Spending a little bit of time upfront preventing potential problems can ensure that you have an umbrella of protection once the decision is executed.  Most importantly, it will ensure your decisions on how to spend your ESSER funding will realize their full potential.  Kudos to those leaders who recognize the need to protect important decisions and think through how best to mitigate the risks that could prevent their success.

Increase Retention with Systemic Listening

a listening earSuperintendent turnover, teacher turnover, principal turnover – are no doubt happening – AND there are not many replacements flowing in the pipeline.  Culture is at the top of the list of why people stay or leave their jobs.  In a recent report by Microsoft, employees reported that what they wanted most was “a culture that cares for them, for what they are experiencing and for their future.” Almost two-thirds said that their leaders “don’t prioritize culture, let alone pursue its clarity and cultivation.”  They want and need “leader-led, leader-backed, leader-enabled culture.” We all agree that student learning happens best when they feel that the teacher “cares for them, for what they are experiencing and for their future.”  To build that culture, teachers, leaders and staff members need to be part of a pervasive district culture that grows systemically in response to their needs.

Where do you start?

So how does that happen?  How do education leaders lead, back and enable a culture that demonstrates that they care about their employees now and in the future? Research shows that building staff capacity demonstrates an investment in employees’ futures. For some pointers on where to start, I reached out to Richard Sinclair, founder of Leading Schools Forward, an organization that works with school districts to support the development of a systemic approach to developing school culture.

You need to listen, react, and listen again

Sinclair said that schools that are serious about developing a positive, sustainable culture, approach things from the “inside out”- starting with cabinet members and staff and then moving to the community. For districts to scale such a model, they need to partner with principals to develop systems that measure, discuss, and celebrate employee enthusiasm linked to the system most schools already measure, discuss and celebrate-student achievement. Tying the two systems together creates “systemic listening” – that empowers the staff to lead the change. He went on to say, to grow such capacity the process should begin with principals focused on continually improving their experience and in the case of very large districts with the cabinet (modeled by the superintendent), before moving on to teachers and staff.

How do you begin?
In Richard Sinclair’s experience, you start with a competitive means of measuring enthusiastic loyalty by asking a question like “on a scale from 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our [district or school] as a place to work to your colleagues or friends?,” (this is known as the employee Net Promoter Score  or eNPS),  and to dig deeper, add specific performance development need questions like that of the Gallup 12Q Survey. [For much less, SurveyMonkey has a similar set of questions.]  These help you broach different topics to delve into conversations of greater purpose. Using collaborative processes like Situation Appraisal can help you facilitate sometimes tough discussions that can lead to a continuous improvement plan, implementation plan, continuous feedback, and re-evaluation on a schedule parallel to student achievement efforts to keep culture continuously improving.

Turnover wastes time and money

Turnover can be costly and disruptive.  Building a positive and supportive culture can help you get the right people into education, stay in education, and be competitive.  Using collaborative processes like Situation Appraisal  can help facilitate systemic listening to gather the data needed to determine where you are so you can develop and implement plans to improve.  Building the capacity of your staff to lead and participate in change based on data flips your leadership model from compliance to one of service reflecting a leadership that is not dependent on the leader’s values, but on the organization’s values.  The end result can not only reduce turnover, but may have the added benefit of increasing learning in the classroom.

Looking for more?  Check out these related blog posts

How’s your school year going?  Climate Matters

4 tips for burnout prevention to Increase retention

Want to increase retention?  Don’t do this


No-Fail Ingredients for ESSER Budgeting Success

IngredientsWith the supply chain delays, labor shortages, escalating costs, and the deadline for ESSER spending looming, school superintendents are facing unique budget challenges.  Recent ESSER funding programs have changed the scope and complexity of budget decision making – and increased the visibility and volatility.

To increase the chances for success in times of volatility– leaders need to intentionally strengthen those ingredients that have always been part of the formula or recipe for success in a school district.  According to Edweek’s Leaders to Learn From, there are common ingredients that are relevant, powerful, and timeless for school leaders.  Reinforcing and systemizing those ingredients can help you work your way through the ESSER budget challenges ahead.

Recipe for Better Budget Decisions




Decision Making Process

How to mix them together:

Data-driven Decision Making Process:  How will you explain the why in your decision making of ESSER funds? How can you be a good steward? use appropriately? meet the spending deadlines? How do you remain focused on the North Star of Student Progress? Using a process, like Decision Analysis, can help you focus and clarify your spending goals, identify and organize relevant data and analyze the risks of the decision you make in a clear and transparent process.  Transparency is an important foundation for effectively building trust and increasing buy-in.

 Communication How will you explain the why of your decisions using ESSER funds? How will you tell the story of progress and short and long term impacts? Building an intentional communication plan that will ensure communication from start to finish is one way to ensure that this does not get forgotten or ignored when the going gets tough.   This article in District Administration, 6 Ways to Tell a Compelling and Effective COVID Recovery Story,  highlights some creative ways to share your recovery fund stories.

Collaboration- What problems need to be solved? Who needs to be involved to ensure we make the best possible choices?  Whose commitment to a solution do we need? The old adage “two heads are better than one” has never been truer while approaching the complex issues that have arisen over the last two years.  Getting the right people in the room, to provide expertise and perspective should be an essential first step to developing your budget.  Working as a team, empowering colleagues builds strong relationships, trust, and buy-in.

Tips for Getting Good Results

Like any good recipe – you can add some of your own flavor and tweak your budgeting processes to fit your needs, but  sharpening communication, facilititating collaboration and using a good solid decision-making process will help ensure that dollars are being used in meaningful ways that you can clearly communicate and demonstrate.  Using a collaborative and quality decision making process heightens transparency and helps build trust and commitment to the solution. When all is said and done, you want to know that you can stand behind decisions that were made about ESSER funding and that you have results you can proudly share.







Want to Increase Retention? Don’t do this!

Retention – it seems to be on everyone’s radar these days – and with good reason.  Existing staff shortages, early retirements and potential resignations have us all thinking about ways to hold on to the staff that we have.  There are a lot of great ideas out there about how to go about accomplishing this – the “Do’s”.  These offer many helpful ways to approach the issues, increase teacher satisfaction, etc.  But part of the puzzle involves not doing things that make the problem worse.  Let’s look at some of the “Don’ts” – those things to avoid as we address retention.

Don’t – Avoid going to the source – the ones who can speak most eloquently about why they are leaving are the ones who are leaving.  It can be tempting to avoid “bad news” or frustration, but this information provides a wealth of useful data that can be used to take action moving forward.   Is there an existing process for finding out why they have left and what might have made them stay?

Don’t – Create more work for people – it may be an honor to be selected to sit on a task force, provide input on a critical problem, etc., but the reality is that these responsibilities and requests get added to an already overflowing plate.  People can resent these ways to contribute as they struggle to just stay on top of day-to-day activities.  Given that getting their input is essential, in what ways can you mitigate the extra burden or incent their involvement?

Don’t – Neglect the people who are not leaving – most of your workforce is not resigning (although it might sometimes feel otherwise).  What can we learn from them?  They are the ones in the trenches who have timely, accurate information and experiences – what makes them stay?  What would make their jobs easier?  What would they like to see changed?  How can we make sure they feel appreciated and valued?

Don’t – Generalize or rely only on others’ experience from other schools and districts – certainly there are things to learn from other districts, schools, departments, etc.   But a targeted solution requires that you really understand what is happening around retention in your district, school, or department – and why.  Doing that requires embracing the data – taking a good hard look at the reality and knowing what is and is not working for people.  You must involve stakeholders in the problem solving.  If you don’t, you’ve missed a golden opportunity – and any solutions risk being seen as off-base, out of touch, or top-down (and thus potentially lacking in credibility and support).

All districts have a unique set of experiences

Each school and district needs to grapple with their own experience of staff shortages and what is contributing to them.  Process tools like TregoED’s Situation Appraisal, Problem Analysis, etc. can help you collect, sort, and analyze data to help define and develop solutions to the problem.  As Aristotle said, “A problem well-defined is half-solved.”  We can borrow and tailor ideas from other districts about effective ways to address it, but we can also intentionally avoid doing things which either exacerbate the problem or miss the mark. Increasing retention is a complex problem that can be hard to wrap our heads around – but like all big problems, it is easier to deal with when we clearly define it and understand it, involve stakeholders and get creative about how to address it.