Imagine you are a newly promoted principal, replacing a principal who’d left the job after only one year. Right before your first staff meeting you are confronted with a challenge with which you have no experience: a teacher comes to you in great distress because she is being bullied by a fellow teacher. If you are uncertain how to proceed, you’re not alone.
New developments in computer simulation, however, point to a solution. They offer an improved, immersive professional development experience that allows school leaders to better prepare for on-the-job challenges, and thus help address both burnout and turnover.
Given the high rate of administrator turnover nationwide, finding ways to provide administrators with the experience they need quickly is paramount. Low-achieving, high-poverty schools face twice the annual leadership turnover rates of other schools—and generally fill positions with the least experienced leaders. More than 60% of urban superintendents cannot recruit or retain qualified principals. And more than 45% of superintendents themselves are replaced every three years.
What makes the ed leadership job so challenging is that it is rife with painful tradeoffs that make decisions difficult under the best of circumstances. What’s more, leaders are faced with a group of stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, unions, communities, districts, local and state government—whose competing demands can make it impossible to satisfy the needs of one group without dramatically upsetting another. By using simulations, districts and schools can get help their leaders improve decision making at times of crisis, benefitting both the school culture and ultimately, student outcomes.
Computer simulations can provide essential practice for a wide range of decisions facing ed leaders today, filling gaps in experience with focused, relevant, virtual on-the-job training. Research has shown that computer based simulation is one of the best vehicles for effectively and practically delivering consistent experience. It has been used for decades by pilots and in medicine, where doctors can gain life-saving practice at emergency medicine techniques. Good simulations engage the power of storytelling and provide an experience that takes place in a recognizable context—for administrators, that might be a school building, a classroom, or town hall meeting.
Specifically, simulations can help administrators prepare for difficult conversations about students in crisis, racial tensions, teacher evaluations and other sensitive topics. In each scenario, simulations help educators understand what other information is needed and whom else might be affected by their decisions. Successful simulations enable participants to:
- Exercise critical thinking and decision making
- Experience consequences
- Receive feedback
The simulation itself is a bit similar to an immersive video game; the educator goes through a series of story-driven scenarios in which each decision leads to a set of consequences, and more decisions.
Here's how the decision-making practice in a simulation might go: You—in the role of elementary school principal—receive a series of emails from your staff complaining about another staff member’s "inappropriate dress." In the sim, you must choose between meeting with the teacher in question, arranging for her to meet with the school counselor, or doing nothing. If you are playing the sim with a group of peers, this initial choice prompts conversation about the different potential actions you could take. Each choice then leads to another set of decisions, and so on, with consequences of each choice becoming apparent along the way. In this particular sim, as in real life, additional challenges—an instructional issue involving this teacher, for example—come to light, making the overall situation more complicated. You must then decide which issues take precedence. In this way, sim participants confront challenges, make decisions, and experience consequences as they might in real life.
When we confront challenging situations, we sift through our past experiences, searching for relevant instances where we have seen this kind of thing before. From that, we pull together insights into the situation we are facing and take action. But what happens when our experience portfolio is empty? Schools and districts have neither the time nor the budget to allow their people to learn everything they need to know through the school of hard knocks.
For example, if you have recently been promoted from teacher to an administrative role, you may not have many leadership experiences in your portfolio. In fact, what made for a good decision as an individual teacher could work against you in a leadership position. In our dress code example, a newly promoted administrator may be inclined to deal with a the more familiar instructional issue than a possibly confrontational behavioral issue. What a new admin may not consider is the potential consequence of not acting, in some way, on the communications from his or her staff—and the possibility of escalating the complaints among a wider group of staff or the parent community. This is where a simulation experience can be very effective. By playing through typical and sometimes difficult leadership experiences ahead of time—dealing with a coaching issue or a sensitive conversation with staff—educators are able to make a relevant deposit into their experience portfolios, one that can be called upon in real-life.
Simulations provide K-12 institutions with an approach that can offer almost-real-life experience to those who need it, helping leaders feel prepared for first-time challenges. The hands-on programs combine the strength of experience with the power of storytelling to create professional development that leaders want to participate in.