How Expert Principals Make Tough Decisions

Insights: How Expert Principals Make Difficult Decisions 
By Dionne V. McLaughlin
(Corwin, 2015 – Learn more)

bret olsonReviewed by Bret Olson

As an assistant principal I face many difficult decisions but rarely am I forced to face these situations in isolation, thanks to my outstanding senior leadership. However, with an eye toward the future I am constantly in search of opportunities to involve myself in situations which allow me to learn and grow.

Insights: How Expert Principals Make Difficult Decisions gives the reader exactly that – real-life scenarios and reflections from expert principals. And the chance to read the experiences and thoughts of these veteran school leaders has allowed me to grow as a leader.

insights how expert principals olsonDionne McLaughlin’s approach to helping novice and aspiring principals learn and mature creates an easy-to-read guide to strategic decision making processes. While this book should not be used as a replacement for a mentor principal, it plays a very similar role, guiding novice and aspiring leaders through the difficult decision making process.

Case studies from principals in five diverse districts in Massachusetts, Maryland, and North Carolina serve as an excellent basis for McLaughlin’s discussion of the decision making process.

Setting the Stage For Success

Part I of Insights provides an excellent introduction to the strategic decision making process used by expert principals. By throwing the reader directly into the fire with two intriguing case studies, McLaughlin engages us right from the start. The accompanying reflection questions and resources allow the reader to immediately interact as though they are involved in the conversation. (Side note: These case studies and reflection questions make this book a perfect book chat or classroom resource!)

The first half of Insights sets the tone for the novice or aspiring school leader by helping build a foundation on which to base their own strategic decision making process. McLaughlin walks the readers through the detailed process of making difficult decisions from beginning to end. Using case studies and anecdotes to highlight her recommendations, she sheds light on potential pitfalls, gives tips, and shares useful strategies for success.

From weighing the problem and the potential options, to evaluating our core values, to understanding and considering the school/community culture; McLaughlin shows us how to consider the big picture while maintaining a focus on the human side of the decision making process. By the end of Part I you should have a very clear understanding of the path ahead as it relates to facing down difficult decisions.

Making Real-Life Difficult Decisions

Part II brings the reader front and center and asks them to consider real-life scenarios as McLaughlin presents case studies from both her experiences and other expert principals. She covers some of the most common difficult decisions school leaders face and gives the reader a real opportunity to reflect and ponder the potential options.

Since these are real scenarios there are real conclusions. However, McLaughlin wisely places these conclusions in the back of the book, forcing the reader to take the time to think about the issues at hand before jumping straight to the “answer.”

Part II highlights some of the most common difficult decisions that arise in schools across the country. From student issues to decisions about faculty, staff, and policy, McLaughlin gives the reader a behind-the-scenes view of how expert principals operate in the face of extreme adversity.

More examples would be good

While I was impressed with the overall content presented by McLaughlin, I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed. Despite the fact that most of the important topics were covered, it seemed like there was still more that could have been included in this fairly short book. McLaughlin drew on the stories of 21 expert principals, which made me wonder what she could have included had she interviewed a few more school leaders. With such rich and enlightening case studies, I walk away from this book wishing there had been more examples included.

Insights, Insightful!

Despite my disappointment about the author’s missed opportunities, McLaughlin does a great job of introducing the strategic decision making process for novice and aspiring school leaders. The case studies, reflection questions, and relevant supporting documents help the reader delve into the scenarios presented.

Throughout this book McLaughlin encourages the reader to apply the strategic decision making process, providing a clear and easy-to-use framework. She explains each step along the way and then gives us an opportunity to explore our own thoughts using the aforementioned reflection questions. This process of continually directing the reader through the decision making process is what makes this book a useful tool for any novice or aspiring principal.

Bret Olson is a Vice Principal at Academia Cotopaxi, a school for children of international families living in Quito, Ecuador. Previously, Bret worked as a Vice Principal in Shanghai, China and taught elementary classes in Milan, Italy. Bret was a Teach For America corps member in Houston, Texas prior to moving overseas. He earned his B.A. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and M. Ed. at Lehigh University, studying Educational Leadership. Bret shares his educational thoughts via his professional website

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