How to Lead a School Through Unexpected Challenges

Greatest joy of leading a school? No two days are alike. Greatest challenge of leading a school? No two days are alike.

An old pipe breaks in freezing weather in Baku, Azerbaijan

One of the greatest joys of being a school leader is also one of the greatest challenges: No two days look exactly the same. Despite neatly organized calendars and to-do lists, an administrator’s day rarely goes exactly as planned. While principals quickly learn to expect the unexpected, larger challenges can present themselves as roadblocks to derail the important work we set out to accomplish.

Last year, a frozen pipe burst in our school and flooded a significant portion of our building, including my office. While the damage could have been much more extensive than it was, it still had a major impact on our school year and left us somewhat inconvenienced for three months. However, I learned a great deal about how to lead through adversity and unexpected challenges, which happens often for school leaders.

Attitude is everything. 

The first day back to school after the flood required a lot of juggling. This included moving certain classes to different classrooms, including some grades to an off-campus location for the day. To put a positive spin on this, on a whim I deemed this day as Adventure Day! in all of my communication with staff. I made an intentional decision to be overly positive in my communication, while on the inside, I was admittedly questioning how it was all going to happen.

The amazing result was that every single person went with the flow and embraced the adventure. I did not hear one complaint about the situation throughout the day, and everything went off without a hitch. What was even better was watching how teachers explained the day to their students. They capitalized on being in unique spaces by planning out-of-the-ordinary learning experiences for their classes. They embraced the adventure.

In every circumstance we have the choice to focus on the positives or be overwhelmed by the negatives. As leaders, our responsibility to respond with joy and enthusiasm is magnified. In the words of Todd Whitaker, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.”

Make yourself visible to the people you lead.


Damage to the office areas was significant enough that it required our administrative assistant and me to relocate for several months. Rather than move to an alternative office space in a separate building on campus, we packed up and moved into the elementary school library. While privacy was lacking, the centralized location was essential for my leadership.

Working in such proximity, my appreciation for the work that our administrative assistant and librarian do deepened. I witnessed students helping one another, and leaders I hadn’t noticed before began stepping up in the new environment. And I was reminded that every kid has a story.

“When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.”

One particular day, a kindergarten student pleaded with me to read her the library book she had just checked out. She said no one would read with her at home. Suddenly, the importance of catching up on my email faded away, and I was reminded of my why. I would have missed out had I been holed up in a conference room across campus.

Visibility as a leader is always important, but the value is amplified during challenging circumstances. Not only does it provide comfort and reassurance for those who look to our guidance, but it can keep us grounded and focused through uncertainty.

Personal connections are paramount.

The staff restroom was out of order during the months of renovation. As a result, we had to use the student restrooms in the hallway. Even in this less-than-ideal circumstance, you can still learn a lesson. One day, through the stall wall, a little voice said, “Dr. Lamkin, is that you?” I tried not to laugh and just replied, “It sure is, buddy.” There were a few seconds of silence. Then he ventured, “So, can I tell you about the book I’m reading?”

As humorous as that story is to retell, it also led to a meaningful conversation about that student’s reading progress. I can’t say that I advocate for using student restrooms regularly. I am grateful the inconvenient situation provided me such a memorable connection with a student. 

Focus on the people during challenges.

George Couros says, “The three most important words in education are relationships, relationships, relationships.” When dealing with major issues especially, it is easy to become so focused on the challenge that we lose sight of the people. However, often added challenges give added opportunities for fostering relationships. It’s simply up to us to lead through adversity by looking for those opportunities and seizing them as they arise—even from a bathroom stall.

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Plus, check out this article about the need for great school leaders.