school leadership

How I Navigate the Principal's Gambit to Keep Everyone on the Board

This ain’t checkers. It’s chess. 

It was guidance offered to me by Wayne Greer, a veteran principal and mentor, as I joined the ranks of school leadership in the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t explain what the advice meant or what situations I would need to apply the advice to, but in time, I came to fully understand what he meant. He was subtly reminding me that making quick decisions or taking the path of least resistance might not bode well. 

The last year has been an intense game of chess. The decisions principals have had to make have been unprecedented. We’ve been called upon to stand at the helm of ships in a vast sea of change. Now, as we prepare to reopen our schools this fall, many of us are using this time to process how we have grown and what aspects of what we’ve learned should be carried into the coming year. In some cases, that has meant that we are having members of our teaching staff to loop with their students from one grade to the next. In other instances, I’m moving teachers down a grade level because they have knowledge of what skills students will need to develop over the next two years and will be able to loop with those students in 2022. 

Chess is about thinking many moves ahead. Chess is about anticipating challenges and counter moves. Chess is about patience. 

Purpose of a Gambit

In chess, a gambit is the sacrifice of a piece early in the game. The purpose of a gambit is to gain an early advantage in space or in time. It opens up the board or allows more powerful pieces to have an influence on the game. During what many may term the ‘educational offseason,’ principals are quietly sacrificing portions of their summer to hire new staff, plan upcoming professional development, and strategically plan a pre-planning event that sets the tone for the rest of the year. 

In her book, “Releasing the Imagination,” Maxine Greene describes the balancing act that educators must engage in to cope with the troubling seas of change in the profession. School leaders must acknowledge and manage the policies that govern our work and the metrics that are the outcomes of those policies. 

The Unseen Kingdom

Our children and our teachers are not chess pieces. In chess, the pieces on the board are engaged in a battle to protect an unseen kingdom. Educators and those who create education policies must understand this. Behind ratings and numbers are real children, committed teachers, and hopeful parents.

Let us never lose sight of the children, families and communities we serve, protect and represent. Of equal importance is the context of the school. As we grow to understand the traumas of homelessness, drug addiction, and domestic violence we also can begin to envision our schools as lighthouses for families in need.

The global pandemic has had real economic impacts on our community. The loss of jobs with businesses closing and streamlining operations has had palpable ramifications. Metro Atlanta has experienced a rash of violence this summer. There have been shootings, robberies, and an increase in property theft. At schools, including the one I lead, cars of teachers have been burglarized while the teachers were inside teaching the children of the community. The perils of our communities visit the halls and the classrooms of our schools on a daily basis. 

Maxine Greene reminds educators, leaders and district officials to “refuse the decontextualization that falsifies so much.” This ongoing ‘decontextualization’ reemerges as we look at the achievement gap. Data analysis is a key part of the principal’s gambit, as they delve into their school’s data. What practices aren’t working? What initiatives should we sacrifice as we refocus our energy on the most important priorities? Principals are trying to determine what moves to make to improve student achievement. Software and technology purchases abound, but the reality is that Title I funding does not change the context of our schools. Instructional materials, document cameras, and interactive boards don’t help our children sleep peacefully in the backseats of cars. There is much healing that needs to happen this year to address the trauma our children and families have endured this year. Education can’t continue to seek easy answers to our most complex problems. 

Kotov Syndrome

In chess, there is a phenomenon called Kotov Syndrome. It is when a chess player thinks over a move for a long time and does not come to a point of decision, then as time is running out, makes a poor move. The most important work during the summer for a principal can be the staffing of a school. Looking through resumes, interviewing candidates, and thinking about the roles candidates will play in your school’s success is a high-stakes endeavor. A team is only as good as its players. Hiring an effective teacher may take a week, but removing an ineffective teacher can take years. 

As the start of another school year draws closer by the day, principals who have vacancies can encounter a version of Kotov Syndrome, deliberating over a few candidates and running into the dilemma of losing candidates to other districts. Learning to be decisive, while also being thorough in the interviewing process helps one to avoid Kotov Syndrome in staffing. I also bring members of my leadership team into the interviewing process to help vet candidates. 

Since 2002, I’ve taught a small group of students to play chess each year. The game helps them to develop critical thinking skills, engage in delayed gratification, and be more strategic in their lives beyond the chessboard. Learning to play chess at school leads to most of them teaching a sibling or parent how to play the game as well—because the greatest way to deepen learning is to teach.

Teaching students about the types of gambits helps them to understand the opportunity associated with sacrifice. Sacrifice is a part of life and a part of being successful in chess. Principals have sacrificed much to maintain the continuity of instruction and to keep our communities safe. While they deserve applause for keeping schools afloat this year, most of them would just as soon welcome some much-needed downtime.

This fall, let’s sacrifice some of the pieces on our chessboard. Let’s avoid overcommitting to too many initiatives that we cannot successfully sustain. We would be wise to think of ways to take some pieces off the board, streamline our work, and advance our most important initiatives to develop, engage, and flourish our communities. The concept of the “Principal’s Gambit” means simplifying our work to move with greater leadership agility and efficacy.

It’s your move!

Andre Benito Mountain
Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area and founder of  Def-Education Consulting LLC. He is the author of “Principals Don’t Walk on Water” (2020),  “The Mountain Principles” (2018), and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His most recent book is “Virtually Lost: Essays on Education in a Global ...

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