Who are the Problem Solvers?

from http://thisisindexed.com/

Many look to the principal to be the problem solver.

We can’t agree on how to schedule these students. What should we do?
There’s an issue with the lunch cards in the cafeteria. How should we handle it?
My child is being bothered by another student. Can you help us?
We’ve tried many different instructional approaches with this child, but he’s still not understanding. What can we try next?

Most principals are inherently skilled problem solvers. One of the benefits we have in our role is being able to step outside of the situation and view the varied aspects of the problem before offering input into how it can best be solved. As sometimes uninvolved participants in the conflict, we can remain cool-headed, consider all options, and draw upon our experiences to help craft possible solutions. John Gardner reflects in On Leadership that leaders who work to resolve conflicts use their influences to eliminate irrational demands, and “foster the transition from a cross fire of accusations to a collaborative search for solutions” (p. 105). Leaders look for the underlying causes of the disputes. Is it a lack of communication? Insensitivity to needs? Leaders then work to solve conflict in an environment of open communication and honesty and explore all alternative solutions.

Let’s examine the graphic above, shared from one of my favorite sites, Indexed. (Go to this site after you are finished reading my post. And after you are finished commenting. It’s so smart.) On one hand, the graphic is an accurate representation of how someone from outside of the situation can bring a unique, honest, unfiltered perspective on the conflict. It is sometimes easier for that person to recognize a solution and thus, it becomes less “impossible” to solve. However, personal accountability is huge. The more invested in a situation someone is, the more difficult, ultimately, it is to solve the problem. But truly, can anyone other than the people so deeply involved make the change?

Principals are certainly not the only problem solvers in the school. In fact, some of the best principals will insist that teachers who raise an issue also present possible resolutions to that problem. Last year a team of teacher leaders in our building read John G. Miller’s QBQ: The Question Behind the Question: What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining and Procrastination. Intense subtitle aside, the guidelines within this text really help you focus on what you can do to alleviate a problem as opposed to look to others to solve the problem for you. When a teacher asks, “How can I improve this situation?” “What can I contribute?” or “How can I make a difference?” he is placing himself in a different frame of mind that will empower him to be an active part of finding the solution to the problem, not just bringing the issue to someone else’s attention.

How do these principles apply to our lives in schools? Reading Brian Crosby’s words about what teachers need from administrators helped me reflect on the fact that most teachers want to be held accountable, want to be involved in the change process, and want to do what it takes to improve their practice and their schools. They don’t want change handed to them- they want to be active participants in the process. Anyone who has ever tried to initiate change in an organization knows that conflict will certainly rear its ugly head at some (and likely, all) points in the process. Problems will need to be solved.

Carry this premise into the classroom as well. Teachers and staff should model for students what effective problem solving looks like – identify the issue, examine the facts, determine the emotional elements involved, brainstorm possible solutions and the consequences of each, agree on some form of action, and continually reflect on that decision to ensure it was right. Students will absolutely need to be adept problem solvers in all capacities in their adult lives, and we need to help them hold themselves accountable for the fact that they do have the power and skills to make the right choices.

Principals are problem solvers, but we cannot, and should not, do it alone. We need the expertise and creative solutions of our faculties, parents, and students to help us. I’d love to learn about the different approaches to problem solving in your schools!


  1. David Truss said:

    Hi Lyn,
    I’m a total fan of Jessica Hagy’s indexed, she really is brilliant and insightful! That said, I wonder if sometimes the opposite isn’t true when looking at this particular index card. When a couple teachers come to me and say something like, “We can’t agree on how to schedule these students. What should we do?” It has been my experience that often they can’t agree because the teachers are too close to the problem! If the teachers could step back and think “What’s best for these students” rather than ‘what fits my schedule best’ or ‘I always get the tougher teaching load’ or ‘I really want to teach this group’, then there would be less need to ask for help. That said, a real leadership challenge is to not answer the question but rather to encourage the teachers to agree on what’s best, (or more specifically, to come up with a different approach themselves, as you suggest at the end of your post)… a tricky task that I’m far from being an expert at!

    September 8, 2010
    • Lyn said:

      I agree with your comments! I just had a scenario last week where this was the case, and the solution was very difficult to see for the two teachers involved, not because they didn’t care about students or they didn’t want to find the best answer, but because they both were so emotionally invested in the situation and clinging to what they “knew” to be best. It was hard for them to see each other’s perspectives. I agree it is one of our biggest leadership challenges to help facilitate collaborative problem solving with our colleagues! Thanks for commenting!

      September 8, 2010
  2. Robyn said:

    Great post. I have a friend who is a principal. He has a stuffed monkey in his office. When a staff member comes to him with a problem he gives them the monkey and asks them to take it and come back when they have two solutions. Now the monkey hardly ever leaves his desk and he has a staff of problem solvers!

    September 8, 2010
    • Lyn said:

      Thanks for commenting, Robyn! I like your friend’s line of thinking. I do something similar with a stuffed Spartan mascot with our students, but I have not ever handed it to a staff member to help solve a problem! Thanks for sharing!

      September 8, 2010
  3. Andy said:

    Thanks for this post. I was struck by the similarity between Brian’s words and the research on fair process (Kim, W., and Mauborgne, R. (1997). Fair Process. Harvard Business Review, January 1). For people to most trust systems, even if they can ‘lose’ in that system, they must believe they have engagement, explanation, and expectation clarity. As a school principal I know that all teachers want to create the best outcomes for learners, and they recognize that they may need to change for that to happen. Using fair process helps them trust that the change is really about the students and not about the “next big thing” or my personal agenda, in fact most of the ideas don’t come from me at all. I just help remove barriers and find/create resources.

    September 8, 2010
    • Lyn Hilt said:

      Andy, thank you for your insightful comments and the reference about Fair Process. How true that most of our teachers realize that change may be necessary, but it’s important that we help them understand we’re not pushing personal agendas, and that change (hopefully) is in the best interest of our students.

      September 9, 2010

Comments are closed.