Crucible Moments

By Kyle Sandford  |  October 11th

Have you ever experienced those days or weeks in leadership where everything is going well? Kids are engaged in learning. Parents are thrilled with the school. Teachers are all healthy and planning exciting lessons that you actually have the time to go and see happening because your email inbox and to-do list are both manageable.

I can almost hear everyone looking for a piece of wood to knock on as I write this.

We all know that those times come to an end; usually a dramatic one. It’s not like running out of gas on a beautiful Sunday drive to take in the changing leaves of fall. It's more like the whiteout blizzard on the 401 that comes out of nowhere and results in a few dozen cars looking like my six-year-old's Hot Wheels bucket getting dumped onto the ground. 

I had one of those moments last year. Mask restrictions had lifted, we were holding whole-school events, and exciting future-focused discussions were happening with our Board and staff. We were looking ahead at how we could embrace the changes our school had experienced through COVID, make the best out of a rough couple of years, and continue to thrive as a community school with a focus on bringing people together. So when two specific conversations took hard left turns and derailed all momentum we had going, it's safe to say that I found myself in a crucible moment. 

Merriam-Webster has three definitions for the word "crucible." Crucible can mean either "a severe test" or "a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development." It can also refer to smelting pots, although we're not discussing those (even though perhaps parallels could be drawn).

A crucible moment is the moment that everything rides on. It becomes a point at which future patterns and realities are defined based on our response. No pressure, right? The response of the school leadership, both principal and board, will determine whether or not this moment leads to growth or crisis. In this particular crucible moment, the relationship between the board and principal was the single most important factor in which side we came out on.

Without getting into all of the details, an issue within the community escalated quickly to a point where it was clear that no matter the amount of time we spent on it, a peaceful resolution was nowhere in sight.

The board had a tough decision to make at that point about who they would side with. As the principal, it meant the world to me that my board listened to what I had to share, saw the vision forward instead of looking back, and were unwavering in their support.

That level of support didn't come out of nowhere though. There are many things that a school leader can do to foster a positive relationship with their board. First, communication between the principal and board chair needs to be ongoing and transparent. As partners in leadership of the school, hiding things from one another creates a dangerous precedent. At the very least, a once-a-week conversation should be held to check in on how things are going, what potential issues exist, and provide updates on how other situations have resolved. It's important that there are no surprises coming up at the board meetings or coming back to the principal as results of "meetings after the meeting" in the parking lot. These two people must have each other's back.

Second, the principal should be actively involved in succession planning for the board. While there may be split opinions on this, it's hard to deny that the principal is in the best position to know both the upsides and downsides to certain individuals coming onto the board for the next term. Interpersonal dynamics, dedication to the vision of the school, and finding the right fit for the needs of the board are all important considerations. Along with the other executive members of the board, the principal should be actively involved in thinking about the future of the board instead of just settling for the raised hand when looking for new nominations.

Third, the procedures guiding how issues are addressed need to be clear and fully supported by the board. Anyone that has served on a board knows that when things are running smoothly, it's an easy and rewarding way to serve. When complaints come in, budgets are tight, or the odd global pandemic decides to hit, it's a different story. Ensuring that lines of communication are clearly laid out and that the board doesn't allow people to jump over the principal is very important. Nothing undermines a principal's authority like a board that takes matters into their own hands instead of deferring to and empowering their chosen leader to handle things. If, in the case that a board member doesn't act as a part of the team, the board chair needs to be ready to step in and remind them of the expectations in place.

So, the next time you and your board find yourself facing a severe test—a crucible moment—remember that the challenges you're facing have the opportunity to create change and development that will lead to growth, or they will reveal any weakness that exists in the relationship between you and your board. I will testify that being on the other side of that moment now, even though the thought of it is still painful, has brought us to a brighter and more promising step towards our vision as a school.


Kyle Sandford is the Bluewater Cohort Leader at Edvance, and Principal at Strathroy Community Christian School.