Principals Hone Their “People Skills” with New Simulations

Syracuse University has launched a new simulation training program for school administrators.  The project uses live-action simulations that present more contemporary situations faced by administrators: non-traditional family structures, abusive home situations, substance-abuse issues, morally-charged issues such as sex education, depression, and confrontations with teachers who have more experience than the administrator.

The program is supported by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and has developed 15 principal and 13 teacher simulations.  The program will be rolling out a school leadership training curriculum based on them this fall.

Much of the existing research on professional-development simulations has focused on computer-based programs for teachers, but little emphasis has been given principals.  This live simulation program aims to bridge this gap and assist school leaders develop diplomatic skills and hone their judgment.  “Social interaction is something we aren’t trained on,” says Jody Manning, a veteran superintendent in New York state, “[Preservice programs] take care of the pedagogy, take care of classroom management, but they never teach how to deal with parents.”

Benjamin H. Dotger, lead researcher on the project, and his team interviewed 52 principals about regular issues in their daily practice, including their most difficult conversations with students, parents, and teachers.  The researchers then analyzed the interviews for common problems and themes, and developed the simulations around them.  The actors in the live simulation are trained over 20 hours, not just to play their role but to provide feedback on each principal’s performance.

The simulation scenarios range from a traditional screening interview with a teacher candidate; a conversation with the parents of a student who is seeking re-entry after a drug-related suspension, including one version in which the student’s father reeks of alcohol himself; a meeting in which the principal must act as referee between a first-year teacher and parents angry over her grading policy; and a meeting in which the principal learns that school staff may have inappropriately restrained a student with autism during a verbal misunderstanding.

A leadership student goes into each simulation with a minimum of information: sometimes the student’s file, but more often than not just a note from a secretary.  The participants face four simulations back-to-back to mirror a real meeting schedule an administrator may have.

It remains to be seen if the idea of live simulations will catch on in the administrator-preparation world.  The Syracuse program costs about $10,000 per year for more than 100 students; to put one person through four simulations it costs $150 to $200.

To read the full story and view a video of a simulation, please visit