Navigating 2023: What Should Be on School Leaders’ Radar?

As 2022 ended, various dictionaries proclaimed their words of the year:
  • Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” after seeing a nearly 2,000% rise in the number of searches for the term.
  • chose “woman” after definition searches spiked 1,400% in a year.
  • And Collins Dictionary chose “permacrisis” because it “perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another.” 
What word will perfectly capture 2023? It is too early to call, but 2023 is already shaping up to be an eventful year. In my past three blog posts, I covered trends that will affect enrollment, the workforce, and giving, but what else should be on a school leader’s radar for the year ahead?

Technology on Steroids

In late 2022, technology took center stage, with the release of Open AI’s new chatbot, ChatGPT. With its ability to generate essays, business plans, speeches, surveys, and take tests, ChatGPT set the education community abuzz with concern, predictions, and experimentation. There was immediate action from some—a few school districts banned its use—while others took a more measured approach, exploring how it could be used to enhance teaching and learning. (In a recent Hard Fork podcast episode, a high school teacher discusses the opportunities she sees in her classroom and David Cutler, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May School (MA), poses some excellent questions in this Edutopia article). But this is surely just the beginning of what’s in store for us as technology rapidly evolves. A recent New York Times article, “The Tech That Will Invade Our Lives in 2023,” explored the road ahead, with some forecasts:
  • As AI chatbots become more sophisticated, we could see them acting as reliable research assistants. Writer Brian X. Chen writes, “Imagine that you are writing a research paper and want to add some historical facts about World War II. You could share a 100-page document with the bot and ask it to sum up the highlights related to a certain aspect of the war. The bot will then read the document and generate a summary for you.”
  • Virtual reality will also mature this year as more tech companies enter the game. Some schools experimented with virtual and augmented reality during the pandemic, and many see applications for education exploding as the technology improves.
  • The use of social media platforms may also shift this year as people seek fun and safe spaces to connect. Many young people are already adopting newer apps like BeReal. Sources like Common Sense Media review these apps for safety and age appropriateness so that educators and parents can stay on top of how they evolve. 
  • And this may be the year that the Supreme Court explores accountability for internet service providers: Gonzalez v. Google considers whether the Section 230 legal provision shields tech companies from claims that their algorithmic recommendations of content can cause harm, and Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh considers questions related to responsibility for monitoring posts that support terrorism.

Mental Health Still a Concern

The mental health of both adults and children will continue to be a major concern this year. According to Mental Health America’s “2023 State of Mental Health in America” report:
  • 21% of adults in the U.S. are experiencing a mental illness.
  • 2.7 million youth are experiencing severe major depression.
  • 16% of youth report suffering from a major depressive episode in the past year, and 60% of youth with major depression do not receive any type of mental health treatment.
Post-pandemic, 10 states adopted laws that allow students to take a day off from school for mental health purposes. But experts suggest that, although these kinds of policies can send a positive message about the importance of taking care of mental health, they are not enough. In a recent Education Week article, experts advise that this approach should be paired with strategies such as “hiring more mental health support staff; creating partnerships with community mental health providers; setting up a mental health hotline; and training teachers and students to identify signs of mental distress.” Some schools are even creating director of wellness positions. We may find that a common trend in the years ahead.

Trust Still Low and Polarization High

While I think we all hope for increased trust and decreased polarization in 2023, we may be facing another long and difficult year. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, “A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide, and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today—deeply and dangerously polarized.
  • Business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical.
  • 53% of respondents globally say that their countries are more divided today than in the past.”
The Barometer also identified that income plays a role in trust, with a 23-point trust gap in the U.S. between those in the highest income quartile and those in the lowest. They also categorized the U.S. as one of six most severely polarized countries, along with Spain, Sweden, South Africa, Columbia, and Argentina. Navigating this environment will require leaders to become more adaptive in their approach.

Labor Shortages are the New Normal

As we face 2023 and beyond, I fear that labor shortages will continue to be one of the greatest challenges for independent schools. According to a recent Society for Human Resource Management forecast, the shortage of workers is with us to stay for the foreseeable future, due to demographic shifts and an aging population. The number of people between the ages of 15 and 65 will decline in the U.S. by 3% over the next decade and that decline will likely continue beyond that. This will drive steeper competition, particularly around compensation. SHRM projects that employers in the U.S. plan to boost salaries an average of 4.6% in 2023. This will stress school budgets at a time when they are already navigating the effects of rising inflation but will be needed to recruit and retain a strong workforce.

And Then There Is the Economy

Many forecasters believe that the U.S. will fall into a mild recession in 2023, but that the economy will rebound somewhat in 2024. According to The World Bank, in the United States, growth is forecast to fall to 0.5% in 2023—1.9 percentage points below previous forecasts and the weakest performance outside of official recessions since 1970. 
Given worries about the economy, consumer confidence has remained volatile. According to the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index, confidence fell in March 2023 for the first time in four months, “sitting about 5% below February but remaining 7% above a year ago.” With a number of banks recently failing, these numbers could sink lower in April.

How Do We Navigate this Landscape?

How do leaders navigate an unsettled 2023 landscape? Scenario planning is essential to ensure 
your school is prepared to face twists and turns. However, self-care is also crucial for leaders. In ”Did You Get Your Hopes Up Too High for 2023?”, a January Greater Good Magazine article, managing editor Kira M. Newman suggests that we need to practice both hope and optimism, but understand the difference between the two. According to psychologists, hope is useful for situations over which we have control. In those cases, hope gives us the motivation we need to accomplish our goals. But for situations over which we have no control—and there are quite a few in 2023—optimism may be more useful as it “involves expecting a positive future whether or not we have control over it, thanks to generally rosy views of other people and the world itself.” 

So, a recipe for success this year may be to first identify what you do and don’t have control over. Taking that first step may go a long way in managing expectations and setting you and your school up for success.

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.