Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 7: Ditch the Checklists and Ask Some Questions.

For the last fifteen years of my career, I’ve fought an almost constant battle with school leaders over one simple practice:  Posting my daily objective on the board of my classroom — a practice that is almost always required by my bosses and that I NEVER do.

The result:  I almost always get dinged on my evaluation for skipping this required practice each time that someone in a position of authority observes me for the first time.  “Posting your objective is a best practice, Bill,” they’ll say.  “Research shows that when students are aware of what you are expecting them to learn, they achieve at higher rates.”

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Can you spot the problem in that statement, y’all? 

Posting your objective on the board ISN’T a best practice.

Making students aware of what they are expected to learn IS a best practice.

Those AREN’T the same thing.

Take my classroom for example:  I use Unit Overview Sheets to communicate expected outcomes to my students.  These sheets include student friendly descriptions of each of the standards covered in a unit, all of the required vocabulary for a unit, and “doing tasks” for each outcome that can be used by students as demonstrations of mastery.  They also include spaces for students to track their own progress towards mastering each outcome and to record scores earned on assignments tied to each outcome.

These sheets come out in my room two or three times a week.  Students review the outcomes that we are about to study OR that we have just finished studying.  Then, they record ideas in “proof boxes” on their Unit Overview Sheets as evidence of things that they have mastered and reflect on both where they are going and how they are doing.

Isn’t that a helluva’ lot better than just posting my objective on the board each day?

Not only am I meeting my administration’s expectation that teachers will communicate their essential outcomes to students, I’m providing students with chances to assess their own progress towards mastery — another research based practice that has a significant impact on student learning.  I’m also giving every student — including kids who struggle to make As and Bs — multiple chances to see that they ARE making progress as learners.

Heck — the way I see it, I should be getting bonus points on my evaluation for going BEYOND expectations.  Instead, I get dinged because my bosses don’t see my objective written on the board in my classroom.

So why does this stuff happen?

Here’s why:  Principals — like durn near everyone in education — are overworked.

In addition to keeping the building running and handling student discipline issues, they are tasked with supervising dozens and dozens of employees each year.  To make this work more manageable, they turn teacher evaluation into a series of simple, observable steps that I like to think of as “checklist leadership.”

Does the teacher have high enough test scores?


Does the teacher post their objective on the board?


Does the teacher use technology in their lessons?


Does the teacher use a complex text in their lesson?


But here’s the thing:  Those behaviors might be easy to observe, but none of them matter if they aren’t paired with a clear understanding of — and commitment to — the purpose behind the practice.

Here’s an example: Years ago, one of my administrators called me into her office and told me that she wanted me to go and visit one of my colleagues for advice.  “Bill, I want you to go talk to Peggy.  She posts her objective on the board every day.  She can tell you how important it is.”

So I stopped by Peggy’s room.  Her objective read, “The students will be able to self-select grade level reading materials to use during silent reading with 80 percent accuracy.”

Think about that for a minute, would you?

It doesn’t make any sense as written, does it?  Taken at face value, it means that a student will successfully choose a book to use during silent reading four days of the week — but on the fifth, they might pick up a stapler or a calculator instead.


When I asked Peggy about her objective, she said, “Oh that’s been up there for months.  I just have it up in case I get observed.  Nobody asks about it anyway.  They just want to see something written on the board.”

THAT’s what happens when you slip into checklist leadership, y’all.

Teachers stop thinking about the reasons behind your requests and start finding ways to follow your rules.  And unless you start asking probing questions, you might just end up convinced that a teacher is doing all the right things when in reality, they are doing the bare minimum because they know that your observation consists of nothing more than looking for — instead of encouraging the development of — core practices.

How do you avoid all of this?  

Start asking lots of questions of your teachers.

“Your objective wasn’t on the board,” can become, “How do you make students aware of what they are supposed to be learning during your lessons?”

“You weren’t using technology,” can become, “How do you personalize learning in your lessons?”

“Your test scores aren’t as high as the scores of your peers,” can become, “What outcomes do you think you are really effective at helping students to master?  Which do you struggle to help students master?”

Long story short:  Questions asked in formal and informal conversations  — instead of simple checklists used during mandatory evaluations — are the only way to really see what your teachers know and can do.  




Related Radical Reads:

Using Unit Overview Sheets to Help EVERY Student See Progress.

Leadership Lesson from Band of Brothers


More on Classroom Walkthroughs and Teacher Evaluation




5 thoughts on “Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 7: Ditch the Checklists and Ask Some Questions.

  1. Kyle Hamstra

    Hey, Bill.

    As always, your passion for meaningful learning experiences and for the entire journey is apparent. I like how you create and provide students with several opportunities for small wins and ownership in charting their own courses in mastering learning all along the way. More themes that ring true are how carefully-worded, open-ended questions can drive conversations and change outcomes. In addition–there’s simply the willingness to have those non-checklist conversations in assuming best intentions of veteran educators.

    I definitely support educators and students knowing exactly what’s expected and what’s being taught and learned. Maybe there are many ways to go about that, but awareness is a key, initial step one. While I don’t dislike the idea of posting a standard on the board, perhaps standards in the hands of students enhance and produce more meaningful learning outcomes than teacher-led, teacher-initiated mandates. Or, what if both?

    I’m fascinated by all-things leadership–especially school administration. The more classes I take towards my MSA, the more my classroom teaching perspective changes, and the more I agree with you–that the principal’s job is enormous and overwhelming in terms of daily responsibilities and outright human interactions. In addition, I’m wondering if there are legal obligations that administrators are meeting when observations may seem mundane in nature? Nevertheless, I like how you implied that principals simply may not have as much time to initiate or extend as many conversations with teachers as they would prefer, which leads me to something I’ve been thinking on for a long time…

    Is it time to change the entire process for observing and evaluating teachers? Has there ever been a joint-committee task force of sorts comprised of administrators and teachers at all levels to produce a more meaningful, updated method for observing, measuring, and recording teacher effectiveness throughout the year? I’m still thinking on this. Some thoughts have leaned in the direction of educators themselves being super-proactive in creating a public portfolio of their learning journey, complete with small wins, steps for mastery along the way to reaching annual goals, and ownership in crafting several processes in meeting professional teaching standards, archived in one digital product. The portfolio could include social media posts, videos, artifacts, and even links to students’ digital portfolios.

    “Here are some of our meaningful learning experiences–when we were learning these standards. See my digital continuum of where I was, where I am, and where I want to be. Watch this video, read my blog, read a student’s blog, hear our student-created podcast, see our google drawings sketchnote, see this tweet, check out what these students recorded in their unit overview sheets. See how this previously non-confident, uninterested, non-performing student is taking ownership and is proud of her journey? See these small wins? Watch her leap-frog her way to mastery on lily pads of her choosing. Watch her get there by the end of the quarter, or really, the end of the year. That’s genuine, standards-based learning.” That’s powerful.

    The observation follow-up meeting would feature the principal asking the open-ended questions like you included, which yields to educator flexibility in meeting expectations, and answers are ones where the educator would know ahead of time and could locate the information quickly. The entire 5-10 question meeting would last 5-10 minutes.

    When this observation follow-up meeting is happening, I’m still envisioning the principal sitting next to the educator, saying: “Show me this…” and then checking off another box. That’s okay. It’s okay because I’m not sure if administrators can always be aware of how educators differentiate teaching to meet individual learning needs of their learners in all classrooms, and I’m also not sure administrators have as much time to be as fluent in all standards and practices in all areas as they would prefer. However, this kind of observation is transformational: meaning and value are added in this scenario because the educator owned the performance, journey, and accountability, and the educator is the one proactively communicating, transferring, and applying knowledge of observational expectations and professional teaching standards.

    The administrator would still make frequent classroom visits to ensure meaningful, standards-based learning, have conversations, and see students in action, while the educator would still communicate progress towards meeting annual goals throughout the year.

    All of this puts a ton of faith in educators knowing their professional teaching standards, instructional standards, and the ability to effectively communicate their progress. At the very least, that would require incredible PLC support, right?

    I think that sometimes classroom teachers may continue “doing what’s always been done,” because the means by which their performances are measured haven’t changed–so why should their instruction? The challenge may be with changing the system. Administrators may have observation checklists to complete because that’s what the current system requires. Until systemic requirements change, why should practices?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Kyle wrote:

      I definitely support educators and students knowing exactly what’s expected and what’s being taught and learned. Maybe there are many ways to go about that, but awareness is a key, initial step one. While I don’t dislike the idea of posting a standard on the board, perhaps standards in the hands of students enhance and produce more meaningful learning outcomes than teacher-led, teacher-initiated mandates. Or, what if both?


      Hey Kyle,

      First, I totally get why school administrators move to checklist leadership. Their job is WAY more demanding than people realize. That’s why I’ve never gone into administration. It’s impossible work, in my opinion.

      Second, I think changing teacher evaluation has to happen. What we have now is not meaningful at all. Plain and simple.

      But I don’t think that should create tons of new documenting responsibilities for classroom teachers UNLESS we are going to (1). pay them for the additional work or (2). give them more on the clock time to complete the work. That’s just pushing more work onto teachers to fix a flawed system — and personally, I’m tired of “push the work onto the teachers” being a solution for all that ails schools. That’s why turnover rates continue to skyrocket.

      Now to your “what if both” quote above: If the goal is to ensure that students are aware of the expectations for a lesson — to be able to answer the questions, “Where am I going? How am I doing? How do I close the gap between those two questions?” — then there doesn’t have to be both in rooms like mine. I’ve got a clear system for doing that work with my students already. (And I really would argue that I’ve got a BETTER system for doing that work already.)

      “Both” only makes it easier for the administrator to observe/evaluate me. It’s adding an extra task to my morning routine for no other purpose than that. It doesn’t add any benefit to student learning in my room. It’s about making things easier for the adults.

      What that would mean in my room is that I’d stop writing my Kudos Cards to students in order to write objectives on the board. You know what those are. Which would you rather have me doing in the morning — and remember, “both” isn’t a choice because you haven’t given me any additional time to do both.

      Is that a worthwhile trade? My students gain nothing from the objective being written in a second place and they lose the recognition and appreciation from their teacher — something that builds relationships that I can leverage for learning.

      Another thought: Shouldn’t my principals have differentiated expectations for each of their teachers?

      Maybe posting objectives on the board is the right first step for teachers who aren’t doing anything to communicate outcomes to their students — but is it also a step that I should have to follow given that I’m already working far beyond that expectation?

      Shouldn’t there be some “single subject acceleration” opportunities for teachers who have proven to be working beyond expectations?

      And if not, why in the heck do we ask teachers to differentiate learning for their students?

      That’s another beef I have with this whole objective mess — and with any decision made by principals that is applied for every teacher in the same way: If you expect to see differentiation happening in classrooms, model it in your evaluation practices with your teachers.

      But that won’t happen because differentiation is time consuming — and principals just don’t have the time. (Which, by the way, is the same challenge that I have with differentiating lessons. But I don’t have the organizational power to say, “Nope. Not going to do that.”)

      Any of this make sense?

      Long story short: I’m not buying the “both” line of thinking anymore because it means more work for me. ESPECIALLY if the additional work adds no value to my students.


  2. mgeoghegan22

    Bill — You have written some amazing posts, and many of them I have Tweeted, lauded, applauded, shared, and referenced, but this one might be one of my favorites. It had me laughing out loud and agreeing in so many ways. As a principal, I appreciate your candor, perspective, intellect, and humor. Great job. #SoTrue Thanks, Marty

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Marty,

      Thanks a ton for your kind words. And more importantly, thanks for “getting” this post!

      I think the most important step that a school leader can take is to be open to the notion that teachers might be accomplishing important goals in ways that differ from “the requirements.” When principals are open to that idea, our profession retains some of the creativity that draws accomplished people to any field. On the other hand, when school change depends on simply following directions, guys like me lose interest.

      Stated another way, obedience isn’t a change strategy.

      A funny addition to the story that I shared above: After getting tired of being dinged by the principal in the story above, I finally put a BS objective on my board. I left the same objective up for EIGHT MONTHS. Each time that she observed me from that point forward, she thanked me for “being on board” with posting my daily objective. Never one time did she notice that it was the same objective visit after visit OR that it rarely aligned with anything that I was teaching in my classroom. I was most definitely not on board — but my evaluations improved.

      That’s what makes checklist leadership so dangerous: It gives principals an evaluative out — see the objective? Great. Move on.

      And if teachers know that, they find ways to game the system.


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