Category Archives: Leadership

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.


Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You’ve Never Asked

Let me start with a simple truth:  There is no single decision made by the principal of a professional learning community more important than who to hire to fill vacancies on individual learning teams.

After all, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty – working with students, influencing colleagues, shaping decisions, impacting public relations – for years to come.  Heck, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty long after you have left for a new position.  That means every hiring decision that you make has tangible, long-term consequences for the families and the students that you are responsible for protecting and serving.

That’s obvious, right?  Then why is it that the interview questions we ask are so terribly, horribly wrong?

Why do we keep asking candidates to tell us about their experiences with integrating technology into their instruction or their strategies for managing difficult students?  Why are we interested in what a candidate believes about grading, homework or parent communication?  What is the point of asking candidates to tell us more about their unit planning process or to describe the worst lesson that they’ve ever taught?

Every one of those questions is centered around an individual teacher’s decisions and choices – and those individual decisions and choices are almost always made together by collaborative teams in professional learning communities.  When you are hiring for openings in a PLC, you have to recognize that you aren’t trying to fill a roster with remarkable individuals.  Instead, you are trying to build a team full of people who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

So what kind of questions WOULD we ask if we recognized that collective strength mattered more than individual talent? 

That’s easy.  The ONLY interview question that you have to ask to identify the best candidate for a position in a professional learning community is, “Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.”

At that point, ANY candidate that you are considering should be able to light up and tell you about a moment in their professional career where collaboration made them stronger.  Maybe it was a time when they developed a series of lessons that they refined and polished with a peer.  Maybe it was a time when a learning partner challenged a practice that they believed in.  Maybe it was a time when they became a better teacher by borrowing a strategy from someone on a learning team.

Whatever answer they give, look for enthusiasm and animation in their voice and in their body language.  The story should come easy to them and they should be excited to tell it.  They are likely to smile a lot and to lean forward in their chair.  They may talk faster and ask rhetorical questions.  They should be incredibly proud of the experience – and most importantly, they should be convinced that they are a better teacher as a result of the experience that they are describing to you.

And if they can’t give you an answer – or if their answer seems forced or false – thank them for their time and keep looking.

If you are convinced that collaboration between colleagues is the key to improving learning for students – and you should be – then it is time to start hiring people who have first-hand experience with the power and the promise of professional learning communities.




Related Radical Reads:

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent


Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

Not long ago, I was grabbing dinner with a principal friend who lives on the West Coast.  Let’s call him Carl*.

It was a great evening, full of provocative conversation that challenged my thinking.  At one point, Carl mentioned that he was frustrated with the pace of change at his building.  “I’m constantly finding pockets of innovation in my building,” he said.  “But nothing spreads across our entire school.”

At that point, I pulled a piece of paper out of my backpack and drew a simple T-Chart.  On one side of the paper, I wrote “Our Initiatives” and on the other, I wrote “People Moving This Work Forward with Passion.”  I pushed the paper across the table and told Carl to start writing.  Then, I headed to the bar to order another round.

When I got back with our beers, Carl had finished writing — and what I saw in the “our initiatives” column was no surprise at all.

His school was working on 7 major change projects all at the same time.  Like many schools, they were wrestling with PBIS, the 4Cs, RTI and PLCs — all while tinkering with Genius Hour and integrating both the Common Core and the Next Gen Science Standards into the work they were doing with students.  Oh yeah — and their district had just gone 1:1 with Google Chromebooks.

The real eye-opener was what we found in the “people moving this work forward with passion” column:  Eighty percent of the teachers in Carl’s school were listed somewhere in the table, but less than ten percent were moving more than one initiative forward.

There was also inconsistency across grade levels and departments.  He had a third grade teacher who was a district leader with new math standards, a fifth grade team that was doing great things with PBIS, and an art teacher who had used her Chromebooks to reimagine the elementary art classroom.  He was proud of the science instruction happening in second grade, but embarrassed by the quality of the reading instruction happening on the exact same team.  His special educators were actively creating differentiated remediation activities for students struggling in core classrooms, but they seemed ambivalent about things like critical thinking and creativity.

Carl was disappointed, convinced that his faculty had grown stagnant.  He even seemed a little hurt by what he saw as an apparent unwillingness on the part of his teachers to fully embrace all of the projects that he had brought to the building.  I saw real reason for celebration, though — and I pushed Carl to look at his T-Chart through a different lens.  “You lead an organization where eight out of every ten employees are truly passionate about driving change,” I said.  “How’s THAT a bad thing?”

You see the lesson in this story, don’t you?

Sometimes “pockets of innovation” are a sign that you are trying to do too much all at once.  Forced to wrestle with tons of new change efforts, your teachers are committing their professional energy and enthusiasm to the ideas that resonate the most and letting everything else fall by the wayside.  That’s not because they are resistant to your leadership.  That’s because change is a heck of a lot harder than people think — and most people only have the professional bandwidth to tackle one or two new projects at a time.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not questioning your authority or your passion for seeing your school improve.  You can roll out as many new projects and programs as you want to — and the chances are that every project and program you embrace has the potential to change your school for the better.

But if you are pushing more than one or two change efforts at a time, don’t be surprised when your results are scattered.  Asking teachers to successfully embrace too many new ideas all at the same time just isn’t realistic no matter how important those ideas may be.



(*Carl’s real.  But this name isn’t!)


Related Radical Reads:

School Leadership is a Lot Like Lifeguarding

Real Progress Doesn’t Happen in Leaps and Bounds

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

Want to Drive Change? Stop Planning and Start Acting.

I read a really interesting Matt Mullenweg article this week detailing one of Apple’s greatest strengths as a brand:  Their willingness to ship first and polish products later.

Mullenweg points out that every game-changing Apple device — including the iPod, iPad and iPhone — was panned by reviewers when it was initially released.  And in many cases, reviewers were right:  The earliest versions of many of Apple’s most successful products were far from perfect.  Sometimes, that imperfection was a result of flawed product design or important features that the company hadn’t anticipated.  Other times, that imperfection was a result of an inability to access required component parts at costs that could make each individual product affordable.

But perfection wasn’t the goal for Apple.  Usage was — and usage matters WAY more than perfection when you are trying to drive change.  As Mullenweg explains:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world…

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”

You can see the implications for education, can’t you?  

All too often, we spend MONTHS — or even YEARS — polishing ideas instead of pushing them out into our buildings or our classrooms.  We get bogged down in committees who meet monthly to study and to research and to brainstorm and to build consensus and to raise awareness and to prepare — and all that happens BEFORE an idea is ever even introduced to a faculty.  Every change effort — think starting a 1:1 initiative or designing a school-wide remediation or enrichment period or integrating the 4 Cs into our instruction or moving to a project-based curriculum — becomes a long-term goal dependent on extensive planning and preparation instead of taking any kind of action.

But here’s the hitch:  When every change effort is seen as a long term goal, nothing ever changes.  Worse yet, when every change effort is seen as a long-term goal, your willingness to change direction when something isn’t working drops because you are completely and totally invested in a bad idea.

Mullenweg — who also happens to be the founding developer behind WordPress, open-source software that powers over twenty percent of the web — has a simple rule for pacing change projects:  He argues that if you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of anything that you “ship,” then you waited too long to get started.

So whether you are a superintendent, a principal or a classroom teacher, let Mullenweg’s “be embarrassed” rule drive your thinking this year.  Quit concentrating on developing the perfect initiative, project or lesson and start committing to an act first, polish later orientation to change.  Doing so gives you a better chance of developing something that you can be proud of.


Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

Are You Surrounded by Bobbleheads?

One of my favorite bloggers is Dan Rockwell — The Leadership Freak.  Dan concentrates on writing short bits designed to make leaders think about the overall health of their organizations.  Recently, Dan wrote an important bit about the role that disagreement should play in decision-making.

His central argument:  The best decisions depend on the willingness of leaders to elicit disagreement from their employees.  He writes:

Agreement hinders effective decision-making.  The bobble-heads that surround leaders may soothe the leader’s ego, but they harm organizations.

He also writes:

Decisions aren’t decisions until there are at least two viable options on the table.

Those are important notions, y’all — particularly in schools, where disagreement is often seen as disrespectful and where keeping the peace is almost always our first priority.  We tend to smile and nod our way through difficult conversations, hoping to move forward quickly instead of readily embracing competing ideas.  The simple truth is that the intellectual and social tension that comes with any kind of perceived conflict — including the conflict that comes the moment we disagree with one another — is something that we just aren’t prepared to wrestle with.

And that has to change.


Related Radical Reads:

Are Your Learning Teams Playing Together?

Three Traits of the Best Principals

What Principals Can Learn from Love Labs