Session Materials – Solution Tree PLC Institutes

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Rogers, Arkansas and Madison, Wisconsin. The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:


Digital Tools Can Make Differentiation Doable

Slides for Session  |  Book Connected to Session

If schools are truly working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences need to be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles. The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable. While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality. William M. Ferriter introduces a range of digital tools that can be used to track progress by student and standard, provide structure for differentiated classrooms, and facilitate initial attempts at remediation and enrichment.


Small Schools and Singletons: Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session | Book Connected to Session

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging. Participants explore four models for building meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools: 1) creating vertical teams to study skills that cross content areas, 2) using interdisciplinary teams to address the engagement levels of at-risk students, 3) designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, and 4) using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area.


Our Students Can Assess Themselves*

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session | Book Connected to Session

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog: “I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?” Shareski’s challenge resonates with William M. Ferriter, who has always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work in his classroom. He introduces participants to the tangible steps he has taken in response to Shareski’s challenge to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into classrooms.

*NOTE to ROGERS PARTICIPANTS:  Bill has added a slide to the presentation that includes a link to a handout that you can use to facilitate a conversation within your school about whether you are creating Bushkraffts or Baljeets.  Hope you dig it.


For more information on structuring high functioning Professional Learning Communities, check out Bill’s books — Building a Professional Learning Community at Work – A Guide to the First Year and Making Teamwork Meaningful.

And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.  

Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 3: Start Building Social Capital with Everyone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the defining traits of the best principals that I’ve ever worked for.

Some of the traits that those principals shared won’t surprise you. 

They were all able to articulate a clear vision of what they wanted our school to be — and they were all committed to making sure that every step we took moved us towards that shared vision.  They were all REALLY good at protecting us from distractions — openly prioritizing the work we were required to do, saying to us at times, “This is a task we are required to do, but don’t put a ton of energy into it.”  And they were all thoughtful and reflective — willing to consider alternatives to their core beliefs instead of relying on authority to push their own decisions forward regardless of the positions of their faculties.

But the trait that mattered the most to me was far simpler:  All of the best principals that I’ve ever worked for were deliberate about building social capital with their faculties.


They were CONSTANTLY present in the hallways during informal moments during the school day — teacher planning periods, morning arrival times, staff development days when things are slower than they normally are.

And they were CONSTANTLY stopping to have informal conversations with EVERY staff member — not just the small group of teachers that they were the most comfortable with.

Those conversations went in a thousand directions depending on who the staff member was.  Talk to a young mother was centered around whether their newborn was sleeping through the night yet.  Talk to a sports fan was centered around the recent performance of their favorite team.  Talk to a deeply reflective teacher was centered around the characteristics of good instruction.

And those conversations were ALWAYS genuine and ALWAYS extended over time.  An example:  One of the best principals that I ever worked for knew just how important my daughter is to me because of how hard it was for my wife and I to have children.  He asked me about her all the time — wanting to see pictures, wanting to know what she was up to, wanting to know what I loved most about being a dad.  Heck:  I crossed paths with him the other day on a bike trail after YEARS of being in different schools and the first thing he did was ask me about my kid.

The worst principal that I ever worked for didn’t even know that I had a kid.


Can you see why these informal moments are so darn important?  

Here are a few reasons that they mattered to me:

(1). Because these principals were deliberate about interacting with everyone, everyone felt valued and appreciated:  Pretty much every school leader that I’ve ever worked with — as a teacher and a consultant — likes to argue that their faculties are like families.  The uncomfortable truth, however, is that there are a ton of faculties that don’t feel very much like families because the leader spends the bulk of their time building relationships with small handfuls of teachers and inadvertently ignoring (or intentionally avoiding) everyone else.

In fact, one teacher that I worked closely with liked to say, “If our staff is a family, we’d be the Dursleys and I’d be locked in a closet under the staircase with Harry Potter.”


The best principals that I’ve ever worked for invested in ALL staff members equally.  It was clear to everyone in our schoolhouse that those principals weren’t playing favorites.  In fact, we ALL felt like favorites because we ALL had private moments where our leaders showed genuine interest in who we were as individuals and as practitioners.  THAT’s how families are supposed to work, y’all.

That left our entire faculty seeing one another as equals — a group of valued individuals all working towards the same goals and all committed to supporting the same leader — instead of as rivals competing for position and authority and recognition from the leadership.

(2). Because everyone had deep personal connections to the leader, there were hardly any “back room conversations” or “gripe sessions” in our buildings:

You know what I’m talking about, right?  The groups of teachers who gather behind closed doors the minute they walk out of a faculty meeting to tear apart every decision that you’ve tried to make or every initiative that you’ve tried to introduce?  Those moments are incredibly unhealthy, aren’t they?

Those “back room conversations” never happened in the buildings with the best bosses.  Here’s why: Because we were having regular individual interactions with our bosses, we all had multiple opportunities to be heard regardless of the circumstances.

Those personal moments made it easy for us to feel comfortable enough to voice concerns directly to our leaders.  Not only did we have the time and space to talk privately in neutral locations, we had dozens of positive experiences with our principals — so voicing concern didn’t feel threatening or risky.  More importantly, those personal moments made it easy for us to know that even if our bosses didn’t agree with our perspectives, they were at least willing to try to understand our points of view.

(3). Because the principals had deep personal connections to every teacher, difficult conversations were a helluva’ lot easier to have:  Let’s face it:  One of the hardest parts of a principal’s job is holding teachers accountable when things aren’t going well.  Have a teacher who shows up late for work every day?  Have a teacher who isn’t contributing to the work of their learning team?  Have a teacher who is struggling with classroom management?  It’s YOUR job as a leader to take action — and “taking action” means “having a potentially difficult conversation about performance with a staff member.”

How can you make those conversations easier?

Build strong relationships with everyone on your staff BEFORE you need to have difficult conversations with them.  If you’ve invested in relationships, difficult conversations are no longer threatening because the person you are speaking with has had plenty of positive interactions with you as well.

So leading smarter not harder can also begin by recommitting to building relationships with every member of your faculty.  

Get out of your office and spend time in the hallways asking questions and smiling and telling stories.  Spend time in classrooms touching base and checking in on staff members that you haven’t seen in awhile.  Say thank you over and over again to everyone for every thing.  Treat each member of your faculty like you would your own child.  Value them for the individuals that they are — and let them know what you appreciate about them.  Provide encouragement when they are down.  Praise the progress that they are making.  Figure out what is important to them.

Because no matter how much authority you have, no one follows you just because you are the principal. 

They follow you because you are a person that they believe in and trust and respect and admire and appreciate.  That belief and trust and respect and admiration and appreciation is built through countless individual interactions with everyone on your staff.

Think of this as an investment:  The time that you spend building social capital with every staff member is time and energy you will save because the people that believe in you are ready to do anything to move your work forward.



Related Radical Reads:

Lead Smarter Tip 1:  Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Lead Smarter Tip 2:  Start Asking Better Interview Questions

Four Tips for a New Principal from an Old Teacher

Three Traits of the Best Principals


Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 2: Start Asking Better Interview Questions

About a month ago, I was working with a buddy who is a principal. 

He was frustrated by the levels of meaningful collaboration happening between teachers in his school and had reached out because he knew that I do a ton of consulting around the notion of professional learning communities.

“We are set up to function like a professional learning community,” he said, “but you’d hardly know it.  Our teachers aren’t studying their practice together.  They might share a few ideas with one another every now and then, but even that doesn’t impact instruction in our building.  How do you get people to buy into the idea that collaboration matters?”

Daniel McCullough

I surprised him by asking to see the questions that he uses in interviews for open positions.

He dug out his laptop and pulled up a list of pretty typical questions.  Things like:

  1. Give me an example of how you incorporate technology into your lessons.
  2. Can you tell me about a differentiated lesson that you taught last year?
  3. What are your “go to” classroom management strategies?
  4. How do you communicate with the parents of your students?
  5. What three adjectives best describe you?

“And I double check with references to see if candidates are telling the truth about the answers that are giving in interviews,” he said.  “If a candidate tells us something that references don’t support, I move on to someone else.  I’m not just hiring anyone.  I only hire the best.”

Can you see the problem here, all y’all?

My buddy is trying to build a collaborative culture, but he’s not asking a single question during interviews that can help him spot people who are open to the notion that studying practice with peers is worth embracing.  Instead, he’s asking questions that will help him to spot teachers who are successful individuals — and hiring a ton of successful individuals can cripple professional learning communities.

For my buddy, leading smarter, not harder means asking better interview questions.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community ISN’T to spot candidates who already have “all the answers” to questions about technology use or differentiation or classroom management.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community is to spot candidates who are reflective, who have a growth mindset about their own practice, and who realize that personal growth is a function of collective study with capable peers.

That means if we really ARE trying to create buildings where teacher collaboration is the engine driving instructional change, we need to be asking questions like these in interviews:

Tell me about a lesson that you have tinkered with.  What did that lesson originally look like? What changes have you made to it over time?  How did those changes impact your students? Your peers? Which changes were the most successful? Which changes failed miserably?

How do YOU learn?  More importantly, who are the people that you currently learn with? How did you meet them? How do you connect with them?  What have they taught you? What have you taught them?

What well-established professional practice are you skeptical about?  What is it about this practice that leaves you doubting? Can you give tangible examples of places where this practice has let you—or your students—down?

How do you determine whether or not a lesson has been successful?  Is a successful lesson one that leaves your students energized?  Is it one that students are still talking about weeks later? Is it one that results in really high marks on classroom or district assessments?

Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.*  Who was that person?  How did you come to work together?  How did they change your practice? Did their practice change while working with you?

If candidates struggle to answer these questions, move on — no matter how good their resumes and references look.

Here’s why:  Candidates that struggle to answer these questions don’t have the right mental makeup to invest in the collaborative study of practice that is the hallmark of a professional learning community.

And every time you hire someone who doesn’t have a predisposition to learning from their peers, you make it harder for collaboration to become the social norm in your building.  Sooner or later, you become a collection of individuals instead of a community of learners.

Jim Collins called this “getting the right people on the bus.”

The truth is that many principals trying to strengthen their professional learning communities are forgetting that “getting the right people on the bus” doesn’t mean finding folks with a stack of individual accomplishments.  “Getting the right people on the bus” means finding folks who see the potential in learning alongside their peers.

Does this resonate with you?  

If so, then you might dig this handout that I made that can be used to track candidate responses to collaborative questions in interviews.

Hope it helps.


*This interview question can only be used with a candidate that has teaching experience.  Teachers new to the profession might struggle to answer it.


Related Radical Reads:

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You Never Asked.

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

Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One: Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Blogger’s Note:  Even though I’m not an administrator, I have spent the better part of the past decade working with school leaders and learning about school leadership. 

It’s always been an interest of mine, given that my working conditions — and the learning conditions of the students in my classroom — are often a function of the decisions made by people who are in formal leadership positions.  And it’s a professional responsibility of mine given the work that I do as a consultant with schools and districts across the country.  

While I won’t claim to understand everything about the most demanding position in education, I do have a small handful of tips that I think could help principals and other people in positions of authority to be more successful in their roles.  I want to share a few of those here on the Radical over the summer in a series that I’m calling Lead Smarter, Not Harder.  

Hope you dig them!


Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One: Understand Teacher Approaches to Change.

Having had some success over the course of my 25 years of classroom teaching, I am often asked by principals or people working beyond the classroom to move into leadership positions at the school and/or district level.  They want me to be a mentor to a new teacher or to consider joining the school’s leadership team.  They think I’d make a great instructional coach or technology facilitator.

And every time they ask, they are shocked by my reply:  “That would be a horrible mistake for YOU.  I’m not that kind of leader.”  

A few have been offended by my response. One — who really wanted me to mentor a new teacher on our hallway — went so far as to argue that I had an obligation to fill.  “We NEED your expertise, Bill.  You OWE it to us to give back to our school and to share what you know.  Don’t you see that teachers have to be leaders, too?”


Now don’t get me wrong:  I really DO understand that teacher leadership matters! 

But here’s the thing:  I also know that there are multiple forms of “teacher leadership” — and the key to getting the most out of the teachers in your building is to have a deep understanding of who your teachers are — particularly when it comes to driving change — so that you can get the most out of them.

How do you do that?  Start by finding a framework that describes the different approaches that classroom teachers take when addressing change and then charting every teacher in your building.  

One of my favorite frameworks was created by Phil Schlechty.

Check it out here.

Schlechty argues that when thinking about change, there are five types of teacher personalities:  Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs.  Each group approaches change differently — and needs different kinds of support from formal leaders like principals and school/district staff developers who are interested in moving important initiatives forward.

While I’d HIGHLY recommend checking out the linked article above for a more in-depth look at how each teacher type approaches change, here are some simple definitions:

Trailblazers:  Trailblazers are the teachers in your building who are ready to move forward in new directions regardless of uncertainty.  They are driven by a personal vision of “what should be” and are willing to take individual risk to make that vision a reality.  Schlechty describes Trailblazers as “monomanics with a mission” — people who know where they are going even if they don’t know exactly how they are going to get there.

Pioneers:  Like the Trailblazers in your building, pioneers are ready to move forward and are unafraid of professional risk. The key difference between Pioneers and Trailblazers is in their commitment to the entire community.  While Trailblazers are driven by ideas, Pioneers are driven by relationships around ideas.  That makes them essential to driving systemic change.

Here’s why:  Trailblazers act most frequently as individuals.  They are going to keep moving forward whether anyone else in your building comes along or not.  When Pioneers move forward, on the other hand, they are going to bring peers with them and make sure that the needs of others are met along the way.

Settlers:  Settlers are the teachers in your building who need real clarity before they are ready to move forward.  They are willing to take risks — but only if they know that those risks aren’t going to be a huge waste of time.  Settlers need clear evidence that the journey you are asking them to take is both doable and worthwhile.  To convince Settlers to move, Schlechty argues, you are going to need to provide them with carefully drawn maps!

Stay-at-Homes:  Stay-at-Homes are the teachers in your building who are genuinely happy where they are.  As a result, they see little need to move forward.  Now, CAN you convince Stay-at-Homes to move forward?  Sure — but they usually won’t move willingly until they are convinced that the present conditions that they are so invested in are impossible to sustain and/or there is a clear alternative that is overwhelmingly better in their eyes than the place you currently are.

Saboteurs:  Saboteurs are the teachers in your building who try to actively undermine any change effort that you are trying to initiate.  Worse yet, not only are they unwilling to move forward with you, they are committed to doing all that they can to keep others from moving forward with you, too.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

Leading smarter, not harder depends on having a clear understanding of who the Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs are in your building because each group is going to need different kinds of support in order to move forward. 

While your Trailblazers are going to move forward without any fear and/or clarity, they need to be reminded of how their actions and direction connect to the work of the whole school otherwise they become isolated.  Similarly, your Settlers really are willing to move forward, but they are going to need a TON of clarity before taking their first steps.

Leading smarter, not harder ALSO depends on identifying the right people to lead your change efforts.  

Trailblazers will certainly move quickly in new directions — but they also aren’t waiting for anyone to follow.  They add value to your organization by moving quickly and testing out ideas and spotting pitfalls before anyone else arrives.  They also add value to your organization by exposing others to ideas that are on the cutting edge simply because that’s where they operate — far ahead of their peers.  But don’t expect Trailblazers to move others forward.

Settlers are also willing to move — but they need so much direction before starting that asking them to lead isn’t going to get you anywhere either.  They add value to your organization by forcing you to have a clearly articulated plan for any new direction that you are setting.  They also add value by questioning moves that aren’t clearly mapped out in advance.  If you can convince Settlers to move, you know that you’ve set a direction worth walking in.  But don’t expect Settlers to set that direction on your own.

When driving change, Pioneers are your most important allies.  Not only are they willing to follow the difficult paths broken by your Trailblazers, they are committed to helping others along those paths, too.  They see value in moving forward together — which makes them the perfect people to put in charge of your change efforts.

So lemme ask you a simple question:  Can YOU name the Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs on your faculty?

I’d recommend that you create a simple table like this one that sorts your entire staff into categories right now — and keep that in front of you every time that you are thinking through the change efforts that you are trying to implement in your building.

Doing so will make sure that (1). you understand the needs of the different staff members in your building and that (2). you get the right people into the right places to move your change efforts forward.



Related Radical Reads:

Imprisoned by Mentoring?

What do Teacher Leaders Need from Their Administrators?

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders.

Have We Become Helicopter Teachers?

If you’ve spent any time in the classroom at all, you’ve probably wrestled with more than your fair share of helicopter parents, right?

I know that I have — and every time, I wonder how people who obviously care deeply about their kids can’t see that scripting every action and solving every problem for a child robs them of the chance to develop agency, the single most important skill for functioning successfully in an unpredictable and ultra-competitive world.

Seymour Papert once said it like this:


He’s right, isn’t he? 

What matters most ISN’T raising kids who complete every project, master every concept and earn honor roll certificates during every assembly from kindergarten through high school.  What matters most is raising kids who accept responsibility for setting a direction, accurately evaluating the progress that they are making, and then changing course when necessary.

My guess is that all of this rings true to you, right? 

Everyone knows that helicopter parents really ARE raising children who struggle to act independently.  They DO prioritize immediate success in short term goals over developing lifelong skills that matter.  And that’s BAD.

So lemme ask you a potentially uncomfortable question:  Aren’t WE helicoptering the kids in our classrooms?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t our kids have regular chances to set their own direction in our classrooms — independently identifying meaningful outcomes that are worth pursuing?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t our kids have regular chances to evaluate themselves in our classrooms — drawing conclusions about skills that they’ve mastered and skills that they are struggling to master?

If developing students who know how to act when faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared was a goal that we were pursuing, wouldn’t kids who were struggling to master concepts in our classrooms have regular chances to develop plans for moving forward?

Do those things happen regularly in your classrooms?

(And by regularly, I mean “more often than not.”)


The fact of the matter is that in response to increasing accountability demands, most schools and teachers have become SUPER prescriptive in their work with students. 

We are directors — walking kids rigidly through a daily script called “the required curriculum.”  We clearly state the learning outcomes we are focusing on in each and every lesson.  We progress monitor every kid all the time.  We provide specific interventions whenever we spot an academic weakness.  We provide incredibly detailed reports about what individual kids know and don’t know at any given time.

And truth be told, in a lot of ways, that’s been a REALLY GOOD thing. 

It’s forced both teachers and schools to act in more targeted and specific ways on behalf of their students than we ever did in previous generations.  We are finally accepting responsibility for the results of our work, realizing that our goal isn’t to just TEACH a curriculum, it’s to make sure students LEARN that curriculum.

But I really do worry that we are also creating spaces where students don’t see themselves as capable partners in the learning process. 

The kids in scripted classrooms are almost never active participants in our lessons — identifying meaningful outcomes, monitoring their own progress towards mastery, taking independent action when they struggle.  Instead, they are passive recipients — waiting for someone to tell them what’s important to know and what’s not, waiting for someone to tell them whether or not they’ve mastered important concepts, waiting for someone to tell them how to improve on their weaknesses.

Stated more simply:  Being super prescriptive about what kids will learn and how they will demonstrate mastery is a professional act — but without some kind of meaningful balance, it also strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

Another Generation of Teacher Dependent Learners.

Students v. Learners