Tag Archives: leadership

Sound Leadership Advice from Mike Mattos.

Check this out:



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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.

Four Tips for a New Administrator from an Old Teacher.

Yesterday, I bumped into an incredibly accomplished teacher friend of mine who has just gotten her administrator’s license.

She asked me an interesting question:  “How do I — a person with just a few years of experience in education — get people who have been teaching for decades to follow me as a leader?”

Jehyun Sung


That’s a great question, isn’t it?

Principals ARE often charged with leading and evaluating and supervising and overseeing the work done by people with extensive experience — and for principals who moved out of the classroom early in their careers, that can be a real challenge.

Here’s the advice that I gave her:

(1). Start by remembering that your title is irrelevant:  One mistake that rookie school leaders make all too often is forgetting that teachers with lots of experience won’t follow you JUST because you are “the assistant principal” or “the principal.”  While the title you have earned through your degree program certainly comes with extra organizational authority in hierarchical structures like public schools, authority and leadership aren’t the same thing — and taking an authority-first approach in your interactions with experienced staff members is a sure way to lose their support.

(2). Then, remember that every new idea that you pitch to an experienced teacher needs to be backed up with clear and convincing evidence:  Years ago, a rookie principal in a school where I was working blew up a longstanding structure that our faculty really believed in.  When pushed about the decision, he’d grow frustrated and say, “We are doing this so we can return to a laser-like focus on learning” over and over again, without any further explanation. 

It became clear to us that he couldn’t really explain how his decision was going to improve our school.  Years later, “laser-like focus” remained a running joke for any change that didn’t seem to make sense to our staff — or code for principals who didn’t really know what they were doing.

What’s the lesson for rookie administrators?   Experienced teachers know a LOT about what works — and what doesn’t — in schools.  As a result, they are almost always thinking critically about any idea that their principals are trying to promote — particularly if those principals don’t have a ton of experience under their belt.

If you want experienced teachers to follow you, then, you HAVE to be able to back up every decision with well-reasoned evidence and a clear plan for implementation that is realistic and doable.  The minute you struggle to articulate your thinking for decisions that you are making is the minute that you will lose credibility in the eyes of your most experienced staff members.

(3). Don’t forget, however, that evidence alone isn’t enough.  Relationships matter, too:  In almost 25 years of teaching, I’ve worked for two principals that I would do darn near anything for.  The trait that they shared in common:  Both spent TONS of time showing interest in — and building relationships with — their teachers.  They knew what we were passionate about.  They knew a ton about our families.  They were genuinely excited about seeing us in the hallways and stopping for small talk.  Long story short, they made relationship-building with EVERYONE a genuine priority.

For people who want to lead, that investment in relationships is essential.  Every positive interaction that you have with a teacher builds social capital — and social capital matters most in a profession where “driving change” means “convincing people to walk alongside of you no matter how difficult the path may be.”

(4). And don’t forget that MOST experienced teachers need reflection, not supervision:  Evaluating experienced teachers is probably the trickiest role that rookie administrators have to fill.  Again — you may have the authority to evaluate experienced teachers given your position in the system, but that doesn’t mean that you automatically know more about teaching and learning than they do.  In fact, you might even be evaluating teachers who know far more than you do about teaching and learning.  That’s an awkward position to be placed in.

The key to being successful when evaluating someone who is far more experienced than you are is to remember that there’s a difference between encouraging reflection and providing supervision.

Principals who are supervising teachers say things like, “Next time, I want to see you try _____________ during your lesson” or “I would have had the students do _________ instead of _________ if I were teaching that concept”.  Principals who are encouraging reflection say things like, “What would mastery of this concept look like in action?” or “What do you think your students would say about today’s lesson?”

Do you see the differences in those two sets of statements?  Supervisory statements imply that YOU know best.  Reflection statements imply that you recognize the potential for the person you are evaluating to improve their own practice.  One values YOUR experience.  The other values the experience of the teacher that you are working with.

None of this is earth-shaking advice, is it?  Good leadership has always been about being humble and showing people that you care and that you are credible.  

But I’d argue that it is even MORE important for rookie administrators — people who move into the principal’s chair after just a few years teaching — than it is for their peers with a long career in education.

What other advice does my friend need in order to turn experienced teachers into allies when she takes her first job as a school administrator?


Related Radical Reads:

Three Traits of the Best Principals

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Three Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from Sherpas


Want to Drive Change? Find Your California Roll.

Let’s face it:  Driving change in schools can be a daunting task. 

Not only do building leaders have to wrestle with a thousand demands coming from every direction, teachers and students and parents and the broader community often resist change at every turn.

If you’ve been at this work for long enough, you know what I am talking about:  You identify a promising new direction that you want to take your school in, you stand up in front of your faculty and pitch your idea, you get nothing but angst and animosity from everyone — and change dies.

Does that sound familiar?

If so, it might be time to borrow a change strategy from the world of Japanese cuisine:  Find your California Roll.


As Nir Eyal explains in this bit on Medium, sushi consumption was darn near nonexistent in the 1970s.  The food felt strange and unapproachable to American eaters.  The result was an industry struggling to find consistent customers.

That all changed with the introduction of the California Roll — a simple creation full of approachable ingredients.  Sure, the entire concoction was held together by a thin sheet of seaweed, but stuffed inside of that seaweed was cucumbers, rice, avocados and crab meat — foods that were familiar to both the eyes and the palate.

The result:  Japanese cuisine FINALLY gained a foothold in America. 

And today, sushi is a billion dollar business.  In fact, you are just as likely to find sushi enthusiasts in blue collar communities like Pittsburgh and Plattsburgh as you are to find them in coastal hippie havens like San Francisco and San Diego.  Heck, sushi has become SO mainstream that you can order entire platters from Costco for your next family gathering.

Can you see the change lessons here?

Just because Japanese restaurants wanted to serve exotic recipes to American customers from day one doesn’t mean that American patrons were ready to eat them.  Instead, attracting interest and long term commitment meant creating recipes that introduced change incrementally, one new and interesting ingredient at a time.

Eyal explains it this way:

“The lesson of the California Roll is simple — people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. Interestingly, this lesson applies just as much to the spread of innovation as it does to tastes in food.”

Now if you are passionate about driving change in schools, I know what you are thinking:  Can we REALLY be satisfied with doing the familiar differently?  

If you listen to the futurists — people pushing urgency, arguing that change only counts when we are doing “new things in new ways” and discounting substitution as nothing other than a low level practice — the answer to this question is a resounding no.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But here’s the thing:  Sustainable change isn’t a function of how fast or how far YOU are ready to go.  Sustainable change is a function of how far and how fast the people you are leading are ready to go.

Pitch an idea that is completely foreign to your faculties and your change efforts are likely to stall.  Pitch an idea that looks familiar, however, and your faculties are likely to start moving forward together — and you can ride that roll towards the more meaningful changes that you believe in.

Does any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

Constantly Fighting the Good Idea Fairy

Want to Drive Change?  Then Lose the Bedazzler.

Leadership and the Lovable Toaster