Leading for Improvement Part 5: Develop talent to optimize performance.

If we want to improve the overall effectiveness of our organization, we have to be sure to consider ways we might optimize organizational performance. In other words, we must think strategically about how to increase the positive results exponentially while minimizing any areas of weaknesses as much as possible. To do this, we recognize the importance of developing the talent in those we serve. It means we have a willingness to stretch, yet encourage, push yet support, and challenge those who have great potential to reaching the highest levels of effectiveness. Organizational improvement is about collective effort and because of that optimizing the performance of all is a necessary task.

Developing talent in others does not simply translate into empowering them to act, rather it is essential that we start by equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and processes needed to improve their effectiveness. Only after we have properly equipped them should we empower them to take action to help move the organization forward. When leading improvement efforts, it is important to recognize the strengths of individual team members, the interconnectedness of each person’s talents, and then work purposefully to create a sense of collective belief in the talent of the team. Establishing a sense of mutual interdependence is a powerful catalyst for improvement. It means team members think of their work as an integral part of the team’s success and express a willingness to own the successes and the setbacks. 

Organizational improvement rest on the shoulders of all members of the organization, and while leadership is critically important, the leader cannot do it alone. To think that one individual can create all the energy and execute all of the effort needed in leading change is an indication of naivety, inexperience, and poor judgement. As you are working to improve your school or district, you must also work to improve yourself and those you serve. Without a concerted effort to develop the talent and build the capacity in others, you may find yourself feeling similar to a hamster in a wheel-moving fast, but going nowhere!

Leading for Improvement Part 4: Anchor the core.

Sometimes when I talk with school level leaders about the critical importance of instructional leadership, I have to be careful not to scare them. If I don’t explicitly state that it doesn’t mean you have to be a subject area expert in every content taught in your school, folks walk away thinking just that, but that’s not at all what I mean. Instead, I believe that as instructional leaders we must know and familiarize ourselves with learning science, high-leverage instructional practices and pedagogy, and then set an expectation that those practices will serve as anchors to core instruction in every classroom, at every grade level, in every subject, every day. The research is clear and we know that there are powerful things teachers can do to improve student outcomes: focus on metacognition, developing and articulating clear learning objectives, focus learning on the critical content, etc. Those things should anchor teaching and learning in our classrooms, schools, and districts.

If you have been a school leader or you are one currently, you may be familiar with the parent who calls to ask for a specific teacher or calls to ask specifically that their child is not assigned to a particular teacher’s classroom. This variation in teaching quality leads to a variation in academic output among students. When we anchor instruction in a set of evidence-based strategies and practices, we can reduce the variation in teaching quality and potentially increase outcomes for all students. We can also develop our ability to recognize successfully implemented practices and provide feedback to help teachers enhance, refine, and improve their instructional skills. Anchoring core instruction in a set of evidence-based practices and strategies that we expect to take place in every classroom can be a powerful catalyst for improvement. The key here is to be certain we have anchored the core in the right practices to meet the needs of our students and our improvement goals.

Variety may be the spice of life, but it can be the enemy to improvement efforts if not managed appropriately. Some instructional concepts, practices, and strategies must become non-negotiables if we want to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to receive teaching of the highest quality.Anchor the core!

Until next time, be you! Be true. Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement-Part 3: Know the data to coach the behavior.

For the first few years of my princpalship, I would call teachers into my office and ask them to talk with me about their end of year state summative assessment results. I had been led to believe that this was an impactful practice, made sure that others knew they were being held accountable, and a way to make sure they knew I was…get this…looking at the data. Wisdom comes with age and experience, and after many years of leading, I quietly discovered that none of those data conversations led to change in classroom practices unless I went into the classroom, observed teachers, and coached them on their instructional practices. It was this coaching that really was the catalyst to changing the data. Those meetings were nothing more than a waste of time, and I should apologize to all of the educators who I subjected to such.

One of the most over utilized and misunderstood buzzwords in organizational improvement is data-driven. When I hear many school and district leaders use the word, they usually are referencing the idea that they review or look at the data. Conversely, they also rarely describe how they drive action or behavior because of the data review they’ve described.

What I know now, is that school improvement is rooted in understanding what is at the root cause of the data and coaching to change instructional behavior and practices. When leaders help educators advance their practices, refine them, enhance them, and we connect those things to improving student outcomes, we can help change the data. After all, accountability is about everyone taking responsibility for their contribution to the organization meeting its’ goals. That includes school and district leaders. Our coaching must not be reflected in the words we say when gathered around spreadsheets and charts, or standing in data rooms, but in what we say when teachers are in action-teaching in the classroom. How do we help them become masterful? How do we support them in improving their practices in the classroom? We can’t do that if we aren’t at the game, coaching from the sideline. 

Everybody needs a coach. The best athletes in the world have a coach. What makes educators think we don’t need one too? Be coached and be a coach and your school will soar!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement-Part 2: Be as vulnerable as you are brave.

Courage is a test of leadership, but vulnerability is the ultimate assessment. In our quest to be courageous, to address the things that matter, but many often avoid because of their controversial or unpopular nature, we must never forget the tool that can help us reach the minds of others: the heart. Our ability to be vulnerable directly correlates with our willingness to be brave. Leaders who act with bravery are able to do so because they don’t mind being vulnerable enough to say “I made a mistake, I apologize, or I was wrong.” Leaders who are leading a change process must practice both. Bravery without vulnerability may be seen as bullying, pushiness, aggressiveness, etc., and vulnerability without bravery may be seen as wimpy, fearful, or playing it safe to avoid having to act with courage. Those who successfully lead school improvement are able to act with both traits, equally balanced and used to spur change, support struggles, and applaud efforts. Both matter and they matter a great deal.

Leading improvement efforts isn’t for the faint of heart. It is hard work. It can mean addressing previously overlooked issues because of the level of discomfort that came with addressing a particular thing, person, or practice. It can mean seeing what’s possible and what could be, when others aren’t quite there yet, and having to wait for them to catch the vision. It can mean pushing others outside of their comfort zone and asking them to embark on something that you believe they have the potential to accomplish, but can’t guarantee they’ll be successful. It’s about taking risks-but being calculated, strategic, and thoughtful about everything you ask of others and of yourself.

Being brave and vulnerable can help improve the trusting relationships between the leader and his or her team. On one hand the team sees that you’re not afraid to do what needs to be done, even when it’s challenging, and on the other, the team recognizes your humility-your ability to own up to your mistakes and failures and to roll up your sleeves and work side by side with them. Great leaders balance this perfectly and with practice, you can too!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Leading for Improvement-Part One

What is your philosophy of education?  If you’re old enough, you may have even produced a portfolio related to this age-old inquiry at some point in your undergraduate studies. However, the question we don’t seem to ask often enough is “What are the most critical elements when it comes to school improvement?” That’s what I attempt to answer in this blog series. I don’t know if these elements are exactly right, but I do know that in practice and experience, at least my own, they have been important aspects of my leadership, especially in situations where I was charged with improving or transforming something. The list isn’t long, but I am making an attempt here to explain each one in hopes that you might also be able to connect with it and recognize it when you see it. Of course, if it’s not in your leadership toolbox, I hope you’ll add it in your efforts to improve your school or district. Here’s the list:

  1. Focus fiercely on the how.
  2. Be as vulnerable as you are brave.
  3. Know the data to coach the behavior.
  4. Anchor the core.
  5. Develop talent to optimize performance.
  6. Pull the team together to start and sustain the improvement process.
  7. Lead the learning before you set the expectation.
  8. Fuel the charge with actionable feedback.
  9. Celebrate the change-big or small.
  10. See the connections and share them explicitly.

These ideas sound simple, but in practice can be extremely challenging. My advice is to start working on improvement right away, but recognize that you cannot do all of these things at once. All ten are equally important. The key is to prioritize and strike the right balance so that you can use the right approach to get the improvement you desire. Each preceding page is a one-page review of my thoughts on each of the elements listed above. Thanks for reading and please…share your thoughts.

Focus fiercely on the how.

Start with the why. It’s what we have all been told as leaders, and it’s good advice. People need to have a deep understanding of why you are asking them to change, do something differently, or rethink their current practices and ideologies. Understanding why we are doing something can serve as an anchor in our daily work, can keep us from getting distracted, or battling with competing priorities. However, as we work toward school or district improvement, we must understand the critical importance of focusing our attention on the what, and more importantly the how. If those we are asking to change fail to understand how to change we’ve empowered folks to be resistant, angry, and frustrated. As leaders of the change, it’s our job to empower and equip others to be able to meet the expectations we set forth successfully.

Although we should start with why, we must push through with the what, and finish with the how. That means that when we are proposing change(s) to members of our organization, we’ve done our research and we can clarify for them, quite specifically, what it is we want them to change (instructional practice, method, etc.) and how we want them to change it. In other words, we’ve clearly taught them about the instructional behavior associated with the change and we have created an opportunity and structure to give them multiple opportunities to practice implementing the new strategy with our feedback as a resource and source of support to help them achieve mastery. We recognize that why is not enough, so our time observing and coaching their work towards mastery of the new practice is critical to the change actually happening and doing so successfully. While we understand that the rationale and justification of the change we are advocating for is important, we know that it cannot happen without a clearly articulated expectation (what) and a fierce focus on how to make it happen.

So yes…start with the why and continue with a clear articulation of what needs to change, but don’t forget to finish as strong as you start by fiercely focusing on the how. If you can do all three of those things, you will find your ability to push for change will move far beyond a mere heartfelt message of why the change is so important. Instead, you’ll see that others are actually willing to do something instead of talking about why they can’t because you have given them the tools they need to make the change a reality. 

Tune in next week for my essay on element #2: Be as vulnerable as you are brave.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


The Problem With Professional Development

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately. Seems this sort of thing always leads to a new blog post. Professional development in public education seems highly restrictive to me. It seems that once we decide to become leaders in this work and we move beyond the classroom, the organizational investment in our professional development subsides. Im going to make an attempt to explain my opinion here and in doing so I’ll be making some rather broad generalizations. Please note I realize there are exceptions to this, but I’m speaking generally as a reflection of my experiences and observations.

It seems teachers have routine opportunities to be professionally developed. We have a structure that supports such. There are teacher work days, late start days, and early dismissal days that can be used for teachers to engage in professional development. I am in full support of this, and especially believe that professional development should be job-embedded, continuous, and of high quality. My concern isn’t for teachers, but for others who have the responsibility of leading and supporting teachers: principals and district level leaders.

It seems to me, that as one moves up the leadership ladder, professional development opportunities are gravely reduced. Instead, these school and districts level leaders spend an enormous amount of time in meetings, participating in information download sessions, taking notes, and going back to communicate deadlines and deliverables to their organization. I’m wondering if we also need to be focused on developing our leaders as much as we are focused on developing our teachers. Our efforts to build the capacity of system leaders could have a broader and more significant impact on creating better systems of teaching and learning. I’ve racked my brain trying to think of professional learning opportunities that are routine and job-embedded for school and district level leaders, which I have knowledge of, but the list is very short.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that these leaders are hungry to be developed. They want and need opportunities to learn, not just to collect information and be responsible for communicating it back. They need the opportunity to build their capacity to design efficient teaching and learning systems, to learn how to create mechanisms of support for teachers and others, but it seems there is little time for learning for them. Their days are filled with doing instead.

I’m wondering if we have an opportunity to think of professional development in a broader sense. Perhaps we might think about committing our resources, time, and talents to developing the capacity of teachers and leaders. In my mind it’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and one.

I’d love to hear from you and what you think about this. Perhaps you are a school level or district leader who is in a district that routinely invests in your professional development as they do teachers, and if so I would love to learn more about your experiences in this realm. If your observations and experiences are similar to the ones I’ve described here, I want to hear from you too. Are we missing the boat on professional development? Is our focus too narrow? Are we missing an opportunity to impact the system instead of spot touching classrooms here and there? Let me know your thoughts!

Until next time…be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


Stop the Intervention Overdose!

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal so now I’m putting the thoughts into a blog. I’m so concerned that we are overdosing our students on interventions as an antidote for poor core instruction. We’ve made the assumption that the core instruction they have received is solid, effective, and of high quality. With the push for Response to Intervention and Multi-tiered Systems of Support, we have to be careful that we don’t forget to work on the most important part of that pyramid we all know too well, and that’s tier one core instruction.

What might happen if we refocused our efforts, time, energy, resources, and feedback on improving core instruction? What if we not only developed school or district wide instructional anchors, but made it our business to see that those anchors were being honored in every classroom every day? What if we focused on the fidelity of instructional practices that we know are necessary for optimal learning?

•having a clear learning objective that is referred to throughout the lesson and that students can articulate when asked what is it they should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson

•checking for understanding throughout the lesson to identify misconceptions and provide clarifying and corrective feedback while the opportunity to course correct is present

•ensuring the use of a lesson structure that is best for learning: direct instruction and modeling/guided practice with feedback/ independent practice

Mastering the foundations of teaching takes so much practice. We must be sure we are not approaching the concept of intervention as a bandaid for poor teaching quality, and that we don’t see it as a way to intervene on the behalf of poor instruction. Quality matters at the tier one level, and perhaps even more.

For years now, I’ve seen schools and districts mandate intervention periods, purchase massive intervention materials, and push that students receive intervention on a regular basis. That in and of itself is counterintuitive to the word intervention. Here’s how Webster defines it: the action taken to improve a situation. What I am fearful of is that in our schools and districts across the country, intervention has become the response to poor instruction. There is a difference.

I’m convinced that if we were to give our attention to improve core instruction the massive overdose of interventions on our children who are struggling to learn might subside. The very concept of intervention is designed to help our students who have truly had the opportunity to learn. That means they had access to quality instruction and still were unable to achieve mastery. Some scholars define opportunity to learn as follows:

“One of the factors which may influence scores on an achievement examination is whether or not students have had an opportunity to study a particular topic or learn how to solve a particular type of problem presented by the test.” (Hussen, 1967b, pp. 162–163)

This means we must focus on making sure that the instruction our students receive is adequately aligned to the standards, appropriately rigorous, and that mastery is the aim. We must make sure that the assessments we are using to determine if students are learning are also aligned and rigorous as they should be, and if they are not, we work on those things before over prescribing intervention to our students. This must be a focus and receive as much of our energy and effort as possible. Intervention is a last step, not a first one.

To make it clear, allow me to provide an analogy. Imagine that you went to the doctor to talk with him about your unfruitful efforts to lose weight. According to you, you’ve tried everything-eating healthy, exercising, reducing your caloric intake. The doctor, immediately applies an intervention and prescribes a thyroid medication that will induce your thyroid regularly which in turn will rev up your metabolism and cause your body to burn more calories. You start the medication, but the truth is you’ve made absolutely no change in your diet and you don’t exercise. To top it off you now feel free to eat whatever you like since you have your new medication that’s going to help you lose weight. When you return to the doctor, you haven’t gained any weight, but you haven’t lost any.

While I’m no medical expert, I don’t think this is what a doctor would do at all. I’m guessing the doctor would start by asking you a few questions about your diet and exercise habits and may elect to give you a blood test. In the interim, while he is waiting on the results, he’s going to probably prescribe what should be your core activity to take care of your health: eat a healthy and balanced diet, exercise regularly, and drink plenty of water. He’ll ask you to return in six months to see how you’ve fared. If your blood test comes back with all things in the normal range, he will continue working with you on the core.

I’m hopeful that the market for intervention programs and products won’t be the driver of our teaching and learning efforts with children. Obviously, there are some children who we know need specialized instruction, but if we aren’t careful, intervention can become the primary mechanism for meeting the learning needs of most of our students, when it should be only prescribed if our students have had an opportunity to learn in a classroom that is anchored in evidence-based instructional practices. A focus on the core and improving it is essential and at the heart of continuous improvement. Let’s get to work on the foundation and make it as strong as possible.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.