#LeadLAP Challenge # 3 – C is for Collaborative Conversations

It often happens when we move into leadership roles that we feel the pressure and stress of being the person who is ultimately held responsible for the success of students in our school or in our district.  Ultimately, the bucks stops with us, and we are the ones held accountable.    We can find ourselves struggling internally because on the one hand, we want to build a climate and culture where people are empowered to make decisions, take risks, and push themselves to continuously learn and grow while on the other hand we secretly worry…”What if they make the wrong decisions?” As a result, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like we have to be the expert on everything and be responsible for every decision.  The truth is, though, that we can’t be the experts on everything that happens in our schools… If we try to be, we will exhaust ourselves and most likely still fall short in some areas.  The fantastic news, though, is that working in districts and schools, we are surrounded by teams of people with incredible expertise in a wide variety of areas. As leaders, it’s important to free ourselves from thinking we have to know everything and instead embrace the multitude of talents, gifts, and expertise that lie within each and every person who works with us.  Unleashing the genius in those around you ultimately contributes to a thriving culture where people feel valued and are willing to learn and grow alongside the others with whom they work. It also contributes to your growth as a leader… as you open yourself to learning from and with your team, you continue to develop greater expertise.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 9.27.18 AMThis concept or idea that we aren’t the only “experts” in the building is the catalyst for “C is for Collaborative Conversations”.


As mentioned in earlier posts, while there are times where direct feedback is essential, we have found that engaging in collaborative conversations about teaching and learning have greater impact on a person’s willingness to try something new, to learn, and to grow.  Collaborative conversations are much more likely to help you build a culture of commitment as opposed to a culture of compliance.  You can survive as a leader if you create a system where people are compliant and you can get results, but you and your school or district can’t thrive without commitment.  So, here is this week’s #LeadLAP challenge…

Choose 1-2 days this week where you set aside 30 minutes to visit classrooms and 30 minutes to engage in collaborative conversations with the teachers whose classrooms you visited.  Visit each classroom for 5-10 minutes and then let the teacher know “Thank you so much for having me in your classroom today… I always learn so much when I visit! I’d LOVE to chat with you about the lesson I observed today… do you have some time later when we can do that?”

When you and the teacher are together…

  1. Drop that APPRECIATION ANCHOR face to face
  2. Comment on something you NOTICED and share the impact
    • Ask a question based on what you observed
    • Respond to what the teacher shares and ask another question
    • Have the teacher share his/her thoughts about the lesson and share some of yours
    • If the teacher shares a struggle they were having or something they are trying to make better (which they often do), acknowledge that it is something great to be thinking about and brainstorm ideas together
    • Encourage the teacher to try one of the new ideas that came out of your conversation and to let you know how it goes… better yet ask when they are going to try it out and offer to pop in to see how it goes
  4. Thank the teacher for his/her time

cannonballA few CANNONBALLS to avoid…

  • Don’t make assumptions about what came before the 10 minutes you observed or what happened after.  Ask a question instead: “When I walked in, kids were doing_____.  Tell me a little about what happened before I came in the room.”   “How did it go after I left?”
  • Don’t do most of the talking, remember this is a COLLABORATIVE conversation – shoot for a minimum of a 50/50 balance of talking and listening
  • Don’t try to mask criticism as a question, people will see right through you.


Have fun with this challenge…  The one on one face time we get with our teachers is rare and oh so precious! Appreciate and enjoy the time you have together.

We can’t wait to hear how it goes!! Share your thoughts and reflections using the #LeadLAP hashtag all week and join @BethHouf and me for a 30 minute reflective #LeadLAP chat on Friday at 7:30 CST.


Through my Daughter’s Eyes

I have learned an incredible amount about learning, teaching and leading from many people in my career, but for the past few years, I think I have learned the most in my role as a parent and through the eyes of my children.  This post is about what I have learned through the eyes of my eight year old daughter who will be entering 4th grade in the fall.

I know I’m her mother, but Ashlyn truly is one of the brightest children I know – all the “numbers” support this – she scores advanced on every assessment, usually with a perfect score; she has scored high enough on a myriad of assessments that she has been labeled “gifted and talented”, her report cards are perfect, she wins numerous academic awards etc., etc., etc.,

More important to me… she is a voracious learner!  She spends most of her free time asking inquisitive and amazing questions, and she diligently seeks the answers through any source she can get her hands on.  Google and You Tube are two of her best friends.  We have spent countless hours researching every minute detail of her favorite animals so she can write books and stories.  For every bug, lizard or other obscure creature she catches in the yard, we have to hunt down its species, its ideal environment and what it eats so we can care for it in our home.  For every pet she has wanted us to buy her she has combed through online research so she can make her plea to us with all of the evidence to back up why it is a good idea – she does this so well; we now run a small zoo.

Through books and online tutorials, she has taught herself to draw, to play songs on the harmonica and the keyboard, and to fold origami.  She conducts science experiments. She has learned how to care for every one of her pets.  She recently started her own blog and has written to the Humane Society asking for their advice on the best way an eight year old might give back to their organization because she wants to thank them for bringing us her cat.  Ashlyn is a reader, a writer… a highly effective communicator.  She is a creator and a critical thinker.  She is passionate about learning

…and she does not like school. 

Some years have been better than others, but overall school is something we have mostly tolerated.

My husband and I are both educators, we believe in public education, and we support our community schools, but it has been a challenge for us watching her experience school – even as she attends a school that California has honored as “Distinguished”.

Despite the fact that the school has Promethean Boards in the classrooms and Netbooks for every child to use, we rarely see evidence of projects or assignments that demonstrate they are in use… even when I know my daughter and many of her peers are highly proficient users of the technology sitting in the rooms. The assignments and tests that come home most frequently are multiple-choice or fill in the blank type activities which require limited thinking.  While we save many of the projects, creations, stories, and books my daughter has created at home, most of what comes from school goes into the trash can – they are not things she is proud of… they are things she has endured. My husband and I have spent the past four years pulling teeth to get her to complete the packets of worksheets that come home weekly for homework – and to be honest, we have reached a point where we often do not even require her to do them anymore.  She writes her blog posts or learns something new of her choosing instead.

While my daughter has certainly had some good experiences in school and teachers I truly admire, I can’t begin to express my frustration over some of the conversations I have had over the years about different ways school might be able to better challenge and engage my daughter.  I have heard too many excuses… the class size is too big, we have too much material to cover, we have to get them ready for the test, the other students need me more… the list goes on.  It is not my intent to communicate here that I blame any of teachers – in fact, I believe that almost every year she has been in school, she has had hard-working teachers who are trying to do their best in the system in which they have been asked to work.

On paper, my daughter is a school success story, but in reality, school has been failing her.

So… who is at fault?

Every one of us who serves in an educational leadership role – whether at the Federal, State, District or Site level – has to accept a little piece of the blame.  Whether intended or not, we have created a system that values test scores above all else – they are what we highlight; they are what we celebrate; they are what we use to determine good schools, “distinguished schools”, from failing ones and “good” teachers from “bad” ones… And somewhere along the way too many schools and too many classrooms have left truly authentic, appropriately challenging and highly engaging learning behind.

We have done the same in my District, certainly not intentionally, but when we entered Program Improvement a few years ago (despite many years of consistent growth!), test scores became a primary focus, and while we have done a lot of good work over the past few years, we have also made some mistakes… particularly in our communication of what we value.

What I love about the conversations we are starting to have now, is that we are talking more about learning and less about test scores.  We are re-thinking our vision, and we know it includes so much more than what test scores will indicate.  We are talking about providing students with highly engaging and content-rich curriculum and instruction, and we are asking ourselves more questions about how to incorporate technology and make learning more relevant.  We are asking more teachers to step into leadership roles and to help us push our thinking, and we are telling stories of our learning.  We are making this shift one step… one day at a time but we are relentless.  I expect that this will be a great year for us and our students will learn some amazing things… and when this happens – the test scores will take care of themselves.

What I have learned from my daughter is that when a child is passionate about learning (which I believe every child is when they enter school), school should be a place they want to be EVERY DAY.  Seeing school through my daughter’s eyes has pushed me to think about the type of learning opportunities I want for her, and I want nothing less for the students I serve in my District. We should be creating experiences in our districts and our schools that cause students to celebrate the END of summer break – not the beginning of it!

What If?

A few weeks ago I read the blog post “If” by an educator I admire, David Culberhouse http://dculberh.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/if/  I have read, favorited, organized, archived, and retweeted several posts lately which have inspired me or made me think, but “If” is one I keep coming back to.

In his post David introduces the simple word… “If, the Great Qualifier”  He explains…

  • “If allows us not to be all in…it is an incredibly safe word. It is the antithesis of risk. If is a safety net. And we use it constantly at our places of work, with our families, and it even weaves its way into our prayers. It makes everything we do safe and risk-free.
  •  “If, the Great Qualifier” is the controller of the disrupters and the maintainer of the status quo… Too often, the “ifs” are all conditions beyond the school’s control, conditions that ultimately release the educators from responsibility for their students’ learning.”

I have heard too many “If’s” in my career and many of them sound like the ones David highlighted:

  • “yes, all kids can learn…if the students want to learn…if the parents are supportive…if our school had more resources…if the district, state, and national policymakers would stop hampering our efforts.”

My commitment as a leader this year is to push back on the “IF’s” with “WHAT IF’s”…

When I hear someone say IF?  I am going to respond with WHAT IF?   WHAT IF helps us see the possibilities; it helps us move from negative thinking to positive thinking.  WHAT IF has the ability to inspire and to motivate.  WHAT IF helps us dream and create a vision.  WHAT IF is powerful!  I envision that this year some of my responses to “IF” might look sound like this…

WHAT IF we believed every child could learn at advanced levels?

WHAT IF we believed that every child was capable of meeting challenging learning objectives?

WHAT IF we believed every child wanted to learn?

WHAT IF we believed every child had unique and valuable gifts and talents?

 WHAT IF we believed every child were a critical thinker, a creative innovator, and a dynamic communicator?

WHAT IF we believed every parent was doing their best to support their child?

 WHAT IF we believed every parent wanted their child to go to college and be successful?

 WHAT IF we believed every time a parent confronted us with a complaint it was because they had the best interests of their child at heart?

 WHAT IF we believed that every parent wanted to partner with us to do what is best for their child?

WHAT IF we believed every teacher was exceptional and was committed to doing what was best for students?

WHAT IF we valued every teacher as a professional and gave them a voice in decision-making?

WHAT IF we believed that every teacher was a learner willing to take risks and try new things in the best interest of students?

WHAT IF every time we had new information that told us a student was struggling we responded with timely interventions and WHAT IF we committed to learning new ways of intervening when everything we tried didn’t work?

WHAT IF we believed that the administrators working at the National, State, and District levels had the best intentions for students at the heart of their decisions, policies and mandates?

WHAT IF we assumed positive intentions every time a colleague or a parent said or did something?

The list goes on…

As leaders, we are responsible for cultivating the culture in our districts and at our sites.  We have to help each member of our team build a sense of efficacy  –  they need to know for certain that the choices they make each day have a profound impact on students and their learning.  When administrators consider their teachers to be exceptional, teachers excel.  When teachers believe every child in their classroom is capable of achieving great things, students excel.  We have to have high expectations for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students, and we have to believe they can and want to meet them.

When we have a sense of efficacy, we accept responsibility for learning, teaching, and leading; we don’t place blame on others.  When we have a sense of efficacy and are faced with challenges – we don’t qualify them with “IF”… we find ways to get better with “WHAT IF”?