Busy is not a Badge

I just finished hosting #satchatwc with my awesome co-moderator, Beth Houf.  The chat today focused on strategies to help us prioritize our time. This tweet exchange with Robert Abney and Sandy King stuck with me…



As educators, the reality is our work is never done. There is no finish line. We add more to the “to do” list than we cross off.

We will always have more on our plates than we can tackle each day, so the real challenge is this:

How do we take control of our time?


Great leaders master this. They spend the majority of their time doing the work that matters most. They create systems to get the essential components of the “job” done and free up their time to do the meaningful “work”.

Like all leaders, great leaders are busy all day long, but at the end of the day…

Busy is not their badge… Making an IMPACT is!


Doing “What’s Best for Kids” – Hmm…


Full disclosure before you read on… I know that what I’m about to say might rub some people the wrong way, but I hope you’ll read on and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I don’t particularly like the phrase, I’m going to do “what’s best for kids”.  I think we need to be really mindful when we throw it around in our profession.  While I understand the positive intent of the phrase and I agree whole-heartedly that meeting the needs of students should absolutely be the primary focus of what we do in our schools and districts… I think tossing the “what’s best for kids” phrase around can be harmful to our school and district cultures.  Here’s why:

  1. If I use the phrase “I’m going to do what’s best for kids”, it is incredibly easy for the person who I am talking to to reach the conclusion that I believe that they, in fact, do not have the best interest of students in mind.  While I can acknowledge that there are times when people make decisions based solely on their own best interests, I actually think that in our profession it’s pretty rare. In my experience most educators I have worked with typically make decisions based on their belief that they are doing what’s best for kids.
  2. “I’m going to do what’s best for kids” has a finality to it that makes it hard for someone to respectfully disagree with me. It’s a “last word” phrase as opposed to a phrase that invites discussion and dialogue. After all, in our business, who can argue against doing what’s best for kids?
  3. Where does that argument stop?  Let’s say that I believe we should have a 30 minute after school reading program for struggling readers because it’s “best for kids”.  If 30 minutes is good, what about an hour… is that better? What about two hours? If a couple of hours after school in a reading program is good… wouldn’t a half day Saturday program every week be better? What about a full day?  Maybe it would be best to add four weeks… six weeks… 12 weeks to the school year for all of our struggling readers.
  4. We don’t all have the same beliefs about “what’s best for kids”, and the research can be contradictory.  I could make a case for that after school reading program being what’s “best” while one of my teachers could easily make the case that it’s “best” to have small group reading interventions during the school day so that after school, kids have time to play sports, take music lessons, or to just play and be kids.
  5. What’s best for one kid isn’t always what’s best for another.  Each child is unique in their gifts, their talents, their motivations, their quirks, their needs… A “one size fits all approach” to what’s best runs the risk of merely being average for all kids as opposed to what’s best for any one of them.

So… the challenge is this: let’s just presume that all of the educators we work with have the best interests of kids at heart.  We may disagree from time to time on what those are, but not too many committed educators show up to work each day making decisions they think will be bad for kids, so why would we want to use a phrase that might convey that we are the only ones who know best?

As an educational leader, I really do want to do what’s best for kids, but presuming that only I know what’s best is a quick way to dissolve relationships, create mistrust and erode culture.  Sometimes our ability to do what’s best for kids simply lies within our ability to inspire, influence and support the adults on our team.


Start by Picking Up the Phone

pick-up-the-phoneWe talk (and complain) a lot about parent engagement and parent involvement or the lack of it in our schools and districts.  In my experience our default is to blame the parents for the lack of engagement – it’s easier than taking a look at the practices and policies we have in place at our schools. Does what we have in place actually make parents feel welcome? valued? important? I have had a few experiences over the last couple of months as a parent that make we wonder about the environment we are creating in our schools for parents.  I’m sharing them with you below, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

I actually just spent about twenty minutes of my morning trying to get the answer to one simple question at my daughter’s school. “What is the state testing window for the school this spring?”  My mom wants to take our daughter on a quick trip in May which would mean she might miss a day of school.  Before agreeing to the dates, I wanted to make sure that her absence wouldn’t fall during the State testing window.  As a former principal, I know what a grueling task it is to plan those schedules and the difficulty that comes with scheduling make-up tests for students who are absent.

So I started with the school calendar on the website and found nothing.  I went to the link they have on the site for testing and found nothing, so I called the school.  The first person who answered was a student, and I asked my question.  She placed me on hold and without anyone ever coming back on the phone to speak with me, I was transferred to a generic voicemail box.  I hung up and called again.  This time, instead of a person the standard recorded message giving me the school address, the school hours and the address to the website where I was told I should be able to find answers to most of my question were recited to me.  I was then told I could “press 1” for this office and “press 2” for that office… I think there were nine choices all together, so I started with the school counselor for students with last names “A-M”.  The phone rang four or five times and I was sent to voicemail.  I hung up, called back heard the address, school hours, website information and number options again.  I pressed the button for the second counselor “N-Z” as I just had a generic question anyone should be able to answer. I was sent to voicemail.  I hung up and called back.  I tried the attendance office, both assistant principals, the principal’s assistant and every other extension except for the cafeteria.  Every attempt was sent to voicemail. I kept trying as my mom was sitting with me and hoping to confirm the dates.  Eventually on one of my calls another person answered instead of the machine.  I asked my question and was placed on hold for a few minutes.  The gentleman who had answered came back on the phone and told me testing was “during the month of May”. When I explained my situation and asked if he knew when in May, he didn’t know and told me I should check the website.  I let him know I had done that and nothing was posted.  He told me I should call back later, “like maybe after 2:00”. He didn’t offer to take a message and have someone call me back.  So I will try to call again in another 3 or 4 hours.

I’m not sure I would be writing this post if it were just this one instance, but it comes pretty quickly on the heels of an experience I had with my son’s school a few weeks ago.  I had received a “robocall” and an email from them reminding me about my son’s absence the day before and informing me I needed to clear the absence. I appreciated the reminder.  The email was one that did not allow replies, so at about 1:00 that afternoon I called the school to let them know my son had been sick. The phone rang seven or eight times, and no one picked up, not even a machine directing me to “press 1”, so I waited a few minutes and called again – the phone just continued to ring – no answer and no machine for me to just leave a message about the absence. So I went to the website to see if there was either a direct number for the attendance office or an email for the attendance secretary.  Neither were listed on the site.  I called the school again, and still no answer.  I tried a few more times over the course of the afternoon to reach someone on the phone.  I never was able to get ahold of anyone nor could I leave a message.

Eventually that evening, I made a decision that I would email one of the assistant principals… I honestly wasn’t contacting her to complain.  I have met her a few times, she has always been very responsive, she is a PIRATE fan, and I know she cares about the school. I reached out because if it were my school and a parent had been trying to call all afternoon without getting through, I would want to know.  So I went on the school website, clicked on the link for the assistant principal’s email and shared the experience I had just had.  Later that night, I received a response to my email from a principal at another school in the district… she was very nice, but also let me know that I had the wrong email address and that for whatever reason the link on the website for the assistant principal at my son’s school went to her inbox at another school, so my initial email to the assistant principal never went through to her.

The next morning,  I tried to call the school again and I still had no answer and no machine.  I live very close to the school, so I ultimately just decided to drive down to the school and go to the office to clear my son’s absence since I was having no luck calling or emailing.

While I have others I could share, the final incident I will highlight is one that also happened at my son’s high school.  He is typically a straight “A” student with excellent citizenship grades, so calls from his teachers are rare (those phone calls home to share something good your child has done haven’t really caught on in our neighborhood). So I was surprised when he shared with me that we might be getting a phone call from one of his teachers.  We were in the car with my son and a few of his friends who all happen to be in this same class.  We asked them what happened and they proceeded to share their version of the story which apparently involved all three of them, so I was well prepared to talk with the teacher.  The phone call did in fact come that night, but to my surprise, it was not the teacher on the other end of the line when I picked up the phone.  It was a call that his teacher apparently scheduled through the automated system.  In a robotic voice I was told, “This is Ms. _____. Your child was (pause) disrespectful in class”.  That was the extent of my parent phone call home.  No teacher, no description of what happened, no opportunity for me to hear her version of what happened (as I’m almost certain it would have differed from the one three teenage boys told us), no opportunity to discuss consequences or for me to offer support.  Just a “robocall”.

I’m sharing these stories not to blast the schools that my own children attend… they actually have wonderful people who work in their schools, but I’m sharing them because I think they really highlight a problem that we as school and district leaders need to be cognizant of when we are establishing policies, procedures and practices in our schools. Situations like the ones I described above don’t make me want to be more involved as a parent… they actually do just the opposite and have caused me to believe that communicating with the schools my children attend is actually a rather frustrating experience.  They don’t leave me feeling that the schools actually want to talk to me or want to engage me… they feel instead like there is a firewall system designed to keep me out.  I understand that schools are hectic places and people are busy doing their work, but isn’t being responsive to parents part of that work? We say we want more involvement, more engagement, but I wonder if what we really mean is that we want parents to do what we tell them to do according to our rules at a time that’s convenient for us.

I am certain that the installation of all of the robotic message systems have been put in place with the intent of communicating more and with the intent of being helpful to both staff and parents, but the reality is that I wonder if we have taken them too far.  Rather than helping, they have created extremely frustrating situations and in these instances at least, I have felt like communication has gotten worse rather than better… more impersonal rather than personal.

Dave and I talk about  the importance of creating experiences for students and staff in our classrooms and schools, but shouldn’t we be creating them for our parents too?  And while I would LOVE for our neighborhood schools to embrace the use of social media, create YouTube Channels and share video newsletters and so many other wonderful strategies we know some schools are using to engage parents… Maybe it starts with simply picking up the phone.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do you know the user experience for phone calls coming into your school?
  • If you have students answering phones, have they been trained in customer service techniques?
  • Does the experience parents get when they visit or call your school make them feel welcome and more comfortable doing so again?
  • Is contact information easily accessible and updated regularly on your website?
  • Do contact links go to the right places?
  • Are important dates easily accessible?
  • How many robocalls go out from your school each week? day? hour?
  • Do you know how teachers use the robocall system in your school? Have you communicated expectations about use?
  • Is the way you use your robocall system making communication better or worse? Have you asked your parents?
  • What’s one step you could take to ensure customer service for parents gets better at your school next week?

#LeadLAP Challenge: L is for Learner

change learnerDuring my time as a principal coach, I’ve often worked with people to help them overcome what can only be described as a “fear of having to be the expert”.  Something happens to our brains when we step into administrator roles that seems to make us think we can no longer let people see that there are actually things we still have to learn about teaching and learning.  I’ll be the first one to say that when you decide to step into an educational leadership role, you should know a lot about curriculum, instruction, assessment, sound pedagogy and effective practice – your competence in these areas (along with your character) are a big part of what will start earning you trust.  There is no way you know all there is to know, and that’s ok!  What’s awesome is that you are surrounded by a team of professional educators who can help you fill in your own learning gaps and contribute to your own professional growth on a daily basis… How cool is that?  But for whatever reason, when we walk into classrooms and then later engage in coaching conversations, we feel we have to wear the hat of “expert”.  We observe the lesson and decide what we think worked well and what didn’t and we package it up into feedback that we hope will “fix” the teacher, then we assure them that our conversations and feedback aren’t evaluative and then we ultimately we scratch our heads and wonder why they don’t find our feedback all that valuable and why they get a bit stressed when we walk into their classrooms.

One of the biggest challenges people have with leading ANCHOR conversations is the “Collaborative Conversations” piece, and I think it has a lot to do with them maintaining the “boss” or “expert” role during the conversation.  The administrator does most of the talking or telling and the teacher listens politely (most of the time), says “Thank you” and happily exits the conversation.  A truly collaborative conversation is one where there is no perception or belief by either party that there is an imbalance of power in the conversation.  You both believe that what you say carries equal weight. In other other words… the administrator’s ideas don’t automatically trump the teacher’s just because they carry the title of “boss”.  As leaders… one of the things we need to work hard to do is shake this perception that comes with the title – at least we do if we want to be invited into the real conversations that are happening on our campuses about teaching and learning.

One way to begin to shake this perception is to take every opportunity to show your team that you are a learner too… that you appreciate feedback and learning from them just as much as you enjoy helping them learn and grow.  So, this week’s challenge is all about showing your team that you are a learner (and it will get you into classrooms, too!)

Take at least two hours this week in any configuration that makes sense on your calendar to visit classrooms (but get it on your calendar now or the time will slip away from you).  Try to visit at least 15 classrooms. While you are there, erase any thoughts of things you see and want to fix and instead focus on what YOU are learning from THEM and then tell them.  One of the most amazing opportunities I have had as an administrator is to observe thousands of lessons, and I have learned a TON from what I have seen other teachers do, and I’m certain you have too.  We just have to be open to it and then be willing to share our learning with them.  One of my favorite things to do is to get an opportunity to sit down with a teacher and say to them… “That strategy… method… tech tool… app… content… is new to me.  I learned a ton just by watching you for five minutes. I want to know more – can you teach me?”  Putting ourselves out there as learners, too goes a long way in building the trust and rapport with our colleagues that we need if we want them to find value in the coaching and feedback we provide to them.

So… get into those classrooms this week and drop ANCHORS of LEARNING!

  1.  Set aside two hours to visit classrooms – visit at least 15 over the course of the week
  2. Focus on what you are learning from the teacher during the observation
  3. Drop an ANCHOR of LEARNING… tell the teachers what YOU learned from THEM
  4. Be sure to share how it goes using the #LeadLAP challenge all week

Shelley and Beth


#LeadLAP Challenge… E is for ENTHUSIASM


Enthusiasm is contagious! When you are around enthusiastic people or surrounded by good, positive energy – you feel it – it’s palpable. As we have hit the point in the year where we are coming off of Thanksgiving break and have just three weeks before our winter break, it’s easy to allow ourselves to fall into the trap of “just getting through” until the break. So we are embarking on a three week #LeadLAP challenge focused on injecting enthusiasm into our schools, districts and communities.

There are so many negative stories out there about education. Stories that beat up our schools, our principals, our teachers. As leaders in our buildings, we need to commit to rewriting the stories… to combatting the negative with an insane amount of positives. We need to radiate enthusiasm for the great things happening in our schools, and it’s up to us to share hat enthusiasm with others. Great things are happening in your district, in your school, in your classrooms. What are you doing to showcase them? To share them?

We encourage you to start this week by thinking about the communication that goes out directly from you to you your staff… to your students… to your parents and community. What percentage of that communication focuses on the amazing things happening in your school? If you were to scan your school newsletter, would you see more reminders of parking rules and dress code or would you see more stories and pictures of students engaged in deep and meaningful learning? If you were to keep a log of the phone calls you made to parents, would there be more negative messages or more positive ones? What about interactions with staff… Are there more “do’s or more “don’ts”? Which are YOU more enthusiastic about?

So as the holidays are approaching and 2015 is winding down, we think there is no better time than now to stop, take a look around your district, your school, or your classroom and ask yourself… “What is it that is AMAZING about who we are and what we do?” “What are students, staff, teachers doing that make you incredibly proud of them?” We know it’s all around you!

So… This first week of the three week #LeadLAP ENTHUSIASM challenge is to find those moments of AMAZING in your school. Document those moments in pictures… videos… recordings… quotes or any other way that seems appropriate and then SHARE your enthusiasm for them using the #LeadLAP hashtag. You can share them in any other way that makes sense to you as well… but here’s a hint… next week’s challenge will focus on a variety of ways to share these amazing moments with your district, school, and classroom communities. So this week… just have fun capturing the AMAZING and sharing your enthusiasm with the #LeadLAP community.


Enthusiastically yours,
Shelley and Beth


Start With Appreciation – Further Thoughts on Language of Leadership

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the language we use as leaders, and I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share…

Recently my good friend @AmyIllingworth and I had the opportunity to present a full day workshop to a group of new and aspiring principals on “Monitoring Implementation of the Common Core”. One component of our workshop focuses on the critical responsibility of principals to visit classrooms often and to provide coaching and feedback that motivates and inspires.  As part of our seminar, we shared ideas about what to look for during classroom visits and ways to provide meaningful feedback. We also watched video clips of classroom teachers and their students during lessons and asked the participants to diagnose what they saw in the lesson and practice giving feedback.

As participants started this task, we were a little bit disheartened with some of the comments we heard.  They were judgmental and their was a distinct lack of language that showed appreciation for any aspects of the lesson which ultimately led to uninspiring feedback. None of the lessons we watched was perfect, but what lesson ever is? Each lesson we observed had moments  that might be worthy of discussion on how to strengthen and enhance the experience for the students, but every one of them had moments that deserved appreciation.


If you find yourself in a role where you are fortunate enough to be in classrooms often and provide feedback through coaching, then language of true appreciation is essential.  As an observer of thousands of lessons in my career, I have yet to see a single lesson where there weren’t several things to appreciate. No, they have not all been award-winning lessons, but they have ALL had merit and value that was deserving of kind words and appreciation.

In the first lesson we watched, a middle school social studies teacher was trying the strategy of close reading with a text.  Admittedly, it was not a “perfect” lesson and didn’t go exactly as I’m sure she would have liked, but it was NOT deserving of harsh criticism and negative judgment.  Here are just some of the things Amy and I noticed and appreciated about the teacher and her lesson:

  • We appreciated that the teacher allowed a camera into her room to film her lesson
  • We appreciated she was taking a risk and trying a new strategy
  • We appreciated she was trying to give more ownership of the learning to the students
  • We appreciated she was structuring time for students to talk to each other about a complex text
  • We appreciated she tried to have kids use context clues to figure out word meanings
  • We appreciated that as she was checking in with the groups, she noticed when they were struggling, and when she did, she brought them back together whole group to model her thinking as she read the piece to them
  • We appreciated she identified the major error the kids were making and adjusted her instruction to try to help them through their struggle

And we appreciated a lot more!

Was this the most polished close reading lesson I’ve ever seen? No. Could her lesson have used refinement? Absolutely. My guess is she knew that before anyone else since as educators we are often our own worst critics!

The teaching of new standards, trying new strategies, doing something different, takes practice, reflection, feedback, refinement, more practice, more feedback, more reflection and so on.  If we don’t notice and appreciate the risk-taking, the practices, the approximation, the trying on of new things, and instead we judge best efforts and first attempts as poor or unsatisfactory – many teachers will stop trying and fall back on the things they already know, and we will sit back and wonder why nothing is changing in our classrooms and schools.

If as leaders we want to promote risk-taking and trying new things, then we shouldn’t judge the practices! Appreciate the approximations, and provide coaching, support, and new learning that inspires growth, motivates new thinking, and reminds teachers that they are the magic and they are capable of making miracles happen for kids in their classrooms everyday.


5 Reflections on the Language of Leadership


Remember the old adage ” Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?  I beg to differ.  Words have power… A LOT of power.  The words we use as leaders matter.  People pay attention to them.  People make decisions based on them.  People go home from work uplifted or beaten down because of them.  Something we say out loud that might be insignificant to us may have a more powerful impact on someone than we will ever know… so choose your words wisely.  Once they are out in the world, you can’t take them back – EVER!

I may not be the most eloquent writer, but as a leader I have always been a student of words… their power, their impact, their influence.  I choose what I say and how I say it very purposefully and thoughtfully because I want people to hear and understand my message in the way I intend for it to be sent.  There are many lessons I have learned about words, their power, and the critical importance of good communication, and I wanted to reflect on a few of them here…

1.  As leaders we have lost the luxury of thinking out loud!

Like it or not, it’s true.  Even if you define yourself as a highly collaborative leader or a servant leader (or any other kind of leader) – you still don’t have this luxury. As a new principal, Itaste your words learned early on that once I spoke or shared a thought, others would clam up and be less likely to share their thoughts and ideas.  Apparently, once I had spoken and shared my initial thoughts, they assumed the decision had been made and their ideas didn’t matter.  That is the opposite of who I am or want to be as a leader.  In my first year as a principal, I adopted a strategy that I have used on many occasions ever since – instead of being the first to talk, I am the last to talk. Instead of sharing, I pose questions – very carefully planned and crafted questions, and then I  listen to the other voices in the room.  When they have finished sharing, I take on the role of summarizer and synthesizer, and I add my two cents if the thought hasn’t already been shared.  Strategies like this one have been essential for me because I genuinely believe that all of those other voices matter and that with lots of ideas we can build one or two amazing ideas to carry us forward, but as soon as I start to think out loud… I run the risk of stifling those other voices.

One of my favorite stories about this idea which I share with every new leader I have the opportunity to coach, comes from a principal I used to work with.  He had an “aha” moment in his first year as a principal where he was freely sharing with one of his teachers several thoughts and ideas that he had just learned about at a PD he had attended.  He was “thinking out loud” about the kinds of things they could be doing as a school, ideas and thoughts he had about changes they could make etc. etc. By his account, he stopped mid-sentence after noticing the teacher was turning a little bit green.  She was overwhelmed by all that he was saying and the impact all those changes would have on her.  I’m sure her mind was going a mile a minute about all she would have to do.  His reflection with me about that moment was that he suddenly realized that while he was just chattering away in his excitement about things he had learned, she was staring at the new giant red stamp that he was now wearing on his forehead that said “BOSS”, and she was interpreting all he was saying through that lens.

As leaders, we need to be heard, people need to know who we are and what we stand for.  They need to know what to expect from us and be able to predict how we will respond to a variety of situations.  If we always just say the first thing that pops into our heads at any given moment, we can run the risk of diluting our message and creating confusion for people who count on us to stay focused and consistent.

2.  Find alternatives for loaded words and phrases

positivesIf you want your message to have maximum impact,  pay close attention to how people respond when you use certain words and phrases – do the words uplift and inspire?  Do they set off triggers and cause negative reactions?  I want my words to influence and inspire great work.  I want the words, phrases and tones I use to convey to people that we are all part of the same team moving forward together.  I want my words to ensure that I value you and believe in you as a professional.   I want the words I use to motivate people to try new things, take risks and feel safe.  I don’t want them to turn people off, so I’ve also learned that while I may be married to a concept or idea, I need not be married to a particular word or phrase.

As an example… I no longer use the word “rigor” when I talk with educators or facilitate professional learning opportunities.  It’s too loaded.  Let me be clear, I truly love the concept that most people are trying to communicate when they use that word, but I don’t use it anymore. I’ve used it often enough in the past, but too many people are turned off by it.  They aren’t necessarily turned off by the concept it is intended to convey in education, but they are turned off by the word. I have watched people sneer and roll their eyes when it gets used in PD, and I’ve read numerous blog posts about the horrors of the word (including one written by my husband @burgessdave) So I made a deliberate decision to take it out of my vocabulary when interacting with educators.

Depending on the context and the conversation, I now use phrases like “level of complexity”, “complex thinking”, “challenging and thought-provoking work”, “Asking a meaty question that allows for divergent thinking” and other phrases like these.  I can communicate the same concepts I was trying to get across when I used the word rigor but without any of the negative reactions the word can evoke.

3.  Remove judgment language from your feedback

WordsPeople don’t like to be judged.  I know I don’t.  I love feedback… I love reflecting with people… I love being challenged and pushed to be better, but judgment… no thanks!  I have supported and coached many educational leaders, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders over the years, and I believe this is a challenging, but essential one for leaders to get good at, and we are all so prone to do it.  We make assumptions and pass judgment all the time – even when we don’t notice we are doing it.  So, to get good at eliminating judgment, we have to notice when we are doing it… we have to pay attention to the common “judgment phrases” we use and replace them with new language that is void of judgment.   Some of the common ones I hear administrators use: “I really didn’t like the way he…”  “I just wish she would have…”  “That’s not the way I would have…”  “If only she…” “What was he thinking?”   We are quick to judge and make assumptions and often don’t take the time to understand.  One strategy I have found to be particularly helpful is when I find that I am ready to judge, I need to ask a genuine question… not one of those fake/manipulative questions that people know are judgmental, but a genuine question to help me understand.  here is an example:

To know me as an educational leader is to know that I have a strong commitment to having insanely high expectations for students and an unwavering belief in their talents and capabilities.  Probably the quickest way to set me off (in my own head at least as I would carefully craft my words before having the conversation) is to tell me that “kids can’t”, so when I walk into a classroom and observe a lesson that appears to be way below grade-level expectations, I can be quick to judge.   I had to notice this about myself first, and when I found myself wanting to say “The learning objective you were teaching was WAY below grade-level… What were you thinking???” I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I wanted to understand – not judge… so I started asking genuine questions in a true attempt to understand.  I now say something like this instead…

“So when I walked into the room, I noticed you were working with the kids on _____.  Tell me more about that lesson and why you chose it as a focus?  I’d love to know what made you decide to go there with them.” Over the years, I have received amazing responses to that question.  Things like: “I had just given them a quick pre-assessment on an essential pre-requisite skill they needed for the lesson 10 minutes before you walked in, and they didn’t have it down, so in order to ensure their success I spent 15 minutes teaching the essential pre-requisite, you should see how they later rocked the lesson.”  or “I was reading over their essays last night and noticed a common trend, they just didn’t seem to have a grasp on… so we spent some time on it today.  Then I had them re-write… and they were so much better.”  Things I might never have known if my language put people on the defensive.

When we observe lessons, we can see a lot, but we also have no idea what happened before we walked into the room and no idea what happened after we left.  If our assumptions make us quick to judge, we can let judgment language dominate our feedback and conversations.  This can quickly close doors to us and rob us of amazing opportunities to have incredible dialogue with our teachers that can inspire them to move forward in their practice.  If we want to be invited into the real conversations about teaching and learning in our schools, then our teachers need to feel safe and know we aren’t judging them.

4.  Be careful… most of our praise is judgmental, too!

Yep!  Phrases like “Great job”, I SO loved your lesson on…”  “I really liked the way you…”  are also judgmental, and I would argue that we should eliminate these from our feedback as power-of-wordswell.  I’m not advocating that we never tell someone they did a great job, but I am advocating that we need to be careful when and for what we say it.  When giving feedback on a lesson… I almost never use positive judgment language for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost… I don’t want it to be about me and what I like or don’t like… I want it to be about what engages students and helps them learn.  I don’t want people to plan, adjust and change their lessons based on whether or not I like them – that shouldn’t be the criteria on which lesson planning and lesson delivery are based, and I don’t want my language to convey that I THINK that is the most important criteria.  So, what do I do instead… I use “noticing”  language, and I am convinced that people actually have more of a sense of satisfaction when I do than if I were just to say “great job” or “awesome lesson”.  So what does it sound like?  Something like this…

“Hey when I was in your classroom today, I noticed that you were trying out a new strategy (insert strategy here).  I could tell that it was really making a difference for your kids.  When I sat down and talked to Sarah and Johnny, they had real depth in their responses. Sarah said… Johnny said…  What were some of the things you noticed?  How are you going to expand on that tomorrow?  Would you mind if I came by to see that – I expect it will push their learning even further, and I am excited to see where it might go.”

I would argue that feedback like this is both powerful and perceived as highly positive, but it is also void of any judgmental language.

5.  Take steps to understand yourself as a communicator

communicationIf we want to become powerful communicators, we have to do the hard work to understand who we are as communicators now and how others perceive us.  I recently had a conversation with a long time friend of mine who was sharing a story about a PD session she attended in her district.  The presenter was a district leader and someone sitting at my friend’s table, instead of listening to the message being delivered (which ironically was about the importance of PLCs and teamwork) was keeping a tally of how many times the presenter said the word “I”.  I can’t remember the exact number she told me, but it was something like 176 times.  I’m guessing that this district leader has no idea how often he uses the word “I” when communicating to his team, but it was clearly a turn-off to people who were listening, and as a result, his message wasn’t heard.

We have to be aware of our patterns and habits when we speak if we want to become better at sending the right messages with our words.  So, enlist some help!  A long time friend and principal colleague of mine was great for me in this regard.  He knew how much words mattered to me, so even when I moved into the assistant superintendent  role where I was technically his boss, he would help keep me on my toes with my language.  He would catch phrases that I might start to overuse and send me little slips of paper with the phrase and a big “X” drawn through it.  He would help me catch some of those “trigger” words that were starting to cause some grumbling among our colleagues.  He would help me understand which words and phrases had made a powerful and positive impact on him.  I appreciated every one of these exchanges because they helped me grow and get better.

I could go on and on for days about language and its impact, but for now, I leave with this…



Mandates… How Do We Lead Them?

So… I was inspired to send my first voice “Vox” today based on a question posed in the #bfctlap Voxer group that I belong to by an educational leader wanting some advice from the group on balancing State and District mandates with the needs of her school (I’m abbreviating this a bit, but it captures at least some of it).  This is a subject I am passionate about, so while my voice “Voxes” were a little clunky, I enjoyed being a part of the conversation and hearing insights from teachers and leaders a like.  The conversation went in many directions and has inspired a lot of thought, but I wanted to share my initial two cents on the topic of leading someone else’s mandates.  I hope my thoughts are more eloquently stated in writing than they were while speaking into the “walkie talkie”… at least in writing, I know I won’t use the word “umm”.

It doesn’t matter your role in education… there will always be mandates.  Things that come down from above that you will be required to do – some of them you will agree with and others you won’t, but how we handle these mandates contribute to who we are and how others see us as leaders.

The mandates come from somewhere, and I truly believe they often come from a very well-intended place from a group of people who are trying to find solutions to an often glaring problem.  Just getting your arms around that can help you lead them.  Take NCLB for example – I know as educators most of us hate that mandate at this point, but it was very well-intended legislation trying to make sure that districts and schools were paying attention to the very real achievement gaps we had (and still have) across the country.  It was intended to say that EVERY child matters, and EVERY child deserves a high quality education.  While we may have disagreed with how this legislation played out, I would be hard-pressed to find a professional educator who would disagree with its premise.

This leads me to my point… to lead someone else’s mandate, it’s worth the time up front to understand where it’s coming from and the problem it is trying to solve.  One example I shared in my Vox conversation comes from my time as a principal.  I was charged at the end of my first year in that role with carrying out a district mandate to use a new curriculum for our English Language Development Program beginning the following year.  I HATED the program.  It was one of those fully scripted “take the teacher out of it” programs that literally caused people to say things like “Even the custodian could have an ELD group!” Are you kidding me?  I had fabulous custodians at my school, but they were not professional teachers… See my blog “Programs Don’t Teach Kids, Teachers Do” for more of my thoughts on that topic!!

I did NOT want to use this program in my school, but I had a very wise mentor once tell me that while I might feel like the “boss of the school”, I was really only middle management… hired by the Board and the Superintendent to help lead their vision, so part of my job was to figure out how to do that well, and if my found myself in a place where I truly didn’t believe in their vision, then I needed to find another system in which to work!   Not bad advice… and I know I worked in a place where ultimately our values and beliefs were in alignment.

So… I spent a lot of time thinking about how to take this back to my staff because I knew they were going to have the same negative reactions to the program as I did. What I knew for sure was that I was NOT going to walk into a staff meeting and share  with them “The district wants us to do a new ELD program, and by the way… I hate it!” – that would have taken all of my influence as a leader away from me, and I knew that at the core of the decision to mandate this new program was the fact that English learners across our district were NOT learning English at the levels that they should or could.  So, I did this instead…

I prepared a sea of data about how our school’s English language learners were performing.  I had been digging deep into this data for awhile, but I went deeper.  I created a data set to share with my staff that started with the big picture and ultimately drilled down to individual kids.  I was prepared for all of the challenges that might come up – you know the ones… they usually start with “yeah, but…”  What I ended up with as my final slide was data, names, pictures etc. for a very small number of students – 23 of them to be exact!  So who were these students?  They were English language learners who had just “graduated” from 6th grade the year before who had been in our school continuously since they were in kindergarten or first grade. They did not have chronic attendance problems and they did not have a special education label… and two, yes ONLY two of them had demonstrated proficiency in the English language by the time we sent them on to middle school. They had been in our care for at least six years!  I let that sink in for a minute, and then I remember saying something like “Is there any one of these students that we collectively don’t own?”

I was met with silence, downcast eyes, uncomfortable twitching and movement, and I let that go on for a for what I’m sure seemed like an eternity, but was probably about 60 seconds!  And then I asked, “So why is this happening and what are we going to do about it?”  From there we had small group table discussions, charts and charts of thoughts and ideas about how we might move forward, and we started to formulate the beginnings of a plan…  Over the course of the next few weeks, we formed an ELD Committee, ironed out the plan, pointed out obstacles, and identified the things we needed to learn more about.  While we knew we had hard work ahead of us, we had generated positive energy around doing this good work and charting a course to do better by our kids.  At some point, in the midst of all of this, I introduced the new District ELD program and asked my team to help identify how the new resource could support OUR plan, and guess what?  It did support our plan… it wasn’t a complete solution, but it filled a need.  We had clearly identified problems with what we were currently doing… we were not systematic enough in our delivery of ELD and didn’t have the right assessments – we were creating, not closing gaps because of this.  We had also had some teachers share that they weren’t fully confident in their ability to teach the English language, and the new program helped with that.


So while I was never enamored with this district mandated program, we found a way as a school team to make it our own and to fit it into OUR plans to support OUR teachers and kids.  One of the things we talked about in the Voxer group was the idea of “positioning” to our staff.  While I didn’t think of it then, I have reflected on it since… I’m not sure that we are after as leaders is the right “positioning”.  I think what we are after is working with our team to find value in new ideas and new ways of thinking, and yes… even value in new programs.  But that doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes careful planning and paying close attention to the needs of your students and the needs of your staff.  It also takes faith and trust that you are leading a team of professionals who when presented with the data and the problem that needs solving that they will roll up their sleeves and want to be part of creating and carrying out the solution.  It also means making a commitment to setting aside the time it takes to grow and learn together and it means not beating people up when they take risks and make mistakes.

So, my #bfctlap Voxer friends… this is one of the things I was trying to articulate in my clunky and awkward Voxes.  Thank you @KeriSkeeters  @marcihouseman @BethHouf @rosy_burke for raising such important issues, asking great questions, thinking about solutions and for being the educators that you are.  I look forward to the day when we can have these conversations in person!

Ever Wish You Could Have a Do Over?

Sometimes I wish I could have a “do over”.  Remember those when we were kids?  I had one of those moments earlier this month when I hosted our educational leadership and principal teams in our first collaborative learning sessions of the school year.  While I am convinced that the content we were learning about is a critical part of our work if we want to move student learning forward, I made a rookie mistake.  I did not do nearly as good of a job as I usually do at connecting something new to what we incessantly define as our most important work around teaching and learning.  I’m still beating myself up about it a little bit because typically it is something I am very good at as a leader, and I am relentless as a coach of other school and district leaders about clarity of vision, focus, and message.   With a little distance though, I have had an opportunity to reflect and remind myself of some critical leadership lessons:

1.  Vision, focus and clarity are critical to success.  Your actions and words need to stay in constant alignment or you will throw people off course.  Marcus Buckingham author of The One Thing you Need to Know says this:

Employees crave simplicity and clarity; they want to know precisely what they can do to be most effective—and then not be distracted from that. Their highest priorities—the “core”—must be clarified incessantly. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety … if you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

2.  Be explicit about how any new ideas, concepts or learning connect to your vision, focus, and message. When introducing something new into the work, give people time to process and make connections.  Don’t assume everyone else will see the same connections you did right away.

3.  Value and use the organizational language, frameworks and structures to introduce new concepts.  Spend time learning the concept using language that is already part of your system long before sharing any new labels or buzz words, and frame it in a structure with which your team is familiar.

4.  Relationships matter.   While I prefer to think of myself as a valued colleague and member of the team when I work with principals and central services administrators in my department, at the end of the day, I am also the boss.  People typically want to meet the expectations set by their boss, and in many cases won’t give their boss honest feedback.   If you have established relationships, good rapport, and a culture of learning rather than perfection, your team will be honest with you.  I so appreciated my colleagues who called a “time out”and challenged me to a better job of communicating how this new piece of work connected to our focus.

5.  Admit you made a mistake and work diligently to clear up the confusion.  Based on feedback during the meeting, I was able to make adjustments, and in the two weeks since, I have had several one on one conversations with principals and members of my team making sure we understand things the same way.  I have made revisions to the document we will refer to all year to make sure we stay focused on our most important work.   I have written a reflection that I have shared with my team presenting what I hope will be an enhanced part of our work this year using organizational language we are familiar with and putting the new concepts into a framework with which we are all familiar.  I have checked in with all of our principals about their initial staff meetings and the work they are doing to set focus and direction with their school teams and I am listening to hear if our meeting a couple of weeks ago threw them any curve balls, and I am clearing up my message if necessary.

So… while my best hope would be that I could have a do over and set a few things up differently from the beginning, I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect.  I have also appreciated the great team I have around me and their willingness to put up a mirror, hold me accountable, and not allow me to throw them off course.

Lead Like a PIRATE

One of my favorite parts of the week is co-moderating the West Coast #satchat (#satchatwc).  The topics, the collaboration, and insights from other educators from around the world always inspire me.  Today’s topic was of particular interest to me because it is one I think about quite a bit – hiring highly effective educational leaders. We talked about the characteristics we look for, the different parts of the interview/hiring processes we find to be most effective and insightful, the types of questions we think are important to ask in an interview etc.  What we know is that hiring an educational leader, particularly a school principal, is one of the most important decisions we make, because the bottom line is that leadership matters… a lot!

TLAP BOOK COVERI’ve read countless books and articles on educational leadership;  I have read and embraced a variety of leadership theories and models; I coach, mentor and support educational leaders who serve in a variety roles; and I have held several leadership positions in my career.  But what I kept coming back to in my head this morning is the book my husband Dave Burgess (@burgessdave) recently published Teach Like a PIRATE, and I wondered… shouldn’t we also lead like Pirates?  If you are not familiar with Dave’s book, he uses the Pirate acronym to describe 6 traits essential to highly effective teaching, and I am convinced that they are also essential traits of highly effective leaders:

Passion – Highly effective leaders are passionate.  They know who they are, they know what they love, they know what they stand for, and they bring this with them to work in one way or another everyday.  The passion is contagious, and highly effective leaders have a knack for helping those around them ignite their own passions and capitalize on them.  I love walking into schools where passion is evident.  There is a hard to describe energy that radiates within the walls and around the campus, and it takes a passionate leader to create this.

Immersion – Highly effective leaders are immersed in their work.  They roll up their sleeves and they dig in.  They are people who work alongside their staff and their community. They have a constant “pulse” of the school because they are always paying attention.  They invest time in both the big and small moments of leadership.  You are likely to find them immersed in classroom observations and engaged with teachers and teams focused on student learning, but you will also notice them taking time to jumprope with a group of students on the playground, spending a few moments at a table in the cafeteria, reading a favorite book to a room full of kindergarteners, or chatting with a parent volunteer in the hallway.  No matter where you find them, you notice that they are fully present and they are invested.

Rapport – Highly effective leaders develop rapport and relationships.  They do this with staff, with parents, with students, with community members, with their colleagues, and with their supervisors.  They invest the time in getting to know people.  They learn about their strengths and where they want to grow.  They learn about their passions, their best hopes, their worst fears.  And they invest this time with everyone – even those who previous leaders had written off.  They embrace opportunities to hear multiple perspectives, and they value the contribution that each person makes to the organization, and they tell them so.

Ask and Analyze – Highly effective leaders ask many thoughtful questions and they are skillful at analyzing all of the data that comes at them.  When there are obstacles and challenges they don’t “chalk them up” to anything…  they ask probing questions and dig deep to get to the root of the issue, and they actively seek out solutions.  They reach out to others, seek advice, and they are hungry for answers.  They equally spend time focused on what is going well.  They are able to label the actions that took place to make something successful because they know success does not happen by accident.  It happens as a result of strategic and intentional decisions.  Highly effective leaders are connected, reflective, and they are learners.

Transformation – Highly effective leaders want to make a significant difference, a significant contribution and transform the lives of their students.  They have a clear vision about where they want to go and why it is an important journey for people to take with them.   They have high expectations and create a healthy sense of urgency around the most important work, and they are skillful in managing and leading change.  They know that great schools can change communities and change the lives of generations. They believe in the moral purpose of providing students with an amazing set of educational experiences, they are clear in defining what these are, and they take deliberate steps to get them in place.

Enthusiasm – Highly effective leaders infuse enthusiasm into their work.  They “bring it” everyday, and they are committed to being “on” – even on the days they might have to fake it.  They are the champions and cheerleaders of their schools and champions and cheerleaders of those who work and learn there.  They celebrate successes both big and small.  You know enthusiastic leaders when you see them.  They are the ones who can bring you up when you are down; they help you re-ignite your fire when it is starting to burn out; they point out how you have contributed and made a difference; they smile; they laugh; they engage; they commit.

While I know the above list may not be an exhaustive one… it sure is a great place to start when looking for a new leader in your system or looking for ways to support the ones you have.  It is also a great way to reflect on your own practices as a leader… Do you lead like a PIRATE?