Sunday, May 31, 2015

Finally, an SIS Worth Switching For

I’ve recently discovered an exciting new company called Alma, which has built a groundbreaking new Holistic Student Engagement Platform (an SIS/LMS hybrid) that I believe in so much that I’ve joined their Advisory Board.  

Here’s why I’m excited about Alma’s potential to make a big impact on K-12 education:

  • It’s actually easy to use.  You don’t need to be a database administrator or techie to make it work for you.  Most of the SIS’s out there are just good enough to get the job done, but take awhile to learn and can still be challenging.  Why should we as educators settle for that?  We are increasingly accustomed to using extremely intuitive software on our smart phones, tablets, and laptops.  Why shouldn’t our school and district management tools be just as intuitive?  We deserve this.  
  • It saves a ton of time for admins and teachers.  We all know how stretched for time we are.  If a system’s tools and ease of use can save us just 30 minutes a day, wouldn’t that be a huge win for both educators and students?  Think of the positive impact on educator happiness and work/life balance, not to mention the potential gains for student improvement as a result of reclaimed time to focus on students.  Many in the K-12 space don’t think an SIS can impact student outcomes, but when you consider the potential time savings for teachers, it can actually have a huge impact. 
  • It saves schools and districts money.  With most schools and districts using up to ten different systems serving niche needs to operate, a lot of time and money is spent trying to integrate and connect these systems to each other.  Because Alma offers SIS, LMS, and communications tools in a single platform, business managers and principals save big by consolidating.  And much less is required to be spent on training due to the ease of use.  
  • It fosters communication like no other.  Alma has woven communications tools into virtually every aspect of their SIS and LMS, so that you don’t have to leave whatever you are doing to engage any member of the community in seconds.  Building these tools right into the workflow increases efficient communication, and we all know how important that is for success.
  • 'All in one' is the future of school management software.  Think about it.  How many different tools do you have to remember and save passwords for, not to mention learn how to use?  It just doesn’t have to be that hard.  With more capability in a single platform, you have less to learn, fewer disparate places to go to get things done, and a simpler existence.  Why pass the data though so many systems and put data privacy and security at risk in the process?  It’s like going to the doctor’s office and filling in the same information on so many different forms – it just doesn’t have to be that complicated.  
These are the big reasons I’m so excited about Alma.  But don’t just take my word for it – I encourage you to see for yourself at and requesting a demo.  It’s unlike anything else you’ve seen – in a good way.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Leaders Don't Boss

"Leaders care about why things get done. Bosses just want things to get done. Bosses maintain order for the sake of order. Leaders introduce order for the sake of progress." - Akshay Kapur 

Do you work for a boss or with a leader? Are you a boss or a leader? This is an extremely important question where the answer is probably indicative of the climate in which you work and the success (or lack thereof) of change initiatives.  The fact of the matter is people choose to be either a boss or a leader.  This choice can have a monumental impact on any organization.  Leadership is a choice that evolves over time through one’s actions.  Leaders look to constantly improve and help others to do the same. Bosses care very little about self-improvement and are more focused on extrinsic motivational factors.  

More than one individual  

Change does not come from one person.  Leaders believe in servitude while embracing the collective strengths and abilities of all people in an organization. They work hard to build a team and use the hiring process to surround themselves with smart people.  Great leaders do not shy away from hiring people that are smarter than them and are not afraid to admit it.  Consensus and shared decision-making are strategies commonly used to foster embracement for change, which ultimately leads to success.  Leaders work tirelessly to build relationships with everyone through collaboration, trust, and respect.  The power of many always trumps that of one.  Bosses on the other hand expect everyone to serve them. Their specific title and self-perceived power that comes with it leads to a sense of entitlement. 

Example moves the masses

Leaders never ask others to do what they are not willing to do themselves.  They model the way and use their example as a means to move a change initiative forward.  Leaders understand that talk is cheap and opinions do absolutely nothing in the long run to successfully implement change.  Their actions speak for themselves and are used as catalysts to inspire others to join in.  Bosses command and direct others to do what they are not willing to do themselves.  They use talk and rhetoric as the main drivers to force an agenda forward or have others do their bidding. Bosses do not see the inherent value in spending the time and effort to participate in actively building a better culture leading to improvement.  

Implement vision into action

Leaders work with others to develop a vision to help move a mission forward.  In the case of schools, these people ensure measures of action result in the vision becoming a reality so that all students learn and overall achievement increases.  Great leaders focus on the vision for the mission’s sake. Bosses set the vision themselves, usually in the form of a mission statement. They then sit on top of this mission statement and use it to promote themselves when others succeed. 

Expect more and work harder

True leaders set high expectations of themselves.  They understand by doing so the workload increases as progress is made.  Leaders that have raised the bar and let their work be the example motivate and inspire others to do the same. They focus on solutions instead of excuses. Bosses on the other hand expect to reap rewards and benefit from the hard work of others. 

Bosses come in many forms, as do leaders.  They are not just with people you might work for, but also those in positions of authority.  When I look at current education reform efforts across the globe I see endless examples of bosses, but very few leaders.  I can also say the same about the social media space. There needs to be less telling educators what to do and more showing them how to do it. If not, then those individuals are no better than many of the bosses that they complain about.

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Bosses tell others what to do. Leaders on the other hand take them where they need to be.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Time and Place For Buy-In

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand the term “buy-in” when it comes to change.  It is one of these phrases that has outlived its usefulness, if in fact sustainable change leading to transformation is the ultimate goal. More often than not, this leadership tactic is put into play to get educators on board with specific mandates and directives that have been pushed down from either the state government or central office.  In my opinion, this is the only time when looking for buy-in is appropriate because you really don’t have much of a choice in the matter.  It is in these situations that leaders have to “sell” others on the importance of change whether or not they actually find value in it themselves.  We have to do so by developing a concrete strategy comprised of compelling reasons to get staff on board with these changes even though we ourselves never actually bought in.  

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As a principal this was always a tough pill for me to swallow. I often felt guilty as I addressed my staff with an elevator pitch loaded with reasons as to why these changes were needed.  In these situations my role became more about selling change.  Thus educational leadership in many regards has morphed leaders into sales reps who have to move an agenda forward even if the outcome will not help to positively transform school culture.  It comes as no surprise that initiatives implemented through a buy-in approach rarely are sustained to a point where there is a noticeable lasting impact on culture.  

Real change that is sustained does not come from buy-in. If you have to sell people on change then you will always have to spend precious time keeping people bought-in.  With buy-in the leader becomes, and remains, the focus of the change initiative. If there is one thing I learned during my time as a school leader, where many successful changes were successfully implemented over a short period of time, it was that change has to be embraced by all stakeholders.  When educators have to be coerced through a buy-in approach animosity and resentment often follow.   

Our approach focused on putting our stakeholders in a position to experience the value of change firsthand. Instead of a one-size-fits-all methodology to moving the masses to where we wanted them to be, we instead identified those among the staff who exhibited powerful leadership attributes and empowered them to be agents of change.  I still provided an overall explanation to my entire staff as to why we needed to change certain things and how we could go about it, but allowed everyone to go at their own pace initially. This allowed me to focus time, energy, and resource on a smaller group of go-getters who I had hoped would be the key.  The calculated gamble paid off.  This team of teacher and student leaders was put in a position to experience the value of changes we supported as administrators, but they championed through their successes.  They owned the process and I shared their successes far and wide.

I might have played my part by bragging about the successes this group experienced early on, but it was their actions that compelled their colleagues to move in a different direction and embrace change.  There is nothing more powerful than the act of modeling when it comes to initiating and sustaining change.  It is at this point that stakeholders embrace new and different ways of doing work because they want to, not because they have to. The true leaders of change are our teachers and students. Great leaders, in my opinion, remove all excuses by providing the necessary support.  Place people in a position to experience firsthand the benefits of the change and they will do the hard work of moving the masses.  

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Think about changes that you have made on a professional level.  Did you have to “buy-in” in order to make those changes or did you embrace them once you experienced the inherent value for yourself?  I would guess the latter and that is why the change took hold resulting in an improvement of professional practice. For change to be successful and last the test of time it has to be embraced. The next time you are in a position to implement needed change think about how you will approach it in a way that focuses on embracement as opposed to buy-in.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Turn Students from Passive Listeners into Engaged Learners with imakiku

The following is a sponsored blog post by imakiku.

Student engagement that leads to actual learning is the goal of any pedagogically sound lesson.  With that in mind have you ever pondered the following questions?

  • What do the students think while in class?
  • What are students interested in now?
  • How do I know if they are actually learning?

These questions are a major concern for many teachers, as they want to know what the students think while in class. Advances in web-based technologies now offer teachers the ability to answer these questions in a more holistic manner. Today I introduce a new web browser based tool called imakiku, which is sure to enhance formative assessment in your classroom.

Imakiku enables real-time voting, posting, and survey capabilities through the use of smartphones, tablets, or laptops.  It is specifically optimized for these mobile devices. Simple, intuitive interfaces make everything easy for both teachers and students alike - from creating and asking questions, making comments, designing and completing surveys. You do not need extra devices. There is no software to download and registration is not necessary. Your students simply log in using the participation code that is provided.

The teacher goes to and prepares the questions.

Students go to; login and participate.

It’s that simple!

For Teacher:

Here are some more detailed instructions for the teacher:

  1. Before the class go to to create questions and topics for the students to respond to during the lesson.
  2. As the class begins, ask the students to use the participation code to log in to via their devices.
  3. During the class the student responses will appear as bold informational graphics in real-time.
For Students :

Instructions for the students are as follows:
  1. As the class begins students login and participate during the class using their devices. 
  2. During the class students answer the questions with “one click”. They can also submit comments and questions during the class, which the class can see and “vote” on.
You can access a free trial until 12/31/2015 for general use.  For readers of A Principal's Reflections the trial is free until 3/31/2016 by using a special code. Visit imakiku, click on the orange sign up button, copy and paste this code in the promotion box: 20150505_ZVMQODFJSA

After you give imakiku a try, please send your comments/feedback to They will then better develop imakiku to reflect your feedback. 

Once you grasp what your students think in real time, you can begin to develop even better lessons and learning activities based on their feedback.  Students will feel more respected when afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in real-time, thus increasing their active engagement.  It will enable your class to keep concentration and motivation high. Above all, your students are more likely to enjoy taking your class.

Give imakiku a try and turn your students from passive listeners into engaged learners.

Visit imakiku’s website to learn more!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Meet Your Stakeholders Where They Are

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to have an article published in the digital version of ASCD's Educational Leadership.  The title of the article was Transforming Your School with Digital Communication. As technology continues to evolve, it will continue to become an even more embedded component of society. With that being said, it is important for school leaders to meet their stakeholders where they are at and engage them in two-way communication.  Digital leadership calls for a multifaceted approach using both traditional and new-age strategies to ensure that the right message is reaching stakeholders in a timely fashion.  We can't assume nor rely on communication staples such as snail mail (i.e. paper mailings), newsletters, or websites are the most effective and only ways to get information out.

In the article, I highlight four reasons why all leaders should embrace a digital communications strategy:
  1. Transparency - Leaders can tackle the constant perception battle by providing more frequent and accurate updates about the daily work occurring in schools.  This requires sharing challenges as well as successes and opening yourself to feedback from anyone. In the end, transparency through digital communications helps to build positive relationships with key stakeholders.
  2. Flexibility - A multifaceted digital communications strategy allows all stakeholders a choice as to how they want to consume information and interact with the school. An added bonus is that there are so many free tools such as Twitter, Google+, blogs, Facebook, and Remind that are free for all to use.
  3. Expanded access to learning - In my case, digital communications opened my eyes to new and more powerful ways to learn.  I then began sharing with groups of teachers several ideas, strategies, and tools I'd acquired from my personal learning network (PLN). As our learning culture began to change, it was critical that I was able to articulate these changes to my stakeholders.
  4. Sharing the good news - Digital communications compliments and/or enhances any public relations plan.  In a time when good news about schools is hard to come by in the mainstream media school leaders can now become the storyteller-in-chief.  Digital communications act to amplify the successes that are taking place in schools every day.
To use social media effectively, you need to see yourself as a learner, not just a leader. Making the shift from traditional to digital leadership demands that you question your own assumptions, acknowledge how much you don't know, take risks, and learn from failure.  Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, school leaders should differentiate communication efforts if the goal is true partnerships between home and school. Leaders have the power to shape the culture of schools. Using social media and digital tools as a lever, you can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, and communicating for all members of your community.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Title Doesn't Make You a Leader

I pondered just sending out the title of this post as a tweet – short, sweet (well, not so much), and to the point. Instead of just throwing out a sound bite into the social media abyss, a detailed explanation is needed.  Now, here’s why.  As of late, I have been working with a greater number of teachers across the country on digital leadership and learning.  During the many conversations that ensue over the course of the workshop, a common theme has developed, and that is real change can only come from the adults that have a specific title, such as Board of Education member, superintendent, other central office administrators, principals, supervisors, etc. Immediately upon hearing this, I share stories of many “leaders” by title that I have come in contact with over the years or observed from afar that did anything but lead.  I would also bet that I am not the only one who feels this way either. 

Titles are often squandered, which results in lost opportunities to transform organizations in positive ways.  Leaders by title alone often exhibit many defining characteristics such as egos, power trips, taking credit for the work of others, handing down mandates/directives, invisibility (i.e., never seen or around when needed), and insecurity when their ideas are challenged in the open. They commonly tell others what to do without having done it themselves or assisting in the process.  I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Changes that are implemented by leaders by title are never sustained.  What scares me the most about leaders by title only is that they have the ability and power to inhibit the changes that are desperately needed.  The perception of the term leader needs to change, and it begins with you.

A title doesn’t automatically anoint one as a leader. Leadership is comprised of a dynamic mix of behaviors, mindsets, and skills, which are used to move people where a leader wants them to be for the betterment of the organization.  In the case of schools, great leaders help others see the value of change by clearly articulating the why and how to build broad support through consensus. However, a real leader knows when to step in and make the hard decisions that have to be made, having calculated the positive outcomes prior.  They also stand by these decisions in the face of adversity.

In my opinion, all leaders have one thing in common – they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position.  This comes back to the motivation for this post.  Some of the best leaders I have seen during my years in education never had a title.   What they did have was the tenacity to act on a bold vision for change to improve learning for kids as well as overall school culture.  These people are overlooked because they don’t possess the necessary title that is used to describe a leader in a traditional sense.  

Make no mistake about the fact that many of you are surrounded by these people each day, both physically and virtually. They are teachers, students, parents, and even administrators who have all taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These people don’t just talk the talk, but they walk the walk. They lead by example in what might be the most impactful way possible – modeling. These true leaders do not expect others to do what they are not willing to do. The best part is that these unsung heroes do not need a title to make a difference. They also don't need a title to be agents of change.

Image credit: Tom D'Amico

Everyone has the capacity to be a leader in his/her determination to be better for the greater common good.  Leaders choose to become so and are ultimately defined by their resolve to initiate change in the face of adversity. I believe that leadership is not innate but rather learned through the actions that we choose to take, as well as a critical analysis (both good and bad) of other leaders.  So the next time someone with a title is referred to as a leader, think about what he or she has really done in his or her respective position to champion real change. Upon pondering that, the realization might be that the true leader is actually you, even though you don’t have the title.