Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Role of a Leader in Building Capacity

When it comes to leadership, there is no one right way or quick fix.  Just like with learning, it's a process, not an event.  Another given is that no matter where your practice lies, or that of your staff, there are always areas to improve.  Herein is why I stated the following in Disruptive Thinking:

Chase growth, not perfection.

While honesty and vulnerability are necessities to get the ball rolling, action must follow to advance practice.  From a learning standpoint, this requires a focus on pedagogical leadership, something I learned over time when I was a principal, which required taking a critical lens to my practice if I was going to help my staff do the same. 

Even though I tried, the frequency of which I observed teachers rarely extended beyond the minimum expectation.  Not only was I not in classrooms enough, but also the level of feedback provided through the lens of a narrative report did very little to improve teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.  If improvement is the ultimate goal, we as leaders need to focus on elements of our job that impact student learning.  While it is understood that management is a necessity associated with the position, it should not be something that comes at the expense of improving the learning culture. 

It is easy just to say how one should improve leadership or anything else for that matter.  In Digital Leadership I offered ten specific strategies implemented during my time as principal that you can adopt now, which you can read about below.

Visit Classrooms Routinely

This seems so easy yet is a constant struggle.  Consider increasing the number of formal observations conducted each year and commit to a schedule to get them all done.  We formally observed each of our teachers three times a year, regardless of experience.  Another successful strategy is to develop an informal walk-through schedule with your leadership team.  I mandated five walks a day for each member of my team, and we used a color-coded Google Doc to keep track of where we visited and the specific improvement comments provided to each teacher. 

Streamline Expectations and Eliminate Ineffective Practices

Think about establishing a shared vision, language, and expectations for all teachers.  We did this by using the Relevant Thinking Framework.  This will provide all teachers with consistent, concrete elements to focus on when developing learning activities.  Get rid of the dog and pony show ritual of announced observations.  If lesson plans are still collected, ask for them to demonstrate what will be done two weeks into the future.  Consider less of a focus on lesson plans and more on assessment by collecting these two weeks into the future. 

Improve Feedback

Provide at least one suggestion for improvement, no matter what is seen during an observation or walk-through.  There is no perfect lesson.  Suggestions for improvement should always contain clear, practical examples and strategies that a teacher can implement immediately.  Timely feedback is also essential.

Be a Scholar

Being a scholar helps you as a leader to improve professional practice and puts you in a position to have better conversations with your teachers about their own improvement.  This adds a whole new level of credibility to the post-conference.  I made an effort to align every point of critical feedback to current research.  As you come across research that supports the types of effective pedagogical techniques you wish to see in your classrooms, archive it in a document that you can refer to when writing up observations.  I spent each summer as principal reading, researching, curating, and adapting this for use during the school year.  It saved me time when it came to writing up observations and greatly improved my relationship with my staff as the lead learner. 


Don't ask your teachers to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself.  This is extremely important in terms of technology integration in the classroom and professional learning to improve practice.  If a teacher is struggling with their assessments, don't just say you need to work on building better ones.  Either provide an example that you have created or co-create an assessment together. 

Make Time to Teach a Class 

This can be accomplished regularly during the year or by co-teaching with both struggling and distinguished teachers.  During my first couple of years as an administrator, I taught a section of high school biology.  This is leading by example at its best.  It also provides a better context for the evolving role of the teacher in the digital age.  A leader who walks the walk builds better relationships with staff and will be in a much better position to engage staff in conversations to improve instruction. 

Constantly Seek Out Ways to Grow

Attend at least one conference or workshop a year that is aligned to a significant initiative or focus area in your school/district (the annual Model Schools Conference is a fantastic option).  Try also to read one education book and another related to a different field such as leadership, self-help, or business.  So many powerful lessons and ideas can be gleaned once we venture outside the education silo.  To complement traditional means of professional learning, work to create or further develop a Personal Learning Network (PLN).   

Reflect Through Writing

Writing has enabled me to process my thinking resulting in a more critical reflection of my work in relation to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Our reflections assist us with our growth and can also be catalysts for our staff and others to reflect on their practice or grow professionally.  Having teachers write a brief reflection prior to the post-conference is an excellent strategy to promote a conversation on improvement that isn't one-sided.

Integrate Portfolios

Portfolios were a requirement for my teachers and complimented our observation process nicely.  They provided more clarity and detail on instruction over the entire course of the school year.  Portfolios can include learning activities, assessments, unit plans, examples of student work, and other forms of evidence to improve pedagogical effectiveness.  They can also be used to validate good practice.


During the first quarter of each year, I co-observed lessons with members of my administrative team.  This was invaluable for many reasons.  For one, we were able to utilize two sets of eyes during the observation, as some things will always be missed when done solo, no matter how much experience you have.  This also allowed me to work with my team to help them improve their leadership.  It also helped me grow as every conversation helped me further reflect on what I saw.

There is nothing more important than ensuring quality learning is taking place in our classrooms.  The ten strategies presented can be implemented immediately to improve your leadership while enhancing the practice of those you serve. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Leading With a Swiss Army Knife Approach

How would one define great leadership?  What are the characteristics of influential leaders?  Each of these questions leads to various responses.  I am sure that each of you reading this post can develop a quick list of critical characteristics or behaviors that one must utilize to help move people to where they need to be to improve culture and performance.  Sure, some might naturally rise to the top, but the fact of the matter is that one is not necessarily better than the other.  Influential leaders tend to be great because they understand each situation requires a different approach.  Kendra Cherry provides an excellent synopsis below:

The situational theory of leadership suggests that no single leadership style is best.  Instead, it depends on which type of leadership and strategies are best-suited to the task.  According to this theory, the most effective leaders are those that are able to adapt their style to the situation and look at cues such as the type of task, the nature of the group, and other factors that might contribute to getting the job done.

Let me summarize the statement above.  There is no one best way to lead.  The landscape is changing at a frenetic pace, and this requires a multi-faceted approach, as detailed in Digital Leadership.  The key is understanding when and how to apply what is needed in different situations, and there isn’t a better analogy, in my opinion than a Swiss Army knife.  As a kid, I had one of these and loved the multi-functionality it provided.  While I tended to use some of the tools more than others, different problems or challenges required a different gadget.  Knowing what tool to select and when to use it helped to achieve success, even if it was just sawing small branches to make a habitat for all the creatures my brother and I collected as kids.  It was always reassuring to know that one device could do so many things. 

Leadership is a lot like a Swiss Army Knife.  First, leaders need to understand what strategies are the most critical in leading change, improving outcomes, and developing a thriving culture.  Second, they need to know when and where to employ these strategies based on the situation. Here is my attempt at creating the analogy. 

Communication (the right information at the right time the right way)

Consensus (sharing decision-making to build collective efficacy)

Storytelling (motivating and inspiring)

Modeling (practicing what is preached), Feedback (providing ways to grow and improve), and Support (professional learning, resources, empathy, time)

Research and Evidence (justifying changes to be implemented and validating strategies used to improve outcomes)

Vision (articulating where we are headed, how we’ll get there, and why)   

Reflection (thinking about what we do, why we do it that way, and how it can be done better)

Delegation (building capacity by empowering others)

To be effective, great leaders understand that they must be flexible if success is the goal.  While many of the elements above can happen simultaneously, different situations require a specific approach or strategy.  Leading with a Swiss Army approach empowers leaders to identify the context or challenge and readily adapt to employ a personalized approach to solve a problem, move an innovative idea forward, or improve culture.  In the words of Richie Norton, “That challenge you have right’s not a wall; it’s a door.  It's meant to be opened.  Get a handle on the situation and open it.” Sometimes you need a different key to open the door. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Strength in Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” - BrenĂ© Brown

Change is hard.  It is even more challenging to sustain.  While there are many obstacles to individual or system growth, fear and comfort tend to lead the pack.  Both work to stymie a desire to improve for different reasons.  Often, we are afraid of taking risks or embracing new ideas because they might not work out, resulting in a decrease in performance, outcomes, or morale.  What might be will never be experienced if we are not open to trying.  Then there is comfort, which is typically the enemy of progress.  Hugh Jackman said something to this effect in The Greatest Showman.  What can materialize is a false sense that our current actions or practices are still effective.  

I shared the following in Disruptive Thinking:

Complacency has an insidious ability to inhibit our growth.  When we are in a state of relative comfort with our professional practice, it is often difficult to move beyond that zone of stability and, dare I say, “easy” sailing.  If it isn’t broke, why fix it, right?  Maybe we aren’t pushed to take on new projects or embrace innovative ideas.

While there is no silver bullet when it comes to change and growth, both become harder to achieve when we are not vulnerable.  While the standard view is that this is a sign of weakness, it is precisely the opposite.  Strength comes from stepping into the unknown and putting yourself in a position to tackle adversity head-on as a means to an end – getting better!  Vulnerability as a catalyst for change and springboard for growth comes from:

  • Stating you don’t know
  • Asking for help
  • Admitting you were wrong 
  • Sharing mistakes
  • Not hiding emotions (it’s ok to shed a tear)

The list above is all about being human and using perceived weaknesses as a bridge to not only build powerful relationships with others but also to actively overcome fear and complacency as a result of comfort.  As I mentioned earlier, change will be even more difficult, or in some cases impossible, if vulnerability isn’t seen as an asset.  Maz Dela Cerna shares the following:

Putting yourself out there, taking that leap, and showing vulnerability take a lot more courage and strength than to keep quiet and do nothing.  It shows strength when you can swallow your pride and ask for help.  It’s perfectly natural to experience tough times and to not always be on a high.  It takes guts to put yourself out there and launch an idea.  While you may be vulnerable and open yourself up to failure, you may also succeed.

I recently joined Tom Murray on the Future Ready podcast to share some of my thoughts on the topic, which you can view below. 

There is absolutely no shame in being vulnerable when it comes to change.  In the words of Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.  It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.” If growth is an individual as well as a collective goal, which it should be, then embrace vulnerability and be the change you wish to see in education.  

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Don’t Use a Lot Where a Little Will Do

The title of this post is a well-known proverb that carries a great deal of weight during times of adversity, struggle, or uncertainty.  I don’t know of a single person who really wants to take on more work, especially during a pandemic.  Pie in the sky strategies, fluffy concepts that are dead on arrival because they ignore critical context or lengthy books with little tangible examples do little to alleviate stress.  There is no better time than the present to pause, reflect, and focus on simplicity as a means to improve practice.

In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I honed in on research-based strategies that have withstood the test of time in addition to emerging strategies such as personalized learning.  While I was afforded the opportunity to go into depth in the book, the fact of the matter is less can be genuinely more.  


It is critical that students understand not only what they are expected to learn but also why they are learning the concept(s) and how it will be used outside of school.  A straightforward way to set this stage is to unpack the standard(s) into a learning target.  I shared the following in Disruptive Thinking:

These frame the lesson from the students’ point of view and are presented as “I can” or “I will” statements.  They help kids grasp the lesson’s purpose—why it is crucial to learn this concept, on this day, and in this way.  Targets help to create an environment in which students exhibit more ownership over their learning.  Critical questions framed from the lens of the learner include:

  1. Why is this idea, concept, or subject vital for me to learn and understand?
  2. How will I show that I have learned, and how well will I have to do it?
  3. What will I be able to do when I’ve finished this lesson? 

Tried and True Strategies

While a learning target is a significant step to ensure clarity, it is the use of effective pedagogical techniques that lead to meaningful learning.  Reviewing prior learning, checks for understanding, and closure have and always will be valuable components of a lesson.  Be sure to check out this post on the topic that adds context to the image below.  

Fewer Tools for More Impact

It’s not how much technology you use in the classroom that matters, but the degree to which students use it in a purposeful way.  Too much of a good thing tends to have drawbacks, which tend to increase when not aligned with sound pedagogy.  When it comes to technology, less is definitely more.  Consider settling on one or two tools to complement and enhance the instructional strategies you use daily.  For a list of some of the tools I see teachers use the most with a high degree of efficacy by instructional strategy, click HERE

Toned Down Choices

I am a huge fan of personalization through blended learning as a way to ensure equitable learning in and out of the classroom.  All of the schools I coach in have found ways to successfully implement these strategies with a high degree of efficacy.  One stumbling block is time.  Educators love choice boards and will spend hours creating them with either six or nine options.  While these can be very effective in empowering learners, the fact is that you don’t need a full-fledged board.  Consider having only two are three options for them to choose from to complete.  You can also consider utilizing must-do/may-do or a playlist with only a few options. 

Chunked Professional Learning

Time is the most precious resource for educators these days.  Lengthy workshops or being pulled out of schools for even a day isn’t always practical or beneficial.  Just like with direct instruction, chunking professional learning allows for needed support that is more targeted and specific.  Single concepts or strategies can be presented, as well as modeled, in twenty-minute blocks.   Creating an asynchronous course in a learning management system (i.e., Canvas, Schoology) or Google Classroom is another excellent way to chunk learning into manageable pieces. 

In the words of Leonardo da Vinci.  “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It also helps ensure that an idea, strategy, or implementation helps achieve its intended goal.