The best worst PD ever


Professional development for teachers can be a powerful experience to improve a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom by developing the factual and conceptual basis of knowledge of teaching in addition to providing an opportunity to reflect on one’s instructional practices. That is to say, develop our metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking. The most effective professional development has four components which make the initiative successful.  

First, professional development emphasizes comprehension and understanding instead of memorizing. Next, the professional development provides the learner with chances to integrate the new information into their job. This, in turn, allows the learner to implement the new strategies into “real world” experiences. Finally, the most effective professional development is focused on authentic tasks, attainable for the learner to implement and sustain. Unfortunately, in 2008, I sat through an eight-hour professional development session that offered none of these components.

The school in which I had been working at had begun a new program to install interactive whiteboards into each classroom.  It was decided by school leadership that all faculty and staff should have professional development to learn the best practices in using interactive whiteboards in the classroom.  A commendable idea to offer this professional development for teachers regarding new instructional technology, however; it was tragically flawed from the outset.

Remember when this was the latest instructional technology?

The professional development was held in the spring of 2008 during the final month of the school year.  Sadly, the interactive whiteboards were not installed in the classrooms until October of the following school year. We all know the value of training individuals and teams so as to have a positive impact on the performance of both individuals and groups within schools. However, this professional development experience did not consider Informational Processing theory or Cognitive Load theory.

The presentation consisted of one presenter demonstrating the various uses of an interactive whiteboard for eight hours.  During those hours I truly came to understand the old teacher adage …

Teachers did not have an opportunity to try using the interactive whiteboard and thus had little chance to activate working memory.  Nor did teachers have an opportunity to experiment using the interactive whiteboards in their classrooms later (because we didn’t have any!).  

The result was that teachers did not have a chance to transfer knowledge from the working memory to long-term memory. Perhaps if faculty had a chance to return to their classrooms which had interactive whiteboards this problem could have been mitigated.  Regretfully, this was not the case and teachers had to wait until a month into the next school year to have access to technology.

Perhaps if the presenter had considered Cognitive Load theory he would have considered the circumstances of the teacher/learners and restructured the professional development sessions to address the circumstances and needs of the teachers in attendance.  

The fact is that working memory is limited in individuals. The operation of interactive whiteboards, fairly new technology in 2008, was considered a complex task at the time. For context, the iPhone was not released until 2007 and most teachers could not yet afford such a device.  Additionally, the interactive features of Wi-Fi connected whiteboards were not yet commonplace in schools. The end result was a professional development session in which teachers felt lost and drained at the end of the day. No one was excited about this great innovation coming to our school.

It would have been better if the school leadership at the time would have made the commitment to long-term sustained professional development. Had the professional development been offered just before or after the interactive whiteboards were installed teachers could have focused on understanding rather than memorizing features of the technology.  

It would have also provided a chance for teachers to intentionally practice what they had learned during the professional development training. Perhaps most importantly, it would have allowed teachers to apply what they had learned to the different content areas they taught.  

Fortunately, once the interactive whiteboards were installed a small group of teachers and I started experimenting with the new technology and began sharing with one another and other teachers the different features of the interactive whiteboards. This #roguepd was

  1. Authentic because it aligned with our daily classroom experiences.
  2. Feasible because we conducted five to ten-minute training sessions and/or teachers voluntarily observed each other’s classrooms whenever time allowed
  3. Sustainable because it carried on throughout the year and the next

Exactly, what effective professional development should be. That year was one of the best professional development experiences I have had in my career.

Principles for Principals


Tim Westerberg, a retired High School Principal and author, wrote a great article in Educational Leadership magazine in 2016 titled, The Principal Factor. The article shares six principles for leadership which can be summed up by saying, PUT RELATIONSHIPS FIRST!

So powerful was the article that I wrote down the six principles on a piece of yellow legal paper which I have kept on my desk for the past three years to refer to often, especially on difficult days.

These six principles remind me to put relationships first.

Principle One

Show students respect. No one in the school is invisible. This includes students, teachers, staff, aides, parents and facilities staff. Respect goes a long way in developing relationships which can help later when you may need to have a courageous conversation with someone.

Principle Two

Be Visible. Get out of the office and into classrooms and common areas. Although I don’t get out of my office as much as I want to on a daily basis I try every day. Each morning I greet students outside during morning arrival and again at dismissal. I try to get into the cafeteria at least a few times a week for a lunch shift or two. Better yet, is when I get a chance to cover for a teacher during one of his or her classes. Walking the hallways during class transitions is another great opportunity to see and interact with students.

Principle Three

Be clearly in control. It’s not about power. I try to communicate my role as a leader and demonstrate that I am secure in my ability as a leader. As much as possible I try to give my faculty and staff opportunities to take on leadership roles within the school. This means that I need to listen more than talk. Someone once told me that we were given two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason. The best leaders use them in proportion to one another.

Principle Four

Clarify non-negotiables. Relationships are stable when the Principal is clear about non-negotiables. One non-negotiable for me is for everyone in the building to maintain a growth mindset. This goes for not just students but for faculty and staff as well, including me. Another non-negotiable for me is Principle Five

Principle Five

Be Civil. I need to model the values and behaviors that the school is asking students to adopt. The same goes for everyone that works in the school. When the adults in the building are modeling the behavior we wish to see from the students it becomes easier for the students to see and meet those expectations.

Principle Six

Show Affinity. It helps if you genuinely like kids. Students can smell BS and insincerity. So can teachers. As a leader, I need to demonstrate my care for the students and the fact that I love my job as a school leader. It can be difficult on the bad days, but on those tough days, it is even more important that I follow principle six.

I guess that’s why I keep this dog eared, coffee stained piece of paper on my desk. I need the constant reminder.

What’s so bad about conflict?


Recently, I was speaking with a couple of colleagues and one of them half-jokingly mentioned, “You love conflict!” I think that to some degree this comment came from my penchant from asking probing questions in my meetings with faculty and staff.

When I ask questions during meetings, I try to make them probing and seek deeper meaning. I am seeking to find out a person’s deeper intention and core beliefs. I think what often bothers some of my faculty and staff members is that I am exploring why we do the things we do.

When a leader starts to question the status quo, feelings of tension and conflict can arise among the group. But, not all conflict is bad.

Think about peanut butter and jelly, the conflict of salty and sweet is a joy for many. If PB&J isn’t your thing what about French Fries and Ketchup? How about Balsamic Vinegar and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a salad?

Some people love sports. Why? Because of the conflict and tension. Think about two soccer teams on the pitch, or football teams battling it out. Tennis, baseball, and basketball all are about the conflict of two opposing forces.

One does not have to go far when examining the arts and how conflict plays an important role in discovering deeper meaning. Classical music, jazz, rock and pop music all use conflict, either in lyrics, meter or key signatures, to help create tension and release to create a deeper meaning for the listener.

Painters and other artists use conflict as a medium to engage viewers in order to make meaning from their visual art. Novelist and poets use conflict to create tension and develop story arcs in order to draw the reader in. Television and movies use story arcs for the same reason.

The idea of conflict can have negative connotations because people often see it as unpleasant. However, respectful candor during courageous conversations and using strategic conflict is a powerful tool to change practices which are no longer effective.

Sometimes asking questions in which you already know the answers is important so that others may derive deeper meaning on their own rather than being told the better course of action. Effective teachers use this strategy in the classroom with their students. After all, there is little value in providing students the answers when the learning can be more meaningful and permanent when they arrive at the conclusion themselves.

I think the most vital part of using conflict effectively is to provide a safe environment where people feel safe to share their opinions. Part of my role as a school leader is to create the conditions wherein faculty and staff feel safe to have courageous conversations. In this way, I can continue to have a growth mindset conversations with my faculty.

How do you create a safe environment within your school. classroom or organization?

Comfort is Killing Us


The greatest danger to effective instruction and the administration of a school is comfort. Once a teacher, teachers or school leadership becomes comfortable at their job they tend to no longer seek to improve their practices and instead often seek comfort in remaining with the status quo. In my mind, this is the equivalent of the life support monitor of the school flatlining.

It is vital that educators maintain a growth mindset as professionals. We must be reflective and improve our own practices as well as others within the school. Essentially, we must stay hungry, always be growing and push others to do so as well.

There is a difference between being “comfortable” in one’s practice and having a mastery of a particular skill set. When a person exhibits a mastery of a skill they have the confidence and expertise to perform the duties of their job at a high level but they also understand that there are always ways to do the job better, with more efficiency or impact.

When an educator is comfortable with their job, the power of the status quo takes over and educators journey down the path of least resistance. These educators essentially punch the clock and do as little a possible to disrupt their routine. The curriculum is to blame for student success, or the students are not motivated or ill-behaved, or there is a lack of resources to deliver meaningful lessons, or…insert excuse here...

Inevitability, the only thing these comfortable educators look forward to on Monday, is that Friday is four days away.

The desire for some teachers to remain in the status quo is like a poison within a school. These comfortable and unmotivated teachers can quickly create a cultural in which others can be brought into their toxic way of thinking.

“I’ll always choose a teacher with enthusiasm and weak technique over one with brilliant strategies but who is just punching the clock. Why? An enthusiastic teacher can learn technique, but it is almost impossible to light a fire inside the charred heart of a burned-out teacher.” 
― Dave Burgess, Teach Like a Pirate:

Our job as educational leaders demands that we mentor those teachers who are average but have the potential to be rockstar educators. These teachers may be first-year educators or teachers who have spent 20 years in the classroom. We have to identify them early and lift them up within our organizations otherwise they will leave the profession.

In a similar way that we encourage and cultivate potential rockstar teachers, we must doggedly pursue teachers who fall below our expectations and merely go along to get along. By having critical conversations about “the why” someone teaches and getting them to think about their long term goals, we can open up a dialogue with teachers who fall below expectations. These courageous conversations require us to first, listen and second, be candid about our expectations for them in the classroom and school.

These critical and courageous conversations can and must be respectful. First, the stakes are too high and the time is too short to give our students less than they deserve. Secondly, the job of a teacher is too hard and stressful for someone to be effective if their heart is not fully invested in the needs of the students. It’s too harmful to the teacher and for the students.

Top 10 Influencers for 2018


As the year comes to an end many of us spend time reflecting on what we may have accomplished or failed to accomplish the past 365 days. I am no different. As I thought about what to write for today I thought about what I have accomplished such as starting my doctoral program, implementing student-led conferences at my school, continuing to try to push my faculty to take instructional risks in the classroom and starting this blog. However, writing about these topics seems a bit too specific and narrow. Instead, in the spirit of the Top Ten lists, we often see this time of year I’d like to share my list of the top ten influencers who have impacted my own learning this past year.

Perhaps you have not heard some of these individuals or organizations. If not I encourage you to start following and hopefully learning from them the same way I have the past year.

10. Edutopia – OK, I know this is not a new site or trendsetting but George Lucas’ Educational Foundation has been doing great work for years. If you are stuck for an idea or need a quick resource to share with a colleague, chances are Edutopia has something great.

9. Mindshift – KQED News Mindshift is always thought-provoking. Subscribe and get a weekly email with great educator related stories, thought pieces and resources.

8. TED – Again, TED’s “ideas worth spreading” is not new or groundbreaking in 2018. However, I started using the TED videos in a new practice. I force myself to take at least a 15-minute “lunch break” during which I eat my lunch and watch a TED video. I get a few minutes to decompress, force my self to get a few moments of peace and usually leave my office feeling inspired. Don’t forget about another great resource in TED-Ed too!

7. Classroom Screen – This is a site that my friend and fellow educator Tim Miller,@SocStuTchr , shared with me earlier this year. The developer, Laurens Koppers @ClassroomScreen, created a home screen with a myriad of classroom widgets to help one manage their classroom. Things like a noise level monitor, a random name chooser, and a QR code generator just to name a few widgets, are included and super easy to use. I think it is a great tool and have used it while substituting for one of my teachers as well as presenting to fellow educators.

6. Common Sense Media – I have been referring a lot of parents to Common Sense Media when we have discussions about screen time and student consumption of media. It provides a great reference or starting points for many parents who soon discover they have to help their children manage their screen time and media diet.

5. TeachThought – There are so many resources and pieces on this site that I can sometimes get pulled into a vortex of amazing resources. Don’t surf this site during your short break!

4. Workbench – I am still encouraging my faculty to begin implementing Workbench more often in the classroom(it’s a goal for 2019). I learned about Workbench when they were acquired by Google in 2018. Workbench is a place to build, find, customize, and share standards-aligned lessons for your classroom. It’s free for schools, heavy on STEM, coding, and robotics and has some great featured partners such as Parrot and Makey Makey. Now that they have been bought by Google this could be one of the biggest curriculum resource sites in the near future.

3. Rich Czyz & @4OClockFaculty, – A great book in which Rich, @RACzyz , shares his story and some wonderful ideas for shaking up professional development in your school. I shared this book at a Principal meeting last spring and our Chancellor bought a copy for all of the Principals. I know that Principals who have tried some of the strategies have had some great results!

2. Simon Sinek – Simon Sinek’s 2014 Ted talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, is well known to many. Take a few minutes and watch it if you have not seen it yet. I also encourage everyone to read his books Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last. While what he says seems so simple and makes sense, that manner in which he reveals the fundamental truths about leadership are always inspiring.

  1. Twitter – If you are not on twitter. Get on it! Now! They are so many awesome educators in the Twitterverse that it just makes sense to be in the space. Join an #edchat or several. Follow some educational leaders. They will turn you on to other educational leaders. I truly believe that any educator not on Twitter is doing themselves, and their students a disservice. There is just too much valuable information out there to not be willing to dip your cup into the twitter stream and walk away with a great idea, resource or connection.

Have a Happy New Year!

How can anchor charts change classroom culture?


As a school leader, it becomes apparent to me on a daily basis, the importance of developing and investing in the relationships of my faculty and staff.  Ask any principal if the old maxim, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is true and I’d venture to guess 9 out of 10 school leaders would say definitely.

If it is true on the macro level of a school, it is also true on a micro level in the classroom.  The investment teachers put into establishing a trusting and nurturing environment allow students to feel safe and take academic risks.  

For the classroom teacher, one powerful method of establishing a culture of excellence and growth mindset in the classroom is to effectively use anchor charts. An anchor chart is nothing more than a tool to support instruction. These posters, which are created by teachers and/or in collaboration with the students display the most important and vital content strategies of a lesson or unit. These graphic displays show how one goes about thinking about a concept.  It provides an opportunity for students to move forward when they are stuck.

Anchor charts can be used for endless possibilities but the most common charts focus on to engaging students in learning, are used as visual reminders, help chunk complex material into bite-size pieces, build vocabulary and remind students about classroom procedures.

The best part about anchor charts is that they build a culture of trust within the classroom.  Anchor charts are visible artifacts that subtly tell the students, “I don’t expect you to know everything the first time around”,   “We work together in this classroom to help one another”, “I trust you to try to work it out yourself before coming to the teacher for guidance”.    

At the school I lead, anchor charts are commonly used from everything for reading and writing, math, and even student-led conferences.  It’s been a game changer for many of my teachers and has helped them with classroom communication and management.

If you explain something to someone and they say they understand, yet still do not do what was asked, obviously they didn’t understand.  Anchor charts combat this scenario in a non-confrontational manner. Students feel supported, develop independence and have agency in their own learning.  The best part, classrooms that use anchor charts and have this type of positive culture just feel good to be in. The teachers feel it, parents feel it, administrators feel it and most importantly, the students feel it.

What is 21st Century Learning?


I spend a lot of time in the school I lead talking about and explaining what a 21st Century Learning Environment is, isn’t, what it looks, like and feels like. I have similar conversations with other Principals and leaders within the department of schools in which my school operates.  

As educators, often times these conversations focus on the learning and skills we seek to develop within the students.  The educators I speak with agree that 21st-century learning skills encompass the ability of students communicate, collaborate, critically think and problem solve, as well as be creative.  These are commonly referred to as The Four C’s.

The Four C’s are incredibly important skills for today’s students to understand and master so that they can be prepared for the uncertain future work environments which they will be entering.  It should not be a secret that the dawn of the “internet of things” and Artifical Intelligence means that our students need to be prepared to enter a workforce who jobs do not exist yet.

However, if we only focus on the skills we want our students to develop we lose sight of the WHY we want them to develop these skills. Schools still need to continue to help students develop competency in the core content areas such as English, Modern Language, Fine Arts, Math, Economics, Science and Social Studies. In addition, we must develop students understanding of global awareness, financial and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and environmental literacy.

In today’s technology-rich and rapidly changing society, we must develop students ability to access and evaluate high-quality information, in order that they are to able to utilize this information, navigate social media, and use technology effectively.

Educator’s today are tasked with developing students life and career skills in a much different way than in years past.  In order for students to be prepared to meet the needs of an rapidly evolving world, they must develop skills in flexibility, self-direction, productivity, leadership, and social & cultural competencies.

Given the complex nature of intersecting these various skill sets (the 3 R’s and 21st-century learning skills) within the classroom, it is unreasonable that we expect teachers to meet these needs in a traditional classroom setting.

Moving beyond just having technology such as iPads, Chromebooks or laptops in the classroom schools need to look forward to how instruction is delivered. It is even necessary to look at how many states establish curriculum standards and set expectations to evaluate student competency.  Standardized tests and school rating are not enough to determine if we are doing justice for our students.

As we look towards more student-centered learning environments Problem Based Learning or PBL, is one avenue wherein schools can look to bridge this gap and address the needs of today’s learners.

The efforts by High Quality Project Based Learning outlines a framework of six domains to make PBL effective in the classroom and prepare students to be successful in the world after school.

These domains include:

  1. Intellectual Challenge & Accomplishment – How do students critically think and strive for excellence?
  2. Authenticity – How do students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, lives, and future?
  3. Public Product – How is student work discussed, critiqued, shared and publicly displayed?
  4. Collaboration – How do students collaborate with one another in person/online and receive guidance from adults and experts?
  5. Project Management – How do students use project management processes that allow them to start a project, ideate and complete a project?
  6. Reflection – How do students reflect on their work and develop their metacognition skills before, during and after a project?

If we want students to be prepared to enter the workforce ready to challenge and question the ideas before them and to have the stamina to focus and inquire over a long project we need to create environments for them that are authentic, give them a voice, and provide an opportunity for them to reflect on their learning.  In this way, they can develop the skills to critique in a professional manner and be proud of the work that they share in public.

To continue to teach using a traditional educational methodology that trains learners to become good at being students rather than become competent at becoming learners does a disservice to those who we are tasked with guiding and shaping into effective members of our society.


Vulnerability & Building Trust

Several years ago I wrote a letter to Billy Martin, a drummer, percussionist, artist and now an Artistic Director of the Creative Music Studio. I had received a signed copy of one of his vinyl records because I had made a small donation in support of the studio he was building, The Herman House Gallery.

To express my gratitude I sat down to write him a short thank you note which turned into something of a three-page letter.  As a fellow drummer, I shared my musical path and lamented the fact that I was no longer playing music regularly or had the ability to be creative since I had become a school administrator.  To my astonishment, he took the time to not only read my letter but to actually write back! 

His response was thoughtful and I could tell he had read my letter. Rather than dismiss my missive to him as the ravings of a crazy person, he was empathetic in his response and challenged me to do one thing.  Be creative, make art every day.

When I began to reflect on his challenge, Be creative, make art every day I began to look for those opportunities to be impactful in meaningful ways. 

I thought about my time in the classroom.  As teachers, we take hours to plan and prepare our lessons and units.  We differentiate material for the students that need something a little more or level materials in order to meet their exact needs. We design pre & post assessments and make sure that we are collecting data and following the scope and sequence. That is part of the science of being a teacher. 

However, the moments that I remember most in the classroom where not the times I was a scientist. It was those times I felt like an artist.  Those times when the plan fell apart and I had to improvise the lesson based on the direction the students were asking questions and displaying passion about the subject.

By deviating from the prescribed plan, I left myself vulnerable to the students as we explored their questions and interests together.  I didn’t always have all the answers and we had to explore together. This vulnerability created an atmosphere of trust within the classroom where the students could see their teacher traveling with them on their learning journey.  This is the art of teaching. Establishing trust and journeying together.

As Principal I may not get those moments often, if at all, with students. Instead, I get the opportunity to create and design with teachers on a different level.  I used to view my faculty and staff as over fifty different individuals with various competing needs and desires.  Today, however, I view the faculty as a collection of professionals as if they were an improvisational jazz group. 

In order for any improvisational group (i.e. musical or comedy group) to be successful, they must possess two traits.  First, they need to have a solid foundation of their craft.  Second, they must trust the group with whom they are working. The most successful improvisational groups are willing to be vulnerable in order to take risks, go somewhere new and create something greater than one person is capable of doing alone. Teachers are no different.

Together, the teachers and I have a solid background in our content knowledge. It is from there which we based all of our practices and discussions, it is our common language.  However, the culture of the school had not begun to change.  Our expertise alone did not create a positive creative environment.  It wasn’t until I shared my vulnerability with the teachers that they began to take risks instructional risks of their own.

I had to demonstrate that, as a leader,  I wasn’t the wealth of all knowledge.  That I valued and needed the points of view of others.  By forming committees, teams and departments I was able to “give the work back” to the teachers and demonstrate that I trusted their decisions and valued their expertise.

This is probably a bad idea but…

I also share my vulnerability by sharing my good ideas and bad ideas.  Often times I begin a statement with, “This is probably a bad idea but…” or “Here is an awful idea…” as a way to invite criticism and demonstrate that I do not have all of the answers.

When teachers feel safe and supported they begin to encourage one another to take instructional risks. Taking these risks exposes their own vulnerability because they know their efforts may not succeed.  However, the freedom to fail as a teacher and come out on the other side, informs our school culture and builds upon their unconscious actions and beliefs.  More faculty end up taking risks and trying new instructional practices. 

Teachers don’t take risks out of some sort of competition.  Instead, teachers can subconsciously feel the supportive environment which they have had a hand in creating.   Now when I speak with teachers or better yet, have a chance to overhear their conversations, I don’t solely look at the informational content of what they are saying.

Instead, I look and listen for how the message is being sent. The active listening, the “yes and…”, “tell me more about that” and “have you considered..” comments tell me about the relationships that are forming and how the teachers are becoming more comfortable sharing vulnerability with one another.

As a school leader, this is the creative process and art I strive to make every day.  To establish and nurture the conditions in order to form a more positive school environment and culture.

For example, this afternoon, I get to attend a faculty meeting and listen to a first-grade teacher deliver a short TED-style talk to her fellow teachers about how her classroom implements the 16 Habits of Mind. 

Handing over a faculty meeting to teachers so they can speak about whatever ignites their passion is a risk I am willing to take. I am showing the teachers, let’s try something new. I have no clue if it will work but let’s give it a shot. 

And for this first-grade teacher, I know she will feel vulnerable presenting to her peers the exciting work they are doing in their classroom. Is there anything much more intimidating for a teacher than to present to her own peers? I think not. But she is trusting her colleagues will receive her with openness and honestly. I know they will.

 I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, you can’t create great art without taking some risks. Isn’t that the point?


The Power of Student Agency

This school year I am working with my faculty and staff to launch student-led conferences.  Student-led Conferences (SLC’s) have been around for years but have not caught on as a promising practice with many schools and school districts.  It is truly a shame that more schools have not adopted the practice. To get started you could check out the variety of resources on Edutopia, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest. Two Rivers Public Charter Schoolin Washington, D.C. has a great web page that outlines the benefits of student-led conferences for parents.

A typical parent-teacher conference finds the teacher reporting to the student’s parent(s)/gaurdians about the child’s academic performance and behavior. Often times these meeting can be contentious as teachers try to communicate how the student performs and behaves in school.  Meanwhile, parents can become increasingly defensive about the comments made about their child, especially if the comments are negative, as they perceive the teacher comments as a reflection on them as a parent or parenting style.   But what is the critical piece missing from these meetings? 

When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

The Student! Doesn’t it make sense to actually include the student who is being discussed at the conference? In my time as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to teach first through eighth grade and I have found that when students are actually involved in the conference, the child and the parent take more ownership in the learning process.  When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

            In a student-led conference, the students and the teachers work together to develop a portfolio to share during the conference.  The teacher helps the students prepare to lead the conference so the teacher can act as a facilitator and ally to the student.  The student-led conference is the chance for students to share his or her reflections on their academic progress, success, and opportunities for growth. While the formats may differ slightly from kindergarten to grade eight, the idea is the same.  Students are responsible for their own learning and success.

            A student’s portfolio often incorporates pieces where they have demonstrated mastery, show where they are progressing and share areas of improvement. Teachers provide discussion starters and scripts for the students to help them lead the conference and build their confidence. During the student-led conference, teachers act as an advocate for the student and often help the student plan the conference by sharing positives, areas for improvement and encouraging families to create strategies to help support student growth at home.

            A parent’s role in the student-led conference is a bit different than that of a traditional teacher conference. Rather than wanting to ask the students teacher about grades and behavior, parents must focus the conversation on the child and reflect on work with the child.  It can be challenging for parents to listen to the student instead of asking questions to the teacher. 

It is important to remember that learning is active, not passive. As John D’Adamo, a friend and fellow Principal once shared during an #Edchat, “Learning is something one does, not something that happens to a person.”  It has taken some planning on my end to prepare the faculty for this different model but many have found it valuable already. It has helped with student accountability and classroom management.  Students too have begun to see a value.  Students have become more aware of their strengths and opportunities for growth. We are only about a third of the way through the year but I can already see signs that students are beginning to see the relationship between their effort, progress, and quality of their work. I hear it in their conversations in the classrooms, hallways and when I meet with students individually. I see it in the quality of the work the students are completing, knowing that it might be an exemplary piece of work they will want to share with during the conference. 

John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” That is the opportunity student-led conferences provide, an opportunity for reflection.

How Do We Get From Compliance Focused To Growth Focused?

It has been a few months since I have posted anything since my responsibilities at work leading a school and the addition of taking my own doctoral classes have left me quite busy. However, during these months I have had an opportunity to read a few books.  One of these, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, has been particularly insightful.  The strategies of this book have been helpful to be more reflective in my own practice.  Below I share some of the strategies of the book and how I have tried to apply them to my school.

Often times as school leaders, we are faced with challenges or roadblocks in our mission to drive progress and move our school forward.  These challenges can be teachers who may be underperforming or colleagues who have not committed to a new initiative. Inevitably, it leads to having a high stakes conversation in which emotions run high and both parties can feel defensive.

Rather than see these conversations as challenges to overcome I have found it helpful to view them as opportunities.  Why? They are opportunities because they are a chance to share knowledge, collaborate and drive authentic change by building coalitions within the school to enact positive change.

Because these high stakes conversations can be unpleasant if not handled well we may be tempted to avoid them.  Avoiding these courageous conversations does a disservice to the school, ourselves and the person who needs to hear the feedback in order to improve performance and meet expectations.

A critical aspect of having a courageous conversation is to establish a sense of safety for all parties involved.  When a teacher or student feels they can share their opinions without fear of retribution, the dialogue that results is more likely to be open and mutually beneficial.

Think of the last class you taught, observed, or meeting you held.  Was the focus on getting the other person to do what you wanted them to do or was the focus on growth and feedback? If it was focused on compliance how well did you think it went. If the meeting or class was focused on growth, did go smoother? Perhaps, even enjoyable?

When safety is established in open dialogue, we focus on facts and not the perceptions we may have of someone else.  This focus on the facts allows us to reflect on actions and evidence. It is important to be mindful of ones own language, body language and nonverbal communication signals being sent.  Both verbal and nonverbal cues can cause others to shut down because they don’t feel safe in sharing. While we can’t control how another person might act we can control the signals we are sending.

The reflection on our own actions create space to find a mutual purpose.  Being self-reflective also allows one to focus on staying open and curious to the other person’s motives, thoughts, and feelings.  People are much more likely to be open to change if they feel what is being discussed is mutually beneficial.

When I am talking to a teacher and they become angry or fearful I try to remind myself to remain open to their emotions and feelings and display some empathy.  This helps me to dig deeper into trying to find the source of their anger or fear by asking why they feel a particular way.

One of the most challenging aspects of these conversations is not to make the mistake of presenting “either/or” decisions.  Courageous conversations that are outcome-based rarely lead to open dialogue and the development of mutual respect. Sometimes, as school leaders this becomes unavoidable, especially if someone is not in compliance with district policies on child safety, certification, or if we are forced to place someone on a performance improvement plan. But for the most part I try to avoid the “either/or” discussions if I can avoid.

As leaders, we must first seek to understand before being understood.  By asking questions, showing that the other person has been understood and working towards finding common ground I try to demonstrate to the other person that we are working towards a mutual goal, which is to engage the students and help them learn.

When those we work with feel a sense of support, agency and mutual purpose it makes our jobs of teaching and learning so much more enjoyable and productive.