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.

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?

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.