3 Ways School Leaders Can Put Transparency into Action

Originally featured in LeadupNow.com

Most school leaders would say that transparency is one of their guiding principles in their school. But when faced with tough opposition in the midst of change, consider this: is your lack of putting transparency into practice hindering growth? Teachers will listen to their leaders when they perceive their leaders as co-learners alongside them in the journey. When leaders open up about their own failures and are transparent about their motives, teachers are willing to share the same. How do we move from a “feel good” word to an action that can transform culture? Here are 3 ways leaders can increase transparency in their schools.

Transparency in Walkthroughs. Principals belong in classrooms alongside of teachers, period. Principals also give frequent and sincere affirmation and effective feedback. Even with these two actions in check, there is the question of “what are you basing your feedback on or from?” If principals and teachers are co-developing student success outcomes and classroom “look-fors,” there is a mutual agreement on the kinds of evidence that will be collected.  A google doc or OneNote is a great way of communicating and tracking walkthrough data. This living document would be co-created with the teacher, and each time the principal engages with the classroom, a simple checklist, narrative, or other agreed upon indicators are addressed. The teacher doesn’t have to wait for the email that comes late at night or the next day, it’s updated live in the classroom.

Transparency in 360s. As an administrator, it was tough to receive anonymous evaluations from teachers. Yes, there were always the positive comments, but as humans, what do we tend to fixate on? Yes, those constructive comments. As leaders we know that the only way to grow as a leader and help our teachers and students grow is to unearth and illuminate those challenges, failures, inefficiencies, etc. And when I say illuminate, I mean, share those anonymous survey results with everyone. This sends a clear message: I’m willing to share my shortcomings for the sake of our growth.

Transparency in Perception. What do teachers and students perceive about the school environment? Does it embrace diversity and equality? Is it conducive to positivity, creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Principals should find this out and find this out often. A weekly and very brief survey can be shared digitally, asking teachers and students to rate the areas mentioned above, with an opportunity to share suggestions and wishes. The “scores” from the surveys are shared with everyone and should be used to not only take a pulse of the culture, but continuously track it for the sake of growth.

Transparency is an often overused term but and underutilized action by leaders. Modeling this kind of “no holds barred” or “everything is fair game” mentality, can turn a stagnant culture into a thriving one that hinges on open communication, sincere relationships, and trusted leaders.



Guiding Principles and Tech Help Students Become Leaders

Originally featured in EdTech Magazine

Student leadership is now being classified as a soft skill that needs to be a part of classroom instruction. Our innovative work force relies on students to demonstrate this skill. However, there is ambiguity around how to organically embed it into instruction. Students now have opportunities to drive their own learning and lead within collaborative environments thanks to progress that has been made around project-based learning, science, technology, engineering and math, and character-based programs.

No matter what student-driven initiative you’re leading, following these three principles (with ideas for which educational technology tools to use) will help promote and cultivate student leadership within and beyond your classroom walls.

1. Focus on Who Students Want to Be

When you ask students to complete a task, what does it sound like? “I need you to …” “I expect you to …” “Bring me …” Do you notice the teacher-centric language in these statements? When the narrative is teacher-centric, the focus is on what the teacher wants the student to do. Student leadership, on the other hand, is born out of an intrinsic desire to do something meaningful based on who the student wants to become. Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, inspired me to create a T-chart to help teachers transform their teacher-centric expectations into student-centric aspirations.

SOURCE: Nathan, D. Lang, Ed.D

When students are inspired to do something meaningful, they become motivated to push through challenges and obstacles. Teachers also provide a platform for boundless innovation and creativity.

Tools to use: Student blogging allows students to showcase their voices. Google Sites and Seesaw provide student-friendly platforms for students to blog about their learning experiences. You also can help them create podcasts with Soundcloud or Vocaroo, so that their voices are heard.

2. Focus on Why Student Must Learn Something.

“What am I supposed to do?” We’ve talked about the who, which will provide the aspiration for students to pioneer on their own. Students will articulate what they will do next once they understand the “why.” Think about a rock climber and her goal of getting to the top. There is a goal to be achieved, an upward climb, but it’s up to the climber to take the steps. Sometimes the climber must traverse horizontally before moving upward. A coach can provide support from below, but ultimately, the steps are up to the climber. The steps — or the “what” — will be up to the students in a student-led environment.

Tools to use: Trello and Slack are great project management tools that help students prioritize and organize their work and collaborate with peers.

3.Focus on How to Get It Done.

Instructional technology provides a sturdy bridge between context and content. Content alone is just a conglomeration of knowledge and skills, ready to be unpacked, applied and transformed. The context (the “how,” or the medium by which students interface and engage with the world), paired with content, can pivot content from an amalgam of information to a collection of dynamic and meaningful learning experiences. When we focus on the “how,” we connect learning objectives to instructional strategies that ensure students are creating new solutions to problems that matter. Additionally, we are mastering skills in the context of innovation and complex thinking.

Tool to use: Crossbraining by GoPro. This technology coupled with teacher support not only aids student creation but captures the learning process.

When promoting and cultivating student-led classrooms, it’s important to remember that the teacher’s role has never been so crucial. Teachers continually take risks and learn from their own failures as they ensure their students are successful, not only in achieving learning goals, but in attaining skills that prepare them for life.

End Your Fixation on Tech Tools

Originally featured in the “Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology” series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.

One of the most exciting trends in education today is the integration of technology to enhance instruction and learning. Schools have only scratched the surface when it comes to learning technology, and this knowledge-action-resource gap further exacerbates the overwhelming “kid in a candy store” mentality.

There are so many education technology products, resources, platforms and programs, it’s easy to wonder how schools choose the right one. But is this even the right question to ask? The answer to this question points to a magnified focus on a thing, tool, term or trinket. What happens a couple of years down the road when there is new technology to have? What happens when that tech tool is normalized?

To further extend this thinking, let’s look at social media as a human connection medium. It’s the way we now communicate, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s a widely accepted norm for standard day-to-day communication. Therefore, within social media, the content of the message is what’s important, not the tool that was used. Think about the impact of the words from a public figure or Hollywood actor or actress. Sure, the tool provided a medium for the message, but all of the attention is on the meaning of the message and not the social media tool itself. The tool has become normalized and not questioned.

In education, we are often saturated with jargon, allowing the terms themselves to capture more of our attention than the real work that transcends the term. What are some of your favorite catchphrases in education technology? Blended learning, one-to-one, flipped classrooms, digital spaces, the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition model, 21st century learning? Those are my favorites. It’s OK to use those terms, and we should be using them as a part of creating our education transformation story.

However, they represent just a pixel of the learning microcosm. And as you might guess, those terms will go away once they become normalized in our education world. Blended learning simply becomes learning. Don’t believe me? Think about the electronic grade book. No one says, “Oh snap, you use an electronic grade book? That’s high tech!” By the way, the term ‘grade book’ is already on the endangered species list.

So what does this all mean? It means we have to be very careful about how we continue to perceive, talk about and implement education technology into our learning context. When the Facebook app, Chrome browser, or the newest iOS app pushes out an update, do we throw our hands up in the air and say, “I can’t use this; no one has showed me how!” No. We dive in, explore, ask a friend and Google it, as a part of our daily learning. We understand it’s an ever-evolving tool that helps us work, learn and communicate better. The experience is birthed from how and why we interface with the tool.

As education technology continues to evolve, and as we continue to wrestle with its integration strategies into the classroom, we must not lose sight of true north, which is our message of learning equality and supporting students to create our future. Students will always need educators, parents and community leaders to supportively challenge them, affirm their beings, and structure learning in such a way that there are no bounds on the depths of their thinking, problem solving, innovation and growth.

If a tool can help us do that, fantastic. But the central question is not about the right tool, but about what our students need now and for the future, and how we can best help them grow and thrive on their learning journey.


Why Passion Isn’t Enough

This post originally appeared on Starr Sackstein’s Education Week Teacher Column.

Passion gets a lot of love and attention these days. And why wouldn’t it?

People are naturally attracted to positive energy. It affirms an inner joy and creates a pleasant emotion. It’s a beacon in an environment of apathy, a kick in the pants when you’re stuck, and a force of magnetism between people.

Many would argue that there isn’t enough passion in this world. I’m not quite sure. I think there is a lot of passion.

Just look at your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds. Plenty of passion around sports, politics, going to the gym, shopping, enjoying the outdoors, etc. So when we hear someone say there isn’t much passion these days, I translate that to mean they don’t see a lot of enthusiasm and urgency focused around a calling that’s difficult or around selfless acts of giving. A giving of time, resources, and energy into a vision bigger than ourselves.

So why harp on passion? Passion is easy, is often circumstantial, and not only masks insecurities, but can create them. Think about what gets you really excited. So excited you want others to be just as excited as you. Now think about something necessary in life, but boring, mundane, hard, and requires self discipline.

If you had a choice, which one would you rather focus on? Dream about? Spend time doing? If we’re not good at something or have an insecurity, I can cover it up with passion. It’s easy and I don’t have to deal with this other thing over here. Passion, excitement, and electricity can inspire, but alone they cannot create a movement. There is a stronger driving force. I’d argue it is THE driving force: purpose.

Ryan Holiday in  “Ego is the Enemy” says “Passion is about. Purpose is to and for.”

Example of passion: I am so passionate about incorporating new technology in the classroom.

Example of purpose: I am willing to endure the challenges of the teaching profession to help kids succeed.

One is about me and the other is about something bigger than me. Passions wane in the face of difficulties and challenges. Purpose becomes stronger in in the face of difficulties and challenges. Passion has you chasing dreams. Purpose is why you dream. Passion has no true north. Purpose provides direction.

How do you tell the difference between passionate teachers and teachers with purpose? How do you become a more purposeful teacher (or insert leader, educator, learner, etc.)?

Purposeful teachers…

Do things that make them uncomfortable. They do things that scare them.  Just think, if you’re running on passion, you’re steering far from anything that causes fear. Because fear erases passion-induced euphoria.

Get stuff done. Purposeful teachers are action driven and value the hard work it requires to reach a lofty goal. The greatest work comes from blood, sweat, and tears.

Seek mentors. They find fellow educators (principals, instructional coaches, teachers, etc.) who have a compelling vision of reaching all students and have proven themselves successful. Their walk has proven to match their talk.

Are themselves. This doesn’t mean, they’ve resolved to not change because it doesn’t match their personality or wants. Of course they are seeking feedback from trusted peers, examining areas of individual growth, and becoming more malleable everyday to new facts and evidence. But they are also comfortable in their own skin, confident in who they are, and honor their past journey and experiences.

Honestly don’t believe they’re the smartest, best, etc. They humbly seek better ways of teaching and learning, surround themselves with diversity, people who are different, and who think different in hopes of gaining new perspectives and new knowledge. Life-long learning is more than just a catchy phrase. It’s lived out with purpose.

Have you ever noticed when you walk into a rockstar teacher’s classroom (as an observer), it’s as if you’re invisible. The attention is unmistakably on his students. The focus is squarely on the learning outcomes she has established for her students. It’s not a show or performance. There is no one to impress. Just unbridled energy that comes from a wellspring of purpose. Purpose is why we work so hard. Passion is nice, but purpose is the foundation of a compelling vision. A vision far greater than our self-centered passion.

Three Ways to Walk the Talk as a Passionate, Authentic Leader

This post was collaboratively written by Paul Erickson, Principal in KS, and Nathan Lang, former administrator & current education consultant in Nashville, TN.

As leaders, we are hyper-cognizant of how our messages are communicated and perceived. Our change efforts may be thwarted at the first sign of incongruent messaging. When a new idea emerges, we are obviously excited at the potential and may be tempted to jump before thinking through the nuts and bolts. When communicating our passions, it can become unfortunately viewed as empty platitudes: a “chicken soup for the soul” without the chicken and too much broth. Is being passionate and authentic mutually exclusive?

We don’t believe so. Here are three ways that you can be passionately authentic, inspiring your circle of influence to act instead of “like/RT/heart.”

  1. Back it up w/ data. When we say data, we’re not talking about data in the traditional school leadership sense, but as historical leadership data. How have you historically taken an idea and turned it into a reality? How have you historically pronounced a direction and then followed through in walking in that direction. Before making your next bold statement, do a background check on yourself to first determine how credible you’ve been with follow through. You’re being judged not by your idea, but by how you’ve acted on it.
  2. Ensure your home team is feeling your message. Branding works effectively when your school family embraces your message. Sure it’s a positive ego stroke when your global PLN retweets your message 100+ times, however, there is no tangible impact on the students and staff you serve if they aren’t embracing your message to the same degree. We challenge you to monitor your tweets for a week using this guideline. If you drop a quote or share a blog and no direct colleague retweets or likes your particular post, delete it. The attention from your global PLN might feel good, but its influence is infinitesimal. If your home team isn’t cheering for your message, it is not worth sharing. Passionate and authentic leaders are embraced by their local PLN because what they promote is backed up by what their staff and peers experience. 
  3. Commit to choosing “we” over “me.” Passionate, authentic leaders walk their talk by focusing on one goal–building group capital.  While they are relentlessly committed to learning, they realize that their passions, interests, and areas of study are only worthwhile if they motivate and impact the community of learners they serve.  While it’s tempting to frame ourselves as transformative edu-heroes, the only real superpower lies in the group of educators we lead.  Teacher Collective Efficacy, teachers learning together and having confidence in their group competence, has an effect size of 1.57 (Hattie, 2015).  This trumps anything we as leaders can accomplish on our own. Therefore, the challenge is to continually reflect on this question–Whose efficacy are you building in your leadership efforts?  Yours or the group you lead?

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google once said “Passionate people don’t talk about passion. They live it.” We would further express that passionately authentic leaders inspire through their messaging, but invoke transformation through their actions.  They leverage the cause to produce an effect. They say it. They do it. They live it.

Hattie, J. (2015).  The applicability of visible learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1 (1), 79-91.

3 Steps to Ditching Awards Assemblies

There has been much written (and discussions and research) about the negative effects of extrinsic rewards tied to intrinsic motivation. We put a lot of emphasis into making learning fun and relevant, but then we revert backwards by slapping a reward on it via grades, GPA, rankings, and awards assemblies. Awards assemblies typically focus on achievement, but can focus on character. Even so, what is the true value in holding a large group awards assembly? Parents wait for an hour or more to hear their child’s name and the child painstakingly waits for their piece of paper. Can we recognize students in a meaningful, frequent, and consistent way and for actions that have real value? We can, and it starts with ditching the awards assembly.

Here are 3 steps to get there

  1. Move from High Expectations to Inspirations

Research (Dweck and others) concludes that when parents praise their children on effort (giving, sharing, working hard, commitment, etc.) rather than ability, they become more intrinsically motivated. Just as awards are based in extrinsic motivation, teacher expectations for students are also laden with the same. “If you do this, then you’ll get that.” Typically statements are very teacher-centric (see below). These “carrot-driven” statements are made from a place of compliance, with no connection to the student’s motivation or identity. What if we move from high expectations to inspirations? Students are more intrinsically motivated if they’re inspired to act in a way that exemplifies their identity. The praise communicates that the actions themselves (and the person doing it) contribute to the greater good and not necessarily because it appeases the teacher. The table below provides a few examples on how we can begin to change our daily language with students:

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 6.37.41 PM

2.Classroom “likes”

Whether we want to admit this or not, we pay attention to the number of likes we receive on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Voxer, etc.). Students like to receive praise for their efforts and contributions in class. A practical strategy: teachers create hearts or thumbs up cut-outs to give to students. The teacher would continually model how these likes are given. When a student does something that warrants recognition, the teacher picks up a “like” and writes on the back of it. It is presented to the student 1:1 or in a small group to model affirming statements for other students.  “You’re a good citizen because you shared your pencil with Johnny.” “You’re an honest person because you told me the truth about what happened in the cafeteria.” “You’re a hard worker and push through challenges.” Students will pick up on the fun and will join in on giving out “likes.”

3. #bragtags

Affirming students is important and therefore should not only be done in a meaningful way, but in a meaningful environment where the awesome is taking place: the classroom. A strategy to do this digitally is via a classroom Twitter hashtag where the teacher tweets “brags” about students’ efforts, work, and performance. Additionally, this hashtag should be leveraged by parents as they brag about how the learning from the classroom is carrying over to the home. This can also be done face-to-face. When students share to an audience (projects, presentations, student-led conferences, etc.), those times are great opportunities for teachers to give out brags to students.

Let’s face it, the primary reasons for awards assemblies is for the parents. Parents grew up with it and they expect it for their children. Every parent wants their child to feel recognized and affirmed, as they should. Praise can be very effective if it’s focused positively on the student’s character and when it clearly connects the actions (effort, 21st cent skills, perseverance, etc.) to the outcomes (effect, performance, etc.). Let’s provide students with the recognition, affirmation, praise, and feedback they not only deserve, but also need.


Teaching Is Just Not What It Used to Be

“Teaching is just not what it used to be.”  I translate this to mean…

-Teaching now requires more work

-Teaching now requires less control

-Teaching now requires higher accountability

These 3 statements encompass most of the complaints we hear today: longer hours, working in the summer, too many mandates, too many initiatives, high stakes testing, too much testing, student behavior, etc.

Yes, we must acknowledge real issues in education. But more importantly, we must acknowledge that we (society and educators) create what “teaching is.” Teaching is simply deciding that perceived barriers aren’t an excuse to not be awesome for students.

I’m glad teaching isn’t what it used to be. Let’s make it what it should be.

5 Ways to Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

Originally featured on Corwin Connect. Co-authored with Ross Cooper

Many schools are now advocating for student-centered learning to promote student inquiry, independence, agency, rigor, grit, or any other trendy words that come to mind. Yet, often times these proposed instructional shifts – as well as many others – stumble as a result of teacher professional development that is overly ambiguous and lacking explicit details.

For example, telling a teacher, “Your students need to engage in more problem solving,” is comparable to letting a comedian know he/she needs to be funnier or asking a pizzaiolo to make a better dough. Vague directives in the absence of explicit instruction typically generate anxiety.

To avoid these anxieties, and for progress to actually take place, professional development needs to drill down to the nitty gritty and be as explicit as possible. In other words, we need to be explicit about being explicit…and provide teachers withspecific strategies they can use to comfortably move forward for their benefit of our students.

With these thoughts in mind, here are five ways we can promote student-centered learning by handing the reins over to students.

  1. Students unwrapping standards

Before deconstructing standards into learning targets, let’s first give students a crack at them to determine motivation and interest level. First, pose an unaltered standard for students. Then, allow students to potentially object, react, and share that what they find is just plain boring and uninteresting. Next, break them into smaller groups (so students don’t fall into the trap of groupthink), and ask each group to record ideas on how to transform the standard into a statement that is interesting and relevant to them. This process allows students to work towards making standards meaningful and in the process they already own the learning targets (more on this below) before explicit instruction has begun.

A strategy to help students convert standards into interesting learning intentions is to challenge them to transform a standard into an Instagram post. What would it say and what image would you associate with the post?

  1. Learning targets

For students, learning targets assist in making clear what they are learning, and possibly why they are learning it and what success criteria looks like. A three-part learning target that satisfies these requirements could be, “I can draw inferences from a story…so I can better understand its plot, and…I am successful when I can tell others about the plot using inferences.” (A typical, one-part learning target might stop after drawing inferences.) Here, the benefit is students knowing specifically what they are supposed to accomplish, and as a result they are more likely to understand the material. As Rick Stiggins has written, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.”

Under ideal circumstances, students are encouraged to take personal responsibility for their learning by making assessment-based choices to reach their targets. James Popham refers to this approach as Level 2 formative assessment, which “consists of student-determined adjustments in learning tactics, not teacher-dictated adjustments the students are then supposed to make.” One of the more common ways this type of self-assessment is carried out is during Writing Workshop when students use of the back of their writer’s notebooks to keep track of their goals and progress. As a result, they are capable of pinpointing and satisfying their needs, as opposed to always having to rely on the teacher for direction.

  1. Collaborative protocols

Collaboration has moved from a 21st century concept and buzzword to essentially a non-negotiable in every workplace. Collaboration has truly shifted functionally from a “what” to a “how” in our everyday work. This shift is making its way into learning environments, and like all skills it must be explicitly integrated into student activity. With increased collaboration comes an increased focus on behaviors such as equally distributed workload and responsibilities, conflict resolution, time consumption, etc.

Collaborative protocols integrate group norms and co-created guiding principles as opposed to rules that feel restrictive and dare to be challenged. When a group norm is violated, an opportunity is created for the teacher to have a conversation with the disruptive student. “How do you think your group members feel when you don’t come prepared?”When we address a student’s choice in the context of how it created an obstacle (or an advantage) for others it allows students to shift the focus from behaving to positive partnerships and collective contributions.

  1. Genius Hour and 20% Time

Autonomy can be defined as “The desire to be self directed,” and Daniel Pink cites it as one of three elements of true motivation (mastery and purpose being the others). Despite the fact that educators (and adults) crave this autonomy, we are often hesitant to allow for our students to govern themselves.

Enter Genius Hour and 20% Time. These instructional approaches are based on letting go and having students define their own learning. While some educators (especially those who are more “old school”) may be intimidated by the idea of students being given so much control, keep in mind that variations of these methods do exist. For example, when Ross taught fourth grade he implemented 20% Time by providing students with a topic, such as compound sentences, and then students were able to demonstrate their understanding of said topic however they chose. Meanwhile, a more open-ended approach might involve students working on any type of learning, as long as they document and present on the process and product(s).

  1. Student-to-student feedback

Teacher-to-student (T2S) feedback leverages teacher expertise and it will continue to be important as we move away from traditional grading and towards learning-centered feedback. Student-to-student (S2S) feedback must also be given the same, if not more merit as T2S if we are going to continue to support students in building collaborative skills. Creating S2S feedback opportunities provides a different perspective on formative assessment. This approach shifts from correction perceived as “incorrect” to “try this.” The lateral feedback is inherently disarming because it is exchanged between peers whose experiences and interests are closely aligned. With STS, students receive practice in effectively providing feedback, which can be applied to many life situations and contexts. As adults we struggle with actively seeking feedback, making sense of it, and choosing to act on it. We can work toward changing this trend by starting in the classroom and building the capacity for empowering feedback loops.

In the End

Impactful professional development starts with empathy.

Being vague and assuming “They’ll figure it out!” will most likely produce more harm than good. In the end, we must put ourselves in the shoes of teachers (who are in the trenches with students, each and every day), remove obstacles, and provide explicit strategies and professional learning that paint a clear picture of how to move forward.

Why Our Feedback is Backfiring

Originally featured on Education Week, Finding Common Ground. Collaboratively co-authored with Peter Dewitt

There is no such thing as constructive criticism in the eye of the recipient.” – Todd Whitaker

Feedback is something we all understand is important. We most likely became even more aware of the importance of feedback after the September 2012 issue of Educational Leadership (ASCD), which was titled Feedback for Learning. Some of the best thought leaders on the topic, which included John Hattie, and the late Grant Wiggins wrote about what feedback. Some articles focused on what feedback is and what it was not, as well as focused on how powerful feedback can be when we do it right.

John Hattie, who Peter works with as a Visible Learning trainer, has found in his extensive research that involves more than 250 million students, that feedback can have an effect of .75, which is nearly double the hinge point of .40 which shows to have a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

However, what we all need to take away from using feedback, especially where Hattie’s research is concerned, is that we can’t merely say we give feedback when we really don’t. Sometimes we are providing praise, and other times are feedback is so generic that it’s not effective. We need to reflect on the feedback we give, and have clear dialogue with teachers around the specific feedback. One way to do that is to look at the documents we use for classroom walkthroughs and formal teacher observations, and examine what we wrote down as feedback.

But…let’s start with walkthroughs.

Don’t Call It Feedback When It’s Not
After principals walk through a classroom, they may give a pat on the back, “awesome job,” or give a thumbs up. Maybe even send you an email or leave a sticky note with “I loved being in your classroom.” Sometimes, the walkthroughs don’t focus on anything with substance at all, which you can read more about here.

However, praise and pats on the back is not providing feedback, but providing affirmation. Teachers need affirmation, and we would say they need some form of affirmation every time you walk through their classroom. We all need affirmation and there is lots to give and receive.

Feedback has a much different purpose. Although the means to an end may look similar to affirmation, feedback needs to be specific and timely, and it’s even more powerful when it’s focused on a specific goal. This does not mean we believe you can’t have fun conversations with teachers, and that every conversation has to be about feedback. However, it does mean those times when feedback is given have to be explicit.

Feedback Around a Goal
Districts, and the buildings within that district community, often have leaders who are working toward a specific initiative. Sometimes that initiative can focus on literacy, which although a good initiative should always be a goal since it’s our job to make sure students can read.

Within those initiatives, teachers can work on specific goals. Usually initiatives are wide enough that all teachers and leaders can find goals within them. It’s important to remember that the goal should be focused on student learning. Hattie has written before in the Politics of Distraction that we spend too much time focusing on teachers, when our focus should be on students.

In the best case scenario, leaders would sit down with teachers at the beginning of the year to get an understanding of how the teacher’s goal that focuses on student learning works into the building or district initiative. After all, if teachers were involved in the original initiative process they should feel inspired to find a goal under that umbrella.

Leaders can document (in whatever way they want) each specific goal for their teachers, which won’t only helping them in the feedback process, but also the teacher voice process. The Teacher Voice (TVAIC) work of Lisa Lande and Russ Quaglia shows us that many teachers don’t feel as though their leaders know their individual goals. Leaders who know each goal of their teachers certainly helps teachers feel valued, and it will assist leaders throughout the whole year as they work to provide effective feedback to their teachers.

After that original process, teachers and leaders are on their way.

Don’t Always Schedule a “Meeting
If you need to schedule some time to share feedback, don’t schedule a “meeting” or a “conversation.” These words have already taken on a less than positive connotation. These words signal the defense shields to come up.

Instead try a simple and polite, “Let’s chat about how I can support you.” This language dismantles whatever concoction of negative self-talk that may be developing in the mind of the teacher. It may sound like a simple statement, but we know that after years of some tough accountability and mandates, teachers don’t often feel supported.

Instructional Coaching expert Jim Knight has written a great deal about the partnership principles, where coaches work in partnership with teachers. Those partnership principles are equality, choice, voice, dialogue, reflection, praxis and reciprocity, all of which you can read more about here.

Both Nathan and Peter believe that the partnership principles don’t just work for instructional coaches, but can provide a powerful connection between teachers and leaders. If leaders can do anything when talking with a teacher, it’s to ask how you as a leader can support them.

How do you start?
The first sentence you speak sets the tone and foundation for everything that happens after that. “I walked through your classroom today and wanted to share some concerns.” This will certainly not end well. Or… “How do you think it went today?” We’ve already learned that this is a precursor to some form of criticism, so we are bracing ourselves.

Instead, acknowledge their passion and your role in supporting them. One way to do this might be to refer back to their specific goal. Even if leaders have to walk around with a piece of paper or their tablet with each teacher’s name and their goal beside their name, it will help leaders stay focused on the conversation. “How is the goal of X going? Is there any support I can offer?” Maybe even using an element of impact would be helpful. “Have you seen any changes in your students while using your new strategy?” is a question that can be used. This not only helps the teacher focus on the goal, but helps the school leader look like the instructional and collaborative leader they are working to be.

Another question that could be posed is, “I know you want to be the most effective teacher possible and I hope I can support you in a way to be just that. Do you mind if we chat specifically about the learning goal of X that we have been working on together?

Ask teachers to reciprocate
This is an open invitation and is not necessarily prompted during the aforementioned conversation above. It can sound something like this, “Now that we’ve been working together, I would sincerely value feedback and/or suggestions you can give me about my leadership of the school.” Or maybe something like this, “We all see things through a different lens. Do you mind sharing with me what I see from your lens regarding my leadership?”

One of the things Peter did as a principal was flip faculty meetings. For example, Peter took the Educational Leadership articles by Hattie and Wiggins and sent those out to staff before the faculty meeting. The staff was going to work together to look at what feedback was, and whether they were providing feedback to students…or just providing praise.

Peter was also very open about the fact that he didn’t feel he was providing effective feedback to teachers, and they all needed to grow in that area. As a leader, don’t forget how important it is to put yourself out there and be honest about when this is an area you need growth as well. Not only did this provide an opportunity to be honest about the feedback they were given, it gave them the opportunity to walk out of the faculty meeting with a common understanding.

Friend Your teachers
The feedback suggestions above will not fly if you are hanging out in the ivory tower. Your leadership must embrace all stakeholders as equals. We have to stop using the “blurring the professional lines” excuse. What do we mean by friends?

Jane E. Dutton, found that  high-quality connections don’t require “a deep or intimate relationship.”  (Although these connections will continue to deepen with time.) A single interaction marked by respect, trust and mutual engagement is enough to generate energy for both people. So even though it may appear short-lived, don’t underscore those connections. These small moments of connection have exponentially high relational impacts.

Feedback backfires when it’s evaluative, unidirectional, insincere, inconsistent, and corrective. Feedback inspires when it’s relational, multidirectional, authentic, continual, and growth-centered . Feedback is contagious, and becomes cultural norm when it’s woven the inside the fabric of everyday communication.  If we want teachers and students to become rock stars at seeking and acting on feedback, then principals must be willing to seek the humility to say, “I value you and what you have to say, how can I better support you?


Nathan Lang, Ed.D.  has been a teacher, education supervisor at NASA-Johnson Space Center, an elementary assistant principal, a high school assistant principal, an adjunct professor, and the Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction for Metro Nashville Public Schools. Connect with Nathan on Twitter

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press. Forword by John Hattie). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

3 Ways to Procrastinate Lesson Planning

Teachers, I have your attention right? I’m not talking about waiting until Sunday night to figure out what you’re doing this week. I am proposing a strategic mindset that will make your instruction more malleable, meaningful, and thought provoking.

There is value (backed up via research and evidence) in daily lesson planning and unit planning strengthened by a culture of collaborative PLCs.

On the flip-side, there are many lesson plan templates, forms, processes, and mandates that force teachers to be overly detailed in the name of compliance. Teachers may be asked to submit plans far in advance and it must match exactly to what is happening in the classroom at the moment described in the plan.

By all means, yes, plan. But don’t plan a detailed lesson plan in advance. Why?…

I’m really enjoying Adam Grant’s book, Originals. In his book he speaks to the moments where procrastination inspires innovative ideas, because it allows a person’s mind to wander, leading to more divergent thinking.

He also shares that some of the greatest moments of human history are due to procrastination, including Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  The greatest speeches in history were re-written, revised, and in some cases created at the last minute so that there was flexibility to improvise in the moment, as opposed to getting the script set in stone weeks in advance.

Here are 3 ways to help you procrastinate lesson planning without the stress.

1.) Futurecast. This sounds diametrically opposed to procrastination, but it’s actually not. You know 3 or 4 weeks (even further out than this) from now you’ll be teaching a particular concept. That means you’ll be mulling over a sundry of strategies, possibilities, and ideas, not really settling on one. You will always be future casting for learning opportunities down the road, but it’s a a picture that’s coming into focus. The plan and it’s component parts will be a work in progress leading to the day the lesson is taught.

2.) Sketch. Sketch out your plans. Use tech or a pencil and paper. (I’ve really enjoyed learning the Paper App @FiftyThree, thank you master @aaron_hogan!) Regardless of the medium, plans should be changing based on new evidence, how students are progressing toward current goals, and how current instructional strategies are working.

3.) Experiment. Innovations always result from a source (problem/error). The first iterations are never where we want to live nor will they yield the most success. We make progress through experimentation and refining different possibilities. Within your PLC teams, decide who will teach the lesson before anyone else on the team (this “first-timer” designation rotates each time). Coordinate a time to observe, reflect on and debrief the lesson, and decide collectively how you will make the lesson even better. You’ll have to synchronize your pacing and embrace a “trial and error” perspective on teaching, but it’s worth the opportunity to innovate and improve teaching and learning.

Intentional procrastination isn’t apathy, laziness, or poor planning. It is about actively being present in the now, while keeping options open for the future. It is the space in which we root ourselves, not in delaying the inevitable or being governed by circumstances, but in the hope of growing and doing something even more remarkable.

So, what idea sparked in your mind today that will change your lesson tomorrow?



Repetition: When It Becomes Stalling

I’m a frequent flyer. Yes, flying has become a new normal for me. I love connecting with new people and visiting new places. The more I fly, the more I feel like a pro. I know the ropes. I know that Southwest always flies 737s and that you need Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River Wonkatania Boat to get to any terminal at O’hare.

Anything we repeat we develop a mental schema (structure) for. We’ve stomped a new path in our mind. We start walking it so much that the grass has died and given way to bare dirt. We might as well construct a cemented sidewalk. It’s a solid and predictable path. There is no need to take a new path, this one already gets me from A to B quick and easy. Why break away, change, accept a new reality, or do things different?

The leader that starts the day with email. It’s easy, because it’s going to be there waiting for me. This is a task that can be simply crossed off the to-do list. It’s a beast that’s predictable and slain daily.

The teacher that has taught the same lesson more than once; it’s more efficient to replicate it again for the next class or for the next year.  Boom, time-saver!

The speaker or presenter that’s delivered the same speech or presentation more than once; why recreate or customize when I can easily recycle the same speech/presentation?

Why go through the work, the extra mile to do something new and different, to completely change up your plan?

Because your perspective is continually changing (most likely incremental change over time). Your perspectives change as you encounter new experiences. And those whom which you engage with are searching for something awesome. They’re probably willing to change their mind on something. Something that resonates and makes them feel confident, passionate, and successful. You were meant for greatness and the work required for it. Not for the easy and comfortable.

The plane is boarding. Yes, you’re a frequent flyer (more important, a high flyer), but you have the choice to make this experience different, to follow through, to dive in with more energy, enthusiasm, and zeal than you’ve ever had. Each and every time.

3 Ways to Lay Instructional Flooring

Collaboratively written by Nathan Lang and Chris Weber. 

One afternoon, the Jones’s came home to find that their refrigerator had leaked water and consequently damaged a piece of hardwood flooring directly next to the refrigerator.

They called a contractor to come and look at the blemished plank of flooring. The contractor stated that he would need to replace the whole floor in the kitchen, and even in the living room because he couldn’t match the replaced piece of wood with the rest of the wood flooring.

Ludicrous, right?!

This absurdity unfortunately unfolds many times in the classroom. This parallel has manifested itself in the way we view differentiation, reteaching/teaching of skills (interventions), and the way we view school reform.



Only once piece of wood needs to be replaced. Just one plank that can be stained to appropriately match the rest of the flooring. Many times, we put in a tremendous amount of work to replace the whole floor when the reality is that we need to focus on the one piece. Maybe it’s a small group opportunity to reteach a concept instead of a whole group lesson when the rest of the students do not need to be retaught. Maybe it’s a project based lesson with student voice and choice with not everyone creating the same product. How you focus your differentiation efforts and strategies have major impacts on effectiveness and student learning outcomes.

Skills Mastery:

Many times students have gaps (for various reasons) that are foundational. Let’s say a student has a difficult time with multiplying fractions. The teacher may draw a quick conclusion that the student must therefore struggle with multiplication and division of whole numbers. So she has the student practice multiplication facts. Although, the student may be building fluency, the student may not be any closer to mastering the concept of multiplication and division of fractions. A fraction is a ratio of two whole numbers, a numerator and denominator and is thus markedly more perplexing than whole numbers. Therefore, the gap may be in identifying the magnitude of the fraction. A more appropriate intervention might be plotting fractions on a number line. Accurate diagnosing via valid assessments can keep us from replacing many wood planks that are solid and don’t need replacing.

Whole School Reform:

You’ve heard the story: A school is “failing.” It’s in “crisis” and nothing but a complete overhaul will fix things. This can be exciting, potentially transformative. It can also be terrifying. Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to implement in a single school and even more difficult to scale. Most importantly, we must ask, Is whole-scale reform even necessary? We were honored to serve as principal in a school in which 8% of students in one grade level had met AYP expectations the prior year. By many measures, the school was “failing” and in “crisis.” We made modest shifts during that first year (we really didn’t believe that we needed to “replace the whole floor.”) Trust us when we say…we weren’t smart enough or good enough to make “whole floor” changes, and goodness knows, we didn’t have any additional resources to make those changes (a blessing in disguise). Within a year, student achievement across the school (as measured by AYP) had doubled. Within four years, student achievement had quadrupled. A “program improvement” school had become a “National Blue Ribbon” school. Modest – focused – changes (a few boards) in inputs resulted in big changes in outputs.

Leaking refrigerators are inevitable…but so are high levels of learning for all students. Let’s believe in students, in ourselves, in our colleagues. Let’s replace a few boards, act with a sense of urgency, and change the world…at least for the families of our school community.

Principals, 3 Ways to Immediately Make Your Post-Conferences More Effective

Post-conferences, Summatives, etc. (insert your post-conference verbiage) aren’t easy for teachers. Here are 3 ways you can immediately change your post-conferences to not only make them more teacher-friendly, but more effective and focused on professional growth.

1.) Stop asking “How do you think the lesson went?” 99% of the time the responses will go one of 2 directions:

Response A.) “It went really well!” Most of the time, we are inclined to talk about how well it went. As humans, we possess bias known as illusory superiority, where we tend to overestimate our own qualities and abilities, relative to others. This effect will distort what actually happened and won’t give us an accurate picture.

Response B.) “It went well, but could have been better if I…” We don’t want to be the person that comes across as unteachable or not able to grow, so we throw in some humility.

Even the most genuine and sincere responses to the aforementioned question don’t get us to the heart of the conversation that needs to happen.

Instead ask, “How did you reflect on the lesson?” This places the emphasis not on ability or perceived experience, but on the processes we used to reflect, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate our thinking, learning, teaching, and success. This opens the door to conversations about metacognitive processes, inclusion of student feedback, and trusted peer observations. Speaking of…

 2.) Stop making it a one-sided principal-to-teacher conversation.

Instead, invite other teachers to take part in the observation process.

We aren’t very good at judging our own aptitudes and competencies, but we’re actually quite good when it comes to critiquing others. Encourage teachers to invite teacher colleagues, with whom mutual trust and respect has already been established, into the classroom. This trusted teacher can provide additional helpful and specific feedback to the teacher being observed.

3.) Stop holding the post-conference in your office. Instead make it a moving conversation.

Think about times where it was most easy to share and reflect. You probably weren’t in a bright florescent office with someone staring directly at you. You were probably on a leisurely walk. A nice, easy pace even induces a higher mental alertness. Walk the halls, the gym, outside, wherever, as long as it’s conversational, focused, and comfortable.

Not only are we changing reflective feedback processes, but we are making changes to protocols. We are wired to prefer consistency and stability. Once we chisel at this status quo structure, we all begin to incrementally welcome change. We begin to treat feedback as possible truths grounded in validity. We start to welcome feedback as an opportunity to see teaching, learning, and professional growth in new ways. 





Changing This Double Standard

Every great teacher has become a master of modifying their instruction, many times “on the spot” based on new data, evidence, and circumstances. Matter of fact, we often judge a teacher’s flexibility to change seamlessly and without hesitation as a quality to be admired and embodied by all teachers.

And then there is the double standard. Ed leaders and principals often feel judgment and guilt if they change course midstream. They may then be viewed as flaky, precarious, uncommitted, and inconsistent. They lack conviction to the goal right?

Leaders are often placed in a position to continue down a detrimental path in the face of glaring (and even not so obvious) new data because they are supposed to “stay the course.”

Just as we encourage our teachers to continually change their plans and modify instruction, let’s give the same permission and support to leaders. I can’t think of a better way to establish a culture of growth than through the incremental changes and shifts made and modeled by leaders.

If teachers can change their minds, why can’t the principal?


How to Create Transformational PD Takeaways

You’ve made it to the end of the Professional Development (PD) session. The facilitator asks you to think back on the session and take note of your golden nuggets and takeaways.

Now, this can be particularly helpful as you synthesize the different pieces and parts of the session. It helps to move the freshly obtained concepts from the hypothetical to the practical. From abstract to concrete.

Tools, templates, strategies, frameworks, tactics, logistics, and action items. That’s why we come to PD, right? We want to turnkey this. But should we question our motives as PD participants? As facilitators are we demeaning the value of our PD by asking participants to focus on takeaways? (I’m using “we” very intentionally here as I’m questioning my own motives and shifting my own beliefs and practices.)

I’m not questioning the pragmatism of PDs, but I am questioning, as a reflective learner, the perceived purpose of PD. After I facilitate a session, I most certainly want the participants to walk away with new learning that will influence their practice. But is this the most important and primary goal?

What I really hope is that participants will have a fundamental shift in their thinking. That shift in thinking will lead to new individualized outcomes that are far better than the outcomes/learning targets that I had in mind for participants. That’s what PD should do. Challenge strongly held beliefs, processes, and behaviors. Shift thinking.

If all you leave with are more tools for your tool belt, all I’ve done is equipped you only, and I have failed. I don’t decide your takeaways. I should be providing opportunities for you to create your own “shift-tos.”

How Do We Stop Creating the Very Thing We’re Trying to Change?

The teacher who comes to the team meeting ready to create and vision together is met with a cynical team that says they don’t have time for that right now. They need to grade papers, make copies, and prep for the next day.

The principal who has an ingenious idea, brings it to his administrative team, and is met with an impassive attitude because everyone is too busy with their to-do list of managerial tasks.

The district leader, who has experienced success in trying something new and different, shares her strategy, and is turned down immediately with the pretense of it not being scalable, and therefore wouldn’t work on a systems level.

What happens when we continue with “what works?” Being consumers instead of creators? Staying committed to a particular path even when the circumstances have changed? Keeping your head down? Accepting the current reality without any regard to what could be?

What happens is that you have flames that are quickly extinguished. Ideas that never break the surface. Potential that is never realized. Apathy that drowns out passion. Continued frustration by the observed lack of urgency, creativity, and zeal…

But could we (as leaders) be the cause of this?

You see, every time we demand (note the verb here) a deadline, a “have to,” a form, a new initiative, another meeting, another step in the process, etc., we are creating the very thing we’re trying to change.

It’s like trying to melt ice on a subfreezing day by throwing hot water on it. Eventually it will freeze (sometimes hot water freezes at a faster rate, check out the Mpemba Effect), and now you have a thicker sheet of ice.

Unless… We make the choice to lead instead of manage. Listen instead of tell. Act instead of react. Question instead of accept. Change instead of staying the course. Now instead of later.

Whether we realize it or not, we can influence the environment and circumstances around us. You are the catalyst for breaking the cycle.

The Lion, the Mitch, and the Phone Book: 3 Ways to Make Teaching & Learning an Adventure

This post was collaboratively written by Weston Kieschnick and Nathan Lang.

We have all been there. The professional development session that didn’t meet our needs. Our needs were not met likely because of three “effects.”

1.) The Zoo Effect

2.) The Car Mechanic Effect

3.) The Phone Book Effect

1.) The Zoo Effect. This is the place where zoo lovers may diverge in their thoughts and feelings. As an adult visiting (the experience changes when it’s about the kids visiting and experiencing the animals), I can’t handle visiting the same zoo more than once. Been there, done that, right? Yes, the animals are cute, but the gift shop is overpriced, you still haven’t seen the Lion (is he ALWAYS sleeping?) and the same camel will be staring at you in the same pen when you come back to visit. Next time, you’ll help the zookeeper do the barn owl talk, because it’s the same one you’ve heard.

In looking at our past PD experiences, we might not have felt challenged because we had already interacted with (and potentially mastered) the concepts previously at the level we were asked to engage.

2.) The Car Mechanic Effect. Your car makes a noise it’s never made before. You take it to your mechanic, Mitch. You attempt to replicate the noise it makes (always awkward). Mitch the mechanic takes a look, diagnoses the problem, and tells you the solution. This is where most of us nod our heads like we understand what the mechanic is talking about. In actuality, we’re clueless. Behind our backs we cross fingers, hoping the cost for the mystery fix is south of an appendage.

Parallel this to PD you have experienced. You may have had a surface understanding, but because you had no context or prior knowledge (nor did the facilitator provide background to build that knowledge), it was difficult to engage with the content. You’re having a mechanic moment. You get it…sort of. Not wanting to be exposed in front of your peers, you smile, nod, and hope the PD conversations don’t cost you your reputation.

3.) The Phonebook Effect. You see a big bulky square shaped object wrapped in yellow plastic on your doorstep. Enough said right? You chunk it. I’m still puzzled to how those still end up on the doorstep.

Just like we are puzzled when PD continues to be irrelevant. The presenters continue to show up (many no more interesting than those phone books) and year after year, the information comes and goes in about the time it takes to check the email you have open. We weren’t motivated to engage because we perceived the session objectives as not relevant or not interesting.

Now, think about the best PD you’ve experienced. What happened? Why did it make such an impact? What was it about the session objectives? The facilitator? How did you feel at the conclusion?

Now at this point, you are thinking this is a post about Professional Development, but it’s really about student experience. We had to be at a place of empathy before diving in. Before walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. So much about excellent teaching revolves around resonance. When we leave those rare PD sessions that are impactful, we find upon reflection something about the content, presenter, and/or engagement with our peers that reverberates in our psyche. It connects in a way that is meaningful and lasting.

Now consider the experience of almost any student sitting in a classroom right now. As you read this kids are having those zoo, mechanic, and phone book experiences. And simultaneously educators are having conversations about “why these kids just don’t seem compelled to learn.” In the same way facilitators of PD are responsible for providing a more compelling experience; we too are responsible for engaging kids in ways that account for the aforementioned scenarios.

How so?

Be a Lion.  Even the most seasoned zoo-goer (you know, the ones with the season passes) will make a point of visiting the lions. Why? There’s something different about them. Something majestic. Something mysterious. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going back. Remember that in your classrooms. Curiosity is the root of engagement. Be comfortable being unpredictable. We should consistently seek ways to approach new content in a way that is different than kids have experienced in the past. Why be content to teach volcanic properties with baking soda, vinegar, and papier- mache when we have the virtual reality capabilities to take our kids on a journey to explore Icelandic eruptions? If we want our kids to get over the hump of viewing us like another camel (yeah I went there) then we have to work to provide an experience that is more transformative than those they’ve had in the past. In doing so, we bring joy not only to the learning, but also to the teaching.

Find a Good Mechanic. Mitch the mechanic moments exist because many of us lack schema relative to the inner workings of a motor vehicle. This is a big problem. Why? Because people make meaning by connecting to existing schema. Without this vital prior knowledge, we are left to float amongst the confusion of vocabulary words that lack meaning. Think about it. So often mechanic moments (similar to those happening is schools) are as simple as confusion over vocabulary. The mechanic, Mitch (see also teacher) blows past us with words they have predetermined to be rudimentary. To us (see also students) we smile and nod, hoping not to be exposed as…wait for it…learners! Gasp! If only I knew what a carburetor was, what it did, and where it was located on the vehicle; I could engage in meaningful conversation. A good mechanic (see also teacher) would explain these words and their meaning to me. In doing so, I’d gain clarity, and likely learn even more. In our classrooms we can solve mechanic moments by implementing meaningful vocabulary programs. Beyond simply looking up words and writing definitions, we know vocabulary programs have a substantive effect on student learning when implemented with fidelity. Seek them out and use them regularly. Be wary to assume your words are being interpreted in the way you think they are.

Be More Exciting Than Another “Phone Book.” Admit it. There’s a microsecond when you see a package on your doorstep and you are excited about what it might be. Only to be let down by the discovery of another phone book. But what if it WAS something different? Something better. Something meaningful. Kids have these moments of excitement on every first day of school. I’m especially referring to our “at-risk” middle and high school kids. They meet their teacher for the first time and there is hope. Hope that this time it will be different. Better. More meaningful. Before long, they are immersed in the realization that they’ve been given another phone book. A teacher who’s going to do things in a way almost identical to their predecessors. And just like that, kids discard them and the potential value they bring. But what if this time it was different? It can be. As teachers we can challenge the notion of ideas like whole class learning objectives. We can embrace the notion that kids come to us at different proficiency levels, and as such, implement a multi-tiered approach to learning outcomes. Seek to develop objectives in the classroom for your kids who are proficient, approaching, and well-below proficient.

As educators, we want to experience success, and we long for PD to support us as we work toward achieving our goals. Our students also want to experience success. They want to experience a compelling and interesting adventure of learning, and not just another humdrum trip to the zoo, to the car mechanic, or to the porch to pick up another phone book.