Engaging Instruction Is Key to Freshman Success

It really does always come back to the classroom and the teacher.

We talk about a lot of things when we look at success in school and they all are very important.  The most important, though, is what happens in the classroom, and the relationship between teacher and student.

This week, Principal Matters! has been highlighting the Freshman Experience.  We’ve looked at the four pillars of building an effective ninth-grade program:  Design, Support, Culture, and today Instruction. 


Here’s a look at ten highlights of an effective ninth-grade instructional program that defines and guides academic success. 

  1. Instructional Strategies that work for ninth-graders  We need teachers who like ninth-graders to be the ones who teach them.  It really matters.  Beyond that, we need teachers who employ instructional strategies that are going to support the learning styles of freshmen.  We need to change what we do to fit them, not the other way around.  Too often, we want freshmen to “learn to adapt” to our way of doing things.  What if we met them where they are?  More than anything, if teachers of ninth-graders are leading engaging, hands-on, active learning that encourages creativity, curiosity, and creation students are going to do well.  Build an exciting classroom experience and you’ll have learning happen and students will succeed.  That simple.
  2. Homework  If making “zeroes” on homework takes freshman students down a path that leaves them failing classes, and by failing those classes they end up dropping out of school and not graduating, then those homework assignments must be really really important!  So, we can debate homework at another time.  It has its place, but it really doesn’t need to be the determining factor for a young person’s financial destiny.  Again, that would have to be some really important homework to do that!  Instead, what if you insisted that students complete the work rather than give them a ‘0’   More on this later, but think about the value of zeroes vs. “Not Yet” or “Missing.”  Is it really about the work and about the learning?  Then the grade book should reflect so.
  3. Academic Rigor  Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Not too hot; not too cold; just right.  We should be focused on a continual quest for ‘just right’ in the level of work we ask our ninth-grade students to do.  We should always be stretching their reach, getting them to do more than they’d done on their most recent attempt but not as much as they will do on the one to follow.  The level of rigor should be differentiated for the student, but the culture of the Freshman Experience should be on having serious students doing quality work.
  4. Study Skills; Organizational Skills  Your freshman program can be enhanced with the addition of instruction on organization and in how to study.  These are best done, in my opinion, as a part of the work you do in your academic courses rather than as a separate event.  Imagine the powerful learning that takes place when all the academic teachers are focused on the same note-taking skills on the same day.  Learning in context like that?  It can help your freshmen become excellent students.  Organization is also an area in which many ninth-graders struggle.  Rather than their disorganization adversely affect their grades, what if we spent time working with them to become more organized?  We can use the Freshman Year as a months-long orientation into the skills of a good student.  Wouldn’t that be valuable?
  5. Life Skills; School Survival Skills  We can help our ninth-grade students become more successful academically if we help them with direct, explicit direction and support in areas critical to surviving school.  How to get along with others? How credits work?  What to do if you miss an assignment?  Where things are?  Taking time to process through the concrete pieces of one of life’s most angst-filled transitions?  That’s time well spent.
  6. Developing Appropriate School Behaviors  We need to instruct our ninth-graders in what is okay and what isn’t.  Getting some of the upperclassmen to lead the instruction in small groups would be very impactful.  Sometimes they don’t know.. what they don’t know.  Being intentional is always a good thing.
  7. Successful Strategies to lead ninth-graders to do quality work  As part of your instructional strategy for the ninth grade, what will you do to move your students out of the mindset of compliance and into one of personal pride in performance?  How can you leverage their peer relationships to support an overall culture of excellence in academics?  How will you connect your freshmen to their peers in other places to help them see a broader picture of the world?
  8. Project-Based Learning  If you want active instruction, focus on learning that ends with a presentation, a product, a performance, or a publication (publishing to a blog or YouTube, for example).  If we can hook students when they’re in the ninth-grade, we stand a greater chance of keeping them moving forward academically throughout their high school years.  If we bore them to sleep with what looks like a remake from the Economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  That’s on us.  Let’s reshape learning with engaging assignments and tasks that mean something.
  9. Using Data to Design Delivery   Instructionally, we need to use data to design what we do.  Too often, ninth-grade becomes a place of sorting and separating.  We roll out an instructional program and figure that some students will make it and others won’t. That’s not good enough.  We need to track progress, use what we find to drive what we do, and shape our work to meet our students’ needs.
  10. Grading and Growth  Our goal at the Freshman Academies that I was a part of was pretty simple, instructionally.  Every student pass every class.  What does it mean to ‘pass a class’?  We focused on mastery of the standards, which meant that our grades reflected both growth and learning.  During freshman year, if we can work to get our students in the right habits of learning we will have done a good thing.  If they’re almost 1/3 of the way to a diploma while we do it?  That’s even better.




What Is The Culture Around Freshmen at Your School? (And Why It Matters)

What kind of reception do the freshmen get at your school?  Are they looked at with great anticipation?  Are they welcomed with open arms?  What effort do you make to help them have a smooth transition?

We’ve been looking at ninth-graders this week, but if you work at a different grade band, you can translate these concepts to the students who are entering your school for the first time just as easily.

There are four pillars in developing an effective program for students who are entering your school as the “new class,” and in this example coming to high school for the first time as ninth-graders.  Earlier this week, the focus was on the design of the freshman year, then a look at support system for ninth-graders.  The final conversation is about instruction, but before that, take a look at the culture of your school as it relates to the ninth grade.


innovative space

Below, you’ll find a framework for this examination:

  1. Climate (A Place Designed For Them)  If you want freshmen to be successful, make a commitment to design a place that works for them.  Build a climate that is conducive to learning and growing.  Many schools just roll the freshmen into high school without much intentionality.  That is one of the reasons that freshman failure is so high.  If you instead work to set a climate that makes students feel welcome, you’ll be well on the way to leading more of your freshmen to a successful year.  How they feel drives how they think; how they think determines how they act; how they act consistently over time determines their level of success.
  2. Culture (Culture of the school; freshman experience; and individual classrooms)  Is Freshman Year an initiation or an invitation?  What are the beliefs of the people at your school about ninth-graders?  As the leader, one of your tasks is to help shape the beliefs of the school. What do you want your teachers to believe about freshmen?  What do you want them to believe about the transition of ninth-graders into the school?
  3. Getting Involved in the life of the school  Students who are involved do better in school, earn credits more easily, and have better attendance and fewer behavioral incidents.  Getting involved is important, especially for students just arriving at the school.  Connections lead to confidence and confidence is the key to success.  If your school’s culture is to involve the freshmen in school-level activities, you’ll see more of your freshmen connected.
  4. Legacy work: Freshmen adopted by the upperclassmen   What if you connect your upperclassmen to your freshmen?  What about a system of mentors to welcome the freshmen?  Freshmen assimilate well to ninth-grade when they’re made to feel like they’re welcome.  Upperclassmen can be a part of the welcoming committee to bring the new freshmen into the school family.  They can be a great resource.
  5. Service  Want to bring all of your ninth-graders together?  Have a mission. Have a cause. Do something for someone.  Service is one of the very best things we have to offer at school.  It brings people together.  If it’s part of your culture, it’ll be a way to get students connected to each other and to the school.
  6. Leadership  A great way to build a positive culture in the ninth-grade is to have a focus on student leadership.  Take time to teach leadership.  If your students focus on being strong leaders, they’ll be less likely to engage in negative behaviors.  Don’t just ask for compliance; ask for excellence.  An emphasis on learning and using leadership skills is a great way to build your school.
  7. Focus on the Future  What’s the emphasis for your freshmen teachers?  Are they focus on where your students are going?  If there’s a focus on the future, we are able to put a plan in place to connect the dots from today to a point in the future.  (graduation, more school, career)  Looking back isn’t the best path to success.  It is instead to look forward.
  8. Team Building  If your ninth-grade culture is focused on working together and on collaboration, you’ll be able to bring your teachers, your students, and your school together to work on a common goal.  Much of building a successful freshman year is developing a culture of team, and then setting off to build and nurture those teams.
  9. Motivation and Incentives  Unfortunately, many high schools have a punitive culture at their schools, particularly in the ninth-grade.  These schools go over all of the rules the first day of school.  They focus on negative behaviors.  Schools that are more progressive focus on positive behaviors.  They are able to get more consistently appropriate behaviors by supporting those who do what they’re supposed to do.  Incentives can be a big part of the Freshman Experience.  They are most effective if based on short time frames.  (anything longer than two weeks can be a challenge)
  10. Teacher Collaboration  A positive culture for students is most likely preceded by a culture of collaboration on the part of the teachers.  If teacher collaboration is a core belief of the school, that same spirit will spread to the students and support them in their team building.  If teachers aren’t collaborating with each other, the culture for students is unlikely to be any different.

What kind of freshman culture does your school need in order for your ninth-graders to be successful?  What do your school’s beliefs say about freshmen?  What will you do as the leader to build and nurture an effective culture for your freshmen?

If you can get the first year at a school ‘right,’ the remainder of the years at the school go relatively easy.  If you get it wrong?  It’s a good bit harder the rest of the way through.

Get in front.  Adopt a culture for your Freshmen that leads them to success.



Support: Pillar of School Success

This week, we’ve been looking at how to develop a successful program for ninth-graders.  While the focus has been on the freshmen, if you don’t work in a high school don’t feel like you’re left out of this conversation:  the same efforts can support your work at any grade band.

Yesterday, we looked at the importance of designing your school for success.  Some schools are built for student engagement and success while others don’t quite get there.

The second pillar of success for a ninth-grade program is Supporting Students In Their Journey to Success.

So, let’s say you design and roll out the best of programs for the ninth grade, a Freshman Academy.  You do it the right way with interdisciplinary teams of teachers, exclusively dedicated to working with groups of ninth grade students. Let’s say that you find a space in your school.. a wing, a building, a portion of the campus to house your students and teachers.  You have the framework, the design, of what your ninth-graders need to be successful.

If, even with those resources, you don’t fully support students according to their needs, your outcomes will fall short of what you had intended.  To really transform what you do to serve your ninth-grade students, you need to have a place, have a team of teachers, and then build ongoing systems of support to help the students reach their goals. 

IMG_4966What does that support look like?  Here is a list of ten things to focus on to effectively support students in their journey to success.

  1. Understanding the needs of individual students:   This is the foundation of all of the work.  We need to know our students, know what they need, and get it for them.  If you try to package a one-size-fits-all approach to your ninth-grade students, you will find that one-size often fits none!  Support begins with a needs assessment, and this is only reached through relationships.
  2. Academic Enhancement (Extended Learning Time)  Nearly every school has some form or “Extended Learning Time.”  You can call it what you’d like:  Tiger Time, ELT, Academic Enhancement.  If you want to make a difference in the academic lives of your students, you’ll need to make their progress a priority by setting aside time during the day for academic assistance.  If time is constant, learning will be variable; if we instead make time variable, we can meet the standards of learning we seek.
  3. Advisory (Strategic Planning for Graduation)  A thriving advisory program that addresses topics from freshman transition to how credits work is essential.  Longer topic for another time, but if you don’t have a noteworthy advisory program for your ninth grade students, you have some work to do.
  4. Counseling Support  Freshmen need a counselor who understands them, wants to support them, and is proactive in their development.
  5. CAB (Caring Adult in the Building)  Every ninth-grade student (and all of the other grades too!) needs at least one caring adult in the building.  They all need someone they can trust, rely on, and who will support them in their progress.   If everything else is great but students don’t think their teachers care about them, all of this work is really not going anywhere.  It REALLY does come down to teachers and their relationships with their students.
  6. Roots and Wings  Our work with ninth-graders is important in helping them establish themselves as a part of the school.  We want to build a special place for them, but we also always want it to be a transitional part into a great overall experience.
  7. Love for Learning  While there are SO many things that are important in developing a successful transition for our students as they enter high school, none is more important than what happens on a daily basis in the classroom.  In short, if teachers love learning, and their love for learning is contagious, then our freshmen will engage into work in a meaningful way.  If we can have our students finish the ninth-grade with a pocketful of credits and a love for learning, we will have created a wining foundation for school.
  8. Balance: A Just-Right Approach for Freshmen Students  Freshmen are different than Seniors.  I’m guessing you already know that, but they are actually very different. We need to treat them differently.  Too often, we’d like to have “ready-made” students join us in the ninth grade.  That doesn’t always happen. We need to focus on balance and spend time with our students to strike the right balance.
  9. The Administrator’s Role  A big part of supporting your freshman students is having an administrator who is dedicated to working with them as her/his primary job.  Having an administrator who is “embedded” with the Freshmen is critical in having a successful program.
  10. Professional Development of the Teachers  As mentioned earlier, teaching freshmen is different than teaching seniors.  Your teachers need professional learning as you begin a Freshman Academy, but it also needs to be ongoing.



Designing Your School For Success

Schools, as well as other organizations, usually produce outcomes based on their design.  Have you given much thought to that proposition?  The results you’re getting relate to the design of your school.  If you are successful, it’s not an accident.  If you’re not getting the outcomes you are after, maybe you need to make some changes to your design.  Granted there are many things that contribute to the level of success at your school, but design is one that can most easily be adjusted by you.

Here’s an example:  At a high school, success is measured in great part by the number of students who graduate. When a student drops out of school without earning a diploma, one of the chief reasons they may do so is that they don’t like school.  When we work to engineer schools of success, we have to look at our practices to determine if they match up with our desired results.

If we want more students to graduate, we need a school full of adults who like being around young people, who know how to engage them meaningfully in work, and who are willing to shape the design of their classroom and their work to meet their students’ needs.

design school

A great place to begin in fine-tuning your school’s design is with the first grade students reach when they come to your school.  It’s there that the stage is set for the remainder of their work with you.  If they get off to a great start, things most typically go well.  The first year at a school is a predictor of performance throughout a student’s experience there.

Back to the high school example, let’s look at ninth grade.  So many high schools haven’t designed for success in the ninth grade.  In fact, it looks like they have built a structure for the opposite!

Why do we have the design we have?  Much of what happens in schools does so because it’s what’s been done before, it’s what teachers saw when they were students or even its how they were taught as beginning teachers.  We haven’t meant to have a design contrary to success, but in many places we do.

What do ninth-graders need?  A nurturing school experience that accounts for their transition to high school and works with them as they learn how to navigate high school and high school level work.  They need to not get lost in the size of the school.  They need to learn how to be good students, not be singled out for not having figured it out already.  They need lessons on organization, study skills, getting along with others.   They need space to grow in where their mistakes are a part of the growing experience not a never-ending spiral of failures.

Ninth-grade students need to pass all of their classes. When they do, they are exponentially more likely to graduate than their counterparts who fail multiple classes.

Is your school designed for its primary goal?  Many high schools continue to have high failures in ninth-grade.  Why do they fail?  Most usually, it’s the math that gets them.  No, not mathematics the course, but the math of “grading” policies.  A freshman who gets a lot of zeros for not turning in homework or other assignments may know just as much as another student who is passing the class, but the math will always get them.

Can you redesign your school to build systems where students are driven to get work accomplished and avoid a bad start to ninth-grade?  Do your teachers work together for the common good of all of their students in all that they do, not just how well they do in their particular class?

Design it.  You know the particulars of your school and what you need to focus on.  Find it and do it!  Design for success; don’t let your school design be left to chance.  Don’t let it be random.  Ask yourself this:  what can we change in the ways we operate the school that would lead to more student success? 




This week at Principal Matters! we are examining the four pillars of the Freshman Experience: 1) design; 2) support; 3) culture; and 4) instruction.  While the view this week is through the lens of Freshman Academy and the ninth-grade experience, the conversation is pertinent regardless of the grade band.

Freshman Success: Strong Start, Successful Finish

Why do students dropout of school?  The research of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) reveals that it’s not just one thing, but typically a combination of factors that lead a student to that life-changing decision.

One of the most effective practices to “stop the drop” and reverse the effect of those factors is a successful freshman year.  If you get off to a strong start, you’re much more likely to have a successful finish. Ninth-grade success most typically leads to graduation; on the other hand, a freshman year full of absences, behavioral issues, and failed classes can lead to dropping out.

If we know that (and we do), what can we do differently to help freshmen get off to a good start?  One exemplary practice is the establishment of a Freshman Academy.   It was my privilege to be a part of starting a Freshman Academy (FA) at two different schools.  It’s also been a privilege to support the work of others in developing their FAs.  When given the necessary resources and structures, a Freshman Academy can be a powerful tool in leading to the success of ninth-grade students.  As we’ve already mentioned, if you get off to a good start, you are usually on the route to graduation, not withdrawal papers.

Just like everything else in schools, things can be different from one school to another.  Even so, there are some elements that make the success that you’re looking for more likely.  Here are the four pillars that make for a good Freshman program.

  1.  Designing Your School for Success;
  2. Supporting Your Students in Their Journey to Success;
  3. School Culture That Fosters Success;
  4. Instruction That Guides Academic Success

welcome freshmen

Truth be told, those same four pillars can lead to success in any school configuration, not just Freshman Academy.  For the purpose of this column, we’ll view them from that lens.

Design:   A Freshman Academy is designed to help transition students into the high school  through a structure that combines the heart of the elementary school, the teaming of middle school and the academic rigor of high school all in one place.  The best configuration of at Freshman Academy?  A separate wing or building on campus with the rest of the high school.  An essential?  Teachers whose class schedules are exclusively dedicated to teaching ninth graders.

Support:  Why do ninth-grade students fail classes? A number of reasons, including these:  1) they get behind in classes through missing assignments and can never catch up; 2)  they’re disorganized (due to lack of experience, due to puberty, due to distractions of being at a different school); 3)  they lack the support systems necessary to assist in the more rigorous work of high school.  It’s not enough to use ninth grade to sort and separate those who are ready and those who aren’t;  if that’s all we’re doing we could get that accomplished in two weeks!  What ninth grade needs to be is a time that we provide enough of the right support to help them get through the year better prepared, more experienced, and with a pocketful of credits towards graduation.  We should gladly give the support to make this happen.

Culture:  If your culture is to use the freshman year as initiation and to weed out the ones who don’t like school, aren’t as good at school, or aren’t performing as well in school, congratulations!  You will be able to easily weed them out, run them off, get them on the path to dropping out.  If you don’t have that as your desired outcome, you have to have a different culture.  If your culture towards freshmen is the same as the US Marines… never leave anyone on the field… then you will have unprecedented success.  That’s a question to begin with as you examine your work with freshmen… what IS your school’s culture in regards to freshmen?  

Instruction:  We need for students to have a full complement of units as they leave the ninth grade, but we don’t need to just hand them over without the student having achieved in the classroom.  Our instructional expectations need to remain high without creating a system that promotes failure.  Do you know how to do that?  Do your teachers know how to do that?  What are the skills as a student that you are teaching in the ninth grade?  If you aren’t happy with their “skills as a learner” when they arrive, what are you doing about in the ninth grade?

So, more to come this week on freshmen, building a Freshman Academy, and helping our students get off to a successful start.  Come back this week and we’ll break down each of those four categories.  If you are a regular reader of Principal Matters! not working at a high school, don’t skip out this week;  you’ll most likely find that the principles discussed in building a FA are things you can use where you are too.  You don’t get off with an excused absence this week!

Thanks for your work! See you back here tomorrow.





Notes On A Better Life/Work Balance

work life balance

As the school leader, you are the person who is counted on to bring the universe around you into balance.  You can’t have favorites so you need to balance your work with faculty and staff.  You need to balance the tasks that you have in your job. Both of these balance points are critical.

There isn’t a balance point that is more important for you to get right as a leader and a person than the one we examine this week.

How well do you balance your time between school and home?  Are you meeting a healthy balance between the time and energy you give to your job and the time and energy you give to those who love you at home?

This is a conundrum.  You aren’t going to be successful as a principal without working hard, giving of yourself to your school and spending long hours in doing so.  That’s just the truth.

The question is, “at what cost?”  You need to do those things at school to succeed, but if you get your school/home relationship out of balance it will negatively impact all parts of your life.

All of us who work in these positions face this puzzle.  How do we have it all?  How do we take the limited resources of time and energy and distribute them between our work and our home in a manner that leads to success, fulfillment, good results and great relationships?


I’ve said it before and will admit it again here:  I don’t think I was either the best or the worst at this, but I have learned some things I gladly share, not necessarily as an expert but as an experienced learner.  Here are some things I’ve learned, some gleaned from personal experience, others from observation and also some from conversations with colleagues.  These ideas may help you figure out how to get your life/work balance more balanced.

Notes On A Better Life/Work Balance

  1.  Schedule Time and Make Your Appointments:  Save time for the people who love you at home and honor it just like you would an appointment with someone else.  Do it regularly; do it weekly.  Unless extreme emergencies occur, keep your “appointments” with loved ones and family.
  2. Balance Is Daily and Weekly, Not Just Annually:  We all can fall into the notion that we can make up for not being around a lot by spending a lot of time together when school is out on vacations.  Those times can be great and make lifelong memories, but life is in the little moments that come along unexpectedly and in the flow of things.  It’s easy when we’re working hard to lead a school to want to “make up” for lost time, but it really doesn’t work that way.  Balance is an ongoing endeavor.
  3. Make Your Work A Family Affair:  When your family is a “team” and you connect and collide on things at school together, you are able to create experiences and memories there too.  Being together in your work is great and can make it all matter more.  Sharing the importance of the work can make a difference too.  If everyone in the family knows the importance of the work that you’re doing, and also how important they are to you, the life/work balance has a different angle.  If your family gets to celebrate the successes of the school with you, it makes for a better dynamic.
  4. Don’t Miss The Individual Time and Attention:  If you have a houseful of people who love and support you, congratulations!  That’s a good thing.  It will, however, require you to plan out your time.  You want to spend time as a unit, but you also want to spend time individually with the people in your family.  Make sure you are making memories, sharing time, and getting to everyone.
  5. Never Forget What’s Really Most Important:  When you leave your position as principal, they will get another one.  With the exception of those individuals in charge when a school has been closed, everyone else who has left the position has had a replacement. Your job matters, but someone else will do it eventually.  Your role as friend, spouse, parent, relative:  that isn’t something that is so easily replaced.  Now, don’t forget:  your work is also a way to love and support your family.  It allows you to support them financially.  It also gives your family a good space to grow up in.  Your job isn’t an enemy unless you let it take you over.  Remember who matters the most.  You have pictures of your family in your office, not pics of your office at home.  Make sure they know they are most important.  They know that your job is going to require more time than most people who have “normal” jobs, but what they don’t want to feel is unimportant.  This is one of the most important actions you can take to balance life/work.  Tell them how you feel about them.  Take time with them and make sure they know how important they are to you.

There’s no playbook to getting your life/work balance to be balanced, but the first step is to give it your attention.  It’s one of the most important challenges you’l take on.



This is an installment of our Sunday series about balance.  Getting balance right as the school leader is one of your most critical challenges.  Please take a look at the whole series under the category of “Balance” here at Principal Matters!

Examining balance and getting it right means that you look not just what you do at work, but who you are as the whole leader.  That examination means that you look at yourself and your performance in several areas, including the following:

  1. How you relate to others in your school “universe”;
  2. How you perform and accomplish the tasks necessary in your job;
  3. How you relate to those important to you in your life away from school;
  4. How you interact with the world separate from your school and your home;
  5. How you are developing habits that promote short-term and long-term health and energy;
  6. How you are growing professionally and personally; and
  7. How happy, joyful, and fulfilled you are.

It’s important that you learn to balance within each of these areas, as well as balance all seven together.

Professional Reading Saturday: Ideas For An Effective Book Study

Hello, Principal Matters! friends.  This Saturday (as every Saturday) is time to look at the professional reading shelf, but with a twist.

Many principals and assistant principals ask for ideas for a book study.  While we offer a different book for your consideration here each week, there are some things worth thinking about when “shopping” for book study material.

  1.  Voice and Choice.  Learning is more likely when the learner has a voice in the process and a choice in the content or delivery.  What will be more effective at your school?  For your teachers to consider a number of books and help select the one that everyone reads?  Maybe you’d have more success if your faculty was reading different books based on their individual needs?  What if those folks got together in a reading club with others who were reading the same book?  There is no right or wrong way to do this; there are just varying degrees of effectiveness, but as always this is likely to be relative to the context of your school.  If this is the first time you’ve done a book study, you might want to use this opportunity to model what you’re after before setting everyone off with full autonomy.  Then again, maybe it’s just what you need to do.  That’s the fun of school leadership; your analysis of your school’s current status is always critical to success.
  2. Focus, Please.   If you are to read the same book faculty-wide, perhaps it should be correlated to your school’s focus in the upcoming year.  It would be wise to determine what your top priority will be for next year before you select a book for your study.  If you are going to work on school climate, then Fish: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results might be your jam.  You would also do well to read The Energy Bus.  Maybe it’s getting your teams and PLCs to work more effectively?  How about The Five Dysfunctions of A Team?  The most important part is to determine your need before picking your read.  You lose credibility with your teachers when you don’t consolidate your efforts in a thematic manner.  Take time to plan it, or as mentioned in the previous paragraph, give your teachers the opportunity to identify their own needs.
  3. Why?  Purpose of the Project   Why?  Why do you want your team to read a book together?  What is the goal of this effort?  Don’t just do things because you’ve heard others do them; go into them with your desired results in mind from the beginning.   Many of the wonderful teachers we have across the fruited plain are busy beyond words, overwhelmed, and stressed.  Don’t let something good (book study) become “one more thing.”  The way you frame this effort will have a lot to do with its success.  Make sure you not only know what you want them to do, but why you want them to do it.  How will this book study impact teacher performance and student achievement?

Here are some suggestions for topics that might be your “big thing” for next school year.  You can find a YouTube video on most any book, so check it out before you read it yourself, but read it before you share it!  Make sure you know what you’re asking others to read.  Your conversations with your people will be much more effective if you’ve read it before.   Some of these books have been featured here on Professional Reading Saturday; some are still waiting in the wings.  All of them are good books for you and your team if they match up with your needs!  Enjoy.


If your focus is on:                                                              You may be looking for:

School Climate                                                                     The Energy Bus;   Fish!:  

Relationships                                                                        Whale Done! 

Customer Service Experience                                          Raving Fans

Tightening Your Focus                                                       The One Thing

Working As A Team                                                            The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Time Management                                                             Eat That Frog!

Improved Instruction                                                       The Secrets of Timeless Teachers

PLCs                                                                                       Professional Learning Communities At Work

Engagement                                                                        The Element 

Passion of Teaching                                                          Teach Like A Pirate; Kids Deserve It

Motivation                                                                           Drive;  To Sell Is Human

Power of Questions                                                           A More Beautiful Question

Innovation                                                                          The Innovator’s Mindset

Purpose                                                                                Start With Why


NOTE:  If you have a growth area that you’re looking to match a book with and it isn’t covered above, please contact me and I’ll share a suggestion!  Thanks, Mark 





Reflective Practice Is A Start: Creative Practice Is Next Step

Reflective practice.

Hopefully as the leader you’ve adopted the practice of reflection.  The most effective leaders are those who are intentional in their work, reflect on what their practices, and are interested in continued growth.  Reflection is a critical part of the process; it means that you invest the time to do more than just grind.  It means that you are aware of what you do, how it affects the work of others, and that through reflection we can have growth.
It’s the same practice that we should be suggesting to our teachers for their growth.  For our students?  Same.  We are teaching metacognition.
So it’s important for all of the citizens of the school to have time for reflection, but that’s just the beginning.  The next step towards building a community of learning, innovation and success is creative practice.  Reflect, then create.
Reflection primes the pump for creation and innovation, but only if time is invested to do so.  Unfortunately, not all of our principals and assistant principals have adopted the habit of regular reflection; of those who have, again, not all of them move forward into creative practice.  It’s the most effective leaders who practice both.
What is creative practice?  It’s time, set aside as a priority, to collaboratively dream, problem-solve, design, create, innovate, and brainstorm.  Why do it?  Because the diagnosis you’ve made through reflection needs a treatment, and intentional creative practice can lead you to success.
When we pause from the frenetic pace of operating the school and set aside time to think, we are able to imagine a vision of what our schools can look like.  We are able to focus on what we most dearly value.  We’re able to develop strategies for problems that otherwise will persist.  They do pay you to think, and if you aren’t taking time to do so in an organized fashion on a regular basis, you should!
Brainstorming Techniques
Here are a few things to consider about creative practice and what it can do for you in your leadership of the school:
1.  Creative Practice Leads To Better Solutions.   If you dedicate time to bringing in a few key people to discuss a topic or set of topics, you are more likely to reach successful conclusions to your problems.  If you assemble a group of people from your school to join you in a brainstorming session, you will undoubtedly benefit from the collaboration, the conversation, and the creation.  You will get to more good ideas together than you ever would separately or alone.
2.  We do what we schedule.    Intending to meet will not lead to breakthrough innovations for your school.  You actually need to schedule the meeting and have it.  Do you believe deeply enough in the creative process to dedicate precious time for it?  If not, you may end up being a status quo organization.  It’s possible that you could be fortunate and have good ideas show up when you need them and solutions occur to you without a collaborative process.  You have to determine whether you want to be strategic in your leadership or live moment-to-moment.  The folks that do that get really tired, really fast.  Strategic thinking (reflective practice + creative practice) reduces stress and pressure, gives you time to work out details, and instills a culture of collaboration that everyone wants to be a part of.
3.  Better Together.   Not only are WE better together, YOU are better when you’re together with others as well.  You are going to be a better creator, a better problem-solver, a better innovator when you get around others and their ideas trigger yours.  It’s obvious that we have more ideas if we have more people, but it’s likely that your ideas will be better when they percolate through the process.
It’s easy enough to do have creative practice.  All you need is time (dedicated, no interruptions except for zombie apocalypse), space (make it one that’s conducive for imagination and creative thinking), people (don’t be afraid to mix it up and have different groups for different topics, fresh voices, even students), and a format.  (you may want to have your brainstorm about one particular topic and toss out any others that come up; you could start with no topic at all; you can take turns and come up with a new question every fifteen minutes.)
With those elements, (time, space, people, and format) you can do amazing things… if you want to.  Maybe you want to pick people who are predisposed to do well at brainstorming.  That’s an idea that might lead to more successful outcomes.  You also want to set a closing time for the session as well as leave with a summary of what happened as well as (and very importantly) what happens next. (who does what, when?)
Ideas can make your school an awesome place.  Find some space for them.  You’ll be amazed.

Download is Not Dialogue; The Art of Discussion and the School Leader

Recently, I was with one of the wonderful principals that I support who had a question.  She had observed a class that had left her… underwhelmed.  The teacher had not really created the engaging classroom of curiosity, innovation, and learning that the principal was seeking.  It was relatively low level… most of the work done by the teacher, peripheral topics, low student engagement.  The sort of thing that once was commonplace but is no longer our standard for excellence anywhere.

The principal’s question was this:  what do you say in conversation with the teacher to  improve instruction?   It’s a fundamental question and one that everyone who observes classes should consider.  Remember, all of our efforts in teacher evaluation should be for the purpose of improving instruction.  That means that completing the observation is only a step in the process.  It’s like putting a coat of primer on a wall.  It’s just not finished!

Observations are important… if they lead to improving instruction.  The road between the two is the conversation between administrator and teacher.  That critical portion of the process requires the proper mindset in order to be successful.

In short it’s this: the most important part of the post-observation conference isn’t what you as the administrator say.  The most important part is the teacher’s understanding of what should be done to improve instruction.    It’s not just semantics; it’s a very real thing.  As an administrator, the critical task of such a conference is to be useful.  Not brilliant, not clever, not annoyingly comprehensive, but… useful.

It’s really about developing a dialogue rather than a download.

dialogueA download is when you drop all the knowledge you’ve prepared on the teacher, or if you will permit, the intended target.  We usually do this as administrators in what we believe to be a creative manner.  We’ll begin the meeting by asking our teacher, “so, how do you think it went?”  While questions are the gateway to understanding, that particular one is a relatively meager one to ask.  There are many other questions to ask, but that one is usually followed by… the download.  This happens quite frequently:  the administrator asks, “how do you think it went?”, followed by the teacher sharing her version and then, here it comes!  The administrator “goes over” her observations.  The meeting concludes with a ranking of some sort, which either ends with satisfaction on the part of the teacher, or dissatisfaction which leads to some defensive statements, maybe a few suggestions, but not really what the process was intended to be.

Instead of the download, you need a dialogue, and here’s the main reason why.  The teacher has to process what happened and figure out: 1) there’s a discrepancy between what happened in the classroom and what ought to happen in the classroom; and 2) there are steps she can take to lead a more improved classroom the next time they gather.

This IS the key part, and quite often it’s missed.  Unless the teacher sorts it out in her head and can truly see her classroom for what it is (and what it isn’t) any actions taken will be in the name of compliance.  Her attempt to satisfy the conclusions you’ve reached at the end of your observation download.  That’s not progress; that’s just a game of cat and mouse.

INSTEAD, the most effective administrators are skillful in leading others into a dialogue.  You ask questions; you create scenarios; you ask your teacher to paint a picture of what it ought to look like;  you don’t just download.  You talk. But you do more than that.  You lead your teacher to a deeper understanding of what her classroom ought to be.  You do so in a manner in which she can relate.  There’s not one script for this to follow; instead, it’s a differentiated approach designed to relate to the way the teacher you’re conferencing with processes and understands.

And at the end of such a conference, there’s a different kind of feeling.  A feeling that you are there to be useful in helping your teacher grow.  Not an argument over whether something occurred, whether it usually occurs, or anything like that.  If you invest the time into having quality conferences, you will be on the path to supporting your teachers in their journey to success, and that’s a place you’ll be welcomed.



‘Focus’ Is The Answer to Many of The Questions At This Phase of The Year

Earlier today, I was spending time with some wonderful administrators.  I asked them what they have been spending their time on recently. Testing! Evaluations! Student behavior! Teachers Leaving!  Hiring Teachers!

Sound familiar?

There’s not a way to eliminate the ever-increasing number of tasks that are specific to this time of year.  They are a part of the calendar and happen to occur either simultaneously or in quick succession.

At this time of year, we have the intersection of many things.  The current year’s conclusion.  Planning for the next year.  Lots of things that require time, details, and accuracy.  Not the time for an uptick of instances of student misbehavior.

All of these tasks can be pretty overwhelming for the assistant principal and principal. Still, you need to continue to lead your team on a journey to success.  What is your strategy to combat the distractions that this time of year bring to your teachers and students?


It is critical to keep everyone focused on engaging instruction each and every day, each and every class period.  It’s when we are distracted from the essential work of the school that we get sidetracked and it can be difficult to resume progress.  Better to stay on target than have to fix it later.


That said, how do you keep everyone focused?  As the leader, you have to continue to put the spotlight where you want everyone to look.  If you spend all of your time talking about other things, they will seem to be your focus.  If you continue to talk about what goes in the classroom, focusing on instruction, engagement, assessment, and growth, it will be what your teachers (and in turn your students) focus on as well.

There are several things you can do to help keep the focus where it ought to be:

  1.  Be Relentless:  If you let up, you’ll lose your momentum.  You have to keep the emphasis on instruction going on.  Observe classes.  Deliver feedback.  Schedule conversations with your teachers.  Don’t let up.
  2. Recognize Good Classroom Work   Take time to recognize the good that is going on.  Share it publicly:  announcements, Twitter, Facebook, email.  Any or all of those.  Spend time to acknowledge effort and recognize excellence.  Get it out there!  If people see you lifting up the work of others they may follow the trend.
  3. Generate Daily Conversation  You can do this by sending emails to your staff, or communicating with them via Google Docs or other electronic methods.  You can share questions for your teachers to discuss at their PLC or Grade-Level Meetings.  Get people talking about instruction and you will be norming your building to performing well.
  4. Provide Redirects Where Needed  Now is the time for classrooms to be more engaging,not less.  Teachers have had all year to learn strategies from each other  that can make the work in their room more engaging.  If people aren’t part of the solution, then they’re part of the problem.  Recognize the difference and help those who aren’t doing well but letting them know.  Redirect them to successful approaches.
  5. Stay Focused Yourself.  As the leader goes, so goes the rest of the team.  If you are in the present, focusing on your teachers and students and their needs, you will be setting the example that’s needed to keep everyone moving forward. If you give the impression that you’re off track, don’t be surprised to see your people follow suit.

Focus.  It’s the fix to most of your fixes.  It’s what you need to finish the year strongly.








Great Leaders Are Built on Strong Foundations

One of the questions that often comes up about leadership is this one:  are leaders born or can leaders be made? 

Nearly every day, I think about leadership.  I’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember.  I’d been given “leadership opportunities” since I was very young.  My parents valued the importance of leadership so it became something important to me.

Most of my career has been involved leadership: as a coach, a teacher, assistant principal and principal.  Over the last five years, I’ve been working to support school leaders, and help prepare new leaders.

Here’s what I’ve come to believe:  we all have the capacity to lead; we all have the capacity to learn to lead more effectively.  To support that work, there is some foundational work that should be done.  With the foundation set, you are able to lead in the busy, unpredictable and unscripted world of school leadership.  Without the foundation, it’s easy to flounder, to float, and to not be prepared for the moments that need a leader.


Questions In Developing Your Leadership Foundation

  1.  Who Am I?   At the core of leadership is self-awareness.  One of the most important tools you’ll use to grow as a leader is reflection, so getting a baseline is critical.  Even more so, if you know who you are up front, it will be easier for you to keep yourself and avoid getting lost.
  2. What Am I Here For?  Purpose.  What’s your purpose?  What is your mission?  As the leader, what are you to do?   Establishing your personal vision and mission is a fundamental piece of leadership.  If you are an aspiring leader, this is something you work on while you’re in your preparation phase.  If you have this established, you can hit the ground running when you assume your post as a school administrator.
  3. What Do I Believe?  In addition to identifying who you are and what you’re here for, the  leader is well-served by developing a list of beliefs pertinent to leadership.  Making your belief statement is a perfect complement to your identity, your vision, and your mission.  These are things you think to establish your true North and to serve as a compass for you in your work.
  4. What Will I Fight For?  This is typically a sub-set of your beliefs statement.  In answering  what will I fight for, you identify your deepest beliefs and strongest passions. These are the things that will be at the core of your work and will drive your actions on a daily basis. (I’m not a fan of the phrase “non-negotiable”… sounds a little too argumentative for the kind of leaders school need.  Answering this question may seem similar, but it is a deeper commitment than even that.  It’s a basis for what you’ll seek to do at your school as the leader.  The sooner you establish this, the more focused you can be in your work.)

A note about these questions:  these are not just an exercise or busywork.  They are the fundamental base for you, who you are, and what you believe.  Think about them.  Write them down.  Update them at least annually.

If you’re currently a principal or assistant principal, these are questions worthy of your reflection;  if you aspire to be in one of those jobs, use this preparation time to construct well-developed answers to each of the questions.

As you grow as a leader, some of your answers will stay the same and remain with you throughout your career.  You’ll add some things; you’ll delete some things.  That’s part of what it means to grow.

But to do those things, you have to have a place to start.  Your experiences so far have helped shape you into who you are.  Take the time now to take stock of these fundamental pieces of you.  They will shape you as a leader for some time to come.






Interested in School Leadership? What Aspiring Leaders Should Do To Prepare

Very excited to start a new cohort of aspiring leaders today.  Everyone is thinking about succession plans, developing a pool of talent, and having leaders ready to make the move into the roles of assistant principal and eventually principal.

It’s been a great enjoyment to work with a large number of these cohorts, and as next year begins to develop, there will be more and more cohorts that I’ll have the pleasure to lead as they prepare for upcoming roles.  The abundance of aspiring leader cohorts points to a handful of truths:  1)  leadership is critical for school success; 2) preparation is crucial; 3) the churn in school leadership continues and we are steadily in need of replacements.

For systems, RESAs, and states who are far-sighted enough to develop cohorts of aspiring leaders, their prospects will be brighter as the need comes (and it most certainly will) for new leaders to step into school administration.  Learning together in a strong cohort is definitely a plus for the aspiring leader, but what can individuals do to better prepare themselves for future roles in administration?  Here are a few ideas to consider:

step up to the challenge

  1.  To lead tomorrow, lead today.  It’s probably true that ‘aspiring leaders’ is a misnomer;  if we are truly preparing tomorrow’s APs and Ps, they most likely are (and really need to be) leaders today.  Teachers are definitely leaders.  Those who do so with intent can be developing into the leaders they will need to be.  The jobs are all different:  Teacher, AP, Principal.  That said, leadership is a continuum, and one can lead from a variety of positions.  If you are a teacher, or if you’re advising/coaching a teacher who wants to “get into” school administration, one of the best things you can encourage is that they actively lead in what they do now.  Be a good leader as a teacher, then you’ll be better prepared to be a leader of teachers.
  2. Read about leadership.   Leaders are readers.  If you want to be ready later, read about it now.  Lencioni, Sinek, Pink; Gladwell, Hattie, Fullan, Marzano, and DuFour.  There are more now, but they will change.  If you aspire to lead, find the leaders that are readers, find out what they’re reading and follow along. You can look at this blog under the tab ‘Professional Reading’ for suggestions every Saturday! 🙂
  3. Do Things On Your Own.  Before I was ever hired for an administrative job, I’d spent hours siting in on discipline meetings, watching my AP handle things from sleeping in class to expellable infractions. I’d been given the chance to sit in on scheduling, budgeting, and was given the opportunity to ask as many ‘why’ questions as I wanted.  I had really good mentors, but the biggest thing was that I showed up and asked for the opportunity.  NONE of that was for a class, for credit, or for any pay; all of it was for me to learn, and it’s amazing how interested the teachers are when the learners come on their own. If you sit back and wait for someone to show you everything, you’ll just keep waiting.
  4. Be In Charge.  Coach a team. Sponsor a club. Serve as the lead of your PLC.  Lead your school’s Relay For Life team.  Do all of them at once, while you’re teaching your regular load.  That’s a good start to prepare you for school-level administration.  The more you are “in charge” before you apply to be an assistant principal, the better you’ll be prepared to serve in that role.  There are things you can learn by reading, and there are things you can only learn by doing.  Being in charge means that you are responsible for the results of an activity that involves people other than you.  The more you do of that, the more you’ll be ready to be the AP and later the P.
  5. Define Yourself, Your Mission, Your Code.  Who are you?  What are you here for?  What are your beliefs?  What will you fight for?  What are you working for?  NOW is the time to ask yourself the hard questions, to reflect on your answers, to write them down.  You need to know who you are bringing into this before you enter, not after.  Your ideas may change over time, but you need a baseline.  Keep it somewhere you can refer back to.  It will be essential throughout your leadership journey.
  6. Make Mistakes and Learn From Them.   The learning you do is usually from your mistakes.  If you try to be perfect (and avoid risks by doing so) you’ll probably not learn very much.  That won’t be a good preparation for leadership.  My mistakes made me into a leader, not my successes.  My successes made my head big and I needed more mistakes to get me back into learning mode.  Give thanks for failure, as long as you’ll learn from it.
  7. Look to help others be successful and happy.   There’s never a bad time to work on one’s own heart.  As you prepare to become the AP and later the P, if you have developed an affinity for serving other people, it will be second nature for you later.  There is nothing more important for the leader than to look to help others be successful before finding your own success.  It’s amazing what a simple concept this is but how easy it is to evade you as you get caught up in the rhythms of life.  Practice serving others now, and then you’ll be better prepared to be the leader of the school than most anyone else.







Strategic Habits and Attitudes To More Effectively Get Your Tasks Accomplished

It’s the weekend, and you need to be enjoying yourself.  Spending time with people you love doing things you love to do.  Getting refreshed, refocused, and ready for another week of leading your school.

Are you instead spending some, most, or all of your weekend doing work?

Get out of that routine by better balancing your tasks during the week.  Take your weekends back by being more effective during the week.  Balance your time to effectively complete the tasks you need to accomplish so there won’t be so many left to do when the weekend arrives.

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-10-13-51-amEasier said than done?  Perhaps, but there are some strategic habits and attitudes you can adopt that will help you to get your days more balanced.

  1.  Seize the Morning to Seize the Day.  If you want your day as the principal to run well, the beginning is the most critical.  If you can make a habit to greet your teachers as they are arriving; then see your students as they get to school as well.  (drop-off line, bus lane, parking lot)   Be a part of morning announcements:  help establish the tone of the day.  Then, depending on the size of your school, make a sweep of as many classrooms as you can.  If you’re able to get to some of them, that’s great; if your school is small enough where you can get to all of them, that’s even better.  Getting around to your students and teachers, just to check in and just to set tone can be the prevention that’s worth a pound of care.  The mornings are golden hours and if you can get everyone off to a good start doing what they ought to be doing you’ll be amazed at how you can recapture control of your days.
  2. One Thing At A Time   After you establish the foundation of the day by being visible, it’s time to work on the tasks at hand.  Observations?  Meetings with teachers? Planning? You have lots to do, but work to get things done before spreading yourself out to the next thing. If you can develop the habit of working on things to their completion, you’ll be giving yourself time that you don’t even know you’ve been giving away.  The constant starts and re-starts are a big part of the time loss that happens to you as the leader.  When you do a classroom observation, don’t take notes and go back later and complete the writeup on the platform; spend five more minutes at that time to get it completed.  (And those who say you can’t do that should at least give it a try!)  The people who get tasks completed are the ones that are able to focus long enough on a particular thing to get it accomplished.  You can do it; it’s an attitude, and then it becomes a habit.
  3. Your Emergency Is Not Necessarily My Emergency   When principals and assistant principals tell me they spend all day every day putting out fires, I often mention that you might want to spend some more time in the fire prevention business then!   Part of this is established in number one, above, by framing the day every day for the students and teachers at your school.  Another is by strategically training your faculty and staff in how to resolve many (most) of their issues without the need to bring them to the administration.  There are some schools that have established the norm that everything is a crisis and the principal’s job is to solve everyone’s problems.  Those schools are consistently distracted from their real work (learning) and the principal and assistant principal are indeed always putting out fires.  To get out of that business, you need to clarify what your job as principal really is.  If the central office thinks you’re an instructional leader (they do) and your faculty thinks you’re a firefighter, you have a problem.  Clarify what you do, help prepare your faculty and staff to solve many of their problems and you’ll all of a sudden have time you didn’t know existed.  This really works. You have to get it established in a way that makes it look like you aren’t insensitive to their needs .  (Being transparent is critical.  Tell them WHY you are wanting to teach them new ways to handle classroom events.  Metacognition.  It really will work with time and commitment).


There are other things that you can do to help balance your daily work that we will discuss in future posts, but these are three to begin with that are high-impact strategies that will literally get you operating more effectively during the week so you can have your weekend back.



This is an installment of a series of getting balance right as the school leader.  Please take a t at the whole series under the category of “Balance” here at Principal Matters!

Examining balance and getting it right means that you look not just what you do at work, but who you are as the whole leader.  That examination means that you look at yourself and your performance in several areas, including the following:

  1. How you relate to others in your school “universe”;
  2. How you perform and accomplish the tasks necessary in your job;
  3. How you relate to those important to you in your life away from school;
  4. How you interact with the world separate from your school and your home;
  5. How you are developing habits that promote short-term and long-term health and energy;
  6. How you are growing professionally and personally; and
  7. How happy, joyful, and fulfilled you are.

It’s important that you learn to balance within each of these areas, as well as balance all seven together.

Professional Reading Saturday: The Innovator’s Mindset

This week at Principal Matters! we’ve been examining leadership for innovation.  We pondered the question “Are You an Innovative Leader?”  and dug deep into failure with a look at How Fear Suffocates Innovation.  Yesterday was time to reflect on your school’s attitude towards ideas and the people who have them (The Words You Want To Hear:  I Have an Idea).

Today is Saturday, which means Professional Reading, and a great complement to this week’s thinking is George Couros’ work,  The Innovator’s Mindset:  Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead A Culture of Creativity. 

In The Innovator’s Mindset, Couros shares eight characteristics of an innovator’s mindset:  empathy, problem-finders, risk-takes, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflective.


Couros calls teachers, school and district leaders, as well as parents to explore The Innovator’s Mindset  and in turn empower learners to “wonder, explore, and to become forward-thinking leaders.

Are you looking for something to turn your classrooms into places of discovery?  Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset is practical, easy to relate to, and full of specifics that can help you and your teachers transform your school into the place of exploration it was meant to be.

Pick up The Innovator’s Mindset wherever you like to buy books!






The Words You Want to Hear: I Have An Idea

Ideas are incredible, and they are literally everywhere around your school this very minute.  The problem with a lot of those ideas is this:  their owners aren’t going to share them with you.

Your school is either a fountain or a drain.  It’s either a place where ideas are appreciated, encouraged, and valued or a place where people learn to keep their ideas to themselves.  So much of the climate for ideas, or lack of one,  begins with the principal and administration.

What do you do when someone has an idea?  Do you make things easier for them or more difficult?  Are you an idea accelerator or are you the brakes?

I know that you are called upon to be the leader of a safe, orderly school.  That is important and shouldn’t be taken for granted or lightly. Orderly can be good if used in the right measure. Order is easier to administer than freedom, and that’s why most schools lean towards a more structured, policy-driven model of administration.  The problem is this:  if you lean too far in that direction, you’ll end up with a place where the rules outweigh the ideas.  If it’s hard to get permission to move forward with an idea, the ideas will stop showing up.  The converse is true as well; if ideas are welcomed, you’ll have more and more of them.

At our school and at most schools everywhere, people have great ideas.  Teachers, students, and staff have great ideas and innovations just waiting to be heard.  At Morgan County High School where I was principal, we were having our annual “Club Fair” for our organizations to showcase who they are, what they do,  and solicit members.  One of our people had a great idea:  let’s do it outside and set it up with tables, music, food much like a festival.

That idea turned out to be a great one; the students enjoyed being outside, it was during our lunch periods so the clubs had a great turnout at their booths, and everyone had a chance to be creative in showing their wares.

Friday Alive .JPG

While at this inaugural Club Fair, a student started talking to me.  I asked him what he thought about the Club Fair and he said that it was good.  He said that it was so good that we ought to do it every week!  I asked him “what would that look like?”   He said, “we don’t need to advertise clubs every week, but we could have bands.  Students who play guitar and sing can do it out here.  And we can have a snow cone booth.  And it’ll be awesome.”

From that conversation was born a tradition at our school.  “Friday Alive,” a mostly-weekly (weather-dependent on whether it was weekly) celebration of creativity, fun, and student talent.  We’ll take a deeper dive on Friday Alive in a future post, but it was a place for student performers to share their work; we had poetry jams; the marching band was a guest performer; the step team; the cheerleaders; even our versions of “The Voice” and on occasion Karaoke Friday.  Friday Alive was, as the student described it to me to begin with, awesome.

Here’s the thing:  that idea probably never rises up unless he was a part of a climate and culture where ideas matter.  Here are a few reminders to the principal and assistant principal about making your school an idea factory:

  • Make it easier to get to ‘yes’ than to get to ‘no’.   This one is straight-forward and plain.  If the school’s administration is always going to say ‘no’, you can expect that people will stop asking.  If you’re someone who will listen and try to figure out how it can happen rather how it might go wrong, then you’ll have more ideas than you’ve ever had.  It really does begin with you.
  • Support other’s ideas without becoming their new owner.   When students and teachers came to me with ideas, I worked to get to yes.  That didn’t mean that I became the person to carry out their idea.  My questions were always “what will that look like?”  and “how can I support you in your idea?” 
  • Make your school a laboratory for learning.  Don’t squash an idea just because it may not work.  Sometimes the best ideas need a few runs before they fly.  (See “The Wright Brothers” and “Thomas Edison”)

As the principal, you are in a privileged position.  You literally have a creative team filling the classrooms around you.  You can do awesome things at your school if you embrace the idea and idea maker.  Whenever you hear those words, “I have an idea,” be ready to be what they need to make those ideas reality.

#Leadership365   /76

How The Fear of Failure Suffocates Innovation


One of the leaders in our session yesterday shared a powerful strategy her school has recently employed.

Instead of beginning their meetings sharing their successes, they instead share their failures.

Their approach is sure to lead to improved outcomes and a better place to work.  The “perfect” business is exhausting!  In schools, we can be slow to innovate because of our reluctance to try things we aren’t already good at, aren’t sure how to do, or are out of our comfort zone.

This isn’t just a subtle difference in approach or a minor attitudinal difference.  The “fear of failure” can be an overwhelming force that slows down growth, innovation and achievement.  In short, our obsession with never being wrong can lead to us falling short of getting things right at all.

The children and adolescents growing up in our schools are citizens of a world that hardly any of their teachers experienced during their formative years.  The world has changed, the accessibility to information has changed, and the speed and volume of information is head-spinning.  Yet, some of our teachers haven’t changed, or not nearly enough.  While there are many reasons for their reticence, it’s likely that the fear of failing is one of them, and the school’s culture is an accomplice in keeping that fear alive.  The challenge within that is  the school’s culture runs through those same teachers!

So, here you arrive.  Captain Innovation.  The Fountain of Ideas.  The Change Leader.  The people who brought you on board to lead the school want you to be innovative, but until you can change the culture about failure, your progress will be measured.


Changing your school’s culture is all about changing the way that the adults who work there think.  Before you are able to do that, you need to change the way that they feel, and that’s climate.  You need a climate that supports experimentation, trying new things, and a joy in the process before you can have a culture of innovation.

What do you do as the leader to produce such a climate?  The school mentioned in the opening paragraph is a good example. Here are some other ideas that might help you in your quest for a respect for failure and its ability to teach all of us:

  • Clarify your beliefs about learning. While most everyone believes that learning comes from experience and through a process, at schools we place a high value on “perfection” and we can give mixed signals about what really matters.  Our grading systems can be an example of that.  Unfortunately, the emphasis can be on the grade and not the learning behind the grade.  If you take a stab at aligning grades with learning (mastery, anyone?) you will make failure a more valued thing.
  • Honor and recognize the experimenters.   As long as we put the people who make a 97 on a test of recall on the highest step on the medal stand, we are de-valuing the students (and their teachers) who may have learned the most and done the best work.  It probably isn’t the right time to ignore  the folks who make all As (and it probably isn’t the right thing to do either) but what you can do is recognize those who are learning through experimentation.  The scientists; the risk-takers; the innovators.  Don’t forget that achievement comes in lots of different packages.  If you really want to innovate, you have to acknowledge the process, including the failing, that leads to discovery.
  • Guarantee safety for those willing to be vulnerable.   The quickest way to shut down innovation for a long time is to punish those who try new ideas that don’t work on the first run.  If you indeed are going to ask (push?) teachers to try new things, be innovative, do something new, you are going to need to have a safe place for them to land if it doesn’t work.
  • Share your own experience.  Learning rarely happens in the absence of vulnerability.  To really embrace the space of learning, you have to admit that, regarding the subject at hand, you don’t know.  It’s much easier to talk about what we do know, and to put “what we don’t know” in a basket of things that are out of reach.  That attitude (perfect in what I know and perfectly happy to stop there) prevents learning.  You have to try new things, and to get your faculty to do that, you have to get out on the limb, talk about your failures, and be willing to be seen as less than perfect.  If you can do that, you are on your way to changing perspectives about learning… and failing.
  • Raise the value of persistence.  Persistence is the pathway to understanding failure and embracing the possibilities of learning.  If you are going to move out of the “perfect business” into one where failure is embraced, be prepared for some pushback.  The pushback will come when things don’t work smoothly from the beginning.  That’s where we lose the people with the least amount of commitment to growth, which means you have to intercede with a message of persistence.


When we lead our schools in a bold, daring manner in which we face and fight our fears and focus on our students, we will gain partners in our quest who will also bring others in. Like nearly everything good that can happen in your school, this also begins with… you.





Are You An Innovative Leader?

Innovate.  Innovation.  Innovative.

Schools and school systems everywhere include those words in their mission and vision work.  When interviewing for an assistant principal or principal position, you can most likely expect to be asked about your ability to innovate.  Evidence that you’re innovative.

Innovation is an important part of any organization’s success.  Like many concepts, it’s possible that we’ve used (and misused) it to such a degree that its meaning has been blurred.

As defined, innovation is “a new idea, device or method.”  It’s also considered to be the act or process of introducing those new ideas, devices, or methods.

Teachers, assistant principals, and principals are innovators for, if no other purpose, reasons of survival!  To teach students on 180 different days, you’d best be developing some new ideas and methods.  If you’re a principal or assistant principal, you are regularly introducing new ideas to your faculty.  In its purest sense, innovation is a great descriptor for school people.

That said, there is some discrepancy about what we mean we talk about innovation in education.  To prove it, let’s play a little bit of word association.  What’s the first thing that pops in your mind when, as a teacher and in a school context, you hear innovative?

What did you see? Maybe technology?  We often think of those two together.  Technology is an amazing tool for instruction and for instructors.  It can be a difference-maker when used to its potential.

All technology is not, however, innovative.  And, all innovations are not technology.

Don’t let me lead you in the wrong direction; if you aren’t using technology as a part of your instruction, you’re missing a great resource.  It’s just this:  merely using technology doesn’t make you an innovator.  It’s really about the manner you use it and the reason you use it.  The how and the why.

innovation is a state of mind.png

Being an innovative leader may include your leadership in using and encouraging the use of technology, but that’s only a part of what it means to be an innovative school leader.  What does it take to be an innovative principal?  Here’s a list of some of the characteristics:

  • The innovative administrator sees possibilities where others see problems;
  • The innovative administrator gives others the resources they need to innovate;
  • The innovative administrator lives in a non-binary world; there is always another way!;
  • The innovative administrator works harder to get to ‘yes’ than to get to ‘no.’
  • The innovative administrator starts with questions, not with answers;
  • Innovative administrators challenge the people around them to dream, create, explore, and innovate;
  • Innovative administrators operate out of hope, not fear.

As a school administrator, you have the responsibility of leading your faculty and staff, and one of your greatest ways to do so is by setting the pace and driving the climate of your school.  If you aren’t leading a school with an innovative mindsetquite frankly, it doesn’t matter HOW MANY computers or devices you have.  If you don’t think in an innovative fashion, those computers won’t really change things much.

That’s a part of your role as a school leader.  You aren’t going to have innovative teachers by purchasing them or their students devices; it requires an mindset for innovation.  This can be led by you, the person who establishes the way that your school approaches things.

Technology can be very good, but it’s not a magic bean.  The magic has always been and will always be the teacher, and the teacher is led by the school leader.  Teach them to be innovative by showing them how, telling them how, and helping them as they try.

More on innovation over the next few days!









Awards Ceremonies Are More Than Certificates and Handshakes

Congratulations! You’ve made it nearly to the end of the school year. It’s been a good one, and you’re already planning to have an even better one next year.

Before this year is in the books, there are still some things left to do. Among the most important that remain are your year-end events, ceremonies, and celebrations.  Awards night. Honors ceremonies. The academy awards of your school!
Never underestimate the importance of these commemorations.  Here are a few reasons why.
1.  Year-end events reveal the culture of your school.   What you take time to recognize, you must really value. So, the content and structure of these events display for everyone to see what you really believe is important.  Have you focused on positive behaviors this year? Now is the time to reflect that with your year-end award presentation.  If it’s citizenship that you want, make it a part of what you honor at years-end. Be intentional with your award ceremonies  to highlight the work of those who have focused on what you had hoped they would.
2.  Year-end events demonstrate the level of your expectations of excellence. Every event answers the question “who are we?” It is a reflection of you as the leader and the level of pride your school has in what it does. The intentional leader makes clear the expectations of what of it will look like at her school, and helps teachers and staff in shaping their events to meet those expectations. While it is not your role as principal to be the event planner or master of ceremonies for everything that happens at your school, you ARE responsible for setting the tone of what others will do.  Without some direction, results may vary. What do you want these events to say about your school? You certainly want them to demonstrate a high level of professionalism. You want them to run smoothly, to be advertised well in advance, to be quality events.  Don’t expect everyone to read your mind on what you are after; clarify your expectations and make sure that those who organize these events know that you want them to speak well of your school.
red carpet
3.  This is a great opportunity to show the world the good things that are happening at your school.  Take pictures. Publish in your local newspaper. Use your school’s  media sources like Facebook and Twitter to share your event. You can be posting pictures of award winners well into the summer if you want to! Again, this is an opportunity to share the work of individuals but also the beliefs of your school. Plan it in advance. Always have someone in charge of photography. Plan your follow up and coverage before the event begins.
4.  Don’t Underestimate The Value of An Award .  As a high school principal who believed in recognizing the works of our people, I can tell you story after story of appreciative parents and students who were excited beyond words to be recognized.  These things matter. This is an opportunity for us to bring families, students, and our school together in this moment of celebration. This is one of your most important acts of the entire year. Smile broadly in every picture. These are the events that you should stay late for. Don’t be in a hurry to get everyone dismissed and move onto the next thing. Let them savor it, while you savor it yourself. This is the fruit of all your labor; don’t be quick to let it go. Bask in the glow and let the positive energy fuel your next quest.
5.  This is a personal reflection on you, your beliefs, and your leadership.  Everything that happened at your school should demonstrate a subtle sense of excellence. Make sure that there are ferns on the front of the stage. Have a tablecloth with your school’s insignia drape the table where the awards await the recipients. Print and distribute programs of the event for everyone’s scrapbooks, their drawers of awesome things, and other places where such important things go. Make sure that the sound system works and that you have a back up if it doesn’t. If you don’t have a great sound system, now is a good time to find someone in your community to volunteer to bring their sound system for your award ceremony. Use all of your resources to make this a moment that will be a great memory for all those who attend. Like a lot of things, if it goes well there are lots of people to thank and to give the credit to. If it doesn’t go well, well, you know who gets the blame. There’s no substitute for the planning that you can do right now to make sure that these events meet their potential and do all of the good that they can do. Enjoy planning these events to be the wonderful once in a lifetime thing they are intended to be.

Three Things Every Principal and AP Need to Plan (Now) To Do This Summer

Hello!  It’s March and you have reached the “sprint” portion of the marathon that we call the school year.  While you’re there in the midst of the sprint, please consider what’s coming soon and what you need to do to make the most of it.

It’s summer.

OK, so this is actually about the coldest few days we’ve had in Georgia all winter long, but, yes, it’s time for you to think about summer.  More than think about it, you need to plan it.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.  It won’t be enough later to say, “but I was busy…”  If you want next year to be as effective and efficient as it can possibly be, you need to make that happen this summer.


And, if you are going to have a productive summer, NOW is the time to design and develop your plans.  Don’t worry; we are here to remind you, and to direct you in your planning.  As a matter of fact, there are three big things you need to do this summer.  Ready?


  1.  Complete the necessary tasks to end this year/prepare for next year.  Yes, you need to get things done.  Facility work; hiring; duty rosters, scheduling; student handbooks; orienting new faculty and staff; record-keeping; data analysis; planning for student achievement.  Here’s a hint:  FOCUS
    on whatever it is that needs to be done.  Don’t get off track.  Delegate to others on your team.  Find an “undisclosed location” to get work completed.  Don’t try to be the summer office manager and do the work of the principal as well.  Don’t be lulled by a false sense of plenty of time.  Keep going at a rapid pace and get things done as well as you can as soon as you can.  No dawdling, people!  Let’s get that list of things to do made, schedule a realistic plan for accomplishing them (that you put on your calendar) and then get it done!
  2. Professional Growth.  You need to reflect on your work from this year.  What did you IMG_3493.JPGdo well?  What did you do poorly?  What do your people need from you that you aren’t supplying?  What is around the corner that you need to learn about? (STEM? STEAM? Instructional Technology?) Reflect, develop a needs assessment, and then prioritize.  Try to get better at one, two, or three things this summer.  Connect your summer professional reading to your profes
    sional growth priority.  It’s all about consolidating your resources, using your time, and staying on focus.  Don’t try to learn and get better in 15 different areas this summer.  Focus.  Focus.  Focus.
  3. Rest, Relax, Regroup, Recharge, Refresh, Recover, Renew.  Plan for your time away and take it.  If your system is working four ten-hour days in the summer, don’t come in on the fifth day “just to get a few things done.”  You NEED to process yourself this summer.  It means that you ne
    ed to sleep.  You need to rest.  You need to let that brain take a break.  Read a Danielle Steel novel or watch all five “Die Hard” movies.  Do nothing.  Go on vacation. You need to plan your time off, but you really really really need to take time off.  Let your mind have time to refresh.  With some time away, you’ll be ready to come back and do well.  Sometimes you need to be thinking about nothing to be able to get the great ideas (all those ideas that have come to people in the shower?  That’s not an accident… it’s brainspace that we don’t often allow).  Put some vaca on the calendar.  It’s equally important as the first two items mentioned here.  You need all three to be ready for next year.

So, why mention this now?  Because if you’re not careful your time will go by this summer and you’ll do a smattering of each of these but not get all (or any) done as well as you’d wanted.  It’s easy to get wound up into things other than these three things.  People who mean well but have all the time in the world drop by your office in their bermuda shorts and flip flops and hang out.  Doing work that really isn’t yours to do, often because you didn’t get other people to do it before they went to summer break.  That’s why you need to get planning now.

Failing to plan is planning to fail, and you don’t want to get an ‘F’ in Summer.  It would be a bad start to next school year.






The ‘Balance’ Series: Do You Play Well With Others?

We continue with our weekly examination of balance and the school leader, and this week we focus on your relationship with others who work at your school. 

Your job is more than just getting things accomplished.  It’s also about the manner in which you do so.  As the leader,  you set the tone for the others who work at the school.  While it may not always seem that they hear what you say, you can rest assured that they always see what you do.  Your actions can define your expectations for others at your school even more profoundly than your words.

That’s reason enough to be intentional in the types of relationships you have with the others at school.  How do you relate to your faculty?  Your staff?  To the students and their parents?  Have you ever considered how much influence you have on others?  When you interact with them, it’s not lost in a vacuum, but it stands as your position paper on how you believe others ought to interact.  The same holds true of your teachers with their students.  Ever had a teacher yelling at a student because the student isn’t being respectful?  Yep.  That’s it.  We often have no better place to begin making progress in our schools than within ourselves.  I’ve mentioned to principal and AP groups frequently through the years, the best way you can work on your school is to work on yourself first. 


Which of the following describes your model of interaction with others?

  1. Confrontational   Your interactions are based on power.  Your greatest tool in getting others to do what you want them to do is in making them do so.
  2. Collaborative   Your interactions are based on an agreed set of circumstances or goal. Your greatest tool in getting others to do what you want them to do is in leading them to a common goal.
  3. Co-existent    Your interactions are limited.  Your actions may or may not link towards a common goal, but you exert little power or influence. There is little drama or glory in these relationships.
  4. Competitive   Your interactions are based on a desire for achievement (being right, being better, being first, for example).  While you may have similar goals, you have competing efforts to obtain goals.
  5. Conjoined   Your results, your goals, your actions are linked together.  You are united with others in your pursuits.  While there is ebb and flow to this type of relationship, the difficult times result in a deeper bond rather than a separating.

So, as a leader, how do you relate to the others in your school universe?  Do you have differing types of relationships with different people?  Why is that so?  What type of relationships would be most beneficial for you to have as the leader of your school?  What keeps you from having those kind of relationships?  Do you see the relationship between how you are relating to your teachers and how they relate to the students?  What is your plan of action to become a relationship leader in your school?

OK, that’s a lot to think about in one paragraph.  But, we all talk about how relationships are always the key.  If that’s true, you as the school’s leader should be intentional in how you relate to others.   Before you can be intentional, you have to first be aware, and that will take some reflection and some conversations.

If this seems hard, and deep, well, it is.  If you want to be the most effective leader you can be, it’s not enough to tell people what to do and how to do it; you need to share with them why they should do it.  Even that only goes so far.  To truly transform an organization, you have to be a leader who helps people not only change what they do, but change who they are.   To get there requires relationships operating with a deeper level of commitment.

Time to examine yourself and how you relate to others.




This is an installment of a series of getting balance right as the school leader.  Please take a look at the whole series under the category of “Balance” here at Principal Matters!

Examining balance and getting it right means that you look not just what you do at work, but who you are as the whole leader.  That examination means that you look at yourself and your performance in several areas, including the following:

  1. How you relate to others in your school “universe”;
  2. How you perform and accomplish the tasks necessary in your job;
  3. How you relate to those important to you in your life away from school;
  4. How you interact with the world separate from your school and your home;
  5. How you are developing habits that promote short-term and long-term health and energy;
  6. How you are growing professionally and personally; and
  7. How happy, joyful, and fulfilled you are.
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