Students and Teachers Have Ideas Worth Spreading

It’s time for the 2017 TED Conference, and neuroscientists, inventors, technologists, and performers have gathered in Vancouver, British Columbia to share their ideas worth spreading.

A group of a dozen educators are joining them, and with the staff of TED-Ed they are examining how to get more students and teachers into spreading their ideas.

TED-Ed has been around since 2011 with lessons worth sharing, combining teacher’s best lessons with voice actors and world-class animation to deliver powerful lessons that are seen by millions.  It’s a rewarding act for a teacher, who may have reached hundreds or even thousands of teachers in-person in their classes.  With TED-Ed?  Those valuable lessons can, and do, go anywhere and everywhere.  TED-Ed lessons are seen by the millions and help spread those great lessons.

Students were invited to get into the act a few years ago with the advent of TED-Ed Clubs.  Schools across the world have registered as TED-Ed Clubs and offer their students the 13 episode program, provided at no cost by TED-Ed.  Since then, thousands of students are working on developing their idea and presenting it in their school, but also sharing those videos with the world.

What TED-Ed lessons and student TED-Ed Club talks are about are ideas, presentation literacy, and critical thinking skills.  The curriculum of the TED-Ed Club is designed to help students find and develop an idea, learn presentation skills, and share their idea.  This process is exactly what is sought in the curriculum standards for nearly every state. To develop a TED talk for your club, you’ll have to learn the literacy pieces that you’re already being expected to learn.  The difference is in the format.  You get to learn how to present and research in the context of something interesting to you.  Choice is a powerful thing.

Since the work is being done to share with the world, it most typically reflects a student’s best work.

In short, TED-Ed has pieces that:  1)  cost nothing; 2) deliver a deep learning experience; 3)  are for students and teachers everywhere.

More students and teachers should be utilizing these incredible resources.   Check it out.   Learn more about TED-Ed Clubs at   You can watch the video below to see TED-Ed Clubs in action.




Help! The Third-Grade Teachers Aren’t Talking!

Teams of teachers can do amazing things together.  Sometimes, however, they don’t.

In my work supporting leaders in schools, “teams gone wild” is a frequent situation that I’m often asked about by principals and assistant principals.  This week at Principal Matters! we’ve examined teacher teams and specifically teacher-leaders.  Today, our focus is on diagnosing the dysfunctional team.

So the question at hand is , “why do some teams work well while others don’t?”  Here are some things to consider as you evaluate the efficacy of your teams.

Why Is My Teacher Team Not Working Well?  

  1. The Leader.   Pardon the obvious irony here, but this is always the first place to look if things aren’t going well. 🙂  (We are here for the truth!  Don’t be offended).  If the team isn’t functioning as it ought to be, is that a function of the team’s leadership?  In yesterday’s column, we looked at seven things that principals can do to help teacher-leaders lead effectively.  Often, if you can review the process of how your T-L is leading the team, you might find possible solutions.  It could be in the style in which your T-L is directing the action.  Remember, this isn’t about blame or fault, but it is about developing practical solutions.  This is another reason to have ongoing leadership development with your T-L; it provides a window of opportunity when you’re needed to consult.
  2. The Team.   It might be the team.  Sometimes teams (teams in general as well as teacher teams) just aren’t a good mix.  As the principal of the school, it’s important to think of the composition of your teams.  Will the team members collectively be greater together than they are individually?  Are the team members a good combination that will work together?  As you plan your assignments for each school year, it’s important to think about whether your team members will gel or not.  There are variety of personality trait quizzes that you can use to get a feel for who your teachers really are (if you don’t know already).  One of the best ways to have a highly functioning team is to begin with a team whose members complement one another.  If it is the team, then you may have to take a more active role to shape their destiny for the remainder of the year until such time you can change assignments.  
  3. negative peopleThe Obstinate One.   Ancient proverb:  “One bad apple spoils the barrel.”   (Not sure how we got our bananas and bunches mixed in with apples and barrels, but “apple.. and… barrel” is the official verbiage.)   That said, sometimes the team’s issues aren’t the leader, and not the team as a whole, but they’re that one person. It’s interesting to look at your faculty members and think about what other roles they can play.  You have some teachers who would be great anywhere… and you have some that can mess up the dynamics on most any team.  They may or may not be a good classroom teacher individually (some of the people playing these roles are) but they don’t get along well with colleagues.  Just as you do with your teachers and their students, it’s better for your T-L to work to improve the situation (with your coaching and support).  It establishes their authority with the team and allows them to build the relationship.  If that doesn’t work, you have to get involved and do what’s necessary to get them on board.  (that’s a topic for a whole column waiting to happen in the future..)
  4. Hayfields and McCoys.   Sometimes a team doesn’t work well and its not the leader, not the team, and not even the roadblock person.  It’s a turf war going on.  Sometimes it’s two people; sometimes sides are drawn and nearly everyone is at odds.  I always am interested when I ask teachers about their school and they tell me “we’re like a family here!”  That can be good, but sometimes… it can mean they’re like a family.  The truth is this:  over the course of a year, and for some teams over the course of multiple years, nearly every team is bound to have some ebb and flow.  We have it within our families, so if it’s truly like a family that’s what you may get.  If you can drive your folks back into the notion of being a team of professionals, you may be able to recapture their mental model of what they’re doing.  However, if feuds are more than temporary, they can shut down the success of the team.  It’s worth monitoring. 
  5. You.   It’s been my experience that teachers and students will focus on and do well in areas that are established as important to the school.  You need for teachers to be able to work together without you there all of the time (it’s just impossible for you to be everywhere all of the time and you need to build capacity).  What you must do is maintain appreciation, support, and attention to their efforts as a team.  Recognize what people do in teams and they’ll do it well.  Assign them, give them a T-L and forget about them?  That’s the recipe for non-functioning teams.  You have a lot of influence on whether teams will work well or not.  They have to go through the learning process together on how to be a good team.  If you fly in on your magic carpet and fix everything all of the time, that may lead to learned helplessness rather than the capacity to lead that it’s supposed to get to.  Always measure your response.

Coming up next week (after our regular weekend columns), we’ll look more into teams and move from today’s diagnosis to some suggested cures and preventions for what might ail your team.  Have a wonderful weekend!



What Principals Can Pour Into Teacher-Leaders

This week at Principal Matters!, we’ve focused on teacher teams and teacher-leaders (T-L).  To catch you up for today, here’s the picture that’s painted so far:

  • It’s necessary for teachers to work together in teams for our schools to be effective;
  • Teacher teams need purpose, selflessness, and professionalism to be their best;
  • Administrators shouldn’t expect teacher-leaders to automatically know how to lead; training and support of teacher-leaders is essential.

As principals ask teachers to become teacher-leaders and lead teams of teachers within a grade level, department, or other group, what do those teacher-leaders need in order to be successful?

  1. Clarity:   Leaders in practically any pursuit need to know the scope of the work, the expectations, and the timeline.  Teacher-leaders are no different.  Principals need to take the time to make sure that the T-Ls know what they’re being asked to do.  While this seems like a minor point, it is often a show-stopper.  Clarity is essential.
  2. Leadership Skills:  While this is a broader topic, it’s equally essential for the success of the group.  The T-L needs leadership skills in order to take the group on the journey to success.  This doesn’t mean that you only engage those teachers who already possess leadership skills; it means that you take time to support them in their growth.  Leadership skills in this sense are about people and how to work with them.  They are about the purpose and uniting everyone to work together to accomplish it.  You can count on the necessary learning becoming evident during the course of the work.
  3. Management Skills:   Remember, management isn’t a bad word.  In it’s absence, things are … mismanaged.  Leadership is a different set of skills, also critical for a team’s success, but so is management.  Leadership is about the people and purpose; management is about the process and the protocols. All four parts matter.  Some leaders… whether administrator or T-L… are better with one than the other.  Helping your T-L as needed with the operation of the team, the timing of meetings, the flow of the work, is just as critical as anything else.  Teachers, pressed for time, do not suffer disorganized people lightly.
  4. Commitment:   If you want to have great T-Ls, you have to make a commitment to their success.  This primarily consists of you making your T-Ls leadership growth a priority.  You demonstrate this by dedicating your time to observe their work, lead them in reflective practice, and have conversations with them about their growth, their struggles, and their lessons learned.  Give them meaningful feedback.  Helps design what they need to continue their growth. Without this commitment and following through, you are leaving the growth of your T-Ls to chance.  Who knows? Maybe you’ll be lucky!  But is that a great strategy for success?
  5.  Collaboration With Other T-Ls   You can leverage to an even deeper level if you bring your T-Ls together after they’ve spent time learning and then reflecting on their work.  Most of the time when we bring that group of teachers together they serve more of a role as a “faculty senate” or teacher’s council to discuss matters of the school.  What if you flipped that framework, and instead of them representing their colleagues in discussions of dress code and tardies, they were representing the school’s mission of quality instruction to their teams?  Longer conversation for another time, but consider what value you are getting when you bring your teacher-leaders together.  You can use a survey-monkey or google poll if you want to get teacher’s opinions on school-wide topics.  What you need are leaders of your teachers throughout the school, so when you have them together talk about leadership, not parking and duty.  
  6. Encouragement:  Feed your people.  Give them what they need in terms of gratitude, acknowledgement, praise.  Don’t forget to thank them for what they’re doing.  Notice how they do it.  Encourage them.  Strategically and consistently encourage them in the personalized ways they like to be encouraged.
  7. Celebration:  Celebration is different from encouragement, but it might also be encouraging.  Encouragement is formative; celebration, although it can happen at many mileposts, is more summative.  When you ask your T-Ls to do something and they do it well, celebrate it.  It’s important for them but also good for the entire team to know that they are on the right track and making progress.  Celebrate the whole team, and the teacher-leader is boosted up.

leaders create leadersWhile you could make a more exhaustive list, or even have different items that you place importance on, using these seven would most likely help you develop an excellent teacher-leader. In fact, if you moved some titles around, this same list could be used for superintendents and principals as well.

Leaders, even full-time leaders like principals and assistant-principals, need growth and support.  When we are building capacity with teacher-leaders whose primary roles are classroom teacher, we should plan for more learning and support, not less.

The growth of your teacher-leaders might be one of the most valuable uses of your time as a school leader.  Short of cloning you, this is the next best thing.  Let’s work hard to get it right!



Teacher-Leaders Need Training and Support

The work of teachers and schools is increasingly more complex than ever before.  We evaluate our teachers’ effectiveness in preparation and delivery of instruction; communication and professionalism; engagement, assessment, differentiation, and design.  Our expectations for the outcomes of their work is that all of our students will grow in their competencies, and that those who are competent become exemplary.  It’s our school’s design that they do so while collaborating with their colleagues in order to support the team and grow as individuals.

All of these efforts are well-intended and are reasonable expectations for our teachers.  At the core, schools are learning institutions and our emphasis in recent years to include all students is both noble and right.

The problem is this:  in most settings, we’ve increased expectations without increasing the resources to support the work of our teachers.  The number of principals and assistant principals remains the same; the time needed to support the work of our teachers has increased, in some cases exponentially.

leadership isHow do we get it all done?  The answer can’t be “work harder.”  Or even, work longer.  Those aren’t sustainable and lead to burnout and/or crash on the parts of our school-based leaders.  The administrative churn is real, and more and more school leaders are working to deal with anxiety, stress, and a crisis of time.

The path forward to success is through the development of teacher leaders.  If you’re thinking, “wait, aren’t they just as taxed for time as the administration, maybe even more so?” you’re right.  We can’t merely shift the burden of responsibility and accountability from administrators to teachers.  The teacher shortage is real, and more and more teachers are working to deal with anxiety, stress, and time, just as their administrative colleagues. 

The pathway to a successfully-designed school environment isn’t a shift in duties and responsibilities, but a new approach in how we interact with each other and the work we have to accomplish together.

Many schools and systems have begun the shift into a distributed form of leadership that brings teachers, usually assembled into meaningful teams, together to design instruction, improve performance, and learn together.

That’s not new.  What might be missing for you and your team is a continuous, strategic approach in supporting the work of those teachers who lead other teachers.  What do they need?  What are you asking them to accomplish in this role?  When can you provide them leadership development that helps them in their teacher-leader role?


Most of our teachers who are asked to assume leadership roles have had little to no formal PD in leadership.  While many of them have learned a lot about leadership already, much through their work as teachers, coaches, and sponsors, an intentional approach to their work as leaders can provide the needed framework for them to successfully lead their colleagues.  Beyond the initial training, continued support from you and your administrative team can assure that their work continues on the trajectory you are seeking.

It’s like this:  as administrators, you don’t have time to do everything.  One of the most essential things you can do to improve student achievement is to focus on talent development, or the strategic growth of your teachers.  Given the restraints that time places on you as the leader, you need leverage, and that leverage exists in your school in the form of teacher-leaders.  While it’s hard for you to personally devote enough time to each of your faculty members for them to adequately grow, it’s imperative that you dedicate the necessary time to grow those you’ve tapped as the teacher-leaders.

Your grade-level leaders, department heads, and others need you.  They need you to help develop them as leaders, then support them in their work.  Get out your calendar and select upcoming dates for your work with them, and then pour into them what they need to join you in the  leading and learning that will help your school prosper.



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.



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.

Making School Work For All Students

Scott Cowart is the Superintendent of Schools in Carroll County, Georgia and is an amazing leader with great creativity in helping leaders see all of the pieces around them.  A few years ago, he was talking about the need to reach and support ALL of the students in the system.  To illustrate his point, he displayed pictures of students on a screen while meeting with all of his system’s leaders.  He talked about the graduation rate for the county and reported the current percentage.  Then, on the screen, one-by-one pictures began to dissolve until the set of portraits on the screen matched the graduation numbers.

As the presentation unfolded and smiling pictures of students evaporated and were replaced with blank spaces, there was some audible sounds from the principals, assistant principals and other system leaders in the room.  You see, it wasn’t just any pictures Mr. Cowart had displayed: he had used photos of the children and grandchildren of people in the room.  As they watched the scenario, it brought home the point so clearly… all is a hard thing to talk about until your child or someone you love dearly is one of those who don’t make it through.

img_3518When I talk about the state of American education to groups or at conferences, I remind those in attendance that we are attempting to do something that no one else is doing in the world today and no one has done before in history.  No nation as diverse as ours has attempted to educate “all” neither now nor ever.

The groundbreaking educator Horace Mann (1796-1859) said that “the public school is the greatest discovery made by man.”  He said that education is best provided in schools “embracing children of all religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds.”

Reflecting on the concept of all students can give pause to teachers and administrators.  It’s easy to hear that word and think that goal is too lofty.  Critics and enemies of public education can use it in attempts to discredit our work, saying that we have fallen short of the mark.

But the concept of all children is one that should not be viewed with fear or anxiety by educators.  It IS our high ground that no one can reach without joining our effort.  It’s our connection to the best ideals of our past and the greatest promises of our future.  All means all and we should proudly continue our work, moving forward each day in the knowledge that our work will move the cause forward, even a step or two, to the promise that American education holds, which is not coincidentally the promise of America.

All is hard.  Students come to us with a great variance in abilities, interests, depth of interest in school, support systems, and emotions.  As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “the greatest prize that life has to offer is to work hard at work worth doing.”

Education… teaching… is hard.  Doing it for all is even harder.  But it is the great prize that comes to everyone who is honored to be called principal, assistant principal, school counselor, media specialist, teacher.  It is work worth doing, and work that needs you to do it.

#Leadership365                    20/365

_________________________________________________________________The focus of work in our Principal and Assistant Principal Academies during January 2017 has been on standard five of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, listed below. Today’s Leadership365 is dedicated to the topic to support that learning. standard-5

You can see the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders in entirety here:  (


Thought Starters About School Redesign

What should school be?  Everyone is encouraged (sometimes with a push from state and federal mandates) to develop schools into places different than they’ve been.  If you and your faculty & staff are contemplating innovation, something new, and redesign, you already are on the right track merely by beginning a genuine conversation about doing things differently.

To assist you in those conversations, PM! recommends a look at the following resources.  None of them represent products or formulas for school change.  They do, however, serve as thought starters that can aid in your conversation.  It’s there that the answers lie.  The nuances of your school and community have to be considered when bringing about change.  Great ideas, customized for an individual school and tackled with genuine collaboration lead to tremendous success.  Those efforts begin with a conversation,  and the following resources may help you get that conversation started. Click, watch, share, discuss. Repeat.

Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

From, what we DON’T teach in schools.

Article: Teach Kids to Think, Not Memorize

Learning Through Grit: New Hampshire Teacher.






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