The Strategy of Hope: A Professional Learning Series

I’ve heard it a lot and I bet you have too.

“Hope is not a strategy.”

I understand where the statement comes from. It’s a call to action, often to school leaders, that inaction isn’t likely to lead to successful outcomes. You can’t argue effectively with that! It’s a reminder that you can’t just wish for success; you have to work for it. That you need a plan and that “everything is going to work out” isn’t as effective as, “so. let’s examine the situation and develop a strategy to make things happen.” Look, I’m on board with all of that; some of the most important work school leaders do is in planning.

Planning is essential for organizational and individual success, but maybe let’s separate the idea of ‘hope’ from inaction. Hope is much more than a wish. I don’t think you get to devalue ‘hope’ and then praise ‘mindset‘, because hope IS mindset. I don’t think you get to make ‘hope’ seem powerless and then praise PBIS, because behavioral interventions are based on principles of motivation. Motivation (as defined by the Motivation Research Institute at James Madison University) is “M=E*V-C.” Motivation equals expectancy times value, minus cost. You can have all of the incentives that you could imagine (value) but if hope (expectancy) is gone, zero times infinity is still zero. So, hope may not in of itself be a strategy, but good luck having a strategy devoid of it! Mindset and motivation are essential for any strategy to be fulfilled, so let’s tip our hats to hope, the thread that makes strategies work!

It’s from that posture… an appreciation of HOPE … that we are proud to present to you a professional learning series designed to explore hope’s role in your work as an educator. This series features a team who have been dedicated to hope throughout our lives and careers. Joe Hendershott, Dardi Hendershott, Stephen Peters, and myself. Here are the details of The Strategy of Hope. We hope you’ll join us — THREE OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE OPENING SESSION IN APRIL, a Saturday Seminar in May (May 15), and a Summer Workshop in June. (June 14/15).

Ignite your plans by engaging the strategy of hope!

It’s October. What have we learned so far?

While the temperature soared around 90 degrees in much of Georgia today, the calendar told an entirely different story.  It’s October.

So, what have you learned so far?

You’ve been in school long enough to generate the necessary data to make important inferences.  But, if you don’t invest adequate time to look and listen, you may miss the moment.  You have an opportunity RIGHT NOW to make adjustments that can be the difference you’re looking for, but if you’re not careful, you’ll  just keep driving forward.  There’s always enough work to keep you busy, but if you want to make progress, take a deep look at where you are now, and what adjustments need to be made to move forward as you’d like.

All right. How?  How might you take stock of your current situation and plan the next steps forward?  Here are some specific steps to take to gather the data needed, and analyze it meaningfully for change.

1.  Planning Meeting.  Bookend your quarterly examination with strategy meetings, one at the start and the other at the conclusion of your review.  You convene a planning meeting of you and your guiding coalition.  (That group might be your administrative team.  It could be an extended version of that group.  It could be any group that you determine to be helpful in reviewing your progress and strategizing next actions. Don’t EVEN try to do this alone.  You won’t have the perspective you need, nor the time to do it by yourself.)

The planning meeting is to compile a list of everything you want to know at this point.  What does August and September have to tell us?  Many of those answers should be in easy-to-access data that you’re collecting.  Other questions may require additional effort.  It’s one thing to know which students are soaring, which are floating, and which are sinking.  That’s the OPENING, not the whole story.  With that information, how might you determine WHYthose students are in each of those three categories?

One of the things your planning session might accomplish is to determine who you need to listen to, and who will do the listening.  If you truly are committed to progress, face value isn’t going to be enough.  You will need to find out WHY people are behaving (and performing) as they are.

For you as an administrator, you will want to know the same things about your teachers as we’ve already suggested regarding your students:  who’s soaring?; who’s floating?; and who’s sinking?   Yes, you have TKES to support your work but, just as is the case with the student data, this is an opener, and not the whole show.  You will want to know WHY teachers who are soaring, floating, or sinking are doing so.

Your planning session is to develop the list of what you want to know– what August and September have to tell you.  Remember this:  if you want to move the needle, you’re going to need to plan, and if you are going to plan, you’ll need to INVEST time in this process.  Many of you have Data Teams that routinely and regularly are looking at data, but this quarterly review is a bit different.  You can BUILD on the work of your data teams, but this is bigger-view exercise; you will need to get away from distractions, allot adequate time, and focus on the work in order to successfully progress.

Once you determine what you want to know, it’s time to move to step two:

2.)  Gathering Information. You’ve made your plan; now you work it.  You collect the data you need to give you an idea of what progress has been made during August and September.  THEN, you begin a series of conversations with a number of people to gain a clear understanding of not only WHAT happened, but WHY?

Some of these conversations can be held in small groups; others may need to be 1:1.  You can get a jump start in gathering perception data by administering surveys to both students and teachers.  From those surveys, you can get a broader picture of the WHY…  for example, if you ask students who are soaring why they are doing well, they might tell you that their teachers are particularly engaging or insistent in their expectations.  The survey may accomplish much of what you’re after, but if not, having face-to-face small-group conversations may get you the rest of the way.  You don’t necessarily need to interview every teacher and every student, even in small groups;  but you can assemble some representatives for focus group work.  Also, you (the principal) doesn’t need to do all of the interviewing.  With good coordination, you can spread it out among the members of your guiding coalition.

The bottom line is this:  spend adequate, but not exorbitant time seeking the answer to ‘why’ are the results we are seeing taking place.  It will involve polling many of your Ss and Ts, and interviewing a representative sample for deeper understanding.

If you want to make progress, you have to listen to the people who are engaged in the work at the foundational level (the teachers and the students).

3:  Strategy Meeting.  Now you’ve gathered data and it’s time to convene the initial group again.  The first meeting was to design a plan to hear what August and September can tell you.  Step two was to go and listen;  now, you’re at the third and final step– what do you do with what you have learned?

The strategies that arise from this data analysis can be structural, on a school-level, or support to effect the classroom level.

For example, let’s say that your data tell you that students in your third grade are minimally progressing in mathematics during August/September.  Your brief surveys and follow up conversations tell you that students believe that instruction is moving too quickly for them.

At this point, you and your administrative team determine what you might do to approach the progress you’re after.  Maybe you focus on supporting the teacher in formative assessment; maybe you review your MTSS strategies for these students; perhaps you spend time in the classroom to take a deeper look at what may be regularly occurring.

The intended goal is this:  using the information you’ve collected, how might you align your resources and strategies in the most impactful way to lead students towards the progress you seek?

August and September have a very rich story to tell you about what’s been happening in the walls of your classrooms, the halls of your school, and the minds of your students.  You just need to invest the time needed to plan what to ask, listen carefully, and adjust as needed.

The first quarter is ending; it’s time to make the adjustments you need to go into halftime with a lead.

© 2018.  Dr. Mark D. Wilson.   All Rights Reserved.

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.

Professional Reading Saturday: Chess, Not Checkers

All week at Principal Matters! the discussion has been about leading on a split-screen; planning for next year while leading this year. Our Professional Reading suggestion for this Saturday relates to this week’s topic.  Chess, Not Checkers  is a quick read that can help you think about the critical habit of the leader who is thinking several moves ahead.

Mark Miller, Atlanta resident and the author of Chess Not Checkers, shares a tale of the fictional Blake Brown, who arrives at a new position to find a dysfunctional organization.  He learns that the game he is playing isn’t the game that he ought to be playing.  He jumps from one thing to another and finds that a more strategic approach will help him lead the organization successfully.  Blake learns four essential strategies from the game of chess that he uses in his leadership work to stop playing checkers and instead play the right game.

It’s a very quick read, but one that can help bring clarity to you as a leader as well as members of your leadership team.  For school leaders, it’s critical to play chess; those leaders who are waiting on the reactions never get into the strategic work that helps schools, as well as other organizations, move forward successfully.

You can get Mark Miller’s Chess Not Checkers at most anywhere you usually get books!




I Know What You (Need To Do) This Summer

OK, I don’t  know what you did last summer, but I know what you need to do this summer, if you’re a principal.

Before we get to that, aren’t you amazed that people have no idea what the principal does during the summer?

I remember when someone, someone nice and well-intending would ask me at awards night, “what will you do this summer?  I guess you’re excited about having all of that time off!”  To which I would reply, with a smile, “Yes.”  (Anything else that I wanted to say would not have been productive)

Here are a few ideas for you as this school year begins to wane and the summer is indeed in sight:


  1. Don’t be lulled by a false sense of time.  This was one I learned the hard way.  Because of the frenetic pace you keep all year long, it’s easy to all of a sudden feel like you have infinite time.  You certainly have more than you usually do, but it’s very finite.  What is very easy to happen is this:  you change gears and begin to work at a slower pace.  That’s fair enough.  If you’re not careful, you can blend into a phase where your focus drifts but you’re still at work, and you reconcile it by saying “It’s the summer!  I have time for this!”  What might be a better plan is to hit it hard when you’re working, but cut down on how much you work.  The worst-case scenario is that the summer gets by and you’ve neither rested nor gotten things done, but sort of lived in an in-between world.
  2. Wax On; Wax Off.  Summer is time for you to use the on-off switch more often.  Work, and then turn work off.  Without all of the other people around who might do things away from school that would create a need for your attention, you really can turn it off during the summer. To do so, get into your calendar.  Set boundaries for work and time away from work.  Schedule time off.
  3. Summer is the time for “Re-“   This is the time for you to re-new.  Refresh.  Recover!  Re-introduce yourself to friends, family, and hobbies.  Rest.  Renew.  You need to schedule time for the “Re-” of summer.  If you end up working all summer, you’ll be back in the same tracks a year later, but you’ll be more in need of recharging and restoration.  Plan it now and work your plan when it comes around.
  4. Take Time to Plan Early.   Here’s an idea.  If you’re going to plan for the next school year during the summer, do it as soon as this year ends.  Are you going to have a leadership team meeting?  Do it at the beginning of the summer (even during post-planning days if you need to) rather than the middle or when school is about to start next year.  Things are fresh on everyone’s mind.  Get that perception data via leadership team meeting.  Plan your work then and you’ll have set your focus for the summer.  It’s natural to want to take a deep breath when post-planning days are over, and I can’t blame you for feeling that way. However, if you can keep the momentum going and get your planning sessions done early on, you can set your plan in action as the summer goes on. 
  5. Don’t Run the Office All Summer.   Hire a recent graduate.  Get an intern.  Don’t let your support staff’s summer become your new job.  Yes, the school needs to be open much of the summer, but you have the work of the principal to do.  I know of principals who get tons of time sucked away from them in the summer.  You may need to work in an undisclosed location to get your scheduling work done.  Don’t get it interrupted answering the phone and operating the front desk.  Train someone else to do those things and then get your work done.

More to come on being the principal during the summer in future posts!  This is the foundational, framework pieces that will keep you moving forward and get you ready to lead your best year yet when everyone comes back together in the fall!



Planning Now For Post-Planning Days

There are items whose scarcity makes them beyond valuable.  They are referred to as ‘precious.’  Gold.  Diamonds.  And days with your teachers when students aren’t in school.

The opportunity to work with, to plan with, to professionally learn with your faculty is indeed a precious thing.  Although we would benefit from having more of these days, and in having them spread throughout the school year rather than bunched up at the beginning and the end, as the principal you have what you have to work with, and it’s one of your greatest skills, to make things work.

As you look at those precious few days at the conclusion of the year, what will you do to plan for the greatest impact?  Here are few things to consider as you prepare for the post-planning days that will be coming in a short while.

  1.  Determine your priorities and goals in your work with the faculty.  What is it you hope to accomplish during these days?  You should use your data to inform your work.  Did you have an increase in student referrals this year?  How did you do on attendance?  What level of engagement did you reach in your classrooms this year?  Are there individual, differentiated needs of your faculty and staff?  What celebrations will you plan to conclude the year?  How much time will you give them for record-keeping?  For moving to a new room?  For clean up?
  2. Get the schedule out to your folks in advance.   Teachers always appreciate administrators who are well-organized and good communicators.  Let your folks know what to expect.  They can plan their days prior to your planning days more effectively if they know what’s coming.  As always, when you communicate a schedule in advance, it gives the perception that you’ve got it together, and that gives your teachers more confidence in what you’re doing.
  3. IMG_4810.JPGNeither squander it nor overdo it.  As is always the case with learning, it is done best with a willing learner.  If you try to get twenty days worth of learning in three days of post-planning, chances are you’ll be disappointed with the results.  On the other hand, don’t throw away your shot.  You have very few days dedicated to working with your faculty and you don’t want to miss the opportunity.  For goodness sakes, don’t give the appearance that you all are just waiting to leave and don’t have anything left to do.  If the perception is that these days are not meaningful, then you won’t have much of a chance to get more of them, and you need time to develop your teachers.
  4. Connect your work in post-planning to your goals for next year.   This is why having your plan for the next school year up front is important.  Backward design is important in making the most of your time.  What will your emphasis be next year?  What will your theme be?  Is it possible for you to make a direct connect between what you do in post-planning and what will be your work in your pre-planning days in the fall?
  5. Ensure that you get needed information for your summer work.   When everyone else leaves, you’ll be there working!  🙂  Make sure that you have everything you need from everyone before they leave.  It is much more difficult to get information after you’ve broken camp for the summer.  Make your lists of what you need to complete scheduling and planning for next year, then make sure you get what you need.  (IEP information, reading levels, information for summer school, etc…)
  6. Set the stage for self-study, continued learning during the summer.  As you lead the learning during post-planning days, what can you do to encourage self-study for your staff during the summer?  It’s always been my belief that teacher’s days off are teacher’s days off, but most of your professionals will want to grow during the summer.  With your post-planning learning, can you set the stage for what they may do individually during the summer?  Is there a book or books you’d like to recommend?  Helping them know now what you’re going to focus on next year can help them discover things over the summer. (PBIS? Engagement? Attendance? STEM or STEAM?  This is key:  if you wait until the summer to figure out the emphasis/focus for next year, you’ll miss the opportunity to set the stage during post-planning.  Get your emphasis together now during March so you can get the most of your start up next fall. 
  7. End your time together on a high note with anticipation of the next phase of the journey when you begin again.  What will your final meeting of the year be like?  What do you want your teachers thinking about as they end this year?  How do you want them to feel?  What can you do to design a concluding event/meeting/gathering that honors their work for this year while getting them to anticipate the next part of the journey in the fall?  As the leader, you’re responsible for setting the tone.  One of your most important occasions to do so is in your final meeting of the year together. Now is the time to be planning that meeting.  It takes time to get fireworks and lasers delivered.  🙂



Make Your “March to May!” A Successful One

From March to May?  That’s a big time in the life of a school and an important time for the principal.  Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • The last segment of the school year will be the one that will be remembered going forward into the summer, into the next school year, and beyond;
  • Students should be doing their best work of the year given the foundation they’ve had so far;
  • You’ll have more visitors at your school in the coming days than you’ve had the rest of the year;
  • Awards programs, banquets, graduations, dances;
  • Exams, statewide testing, capstone events;
  • Transitioning students and teachers, both in and out of your school.

As the school’s leader, you’ve already been busy throughout the year.  Now you’re about to be really busy.  What I think happens is that the volume of work increases at the same rate (or more) as the time you have to devote to the work decreases.  You’ve been surviving by getting things done at night and on the weekends (not a sustainable strategy, but most likely one you’ve been doing to some degree).  Now that you have a school-related event nearly every night and lots of spring activities on the weekends, your potential work time has decreased.


Simultaneously, the list of things that have to be completed before the year concludes just got much longer. Deadlines loom.  You have to complete all of the observations, so you can complete all of the summative evaluation meetings, so you can develop all of the growth plans, so you can design what happens this summer.  Lots happening at one time.

Here are a few “March to May” reminders:

  •  Get ahead of your calendar.  If you haven’t done so already, be comprehensive in laying out your plans for the next few weeks.  You have a lot of events to attend, but additionally there are other things you need to accomplish before the year ends.  Here’s a sample (year-long) list that Chris Froggatt of Lumpkin County Middle School uses and has shared:
  • Develop your task list.  If you’re a new principal, now is the time for you to talk to your mentor principal to make sure you’re including all of things you need to have on your “principal’s” year-end list.  Now is the time to develop the list of things you need to do and the list of things you need from other people before they break for summer.
  • Choose the mood.  You have a lot of influence in deciding how this is all going to go down for the next few weeks.  You’re sort of like the DJ, creating the mood with the music you play.  Your “music” is your attitude, your energy, your approach.   Briefly stated, if you are in a panic for the next couple of months, chances are your people will follow suit and be stressed. If you bring an air of excitement to what’s going on, it’ll be contagious.  As they say, you’ll reap what you sow.
  • Be where your feet are.  One of the hardest plateaus to achieve as a leader:  keep your mind where your feet may be.  Because of all of the things you have to accomplish, it’s easy to be present without being present.  People notice that and it’s not a good look.  Slow it down when you’re with other people.  It will be some of the last meaningful time you’ll spend with those who’ll be transitioning from your school after this year ends.  Make your time matter.  Don’t miss the moment thinking about the next moment.

Next Year?!? I’m Still Working On This Year! The Principals’ Split-Screen View

Next year is here.

At least the planning for next year is here, and has been for a while.  Now that we’re approaching the conclusion of this year, you can know for certain that you need to be planning for next year as well.  To be an effective leader of your school you have to be living in one school year while you are also planning for the next one. 


Here are some thoughts about how to  be effective as the “split-screen” Principal:

  1.  This year isn’t over, so you need to continue to lead in the ‘now.’   Your energy, your direction, your spotlight on doing the right things are critical for this year to end in the way it should.  You need to begin planning for next year, but you also equally need to land this plane successfully first.
  2. Investing time into planning is essential for success.  If you are covered up with today’s frantic deadlines and emergencies, it’s likely that you didn’t make them yesterday’s strategic plans.  What you plan for is less likely to become a fire; what you do at or near the last minute is fraught with potential for trouble.  Some wonderful people who are school leaders never get off the crisis carousel.  They go from one fire to the next one in great part because they have failed to master reflection, planning, and implementing at a higher level.
  3. There is an extended break (for others) during the summer.  You have to manage both ends of that break intentionally.  As you approach the end of the school year, you should ask yourself, what do I need to get from students and teachers before they leave?  what information do I need from them to effectively schedule for next year?  what information do I need to share with them ?  The most effective principals and APs anticipate what they’re going to need to do their work when everyone else is on break.  If you get that information from your folks before they break, it’ll save you lots of time during the summer.  If you don’t get what you need, you spend unnecessary time tracking things down in the summer.  That’s time that you need for other things.
  4. Plan your year-end before your year ends.   What do you want your teachers thinking about as they leave for summer?  How will you cap off this school year?  What will your final meeting of the year be like?  Think about this:  what if you ask each of your teachers to share their highlight of the year?  They could write it down for you on an index card, they could share it on their own, they could send you a picture that represents this school year for them.  Your concluding meeting should serve to remind everyone of the good that you’ve done together and the journey that you’ve traveled together.  That feeling and reminder can help you finish off this year with good feeling that can shape the way your team feels about coming back next year.
  5. NOW is the time to be planning next year’s theme and focus.  This is the time to talk about next year and begin to build an energy of excitement for the next school year.  Yes, everyone is busy and stressed right now, thinking about testing and everything else.  That’s the right time to throw out a dash of hope– the next school year.  Ask your students and teachers what they think would be the right theme for the school for next year.  Getting some energy generated for next year can help this year finish on a high note.
  6. Play chess, not checkers.  As the leader, you should be seeing two, three or more moves ahead, not just reacting to what is before you.  Think about your staff.  Where do you want them to be a year from now?  How do you get them there?  What moves do you need to make to make your team more successful?  Specifically, who needs to improve, and what do they need in order to do so?  It’s not enough to identify your areas of concern; the most effective leaders are good at talent development, not just deficit identification.
  7. Visualize Next Year’s First Meeting  The most important day of the school year for the principal is the first day that teachers report.  This is the day that you capture their imagination for the journey ahead of them, and set the course on how you’ll do it together.  Now is when you need to be thinking about how you’ll deliver your message, and between now and then you need to do everything to prepare yourself and them for that moment. What you are seeing now as a part of this school year can help inform you about that message.



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