Strategies and Mental Tools for Carrying the Leadership Load

Last week I kicked off our Leading W.E.L.L. series with a personal story of the struggles I went through my first couple of years as a principal and how I dealt with the stress in ways that weren’t exactly healthy. I promised that in my next post I would dive deeper into the “W” of Wellness by sharing strategies and mental tools for carrying the “leadership load.”

The Spiritual Anchor

The first thing I challenged you to do was to identify your spiritual anchor. By this, I meant a practice you would do every morning to connect with God or your spirit. For me, this was a devotion, for others it might be meditation, yoga, prayer, or some combination of practices. Doing this will maximize any of the tools and strategies that mental health experts recommend. It might sound like I am suggesting that you use your spirituality to get what you want. Like control or manipulation…I am not suggesting that at all, but finding techniques to make my spirituality tangible has been essential to handling the stress of leadership.

Starting your day with a spiritual practice is nothing new, but it can be difficult to get in the habit of doing one consistently. This is where a morning routine comes in. Check out Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning, Michael Hyatt’s Daily Rituals for more on this. I found episode #33, Four Rituals That Make You Super Productive, in Hyatt’s Business Accelerator podcast incredibly helpful. This podcast addresses gives practical advice on how to make a morning routine work for any situation. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have to go into work as early as I did when I was a principal so I can go through a 30 minute routine when I first wake up. However, when I was a principal, I had to be in work by 7:00 and had a 30 minute commute. I wasn’t about to wake up any earlier than necessary and was able to incorporate a morning routine without sacrificing sleep. Let me show you how it worked for me…

So, when I was a principal, my morning routine happened after I got to work and was only about 10 minutes. I would listen to my devotion (through the First 15 Podcast) during my commute and then my goal was to go through the same 15 minute routine every morning when I hit my desk. (I combined what Hyatt refers to as a morning routine and a workday start up routine into one routine. Listen to episode #33 for more info on this). So, I would get to school, sit down at my desk and open up a “daily page.” At the time, I used a bullet journal format and wrote out my mission statement, an intention, and my 3 most important things (MITs) for the day in that journal. I would end the routine by writing a positive note to 3 staff members. I did all of this before I touched my email. I very intentionally planned actions for my routine that would start me in a positive mindset. Regardless of how you can fit this daily ritual in, having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.

Having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.

Once you have your morning routine in place, I caution against making the same mistake I did: As I struggled in difficult situations, I wondered why God wasn’t helping me after I “put in the time” that morning. I would encounter tough situations and would either react in ways that weren’t helpful or feel completely powerless and personally victimized by the situation. I eventually realized I needed some mental tools and strategies to reconnect me to my anchor in the moment so that I could get out of my “fight or flight” mode.

Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment

Reading The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein was a game-changer for me. Bernstein offered me practical tools for what to do in the midst of those intense moments and also a way to mentally frame what I was going through. While many would consider Gabby’s tools to be self-help or new age, I applied them to my Christian perspective and found them to be helpful in nudging me to pray in the moment. Here’s what I came up with from her book:

My Plan:

  1. If I got triggered–a stressful or irritating situation would happen and I would feel anxiety, anger, or overwhelm.
  2. First, I would stop. I would pause and slow down my breathing. Then I would pray. (I would stop and ask for help).
  3. Next, I would surrender the fear or negative feelings I had, and asked for help in responding with love.

    I think the biggest challenge I had and still have is pausing–stopping myself in the moment and making myself use my tools, instead of just trying to escape the moment or making it end because it’s too uncomfortable or painful. Or lately, I don’t stop when I get triggered because I keep thinking I need to just “get the task done” and that I just need to push through, because I have too much to do.

I think that making yourself stop comes with practice. It’s like a muscle you need to exercise so that you create that muscle memory. Once you stop, you can use breathing exercises, get yourself regulated and then be open to returning in love. That’s my plan, anyway. Let’s see if I can put that into practice! Want to practice with me? Get your PAUSE Cheat Sheet HERE.

Adopting A Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework

I think there’s a lot of information available since the pandemic on self-regulation, breathing exercises, returning to the present, and getting out of fight or flight, but I still think that leaves the question, “Then what?? Once, I’ve calmed myself down, how do I get through it? Then, how do I keep from going home and comforting myself with food or alcohol to keep the worry at bay for what the next day would bring?”

This is where a way to mentally frame what I was going through came in. Bernstein teaches this as the universal lesson:

The world is your classroom and people are your assignments.

Gabrielle Bernstein.

She writes, “The first step is to witness that what may seem to be a terribly uncomfortable situation is actually a Universal Assignment.” Just taking on this perspective allowed me to step back and ask myself, “What I am I learning through this?” Sometimes that was very difficult to answer. As I used this mental framework to consider situations, I changed the questions depending on the circumstance. It might be, “What am I learning about myself?” or “How can I show up as a good leader/listener/supporter in this situation?” My work in therapy also supported this thinking. My therapist encouraged me to think about the future and how I wanted to coach and help principals one day. She said to see these situations as field research and I was learning strategies for dealing with them so I could help others later.

Feeling Your Feelings

Here’s the part that was and still is the greatest challenge for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. I want to numb or comfort tough feelings with food or alcohol. I have a lot of theories about why I am like this including my Enneagram Type (7), family dynamics in childhood, yada, yada…but regardless, avoiding pain and tough emotions is my jam. Unfortunately, I am also concerned about my appearance so emotional eating and drinking do not serve me well.

I don’t have quick answers for this, because I still struggle with it. Recently, I thought I had gotten past those bad habits. My new position is much more supportive of employee wellness and has significantly less stress, so I thought that when the stress came, I would better be able to handle it without my old bad habits. However, I realized after I couple of stressful weeks, I still default back to my old patterns of stress-eating and drinking.

Here’s where I think the answer lies: I have to see the the strategies of Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment, and Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework as ways to feel my feelings, process them, and stay with them–NOT just get past them so that I can respond the the situation effectively and efficiently and move on. I think that when I feel the urge to turn to external sources of comfort, it’s a signal that I haven’t processed my feelings and need to stop. I think this involves tools like journaling, affirmations, self-talk, etc. Those aren’t always possible in the moment, but I need to incorporate some type of processing at some point, before I head to the kitchen–if I don’t want to engage in that behavior anymore.

Obviously, I haven’t mastered these tools. I had been posting and podcasting consistently once a week since the first week of January then the last two weeks of increased stress and busyness went by without a post or podcast — how ironic. I can blame my lack of publishing content on the busyness, but I think it was more about feeling imposter syndrome. Who am I to try to help people with something I haven’t mastered myself?

I had a little epiphany today.

As I went about my morning routine, I came across some content in The Fabulous App related to self-love…

“ Self-love creates space for you to be exactly who you are, rather than the carefully curated version of yourself you wish you were.” 

I need to practice what I am preaching regarding Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework. I don’t need to wait until I have all this figured out. We can help each other by going through this together. I would like to adopt the supportive perspective that I can help others through my struggles and my journey, not by having all the answers. I don’t have to walk out front with the answers–we can walk alongside each other with the struggle.

So, to close this, I am extending an invitation. Let’s learn to carry the leadership load together. Let’s start a community of education leaders who are trying to thrive while doing hard things. I don’t have all the answers, but I am happy to share what I have learned and invite you to do the same. We can learn from our successes and missteps. If you want a partner on your journey, please follow me on Instagram: lizerwinimagine or on Facebook at Imagine Believe Achieve.

Carrying the Load of Leadership

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

Lena Horne in Wisdom for the Soul

When I first took the principal’s seat I remember thinking on quite a few days, “Why did I want to be a principal so badly? This is awful!” I remember, in particular, a conversation with my superintendent. He called to check on me one day, and I said, “Well, let me tell you how great my day was. I had to go to the gynecologist, and that was the highlight of my day.” I think it’s hilarious now that I said that, but oh my gosh…it really was a cry for help… wanting someone to understand what I was going through.

My first two years, I never knew what chaos each day would bring. I was dealing with several very difficult emotional/behavioral situations with students and mental health issues with their parents. Each day I would never know if I would get spit on or kicked by a student, sued, or cussed by a parent, or maybe just be defamed on the local news. (All of these happened way too frequently those first years). I had no assistant principal or behavioral support, so I had to have direct involvement in every behavior escalation while trying to figure out how to lead a school. The intensity and frequency of these situations consumed me and took a toll on my mental and physical health.

After my first two years, I had stopped exercising, found myself “eating my feelings,” drinking a bottle of wine each night, and as a result, gained almost 40 pounds with my cholesterol level skyrocketing to over 300.

So. that was the load–the load of leadership–and how it weighed me down, almost crushing me.

My third year, we had a new special education director who provided “boots on the ground” support for my school through the creation of a Highly Structured Program environment and the allocation additional staff. We hired an incredible special education teacher for our students with moderate to severe disabilities and a new guidance counselor who lead our school in creating MTSS structures and supports. So, we finally had systems in place to both prevent behavior escalation and effectively manage it, if it did happen.

Then that March, just as I was getting my feet under me, with an afternoon’ s notice, we sent all of our students home for what turned out to be the rest of the year because of the Pandemic. It was clear that if it wasn’t one thing, it was going to be something else.

I felt a lot of shame in how I let my health go.

It seems really strange to write that now, but it really was shame…I was very ashamed of myself. I felt like the way I was handling or not handling my stress was on display for everyone. I had “let myself go” and everyone knew it. I could just hear what people were saying about me in all the self-hatred that I inflicted. Even now I am embarrassed about (at least my language is more gentle towards myself–embarassed instead of ashamed, thank you, Brene Brown) how much my appearance mattered to me and still does. I feel very superficial to be so worried about it, but that’s a conversation for another day. Bottom line is the self-judgement needs to stop. I finally recognize that fact.

This shame came out in conversations with a therapist. I started seeing her about midway through my first year. I’ll never forget, our first appointment was the evening that our school was on the local news after a parent felt the need to share a stream of lies regarding our handling of a situation with her child. When asked what I hoped to get out of therapy, I remember sharing that I had to be successful in this job. I couldn’t quit, but I couldn’t continue with the misery I was feeling. I needed help liking my job so that I could continue in it. No matter how I badly I wanted to find ways to deal with the stress that were healthy, like exercising and not consuming junk food and wine, by the end of the day I was spent. I had no room for discipline and just sought comfort. I needed help with carrying the load.

During my time as a principal, I felt like there was very little attention given to the mental and emotional support leaders need. Especially during the pandemic, I felt a sense of responsibility for making sure my teachers were taken care of, but that no one was taking care of me.

“What about the principals?” I wondered, “What about us? Does anyone care how this is affecting us?”

Every once in a while I see something about the importance of supporting school leaders, but it seems like those instances are the exception more than the rule. Now that I am no longer in the principal seat, I want to try to change that. I want to share ideas tools, and strategies that I sought out and learned from a variety of sources. This post kicks off my Leading W.E.L.L series. Today we start with the “W” which, you guessed it, stands for WELLNESS. My next post will dive into this topic, but I’d like to leave you with homework.

If this post resonates with you–if you need strategies and mental tools for “carrying your leadership load”– the first thing I challenge you to do is to identify your spiritual anchor. By anchor, I mean that spiritual element that gives you strength. Is it God? Your higher power? the universe? Jesus? This job is way too hard to go it alone. Personally, I need me some Jesus. every. single. day. So let’s say you are on board with this. You are all in and you have identified your spiritual anchor.

Next, you will want want to figure out a way to anchor yourself every morning. I anchor myself with a devotional. Just doing this may not be enough to get you through your day on those super tough ones when you get kicked in the shins non-stop (metaphorically or literally). It wasn’t enough for me just to have a morning practice, but it provided the foundation (anchor) for dealing with stressful situations. I also found it helpful to include meditation in my anchoring time and found a great resource that incorporated the devotional and guided meditation: First 15. This podcast/app provides a different short devotional each day l followed by a guided meditation/reflection, and even an uplifting song. I would listen to this on my drive to work and then take just a minute or so when I got in the office to write down an intention for the day.

So, go do you your homework. Figure out or identify how you are going to anchor yourself each morning, then meet me back here next week for what to do next.

Releasing Yourself from Expectations

I just found a quote in a journal (I had written it in all caps) from January 2018 that reads, “MOVE FORWARD, RELEASED FROM THE PRISON OF EXPECTATIONS.” Nearby on the page is a quote that I attributed to Glennon Doyle, so maybe this one also came from her? I am not sure, but what I do know is that it’s hitting right now. A couple of Sundays ago, I was meal-prepping or getting ready to workout, or some other kind of activity that I felt I “should” be doing and wondered out loud, “why do I always feel the need to be doing something?” I wonder who else suffers from this…

The “prison” is definitely one of my own making. I believe I wrote that the same month I started seeing a therapist. I was dealing with some extremely difficult situations at school in addition to just trying to learn to be a principal. In my first year as a principal I kept the same level of high expectations I had for myself to be a great leader and top-notch in every other area of my life (home, family, health) as I would if I had been a principal for years. Looking back now, I see how this expectation is the one that created additional stress beyond the circumstances themselves.

I felt like the very traits that make me good at my job are the same ones that make me drive myself crazy.

This “prison” is not exactly perfectionism. I just have this drive that I have to do everything 100 percent, full out, and be at my personal best in all areas. It’s not that I have to execute everything perfectly, but I expect myself to always be working toward my personal best.

This wondering of “why I always feel the need to be doing something” spiraled into a week of no workouts and a couple of nights of Netflix binging with a bottle of wine per binge. hmmm. Interesting.

Here’s the good news. After that week, I can see that I have made some progress in my thinking since 2018. I didn’t mentally berate myself for taking a break. Instead I tried to “Ted Lasso” my behavior by looking at it with curiosity instead of judgement. (You Ted Lasso fans know what I mean) 🙂 So that’s progress! So after that, I wondered if I needed to look at what I consider balance a little differently.

Before, my definition of balance meant that I was able to balance all aspects of my life, doing each area with equal gusto, effort, and success. Great Mom and Great Leader, in Great Shape, and Spiritually Sound, Ummm…just writing that now makes me realize how silly that is. Now I think, “I need to rest.” period. whatever that looks like. (Lately for me, that’s one Netflix episode and one glass of wine). Of course with my personality I felt the need to schedule these periods of rest, put expectations on them, and make them part of a routine (insert eyeroll emoji here). Oh, well.


maybe Glennon?

I can see how loosening my grip on myself can actually move me forward…I am actually making more progress with my health and fitness habits in the weeks following my week off than I did previously. At any rate, I wonder if anyone else can see themselves in this scenario. If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Building a System for Effective and Purposeful Classroom Visits Part 2: Getting them Done!

Last week I wrote about the importance being intentional when conducting classroom visits and that in order to be intentional, the observer needs to be clear about the main purposes for being in classrooms:

  • To Create Connections
  • To Advance your School Community’s Shared Vision
  • To Collect Data

This week we’ll be diving into how to balance getting in classrooms for these reasons.

Creating Connections might be the most fun reason for doing classroom visits. I mentioned last week that quantity trumps quality with these, so you want them to be short. Get in, be fully present and supportive for about 5 minutes, get out. Period.

To be sure you do a ton of these, first start by setting a goal for how many to do each day or week and have a printed list of all your teachers. Start small and be realistic. My first year was insane. I had no assistant principal. A few students escalated daily into violent episodes requiring restraint, and I was the only one my teachers could call for help. I never knew what each hour would bring. For me, getting three of these classroom visits in a day was a win. In the years that followed after I was able to implement better behavior systems, hire a new school counselor who became a key leader in my MTSS team, and was given more support from the district, I was able to set my goal for these type of visits for 3 every hour. I would set my timer on my phone every hour and stop what I was doing to get into 3 classrooms. When I returned to my office, I would write the date beside the teacher’s name who I visited.

One of the best ideas I learned and implemented for doing visits to create connections was to send my teachers voice messages through their text messages. I would step out of their rooms, record a pleasant message–not a diatribe expounding on instructional practice–just an upbeat thank you or something nice I noticed. This way I didn’t have to worry about bringing anything with me into classrooms to leave a note, I didn’t have to interrupt, or try to navigate the room to get to their desk. I could just grab my phone and spend 15 minutes in three classrooms.

Advancing my Vision was the purpose that I made sure aligned with at least one round of visits a week. Basically, as I was doing visits to create connections I would look for some practice which exemplified one of our instructional initiatives. I had a pretty good idea where I could look and which teachers needed some kudos. Once I found an example of something each week, I was done with that purpose. I would take pictures, describe the awesome practice I saw, then share it with teachers.

One of the best tools I used for housing staff information and each week’s schedule, announcements, todos, etc. was Blogger. I would send out a few highlights each week in an email with the link to the blog. The latest blog post would feature a practice we were focusing on and include the pictures I took.

Collecting Data was the function of the more traditional walkthroughs I would do. First, I started with the goal of getting three walkthroughs in a week and then moved to 3 a day. I wanted to be sure I got into every teacher’s classroom at least once every 2 weeks for this type of classroom visit. I used the district walkthough instrument my first year, then asked to shorten and separate it into separate instruments for key areas of instructional practice. Like many out there, the tool (ewalk, then later Google Forms) automatically emailed the teacher. I kept the comments on the form positive or neutral (checks next to observed or not), but kept notes for evidence or things to coach on later.

One of the best resources I found for organizing how to plan and implement walkthroughs is Justin Baeder from the Principal Center. His template for classroom visit notecards helped me to be sure I saw every teacher within a two week time period and at different times of the day. The notecards are designed so that the principal will have one for each teacher. There is a table to fill in on one side with the teacher’s schedule, while the other side has sentence stems for instructional coaching. These were great because I could grab three cards a day, plan when I would go to the visit the teacher, date the visit on the card, and return the card to the bottom of the pile.

The bottom line is that to get into classrooms, you have to know your purpose, set a goal based on number of visits, make a plan, execute it and track it. It’s like many things in education. It’s simple, but not easy.

Building a System for Effective and Purposeful Classroom Visits Part 1: Clarity of Purpose

Few would argue with the importance or value of the instructional leader spending time in classrooms.  You might be facing barriers or making excuses for why you aren’t getting in there, but very few would say that getting in classrooms isn’t important. But if your classroom visits lack clarity, purpose, or you don’t have an intentional plan that balances the most important purposes for getting in classrooms, you won’t be effective in improving the quality of instruction–you will be wasting time. 

So let’s think about the main purposes for going into classrooms…

If I were to classify the most important purposes why I went into classrooms they would fall under these 3 categories:

To Create Connections

To Advance my School Community’s Shared Vision

To Collect Data

If you are clear on your whys and you make sure you have a system for balancing those purposes, you will be less likely to default to one purpose for getting in classrooms that you find most comfortable and end up leaving out the other purposes.  You will also be more fully present in classrooms and use your classroom visits to move your school forward. 

Creating Connections:  These are your positive or neutral classroom visits you do to learn your students, your staff, to create relationships.  You do these to fill the buckets of students and staff with positives related to seeing you in the classroom. 

When it comes to visits for creating connections QUANTITY TRUMPS QUALITY.  You are going in to show that you care about the students and teachers as human beings.  Some people are great at doing these visits.  They are the default.  They go in classrooms all the time and just sit by students and be fully present.

I am not sure what this says about me, but I wasn’t like that at first.  I felt like whenever I was in the classroom I needed to notice something really great instructionally, be in there for 15 minutes and use some kind of walkthrough instrument, or I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.  Having that mentality ended up being a barrier to me getting into many classrooms.  For example, I might finish with something and have 30 minutes before a meeting. So I would either think, “I don’t have time to do any walkthroughs.” Or, I might head down the hallway, get stopped by a person or situation and then I really wouldn’t have time to get one in. Well, if all your visits take 15-20 minutes, you can see how this would happen.

For me, just knowing that these types of visits are important and that they SHOULDN’T take long was a key mind-shift for me. So, I made it a habit and a priority to get into at least 3 classrooms just for a couple of minutes every day…then I set a goal for every hour…

Advancing Your School Community’s Shared Vision: These visits are the ones where you are going in classrooms and taking pictures of the awesome things that kids are doing.  Now, when you are using these to be intentional, you look for evidence of whatever initiative you are working on.  Then you brag about how awesome the teacher was in your weekly email.  We all have those, right?  Some form of weekly communication with your teachers?  I had a blog that I made on Blogger that housed all my staff info. Every week I would drop pictures in that blog to show great stuff going on connected to my school goals or vision and then send an email to staff linked to it.

Collect Data – Walkthroughs –The best mental shift I made was to see walkthroughs as a separate event from the other 2 classroom visits with 2 main purposes related to collecting data:

  1. For coaching conversations, meaningful feedback, evaluation
  2. For monitoring implementation of an initiative

My last two years as a principal, I also changed the way that I handled these walkthroughs. I started doing what I called Focused Walkthroughs.  I did this different ways depending on the time of the year and/or what we were working on as a school or district.  For example, the year we had our SACs accreditation I used the ELEOT Look-fors and separated them into different areas and just focused on one area when I was in classrooms for a period of time. 

Focusing on just one aspect of great instruction or environment helped me be more present in classrooms.  Instead of checking off a bunch of stuff on my phone, I just looked for one main thing.  For example, at the beginning of the year we used the Student Focused Culture Walkthrough Tool.  Just a little aside…One key characteristic I would be sure to include no matter what instrument I was using, was to be sure the lookfors in the tool are focused on what the students are doing.  

Once you become crystal clear on the purpose of classroom visits, you plan them in a way that you get them done.  When balanced well, this will help you improve your school’s culture, advance your instructional vision, and lay the foundation for what you are trying to achieve. 

Getting It Done! Part 2: Planning Your Attack

Last week, I shared strategies which made the overwhelming job of being a principal much more manageable for me. These were all part of the Personal Productivity System I developed from what I learned in David Allen’s Getting Things Done (commonly referred to as GTD).

The main parts of this productivity system are:

  • A place and systems for processing “stuff”
  • A place and systems for collecting, processing, and prioritizing thoughts.

Once I had those two main parts, I established a daily routine for sorting through those “collection buckets” as I referred to them last week. This routine is my Workday Startup Routine. Going through the steps in my startup routine help me focus on exactly what I need to do each day and ensure that I make time for the important, not just the urgent. They are how I plan my attack.

You have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.

David Allen

Workday Startup Routine

My Workday Startup Routine is a series of steps that I do every day as soon as I get to work before I do anything else. It helps to set a positive tone and establish exactly what needs to be accomplished each day. My routine ensures I prioritize the important, so I am not just always just pulled to the urgent. Also, if I do get pulled, when I come back I know exactly what to do next. A few highlights from my routine include:

Starting the day with 3 positive notes

When I was a principal, I wrote 3 different staff members a note each day and tracked who I wrote notes to by checking their names off a list. This ensured I encouraged those in my care and started my day focused on the positive.

Positive walk

I made myself do a lap around the school after I unloaded buses and talk to at least three different staff members a day to build relationships and connect. Until I made this part of my routine, it was way too tempting to stay in the office while it was fairly quiet in order to knock items off my list and I was missing a great opportunity to build relationships.

3 MITs

This is not on the list in the picture because at the time I was setting my MITs at the end of the day in preparation for the next day, but now I do this after I read email during the Workday Startup. Some folks will say that MITs are not tasks to check off–they are areas of focus to advance your mission and vision. I used the practice of identifying the MITs to prioritize 3 items from my list of Todos. I would go through my binder and think about what absolutely HAD to get done that day. It was and still is a key part of my productivity.

To learn more about the Workday Startup Routine check out: Focus on This Podcast Episode #028 – How to Start and Stop Your Workday and Daniel Bauer’s – Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast – Episode 230 How to Have Powerful 2020.

My best advice for creating your own startup and shutdown routines is:

  • Get some background by listening to the above podcasts
  • Create your routine based on what you need to do everyday, but sometimes forget/don’t do when things get crazy 
  • Add activities that you do not do naturally, but are important
  • Start your day with something positive

The benefits of building your own productivity system extend to managing stress, not just getting more things done. That’s probably was the most powerful benefit for me. In GTD, Allen discusses how building these systems “closes loops” in your brain. He contends that a lot of he stress comes from having “open loops,” but if you have a system you aren’t worrying about what you have to do.

Getting It Done! Part 1: Building Your Personal Productivity System

When I became a principal, I became a ravenous consumer of anything related to productivity. I wanted to have a life outside of my job, so that meant learning strategies to become effective and productive. I didn’t want spending time in classrooms to mean that I would have to spend hours after school on email or other administrative tasks. I knew that there had to be strategies I could learn to manage my time and help me to get everything done effectively and efficiently.

I’m happy to report that there are strategies I learned and systems I built which made the overwhelming job of being a principal much more manageable for me. Today we’ll focus on how to get started.

The first thing I would suggest is to Build Your Personal Productivity System

I learned this concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the art of stress-free productivity. Key concepts I learned in this book laid the foundation for how I work.

What did I learn?

  • You need to have a place and systems for processing your “stuff”.
  • You need to have a system to collect, process, and prioritize your thoughts.
  • Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done.

How to Create a System for Processing the “Stuff”

Step 1:  Put all papers you receive from meetings that don’t have an immediate place into a “collection bucket,” that you will come back to and sort through later.

Step 2: Process the papers, and file them into a folder system based on when you will address them. I used a tickler file system. This system is basically 31 folders labeled 1-31 for each day of the month. You don’t have to know exactly when you are going to deal with the action item represented by the paper, you just need to prioritize. You will know deadlines for some papers, and placing papers in files based on when you will address the paper helps you know what to tackle first. This was HUGE for me. Previously I would file all my papers by project, idea, or just put in a “To-Do” folder. Then I would lose the paper or have messy stacks of files on my desk.

How to Create a System for collecting, processing, and prioritizing your thoughts

Step 1: Adopt the philosophy that your mind is designed to generate ideas, not store them.

Step 2: Establish a “collection bucket,”for your thoughts that you can come back to and sort through (notebooks or a binder with tabs).

I had a mini binder with different sections for:

  • Todos
  • What happened today
  • Personal PD
  • Reflection
  • Weekly email
  • Miscellaneous ideas!

Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done. Once you have systems in place for how to manage the stuff and the thoughts, you plan how to attack them.

Part 2 of Getting It Done! released next Thursday, will focus on how to plan your attack.

Effective Leadership: Redefining Success

We all want to be effective–especially as education leaders. We want to “do a good job.” We want to feel successful, like we are “making a difference,” but how do you know you are successful at the end of each day? What does personal achievement look like once you have gotten the leadership job or position you have always wanted? How do you define success? How you answer these questions in your own context is not only important for your self-worth, but also for your success in your position.

As an elementary principal without an assistant, each day’s agenda was often derailed by events beyond my control. My first year, behavior events, impromptu parent meetings or meetings that started with, “do you have a minute?” ruled my day. Even though I spent three years as an assistant principal, I was unprepared for the burden of responsibility that came with being THE principal. As an AP I could set my own agenda with intentionality. Emergencies and impromptu meetings were most-often handled by the principal, not me, so many days were completed as planned.

Once I had the main seat, however, I realized that there were many situations that would arise to alter my plans. When I defined success by the amount I “got done,” I considered most days a failure, or I would spend too much time in the office instead of “out in the building.” Measuring success by the extent to which I achieved my plans or completed my list was neither valuable nor attainable.

After listening to Daniel Bauer on the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast, my perspective shifted. I learned that how I showed up for my team and my school was the most important definition of success for me. I learned to define a successful day in terms of how I show up as a leader rather than how many items I was able to check off my todo list.

That’s all well and good, right? Everyone knows that how you show up for your students and community is where it’s at, but for many of us, we can’t show up fully present with a mountain of tasks waiting for us in our offices. Or if we are able to be fully present 7:30-4:30, ignoring the emails and the administrative tasks, then our days don’t end until after 8:00 in the evening. That’s not sustainable or healthy. I would be completely remiss if I ignored this reality and did not mention that without an efficient and effective system for dealing with office work, our lives lack balance. But that is a post for another day. Today we are going to focus on three steps for redefining success.

Step One: Begin with the end in mind

This step is a process* that can be done at any time, whether you are in the leadership position of your dreams or not. It’s all about learning, self-awareness, and reflection.

  1. Decide that at the end of the day you will ask yourself this question: How was I _______in the _________? In the first blank you fill in a trait and in the second blank, the situation.
  2. Brainstorm all the situations you find yourself in on a daily basis to fill in the second blank (meetings with parents, conversations with students, observations, administrative tasks, etc.)
  3. Develop a list of “bes,” not “dos.” Think about HOW you want to show up for these situations. These are a list of traits: Compassionate? Present? Calm? Kind? Patient? Decisive? You need to decide what traits, if you exhibit them in your actions will reflect the type of leader you want to be.

Step Two: Prepare yourself daily to be the leader you want to be

  1. Think about the events on your calendar. Predict potential challenges and how you will handle them.
  2. Decide which traits you want to bring into each situation. Visualize yourself as a success for each event.
  3. Assign actions to the traits. Ask yourself, “How can I be __________ in the meeting? classroom? phone call?”

Step Three: Fill out your personal “Scorecard”

  1. At the end of every day review your wins. Look at your calendar and/or notes from the day. Ask yourself, How was I ________ in the _________?
  2. Be compassionate with yourself. Take a non-judgmental assessment of your day, thinking about which actions reflected the traits you wanted to exhibit and which ones did not.
  3. Journal your Wins and Ways. Write down and celebrate when you acted in ways that reflect your intentions and make note of ways you can improve.

Click here to download a free template of the above steps.

I got these ideas from an incredible education leader, Daniel Bauer, of Better Leaders, Better Schools. His podcast inspired me and helped me understand how to show up as the leader I wanted to be.

*Edit on January 9th: I realized that while Daniel Bauer was a huge inspiration for this process, the process itself actually came from the podcast 6 Steps toYour Best Year of Leadership on Craig Groeschel’s Leadership Podcast.

Monitoring for Congruency

During a question and answer time of a conference session I presented for new principals, one participant asked me what I would look for when starting walkthroughs. At the time, I talked about some of the different instruments I used and how I tried to narrow my focus depending on the initiatives we were working on, the time of the year, the purpose, etc. At the time, I hadn’t thought about what I now have come to see as a bedrock of instructional monitoring/coaching for a principal–congruency. No matter what kinds of different instruments or tools I had, I would always have one for monitoring congruency between purpose (target), standard, assessment, and activity/task.

Congruency is essential to raising student achievement. You could have the most dedicated teachers, the most engaging lessons, and the hardest working children, but unless these are all anchored in content that is congruent with what students really need to know and do, we won’t get the results we want. By anchored in content, I mean that the dedicated teachers are crystal clear on the intended meaning of the standards. They are using student-friendly learning targets for their lessons that communicate the intended learning and that match both the content and rigor of the standards. Engaging lessons have to provide students meaningful practice that is congruent to the practice required to meet the learning target. The hard-working children should then be required to show what they know in written form the demonstrates mastery of the target.

So, no matter what, I will always be focused on monitoring congruency. A congruent lesson can be thought of like a hamburger. While it’s fun to go into a classroom and give feedback on the meat (the engaging activities) dressing up that meat with cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato (the partner talks, the questioning strategies, the stagecraft, etc) without a congruent top bun (the learning target based on the standard) and congruent bottom bun (the formative assessment that demonstrates mastery) you just have a salad–not a hamburger. When that activity is not even congruent with the standard you don’t even have a real beef burger. It’s just some mystery meat. Who wants mystery meat when you are craving a good burger?

The Problem Solving Trap

When I first became a principal and there was so much that I didn’t know, there were days when I felt like I wasn’t helping anyone. The wins felt few and far between. When I started to get my feet under me and actually could answer a few of the many questions that were thrown at me, I began to feel a sense of satisfaction. As trust was built, teachers would come to me and/or shoot me a text and I could problem-solve with them to find a solutions to issues or challenges they were facing or simply “tell them what to do.” This sense that I was helping teachers was incredibly gratifying.

I didn’t realize that the way I problem-solved and helped teachers find solutions was actually creating a pattern that would not serve them well in the future. While the problem sitting in front of us would get solved, I was doing nothing to help build the teacher’s leadership or self management. In that sense, I wasn’t really helping the teacher, I was helping get one isolated problem solved. Instead of empowering the teachers and building their skills, I encouraged dependence upon me.

There began to be many times when I would wonder why the teachers would come to me with issues that I felt like they should be able to solve on their own. I would ask myself, “Can’t they figure this out on their own?” “Why can’t these teachers problem-solve?” I didn’t realize that I had set up their patterns of behavior myself.

If I could do it all over again, I would have used techniques to solve problems that would actually help the teachers become better problem solvers and think at higher levels, not just help the problem get solved. I am learning these techniques in Cognitive Coaching Training. This training is aimed at helping school leaders and coaches become mediators of thinking so that we can develop the capacity of teachers.

Research indicates that teaching is a complex intellectual activity and that teachers who think at higher levels produce students who are higher achieving, more cooperative, and better problem solvers. It is the invisible skills of teaching, the thinking processes that underlie instructional decisions, which produce superior instruction. Cognitive Coaching is a research-based model that capitalizes upon and enhances teachers’ cognitive processes.

The Thinking Collaborative,

I just finished the first two days of this 8-day training and I’m completely sold on what they are teaching us. I am so excited and hopeful that I will learn tools that will not only help teachers with problem-solving of school/schedule/curriculum/parent situations, but with the instructional decisions they make each day. That’s where the power lies.