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.

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.

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, https://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/aboutcc

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.

The Discomfort of Learning

I came across the graphic below in a leadership session at a conference. We were learning about teacher growth and nurturing the growth mindset in staff. The discussion centered on how getting out of one’s comfort zone is necessary for learning.  I have found that awareness and understanding of this graphic is particularly helpful in my own social emotional learning.  Reflecting on my progress through the zones is helping me develop resilience and find meaning in stressful situations.

When I transitioned from Assistant Principal to Principal, I started in the Fear Zone.  As challenges and situations were thrown at me, I had no choice but to go into the learning zone in order to survive.  Now, I probably spend most of my time in the learning zone, but I do find that there are some situations that cause the Fear Zone to creep back in.  As I work to nurture or build relationships with teachers, I find it difficult in not to be affected by others’ opinions.  How do you create trusting relationships built on respect and not be affected by others’ opinions?  Are these two ideas mutually exclusive? 

As I move periodically into the growth zone, I struggle to find a balance between conquering objectives and being affected by others’ opinions.  I take the necessary steps to do what I feel is right even if I know that the action might upset people, but I can’t seem to turn off that nagging voice in my head that tells me that a person I care about (a staff member) is unhappy with a decision I made. For example, last spring I was in the growth zone. I set new goals, made decisions for the upcoming school year that were based on students’ needs, research, and data. I proposed changes that were what I thought to be the right shifts to make. I felt uncomfortable, yet empowered. As I rolled out my ideas, I found that these decisions made a few of my staff members uncomfortable and unhappy.  I take the necessary steps to do what I feel is right even if I know that the action might upset people, but I can’t seem to turn off that nagging voice in my head that tells me that a person I care about (a staff member) is unhappy with a decision I made.

Just knowing about this graphic and understanding that discomfort is necessary to growth helps me deal with the stress.  I know that through my discomfort I am learning, growing, and getting better.  As I reflect, I develop empathy for my staff as I wonder what stage individuals are in right now.  I think about those who have difficulty adapting to change, those who have experienced recent loss, those with large classes, those who have switched grade levels and those who have classes with high needs.  I wonder if they know they are on my heart and that I worry about them.  The best thing I know to do right now is to check in with them and let them know I care.  Perhaps sharing this graphic with my staff members will help them find meaning in their stressful situations.

Making a Difference

As I look back on one of the most stressful years many of us have experienced in this profession, I realize that while the fear of the unknown, the addition of numerous safety and cleaning protocols, and the onslaught of constant changes were sources of incredible stress for my staff, there was one stressor that far outweighed them all…

The Fear of Not Making a Difference

That feeling that you are making a difference in the lives of children is one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator. Sometimes you can see the difference through academic growth. You can see the gains a student has made in reading level or math competency. Other times, the differences are harder to spot, but either way, few teachers enter the profession without the goal of making a difference.

As our students were learning from a distance this year, it was harder to see the gains the students were making like you can when they are right beside you, reading to your or showing you their analysis of a science phenomenon. This was really hard on the teachers. Now that we have achieved a small sense of “normalcy” during this last month, instead of seeing teaching tiredly trudging to the end of May, I see a new spring in teachers’ step and can feel a renewed excitement.

Our staff is beginning to discuss plans for how to “catch kids up.” They are getting creative, thinking of new ways to teach basic skills while integrating a personal passion. While this pandemic has left us all reeling, it also has afforded us incredible resources (monetary and internal) for creating school experiences we’ve never been able to before! I personally hope I never take for granted the privilege I have been blessed with in getting to work with children IN PERSON. As we plan for what comes next, it’s exciting to dream about what we can do for the children and families in our community and how we can make a difference.

Let it go…

This pandemic has taught me that in order to embrace new ways of reaching our students we have to let go of practices and ways of teaching that, frankly, do not work and will not take us where we want to go with kids. Reliance on teachers’ ability to connect with students based on likability of the teacher doesn’t work as well in a virtual environment. Much of the humor and relationship building strategies that some teachers excel at in person, fall flat in Google Meets. Reliance on higher level students to keep a class discussion going doesn’t work when your class only has six hesitant and shy students because the rest of your students attend on the other hybrid days or are distance learners.

In turn, I’ve had to let go of prior thinking of what constitutes quality teaching and learning. If teachers aren’t getting the results they expect to get with a strategy, then those teaching strategies are no longer acceptable. I’ve also had to accept that our teachers and students will be forever changed by the experience they have had this year. School as we know it will never be the same. In some ways that will be good, in other ways, not so much. Regardless, this change points to the need for me to revise my vision for where we need to head as a school. When considering where our school needs to head in terms of teaching practice and expectations, we must consider the ultimate question–What do our students really need to know and be able to do when they leave us?

When considering the question of the competencies we want our students to have, I see the need more than ever for us to let go. As we think about what is on the horizon for our students just in how they will be asked to demonstrate learning on changing state assessments, I am feeling the pull to provide deeper learning experiences for our students in our school. This will demand more than the DOK Level 1 and 2 knowledge that we have been able to get by with providing our students to enjoy the level of success we have had. It will be fortunate that we have all had lots of practice this year letting strategies that no longer work go. We will need that flexibility and willingness as we look toward what will be required from our Generation P (pandemic) students in our post-pandemic world.

Gaining Altitude

You don’t just have every right to work on your mental and emotional health, but you have the responsibility to do it.  Get over any feelings of embarrassment or vulnerability and work on yourself so you can better show up for your people and lead your school more effectively.  

Principals As First Responders, February 28, 2020

A year ago I wrote those words.  I shared how the stress of our jobs can be overwhelming and take a significant toll on our health.  In that post, I emphasized how we had the responsibility to seek out mental and emotional support so that we could lead better.  That was prior to the country shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I never in a million years could have imagined the year that would follow.  When I began my career as a principal, I was embarrassed to share the struggles I was having in my thought-life.  One positive that has come from this pandemic is the positive light that has been cast on the importance of taking care of one’s mental and emotional health.

When I sought help during my stressful first days as principal, my goal was to like my job better–to find peace with the tough situations I was bombarded with.  I had no idea that the incredible tools and techniques I would learn would IMPROVE the way I do my job.  In this post, I’ll be sharing one of the techniques I learned and how it helps me not just to deal effectively with situations as they came along, but truly LEAD through them.

The Situation: When someone shares a concern, or I am made an aware of an issue, it weighs heavily on me.  The sense of responsibility and need to fix it can be overwhelming at times.  Additionally, when I am faced with an issue that triggers me, perhaps because it angers me or is just emotionally-charged, I get thrown into fight or flight mode.  It’s a very uncomfortable place for me and one that I want out of.

The Problem:  Logical thought is replaced with emotional reaction.  When I am in this mode, if I act then I run the risk of making poor decisions in an attempt to get out of that place of discomfort.

The Tool:  Gain altitude...If I can stop and lead myself then I can more effectively lead others. The way I do this is by “gaining some altitude, ” which means some space to look down upon the situation from the eyes of someone else.   Some in Adaptive Leadership refer to this as “getting in the balcony.”  Instead of staying on the dance floor where you are in the midst of the action, it’s helpful to get above the fray at times, and get a little distance.

  • The How:  Climb into the Balcony…
    Notice becoming triggered.  I am learning to become aware of how I am feeling.
    Stop. I am learning to not react and just sit with my emotions.
    Remember.  I have to remind myself that my joy comes from fulfilling my purpose, not making people happy, or proving that I am right.
  • Look Down on the Dance Floor…
    Understand the situation and respond with intention.  I ask myself questions like, How can I act in this situation that keeps me on purpose?  How can I see this situation as an opportunity to show active listening and empathy?

The real work for me is climbing into the balcony.  Once I am up there, I can stop and breathe and act on purpose, but sometimes it’s hard to get off the dance floor.