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, 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.

Advancing Mission through Process

When we are planning and creating systems and structures together I want to be sure that I involve everyone, that I consider all angles, and that I make the most informed decision based on what is best for the students, rather than trying to “make people happy.” If you are a pleaser, like I am, you know the internal struggle is real as far as that is concerned. Of course, while being inclusive, I want to be decisive and efficient. I want everyone to feel like his or her voice is heard, but bottom line–the best interests of our students are put first. 

Believe me, this is a tricky process.  Lots of times this planning takes place in the spring.  I’ve heard some administrators call that time the “mean season.”  All the adults are stressed and tired just coming out of winter, on edge because end-of-the-year testing is coming up, and then we start talking about staffing, schedules, and CHANGE. SHEEWW..Emotions are high, people become anxious, territorial, in self preservation mode, and can even lash out at others.

Right now, I am in the midst of making plans for when an additional 60 plus students enter the building in another week. Now that I am going through the planning process for the FOURTH time this year, I have gained a couple of take-aways that will continue to guide my work through this process and so the NEXT TIME I make a new master schedule, class lists, and the like, I will be ready.

  • Assume positive intent in others. When we work on coordinating schedules or class lists, there is nothing to be gained by assuming a colleague is driven by selfish motivations. Even if the person’s past behavior would indicate that this person might be motivated by adult rather than student concerns, if I put myself in a positive or even neutral mindset regarding their decisions, my questioning will be clarifying and solution-focused in nature rather than accusatory. If I keep the focus on how the decision or suggestion helps or hurts children, I will better understand everyone’s perspectives, what they want or need, and help to build trust within the group.

    These question starters may be helpful: How did you decide…? Why do you think this is the case? What impact do you think…”
  • Remember people can not process and problem solve if they are caught off guard and/or fearful. If I propose something new or different I need to remember that just the simple act of receiving information about an impending change will trigger some people. If they immediately come back with a comment, question, or rebuttal, it’s not necessarily because they oppose the change. I need to not get defensive. I need use active listening and hold space for people until they are able to express their emotions.

When making decisions that alter what each person’s daily work life will look like, I have learned that the process is as important as the product. I can’t control how many co-vid cases we have or how people will react to each situation, but I can control the process. By being intentional, I hope to supporting my mission–

To use my positivity and enthusiasm to support a collaborative environment of continuous growth and improvement where students want to learn and staff want to teach.

Grief and Hope

This year the Easter message is even more profound to me.  This morning our Priest talked about how both grief and hope are present in the Easter story.  We can’t have the Easter story without the grief.  We can’t have the resurrection without the sacrifice.  I feel both grief and hope in our current circumstances; sometimes at the same time, sometimes one more than the other.  I am realizing that like fully appreciating the Easter story, acknowledging the pain, the worry, the grief, and the fear is just as important as and a precursor to leaning into the hope.

I was reminded the other day of the importance of this concept when I heard the story of Jim Stockdale told in Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  He endured suffering and torture for seven years and came out of the prison camp “even stronger than he went in.” He said the secret to his survival was that he confronted the “brutal facts” of his situation.  He never wavered in his faith that he not only would survive, but would prevail and come out stronger.

By contrast, Stockdale said it was the optimists that didn’t make it out.  The prisoners that would optimistically say things like, “we will get out of here by Christmas” were the ones who didn’t survive, because Christmas would come and go and they would succumb to the depression of unmet expectations and ultimately die.

What does this mean for me and my leadership during the pandemic?  I need to confront the brutal facts of this situation.  Instead of optimistically saying, “we will be out by…” or “our students won’t fall behind” or even “this too will pass.” I need to lean into the challenges and grief my students, staff and I are feeling, and the challenges we will all face upon return to school. Only then can I pair it all with the faith that not only will we overcome this, but we will prevail.



Distance Leading Week 2

Invest now, so we will thrive later!  See this situation as an opportunity!  This sounded really good at first.  I was pumped the first week, but the reality of the situation had not hit me.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I guess I saw this pandemic situation just as a short term challenge to be overcome.  I suppose I figured we would have a couple of weeks where we educators could recharge, use the time away to learn more to make us better at what we do, and then come back more tech savvy and ready to see our kids again. Wow. I definitely was in denial.

Personally, I thought this time would be a fantastic opportunity for me to hone my skills.  I thought I would have tons of time to learn, grow, and reflect–a type of sabbatical.  Our kids would be okay, our teachers would thrive, and we would come out stronger as a result…like I said, the reality had not hit me.  Now I find that if I’m not careful I can become consumed with worry–worry for our students, staff, my own family, and all those who are touched by the illness.

Last week I realized that I needed to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  I had to recognize it for what it is, grieve the losses we are experiencing, but not stay there.  School has changed.  Distance Learning means Distance Leading, so now I am trying to figure out what that really means for me.  What does being a good leader look like when you are leading from afar? How can I structure my days to make that happen?

This week I’ll be working hard on fine-tuning my focus, goals, rituals, and routines.  I know focus and discipline are important, especially when trying to be productive when working at home.  The challenge will come when balancing being responsive to staff and families with productivity on work projects AND taking advantage of spontaneous learning opportunities.  I’ve got my schedule set, now I’ll just take it one day at a time.