Monthly Archives: December 2015

Time to Teach

My campus had some great conversations this past week with one of my leaderships teams and our grade level PLCs.  We talked about the tremendous impact student goal conferences are having this year on student achievement. During each of our PLCs, we spend part of our time specifically discussing any student who is not demonstrating growth. We don’t just discuss our most struggling students. During this time, we brainstorm interventions and strategies for any student whose growth has become stagnant.  As a result, we are seeing student scores increase an average of thirty to forty percentage points from last year on the same assessment. Honestly, I don’t believe I’ve seen growth as we are currently seeing in my entire career. Even with all the celebration, there was concern that student conferencing and goal setting takes a great deal of time away from instruction. This got me thinking. Is it really time away from teaching?

During this time, we brainstorm interventions and strategies for any student whose growth has become stagnant.  As a result, we are seeing student scores increase an average of thirty to forty percentage points from last year on the same assessment. Honestly, I don’t believe I’ve seen growth as we are currently seeing in my entire career. However, even with all the celebration, there was concern that student conferencing and goal setting takes a great deal of time away from instruction. This got me thinking. Is it really time away from teaching?


Think about it! It’s not just people who perform poorly at tasks that get individual “tutoring”. Talented dancers take additional “privates”. World-class athletes have “form” coaches. Musicians take private lessons. Heck, I even have a “Principal Coach” that I speak with on a regular basis. Individualized feedback to help one improve is the very best and most meaningful type of teaching and learning. Because it is individualized, growth can occur more quickly.

When you spend time with a student, looking at results and helping them set goals for the future, you are teaching them to be reflective. That one-on-one conversation you are having with the students to discuss where they are, where they need to be, and how they goal settingcan get there is causing students to think about their learning and figure out how to improve. When you discuss with a student who hasn’t grown and tell them that “it is okay, sometimes we don’t grow, but what are we going to do now?” it helps them develop resiliency.  You ARE teaching! You are teaching them how to become a better learner. You are teaching them how to solve the most meaningful problem–how to overcome and address their own needs. You are teaching them the life skills necessary to exist in a future world that we don’t know how it will look when they grow up!

There is an epidemic of college-aged students who are floundering.  These students were “standardized” in school as we taught them how to “do as I do” and “perfection is the key”. I can’t help but believe this is due to a generation being raised with standardized testing and teaching students strategies to follow our lead rather than how to think it's a dream until you write it downindependently. These students have been brought up believing “less than perfect” is a failure and failure is abhorred.  It’s the fixed mindset of “If I can’t do it perfectly the first time, I must not be able to do it at all” and anything not mastered the first time is quickly abandoned by students with no grit.

Last year we tried to implement student goal setting folders. It was a disaster.  We made them too complicated.  They were too detailed to manage effectively, and the practice was quickly abandoned.  I didn’t resist, because I couldn’t see that the time spent was resulting in any student gains. This year, we simplified.  We kept our plan focused, and the payoff is huge. The most important thing is that we didn’t give up.

I am proud of the work we do on my campus to teach our students the skills they need to be resilient through challenges! They have grit.  They have growth mindsets. There is no argument to the fact that this type of teaching does take time, but if you think about how you use that time with each child to specifically meet their needs, you probably spent time more wisely in conferencing and goal setting than any content lesson you would teach that week. I do not think there is anything more powerful than one-on-one conversations with students specifically geared toward their needs. It IS teaching! It is teaching people not just content, and as educators, we should always have enough time for that!

Declining Resiliency In College Students

Tools for the Trade: The Power of a Principal’s Professional Learning

minds_under_constructionTwo years ago, I was fortunate enough to receive the “Principal as Leader of Professional Learning” grant from The Learning Forward Foundation. It has been an amazing journey to explore an intentional professional learning plan, not only for myself but also for everyone on my campus.

Part of the reason this opportunity was such an honor is because it was Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) that taught me that quality professional learning is more than “a fun workshop” with “good presenters” and “cute ideas”. Learning Forward is the organization that instilled in me that quality professional learning should result in new tools that I could add to my toolbox of teaching and learning that results in increased student achievement.


My learning these past two years has been an action research in the concepts of grit, growth mindset, and the impact on student achievement when these concepts are intentionally taught to students, specifically students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  All of this learning expanded my resources to meet the diverse needs of my students.

Here are some of my key “aha”s from this experience:choose the right tool

  • Don’t bring a hammer when you need a wrench. There are lots of opinions about grit and growth mindset. As with any strategy, there is no magic bullet. It is about having the right tool in your toolbox and using it in the right situation to impact learning. With grit and growth mindset, you have to make sure the student sees the relevance to their life. It is not about just creating struggle but helping a student see they have the mental capacity to overcome the struggle when faced with challenges.
  • Renovate one room at a time. If you want an educational initiative to work, you have to be intentional and focused. It will be tempting to try to fix everything all at one time, especially if you have lots of needs and see some initial success. When you do home renovation and expect to live there while you do it, you typically move room to room until it’s all done. Finishrenovation the job you are working on before you move on to the next one so that you don’t have everything torn apart. You can’t live in a house with everything ripped up (at least not effectively or affordably). In schools, we don’t have the benefit of living somewhere else while we transform educational practice.  If you focus on improving the most important things that will get the most results, you see the most growth and become motivated to work on the next most important thing when the first thing becomes a habit. Working on one thing at a time is brain-friendly and prevents feelings of being overwhelmed, burned out and emotionally bankrupt.
  • Train your apprentices. Think about an apprentice. They watch the knowledgeable tradesman. Then they work side by side before gradually taking over the jobs themselves while the mentor gives feedback. It’s a gradual release model. When you want something to become practice for teachers, you have to model it as the leader. How in the world will they be able to carry out your vision if you only talk about it? They need to see it from you and practice with you there, so they feel confident to do it themselves.


  • Clearly communicate your vision for the desired outcome. You shouldn’t be shocked at a failed implementation or a result that doesn’t match the “end” you had in mind.   Everyone needs to know “what” change is needed, “why” it is needed, and “how” you plan to get there.   When these three things are clear, the goal becomes much more achievable. I think this is true whether you are working with students or adults.  It is human nature to be successful.  Having an idea of the purpose and plan helps people get started in the right direction.
  • Involve your clients in the design. We no longer can afford to live in a world where we tell people step by step, exactly what to do.  Everyone on the team brings expertise and creativity.  I am a huge fan of George Couros and his philosophy of “the smartest person in the room is the room.”  
  • Expertise doesn’t mean flawless. The minute you think you have to perform perfectly you have slipped into a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the enemy of learning and learning is the purpose of education. Forget perfection. Learn from mistakes. Allow others to see how you learn and grow from them. When things go wrong, don’t try to cover it up, make excuses, or quit. That can be costly.
  • Study the situation before you jump in and “fix”. Knowing and understanding your learners and their context allows you to give them learning in ways that are meaningful to them. Results in learning take place more quickly and make it more likely to stick.
  • Take your time and do the job right. Providing that learning in meaningful ways takes time. Lots and lots of time. (But it often gets results faster than things we have always done.)I have seen this on my campus with student conferencing and goal setting. It’s tedious. I’ve heard some say it takes time away from “real teaching”. However, providing feedback and guidance on a student’s individual work is the most powerful teaching in existence. Think about why athletes have private coaches or musicians take private lessons. While it has taken an investment, it is probably the most successful strategy we have used to increase student results.

The expectation today is for administrators to be instructional leaders. When I look at the Texas Principal Evaluation and Support System (TPESS), instructional leadership tools are critical for success. However, to be an effective instructional leader, you must first be the lead learner.  

We can’t just assume that we are the sole giver of knowledge to our teachers and students. Nor can we hand over the dissemination of critical knowledge to others outside our organization and trust that they understand all that needs to be done. As building leaders, we must facilitate the learning process and continuous improvement of the adults, so that teachers to do the same for our students, so they also have the tools they need to  design their own successful, productive lives.

The Sound of Silence

While sometimes silence of welcomed, I have to say that in a learning organization, silence can be deadly. Silence in a learning organization means a lack of feedback. It means that people are likely too content, apathetic, scared or angry to communicate with specific feedback, and this is dangerous. It reminds me of the Simon and Garfunkel song:

Sound of silence

In a learning organization, feedback is critical to growth. Sometimes this feedback is positive: “You’re on the right track.” “The effort is paying off.” “The strategy you are using is getting results.” Sometimes feedback offers a correction: “Instead of this, I need you to…” “It might work better if…” “Next time I’d rather you …” Other times feedback sounds like this: “I hate it when you…” “You messed up.” “There’s going to be consequences.” However, even when feedback is negative, it gives the one receiving the feedback a chance to learn and grow if they choose.

People can only guess if their actions are working and more time and energy is spent trying to decipher the silence than working on creating results. “Is what I’m going working?” “Is what I’m doing wrong?” “Why won’t he/she speak to me?” It’s a guess and check method spent mostly on guessing.

Several years ago I worked in an organization where all feedback stopped. The “boss” literally quit speaking to me. In public, I was invisible. Even in a bathroom where there were only two of us, I did not exist. Awkward! I guess I eventually figured out the message. I was not needed, and it was better to go elsewhere. The crazy thing is, if the “boss” had just given me specific feedback, we both probably would have gotten what we wanted much more quickly without a lot of hassle.

It is imperative supervisors give feedback. Too often I see leaders who are afraid to have difficult conversations. They suffer in silence until their aggravation results in an attitude of “done”. At that point, growth and recovery are no longer an option. What if the leader would have just said what needed to be said in a professional way? What if the leader coached their employee? What potential greatness was lost because the leader remained silent? What relationship was lost because things were allowed to become contentious?

Don’t get me wrong. The responsibility of feedback does not lie solely on the shoulders of feedbackleaders. All members of an organization have a responsibility of providing feedback. I tell my staff all the time that I don’t want them just to say yes and agree to everything I say. I need their thoughts, their consideration of unintended consequences and problem-solving, their ability to piggyback and make the idea even better. I need to know if something I have done has made their job harder. Their feedback cannot always result in “their way” because as a leader I always have to consider the big picture for the organization. However, without their feedback, how do I grow? How do I become better for them?

With all of this said, the most growth is going to occur when feedback is professional. While angry feedback is still probably better than silence, it is still destructive. It takes a great deal of energy for those involved in angry feedback to get beyond the emotion and focus on growth again. It is possible, but again, often angry feedback is just the explosion that occurs after a prolonged silence where the feedback was bottled up too long.

If you are a part of a learning organization, here are some tips to defeat the deadly sound of silence:

  • Give feedback, in good times and bad. People you work with need to know. It’s way more efficient than guessing. Each individual’s background experiences may muddy the water of interpreting “silence”
  • Feedback should be a two-way street. Both the leader and members of the organization should give feedback so that everyone has a chance to grow.
  • While feedback is better than silence, sometimes you may need a moment to compose yourself. Don’t give feedback in the heat of the moment, but don’t wait too long either. Feedback should be timely and matters
  • Be specific. Say what you mean and mean what you say. The more specific you are with your feedback, the more likely you are to get what you need.
  • Don’t ever allow yourself to become so comfortable that feedback stops. At that point, so does growth. Today’s good is tomorrow’s mediocre.
  • If you are the leader, create venues for your organization to provide you with feedback. Surveys, exit tickets after professional learning or staff meetings, and Google docs are all great ways to collect feedback. While I’m not a huge fan of anonymous feedback (it can be as bad as silence in the fact it doesn’t provide an avenue for clarification), I recognize that sometimes you have to start their of those you lead don’t feel safe giving feedback. It is a starting place, but the leader should work diligently to build relationships and get people comfortable with feedback that is specific and individualized.

Yes, sometimes it is easier to be silent. Silence can punish those with whom we are upset. It can send the message “I don’t even care enough about you to acknowledge your existence”. However, it rarely results in growth for anyone. Feedback with a growth the-sound-of-silence-simon-garfunkel-8-638mindset takes both grit and grace. It takes the grit to put others’ need to grow before one’s personal comfort of staying silent. Even more, it takes grace to give feedback in a manner that others are willing to listen and hear the intended message so that growth can occur.

Additional Resources for Giving Feedback:

If You Take All the Mouse’s Cookies

This is an article I wrote published this month in National Association of Elementary School Principals’ magazine “The Principal”.