justinbaeder, Author at The Principal Center

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How To Respond When Someone Asks You For A Reference or Recommendation Letter

What should you do when someone you work with asks you for a recommendation letter or reference for an educational leadership role?

Reference checks are essential to the hiring process, because they vastly increase the amount of information available to the hiring team. In interviews and application materials,  candidates have full control over what they share. If there's something a hiring team should know about a candidate's past job performance, good or bad, only references can provide a third-party perspective and convey this information. 

Being asked to provide a reference catches many educators off-guard, so it's important to anticipate your own feelings and possible reactions, so you take the most appropriate course of action.

Here are three common reactions leaders face when asked for references and letters of recommendation:

  • Feelings of betrayal
  • Fear of losing a great person
  • Being unsure about whether you can, in good conscience, recommend someone for a new role

In each section, you'll find detailed guidance on how to react to your own feelings, and how to act ethically in complex situations.

“They're Being Disloyal!”

People typically need references because they're planning to move to a new position in another school or district. When someone signals their intent to leave, this can create strong feelings about loyalty—or rather, disloyalty.

Is someone being disloyal when they seek out new opportunities? Are they betraying you and your students?

Some leaders mistakenly believe that the educators they hire should be loyal to their particular school or district forever. While the school year and annual contract are important tools for creating stability for students, it's a mistake to expect individual educators to be loyal to a single organization for their entire careers.

Instead, professional loyalty is to the profession. Our students and colleagues will always change from year to year, so it's not as if there's any real sense that “we're all in this together, and always will be.”

Change is inevitable, and people's growth and development are a good thing. Just as we don't want our students to stick around forever—we want them to progress to the next grade level, and leave when it's time—we don't want staff to stick around longer than they should out of a misguided sense of loyalty.

This is a tough one for many of us, though, because we see plenty of examples of great educators who never move on—who continue to grow as professionals while remaining in the same position. 

But it's important to realize that some people must leave and seek new opportunities elsewhere if they're to fulfill their calling as educators. There are simply not always enough opportunities within a given school or district. 

Educators owe their loyalty to the profession, not to any one organization—and it's a two-way street. So if you're asked to provide a reference or letter of recommendation, don't see it as an act of disloyalty on either person's part—see it as part of the inevitable and necessary movement of people to the opportunities where they can best serve students and fulfill their professional calling. 

“But I want to keep them!”

I was taken aback the first time I heard this from a candidate, but I continue to hear it on a regular basis:

“My boss said she won't write me a letter of recommendation, because she doesn't want to have to replace me.”

At first, I thought it was a joke. “Ha ha, yeah, I'm sure you'll leave big shoes to fill” was my reply—but the candidate was completely serious:

“No, she really does not want me to leave, and she told me she won't give me a good recommendation.”

Let me be clear: this type of sabotage is deeply unethical. 

If you withhold a well-deserved recommendation, simply to prevent someone from leaving and to save yourself the trouble of replacing them, you are committing a type of professional fraud

If you believe someone is making a difference for kids, you don't get to hog them. Support them in pursuing their dreams and maximizing their impact. 

Are you creating more work for yourself? Potentially, but you're also opening your school to the possibility of an even more amazing opportunity to bring in the right person for your current needs.  It may be hard to imagine anyone else being as good in the role—but you'll also have a chance to re-envision the role and the impact it can have on students.

Leaders who withhold references are acting in a petty and shortsighted manner that doesn't even serve their own students. Educators who want to move on, but can't, are unlikely to be at their best after being rebuffed. And they're likely to leave anyway, even if it means going without the benefit of a good reference.

“I'm Ambivalent About Recommending This Person”

What if you're not sure whether you can, in good conscience, provide a glowing recommendation?

It's simple: speak the truth. Don't say someone is great when they're merely good, and don't say someone is good if you're really looking to dump them on someone else. 

But don't save your honesty for a confidential reference check or year-end recommendation letter. Give feedback directly to the person as soon as it occurs to you, or as soon as you're asked for feedback.

Rising stars in our profession will often ask directly for feedback:

  • What opportunities should I be taking on?
  • What are my blind spots?
  • What could I be doing better?

If you see that someone has ambitions that might take them beyond their current role, and you anticipate feeling some reluctance, get curious and ask yourself: “What would I need to see this year in order to give this person my best, most glowing, no-hesitation recommendation?”

Now, this is where it gets tricky, because if you remain in the educational leadership profession for any length of time, you'll inevitably come across aspiring leaders who are moving up faster than you did. It's natural to think “Whoah, they really need to slow down and get more experience.”

We all tend to think that our career trajectory was right for us, so a similar path must be the best course for everyone else, right?

Wrong.

Every educator is on their own journey, and every situation is different. Sure, most 2nd-year teachers are not ready to become principals, but the reasons they're not ready—and the next steps they should take to become ready—are unique to each individual.

If your only feedback is “Keep doing what you're doing, for a longer period of time,” you're not thinking about what skills and experience the person actually needs to be ready for the next level.

Giving Feedback While It's Still Useful

If you don't feel comfortable giving someone a strong reference, that's a clear signal that they deserve more specific feedback, while there's still time to act on it and address any shortcomings. Don't wait until you're called for a reference check—give specific feedback now, while it can still benefit your students. 

It is unlikely that simply gaining additional years of experience, doing the same work in the same role, will have much value for an educator's future work at a higher level of leadership. 

Think about a 2nd-year teacher who has expressed interest in becoming a principal. Personally, I was always annoyed at people who seemed too eager to move on to a new challenge too soon.

But let's interrogate this sense of annoyance a bit: what's wrong with a 2nd-year teacher aspiring to the principalship?

Let's first be clear that “It took me longer” and “I had to put in my time and wait my turn” are not good arguments. Many of us had to wait longer than we wanted due to circumstances we wouldn't wish on anyone. 

But there's a legitimate reason to want someone to gain more experience before you recommend them for a promotion: skills and experience.

In most cases, 2nd-year teachers aren't very good yet. This is a profession with a steep learning curve. 

But teachers deserve useful feedback whether they're planning a career move or not. They deserve the specific feedback that will help them grow so they can serve their students more effectively. 

So if you feel that someone doesn't yet have the skills or experience they need to move to the next level, don't just tell them to hang around longer. Putting in more time has no magical power—and we've all seen teachers who get a little better in their 2nd year, only to stagnate at that level for years afterward. 

Give people the feedback they need—now—to earn your enthusiastic endorsement in the future. You'll be doing your current students a favor, and you'll be making a long-term impact on the profession.

If you know someone who aspires to a higher level of leadership, you can share this link where they can download my 52 practice interview questions for school leadership candidates.

Luthern Williams—New Roads School

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Luthern Williams

Luthern Williams is Head of School at New Roads School in Santa Monica, California. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, his career in educational leadership spans more than 20 years.

Tamara Fyke—Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is an author, speaker, and expert on social and emotional learning, and she's the creator of the Love In A Big World curriculum, and the editor and Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities, which we're here to talk about today.

 

Winning The Three Tournaments of the School Administrator Job Search

How can you rise above other candidates in the educational leadership hiring process, even if you're an outsider with less experience?

I've directly coached dozens of administrators seeking new roles, and I've engaged with thousands more via webinars, live video, and email, and I've noticed that people take two distinct approaches to the job search.

Approach #1: Waiting for the Right Job

Some people are waiting to be chosen. They believe that if they're the right person, a job offer will fall in their lap. “We've heard about the great work you've been doing, and we want you on our team,” they expect to hear out of the blue.

People who are waiting to be chosen are extremely selective about the jobs they apply for. They're sure that if it's the right job, it'll be theirs, so they only apply for a handful of jobs each year—and if they don't get them, well, it must be because the right job didn't come along.

Only, they start to notice a pattern: other, less qualified applicants start to jump the line and get jobs. How is that possible?

Huh,” the waiting-to-be-chosen leader grumbles. “Politics.”

So the years start to tick by, and they continue to wait for the right job. Every year, there are a few openings, but…gee, they must not be the right fit, because the offers never come.

Every week, I talk with frustrated people who can give me detailed explanations for why other people are getting hired and they aren't, but it comes down to this: they're waiting to be chosen, so they're not applying for very many jobs.

So that's the first approach, and let's be honest: it doesn't work. Actually, that's not quite fair—it works for enough people that it fools everyone else into the hope that if they just keep waiting for the right opportunity, it'll happen.

Approach #2: Competing for the Job You Want

But there's a second approach that people have always used, and that has always worked: competing to win.

The competing-to-win leader does many of the same things as the waiting-to-be-chosen leader:

  • They do good work.
  • They network and build relationships.
  • They look out for jobs that would be a good fit.

What's different is their underlying mindset about how the admin job search works. They see it, fundamentally, as a competition to be won. And they're right.

When you understand that getting your next-level instructional leadership role is a matter of competing against other candidates, everything changes.

It's not like finding the love of your life. It's not like picking a dog or cat from the shelter. It's not like choosing a church. Treating those processes as competitions feels weird or even creepy.

But the admin job search is absolutely a competition,  and you win the same way you'd win a tournament in sports—by competing.

Imagine that your teenager is on a soccer team, and the team is pretty good. They put in the hours of practice each week, they play hard in games, and they win fairly often.

But imagine that there's another team that doesn't really understand that they're in a competitive league. They're playing for the love of the game, and they assume everyone else is, too—and honestly, it bothers them how focused everyone else is on winning and keeping score. Tacky.

How well is this second team going to fare when they arrive at a soccer tournament? Are they going to advance to the championship? Not if they don't even understand that they're competing.

This is the tragedy of so many waiting-to-be-chosen leaders I encounter. In some cases, they've risen a bit without really competing. Perhaps they were chosen out of the blue for their current role, and they expect their next role to fall in their lap in the same way.

But the higher you rise in the profession, the more obvious it becomes that this is a competition, and to win, you must prevail in each of three specific tournaments.

No amount of waiting to be chosen will bring success in these tournaments, unless you get very lucky—and luck isn't an especially good plan.

Tournament #1: Application Screening

The first tournament is the application screening process. If you're an external candidate—applying to a school you've never worked in—your application represents your entire existence.

They haven't seen you teach. They haven't served on the leadership committee with you. They haven't interviewed your students.

You are nothing more than words on the screen at this stage—and understanding the terms of the competition is essential, because they'll change as you progress through the three tournaments.

Someone recently emailed me wondering why she wasn't getting more interviews. “I have great experience and great references,” she said. Why wasn't that enough?

It's simple: when districts are deciding who to interview, they aren't checking references at all. They're just looking at your application. And they're not really seeing your experience—they're seeing the documents you've submitted describing your experience.

So if you've undersold yourself in your application materials—especially your cover letter and résumé—your experience isn't standing out the way it should.

When you understand that the first tournament is all about landing an interview—getting in the “yes” pile—you can pour all of your energy into submitting a stellar application.

And if you still aren't getting enough interviews, despite having a strong résumé and cover letter, the solution is equally simple: apply for more jobs.

Waiting to be chosen, and applying for just one or two ideal jobs a year, isn't going to land you the job you're looking for.

These numbers are a shock to most people, but here's what I recommend:

Apply for 25 to 50 jobs.

Expect 5 to 10 first-round interviews from those applications.

And expect 1 to 2 offers to come your way, if you're a strong competitor in each tournament.

If you're not advancing to the next tournament, focus on winning the current tournament, according to its rules. Again, to win the application screening tournament, submit better applications for more jobs.

Then, you'll advance to the second tournament—the interview process.

Tournament #2: Interviews

When you submit strong applications for appropriate jobs, you'll land interviews…eventually. It's a slog, and it can be discouraging—especially if you get your hopes up and expect every single application to lead to an interview.

As you can see from the numbers above, 25 applications should land you about 5 interviews, and 50 applications should lead to about 10 interviews. If you want the job, commit to doing the work.

If your numbers are better, that means your application must be outstanding. Every year, I speak with a few people who say things like “I applied for five jobs, and I got interviews for all of them,” but this is rare, and usually only happens for people making lateral moves after years of experience in a role.

If you're moving up to a new level—for example, from assistant principal to principal—it's great to land an interview about 20% of the time.

If your numbers are worse—if you've applied for 25+ jobs with just one or two interviews, or even none at all—don't start to doubt yourself. Don't go back to get another master's degree or your doctorate. Don't wait until you have five more years of experience. Focus on winning the previous tournament—focus 100% of your energy on making your applications stronger, and submitting more of them.

Side note: occasionally I will see people try to skip a typical level on the path from teacher to principal. This usually doesn't work, but it's district-specific. For example, in some districts, athletic coaches and department heads are commonly hired as APs. In other districts, it may be typical for everyone on the principal track to become an instructional facilitator, then an AP, then a principal. Ask around if you're not sure, and make sure you're applying for jobs you actually have a shot at.

So once you've entered the interview tournament, how do you compete to win?

Like a youth soccer team, it comes down to fundamentals and practice. If your teen's soccer team has strong players who put in the practice hours each week, they'll do better than a team that barely practices or has mediocre players.

It's easy to miss this key: to win the interview tournament, you must both a) have good experience, and b) be able to talk about that experience in a compelling, interesting way.

The wrong way to talk about your experience is to frame it as simply a number:

“I have ___ years as a ___.”

When you frame your experience as nothing more than a number of years in a role, you invite unfavorable comparisons. There's always going to be someone with more years of experience. If you want to win the interview tournament, you must redefine the terms of victory for the interview team.

The best way to win the interview tournament is with stories.

In an interview, you'll be asked specific questions about your qualifications and experience, and if you answer these questions in a purely factual and clinical way—with job titles and duties and dates—that's how you'll be compared to other candidates.

Obviously, you will need to answer the questions in an honest and complete way—but you can also liven up your answers with stories.

Todd, who recently landed his first principal job, told me how he won the interview tournament:

“I used and practiced your interview questions quite a bit. I also used your advice to have some prepared stories to help (which indeed, I did beat out an internal candidate).”

Todd had never held an admin position before—he was a classroom teacher who had taken on leadership responsibilities, but without the title. He was competing against internal candidates who were already well-known to the district, and he was almost certainly competing against people with previous admin experience.

He beat them all, and won the second tournament, by telling compelling, true stories that answered the interviewers' questions and gave a rich picture of what kind of leader he'd be.

Win this second tournament, and you'll progress to the final tournament: reference checks.

Tournament #3: Reference Checks

If you impress the interview team and make it onto the shortlist of finalists, your references will be consulted.

Sometimes references are used to help break a tie—if one candidate's references say he's fine, while the other's references gush over her, it might become an easier choice.

But usually, reference checks are a “just in case” step:

  • Is this person crazy?
  • Have they done something horrible that we need to know about?
  • Is there something they're hiding?
  • Are they really as great as they claim to be?

References are contacted in order to minimize risk…but they can do so much more for you, if you're willing to ask.

Herein lies a key competitive advantage in the third tournament, because you can score points in ways your competitors don't even know about.

You need references who won't just speak well of you during a reference check.  You need references who will mentor and advocate for you—and the time to enlist their support is now.

Don't wait until you need a recommendation letter within the next 24 hours. That's what most people do, and that's why most people get mediocre recommendation letters.

Give your references a heads up now that you'll be seeking a new leadership role in the future. Yes, this may be an awkward conversation, because you'll be communicating your intent to leave your current job. But if you're clearly on the path to a higher level of leadership and impact, your references will understand.

Set aside some time for a face-to-face conversation, and say something along these lines:

As you probably know, I've been planning to look for a ___ position, and I'll probably start applying when jobs are posted in ___ (month). I want you to know that I'm 100% committed to this school, and that this job has my full attention for as long as I'm in it. If there's a ___ job for me here, I'd take it in a heartbeat. But I also know there may not be an opening for me here, and becoming a ___ is a really important next step for me. I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket, so—and I know this is awkward to ask—I want to make sure I have your support as I take these next steps, even if it means going somewhere else, if that's where the opportunity is.

Between now and then, I want to make sure I'm demonstrating everything that you'd need to see in order to give me your highest endorsement without any hesitation. I know I'm probably not doing everything I could be, so I'd like to ask for your feedback now. What should I be doing to really make myself an outstanding candidate for ___?

And because I know it's always short notice when people ask for recommendation letters, what I'd like to ask for now is a draft—not something that's finished and ready to send, but just a rough outline of what you think of me and what I need to work on. Then, if you see me growing in those areas, you can revise the letter, and when I actually need to send one in, it should be a lot faster for you, because most of it is already written. Would that be OK? Could you write me a draft recommendation letter?

Most people won't make a request like this, because—let's be honest—it's an awkward conversation. But if you don't take the risk, you can't reap the rewards.

Is there a chance your reference will get upset? Is there a chance they'll say no? Of course. But that's true whether you ask now, or months from now when you're crunched for time.

The absolute worst time to get your references on board is when they get a call—out of the blue—from a district that's ready to snatch you away. If it's a surprise, they'll be caught off-guard, and they may be angry that you didn't tell them of your plans. They may panic at the thought of having to replace you, and they may feel betrayed. All of these feelings virtually ensure that you'll get a less-than-stellar recommendation.

So start now. Enlist their support. Get draft letters. Start acting on their feedback.

And as you start to get good recommendation letters from your references, include them in your applications. Most candidates don't do this, because it's not required, and because they haven't asked for letters yet. But it'll give you a huge advantage in the Application Screening tournament—and it'll virtually guarantee your success in the final Reference Checks tournament.

Strive to get 10 recommendation letters from your current supervisor, any former supervisors, other leaders you work with, peers, other contacts across the district, and even former students' parents. One of my key references when I was hired as a principal came from a director I briefly reported to while running summer school. Think of anyone you've worked with who'd be willing to help you move to the next level.

Want More Help?

If you'd like more help getting ready for the upcoming hiring season, you can apply to work with me here, and we'll talk.

Anneke Markholt and Joanna Michelson—Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Dr. Anneke Markholt

Dr. Anneke Markholt is an associate director with the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and affiliate faculty of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. Dr. Markholt is the co-author of Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice with Stephen Fink and Joanna Michelson.

About Dr. Joanna Michelson

Dr. Joanna Michelson is the director of teacher leadership and learning at the Center for Educational Leadership. She leads CEL's teacher professional learning line of services. Dr. Michelson is the co-author of Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice with Stephen Fink and Anneke Markholt.

Why The Admin Job Search Is Won In Advance

If you want to land the next-level leadership role you're aspiring to, the moment of victory is now.

Not when you get the call.

Not when you walk into the interview.

Not when you submit your application.

Victory begins now, when you start preparing.

Why?

Because most people don't prepare. Most people “wing it” and hope for the best.

And here's the weird thing: sometimes “winging it” works—but only sometimes. Here's why people sometimes succeed by winging it—and why you shouldn't take the chance.

Path #1: Being The Chosen One

If you're the chosen one, being prepared for the hiring process far in advance is less important. It still matters, but a last-minute application can still get the job done—if you're the preferred internal candidate.

See, most districts attempt to develop a “leadership pipeline” of both internal and external candidates who will be ready to fill any positions that become vacant.

A school never wants to have slim pickings when they need to fill a leadership position—and ideally, they want to have a hand-picked candidate who's ready to step into the role.

For example, I had a colleague who'd been in the same school for more than a decade when a junior leadership position became open. She'd been highly successful in several positions in the school over the years, and had taken on a variety of teacher-leadership roles, so she was the natural choice for this junior admin position.

Then, a few years later, when the school's principal moved on, she was ready to step into the principalship. There was really no contest—she was the perfect person for the job, and virtually nothing could have changed the outcome of the hiring process, because it was years in the making.

The normal screening and interview process was conducted, and other candidates were considered, but it was all but inevitable that she'd get the job—and she did.

What a lot of people don't realize is that this is a good thing—it's the best possible solution to an information problem.

Job-seekers often complain of “politics” and of “who you know counting more than what you know,” but consider the school's perspective for a moment.

When schools hire leaders, they want the best—but determining who is “the best” is no easy task.

If you're considering outside candidates you've never heard of, you only know what you learn from the

  • Application
  • Interview
  • Reference checks

Candidates can over-sell themselves in the application and interview process, and even references can be unreliable—if, say, they're trying to get you to take someone off their hands.

On the other hand, if you're considering an internal candidate you've known for years, you probably have more than enough information before even looking at their application or conducting an interview. You'll know when you're hearing unjustified boasting, and you'll know when you're hearing the truth—even if the résumé, cover letter, and interview aren't particularly strong.

The challenge is comparing this apples-to-oranges information about internal and external candidates—working with someone for years gives you entirely different sorts of information about a candidate than reviewing a résumé.

It's essential to understand this information problem from the hiring team's perspective before shifting back to your perspective as a candidate.

While being an external candidate gives you a steeper hill to climb, because you have such a limited opportunity to provide information about yourself to the hiring team, it also gives you more control over how you're seen.

Path #2: Standing Out in the Crowd

When you're an internal candidate, you're well-known, warts and all. The hiring team may have seen your strengths firsthand…but they've also seen your failures, your mistakes, and your inconsistency.

When you're an external candidate, you exist to the hiring team only as the set of information you provide in your application and interview (and if you make it to the final stages of the process, your references may also be called for their perspective on your qualifications).

Your challenge is to stand out in the crowd, but this is actually a much easier challenge to win.

It may be frustrating to have your qualifications—your entire life and career—reduced to two sheets of paper.

You know you're more than the bullet points you've typed out in Microsoft Word.

You know you're more than that one awkward answer you'll give in an interview.

But with this reductionism comes a tremendous gift: simplicity.

All you have to do to stand out—even above internal candidates—is simply focus on perfecting your résumé and cover letter.

That's it.

Your application is all that's considered initially, so that's the arena in which you compete and win. You don't have to have the most experience or the most prestigious degree—you just need the best résumé. (Here's a format you can follow for crafting a strong résumé.)

And when you land an interview, hit a home run with the interview team.

Is it easy to win at each stage of the hiring process? No. It's hard work, and the competition can be stiff.

But here's what you must understand: you have the opportunity to change your odds.

Right now, you can't control the basic facts of your résumé—your years of experience, the jobs you've held, and so on. They're facts, fixed in place by reality.

You also can't control the competition—sometimes you'll be up against people with more experience and stronger training.

But you can still beat the competition by giving the hiring team the information they need to make the decision that you are their best candidate. 

What breaks my heart is that so many people believe they have no chance until the facts change—until they have more experience and no competition.

In other words, they believe they have no chance, ever, because there's always someone “better” out there.

So they don't even really try to win the admin job search. They apply for just one or two jobs a year, getting their hopes up briefly, only to be disappointed yet again.

And the years tick by, with nothing other than the dates on the résumé changing. “2007–Present” comes to be eleven years, then twelve, then thirteen.

This is a tragedy, because I promise you no hiring team has ever said “Well, we have these two candidates who are pretty similar, but one has eleven years of experience, but the other has twelve. Let's interview the twelve-year person.”

No—it comes down to the quality of the résumé, not just the facts on it. How you put your résumé together to make it clear why you're worth interviewing is something you can control to dramatically increase your odds.

In fact, here's a template you can follow:

PDF Download

A few tips:

  • List your most recent jobs first—in reverse chronological order
  • For each job, give the details in a headline: “Assistant Principal, Berryville High School, Berryville, OH—2013–Present”
  • In 3-6 bullet points, list your key accomplishments—not duties!—in that role.
  •  

  • Strive for specificity: “As assistant principal responsible for discipline, worked with parents and teachers to reduce classroom referrals from an average of 4.9 per day in 2012-2013 to 2.1 per day in 2013-2014”

You can download the full Résumé Blueprint PDF free of charge here.

Win In Advance, Starting Now

Whether you ultimately prevail in the ed leadership job search depends on the work you do now—whether you put in the effort to get through each “gate” in the process.

The first gate is application screening—to land in the “yes” pile and score an interview, your application materials must be top-notch.

Put in the work now to make your résumé and cover letter stand out, so you make it to the next gate—the interview process.

Then, start practicing for interviews—don't wait until you have one on the calendar. Download 52 sample interview questions for school admin jobs here.

When jobs are posted, you'll be ready—ready to submit a stellar application, and ready to ace your interview.

How To Start Visiting Classrooms After Putting It Off For Too Long

How can you start getting into classrooms mid-year, after several months have gone by?

It feels a bit like forgetting someone's name five minutes into a conversation and having to ask “What was your name, again?”

Awkward. 

“Hey everyone…so, we all know I should have been getting into classrooms all year, but now I'm REALLY going to start…really!”

Don't despair. You can start getting into classrooms at any time of year, without making it awkward, triggering teacher resistance, or setting up unrealistic expectations.

Overcoming the Awkwardness

The awkwardness of starting to visit classrooms—after months of failing to make time—can make it feel safer not to even try.

And make no mistake: this is the norm in our profession.

Most school leaders rarely, if ever, visit classrooms—except when they're required to, as part of the teacher evaluation process. (And even then, not everyone meets all of the minimum requirements.)

But we feel a certain pull to visit classrooms. We know it's where we truly belong if we want to be instructional leaders, because visiting classrooms gives us our best opportunity to have an impact on teaching and learning.

Still, we can resist that pull when faced with the awkwardness of finally getting around to something we've been putting off for too long.

Let's just be honest about the reactions we're likely to get:

“Oh…what brings you here?”

“Can I help you with something?”

“Are you here for a student?”

Or even the dreaded deadpan from first-year students:

“Who are you?”

Ouch!

But there's one simple thing you can do to overcome the discomfort of your first visit:

Be interested. 

Show a genuine interest in what students are learning, what they're doing, and how the teacher is making it all happen.

Express genuine curiosity about the learning that's taking place. Smile, nod, and show enthusiasm.

And for Dewey's sake, leave forms and clipboards out of it. Don't bring anything along—not a laptop, not a tablet, not a clipboard with a 2-part form.

Just show up, pay attention, and express interest.

When instructional leaders express interest in teaching and learning, no one is surprised (even if it's the first time), because it just seems like what we're supposed to be doing.

A form on a clipboard, or an app running on your iPad, sends a different message:

“I'm required to do this. It's a formality. I'm here because I'm up against a deadline.”

But if you show up with just yourself—your curious, interested, cares-about-learning instructional leader self—the awkwardness melts away quickly.

Skip the Grand Announcement

What you don't need to do is make some sort of big announcement. You don't need to issue a mea culpa that draws attention to your sparse classroom visits.

You don't need to promise to do better, or outline an ambitious schedule that sets you up to fail.

“I'm so sorry I haven't been in classrooms as much as I've wanted to. I've just been very busy with the start of school, and our new initiative, and our accreditation visit, and, and, and…I'm going to visit classrooms for four hours a day, every day for the rest of the year to make up for it.”

Forget the apologies and the promises, and just get started.

When you show up and express interest, teachers get used to it quickly. They'll be glad to see you, and they'll understand if you don't make it around as often as you'd like.

But to go beyond making an appearance, and truly make your visits valuable, you'll eventually need to start asking questions—and the questions you ask will determine whether teachers are happy to see you—or whether they put up a fight.

Preventing Teacher Resistance to Classroom Visits

Some teachers aren't just surprised to see you when you start visiting classrooms—they're downright hostile.

That's why it's so important to show up empty-handed during your first few visits—no forms, no apps, no technology. Just be present and pay attention.

(Smiling doesn't hurt, either!)

If teachers understand that you're not visiting to conduct a “gotcha” evaluation, they'll be more open to actually talking with you and helping you understand what you're seeing. But it's hard to overcome teachers' suspicions when you suddenly increase the frequency of your visits.

Here are three things teachers need to know, in order to trust that your intentions are positive:

  1. You aren't singling me out—you're treating everyone the same
  2. You aren't compiling a secret file on me
  3. You aren't judging me without understanding the context of what you're seeing

In the High-Performance Instructional Leadership model, I recommend visiting all teachers on a consistent rotation—three classrooms a day, every day. In most cases, this will get you around to every teacher about once every two weeks.

It's essential to visit everyone in the same order each time, and not to skip anyone, because teachers will start asking around:

“Hey, she's been in my room twice this month. Is it just me, or is she visiting your classes, too?”

The “Is it just me?” question is how teachers decide whether they're being singled out, or whether you're just doing a better job than ever of getting into classrooms.

If you visit teachers haphazardly, without keeping track, it's likely that you'll make it around to certain teachers more often than others—and this can spell disaster if teachers start to panic.

To make sure you stick to a consistent rotation, and don't skip anyone, I highly recommend keeping track of your visits, with a system like these notecards.

Download

On the back of these notecards, you'll find 10 evidence-based questions for asking teachers about their practice, without triggering defensiveness:

  1. Context: I noticed that you [ ]…could you talk to me about how that fits within this lesson or unit?
  2. Perception: Here’s what I saw students [ ]…what were you thinking was happening at that time?
  3. Interpretation: At one point in the lesson, it seemed like [ ] …What was your take?
  4. Decision: Tell me about when you [ ] …what went into that choice?
  5. Comparison: I noticed that students [ ] …how did that compare with what you had expected to happen when you planned thelesson?
  6. Antecedent: I noticed that [ ] …could you tell me about what led up to that, perhaps in an earlier lesson?
  7. Adjustment: I saw that [ ] …what did you think of that, and what do you plan to do tomorrow?
  8. Intuition: I noticed that [ ] …how did you feel about how that went?
  9. Alignment: I noticed that [ ] …what links do you see to our instructional framework?
  10. Impact: What effect did you think it had when you [ ] ?

You can download a PDF of these 10 questions for better feedback on teaching—without triggering resistance—here.

Relationships Before Rigor

You'll find that the questions in the PDFs above soon take you deep into teachers' thinking and decision-making.

But it's OK if your first few visits are cordial, but lacking in depth. Conversations about professional practice can be powerful, but it takes time, trust, and relationships to truly get to the good stuff.

As you're getting started, be OK with ambiguity. Don't demand closure in the form of next steps or promised follow-up.

It's perfectly fine to end a conversation with “OK, well, great to see you today!”

That's how normal relationships work—you don't always say goodbye to friends by making a firm plan for your next get-together. Sometimes you just say “Bye!” …and that's it, until you run into each other again.

We might feel compelled to be more formal when we're working with teachers we supervise and evaluate, but we don't have to be.

Focus on relationships first, and teachers will be more willing to share their thinking in subsequent conversations.

Try It!

So if you've been putting off classroom visits for far too long, today is a great day to get started. Download the notecards, and leave early for your next supervision duty. Stop by a classroom on the way to the cafeteria or the playground.

Smile, express interest in what students are doing. Chat with the teacher if you have a chance.

And let me know how it goes! Hit me up on Twitter @eduleadership if this article is inspiring you to start getting into classrooms.

Robert Avossa—FETC

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Dr. Robert Avossa

Dr. Robert Avossa is Senior Vice-President of Education at LRP Media Group, where he oversees the Future of Education Technology Conference, which we're here to talk about today. Dr. Avossa previously served as Superintendent of Palm Beach County and Fulton County Schools in Georgia.

 

Cinque Henderson—Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Cinque Henderson

Cinque Henderson is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, and on TV networks including HBO and Showtime. A graduate of Harvard University, Cinque spent a year as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles area, an experience that informed his new book, Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free.

 

Kimberly Mitchell—Experience Inquiry: 5 Powerful Strategies, 50 Practical Experiences

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

About Kimberly Mitchell

Kimberly Mitchell is a writer, workshop leader and speaker with a focus on deeper learning and inquiry-based teaching practices. Currently teaching at the University of Washington's College of Education, her previous experience includes serving as a principal and teacher in Athens, Seattle, Los Angeles, Ecuador, and elsewhere around the globe, as well as serving as a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

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