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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.

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.

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.

Ending the “When Can You Meet?” Back-and-Forth with Self-Service Calendar Booking Tools

As a leader, your time is in short supply, but a lot of people need it.

You're needed in meetings with parents, district administrators, outside contractors, and the teachers you supervise.

Unless you're in a small school where double-booking is rare and people can easily find you when they need you, it's essential to manage your appointments with a calendar.

While the calendar is a great tool for avoiding double-booking, and making sure you're always in the right place at the right time, managing your calendar can be a part-time job all by itself.

It comes in waves, especially around the teacher evaluation process:

“Dear teachers,
It's time for our evaluation conferences. Please email me three times that would work for you.”

A single all-staff email like this can easily generate dozens or hundreds of back-and-forth messages with teachers as you attempt to pin down a time that works for each teacher, with no double-booking.

Of course, many of the “three times” that teachers suggest for your meeting will overlap with the times suggested by other teachers.

If you have ample office staffing support, you can delegate many aspects of managing your calendar to a trusted administrative assistant. But in most schools, it's not just leaders who are overworked—it's everyone, including administrative assistants.

So the value of solving this problem for good—by allowing people to book their own appointments—is immense.

But it goes against a longstanding tradition in protecting leaders' time.

The Gatekeeper


Administrative assistants have always played an important role in protecting leaders' time.

Leaders' time is scarce, and the buffering role that administrative assistants play saves leaders countless hours of sales presentations, complaints, and other meetings that aren't a high priority.

So if the idea of handing over direct access to the leader's calendar to others makes you nervous, you're not alone.

Fortunately, new tech tools can make it vastly easier to book the right appointments with the right people, without opening the door to time-wasting distractions.

An Experiment in Self-Service Booking

A few years into my role as an elementary principal, I decided I was tired of the “let me know a few times that would work for you” approach to scheduling meetings with teachers.

I was tired of all the back-and-forth emails, and I knew there must be a better way.

It would have been easy to say “please see Teresa in the office to set up a meeting,” but I happened to be using Google Calendar rather than my district's Outlook platform, so no one else had direct access to my calendar.

Plus, I wasn't eager to burden anyone else with the onerous task of making and confirming dozens of appointments. So I looked to technology.

I was familiar with Doodle polls, which are great for figuring out the best time to meet with a large group.

However, Doodle wasn't the right fit. I didn't want to set up one meeting with a large group; I needed to set up a large number of individual meetings, without any double-booking.

I settled on a tool called ScheduleOnce, which I use to this day. (If ScheduleOnce is overkill for your needs, you might try Calendly, which has a free plan—see below.)

These tools are even easier to use than Doodle, and require less back-and-forth discussion, because they're fully self-service.

They don't allow people to see what's on your calendar, but they allow people that you invite to book appointments with you, without any back-and-forth discussion.

How Self-Service Booking Tools Work

Here's the basic process:

  • You link the tool to your Google, Outlook, or iCloud calendar, so the tool can add appointments to your calendar only at times you're free, to prevent double-booking
  • You set additional rules for when you're available for meetings (so you're never booked at 5am, Sunday night, or during lunch duty, even if nothing is on your calendar)
  • The tool provides a link that you share with people who need to meet with you
  • When someone visits this link, the tool checks your calendar in real time, and allows the person to select a time
  • The tool adds the appointment to your calendar and sends email notifications to everyone

Before I used ScheduleOnce, the process was much more cumbersome:

  • Send out a “please let me know three times that work for you” email to all staff
  • Reply to teachers individually to confirm the times that work for me
  • Apologize to the teachers whose three times are already filled, and ask for more options
  • Feel bad that I answered my email slightly out of order, so it wasn't perfectly first-come, first-served
  • Reply again to confirm appointments with the teachers who didn't get their first choice
  • Follow up with anyone who forgets to book a time

When I made the switch to self-service booking, the process consisted of:

  • Setting up the tool
  • Sending out the link and instructions
  • Following up with people who forgot to book a time
  • Showing up for the meetings

As you can see, the process is similar when you use a self-service calendar tool, but a major time-wasting step is eliminated: negotiation and communication.

The only communication involved was sending out the email with the link and instructions. Everything else happened automatically:

  • The tool checks my calendar for existing appointments to avoid double-booking
  • The tool follows my additional rules for when I want to meet, so I don't end up with meetings at inconvenient times
  • The tool adds the appointment to my calendar
  • The tool sends a confirmation to me and the person who set up the meeting
  • The tool sends reminders to make sure we both show up on time

These tools aren't always free, but they're incredibly flexible, and they'll save you a ton of time.

Choosing The Right Tool

I've never used Calendly to manage my own calendar, but I've used it many times as a podcast guest or meeting participant.

The interface is extremely simple and intuitive, and it's free. If you want to get started quickly and easily, go with Calendly.

You can pay for more advanced features—for example, if you'd like to customize the text in appointment confirmation emails to remind teachers what to bring to their meetings with you.

My recommendation is to try Calendly and see if it does what you need.

If not, I recommend taking a look at ScheduleOnce, which is also very easy to set up, but is much more customizable. Because of its built-in flexibility, ScheduleOnce doesn't have a free plan.

If you need advanced features, such as multiple booking pages, or group meetings, I recommend ScheduleOnce, because they've developed a solution for virtually every scenario:

Do you want to have all of your pre-conferences to take place before or after school, to leave the school day free for observations?

Do you want to have veto power before meetings are confirmed?

Do you need to schedule a meeting with three parents, two SPED teachers, seven Gen Ed teachers, and your school psychologist, in a room with a projector and at least 8 chairs?

No matter how elaborate your needs, ScheduleOnce has you covered. (By my count, ScheduleOnce has 46 different customization features at the moment, with more added all the time.)

But again, if you just need a way for people to make appointments on your calendar without double-booking, Calendly is much simpler—and if you need advanced features, Calendly has plenty to offer when you're ready to upgrade to a paid plan.

Different Links for Different Purposes

If you want to create a single link to allow people to book appointments in general, it's fast and easy.

But you may find it worthwhile to create different booking pages for different purposes.

For example, when I asked teachers to book their formal observation cycle appointments with me, I just provided a single link. But if I wanted to hold all of my pre- and post-conferences outside of school hours, to leave the school day free for classroom observations, I could create two different booking pages—one showing school hours, and one showing non-school hours.

Both booking pages would connect with the same calendar—my calendar—but with different availability rules.

You can also create different rules for different audiences. For example, you may accept 1-hour appointments for classroom observations, but only 15-minute meetings with parents. It's up to you.

It Really Works!

As I've worked with countless groups of administrators and administrative assistants, I've often encountered resistance to the idea of setting up a new tool, because it seems like it'll be hard or intimidating. And we fear letting go of control, which is understandable.

So allow me to give you three assurances:

  • It's easy—you can do it, even if you aren't tech-savvy
  • It works, and nothing bad will happen
  • It'll save you an enormous amount of time and frustration, especially when you're meeting with a lot of people back-to-back

Give it a try! Pick a tool, link it to your calendar, and share the link with someone who needs to meet with you.

Your Turn

How will you use a self-service calendar tool? Leave a comment and let me know!

If you'd like more time-saving strategies for school leaders, check out my book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership (especially chapters 6-10).

If you'd like to provide your district team with in-depth support for productivity and instructional leadership, learn more about bringing me onsite for the High-Performance Instructional Leadership 1-Day Intensive.

Classroom Conversations for Leading Learning

Our profession has had no shortage of efforts to help leaders improve their schools.

In recent years, these efforts have focused heavily on teacher evaluation, though many other promising models have incorporated coaching, feedback, and data-driven planning cycles.

But what if we’ve been overlooking the most impactful approach, precisely because it seems too simple? And what if the best way to improving teaching is also the best way to improve school leadership?

From thousands of conversations with school leaders, I’ve seen a wide range of approaches to instructional leadership, ranging from the casual to the highly formalized. I’ve also heard brutally honest reflections—from both administrators and teachers—on the impact of these efforts. My conclusion is that most are a waste of time and effort. We’d do far better to return to the most basic form of human interaction: conversation.

Conversation As Professional Learning

Making a daily practice of visiting classrooms, observing briefly, and talking with teachers has the greatest potential to improve student learning, help professionals grow, and help schools become more effective learning organizations.

I’ve come to this conclusion by studying an unlikely role model: Toyota. At Toyota, continuous improvement and employee development happen primarily through interactions between mentors and mentees—employees and their supervisors—on the factory floor, or wherever the work is being done. We might assume that leadership in a manufacturing company would be rigidly top-down, numbers-driven, and directive toward front-line staff. But Toyota’s focus on conversation is precisely what sets it apart from its competitors.

Adopting a “go and see” philosophy, Toyota supervisors are prohibited from making decisions from afar based on reports and data. Instead, they’re expected to go and talk about the work with the people doing the work. Because these conversations take place on the factory floor rather than in the manager’s office, they’re based on firsthand, real-time observations of the work being done.

As Mike Rother explains in his book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, everyone throughout the company is taught to improve quality by engaging in rapid cycles of inquiry—an interactive process between supervisors and employees at all levels of the organization.

Contrast this approach to our typical system for accountability and professional growth in schools:

  • Teachers set annual goals based on student performance, which are vetted by administrators
  • Administrators conduct formal observations, meeting in their offices with teachers for pre- and post-observation discussions
  • Conversations about teaching tend to focus on ratings and directive feedback, with the administrator doing most of the talking
  • Decisions about student intervention and teacher professional development are made based on data and reports, but with hardly any firsthand observation

Under this approach, instructional leaders obtain very little real-time information on which to base improvement decisions. Administrators may conduct occasional walk-throughs to collect data, provide feedback, make an appearance, and generally keep teachers on their toes, but without conversation, these visits fail to generate learning—for the individuals or the organization.

If a much simpler approach—face-to-face conversation—has so much potential to improve leadership and organizational performance, why hasn’t it caught on in schools?

In short, because we’re too focused on directive feedback.

The Danger of Directive Feedback

In the education profession, we hold feedback in high regard—though what constitutes feedback can vary widely. In most cases, it includes suggestions made by instructional leaders, which teachers are expected to implement or at least consider. For example, in his 2013 book Leverage Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo describes how a principal, Julie, provides feedback to teachers in weekly 15-minute meetings, based on 15-minute observations: “At each feedback meeting, Julie offers direct, readily applicable feedback. The next week, she checks that her feedback has been put in place and looks for further areas for improvement, building a veritable cycle of improvement” (p. 64).

At Toyota, in contrast, mentors are discouraged from providing this type of feedback, which is seen as a hindrance to the mentee’s growth—as well as a hindrance to discovering the true nature of the improvement that needs to occur. Suggestions—or what Toyota calls countermeasures—are inappropriate before the issue has been pinpointed by the mentee. The mentor is present and fully engaged, but only to guide the mentee—not provide a solution.

What if we instead approached school improvement and professional growth like Toyota, by treating inquiry-driven conversation as the best way to improve performance? What if we trained school leaders not to treat observations as opportunities for directive feedback, but as a chance to “go and see,” and engage in conversation with teachers?

It might seem impossible that a manufacturing company could have a more effective approach to professional and organizational learning than schools, which are ostensibly learning organizations. But Toyota’s culture and results speak for themselves. By engaging in continuous improvement for more than 60 years, Toyota has established itself as the world’s quality leader—not just in manufacturing, but across all sectors. How might a “go and see” approach to instructional leadership work in our schools?

From Firsthand Evidence to Better Decisions

Classroom conversations facilitate professional and organizational learning for a straightforward and obvious reason: they allow us to make sense of what’s taking place, and to make rapid decisions to improve the conditions for teaching and learning.

For example, if Sam, an administrator, spends a few minutes observing in Carol’s math class, he might observe that students seem confused during Carol’s explanation of how to solve a new type of problem. In a typical walkthrough, Sam might leave Carol a note with a few reflective questions, such as “What are some ways you could ensure that students are following along with your explanations, so you can identify their misconceptions?”

Or if it’s a formal observation, Sam might meet with Carol afterward and ask her to justify her approach to the lesson. He might then provide directive feedback on reducing students’ confusion.

But what if Sam adopts a simpler approach, and simply asks Carol how the lesson went relative to her plans? He might discover that she intended for students to struggle a bit with the new problem type in small groups, as a formative assessment before teaching a new algorithm. Or he might discover that Carol didn’t think students were confused at all. Without knowing Carol’s intentions for the lesson, and inquiring about her perceptions of its success, Sam is likely to provide unhelpful or even insulting feedback.

Teacher evaluation expert Charlotte Danielson, in her book Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations, explains that conversation is powerful because—unlike directive feedback—it hinges on teachers’ understanding as much as their actions:

When educators recognize that for teachers to advance in their understanding, they must be the ones to engage in the work of self-assessment and reflection on practice, then external feedback is even seen as a possible hindrance to that process. (p. 10)

In a complex environment, determining the facts on the ground is a critical first step. Before we can make improvement decisions, we must ascertain what’s currently taking place, then decide what it means. As outside observers, instructional leaders often lack the context they need to make meaning of what they see. Teachers have deep knowledge about what and how their students have been learning, but may miss many of the nuances of student interaction that an outside observer may notice. Conversation can bridge these gaps in knowledge, and lead to deeper understanding—and ultimately, better decisions that result in improvement.

For teachers, these decisions are squarely focused on teaching and learning. For instructional leaders, the insights gained from a single conversation may inform a wide range of operational and improvement decisions. It’s these interactions, repeated hundreds of times each school year, that lead to sustained improvement and outstanding results for students.

Why can’t directive feedback produce the same level of improvement? I believe it can help teachers move from bad to good, but not from good to great. Achieving excellence in teaching requires that teachers themselves take professional responsibility for their teaching decisions and their growth. Too many instructional leaders go to great lengths to provide high-quality directive feedback, yet fail to recognize this fundamental fact. It’s not enough for teachers to improve only in response to directive feedback; continuous improvement, as the same implies, should happen all the time.

As leaders engage in “go and see” conversations with teachers, they learn about the challenges teachers are grappling with individually, as well as school-wide challenges that must be addressed at the administrative level.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of the quality movement in Japan and the US, believed that quality is the results of systems more than exceptional individuals, noting that “in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system” (Out of the Crisis, p. 315).

While student learning may depend to a greater degree on the quality of individual teachers, only by engaging in organizational learning can schools build the capacity to meet the needs of their students. Treating individual teachers as problems to be fixed with corrective feedback robs our schools of the improvement potential of conversation-based learning.

How “Go and See” Conversations Look In Practice

Powerful classroom conversations begin with noticing. Instructional leaders can be more than a sounding board; they can be key sources of insight if they’re willing to “go and see” the work being done firsthand.

For example, Sam might begin a conversation with Carol by saying “It seemed to me, from the looks on their faces, that students were pretty confused while you were demonstrating how to solve the new type of problem. What was your take, and how did that compare with your expectations when you planned the lesson?”

Sam not only shares his perception of what took place, but also asks for Carol’s perspective on the situation. Then, he asks how that compares with her intent for the lesson—a consideration that’s often missing from directive feedback. After clarifying the situation, Carol and Sam can discuss ideas for improvement.

What learning will result from this conversation? First, Sam will learn how Carol thinks about the issues they discuss. Second, he may gain insight into effective teaching strategies that Carol shares with him, which he may be able to share with other teachers. Third, he may identify issues that need to be addressed at the school level—for example, if Carol identifies school activities that are causing students to miss class. Fourth, he may identify areas in which Carol could benefit from additional professional development or training.

What might Carol learn from this conversation? She may gain greater insight into how students experienced the lesson, and may gain valuable ideas about how to improve her practice. She’ll also learn to adopt Sam’s approach to inquiry, so she can use it independently.

But it’s also possible that she’ll learn very little from her conversation with Sam—especially if she’s a highly skilled, experienced teacher. Is this a positive outcome? Yes, because what Carol shares with Sam can result in organizational learning—Sam can help transfer Carol’s expertise to other teachers, and he’ll be able to make better-informed school leadership decisions. In the worst-case scenario, Carol makes a good impression on Sam, and goes on with her day.

In contrast, if Sam had approached Carol with traditional top-down feedback, the potential for harm would have been much greater, and the potential for learning would have been much lower. Directive feedback is only effective if the instructional leader both correctly diagnoses the situation and prescribes the right remedy—both of which are unlikely in a brief visit to an experienced teacher’s classroom.

If Sam’s feedback is off-base in any way—if he has misunderstood the lesson, or if he lacks the necessary expertise in mathematics instruction—Carol can only avoid harming student learning by ignoring it, possibly at risk to her own career. And if Sam gives bad feedback, he will learn nothing—or worse, he’ll learn the wrong lessons from the interaction.

One of the greatest barriers to improving teaching is its inherent complexity. Teachers make thousands of decisions about how to best teach dozens or hundreds of unique students, and administrators often find it difficult to guide them in making better decisions.

This is, fundamentally, a problem of information. Teachers know what they’ve already taught and how their students have responded, and use this information to make decisions from moment to moment. Administrators have access to far less information about the classroom—especially in a brief visit—but have a valuable perspective as outside observers who come with a wealth of professional knowledge.

The best way to exchange this information quickly, with the least potential for misunderstanding, is through face-to-face conversation in the classroom, immediately following a brief observation.

What Doesn’t Work, and Why

Classroom conversations are the most powerful form of professional development for instructional leaders, but not all conversations are created equal.

If instructional leaders talk with teachers without observing in the classroom—as often happens before or after school—their conversations will be reduced to philosophizing, because they’ll lack the “go and see” dimension of Toyota’s approach that facilitates shared problem solving.

If instructional leaders provide directive feedback, telling teachers what to do rather than developing an understanding of the instructional situation through conversation, they’ll risk providing bad advice, and they’ll fail to learn from teachers who could aid their growth as instructional leaders.

If instructional leaders provide only written or checklist-based feedback, they’ll fail to develop the stronger collegial relationships and the deeper insights that naturally result from conversation.

In contrast, when instructional leaders adopt a “go and see” approach to classroom conversations, they maximize their opportunities for professional growth, teacher development, and organizational learning.

A Gameplan

If you’d like to spend more time in classrooms, consider the following approach:

  • Visit three classrooms a day, every day, observing for five to ten minutes in each classroom
  • While students are working, or when the teacher is free, have a brief, open-ended conversation with the teacher
  • Focus your inquiry on professional and organizational learning, not on feedback

You don’t need a complicated process or any special tools. Simply “go and see,” and talk with teachers. Over the course of the school year, you’ll make it around to each teacher a dozen or more times, depending on the number of teachers you supervise.

You’ll quickly find that these conversations build relationships, trust, and the knowledge you need to keep improving. And you may discover that classroom conversations are the best professional development you’ve ever experienced as an instructional leader.

 

References

Danielson, C. (2015). Talk about teaching!: leading professional conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Rother, M. (2009). Toyota Kata: managing people for improvement, adaptiveness and superior results. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.

The Challenge of “Calibrating” Teacher Observations

When districts strive to provide great training for their administrators on doing high-quality observations and evaluations, I’m delighted.

But there’s one goal the process can never achieve, and it bothers people to no end.

The unreachable goal? Calibration.

“But without calibration, how can teachers be evaluated fairly?” the concern goes. “If one administrator’s assessment would be different from another’s, how is this a defensible system?”

Of course we don’t want teacher evaluations to be capricious or unreliable. And using multiple evaluators for high-stakes evaluations isn’t a bad idea at all.

But what most districts try to do doesn’t work.

 

Calibration Training

Here’s how calibration training typically works: One school (or a vendor) provides a video of a lesson, and all the administrators watch and do a practice write-up.

Then, the calibration begins.

“Why did you give her a 3 for ‘monitoring student engagement’?”

“I gave him a 2 for ‘having a clear objective for the lesson.'”

And the debate begins…but it never goes anywhere.

And it can’t, because the observers don’t have the information they need.

Missing Context

I don’t believe teaching is like auditioning for a musical, where you can do a scene or a number and give the casting director a good sense of whether you’d be right for the show.

When you teach, you’re not just showing up and doing a little song and dance. Some of the most important work happens behind the scenes, when you’re phoning parents, planning lessons, reviewing student work, collaborating with other educators, and doing the million other things that go into great teaching.

Good evaluation frameworks account for this behind-the-scenes work, but even when it comes to understanding what’s happening during a lesson, there’s essential context that a stranger won’t know.

As a supervisor and colleague, you know things about your teachers and their students that are essential for conducting a fair evaluation, and even for truly understanding what’s happening in a lesson.

Ten Things Administrators Know About Their Own Classrooms

Here’s what’s missing when we do practice observations from videos, or even when we observe other schools’ teachers during site visits. We don’t know:

 

  • What the teacher taught yesterday, and what’s happening tomorrow
  • What went well and what didn’t go as planned yesterday
  • Which students are having a hard time lately
  • Which students have IEPs, behavior plans, or other systems in place
  • What the teacher’s team decided jointly to do for this unit
  • When the teacher’s dog died (true story…)
  • What routines and procedures the teacher has in place
  • How today compares to the typical day in this classroom
  • What the teacher learned about students’ understanding yesterday
  • How today’s lesson connects to upcoming plans

You can’t know this context if you’re watching a video.

But you also can’t know it if you aren’t in classrooms regularly, and if you aren’t involved in planning and collaboration meetings.

(If you’re ready to develop the habit of visiting classrooms regularly, so you know what’s going on, check out the Instructional Leadership Challenge, which currently has been taken by more then 10,000 participants worldwide).

The bottom line? Evaluation can only be done well in the context of a teacher-supervisor relationship. It can’t be simulated, at least not very well. And it can’t be calibrated, except among administrators who actually work in the same school and have the same information.

How To Help Administrators Do Better Observations

If you want to do an exercise of this type, forget about calibration, and focus on the quality of the written evaluation.

Don’t worry if one principal thinks the lesson was great and another thinks it was terrible. Focus on the quality of evidence the principal provides in the written report.

Share good and bad examples, talk about the difference, and give feedback on how to make the final product stronger.

As a side benefit, principals will develop a clearer understanding of the evaluation criteria you’re using, and this will directly aid the calibration goal.

 

Jeff Bezos on Handstands and High Standards

What can the richest man in the world teach us about learning to do handstands?

And what does it have to do with making dramatic improvements to student learning, such as implementing high-performance PBL?

In a remarkable annual letter to Amazon shareholders (which is a normally-boring SEC requirement that I learned about from Dan Pink's excellent newsletter), Jeff Bezos shares his approach to high standards:

One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature.

People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before.

You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.

How do you stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations? There’s no single way to do it – it’s a combination of many things. But high standards (widely deployed and at all levels of detail) are certainly a big part of it.

The same is true in schools. Our expectations for the learning experience should be going up.

And high standards—for ourselves as educators—are surely a big part of how to make it happen.

Regardless of your opinion about Amazon, I think we can agree that making “wow” learning experiences become normal and expected is worth the trouble.

In too many schools, kids are learning the way we learned decades ago. The textbooks are new (or maybe not), and the technology is new, but often the learning experience is the same.

I have enormous respect for educators, and certainly don't think teachers need to work any harder than they already are.

But the state of the art in our profession isn't advancing fast enough.

We aren't acting on what we know, and aren't implementing it with the speed our students deserve.

Yet there are encouraging bright spots. Anyone who has seen a Dave Burgess presentation or read his book Teach Like A Pirate! knows just how big a gap there is—and how big an opportunity to close that gap—between the way most students get to learn today, and what's happening in our best classrooms.

Dave asks the hard question: If students didn't have to show up to class, would they?

Students aren't exactly our customers, but they deserve our best. They deserve remarkable learning experiences, which we can only provide if we hold ourselves to high standards.

I believe one of the most promising—and most fundamental—changes we can make for students is to implement high-performance project-based learning in every school.

More on that in a moment, but first, let's look at what hasn't worked.

Misguided Attempts at High Standards

Let's talk about what has NOT brought about a revolution in engaging learning.

First, we've tried accountability.

I believe there's a role for accountability in ensuring quality learning outcomes for all students, but the net effect of the accountability movement—with its pressure to cover standards and prepare students for tests—has probably been to make learning LESS relevant, engaging, and enjoyable for students.

When we pressure educators to focus on getting kids to pass the test, the best parts of learning are often the first to go.

Second, we've tried a mind-numbing array of improvement initiatives. Teachers today have been through far more initiatives than ever before—many focused on instruction, and many others focused on other aspects of supporting student learning.

By and large, these are good improvements to make. As a profession, we're improving our schools faster than perhaps ever before.

But is the student learning experience improving? Are our customers' expectations being fulfilled?

If you visit a school today, you'll see largely the kinds of learning you saw 30 or 40 years ago.

Better, but not “Amazon Prime” better.

Remember ordering stuff by mail from catalogs and magazines? Remember “Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery”?

Last night, I noticed we needed more AAA rechargeable batteries for the kids' flashlights, so I ordered some, on my phone, from Amazon Prime. They'll be here tomorrow, with free shipping, and no need to go to the store. I could have put batteries on the shopping list for the week, but that would take just as long as actually buying them from Amazon.

Again, we can argue about whether this is good for society, the local economy, and so forth, but it's an undeniably better customer experience.

Are we giving students the same improvements in their learning experience?

Not yet. We need higher standards for our profession—not with more initiatives or more accountability or longer hours for teachers.

So how? Let's return to the Amazon CEO's annual letter.

How to Master the Perfect Handstand

Bezos writes:

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good.

She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists.

In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.”

Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards.

To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.

I love that line: “you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”

I love it because it rings a curriculum and instruction bell for me as a principal.

When my school adopted Lucy Calkins' Units of Study for Teaching Writing (AKA the Teachers College Writer's Workshop curriculum), we knew it was going to be hard.

We knew it would represent a dramatic and fundamental shift in how we taught writing.

We knew it would take years of professional development, coaching, practice, and relentless attention to detail.

And it paid off marvelously. I saw third-grade essays that would get kids into most colleges.

So again, how do we make learning experiences like this the norm?

PBL and the Truth about High Standards

I think we often get high standards wrong—as if being hard on teachers, making them fear for their jobs, and making them cram more and more into their already-packed days is what it takes.

Bezos identifies four elements of high standards:

  • They are teachable
  • They are domain-specific
  • We must recognize them
  • We must coach people on their scope

In other words, we can bring about dramatic improvements, as long as we're willing to teach people what to do, and not assume that excellence in one area will spill over into excellence in another. When we know what we're looking for, and have a realistic sense of what it takes to get good, we can get good.

Again, I saw this firsthand with Writer's Workshop.

And I'm seeing it right now with Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Recently, one of the teacher teams Dr. Amy Baeder has been working with for the past two years completely “PBL-ified” their curriculum.

The whole thing—the entire year, across two teachers, three grade levels, and nine interdisciplinary projects—it's entirely project-based, standards-based, and aligned to the unique goals and resources of their school.

The projects students do are motivating, engaging, rigorous, and a whole lot of fun. More to the point, student learn incredibly well under these conditions.

As kids, few of us experienced learning like this.

And still today, few kids experience learning like this.

Why? Because it's hard. And too often, we don't really understand what that means for us as educators.

Understanding the Scope of “Hard But Worth It” Improvements

As administrators, we often downplay the hard work that will be involved in an improvement like PBL.

We know teachers generally go with the flow and figure it out whenever we promote a new idea. (As administrators, we do the same thing with district initiatives.)

And teachers generally know that any given initiative will be quickly followed by another, so why bother putting up a fight?

Well, here's why it's worth putting up a fight: if we want to do something hard and do it well, so students can benefit, we must be brutally honest about scope:

  • How much time will this take to master?
  • What will we need to say no to in order to succeed with this?
  • What resources will we need to allocate?

Again, it's easy for leaders to gloss over these questions, in the hopes that people will figure it out and make it work.

I don't know much about how Amazon works, but I'm pretty sure Bezos didn't sit down with one team of engineers and tell them

“OK everybody, let's design an e-reader, and a tablet, and a voice assistant, and a video streaming service. Those are all really important, so we're going to have to work really hard to make it all work. You have two weeks.”

No. He was probably very realistic about how much work it would take to develop the Kindle and the Kindle Fire and Alexa and all the many other projects Amazon has brought to life.

He had different teams of people working on these projects, over periods of years and even decades.

And you may be thinking “Yeah, but he has tons of money. Schools don't have those kinds of resources to throw at their initiatives, and we can't go that slow!”

Of course schools don't have the resources Amazon has, and that's precisely the point.

Our unique goals and constraints force us to be even more deliberate about defining the scope of our work.

The school Amy has been working with has succeeded at PBL because they knew the scope of what they were getting into, they committed to the work, they developed the skills, and they saw it though.

A Realistic Scope for PBL This Summer

This summer, your school can make dramatic advances in project-based learning by focusing on the domain-specific, teachable skills that teachers must master.

We can show you how to recognize these skills, and how to be realistic about the scope of the hard work that PBL entails.

If your school is relatively new to PBL, we recommend having teachers develop one high-quality PBL unit, from start to finish, this summer.

And in a free webinar, Dr. Amy Baeder will guide you through it, sharing her PBL roadmaps for both teachers and school leaders. You'll walk away from this webinar with a clear understanding of the scope of this work—it's hard, but worth it.

How You Can Build A High-Performance PBL Unit This Summer

In this webinar, you'll learn why summer is the perfect time to build a high-performance PBL unit from start to finish. We'll explore:

  • How to build a PBL unit without distractions, so you can offer an engaging, rigorous learning experience for students this fall
  • A roadmap for designing PBL units—and a PBL implementation roadmap for leaders
  • The 6 fundamental assumptions of high-performance PBL
  • The top 10 PBL DOs and DON'Ts (so you can learn from the experience of others)
  • Tools and next steps for developing your first high-performance PBL unit

Register »

The #AnnaKarenina Challenge

Announcing an all-new mini-challenge as part of the Instructional Leadership Challenge…

It's called the Anna Karenina Challenge, or #AKILC.

Tolstoy's 1878 novel, which has been called the greatest book ever written, starts with this unforgettable line:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

You might be wondering…what on earth does this have to do with the Instructional Leadership Challenge?

Here's the parallel:

It's teacher evaluation time—the home stretch.

Administrators are scrambling to conduct observations, schedule post-conferences, and…the kicker…write final evaluations.

We know it's coming, and it always brings a little bit of dread, because it's…

Such. A. Huge. Task.

Yes, you have to rate each teacher, but you also have to write a bit about each teacher…

You often have to write a blurb for each of several specific topics, such as:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Instruction
  • Classroom management
  • Assessment
  • Professional responsibilities

You can't just check a box that says “satisfactory” and move on.

It's like an essay test with 5 questions…that you have to take 30 times—once for each teacher.

Or…do you?

Think of Tolstoy's opening line again—let's start with the second part:

“every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

So yes—every struggling teacher is going to need a custom-tailored, carefully-written evaluation that's unique to their struggles.

But what about the “happy families”?

What about the strong teachers—are they all alike?

Not exactly, of course…

…but they're not 100% unique, either.

Think of it this way: in any given performance area, teachers fall into one of just a handful of “types.”

Remember those “Which Spice Girl Are You?” or “Which Ninja Turtle Are You?” online quizzes? Kind of like that.

Great teachers are a LOT alike within a specific area—let's take classroom management. What are the types?

  • Strict and no-nonsense, but still beloved
  • Wacky but warm and accepting, with endless patience
  • Not strict or wacky; just clear, consistent expectations

You can probably describe 80% of your staff with just 3-5 “styles” or “types” of classroom management.

For each type, you can just write one summary blurb:

“Mr. Baeder's classroom management is characterized by clear expectations, well-rehearsed routines and procedures, and a sense of humor that makes all students feel welcomed and accepted.”

If that's true for one teacher, it's probably true for a dozen others, too.

So re-use the blurb, because Mrs. Smith's classroom management is also characterized by clear expectations, well-rehearsed… etc. etc.

Then, you can do the same for their, say, planning and preparation skills.

3-5 types will cover most of the bases for a given area.

If you have to write blurbs about 5 areas per teacher, that's 15-25 blurbs in all—not the 150+ you'd normally write for 30 teachers.

These blurbs are the most time-consuming part of the writing process. So if we can save some time, it'll add up fast.

(The rest are likely your struggling teachers who will need much more customized language in their evaluations).

Now, can you just slap a label on a teacher and call it a day?

No, because teacher evaluations must be evidence-based.

So after the re-used blurb, you mention specific evidence from your observations:

“For example, on March 1, several students were off-task at the start of a lab activity, but they were immediately reminded of class expectations by their peers. This reflects Mr. Baeder's efforts to establish clear routines and procedures, and to create student ownership for them.”

If you have your observation notes in front of you, adding evidence should take about 90 seconds per blurb.

So here's where this is going to get fun…

We're building a collaborative list.

A list of areas of performance that you have to write about, with “types” ​for each area. ​​​​​​

You can see what others have added, and contribute your own ideas.

I've drafted the document hereregister for the Challenge, and we'll add you to the group as fast as we can, so you can edit the doc.

To summarize, the Anna Karenina Challenge is this:

Re-use your “blurbs” for teachers whose performance in a given area falls into the same category.

If two teachers are exactly alike in, say, their classroom management style, or their use of formative assessment, or their contribution to PLCs, you can use the same blurb to describe them both.

The evidence you provide will still be unique to each teacher.

But the hard part—the summary statement—can be re-used.

This can save you hours upon hours of writing…

Especially if we tackle it together.

Ready? Sign up for the Challenge here, we'll add you to the ILC group, and you can start contributing to—and getting ideas from—the collaborative document.

If you're already in the new ILC group, here's the doc to start editing.

I'd love to have your input on the “types,” especially if you're an instructional coach or classroom teacher. So sign up here—even if you don't actually evaluate teachers.

Part II

We're officially kicking off the Anna Karenina Challenge today!

If you evaluate teachers, here's your challenge:

Stereotype, then interrogate.

“Whoah, Justin, that sounds mean! What are you talking about?”

Now that I have your attention… 🙂

When doing teacher evaluations, you're making a lot of judgments about a lot of teachers in a lot of specific areas:
—Danielson: About 24 components
—Marzano: About 68, or perhaps 23 in the simplified model
—Marshall: About 60 components

If you have 30 teachers, and evaluate them on 23+ specific criteria, you're making at least 690 decisions as you
evaluate teachers.

But then…you have to write.

Exactly what you have to write about, and how much, depends on your district's policies and expectations.

But I'm guessing you have to write something for every teacher in each of several domains, like classroom management, or
planning & preparation.

What you write needs to be specific to each teacher…

But it doesn't need to be 100% “from-scratch” unique.

In fact, it's a huge waste of time to start your blurb-writing and summary-writing from scratch for every teacher.

Why? Because your great teachers have a lot in common.

As Tolstoy famously wrote, in the opening lines of Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

For example, teachers who are great at classroom management fall into one of just a handful of “stereotypes” or rough
categories: —Warm demander —Loose and student-centered —Tightly organized but student-managed

You might be thinking “I don't like those categories.” And that's fine! Make up your own list.

But make your list, and you'll see what I mean: it's a short list.

Your 37 teachers do NOT have 37 totally unique general styles of classroom management.

So start with their general approach. Stereotype.

(And yes, I know stereotyping is usually a bad thing. But we're going to use it carefully, for positive purposes.)

Write about that stereotype—once—and use the same stem in each teacher's evaluation.

If you have 11 “warm demanders,” write the same blurb about each warm demander.

Then, interrogate your assumptions (not the teacher…your assumptions :).

This is where you make the language unique to the teacher—which is important.

I wasn't very clear about this in my earlier email—someone took issue with what I suggested, and wrote back with this:

I usually read your messages with delight. However, I'm saddened by this one. We've worked very hard over the past years
to personalize teacher evaluation and to make it a growth process based on an individual's area of focus and using
evidence and specific information to tell the story of evaluation. I think you missed the mark with this one.

Now, I'll take responsibility for that, because I wasn't very clear.

It's essential to add specific evidence for each teacher after the generic blurb.

For example, your generic “warm demander” blurb might be:

“__'s classroom environment is characterized by high expectations, mutual respect, and warmth. __ consistently teaches,
models, and reinforces expectations for student behavior that are conductive to learning and respectful of students as
individuals.”

You can use that same intro blurb for all of your warm demanders.

But then, you must add evidence.

An evaluation with no evidence is just an op-ed, and we owe teachers more than that. Fortunately, you have a lot of
evidence by this point in the year.

“For example, during my November 14 observation, Mr. Smith used proximity and nonverbal cues to redirect a group of
students who were off-task during work time. As a result, other students were not interrupted, and the off-task group
quickly got back to work.”

And as you add evidence, you'll be accountable to yourself for interrogating your initial stereotype.

“Hmm, maybe this shows that Mr. Smith really isn't a warm demander…he's a little bit different, and here's how…”

So you'll end up with written evaluations that are, in fact: —Unique for each teacher —Based on specific evidence from
observations

So wait, what's the point again?

Your writing is vastly easier and faster when you start with generic blurbs, based on your general impression of each
teacher.

You aren't starting with a blank slate for each teacher. You're starting with your intuitive, summative judgment, then
testing that judgment against the evidence you've collected.

If the evidence doesn't match your judgment, now you know—and you can change your judgment to fit the evidence.

And because you can quickly categorize—or stereotype—each teacher based on that intuitive judgment, you can crank
through your evaluations very quickly.

To turbo-charge this approach, make a spreadsheet:

Take The Challenge & Get The Spreadsheet »

The spreadsheet is ere in the Instructional Leadership Challenge group on Facebook.

(Register, request access, and we'll approve you ASAP)

So here's where this is going to get fun…

We're building a collaborative list of stereotypes and blurbs

…a list of areas of performance that you have to write about, with “types” ​for each area. ​​​​​​

You can see what others have added, and contribute your own ideas.

I've drafted the document here. Register for the Challenge, and we'll add you to the group as fast as we can, so you can edit the doc.

To summarize, the Anna Karenina Challenge is this:

Re-use your “blurbs” for teachers whose performance in a given area falls into the same category.

If two teachers are exactly alike in, say, their classroom management style, or their use of formative assessment, or their contribution to PLCs, you can use the same blurb to describe them both.

The evidence you provide will still be unique to each teacher.

But the hard part—the summary statement—can be re-used.

This can save you hours upon hours of writing…

Especially if we tackle it together.

Ready? Sign up for the Challenge here, download the spreadsheet, and get started with your stereotypes.

Then, share your language here in the collaborative doc. (Desktop only—this is a new FB Groups feature.)

The #EveryClassroom Challenge

The #EveryClassroom Challenge is part of the Instructional Leadership Challenge. Sign up here.

If you want to make a consistent habit of getting into classrooms and having feedback conversations with teachers, don't start small.

Instead, go big—visit every classroom within a 5-day period. Even better, visit every classroom in one day.

At the beginning of a new school year, at the start of a new semester, or even after returning from a break, visiting every classroom is a powerful way for administrators to exercise instructional leadership.

It's also an effective way to bypass the most serious form of resistance administrators encounter: internal resistance.

Overcoming Internal Resistance

In my experience, most administrators start by visiting the “easiest” classrooms, where they'll see the most competent teaching and the fewest problems.

For me, this meant visiting Kindergarten teachers—they were outstanding, they were always happy to see me, and I never encountered any major problems I'd have to deal with.

But eventually, you work through the “easy” classrooms, and when you do, who's left? The hard cases. The teachers you'd rather not see, lest you discover something you need to address.

At this point, something else always conveniently comes up. We get busy. And our grand plans to visit classrooms every day fall by the wayside.

When we fail to plan how we'll deal with our internal resistance, we're planning to fail in the quest to make daily classroom visits a consistent part of our practice.

If you're a school leader, there's no avoiding the uncomfortable realities of teaching and learning. You're going to see things that you'll have to address.

But you can approach your classroom visits in a way that prevents these challenges from stopping you in your tracks.

It's all about starting strong and building momentum.

But don't “start strong” by lugging around a huge rubric and giving yourself a laborious task, such as providing written feedback to every teacher.

Start light, by just making enough of an appearance to break the ice.

Keep It Light

When you start visiting classrooms, minimize your chances of seeing something that you'll need to stop and address by keeping your visits brief.

If there's all-out chaos in a classroom, you may need to deal with it on the spot, but most teachers are mostly in control most of the time, and a quick visit won't uncover anything too serious.

Make it your goal simply to show up, and to start forming the habit of visiting classrooms. Get teachers used to seeing you, and get yourself used to being in classrooms.

In this first cycle, don't take notes or attempt to come up with feedback. Just pop in with a smile on your face, make eye contact with the teacher, stay for a moment, and leave.

No documentation (other than checking the teacher off your list).

No compliments or suggestions for improvement.

No ratings or rubrics.

Just make an appearance, and make sure you get around to everyone.

Get To Everyone Quickly

Give yourself a maximum of a week—five school days—to make it around to everyone. Five to ten visits a day should do it.

For future cycles, I recommend only three visits a day, so you can spend more time with each teacher, and have a substantive conversation—but not yet.

For now, focus on speed.

In fact, you may even want to knock out this entire challenge in one day. It's certainly doable—in fact, you could probably drink a tall glass of water and make it around to every teacher before that water even makes it through your system.

Give yourself a sense of urgency—go, get into classrooms, and break the ice. Just start.

Keep Track with a Staff Roster

A quick tip: print out a staff roster and use it as a checklist, to make sure you don't skip anyone.

Your internal resistance won't wait—you'll find no shortage of excuses to avoid so-and-so today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

And if someone is absent, or you stop by during their prep, or you otherwise miss them, your checklist is essential.

Grab a staff roster, or ask your office team to print one out for you. Don't get fancy—just get a list, and start getting into classrooms.

The Alternative: Avoidance

If you don't get around to #EveryClassroom, what will happen?

If you're like me, you'll somehow find ways to avoid those difficult teachers. Weeks will go by, then months. You'll continue to visit classrooms, but not all of them—just the easy ones.

Mediocre teaching will go unnoticed and unchallenged, because you're simply not putting yourself in a position to see it.

But eventually, it'll come to your attention. A parent will complain. A student will let something slip. And you'll have a mess on your hands that could have been prevented.

You don't need to deal with every imperfection on your very first visit—in fact, you'll be far more effective in addressing problems later, when you have more perspective.

That perspective—and the opportunity to address problems as you come to understand them more deeply—comes from the habit of visiting every classroom on a regular basis.

So for now, just start.

Visit #EveryClassroom.

And when you do, report back in our Facebook group and let us know how it went!

Start here »

 

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