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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 »

 

3 How Instructional Leaders Can Create Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

Principal stress seems to be at an all-time high, as a recent tragic story out of Western Australia illustrates. The West Australian reports:

It was not unusual for Laverton School principal Trish Antulov to stay at work until late at night, even on weekends.

So when she did not come home on Sunday before last her husband, John, did not become too concerned until several phone calls went unanswered.

About 10pm, he went to the school, where he found that his wife of 26 years had died at her desk.

Mr Antulov said the long hours she worked had contributed to her high stress levels.

“She just didn’t have time to look after herself properly,” he said.

“She was under a lot of stress and terrible pressure just to be successful in her job.” link

Now, certainly the sheer number of people who are principals, and the fact that we spend a good portion of our lives at school, means that a certain number of people will, understandably, pass away while at work.

It's jarring—but is it a sign of a troubling pattern in our profession?

Evidence is starting to emerge that stress isn’t just endemic to leadership—it’s an epidemic.

The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, conducted by Associate Professor Philip Riley and his team at Australian Catholic University, recently released a massive report on the state of principal health and wellbeing in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. You can follow @PrinHealth on Twitter to stay abreast of this important work.

The reality is that some jobs are more stressful than others. Some schools are more stressful environments than others.

And within a school and role, we all go through times of varying stress levels.

The societal forces creating stress on the principalship may be beyond our individual control, but we can act to reduce their impact on our health and well-being.

What can we do to protect ourselves from life-threatening levels of stress?

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First

We’re familiar with the flight attendant’s directions to “put your own oxygen mask on first” in the event of an emergency.

If you want to help others, the reasoning goes, there’s no point in heroically putting others before yourself to such an extreme degree that you lose your own life in the process.

But even if we’re not talking about extreme, life-threatening levels of stress, should we be worried?

Many hard-working educators seem to feel a strong sense of guilt around the idea of self-care, as if a “whatever it takes” attitude toward student learning rules out any effort to limit one’s own stress.

Is there an unselfish reason to limit our own stress, even as we do our best on behalf of students?

To answer this question, we must ask a fundamental question: how do we make a difference in student learning?

At its core, is our work the work of heroes, or the work of professionals?

To explore this question, let’s take a cue from a line of work that has made extraordinary gains in outcomes over the past century: firefighting.

How Firefighters Saved More Lives—and Made Their Own Work Safer In The Process

A century ago, firefighting was largely reactionary. Firefighters saved lives by rushing into burning buildings and carrying people out—and of course, by dousing fires with water.

As you can imagine, this is dangerous work, and since many victims suffer grievous burns or smoke inhalation, even someone who is heroically saved from a fire may ultimately die from their injuries.

Today, how do most firefighters save the most lives?

In a word, prevention.
Steven Pinker writes:

“In the middle of the 20th century, fire departments turned from just fighting fires to preventing them… Fire was designated a nationwide moral emergency in reports from presidential commissions with titles like ‘America Burning.’

The campaign led to the now-ubiquitous sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors, fire escapes, fire drills, fire extinguishers, fire-retardant materials, and fire safety education mascots like Smokey the Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog.

As a result, fire departments are putting themselves out of business. About 96 percent of their calls are for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies, and most of the remainder are small fires. (Contrary to a charming image, they don't rescue kittens from trees.)

A typical firefighter will see just one burning building every other year.

—Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 183

Consider this parallel to our own work: firefighters figured out that it's far better—for everyone, not just themselves—to prevent fires, rather than wait until they break out. And countless lives have been saved as a result.

To accomplish this feat, firefighters had to set aside any fear that they’d be seen as lazy or self-interested by promoting prevention. They had to set aside any pretensions of heroic martyrdom.

In effect, they had to become professionals, demand professional respect, and advocate for policies that would achieve the best possible results.

In every major city today, fire departments are highly professionalized. Firefighters spend most of their time on proactive work, like visiting schools and supervising fire drills, or inspecting sprinkler and alarm systems to ensure that they work.

Does every firefighter get to look like a Hollywood hero, carrying limp-bodied victims to safety, and bringing them back with CPR?

No. That hardly ever happens—and that's a good thing.

Professionalism outperforms heroism, every time. It's not as flashy, but it works far better.

What does a more professional approach look like in our line of work?

Defining and Protecting the Leader’s Work

For school leaders, professionalism means staying focused on a well-defined leadership agenda, and having systems to prevent and deal with distractions.

Who determines your agenda? Who determines what leadership work most deserves your time?

Ultimately, you do. You must decide what actions will make the greatest impact on student learning.

Then, you must protect your time to take those actions, and not allow yourself to be pulled off-course by distractions and minor emergencies.

When the alarm bells ring, of course you can still react. Classroom observations are important, but you can always reschedule them if you get interrupted to deal with an imminent safety situation.

But if you're fighting fires all day, every day, it's time to step back and look at the system you're dealing with.

Do you have a wooden building with no sprinklers, metaphorically speaking? Are you plagued with perpetual emergencies that could and should be prevented by proactive leadership?

For example, numerous stressed-out leaders have written to me to tell me how much time they spend dealing with substitute teachers:

  • Recruiting
  • Training
  • Calling them in when they're needed
  • Dealing with sub shortages by covering classes personally, or otherwise scrambling

If you're dealing with this now, don't just fight the fire. Install a proactive prevention system.

If you’re a principal, your core work should not be worrying about sub coverage every day. You have more important priorities—but if no systems are in place to seamlessly ensure sub coverage, it’s your job to build them.

Could you solve your sub shortage with 10 or 20 hours of really focused work? Could you consult colleagues in other schools and discover how they’ve solved their sub challenges? Could you recruit a good pool of people? Could you train someone else to train them? Could you train your teachers and office staff to secure subs whenever there's an absence?

Yes, you probably could. 90% of schools have already done this, and you can too. I don't have all the answers on solving sub shortages, but I know as a profession, we collectively do.

In fact, we have the knowledge and the ability to solve virtually every problem that's currently stressing principals out.

The key to sharing that knowledge and implementing it everywhere is to drop the pretention of heroism.

We must instead adopt a mindset of professionalism, stop tolerating the endless cycle of burning buildings, and install the “sprinkler systems” we need.

With the right preventative systems in place, we can create boundaries that protect against unhealthy levels of stress. Here’s how.

Create Boundaries with Low Walls

When you've decided what's rightly on your plate as a leader—so you're tackling the right work on behalf of kids—go for it. But how can you protect your focus on that core work?

To be sure, other people's agendas will crowd their way in—if you let them. Our commitment to our core work on behalf of students, plus everyone else's priorities, is a recipe for burnout.

Of course, we can't just ignore everyone. We can't just say “Leave me alone! I'm focused on PLCs this year!”

A wide range of issues will come up, and it’s our job to deal with them. So how can we handle these issues, without distracting us from our core focus, and without working all the time?

As I’ve been immersed in the work of school leadership for the past decade, I’ve noticed that the most overwhelmed and stressed-out principals seem to be in a constant state of emergency.

It’s not just that they’re dealing with a few emergencies. It’s that everything is an emergency, all the time.

Yet in other schools, these same issues aren’t emergencies. They may or may not occur less often—that’s not the real difference.

The difference is that in effective, high-performing schools, systems are in place to deal with those issues, so they don’t become emergencies that warrant constant and immediate intervention from administrators.

Let’s return to the example of substitute teachers. In my school, finding subs was never something that took up my time or caused me stress.

Why? Did I luck into a staff of perfectly healthy teachers who never got sick?

Of course not. In fact, I can’t take any credit at all, because these systems were place when I arrived—a combination of technology, delegated responsibilities, and resources that made subs a permanently solved problem.

Did I occasionally have to become involved when the system failed to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances? Of course—but not very often.

This system for obtaining sub coverage, like other effective systems, created boundaries to protect my time. Think of the stone walls around a pasture.

These walls aren’t especially high, but they’re high enough to deal with 80%-90% of what might otherwise reach us. Instead of taking up our time immediately, these minor issues are directed to what we might think of as the right “gate” or gatekeeper.

For example, teachers who need a sub are directed to our online SubFinder system. If that doesn’t solve their problem, they move onto the next gate, our school office manager, who can work her magic when the automated system doesn’t get the job done.

Can people still leap over the wall and reach me directly? Yes, that’s always an option—and that’s why there’s no real risk of becoming aloof or unresponsive with systems like this. With low walls—modest barriers protecting our time and attention—we can see what’s happening on the other side, and we can ourselves leap over to lend a hand when necessary.

Of course, other problems can’t be permanently solved in the same way, because they’re one-off situations that warrant an individualized response. How can we keep these situations from becoming an onslaught of emergencies?

Designated Exception-Handlers

One of my summer jobs in college was dealing with “exception” mail at a multi-national corporation.

Customers would send in their payments by check to a national payment processing facility in Nevada, and if those payments didn’t contain anything out of the ordinary, the payment facility would process them with mind-numbing efficiency.

But if a customer enclosed a note, such as a change of address or a question, it would be an “exception” to what they normally handled, so it’d come to me and the rest of the “exception mail” team in Houston.

We’d open it, figure out what to do, and solve the problem. Many of these issues, such as address changes, were routine and easily handled, but others required some consultation or even management approval.

What’s the parallel in schools? If the designated point person can’t handle an issue, does it need to go straight to the principal?

Usually, no. The best next step for many kinds of “exceptions” is committees and meetings.

For example, let’s say we’re having a traffic issue around the school at drop-off time. Does this need to immediately go to the principal?

Again, the “wall” protecting our time shouldn’t be so high that we’re fully insulated from every issue. But the wall should gently guide issues to the right “gate.”

This means our traffic issue should probably go to the safety committee first, assuming there’s no immediate emergency.

And even if there is an emergency that requires a rapid admin response, the ultimately task of solving the problem long-term may be best handled by the committee.

“Let's put that on the agenda” is a magical phrase. It shows responsiveness and concern, but also a disciplined, measured response—you're not dropping everything in response to someone else’s issue.

Of course, sometimes we need to drop everything momentarily, but still delegate the solving of the long-term problem to a committee.

Low Walls In Action

Sometimes we’re the first responders to urgent issues, and may bear ultimate responsibility for installing the right preventative systems, but it’s still best to involve a designated team or committee.

For example, if a parent comes to you saying “My kid is being bullied. What are you going to do?” You’re probably going to talk to the students involved, and come up with a short-term resolution.

But if the ultimate solution is implementing a school-wide PBIS system, that's going to be far more work than it was for the parent to report the issue. That may be your real work.

But you may also have situations where you do have a good system in place, and the parent is just having a bad day, or is coming to you because you're an easy target.

So we need a bit of a “wall” to keep people from dumping too many of their issues on us too easily.

Again, think of these as low walls like you might find around a pasture.

Some issues are big enough to get over them—and interrupt you immediately—like if there's a fight, or a serious complaint about a teacher, or some other emergency. But other issues aren't big enough to go over the wall, so you route them to the “gate.” They walk around for a bit, come to a gate, and try to get in.

“Have you spoken with your child's teacher about the bullying you're seeing?”

The gatekeeper may be an individual, or may be a committee with a process. Either way, the issue is handled in due course.

Let’s consider another example, of a parent who comes to you saying “My kid needs to be in the gifted program.”

If I’ve implemented the “low wall” approach, and I’ve decided that I am not going to spend my day worrying or arguing about whether this kid should be in the gifted program, I’m simply going to follow our established system. I'm going to tell them where the gate is, and they can fill out the relevant forms and follow the process according to an established timeline.

As much as possible, that process is not going to take up my time or rely on my judgment—because the more it does, the more people are going to suck up my time by lobbying and haranguing me.

Now, “process” is an idea that a lot of people don't like, because it sounds bureaucratic. And bureaucracy is bad, right?

Actually, no. Inefficient bureaucracies are bad, to be sure. Bureaucracies that don't effectively achieve their intended goals are bad.

But bureaucracies that are well-run are incredibly effective at solving problems at scale, without stressing anyone out.

Take the passport system, for example. Last year, we wanted to get/renew passports for our whole family. A nightmare of red tape, right?

Not at all. We went to Walgreens, got photos taken, and sent off the forms in the mail. A couple weeks later, the passports came in the mail. No drama—the process simply worked.

But imagine if, to get a passport, we had to appeal directly to the Secretary of State—phone calls, emails, trying to stop him in the parking lot or the grocery store. (Sound familiar? 🙂

Right now, too much relies on you, and there's no “low wall” to direct people to the right “gate” to get their issue resolved.

How do I know?

Because there's always an opportunity to become more systematic and professionalized in the way we serve kids.

Does it feel “bureaucratic” sometimes? Well, yes. But it feels bureaucratic when the fire marshal comes and scolds you about using door stops on fire doors, and asks to see your fire drill logs.

Would it look more “heroic” to carry people out of burning buildings? Absolutely. Holding a clipboard looks downright geeky in comparison.

But which saves more lives—the professional process, or the heroic rescue?

So if something is routinely taking up too much of your time, put up a low wall—not a wall so high that it's keeping out issues that should rightly reach you, but a wall that encourages people to use the right process to get their issue handled.

And if you don't have enough of those processes in place, focus some of your attention on developing them.

Did some firefighter sit down one day in Excel and design a form to track school fire drills? Probably so, and it probably didn’t feel like a very heroic day at work.

But that's the work: building systems to do the work.

The Bottleneck Problem

As leaders, we face an asymmetry problem—there's only one of us, and there's a large number—hundreds, if not thousands—of other people who may make claims on our time and attention.

And there's an additional layer to this asymmetry problem—people can very quickly dump their problems on us, giving us work that's not quick to do. One quick email from a stakeholder can lead to days or weeks of work.

Even if we have great systems—low walls, and appropriate gates to send people around to—we’ll still get inundated with other people’s issues. It’s just the nature of leadership.

It’s important to recognize that this work is endless. There is no hope of every being free from this work, or ever finishing it all. Organizations naturally create work for themselves in the never-ending process of improvement, and most of this work will involve leaders in some way.

You’re often the bottleneck in your organization. So how can you keep these pressures from eating you alive?

Here are a few suggestions for specific boundaries to protect your time, attention, and well-being.

Keep Regular Working Hours

It's often said that the principalship is a 24/7 job, and to some extent, that may be true.

But it's only as true as we allow it to be. If you’re willing to stay at school until 9pm every night, your work will oblige you by expanding to fill whatever time you give it.

This phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s Law, and briefly stated, it says “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson was an administrator in, and observer of, British bureaucracy in the middle of the 20th century. He noted that bureaucracies have an endless ability to make work for themselves—for example, he noted that the office responsible for managing Britain’s colonies continued to grow, even as the number of colonies in the British empire dwindled down to zero.

Our schools face this same relentless pressure, to make up work for ourselves to do, even as we’ve solved many of our most pressing problems. As leaders, we must ensure that we’re directing this energy toward worthwhile improvement efforts, and not mere busywork.

And just as this is true at the organizational level, it’s true of our work as individual leaders—and protecting our time is even more urgent at the personal level.

Committees can live on forever, and can’t have heart attacks or strokes. People are much more vulnerable to overwork and stress,

So one boundary that you must create for yourself is working hours—and by the same token, non-working hours.

If you feel guilty leaving at 5pm, just remember this: you’re never going to get everything done, and the longer you work, the more time you waste. You’ll approach each additional task with less mental energy, and you’ll be working on less and less important tasks as the evening wears on.

Do the most important work first, and give yourself a hard deadline for going home. You’ll work faster and more efficiently, you’ll prioritize more rigorously, and you’ll be more effective.

Why not get the most important work done, save the rest for another day, and go home happy at 5pm?

But giving yourself a firm quitting time is just one of many steps you can take to establish better boundaries around your work life.

Email, Not Texting

I could list dozens of other tactics for protecting your time, but I’ll close with just one more: don’t allow other people to make requests via text message.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a remarkable rise in texting in a professional context.

This increase in texting has been accompanied by a decrease in reliance on email, even when email is the better communication medium.

Texting is great for quick questions, just as phone calls have been for decades. But text messages are a very poor way to manage work, because:

  • They can’t be marked as unread
  • They’re difficult to forward or CC people on
  • They’re difficult to manage on your computer and other devices
  • They don’t integrate well with productivity tools like Outlook and Google Calendar

I'm convinced a lot of our stress—and the perception that we need to be working all the time—is coming from our smartphones.

Do we love them? Absolutely—I'm on my phone all the time. But that convenience comes at a cost.

I'm not suggesting that you get rid of your phone, but do enforce some boundaries. Specifically, don't let people text you at 10pm and expect an immediate response.

Don't let people text you random requests that you'll struggle to keep track of.

Text messaging wasn't built for productivity. Email was, so insist that people email you if they need you to do something. And model this by treating your staff the same way.

For more tips on managing text messages, see this great blog post from Dr. Frank Buck.

Professional Work Has Boundaries, But Only If We Create Them

Boundaries are key to professionalism. If we're martyrs, we don't need boundaries. If this is a profession, and we want to retain professional people to do professional work, the boundaries are essential.

Those boundaries, like the low stone walls around a pasture, don’t build themselves. It’s our job to build them.

I believe we have the same opportunity today that firefighters had in the middle of the 20th century. We can admit that it’s better if we’re not fighting fires all the time, and we can build the preventative systems that not only get better results, but save lives.

Your turn: What are some boundaries that you have put in place to protect your time and your focus on the most important leadership work?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

How Instructional Leaders Change Teacher Practice

What can instructional leaders do to actually change teacher practice?

I believe changing practice starts with getting into classrooms and having conversations with teachers.

Office-based activities like analyzing data and planning professional development are important, but they're no substitute for actually seeing teachers at work, and talking with them about their work.

My book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership is all about making a daily habit of classroom visits.

But what do we do when we get there?

For most school leaders, the answer is feedback.

We know we're supposed to provide feedback…but how is feedback actually supposed to work? And what kinds of feedback should we provide?

When we talk about feedback, we're usually thinking of directive feedback and reflective feedback.

In any given conversation, we want to either change the teacher's behavior, or help them change their thinking.

With a teacher who is struggling, we might take a more directive stance and play the boss:

“You must not raise your voice or yell at students. Instead of yelling, use a consistent signal to get everyone's attention, then give directions in a normal speaking voice.”

It would be a waste of time to ask reflective questions when you already know what you want the teacher to do.

But often, the teacher's behavior is fine. It's their thinking—the cognition and decision-making behind their actions—that you want to help improve.

So you might play the coach ask a reflective question:

“I noticed that you asked a series of questions during the discussion that gradually moved to the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. What are some ways you could get students to start asking these higher-order questions, so they can take more leadership in directing class discussions?”

Because teaching is complex professional work, we can't make teachers' decisions for them. Relying on directive feedback with highly skilled teachers is a recipe for disaster.

But by asking the right questions at the right time, we can prompt the kinds of thinking that can help teachers improve their practice.

So these two roles are a core part of most instructional leaders' practice:

  1. The “boss” who uses directive feedback to improve teacher behavior, and
  2. The “coach” who uses reflective feedback to change teacher thinking

But I've noticed a problem with these two roles: they aren't enough.

A brief observation usually doesn't provide enough information to have a high-quality directive or reflective feedback conversation.

When we try to jump into directive or reflective feedback without enough information, something feels “off.”

We trigger the teacher's resistance, or our own. The higher the level of resistance, the more we hesitate to get into classrooms.

So we know we need to be doing something differently…but we're not sure quite what it is.

Too often, this confusion about our precise role as instructional leaders—how we change teacher practice—keeps us from taking any action at all.

So the norm in our profession is for administrators to spend very little time in classrooms—at least, very little substantive time, beyond the required formal observations.

I believe we can do much better, but first, we must understand precisely how the “boss” and “coach” roles function, so we can fill in the gaps.

The Boss Role: Changing Teacher Behavior with Directive Feedback

To help us think about the way teachers respond to directive feedback, let's consider the way we view advice from our doctors.

When you go to the doctor and get medical advice…why do you trust that advice?

Trust is essential, because if you go to the doctor but don't do what your doctor prescribes, your health won't improve.

All the prescriptions in the world won't help if you don't take your medicine…and often we feel like our struggling teachers just aren't taking their medicine.

We know what they need to do…so why won't they do it? Why do teachers resist directive feedback, and how can we increase our odds of success?

When your doctor prescribes a medication, or recommends a procedure…why do you take their recommendations seriously?

Three main reasons come to mind.

First, there's expertise. You expect that your doctor has been to medical school and developed a deep knowledge of:

  • The various types of injuries, illnesses and diseases
  • How to make a proper diagnosis
  • The various treatment and medication options
  • How to decide what kind of care is best for a given patient

But you also want your doctor to know you. So in addition to expertise, firsthand knowledge matters.

It's not enough to know about medicine in general—you also want your doctor to know about YOUR personal medical history. A medication that's perfect for one patient may be harmful to another patient, even if they have the same symptoms. The details of each individual case matter.

Third, you expect your doctor to listen to your complaint, and to ask questions that will help you describe the situation more clearly, so you can get an accurate diagnosis and prescription.

Listening is at the heart of strong relationships. According to the New York Times, the biggest cause of malpractice lawsuits against doctors is poor communication.

I would argue that similarly, the biggest reason we fail to change teacher behavior—even when we know exactly what needs to change—is a failure to listen.

These are the conditions for getting the professional treatment one needs to get better—and the same conditions hold whether we're at the doctor or in the classroom. We need:

  • Expertise
  • Firsthand knowledge
  • Listening

As leaders, if we're going to tell teachers how to improve, we first need to have expertise.

But instructional expertise isn't enough. We also need to know the person we're working with—their strengths, weaknesses, and current situation.

In order to make an accurate diagnosis and give an accurate prescription of what needs to happen next, we need to know the individual case in detail, and that means we need to listen.

Even when we're working with teachers who are making serious and obvious mistakes—like failing to plan lessons, or screaming at students—we need to have expertise, gain firsthand knowledge, and listen.

The best way to accomplish all three of these requirements is to spend time observing and talking with the teacher.

Once- or twice-annual formal observations aren't enough. The more time you spend in each teacher's classroom, the more you'll be able to provide accurate and helpful directive feedback to teachers who are struggling.

But what if teachers resist directive feedback? What if a teacher needs to make obvious and immediate changes to their practice, but refuses?

Overcoming Direct Resistance to Directive Feedback

I once supervised a teacher who wasn't planning his math lessons in advance—he'd just wing it, every single day.

When I discovered what was happening, I was fairly direct:

“This is not working. You need to plan in advance. You cannot read out of the teacher's guide during class without any planning ahead of time. You need to plan and prepare in advance so your students can learn.”

I was 100% right in diagnosing the problem and prescribing the solution. But accurate information wasn't enough to change his practice, because he resisted, head-on. He said:

“Actually, I don't really think I need to change the way I plan. So, no—I'm not doing that. In fact, I don't really want you to come in my classroom. I've got this under control. Just leave me alone—you do your job, and I'll do mine.”

He called the teacher's union, and just as quickly, I called my supervisor. Both the union rep and my boss backed me immediately—which, as a young principal, I greatly appreciated.

Direct resistance is usually best handled directly—with clear expectations, and clear role definitions.

Once he understood my expectations, and that they weren't optional, he made the necessary changes.

Positional power isn't the only way to overcome direct resistance, but sometimes it's the right approach.

In other cases, though, resistance comes not from a bad attitude on the teacher's part, but from a mistake we make as leaders: giving directive feedback to professional teachers who can only grow if we take more of a coaching stance.

And sometimes, we need to play both roles at different times for the same teacher. Once the teacher above accepted the fact that he needed to do lesson plans, I could play a coaching role in helping him develop effective lesson plans.

It wouldn't have worked for me to write his lesson plans. That was his job as a professional—and my job as an instructional leader was to help him get better at it.

The more frequently you observe and talk with each teacher, the more clearly you'll know when it's time to set the “boss” role aside, and start to take a coaching stance.

The Coach Role: Changing Teacher Thinking with Reflective Feedback

When I became a principal, I didn't have great expertise in elementary instruction, because I had been a middle school science teacher. I had never taught primary reading or math.

I could give directive feedback if a teacher was struggling with the basics, but what about stronger teachers? What if they needed ultra-specific feedback in an area I knew nothing about? How could I help a 25-year veteran Kindergarten teacher improve her 1:1 reading conferences?

Because I didn't have expertise, I couldn't diagnose and prescribe appropriate next steps for teachers who were already doing well.

So what did I do?

I didn't try to tell teachers what they did right and what they did wrong. Instead, I asked open-ended softball questions like:

  • “Tell me more about when you did ___…”
  • “What were your goals for the lesson?”
  • “What are you thinking you'll do next?”

I was worried that this would undermine my credibility. After all, what kind of doctor asks the patient

“So…what medication do you think I should prescribe for you?”

And sure enough, teachers did start to catch on. They realized that they could end the conversation quickly if they played the game.

Overcoming Indirect Resistance to Reflective Feedback

Indirect resistance often takes the form of what I call the Fake Feedback Game.

In this game, there are two players: the administrator, and the teacher. The rules are simple:

  • The administrator must pretend to provide feedback, and
  • The teacher must pretend to appreciate it,
  • They both must pretend teacher practice has changed as a result of the conversation

I was pretending to “provide feedback” with my softball questions, because I didn't really know what else to say:

“Oh, so you were trying to use higher-order questions in your discussion today? Great! I wonder if… you might use more analysis and synthesis questions with ELL students? Maybe…?”

I'd hope and pray the teacher wouldn't disagree or call me out on my softball questions.

Teachers knew the fastest way to get rid of me was to smile and nod and play along:

“Oh yeah, great point, Justin! I will definitely work on that and let you know how it goes, OK? Bye!”

When we play the game, the teacher's practice doesn't change.

But there's a bigger problem—I don't know any more than I did before I walked into the classroom:

  • I don't know if my feedback was helpful
  • I don't know if the teacher will act on it
  • I didn't learn anything I can use to help other teachers improve
  • I didn't learn anything I can use to improve my school overall

When it comes to improving our schools overall, we need good information to make good decisions.

If all we're seeing is teachers who are doing OK and enthusiastically agreeing with all of our feedback, we won't discover our best opportunities for improving teaching and learning.

Fortunately, I had a great staff, and we developed great relationships pretty quickly, so I ended up not playing the Fake Feedback Game very much.

I'm incredibly grateful to the teachers who trusted me enough to be completely honest about what they were working on, how it was going, and what they thought they—and the school—needed to do next to improve.

It was through these conversations that I discovered the true reason it's so hard to change teacher practice.

And I discovered that neither the “boss” nor the “coach” roles would take us where we needed to go.

Seeing the Whole Iceberg of Teacher Practice

When we get into classrooms, it's essential to recognize that we're not seeing everything.

Like an iceberg, most of teachers' practice is hidden beneath the surface.

I would suggest that the ratio is about 90/10—that is, only about 10% of teaching and teacher practice can be seen when we visit a classroom.

We're not seeing:

  • The training and experience that shapes the teacher's judgment
  • What happened yesterday, and what's in the rest of the unit plan
  • The teacher's knowledge of, and relationship with, each individual student
  • Connections between concepts in the curriculum that we may not know about

We absolutely need to get into classrooms, but we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that we're seeing the whole of teacher practice.

When we get into a classroom, we can see what the teacher is doing and saying. We can see how they're acting. We can see what students are doing and saying.

We can take note of the resources they're using, we can get a feel for the learning environment, but we must never forget that there's also much that we can't see.

When we fail to see “the whole iceberg” of teacher practice, we tend to focus on just the parts we can see—the easily observable behaviors, such as whether the teacher is writing the objective on the board every day.

Trying to change your school by focusing only on observable teacher behaviors is exhausting and futile.

You can solve blatantly obvious problems by focusing on teacher behavior, but to take teachers from good to great, consistently and at scale, you must focus on teacher thinking.

Teacher behavior is like the tip of the iceberg, and teacher thinking is what's beneath the surface.

Thinking is largely invisible…until we make it visible through conversation.

There's no way to see what happened yesterday or five minutes ago. We can't see what will happen tomorrow, or even five minutes after we leave.

But we can ask—and it turns out that asking is remarkably simple, and remarkably effective.

If you want to understand teacher thinking and decision-making, just ask.

But here's a lesson I learned the hard way: don't ask “Why?” questions.

When you ask “Why” questions, you get justifications.

And using evidence to ask “why” questions only triggers more defensiveness, which doesn't lead to growth.

If—like me—you've spent countless hours in conversations that seem to go nowhere, you know just how unproductive these conversations become when we trigger teachers' defensiveness.

When you instead ask “how?” questions, you'll discover what you need to learn to lead effectively.

The more I asked “how?” questions—out of genuine ignorance at first—the more I learned that I needed an entirely new approach to feedback if I really wanted to change teacher practice.

The Leader Role: Shifting the Iceberg with Reflexive Feedback

Why does our feedback so often fail to change teacher practice?

When we take responsibility as instructional leaders, we can't just say “Well, I gave them feedback, but they aren't changing.

That's like the teacher who says “Well, I taught them, but they didn't learn.

If we're leading, but no one is following…we're not leading!

Our leadership must be differentiated if we truly want to change teacher practice:

  • To deal with direct resistance, and change teacher behavior, we must play the boss and use directive feedback
  • To deal with indirect resistance, and change teacher thinking, we must play the coach and use reflective feedback

But teachers don't change their practice in a vacuum. So if we truly want to take responsibility, we must address the system within which teachers work.

Too often, when we try to change teacher practice, we focus only on the individual teacher. We try to change either the teachers’ actions or their thinking, but all of that occurs in a system—in a context that can't be ignored.

We must see the whole iceberg of practice—what's above and below the surface—but the current the iceberg is floating in matters even more.

W. Edwards Deming, who’s known as the father of the Quality Management movement, put it this way:

“In my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system.”

So there's a third kind of feedback, which I call reflexive feedback, that gives us the greatest opportunity for improving our schools, because it gives us the feedback we need to improve the system.

  • To improve the system teachers work within, we must play the leader and use reflexive feedback.

Reflexive feedback conversations involve both parties in talking, listening, reflecting, and taking action. The idea of reflexivity, which comes from the social sciences, suggests a two-way street—a feedback relationship that runs in both directions.

Leaders who use reflexive feedback are more effective at changing teacher practice because they're willing and able change things other than the teacher, in order to support positive changes in the teacher’s practice.

Teachers who are engaged in reflexive feedback know they have a voice, and that their feedback to leaders will be taken seriously. As a result, they're more willing to invest effort in making changes to their practice—because they believe they'll get the support they need.

Reflexive feedback is what distinguishes leaders from coaches.

When I was a principal, I had a supervisor, and I also had a coach, and I had many great conversations with both of them. My coach was extremely helpful in getting me to reflect, and I know I got better as a result.

My supervisors did that too, but also did something else: they listened, and brought about changes in the district that would make me a more effective leader. So when we talked about a problem, I knew I’d have to do my part, but I also knew my boss would go to bat for me at the district office and get things done.

And that’s what we need to do, almost all of the time, when we’re working with teachers. There’s part they need to do to get better, but there’s also part we need to do as leaders.

Deming realized that, for too long, American companies tried to improve manufacturing by basically yelling at their workers and telling them to try harder.

Work faster! Produce more! Be safer! Have fewer accidents!

How did it work? Not very well. Blaming the front-line employee for factors beyond his or her control doesn't get us very far.

Deming realized that the next level of productivity wasn't about fixing the individual worker.

It wasn't that American workers were lazier or less careful than workers in other countries. The difference was that, in organizations that were improving rapidly, the focus was on improving their systems—not on individuals.

I believe it's time for us to learn the same lesson in education.

Teachers don't teach in a vacuum—they teach in a specific organization. The system they're working within determines the majority of the results that they get.

So if you want to take your school from good to great, it's not enough to address each individual “iceberg” of teacher practice. You're responsible for the current that moves the entire ocean.

As a new principal, when I got into classrooms, I often didn't know what to say, so I just listened and asked questions that would to tell me what I needed to know.

When I talked with teachers and learned what was going on beneath the surface of their practice—and what was going on within our school that might be hidden to me—I started to see my school as a system.

Once I saw the whole system, I was able to make better decisions:

  • Decisions about what to address in professional development
  • Decisions about who to hire to add to our team
  • Decisions about how to allocate our budget
  • Decisions about where to spend my time and attention

Having these conversations isn't difficult—and in any conversation, you can shift between directive, reflective, and reflexive feedback as needed.

To summarize:

Three Roles Leaders Play in Changing Teacher Practice

The boss role helps you deal effectively with direct resistance and change teacher behavior through directive feedback.

As I explain in Chapter 2 of Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership, the best classroom visits have seven key features:

  • Frequent—Approximately once every two weeks
  • Brief—Five to ten minutes of observation, followed by a brief conversation
  • Substantive—More than just making an appearance
  • Open ended—Focused on the teacher’s thinking, not filling out a form
  • Evidence based—Centered on what actually happened during the observation
  • Criterion referenced—Linked to a shared instructional framework
  • Conversation oriented—Designed to lead to reflexive feedback conversations between teachers and instructional leaders

For ten evidence-based questions to structure your conversations with teachers, download the free PDF guide, 10 Questions For Better Feedback On Teaching

Free PDF Download

How To Document Quick “No Feedback” Visits in Repertoire

Sometimes when you're visiting classrooms, you don't want to provide feedback.

Perhaps you didn't see anything you felt compelled to comment on, or perhaps you weren't able to stay as long as usual.

Whatever the reason, it's often useful to document visits to classrooms, even when you don't take any notes or provide any feedback.

In our web-based app Repertoire, you can document visits of any length—from a brief pop-in to a full formal observation.

Here's how you can document a classroom visit, even if you don't take any notes, and don't want to email the teacher.

1. Create A Template

In Repertoire, click Templates, then Create Template.

Give your template a descriptive name that will easily come to mind when you're making a brief visit to a classroom, such as “quick visit.”

In the Subject and Content fields, put “n/a” or whatever you'd like.

Click Save to finish creating your template.

2. Use Your Template

Select this template when documenting a visit with no notes and no feedback.

This will save you the trouble of filling something in the Subject and Message fields, which can't be blank. It'll also help you distinguish visits in which you purposefully didn't takes notes from those that, say, were interrupted by an emergency.

3. Save as Draft or Hit Send & Discard Email


Then, you can either click “Save and continue editing” and leave the entry as a draft; or, you can click “Send” but then close the email when it opens in your email program, without sending it.

Clicking “Save and continue editing” to save the entry as a draft may be helpful for quickly seeing which visits had feedback and which were just pop-ins with no notes/feedback. Here's how they'll appear in your list of entries in Repertoire:

Note: You can also use the radio button on the Add New Entry screen to indicate whether an entry contains feedback:

Another Idea: Send A Quick Note

It's not a bad idea to send a quick email of acknowledgement when you visit a teacher's classroom, even if you don't have any feedback.

Repertoire's template feature makes this very easy:

As you can see, Repertoire will even fill in the teacher's name using template variables:

Try Repertoire

If you're already a Pro Member, you can login to Repertoire here.

If you aren't yet a member, you can try Repertoire for 30 days for just $1.

Try Repertoire for $1 $19month after 30 days—cancel any time

How To Track Your Classroom Visits

When I was a new principal, I spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how I wanted to do walkthroughs.

I knew I wanted to visit classrooms, but…

  • what app should I use?
  • How should my form look?
  • How should I structure my feedback?

Those may be important issues…but first things first.

I was missing a more fundamental question: How often was I visiting each teacher?

Avoidance

I assumed I was getting around to every teacher every week or two.

After all, I tried to visit classrooms every day. Rarely (I thought) did a day go by when I wasn't spending time in classrooms.

Then I decided to check my records.

In reality, I was systematically over-visiting the “easy” classrooms:

  • The classrooms closest to the office
  • The classrooms where I felt most welcome
  • The classrooms where I was unlikely to see anything troubling

And I was unintentionally avoiding the “tough” classrooms:

  • Teachers with performance issues
  • Teachers who didn't especially want me in their rooms
  • Teachers who had unusual schedules or physically isolated classrooms

Never did I sit down and say to myself “I really want to get into classrooms this year, but only certain classrooms. I think I'll just visit the most pleasant and most convenient classrooms, and avoid any that might be a hassle or give me extra work to do.”

That wasn't my intent at all, but the outcome was the same: Some teachers saw me almost every week, while others went weeks or even months without a visit.

This pattern of avoidance is completely natural, so if you've been doing the same thing, don't feel bad. We all do it.

And the remedy is simple: start keeping track.

3 Tools for Tracking Visits

Keeping track of your visits to classrooms doesn't have to be difficult.

Here are three simple options—it doesn't matter which one you use; what matters is that you use something, and start keeping track, to push back against your natural tendency to avoid certain classrooms.

The simplest way to track your visits is to just print a staff list—you probably already have one handy, so get a fresh copy and start recording your visits.

For now, just put the date (and perhaps the time of day) by each teacher's name when you visit.

This isn't an especially good way to track your visits long-term, but it'll get you started.

If you want to prompt yourself to visit teachers in a certain order, you might consider one of the other options.

Set A Goal

Finally, as you visit classrooms this year, work toward a specific goal.

We all want to be in classrooms “as much as possible.” That's not specific enough to guide your choices on a daily basis.

Life will get in the way. People will call you back to the office. Your schedule will fill with other meetings.

If you want to get into classrooms, be intentional. Set a specific goal that you can fight to achieve every day.

So here's my recommendation: strive to get into every classroom within a week—the first week of school, or the first week after you're reading this. It doesn't matter whether school is just starting, you're halfway through the year, or it's almost over.

Just start. Get into classrooms. Keep track.

And when you've made it around to everyone, I have something special for you:

Visit every teacher in your school, and I'll send you a limited-edition #EveryClassroom sticker while supplies last.

Visit #EveryClassroom The First Week of School

What's the most important thing for a leader to do in the first week of school?

Among a zillion tasks, it's this: Visit every classroom.

In fact, let's make it a hashtag:

Sure, everyone tries to do it. Most people probably end up visiting most classrooms.

But let's get serious: let's visit every classroom in the first full week of school.

You can even give yourself a few days to deal with opening-of-school emergencies. Start on the 2nd or 3rd day if you like.

But in short order, get out of the office and get into classrooms.

And don't stop till you've visited #EveryClassroom.

Tips for Visiting #EveryClassroom

  1. Visit systematically—a department or grade level at a time 
  2. Keep track—print a staff roster, or have your secretary help, so you don't skip anyone
  3. Don't give yourself any homework yet—just show up
  4. Don't evaluate teachers or provide feedback—that can come later

For now, focus on getting around to every teacher in your school. Just make an appearance, so no one is surprised to see you in October.

Be friendly, say hi, pay attention, and build relationships.

As a bonus, you'll have a great deal of information and context you wouldn't have without these visits. So make it happen!

We'll have more on #EveryClassroom soon, including a way you can track your progress.

If you're on Twitter, use the hashtag #EveryClassroom and mention me (@eduleadership) to let me know you're in.​ 

Whether you start school on Monday or not for several more weeks, I hope this is the year you make it happen!​

Finishers:

#500c Success Stories: Leaders Who Made 500 Classroom Visits This Year

And some remarkable variants on the challenge:

I'm a department chair of a department of 10 members in high school. During this school year I didn't get into 500 classes this year but I did visit every member of my department once every two weeks providing them feedback (email or face to face). That's 180 classroom visits in addition to my teaching classes. The visits have given me evidence of what I thought was happening, that I have an awesome department that knock it out of the park when it comes to educating our students.

Chris Geiser
Mathematics Department Chair, Central High School, Evansville, IN
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