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Why No One Wants To See Your Stupid Portfolio

“Thanks for coming in. Do you have any questions for the interview team?”

“Well, I just wanted to show you my portfolio before I go…”

Thus ended half a dozen interviews I've conducted over the years. Every time, a thick folder or 3-ring binder was briefly passed around, barely perused, and returned to its owner.

We seem to love portfolios in education. Certainly, for some purposes, they're better than any alternative.

But please—stop bringing them to job interviews.

Nobody wants to look at your portfolio, and nobody is going to give you a job because they were impressed by your binder.

How Portfolios Caught On

I blame universities.

Students in teacher and administrator certification programs do a great deal of work that doesn't really deserve space in the applicant's résumé, so portfolios seem like a natural way to organize this work.

The portfolio format is a great fit for the university's assessment needs. Since graduate students may not have actual student data to share, yet may be required to demonstrate competence in a variety of areas, portfolios make a ton of sense.

Somewhere along the way, though, university supervisors started to suggest that candidates should bring these portfolios along to interviews.

More evidence can't hurt, right?

I don't think bringing along a portfolio hurts your chances, but it certainly doesn't help.

Why Interview Teams Don't Care About Portfolios

As a candidate, your role is to make the best case you can that you're the best person for the job.

You want to bring everything to the table, so all the evidence is taken into consideration. You want them to see the real you, regardless of what format you may choose.

But the interview team's goal isn't to learn everything about you. It's not to see the real you. It's to compare you to the other candidates on pre-determined dimensions, using pre-determined data sources.

Your cover letter matters. Your résumé matters. Your interview matters.

But unless you were specifically told to bring a portfolio, it won't be considered—because it doesn't allow for a comparison with other candidates.

So is it a waste of time to compile a portfolio?

Not quite.

How To Capitalize On Your Portfolio In Your Interview

If you're not required to compile a portfolio, don't bother. But you should at least keep a comprehensive list of your achievements as an educator.

And if you are required to make a portfolio, it's a great start on your comprehensive list.

Now, as I said above, no one will want to see your portfolio or list. But it's invaluable as a preparation tool.

Here's why.

In your interview, you'll be asked a variety of questions about your experience, and more and more employers are asking “behavioral” questions that ask you to share an example from your professional experience of how you've addressed a particular type of situation.

For example, you might be asked how you resolved a conflict between two parties, or how you responded to a complaint, or how you identified and addressed an inequity.

More than any other type, these are the questions that catch people off-guard.

But you'll be amply prepared to answer behavioral questions if you've carefully compiled a list of: 

  • Projects you've managed
  • Committees you've worked with
  • Problems you've solved
  • Challenges you've overcome
  • Students you've reached

By itself, the list has no power.

But if you use it to rehearse your answers to the most common interview questions you're likely to face, you'll blow your competition out of the water.

(You can download a set of 52 practice questions here.)

You'll wow the interview team with specific, well-told stories of how you've made a difference. And you'll find that a single story can lend itself to a number of different behavioral questions.

But only if you've prepared yourself to talk about your experience in a way that sells you as a candidate.

Practice Making The Case

Most job-seekers understand that they'll be expected to talk about themselves in interviews—a task that's profoundly uncomfortable for many people.

Because it's uncomfortable, many candidates don't practice, and do a very poor job of making the case that they're the best person for the job.

Some people are naturally confident—perhaps overconfident—and as a result, they have an outsize chance of landing the job.

If you're naturally humble and hesitant to toot your own horn, you're at a disadvantage.

Unless you practice.

The way to practice is straightforward: using a list of interview questions, draft your answers briefly on paper. Then, with a friend or by yourself, practice answering a barrage of questions in real time, and record the results on video.

If you expect your real interviews to last 30 minutes, practice 30-minute interviews. Strive to match your practice approach to the type of interviews you'll actually face.

Then, watch the video.

(Most people won't do this, because it's uncomfortable, and that's where you can gain an advantage.)

Look for awkward responses, incomplete answers, or missed opportunities. Look for odd mannerisms or facial expressions.

Revise your answers, and keep practicing until they're perfect.

Rehearse until you don't sound rehearsed. And you'll be ready.

Practice Interview Questions

If you're applying for educational leadership positions, download my 52 practice interview questions here.

Get Current and Get Into Classrooms

What does it mean to be current? Well, it's the opposite of being “behind.” And I can tell you—most instructional leaders feel perpetually behind.

The emails never stop. The paperwork stacks up like a bar graph on your desk. And your to-do list only grows longer…not to mention the human work of being present whenever you're needed: 

  • The meeting that seems to drag on forever
  • The weeknight that has not two, not four, but six basketball games
  • The endless parade of human beings, large and small, who require your time and attention

How can we get current in a job like this?

Let's be clear: you'll never finish all of your tasks and projects. An instructional leader's work is never done, because there's always more you could be doing.

But you don't have to feel overwhelmed. You can get current.

And let me tell you this: it's possible. It's hard, but it's worth it. Here's how to do it.

Create Benchmarks

Every day, I empty my inbox. I make a decision about every email and either deal with it or snooze it to a specific date in the future. I hit this benchmark every single day—every day in 2015, and every day so far in 2016.

As a result, I'm current on email. I haven't done all of my work—that will never happen, as there's always more to do—but there are no mysteries. I don't have to worry that someone emailed me last week and hasn't heard back from me. I don't have to worry that I'll show up to a meeting without something I was supposed to bring.

The benchmark is powerful because it's unambiguous. My goal isn't to have “not too many” emails left in my inbox. My goal is ZERO.

This has a huge impact on your self-efficacy. Consider how you feel when you've worked hard for two hours and still have dozens of unread emails, versus how you'd feel to work hard for two hours and completely empty your inbox. It's huge.

Ultimately, benchmarks only work if they're strategic. I have a specific plan for handling my email in a reasonable amount of time each day, and when I follow that strategy, it works.

If I just click around my inbox aimlessly at 2pm, it's not going to work. (If I am checking email at 2pm, I'm probably at my standing desk.)

Use The Right Tools

Getting current on all of your work—so you have no mysteries and no anxiety about what you could or should be working on—is harder than it used to be.

You have more email, more notifications, more people who need your attention. And that means your tools need to keep pace with the increase in the demands you face.

One tool that helps me deal with email—on any device I may be using—is If I get an email on Monday and can't deal with it until Thursday, I'll snooze it by forwarding it to [email protected] On Thursday, the service sends it back to me.

I also use an app called ToDoist to turn emails—which are really forms of communication, not task-management devices—into tasks that I can easily manage, revise, organize, and schedule.

With the right tools in place, I can be efficient enough to get current in a reasonable amount of time each day.

Develop Consistent Habits

Having good strategies—like clearing my inbox daily—and cool tools like ToDoist and isn't much good if I'm inconsistent.

I know that my behavior matters. If I'm going to be consistent, I have to form and stick to the right habits.

Put it all together, and you have strategy (e.g. get down to zero emails), tools (like FollowUpThen and ToDoist), and habits (every day). That's what I call the High Performance Triangle.

Get your work under control. Get current. You can do it. Let me know how I can help.

Then, on to...

Get Into Classrooms

As an instructional leader, virtually nothing is more valuable than spending time in classrooms. You've got to know what's happening instructionally in your school, so you can make operational, staffing, and professional development decisions that reflect reality.

The premise of the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge is simple: visit 10% of the teachers you supervise, every day. Provide evidence-rich, framework-linked feedback, and have a great discussion afterward.

(Here's a 4-page overview if you're interested in a 1-day onsite version of the Challenge.)

If I can help guide you on this journey, now is a great time to become a Professional Member of The Principal Center. You'll get: 

Become a Pro Member for $1 »

The High Performance Triangle

If you go to just about any education conference—and I go to a lot of them—you'll see session descriptions packed with strategy.

Everyone wants to know the best approach to each particular problem we face in education, and it's this desire that sells millions of books every year.

As educational leaders, we love strategy.

But strategy doesn't automatically create results; in fact, there's such a well-established gulf between strategy and reality that we have a special phrase for crossing this divide:

“From theory to practice.”

It's completely normal not to put theory into practice—to let the best strategies go untried.

Of course, we often do try, and find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work it takes to implement a particular strategy successfully.

Or we get started, then have to get started on something else, then something else, and our organizational attention wanders…and that strategy isn't happening after all.

Why do we struggle to do what we know we should be doing?

If we have the strategy figured out, why is executing it so hard? I believe the answer is simple: 

  • Strategy isn't enough
  • Good ideas aren't enough
  • “Best practice” isn't enough

…because none of them get at the underlying issue: behavior. As the adults responsible for students' education, what we actually do matters more than anything else…and doing is hard.

Here, then, is my attempt at a more complete picture. If we want to attain high performance in any endeavor, we need three things: 

  • A solid strategy
  • The right tools
  • Disciplined habits

I've become convinced that all three factors—tools, habits, and strategies—are crucial, because if one is missing, we get predictably inferior results, in any area, whether it's: 

  • Leading major change
  • Handling email
  • Dealing with paperwork
  • Conducting classroom observations and walkthroughs
  • Following through on any kind of work

Let's look at why we need all three.


Without strategy, we're ineffective.

If we don't have a well-considered strategy, the whole activity can be a wrongheaded waste of time, even if good tools and habits are in place.

Can you develop consistent habits of using powerful tools…poorly? Absolutely.

When we check our email with no strategy, old messages linger, clutter builds, and we never seem to get caught up. Our habits and tools don't serve us well because they're not being put to wise use.

Who struggles with strategy? I think it's my generation, those of us who are comfortable with tools and technology, who tend to put strategy on the back burner in our enthusiasm for using the latest and greatest tools.


Without habits, we're inconsistent.

Being great… some of the time… isn’t worth much.

On my team, I want players who can consistently make layups, not goofballs who can make the occasional 3-pointer from mid-court.

We need to not only know and do what works, but do it consistently. We need to use our future files to keep our desks clear. We need to get to inbox zero.

For more on how habits form and operate, see Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit.

Who struggles with habit? I think we all do, but especially those of us who are most eager to make sure we're using the latest tools and the smartest strategies.


Without tools, we're inefficient.

Tools accelerate our work, enabling us to do more than we ever could without them.

They don't turn a non-leader into a leader, but they make an impossible job more doable, if we use them right.

Who struggles with tools? I think it tends to be people who have good strategies and habits in place, and see tools as unnecessary.

But when we have all three in place, we can accomplish amazing things.

Learn more about our courses designed around the High-Performance Triangle at

1 How To Schedule Time To Get Into Classrooms

You're busy. You have a ton to do, and your day is full of meetings, punctuated by emergencies. So how can you make time to get into classrooms?

That's what we explore in the Instructional Leadership Challenge, and I thought I'd elaborate a bit on this particular strategy.

If you want to do regular walkthroughs—we suggest 10% of your classrooms per day, so you get to everyone on a 10-day rotation—you'll need to make sure your schedule reserves time for them.

You can try to squeeze walkthroughs into spare moments, but as the old saying goes, if it doesn't get scheduled, it doesn't get done.

Let's say you have 30 teachers, so to visit 10% per day, you'll need to do 3 walkthroughs per day. If you need to do three walkthroughs, you need to set aside 3 timeslots, right?

Well, not quite. There's a good chance you'll get interrupted or prevented from keeping some of those appointments with yourself.

Emergencies come up, meetings run over, and you know in the back of your mind that walkthroughs can wait.

So all too often, walkthroughs get pushed back. They get pushed aside. And they hardly ever happen.

I don't have hard numbers on this, but my ballpark estimate is that most administrators do 1 or 2 walkthroughs a week. It's not enough.

And what's worse is that they don't visit people systematically. They make the most visits to the teachers who are:

  • Nearby
  • Nice
  • Doing a good job, and
  • Receptive to feedback

Guess what that leaves out? The classrooms we most need to be in.

We can do better. But we'll need to address three problems:

  • Interruptions
  • Sticking to the plan
  • Keeping visits brief yet impactful

Realistic Scheduling

To schedule walkthroughs so they actually happen, we need to plan for the inevitable…and interruptions are inevitable.

It's simple: simply take the number of walkthroughs you want to do in a day, and multiply it by 1.5, 2, or even 3.

If you need to do 3 walkthroughs a day, schedule 5 or 6 timeslots. If you're an assistant principal and get interrupted by discipline issues constantly, schedule 9 timeslots.

Pick a multiplier that matches your likelihood of interruption, calculate the total number of timeslots you need, and schedule them.

Now, you might be thinking “I can't schedule 9 timeslots in a day!” But of course you can…if they're short.

You don't need more than 10 minutes to get to a classroom, stay for a few minutes, and put together some notes and feedback (more on how to do this—and the mistakes to avoid—in the Instructional Leadership Challenge).

You can schedule nine 10-minute timeslots (90 minutes) in a 6 or 7 hour school day. It's a lot of the day, sure—up to 25%—but you won't need all of it. If you don't get interrupted, you'll get done in the first few timeslots, and the rest of your day is free.

Sticking To The Plan

Of course, scheduling your walkthroughs does very little good if you aren't going to stick to the schedule.

We know the difference between “real” appointments with other people, and the appointments we make with ourselves. And too often, we let ourselves break the appointments we make with ourselves—which means we don't follow through on being in classrooms.

So if you're going to schedule walkthroughs on your calendar, here are 3 ways to make sure you actually do them:

  • Ask your secretary to direct you to classrooms when it's time. A gentle nudge might be all you need.
  • Create a personal rule to obey your calendar at all times. You can modify it at any time, but whatever your calendar says, you must do, unless interrupted by an emergency.
  • Define “emergency” with your secretary, so both of you are clear on when it's OK for you to go off-calendar, and when it's not.

But once you've developed the habit of getting into classrooms, how can you accomplish anything meaningful in just a few minutes?

Greater Impact in Less Time

I believe most walkthroughs can be highly effective in under 10 minutes. If you give yourself a 5-page checklist to fill out, of course you're going to struggle. We need to be focused in what we're looking for, and what feedback we provide.

So I recommend creating a short electronic form that allows you to quickly capture exactly the information you want. I show you how to do this in the Challenge.

Then, create a template to turn your form submissions into emails, which are automatically sent to your Evernote account, the teacher's email, and a downloadable spreadsheet.

You can spend just a few minutes listening (and even participating), jot down a few quick notes, hit submit, and be done with the entire process in under 10 minutes.

Ask me how I know.

Not only have I done this countless times, it's being done every day by our 5,000+ participants in the Instructional Leadership Challenge, who are in some 50 countries around the world.

You can make time to get into classrooms.

As instructional leaders, we need to be in classrooms. There's no better place to be.

If you're not part of the Instructional Leadership Challenge, you can sign up here. It's completely free. Get started now, and I'll see you inside the Challenge.

The Price of Excellence: Managing the Stress of Leadership

How hard should we push ourselves?

Educators are known for being a hardworking, selfless lot. This can be good for kids, because it means they get our best, but it's not always sustainable.

Kids don't benefit when we burn out (more on this below).

Do you know a fellow principal who's had to take a medical leave due to stress, or even had to find a less stressful position altogether?

I do—it's far too common.

And yet, I believe that we can both push ourselves hard and avoid burnout. It all has to do with our understanding of stress.

Eustress and Distress

It's not healthy to have an excess of stress, but it's not healthy to have zero stress, either. We need a bit of drive—in fact, if we're going to do right by our students, I'd suggest we need a LOT of drive.

Clinicians distinguish between eustress, or “good stress,” and distress, the more commonly understood bad type of stress. We need to maintain a healthy level of eustress, without pushing ourselves into distress territory.

There's a middle ground between coasting and burning out, and that's where we can hit our stride as high performance instructional leaders.

Choosing Stress

The summer after high school graduation, I worked at Six Flags Astroworld and played video games. Not much distress, but not much eustress, either.

I didn't go home worrying about anything, but I also didn't make much of a difference in the world, manning the gift shop by the Batman roller coaster.

As school leaders, we've chosen a career that matters. We've challenged ourselves to make a difference in the lives of kids. We've chosen a certain level of stress.

But how can we stay fully engaged with that challenge, without killing ourselves?

Balancing The Stress Equation

Stress is a result of the gap between the expectations we hold ourselves to, and our capacity for meeting those expectations:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

In other words, if you don't expect too much of yourself, you won't experience much stress, and the more you can increase your capacity to meet those expectations, the lower your stress will be.

The problem is that expectations of principals are wildly out of control. You know what I mean.

Everyone expects you to do everything. You're accountable to everyone, for everything, including plenty of things you don't have much control over.

You're caught in the middle, between front-line challenges and top-down accountability. You're the focal point for just about every reform, every problem, every decision.

(And, as I was reminded in a phone conversation yesterday, many of us teach, too!)

We need to get expectations under control if we're going to have any chance of feeling successful and getting our stress under control.

We have to decide what's allowed to cause us stress. We have to filter the expectations others place on us, before we internalize them.

And the key tool for doing this is your leadership agenda.

Your Leadership Agenda Is Your Filter

As an instructional leader, you're responsible for just about everything, but you can't let every little issue stress you out.

I'm not talking about being chill and and wearing a Hawaiian shirt (though if that's your style, more power to you).

I'm talking about being selective, about deciding what the real issues that deserve your attention are, and articulating those in a written, confidential document I call the leadership agenda.

Having a “hidden” agenda might sound a little underhanded, but it's not. It's the ultimate act of leadership—to decide what matters right now, and make decisions with those priorities in mind.

Everything else may still need to be dealt with, whether it's gum on the floor or a phone call from an irate parent, but it doesn't need to add to your stress.

What About Everything Else?

But how is this possible? How can we be responsible for the gum on the floor, and the other small problems that crop up every day, without being weighed down by them?

How can we keep the little stuff under control, while keeping our eyes on the big picture?

Some people will tell you to just delegate. Of course having a competent, empowered team is essential, but that's not really a solution.

The solution is to have a system, an approach to high-performance instructional leadership that includes strategies, tools, and habits for dealing with everything that comes your way.

We offer all that and more in our Principal Center Pro Membership. You might be especially interested in our course High-Performance Workflow which is specifically crafted to help solve the stress equation.

The Principal Center Pro Membership includes the High-Performance Leadership course as well as all of our other top strategy courses, webinars, tool tutorials, and support for developing that habits that will transform your productivity.

» Learn More

Struggling To Connect With Students? Let Them Get To Know You

Guest post by James Alan Sturtevant

Teachers are often lectured, “Get to know your students!” That’s not easy to do! A lot of kids can be pretty closed down. And, if you try to get to know them before they’re ready…it can be counter productive.

pic 1

Bonding with students is fundamental to the learning process. John Hattie, in his landmark book “Visible Learning”, created a list of 138 influences on student learning. He placed student-teacher relationships in 11th place, far ahead of many things one might think more important. State departments of education, like in Ohio where I live, are requiring resident educators to demonstrate that positive relationships are being fostered in classrooms.

So, if you’ve been tasked to bond with students, and you’re a bit stumped on how to do it, I’m here to help! I propose reverse engineering the problem. Instead of you stalking your students and coming on too strong, entice them to come to you! In order to coax students out of their shells, or melt arctic exteriors, or win over the disruptive, teachers need to become:

  • Approachable
  • Intriguing
  • Familiar
  • Safe
  • Non-threatening

A great way to achieve this is to tell stories about yourself! That’s right…which means teachers may have to come out of their shells too! Strive to become a fascinating adult kids find attractive. Bring students into your world. Not literally…I’m not proposing you invite them to your house for dinner, but allow them to live vicariously through some of your interesting experiences. You’ll be amazed at the power of this simple tactic! Allow students to get to know you. Isn’t that the way you’ve forged other relationships?

How about sharing these experiences with your class?

pic 2

To give your stories more power, accompany narratives with images projected on your smart board. Become a photojournalist. If something interesting happens to you this weekend, capture images on your smart phone and share them in class Monday morning.

Invariably, when I spout my ideas about sharing personal stories, I get some push back. Here are some common reservations:

  • What a tremendous waste of instructional time!
  • Teachers need to be respected…they’re not entertainers!
  • My students would look at me like I’m an idiot!

Certainly, spending a few minutes at the beginning or end of class bonding with kids isn’t a waste. Particularly if you believe, like John Hattie, that relationships are essential to the learning process. You might find improved student-teacher rapport magically leads to better student performance. How interesting!

I would never want to undermine any educator’s image! Sharing your life with students shouldn’t lead to this. You don’t have to be a court jester or a stand-up comedian, or an extrovert for that matter. The stories and experiences you share don’t have to be humorous. Just because most student skits turn into comedies, doesn’t mean your show and tell sessions must be the same.

For those concerned with student receptiveness, I totally understand. Students can be tricky. When you first go down this sharing path, some kids may be dismissive, or hostile, “What’s this gotta do with what we’re studying?” Or, “Why are you telling us this stuff?” Don’t let these poison arrows throw you off your game! One crabby student does not constitute a consensus. The majority of your class might really enjoy your rendition of your experience, but be too reserved to express it. And, I’ve often found, kids who are initially the most persnickety, later tend to be the first to start sharing back…”Mr. Sturtevant, guess where my family ate last night!” Or, “Mr. Sturtevant, wait till I tell you what coach made us do at the end of practice!” So, if you experience some initial resistance, just be cool and keep trying. Your students will come around.

And finally, these reservations fail to appreciate, and this is MOST important, that contemporary youth are totally comfortable sharing and hearing trivial details of daily existence. Think about what students post on social media:

  • Massive photo albums of themselves
  • Whom they find attractive
  • Their favorite teams, food, music, movies, shows, games and apps

Young people are totally down with this form of sharing. They’re constantly informing all of humanity…what’s up. This ultra-connected, online, social networking generation diligently refreshes the stream of information. The comic below is not far from reality!

pic 3

You might think it odd to announce to the world what you had for dinner last night, and then post images of your meal for impact, but your students won’t. They’ll embrace it…ENTHUSIASTICALLY! Bond with students by sharing your life, and in the process, watch connections and learning blossom!

If you’d like to learn more about connecting with students, check out my

book “You’ve Gotta Connect”:


You can also listen to me talk about connecting with students on the following podcasts:

Cult of Pedagogy with Jennifer Gonzalez

Principal Center Radio with Justin Baeder

All Sides on NPR’s WOSU 89.7 with Ann Fisher

Please visit my website and follow me on Twitter @jamessturtevant

4 Ways To Decide What Not To Delegate

How do you decide what to spend your time on as a leader?

Sure, some things are required, and can't be delegated—perhaps your teacher evaluations.

But you could delegate almost anything else.

How do you decide whether to:

  • Attend school sports events (and which ones)?
  • Supervise in the hallways?
  • Greet parents at drop-off/pickup?
  • Monitor the cafeteria or recess?
  • Visit teachers' team meetings?
  • Review attendance records?

You can't do it all. You've got to delegate some work…and it needs to be the right work.

Here are 4 suggestions for how you might decide what NOT to delegate, and instead to keep doing yourself.

1. Does it build relationships?

This is the redeeming value in any work that's below your pay grade.

Wiping tables in the cafeteria? Not a good use of time from an economic standpoint, but it can be a great way to connect with students.

2. Does it build efficacy?

Sometimes we engage in work that others could do, because we want to help them develop confidence, skills, and self-efficacy.

For example, when principals teach model lessons—it's not because the principal is necessarily the best teacher.

It's because when leaders go first, it's hard not to follow.

3. Does it build systems?

We may need to devote time to a particular issue because a good system isn't yet in place.

The best way to learn what kind of system needs to be in place…is to do the work yourself for a while, so you can build the right system.

4. Does it provide key information?

Why do instructional leaders belong in classrooms?

We could provide feedback, or coach teachers, or collect data…but I think the best reason is to simply pay attention. To learn.

There's no substitute for being where the work is being done—in classrooms—because that's the only way to become truly informed.

A School With No Principal (But Plenty of Leadership)

Can you imagine your school functioning without a principal? Not just for a day here or there…but forever?

That's exactly what this school in Maine is doing: they're not going to replace their principal, who stepped down for medical reasons:

“She was splitting her time and it seemed like when we needed something or something came up, she wasn’t available for us,” said Tammy Moulton, an eighth-grade teacher who has taught in Athens for 30 years. “Between obligations at another school and meetings she had to attend, she wasn’t often available, and we found ourselves doing a lot of things anyway. We had to make decisions and get things done on a daily basis.”

One teacher saw an article about a “teacher-led” school — there is no principal and teachers are fully responsible for all decisions — and they decided the model was something they wanted to explore. Read more »

Instead of hiring a new principal, they're using the instructional leadership capacity they've already built. Can this work?

The Power of Distributed Instructional Leadership

It might sound radical, but about 70 “teacher-led” schools around the country already operate this way—with no principal at all.

Is it a good idea? I think it could spread teachers too thin, but I love that it's possible.

Here's what the research on “distributed” instructional leadership says: instructional leadership is inherently distributed.

There's no getting around the fact that principals aren't the only leaders. We can't be. We shouldn't be. And we aren't.

Developing Instructional Leadership “Bench Strength”

In sports, the depth of a team's “bench” is an important measure of its strength and resilience. Who can step forward and take the lead when a star player has to sit out?

Superstar players may lead a team to the playoffs, but what if the superstar is benched by an injury? That's a lot of risk for the team.

And it's the same in schools: Who will step up and lead when you're not there, whether you're just not in a certain meeting, out for the day, or gone for good?

Could your school run long-term with no principal? It depends on the depth of your “bench” of instructional leaders.

So if you're a principal, you have a choice:

  1. You can pretend you're the only leader, and treat other sources of leadership as irrelevant, OR
  2. You can invest in building your school's capacity for instructional leadership.

This is fairly new territory for most schools, I know. But in the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, we're diving in with both feet.

The Network, our flagship program, is no longer just about helping individual leaders increase their productivity and impact. It's about building capacity for instructional leadership across the organization.

Truly Distributed Instructional Leadership

Here's what I've come to believe: instructional leadership isn't just distributed among staff. It's distributed even more broadly, incorporating students and the community.

Wait…students as instructional leaders? Yes, and here's how it can look:

  • Students, staff, and the community are involved in decision-making
  • Students, staff, and the community are engaged in goal-setting and culture-making
  • Students and staff engage with standards—instead of relying on the curriculum department to pick materials that are aligned with standards

And there's much more. But that can wait.

Today, I want to hear from you: What do you think about this idea of schools without principals?

If your school was going to become principal-free, where would you invest your efforts in building capacity for distributed leadership?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

And if you want to learn more about building your school's capacity for instructional leadership,

Get Into Classrooms 500 Times This Year

I want to challenge you to get into 500 classrooms this year.

Now, I don't mean that I want you to try to get into 500 classrooms. Everyone tries.

Trying doesn't count.

Trying might get you a thumbs up from anyone who notices, but it doesn't produce results for students.

I want to challenge you to develop a plan to make 500 classroom visits this year.

And then implement that plan. Hard.

If you'd like a solid plan…good news. I've made one for you. It's called the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge.

But I made a mistake with the Challenge—I made it too long and complicated.

More than 5,000 people have gone through the Challenge. But many have put off actually implementing the practice of visiting 3 classrooms a day.

Don't put it off any longer. Make this the year you get into classrooms 500 times.

If you're in…tweet at me (@eduleadership) with the hashtag #500c.

The “Master Yoda” Plan for Getting Into Classrooms

Here's the “Master Yoda” plan. Don't try it—do it. It's simple but powerful:

  1. Schedule 5+ timeslots a day to visit classrooms.
    • If you're in a secondary school, schedule at least one per period
    • Schedule a few extras if you get interrupted a lot. For example, if you know you'll get interrupted 50% of the time, schedule 6 visits so you can actually do 3.
  2. Put these specific times on your calendar, and let NOTHING short of a real “fire alarm” emergency keep you from visiting classrooms when your calendar says it's time.
  3. Make a list (in Repertoire or on a stack of index cards) of all your teachers, and visit them in rotation—3 a day—at the scheduled times.
  4. Visit—unannounced—for ~10 minutes, and take low-inference notes (no checklists or forms!)
  5. Don't worry about collecting data or coming up with suggestions for improvement.
  6. Share your notes with the teacher immediately, ideally via email.
  7. Talk face-to-face, on the spot or as soon as possible thereafter (within 24 hours). Here are 10 great evidence-based questions to ask.
  8. Do this EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Not once a week, or when “time allows.” Every day.
  9. Repeat until you've been around to every teacher (this should take about 10 days, or two weeks).
  10. Repeat the entire cycle all year, so you get around to every teacher every two weeks (about 18x/year)

That's it. Make it happen.

Decisional Information and Stronger Relationships

If you do, you'll have vastly more information with which to make better decisions as a leader.

You'll know your teachers and what they need, and where you can do a more effective job of supporting your students.

You'll have vastly more context for your teacher evaluations.

And you'll have much stronger relationships with your teachers—instead of seeing them mostly in staff meetings and the copy room, you'll see them mostly in their own classrooms, doing what they do best.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Now, I have a goal: 1,000,000 visits. This year. It's ambitious, but doable. We just need 2,000 instructional leaders to visit 500 classrooms (tweet with the hashtag #500c if you're in) this year, and the goal will become a reality.

500 classrooms. 3 or so a day. You can do it. Let me know how I can help.

Note: I've made an app called Repertoire that makes this very, very easy (and you can email or copy your notes into another evaluation system if you'd like).

Staying In The Game: Preventing Principal Burnout

According to this report from School Leaders Network, replacing a single principal can cost a total of $75,000—or more.

Isn't that a staggering figure? Keep in mind that the $75,000 figure doesn't include salary…those are just the costs of replacing a principal who doesn't stay.

If you consider the cost of:

  • Recruitment
  • Hiring
  • Onboarding
  • Training
  • Mentoring
  • New principal professional development

and more, it's easy to see how the total could reach $75,000 or more (the report, which offers its own breakdown, places the high end of the range at $303,000).

More importantly, it matters for student achievement if principals stay for the long haul.

Student Achievement and Principal Longevity

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Berkeley professor David Kirp about his book Improbable Scholars.

Kirp studied a high-poverty district in NJ that has remarkably high student achievement, considering the challenges its students face in life.

Despite poverty, limited English proficiency, and other challenges, the students in Union City, NJ do as well as their middle-class peers across the state.

What makes the difference in this district?

What struck me most clearly was Union City's leadership stability—extremely low turnover among principals and senior leaders.

School Culture and Momentum

A strong school culture can withstand a bit of leadership turnover. The more instructional leadership is “distributed” across multiple staff, the more resilient the school will be during times of stress and transition.

But to become a resilient school with strong, distributed leadership…you need leadership stability in the first place. To build the kind of culture that can endure, you need a principal who stays long enough to build momentum.

Why Don't We Invest In Turnover Prevention?

A lot of districts don't invest in reducing principal turnover because it's not a single direct cost.

No invoice marked “principal turnover expenses” ever arrives in the mail.

But that doesn't make the costs of losing principals any less real.

It matters for the financial bottom line. It matters for students. And it matters for school culture.

Are You Preventing Turnover for Yourself?

But let's go a step further: rather than wait for your employer to invest in keeping you around, let me ask a more personal question: what are you doing to keep yourself in your current position?

If you're looking for a new challenge, or if life's changes move you somewhere new, that's another matter.

But if you're burning out—if your job is weighing too heavily on your body, your mind, and your heart—take action.

We've all seen what happens when leaders fail to see the warning signs, and are forced by their health to step down.

And we've seen what happens when people pull back and disengage to preserve their sanity. It's pretty obvious when leaders are phoning it in. It might feel like a necessary adjustment, but it's not fair to students.

If you're in the game, stay in it 100% by taking care of yourself.

If you want to reduce your stress level and make your work more managable—while increasing your effectiveness—check out our program High Performance Habits.