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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.

Using The Evaluation Process To Help Teachers Grow: Who’s In The Driver’s Seat?

There's an old Harry Wong saying about classroom management and pedagogy that goes something like this:

Whoever is doing the most work
Is doing the most learning.

If we want our students to work hard and learn a lot, THEY need to “own” their learning.

Do we understand this when it comes to teacher evaluations?

Throughout the process, who's doing the most work—the administrator, or the teacher?

I'm not saying we need to have teachers write their own evaluations. But I am saying that the precise path of reflection and professional growth is best determined by the person doing the growing, not the person writing it up.

It's obvious that we need to keep teachers in the driver's seat, but it's not easy to make it happen—and here's why.

The “Big Stick” Problem

First, we have to understand why the growth and evaluation fit together so…awkwardly.

Helping teachers improve in the evaluation process is tough because real growth requires safety.

We want teachers to be in the driver's seat, but not like teenagers at the DMV.

We can't sit there, silently marking boxes on a clipboard, and honestly believe we're creating an environment conductive to growth.

We wear two hats as school leaders: We want to help our teachers grow, and we want to be their cheerleaders, but we also have a moral obligation to be their evaluators, and to hold them accountable for doing an acceptable job.

In the evaluation process, there's no pretending that the “evaluator hat” doesn't exist. But we can lay it aside and don the “coaching” hat.

How?

What action can we take to minimize the threat we pose in our evaluator role, and maximize our impact in the coaching and support role we play as instructional leaders?

Making The Growth Path Safe

If you have teachers who are clearly on the growth path, it's OK to reassure them that they're safe taking risks.

We can't go so far as to say “Look, there's no scenario in which you won't get a glowing evaluation from me this year, so do whatever you want.”

But we can send the message, subtly but clearly, that teachers are in charge of their own professional growth.

(We can send a different message to teachers who are, in our minds, on the dismissal path.)

We can say something like this: “I know this is the formal evaluation process, but I want it to be mainly about your growth. I want you to really push yourself, even if it means you're trying new things that don't work out.”

We need to explicitly give people permission to take big risks—which is really permission to fail, because without permission to fail, teachers will never escape the competency trap. Out of fear, they'll resort to improvement theatre.

The Competency Trap & Improvement Theatre

We fear failure because we know our work matters. It's not just the personal sense of failure; it's the impact on our students that leads us to stick to the familiar.

Improvement is risky, because it involves giving up things we're good at, and taking on new work that we may not be good at yet. Change increases the chance of failure.

This phenomenon is called the competency trap—we're good enough at we're already doing that we resist going through the learning curve that will take our practice to the next level.

And as administrators, we play a big role in determining just how deep the competency trap is.

Ask yourself this question: As a rational person, would it be smart for you to try something new, and virtually ensure that you were at the bottom of your learning curve at the moment you were being evaluated?

Of course not, yet that's precisely what we ask teachers to do in the evaluation process:

  • Set a goal to try something new
  • Set a date on which to be evaluated
  • Rely for your future employment on how well it turns out

What's a sensible person to do?

In this environment of risk, most people resort to what I call improvement theatre.

Instead of taking a real risk to actually get dramatically better through bold changes, we pretend. We take something we're already good at, make it seem like it's ambitious and new, and go through the prescribed process.

If we play our cards right, we end up looking like high-achieving geniuses. If not, at least we didn't do anything worse than last year.

Either way, we don't get any better.

Teachers are so good at playing this game, and administrators are so complicit (because, hey, we realize the process is a joke for most teachers who are doing fine), that society is fighting back.

Teachers are being judged based on student test scores—using shaky or even absurd statistical formulas—because we've lost the public trust that we're truly evaluating our teachers and holding them accountable for improvement.

Principals are now having to defend their teachers against formulas that were supposed to make it easier to do a good job of evaluating teaching performance.

It's a mess.

On the one hand, the more we play the heavy and take the process very seriously, the more teachers will pull back from investing in real improvement.

On the other hand, if we reduce evaluations to a mere formality, we lose the public's trust, and we have to deal with the consequences.

How can we get out of this situation?

It's all about the framework.

The Power of A Shared Framework

If I want to help teachers grow, and wear the coaching hat without being a pushover, my best tool is our shared instructional framework.

(My experience is mainly with Charlotte Danielson's excellent Framework for Professional Practice, though there are others that are good, too.)

The framework serves as a map, so you can help navigate—and ensure forward progress—while letting the teacher stay in the driver's seat.

And what if you have to defend a great teacher against an unfair formula based on questionable test score data?

You need evidence, just as surely as you need evidence for teachers who are on the dismissal path.

That evidence should be in the language of your evaluation framework, but simply listing items (1a, 2c, 3b) and marking them as “satisfactory” or “exemplary”…that's not evidence.

Evidence that holds up under scrutiny is, ultimately, an argument.

Putting It All Together: High-Performance Teacher Evaluations

Generating solid evidence for teacher evaluations is a major focus of our online course, High-Performance Teacher Evaluations.

You can register for this self-paced online course, which is available on-demand.

Learn more about High-Performance Teacher Evaluations »

Balancing the Stress Equation

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.

That's exactly what we offer in our program High Performance Habits. You might be especially interested in our webinar The Action Path: Streamlining Your Work To Increase Your Impact.

action-path

The High Performance Habits program includes the webinar recording as well as all of our other top strategy webinars, tool tutorials, and support for developing that habits that will transform your productivity.

» Learn More

Using The Evaluation Process to Help Teachers Grow: Who’s In The Driver’s Seat?

There's an old Harry Wong saying about classroom management and pedagogy that goes something like this:

Whoever is doing the most work
Is doing the most learning.

If we want our students to work hard and learn a lot, THEY need to “own” their learning.

Do we understand this when it comes to teacher evaluations?

Throughout the process, who's doing the most work—the administrator, or the teacher?

I'm not saying we need to have teachers write their own evaluations. But I am saying that the precise path of reflection and professional growth is best determined by the person doing the growing, not the person writing it up.

It's obvious that we need to keep teachers in the driver's seat, but it's not easy to make it happen—and here's why.

The “Big Stick” Problem

First, we have to understand why the growth and evaluation fit together so…awkwardly.

Helping teachers improve in the evaluation process is tough because real growth requires safety.

We want teachers to be in the driver's seat, but not like teenagers at the DMV.

We can't sit there, silently marking boxes on a clipboard, and honestly believe we're creating an environment conductive to growth.

We wear two hats as school leaders: We want to help our teachers grow, and we want to be their cheerleaders, but we also have a moral obligation to be their evaluators, and to hold them accountable for doing an acceptable job.

In the evaluation process, there's no pretending that the “evaluator hat” doesn't exist. But we can lay it aside and don the “coaching” hat.

How?

What action can we take to minimize the threat we pose in our evaluator role, and maximize our impact in the coaching and support role we play as instructional leaders?

Making The Growth Path Safe

If you have teachers who are clearly on the growth path, it's OK to reassure them that they're safe taking risks.

We can't go so far as to say “Look, there's no scenario in which you won't get a glowing evaluation from me this year, so do whatever you want.”

But we can send the message, subtly but clearly, that teachers are in charge of their own professional growth.

(We can send a different message to teachers who are, in our minds, on the dismissal path.)

We can say something like this: “I know this is the formal evaluation process, but I want it to be mainly about your growth. I want you to really push yourself, even if it means you're trying new things that don't work out.”

We need to explicitly give people permission to take big risks—which is really permission to fail, because without permission to fail, teachers will never escape the competency trap. Out of fear, they'll resort to improvement theatre.

The Competency Trap & Improvement Theatre

We fear failure because we know our work matters. It's not just the personal sense of failure; it's the impact on our students that leads us to stick to the familiar.

Improvement is risky, because it involves giving up things we're good at, and taking on new work that we may not be good at yet. Change increases the chance of failure.

This phenomenon is called the competency trap—we're good enough at we're already doing that we resist going through the learning curve that will take our practice to the next level.

And as administrators, we play a big role in determining just how deep the competency trap is.

Ask yourself this question: As a rational person, would it be smart for you to try something new, and virtually ensure that you were at the bottom of your learning curve at the moment you were being evaluated?

Of course not, yet that's precisely what we ask teachers to do in the evaluation process:

  • Set a goal to try something new
  • Set a date on which to be evaluated
  • Rely for your future employment on how well it turns out

What's a sensible person to do?

In this environment of risk, most people resort to what I call improvement theatre.

Instead of taking a real risk to actually get dramatically better through bold changes, we pretend. We take something we're already good at, make it seem like it's ambitious and new, and go through the prescribed process.

If we play our cards right, we end up looking like high-achieving geniuses. If not, at least we didn't do anything worse than last year.

Either way, we don't get any better.

Teachers are so good at playing this game, and administrators are so complicit (because, hey, we realize the process is a joke for most teachers who are doing fine), that society is fighting back.

Teachers are being judged based on student test scores—using shaky or even absurd statistical formulas—because we've lost the public trust that we're truly evaluating our teachers and holding them accountable for improvement.

Principals are now having to defend their teachers against formulas that were supposed to make it easier to do a good job of evaluating teaching performance.

It's a mess.

On the one hand, the more we play the heavy and take the process very seriously, the more teachers will pull back from investing in real improvement.

On the other hand, if we reduce evaluations to a mere formality, we lose the public's trust, and we have to deal with the consequences.

How can we get out of this situation?

It's all about the framework.

The Power of A Shared Framework

If I want to help teachers grow, and wear the coaching hat without being a pushover, my best tool is our shared instructional framework.

(My experience is mainly with Charlotte Danielson's excellent Framework for Professional Practice, though there are others that are good, too.)

The framework serves as a map, so you can help navigate—and ensure forward progress—while letting the teacher stay in the driver's seat.

And what if you have to defend a great teacher against an unfair formula based on questionable test score data?

You need evidence, just as surely as you need evidence for teachers who are on the dismissal path.

That evidence should be in the language of your evaluation framework, but simply listing items (1a, 2c, 3b) and marking them as “satisfactory” or “exemplary”…that's not evidence.

Evidence that holds up under scrutiny is, ultimately, an argument.

Putting It All Together: High-Performance Teacher Evaluations

Generating solid evidence for teacher evaluations is a major focus of our online course, High-Performance Teacher Evaluations.

You can register for this self-paced online course, which is available on-demand.

Learn more about High-Performance Teacher Evaluations »

Growth or Dismissal? Choosing Your Evaluation Path for Each Teacher

An “unsatisfactory” teacher evaluation should lead to either improvement or termination.

Too often, we give people a hard time in the evaluation process, but the situation doesn't change. (If anything, it often gets worse.)

Most teachers, most of the time, deserve the positive evaluations they get.

But when an “unsat” is called for, it's our job to execute it rigorously and professionally.

Unsats Aren't Symbolic

If you're going to give an unsatisfactory evaluation, whether it's in the next few days or at the end of the year, do it for the right reasons.

And know this: “sending a wake-up call” isn't the right reason.

Yet it's the most common reason.

If we think managerial aggression is the way to help teachers shape up or ship out, we're in for a rude surprise when:

  • The teacher fights back, and wins
  • Other teachers close ranks, fearful that they'll be targeted next
  • We're asked to produce evidence of our concerns, the steps we've taken to communicate them, and the supports we've put in place…and don't have much to present
  • Whomever is responsible for the school's legal fees discourages us from issuing unsats in the future, or
  • School climate takes a nosedive

…or all of the above.

So what's the right reason to pursue an unsatisfactory evaluation? To leave a seriously underperforming teacher no choice but to improve or leave.

That's it.

But harassing a teacher, and burdening her with ridiculous requirements, turns the process into a fight in which everyone loses.

The solution is to be prepared. Have your ducks in a row. Collect the evidence you need, have the tough conversations, and take the steps you need to take.

But how can you tell which teachers you're going to need reams of evidence for?

It's like RTI: Cover the basics for everyone, then differentiate as needed. But be careful with this second step.

Instructional Supervision: Bases To Cover for Every Teacher

I'm getting too old to be wishy-washy on this, so I'll just say it:

If you supervise teachers, you need to be in every classroom at least once every two weeks.

If you do formal observations, and have any concerns at all, you need to do more than one formal. (And never rely only on scheduled formal observations…my colleague Kim Marshall is right to call them “dog-and-pony shows” even if they do serve a useful function.)

And when you're doing these basic instructional supervision activities, you need to keep good documentation as a matter of habit.

But we all know that negative evaluations require a ton of documentation. Do you just go all-out for every evaluation?

The Pareto Principle for Principals

Again, I'll be direct: No, you don't have time to collect reams of evidence for every single teacher evaluation.

Do your best, of course. The more evidence you collect for every eval, the less targeted and harassed your teachers of concern will feel, and the more defensible your actions will be, even when you're just pursuing hunches.

But the reality is that you'll spend 80% of your evaluation time on 20% (or even less) of your teachers. You'll get the other 80% of your evals done in only 20% of your total evaluation time. (The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, in action.)

If you have a serious case, you may spend fully half your total eval time on a single teacher, and that's OK—even if it feels ridiculous.

It's not ridiculous if that's what students need you to do.

But it is ridiculous if you don't know why you're doing it, or what outcome you want.

Put Every Teacher On The Growth Path Or The Dismissal Path

Most teachers, most of the time, should be on what I'll call the “growth” path. They have goals, they're committed and skilled, and they want to get better at their craft.

Put a good eval process in place, do your part, and it'll mostly take care of itself.

Everyone else—let's say 5-20% of your teachers—should be on the “dismissal” path.

Wait, what?!

No, you can't and shouldn't dismiss 20% of your teaching staff in any given year. Show me a principal who does this, year after year, and I'll show you someone with no leadership capital who's six months away from a heart attack.

But you need to be prepared to dismiss any of your lowest quintile of teachers, should the situation demand it.

But doesn't this contradict what I just said? Won't you find yourself in all-out warfare with your staff if you're prepared to fire a fifth of them?

You need to be in those classrooms frequently. You need to be providing specific, expert feedback, and holding teachers accountable for improving in response to your feedback.

(Notice that I didn't say “jumping through hoops”—I said “improving.”)

You need to be in regular contact with your supervisor (and perhaps HR person and legal counsel) about your progress with each teacher on the dismissal path.

And whatever you do, don't tell teachers they're on the dismissal path. This is about YOU being clear in your mind, so you know what actions you need to take.

When you take those actions, they'll speak for themselves. When you initiate a formal improvement plan after it's become clear that your feedback alone isn't prompting the necessary improvements, the message is clear.

You don't need to make people feel like they're on your naughty list.

Uncertainty and Unkindness

So why does everyone need to be on either the growth path or the dismissal path?

In a word, uncertainty. If you're not sure who's going to make it and who isn't, you don't want to guess wrong.

You need to be prepared for any of your situations of concern to turn south—prepared to provide intensive support, and prepared with the evidence you need.

That way, you can hope for the best for everyone, without falling victim to unfulfilled hopes.

Or rather, allowing your students to fall victim.

If someone isn't definitely on the growth path, they need to be on the dismissal path, completely and definitively, until you can clearly move them back onto the growth path.

(Again, this is all in your head, so you're clear on the level of action you need to take.)

If that feels mean or unduly harsh, here's an idea: be kind and supportive even to people who are on the dismissal path.

Every teacher—even one you're working hard to fire—should feel the support and professionalism in what you're doing.

They should never be made to feel that you're being mean or arbitrary.

Again, you don't know who's going to make it and who isn't, so bullying the people you don't like is a guaranteed way to destroy the culture in your school, and a totally ineffective way to get them to leave.

Support. Hold accountable. Follow the process. Collect LOTS of evidence. And be kind.

You Can't Half-Fire Someone

As educators, we want to believe in everyone.

We want everyone to grow, achieve, and succeed—even people who are truly struggling.

And while we can usually muster the will to throw the book at someone who's harming kids' futures without any serious effort to improve…that's not most of our dismissal-path teachers.

Most of them will make it. They'll improve.

They'll get better. And you'll be thrilled with that outcome. (NOT having to fire someone is a great feeling.)

But remember the uncertainty problem: We can't know, ahead of time, which of our struggling teachers are going to make it and which aren't, so we can't afford to be under-prepared, should we find that someone just needs to go.

If you want to help someone make massive improvements in their practice, it's just about impossible to overdo it. Help away.

And if it works out, no harm done.

But the opposite isn't true: you can't half-fire someone. That's called harassment, and it doesn't work.

Nor can you decide at the last minute that things have taken a turn for the worse and write a scathing evaluation, out of the blue. It doesn't work, because you can't marshall the necessary evidence.

Choose your path for each staff member. Figure an 80/20 split between the growth path and the dismissal path.

Then, do what needs to be done.

How?

I'm fully aware that what I'm advising here is hard.

It's very hard, because it requires time in classrooms, a keen eye for professional practice, a deep understanding of your evaluation framework language, and rigorous adherence to your organization's dismissal process.

Fortunately, you're amazing. (Look at you…you've read this long article on doing it right! That alone sets you apart from the crowd.)

And technology can help with certain parts—not every part, but the parts that tend to make the workload of rigorous evaluations unmanageable for most school leaders.

For starters, I recommend using our app Repertoire when you conduct observations—formal or informal—so you can capture more evidence with less typing.

Generating solid evidence for teacher evaluations is a major focus of our online course, High-Performance Teacher Evaluations, which is included with Pro Membership.

Why Twitter Doesn’t Reach Families

Twitter is great for a lot of things—connecting with your PLN, sharing ideas, participating in the #ILCHAL chat, and more—but there's one thing it's not great for: communicating with families.

Sure, you may have some families following your school account, but the stats aren't encouraging: only a single-digit percentage of your followers will actually see your tweets, because they simply aren't checking Twitter often enough to see them amidst all the other noise.

(You can check your stats at https://analytics.twitter.com/user/username/home, replacing username with your Twitter username, of course.)

And that's only the families that follow you—what about all the others who don't, and those who don't even use Twitter?

It's important to understand a key fact about Twitter: educators use Twitter at vastly higher rates than parents do. This can lead to a false sense of how effective Twitter is for school communication.

The numbers for Facebook are likely a bit better, since more adults are on Facebook, and on it more often. But Facebook doesn't show everything you post to everyone who has liked your page.

Regardless of which networks you use, your social media posts will only reach a tiny fraction of your community.

Should Schools Bother Publishing On Social Media?

So, if very few parents will see what you post on social media, is it worth the effort?

Yes, but not in the typical ways. The valiantly tweeting principal, sharing announcements, reminders, and good news, probably isn't having the impact he or she thinks. But it's still worthwhile.

And with a few key strategy and technology pieces in place, we can do even better. We can effectively communicate good news, share emergency info, and engage families with a mobile-first approach to communication.

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.

That's exactly what we offer in our program High Performance Habits. You might be especially interested in our webinar The Action Path: Streamlining Your Work To Increase Your Impact.

action-path

The High Performance Habits program includes the webinar recording as well as all of our other top strategy webinars, tool tutorials, and support for developing that habits that will transform your productivity.

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How To Build Capacity for Instructional Leadership In Your Organization

What Is Capacity for Instructional Leadership? Let's begin with a definition: an organization's capacity for instructional leadership is its ability to make and implement operational and improvement decisions. The reason you're the bottleneck for much of what happens in your school is that you're the only one who can make certain kinds of decisions…perhaps too many of the decisions that need to be made. The solution, of course, is distributed leadership—creating more leaders who can do the work that you're currently doing all by yourself. scotty-il Distributed leadership is powerful, but hard to manage well. Let's take a look at why distributed leadership is uniquely challenging.

The Challenges of Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is much more than delegation. Delegation is fairly straightforward:
  1. Decide that something needs to be done by someone else
  2. Tell them what to do and how to do it
  3. Make sure they do it, and provide guidance as needed
Pretty simple, right? But creating more leadership isn't merely a matter of delegation; you're still the bottleneck, because you still play a challenging and central role: decision-maker. We need to delegate not just discrete tasks, but the decisions themselves. And that's where we can get into hot water. It's easy to delegate certain types of decisions to people with titles that seem to come with the authority that those decisions require. If you have an assistant principal, no one will be surprised or bothered if you fully delegate decisions about student discipline or transportation. Yet the real power of distributed leaderships comes from involving teachers, especially in decisions that directly affect teaching and learning. But will handing over decision-making authority to teachers reduce the effectiveness of principal leadership? When we share the decision-making aspects of leadership, what happens to our own authority? Does it create chaos and confusion? The research is encouraging:
Principals may be relieved to find out, moreover, that their authority does not wane as others’ waxes. Clearly, school leadership is not a zero-sum game. ‘Principals and district leaders have the most influence on decisions in all schools; however, they do not lose influence as others gain influence,’ the authors write.” —The School Principal As Leader: Guiding Schools To Better Teaching And Learning, quoting Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning: Final Report of Research Findings, Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom and Stephen E. Anderson, University of Minnesota and University of Toronto, 2010. (emphasis added)
So we don't have to worry about having less influence when we build greater capacity for instructional leadership in our organizations. But we do need to address potential confusion about who's really in charge, and why not everyone gets a say in everything.

Obnocracy: The Pitfalls of Open Discussion

Involving teacher-leaders in school-level decision-making doesn't mean turning your school into a direct democracy where all issues are decided by consensus or whole-staff vote. Nor does it mean that every issue is discussed in faculty meetings until everyone is satisfied. Turning decision-making over to the “consensus” of a staff discussion is a failure of leadership, pure and simple. When unmoderated discussion becomes the way decisions are made, it's not distributed leadership. It's what I call obnocracy. Simply put, in a group discussion, the most obnoxious and outspoken person usually has the most power. We'd never choose this form of decision-making on purpose, but I've seen it play out time and time again in schools, and it's not pretty. Everyone wants a voice, and everyone deserves a voice in some way for many decisions, but open discussion and obnocracy don't serve adult or student needs well. Instead, we need a structure for making decisions. We need a decision matrix.

Developing A Decision Matrix

A Decision Matrix clarifies three sets of agreements for various types of decisions:
  • Decisional Roles: Who makes the call?
  • Consultation Methods: How do we talk with one another about the decision?
  • Decision Methods: How do we reach final agreement?
The decisional roles define decisional authority:
  • The Decision Owner (DO) is responsible for ensuring that the decision is made, but may or not be the decision-maker
  • The Decision Maker (DM) makes the call, and may be an individual or a group
  • A Consulted Stakeholder (CS) provides input before the decision is made
  • A Represented Stakeholder (RS) has a voice through a designated representative
  • A Notified Stakeholder (NS) is kept in the loop, but not always before the decision is made
  • Non-Party (NP) stakeholders may be affected by the decision, but are not directly involved or notified
Find out more about the Decision Making Matrix and how you can create a Decision-Making Handbook in our course High-Performance Decision Making.