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Do You Need A Workflow For That?

Our recent member survey was very clear: instructional leaders are stressed and overwhelmed.

Countless issues create stress and long hours. It's the nature of the job.

But when nature is harsh, what do we do? We adapt.

If you want to go hiking in the snow, you don't wear flip-flops and shorts. You equip yourself to handle the reality you'll face. You get your snow pants and hiking boots on, and you hit the trail with confidence.

Can we adapt to something as complex and human as school leadership? I believe we can—even if every day is unique, the issues we face fall into certain patterns.

When you know what to expect, you can develop a system to handle it. Reliably. Consistently. And with less stress.

Workflows

A workflow is basically a set of decisions made in advance, specifying the outcome and the process by which that outcome is achieved.

Deciding is often the hardest part—if it weren't for the decision-making aspect, other people could do most of your tasks for you, right?

Here's what we need to decide:

  • Strategy—what should the outcome be?
  • Tools—how will we manage the process?
  • Habits—when and how will we carry out the work?

That's the High Performance Triangle—strategy makes us effective, tools make us efficient, and habits make us consistent.

Think about any “traffic jam” you're facing right now. Chances are the problem is that one of these three factors is the culprit. If you want to reduce your stress and become more effective in your work as an instructional leader, work on your workflows.

An Example: Your Inbox

You probably get dozens or hundreds of emails a day. Do you keep up? Do you get to “inbox zero” every day?

I do, but it's only possible because I have a workflow:

  • Strategy—email is for communication, so nothing “lives” there.
  • Tools—tasks go to my task app; appointments go to my calendar; info for future reference gets archived or forwarded to Evernote
  • Habits—inbox zero once a day; keep email closed when not actively processing it.

Try It

Think about one of your “traffic jams” and ask yourself:

  • What's the outcome this work is supposed to achieve?
  • Do I need to put certain tools in place?
  • What habits will I need to develop to get it under control permanently?

Learn More» High-Performance Workflow

Focus: Leadership for Strategic Simplicity

If we want to achieve results for students, it's no secret that focus is essential.

Schools that chase too many rabbits—to paraphrase the old saying—often catch none of them.

To achieve sustained excellence, schools must have a clear vision, and pursue it single-mindedly (while also keeping everything else under control).

And if you want to bring about significant improvement in your school or district, you must establish a clear theory of improvement.

A theory of improvement is a set of predictions about what actions will bring about the desired improvement.

For example, your district may operate under the hypothesis that long-term, job-embedded professional development in literacy will result in improved student learning. Testing that hypothesis justifies substantial investments over the long term.

But even the most powerful improvement work faces a constant threat:

Distraction.

The Good Idea Proliferation Problem

We all want our schools to do the best job possible. We want to implement the best programs, the best curriculum, the best models.

We want to win the grants to bring in additional resources.

Our students need us to give them everything we can muster, so we're always striving for more.

At first, this can be a good thing. Who could argue against having better curriculum, instruction, support services, and other resources?

But over time, good ideas accrue, and as a system, it all starts to become unwieldy.

Let's say you love cats. (Maybe you don't, but bear with me for a moment.)

You might think having a cat is great, and having two cats could even be twice as good.

But a dozen cats? Fifty? A hundred?

Too much of a good thing can quickly become an unhealthy situation for everyone.

Of course, we know this, so our strategic plans tend to be relatively strategic and relatively focused.

But good ideas have the same problematic natural tendency as cats: they reproduce.

If you have a dozen cats, and you keep feeding them, soon you'll have hundreds.

And if you have lots of great programs and initiatives and ideas, and you keep feeing them with attention and resources, they'll proliferate.

Know Your Constraints

We tend to have a good sense of our financial constraints. If a great opportunity pops up, but it costs a thousand dollars per teacher, we're probably going to pass—or at least think about it for a long time before jumping in.

But opportunities that are costly in terms of time and attention can sneak in unnoticed.

This tendency is especially pernicious when it comes to teacher time, which we systematically undervalue.

Since teachers are salaried and don't get overtime—and since they already work far more than the hours they're technically paid for—we tend to treat their time as infinitely expandable.

This is both disrespectful to these professionals, and unwise from a leadership perspective. It creates what Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, calls a “Shifting the Burden” dynamic.

Plainly speaking, when we ask teachers to do more of one thing, they must consequently do less of something else.

Something's got to give, and often, the “something” that suffers is planning, assessment, or collaboration—the core professional activities that occupy teachers' non-class time.

The same dynamic exists for leaders—the more issues we're dealing with, the more our core work suffers.

But we're not just constrained by the number of hours in the day—and this is why our willingness to work longer hours doesn't solve the problem.

One of our greatest constraints is decisional bandwidth.

Decisional Bandwidth

An organization's capacity for instructional leadership is defined as its ability to make and implement operational and improvement decisions.

That's my definition, and it's what frames all the work I do with schools and school leaders to build capacity.

And after engaging in this work for a number of years, I've noticed that we tend to recognize the limitations on our time to implement.

But—just as we undervalue teacher time—we undervalue the actual making of decisions.

Making the right decisions for our organizations is both critical and resource-intensive. It takes up precious meeting time, and tests the limits of our leadership capital and social capital. It creates conflict that must be overcome if we're to remain unified.

And on a personal level, decision making creates what psychologists call “decision fatigue” (which I'm sure you've felt after a long day of, say, teacher hiring interviews).

The bottom line? We have limited organizational bandwidth for making decisions. And every new program or initiative we take on has a hidden cost in future decisions we'll need to make along the way.

Strategically Saying No

There's only one way for schools to achieve focus in a world that seems to grow more complex by the day.

Leadership.

Distraction is nearly automatic. We get pulled in too many different directions by a multitude of forces.

Clarity and focus are only possible when leaders take action to protect the work being done on behalf of students.

And this protective work is essential, because without sustained attention to our core work, we'll stagnate:

[A]ny organized process naturally tends to decline to a chaotic state if we leave it alone. —Mike Rother, Toyota Kata, p. 12

In other words, if allow more and more priorities to take our eyes off the ball, we'll not only fail to improve our schools, but we'll fail to sustain the hard-won gains we've already achieved.

How can we create this focus?

Learn more in the exclusive courses available with our Principal Center Pro Membership.»

Setting Students Up For Success—An Interview with Mitch Weathers

Every year, millions of American students fail a class—or several. As school leaders, what can we do?

There are all kinds of sophisticated approaches we could take, but I'm convinced that the most basic approaches are the best.

If you were a basketball coach, and your team wasn't winning games, what would you focus on in practice?

Trick shots from half court? Slam dunks? No and no.

You'd focus on the fundamentals: Moving. Passing. Hitting free throws.

And yet, if we look at why students fail their classes, it often comes down to something just as fundamental that we totally ignore: organization.

Students Need Help With Organization, Just Like We Do

At The Principal Center, organization is a major component of our High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network and other productivity-focused programs for school leaders. Why not take on the same focus for students?

We all know that most kids aren't naturally organized. They struggle to keep track of their assignments, their progress, and their class materials.

Yet we see these skills as something students should just show up with, so we don't teach them. So massive numbers of students fail their courses each semester.

I'm convinced that we can do better. We can do dramatically more to help our students in this crucial area.

We can teach the fundamentals.

Mitch Weathers is the founder of Organized Binder, and someone who thinks a lot about how to set students up for success.

In fact, he's doing a webinar with The Principal Center on Wednesday, April 8 (learn more here »)

Interview with Mitch Weathers

I asked Mitch about his experience helping schools around the country put simple, powerful systems in place to get students organized, and he was kind enough to share these insights.

Justin Baeder: What's the advantage of having a school-wide approach to organization?

Mitch Weathers:

I will start with a quote from Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion:

One of the biggest ironies…is that many of the tools likely to yield the strongest classroom results remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists in education. Consider one unmistakable driver of students’ achievement: Carefully built and practiced routines…

When a staff implements a school-wide approach to organization, like Organized Binder, and everyone on staff commits to implementing that system with fidelity, it does a number of things for students and their outcomes.

First, the school-wide implementation communicates to all students there is value in the system. Hence, the system that is implemented has to be proven to work. If the system has a proven track record, and it is implemented as intended, then the expected outcomes should result.

However, what I think is likely the most significant outcome of a shared school-wide approach is reducing friction in all classrooms for students, which results in greater access to the content.

When a school adopts common approaches or procedures, “how” a class runs or functions is the same in all classrooms. For example:

  • what students are expected to do at the start of class
  • how they are to file assignments
  • where they update their daily calendar
  • what they do during transitions in class
  • how the class concludes,

looks the same in all classes.

In other words, how to “be” a student looks the same in every classroom, and that frees up cognitive energy towards the content we are trying to teach.

JB: I appreciate the concept of cognitive energy, which we talk about a lot in our productivity trainings for administrators. Do teachers ever feel like this impinges on their autonomy?

MW:

What is powerful about Organized Binder is that it allows for this shared implementation without changing the way a teacher delivers or teaches content.

This is important, as most teachers are fiercely independent, and we need to honor and support that independence while maintaining common or shared procedures for the sake of students.

Think of students for whom English is a second language, or students with learning needs in mainstream or college preparatory classes.

If such students go to 5 to 7 classes each day and each of those classes begins differently, transitions differently, handles assignments and work differently, there is a significant amount of cognitive energy that is spent just navigating the day.

When we adopt school-wide classroom norms, we free up that cognitive energy to be spent on accessing and learning the content.

In addition, we boost students' confidence, as they know exactly what to do and when to do it throughout the entire school day.

JB: What are the key elements students need to keep track of, that we should be consistent about school-wide?

MW:

The key elements are:

  • Time
  • Assignments
  • Resources
  • Assessments
  • Their calendar
  • Personal academic and/or behavioral goals
  • Overall school or academic organization

JB: I know we have a lot of digital tools for addressing those issues as working adults. Do you think going 100% digital with assignments is going to be a reality in the next couple of years in most schools? How will paper play a role, if at all?

MW:

No, I do not see this shift taking place in the next few years, if ever. I see the shift to paperless assessments leading the way, chiefly standardized exams around the Common Core and NGSS.

The jury is certainly out on the effectiveness of going 100% digital, as recent research highlights that taking notes longhand is more effective for long-term retention than typing them on a laptop, to name one.

That is not to say that we should not continue to digitize our classrooms, but what I hope to see is a “blended” model taking hold, rather than a “flipped” or paperless classroom.

There are a few reasons I believe we need to keep paper in the classroom, but the most critical is that when we institute an organization system like Organized Binder it brings a tangible, tactile, hands-on aspect to student learning that students and teachers can see.

It makes explicit the daily modeling of, and therefore learning of, non-cognitive skills or executive function that students desperately need to acquire for long-term or ongoing success.

If a student can't follow along with a shared implementation of Organized Binder, it becomes apparent immediately, as if a red flag is thrown up in the classroom, allowing the teachers and others to intervene.

My fear for struggling students in a 100% digital classroom is that the issues they face in the analog (paper) classroom are still present but they are less obvious and harder to identify.

JB: Why do you think so many schools have a haphazard approach to student organization, if they even have an approach? Why are the expectations different in every class?

MW:

This is a great question. All educators agree that students need to be organized and need to develop the skills needed to get and stay organized, but we rarely explicitly teach them in class.

As Robert Belfanz said in a report he authored on getting middle school students on a college path:

…we must now teach some skills formerly learned by students on their own. All students need lessons and modeling of study and work skills like time and task management, note taking, and assignment completion strategies…

The simple answer to your question is that classroom teachers can no longer assume that students will pick up these skills as they progress through school and life.

In other words, we need to teach these non-cognitive skills as explicitly as we teach content.

However, I empathize with teachers—where do we find the time to do this, and how do we teach or model these skills in such a way that students can acquire them?

Often, it becomes a didactic model of the teacher “telling” students what to do; this approach obviously does not work.

These skills must be modeled, repeatedly, if students are to acquire them.

Herein lies one of the things I am most proud of about Organized Binder: When teachers implement the system, it gives students the daily exposure they need to develop these non-cognitive skills, while freeing them up to teach the content of their class they way the want to teach it.

All of this is happening while class time is used more effective and efficiently, students are more organized, students’ confidence and grades increase, and they create academic resources for subsequent schools years and/or college, to name a few.

JB: What changes for students when schools use a common approach?

MW:

It depends on the common approach that is adopted. What changes if a school implements Organized Binder is that students are empowered and accountable for their education in a way they have not previously experienced.

Students’ education experience becomes more subjective and less objective—meaning students are active participants in the process of forming their education.

With a common approach, students spend less energy navigating the school day, and therefore have more energy to focus on and master the content in each class.

In addition, students have the opportunity to develop the non-cognitive skills they need for immediate and ongoing academic success.

What changes for teachers is that they now receive students who know what to do when they enter the classroom. There is less time spent on keeping students on task or managing off-task behavior, and much more time spent on teaching and learning.

For the new teacher, a shared approach can offer needed support for mechanisms or routines for starting class, managing transitions, ending class, etc.

JB: What kinds of results do teachers see when they start to explicitly teach skills and expectations for staying organized?

MW:

Please visit the “news” section of our website (www.organizedbinder.com) for data and testimonials. What is always fascinating to me is to measure academic progress in subject area courses when a shared approach like Organized Binder is implemented.

Organized Binder is a classroom process that is content agnostic. That is to say, the system can be used in any subject area and just about any grade level.

However, we see significant academic achievement in subject-specific courses when this system is implemented with fidelity. It is evidence of the importance of the modeling and teaching of non-cognitive skills.

To answer your question, what teachers see is their students making academic strides that may have been previously unattainable.

Furthermore, teachers are doing so without changing what or how they teach content. When we make explicit the skills needed to achieve academically student begin to achieve.

What teachers see are students with every single assignment, handout, notes, etc. that students have created or been given for the entire school year organized into unit specific, standards aligned content packets, that they can use to study for exams as well as utilize the following year in school.

Students also:

  • Set quarterly academic goals that have a daily action item, to better help them understand and achieve their academic goals
  • Learn the skill of time management by maintaining a daily academic calendar
  • Practice thinking metacognitively each day in class and reflect on their learning from each lesson

JB: Mitch, I'm impressed with the work you're doing to help schools implement a school-wide system that sets students up for success. Are you finding that Organized Binder has an impact beyond students' middle and high school experience?

MW:

In addition to k-12 schools, Organized Binder works with universities and community colleges. One of our community colleges recently shared recommendations from the Student Success Task Force for Community Colleges in California. Their goal is to “improve basic skills education. More than 70 percent of community college students who enter the system are under prepared to do college-level work, with the majority being first generation college students, low-income and/or minority.”

It is not that these students cannot “do” the work; it is that they lack the skillset needed to accomplish the work. By collectively implementing an organizational system that makes this skillset explicit, we go along way to helping out students be successfully in the K-12 sequence and beyond.

Why Assessment Literacy Matters

Hardly a day goes by without someone complaining that we do too much testing in US schools.

While the federal requirements for testing only total about 17 days in students' entire K-12 career, the actual amount of testing students experience varies greatly from place to place.

In some schools, it's more than 17 days per year.

I'm convinced that one reason we over-test is that we don't know what information we really need, or even what we already have, so we err on the side of collecting too much data.

Do you really need PARCC, the ITBS, the MAP, RTI screeners, and end-of-course exams? Maybe, but probably not.

But we can't make good decisions about testing—and avoid over-testing—without broad and deep assessment literacy among our staff.

Understanding What Each Test Tells Us

First, I'm convinced that we need to get a clear understanding of what each of our assessments actually tells us. If we don't know, why are we wasting instructional time and money on it?

Does a test tell us:

  • How a student compares to the general population of students in the same grade?
  • How well a student has mastered the content of a particular course?
  • How a teacher or school compares to others whose students take the same test?
  • Whether a student is exhibiting a discrepancy between their cognitive ability and their academic performance?

Most tests are used for multiple purposes…some of which may be a poor fit for their design.

The better we understand the assessments we give, the more we can make appropriate use of the data they produce.

Eliminating Gaps and Redundancies

Second, once we understand the type of information each assessment provides, we can look for gaps and pointless overlap between assessments.

Are we getting too much information about students' cognitive skills, and not enough about their academic knowledge? Are we getting too much data about their math performance, but not enough about vocabulary?

Every array of tests is going to have some degree of overlap, and only by drastically over-testing could we eliminate all gaps.

The more we clearly understand our assessments and what they tell us, the better we can make judicious decisions about which tests to keep and which to scrap.

Turning Data Into Decisions

When scores come to us, they're not information. They're data, which must be interpreted and placed into context to become useful information (see my interview with Scott Genzer on Principal Center Radio for more on this topic).

I think one reason we're seeing a massive educator backlash against standardized testing in the US is that we've allowed tests to be used for making decisions that they aren't suited to.

Should math scores really be used to evaluate a PE teacher? Should we use cognitive ability tests to identify students in need of additional content-area instruction? Of course not, but we've seen it, and it makes us wary of just about any testing that falls outside of our control.

Taking Control

Bad testing policies don't stand much chance against well-informed, articulate educators who know their students and their assessments.

If we want to ensure that our students aren't over-tested, and that we get the information we need for instructional decision-making, professional growth, and all the other necessary purposes, we need to increase our assessment literacy.

You probably have great resources in your school and district to help with this, and if you have a recommended resource, I'd appreciate if you could leave a comment below.

If you're interested in increasing assessment literacy at your school, I'd like to invite you to take a look at Successful Assessment 101, a professional development kit produced by our colleagues at Illinois ASCD.

Over the course of 4 sessions, this low-cost kit takes you through the process of examining all of the assessments you give, so everyone is clear on their purpose, design, and appropriate use.

Learn more about Successful Assessment 101 »

Standing Desks for Students in K-12: Great For Health and Learning

As an administrator, you probably spend a lot of your day on your feet—walking to classrooms, supervising in hallways, circulating within classrooms—and not very much extended time sitting at your desk.

But what about your students?

In the past few years, the research has started to become very clear: sitting for extended periods of time is terrible for our health.

To be clear, this isn't just about exercise. Even if you get tons of exercise, as many kids do, sitting for long periods of time is bad for you.

My friend Mike St. Pierre recently built a standing desk for himself. And we're getting into the trend, too. At The Principal Center, we produce a lot of audio and video content, and that means our team spends a lot of time working at computers.

We decided to take the research seriously. We now all have standing desks to break up the long blocks of sitting, and they make a big difference.

aaron-standing-desk

But what can you do for your students?

I asked researcher and PhD candidate Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens of Jaswig to share her insights about using standing desks with students.

Standing Desks in K-12: Q&A with PhD Candidate Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens

Justin Baeder: Why are standing desks catching on so quickly?

Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens:

Standing desks are being adopted in more and more offices. They not only improve employees’ posture, but also make them more productive, creative and overall healthier and happier. Plus, they can save companies many dollars otherwise lost on healthcare costs, unproductive time, and absenteeism.

Justin: How is that translating into schools? We don't pay for students' healthcare costs, and kids don't typically have back problems the way adults do.

Daphne:

If standing desks are being introduced in offices to relieve problems associated with prolonged sitting, than why should we ask our students to sit down all day in the classroom? Students, especially younger ones, naturally like to stand up regularly.

That’s not surprising. Standing up makes their blood flow better, which increases oxygen transport to the brain, making them feel more awake and focused.

Standing also allows them to fidget more easily, which makes them spend excessive energy. Have you ever thought “Why can’t this student not sit still?” or “Does this kid never get tired?”

But there are more benefits of letting your students stand up. As a teacher it’s easier to interact with your students if they are on your level.

standing-desk-students

Justin: Do you see standing as long-term benefits for students, too?

Daphne:

To take it a step further into the future: our bodies aren’t made to sit down so much. Leading a sedentary lifestyle results in a bad posture, and greatly increases risks to develop diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other health-related issues.

This makes schools perfectly positioned to change the status quo and not let students develop the bad habit of sitting down too much. There have been several schools around the world implementing standing desks into their classrooms, all with very positive results.

Justin: One of the challenges schools face with furniture is that learning involves a lot of different modes of interaction. A science classroom might already have desks plus a lab area with countertops. An elementary classroom might already have desks, small group tables, and other areas. How did this reality factor into your design decisions for your standing desk?

Daphne:

The ideal classroom is a dynamic one with different environments (e.g. bean bags, mats, desks) that provide the best learning environment for students with different behaviors and needs.

However, in many cases there are not many (or even no) options for standing, though many studies shows standing increases learning engagement. For us it was important that our standing desk could serve more than one purpose—that's why the ease of adjusting the desk from sitting to standing was essential.

Additionally, when standing up, it is very important to have to correct ergonomic positioning, so the height should be easily adjustable by any student, in very little time, and with complete safety.

Justin: In offices, you'll find motorized adjustable desks. At The Principal Center, we ruled these out because of their size and expense—they can cost thousands of dollars, and since neither Aaron or I is getting any taller, fixed standing desks were fine. What approach have you taken to helping schools provide standing desks for their students?

That was exactly the reason why we decided to make our own standing desk: we wanted a desk that is easily height adjustable, affordable, and doesn’t look like a transformer.

We sat down together and came up with a patent-pending height-adjustment mechanism that can be used by even the youngest child.

We critically looked at the design to take away pinch points and make it even more child-friendly.

We are continuously researching new materials so we can make our desks with materials that don’t harm the children by off-gassing; this is still a challenge today as the most durable and scratch-free options are typically the most harmful.

Justin: How does the desk operate?

Daphne:

The height of the desk can be adjusted by placing both hands on the desktop, pulling the surface towards you and sliding it up or down.

At the desired height you push it a little bit backward, which brings the desktop in place. There is a locking mechanism that prevents undesired height adjustments.

Here's a video of a 5-year-old adjusting the desk:

Lila loves her new Jaswig standup desk! @jaswighq #homeschooling #standup

A video posted by Nic Miller (@img2doc) on

Justin: How can people learn more about Jaswig standing desks?

Daphne:

You can visit the website at www.jaswig.com or on social media: Twitter @jaswighq, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

You can also subscribe for their monthly newsletter about recent articles, tips and updates for increased education, health and sustainability.

student-standing-desk

Amazon: Jaswig desk for kids & Jaswig desk for adults.

Should You Use A To-Do List?

Time to settle an argument: Kevin Kruse doesn't like to-do lists. Sir Richard Branson does. Who's right—the billionaire or the productivity expert?

My friend Kevin Kruse, who was kind enough to include a bit of my advice in his book 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, argues that to-do lists are a waste of time:

To-do lists should be called nagging wish-lists. A series of tasks you hope to accomplish, without a specific plan as to when you'll get them all done. How many items on your current to-do list have been on there for several days? For weeks? Months? (p. 30)

In response, mega-entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson writes on his blog:

The crucial part of a to-do list is in the name – you need to actually DO the things on your list. The act of writing your tasks and thoughts down is useful in and of itself, as it helps to organise your thoughts and give you focus. However, if you then ignore your own advice and don’t follow up, the lists will lose most of their power. Quite often you will only do 50 per cent of things on to-do lists because, on reflection, only 50 per cent are worth doing. But by putting things on lists it will help clarify what’s worth doing and what’s worth dropping.

They're both right, but to understand why, we need to look at the larger picture of how we manage our work and our time.

Capture Everything

Branson, Kruse, and productivity guru David Allen all agree that writing things down is enormously important. When you get the ideas and obligations that are floating around in your head down on paper, you're more focused, less distracted, and less likely to lose track of something important.

When you put tasks and plans down on paper (or digitize them), you can also make better decisions about what matters most, how to organize your work, and how to allocate your time.

What if you don't write things down? When everything is jumbled together in your head, it's far more difficult to make decisions based on the criteria you care about.

Instead, you're more likely to choose the most most urgent, simplest, or most interesting tasks, rather than those that will have the greatest impact.

Picking this “low-hanging fruit” from a long to-do list can give your brain a dopamine hit, but the long-term consequences for your leadership are disastrous.

Spend all day doing whatever pops into your head, and you'll feel busy, overwhelmed, stressed, and less than optimally productive.

Is there a better way?

Live In Your Calendar

One of the best pieces of advice I've gleaned from Kevin's book and podcast is to “live in your calendar, not your to-do list.”

If something is going to get done, it needs to go on the calendar at a specific time.

Kruse writes:

The first problem with recording tasks on a to-do list is that it doesn't distinguish between items that take only a few minutes and items that require an hour or more. So when you randomly look at your list and ask “Hmm, what should I tackle next?” You are very likely going to pick the quick tasks, the easy items, not necessarily the thing that is most important. (pp. 30-31)

If your list is short, and you have time to do everything on the list today, this isn't a huge problem. Do your list in whatever order suits you, whenever you feel like it throughout the day.

But that's not the reality—if you have time to do everything on your list, you haven't listed everything, and you're keeping work in your head. And honestly, you'll never feel like doing some of what's on your list.

Turning tasks into appointments with yourself is powerful, but it's an approach I've resisted for a long time because it conflicts directly with the “Getting Things Done” system.

Why GTD Doesn't Work for Me

Productivity guru David Allen, in his best-selling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, says it's essential to “capture” everything into a “trusted system” that you can work from.

Allen doesn't recommend scheduling specific tasks, and instead encourages a flexible, “dynamic” approach to deciding what to work on moment by moment—in other words, the opposite of what Kruse recommends.

For years, I've seen my digital task app (ToDoist at the moment) as this “trusted system” where I should record and organize all of my ideas, then check throughout the day to see what I need to do next.

The only problem? I've always hated looking at my to-do list. I've always tended to avoid it as much as possible.

I know it contains important obligations and plans, but I just hate looking at it. It's stressful.

Kruse explains this stress:

Third, to-do lists cause unnecessary stress. Indeed, when we carry around a long list of undone items it's one way to remember them. But it's also a constant reminder, a constant nagging, that there are many things we still need to deal with. No wonder we feel overwhelmed. (p. 31)

For me, that's precisely the problem. I don't like constantly looking through all the things I could and should be doing, and I don't pick wisely because of the stress it creates.

So, at most, I look through my to-do list once a day.

But you know what? Maybe that's the smartest approach of all. Maybe my failure to implement GTD properly reflects an underlying truth about how we make decisions about our work.

Decision Fatigue and The Trouble with To-Do Lists

The “decision fatigue” phenomenon, discovered by psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team, explains why large to-do lists are exhausting to manage.

Every time you make a decision, you're drawing on a finite store of mental energy (or what Baumeister calls “willpower”).

This is true for major decisions like hiring and firing staff, but it's equally true for tiny decisions like “Which email should I deal with next?” The more decisions you make, the more mentally exhausted or “ego-depleted” you become.

Make too many decisions too early in the day, and you'll waste valuable brain bandwidth that you could be using for more important work.

So throughout the day, looking at your to-do list over and over again and asking yourself “What should I work on now?” is actually counterproductive. That's a decision you should make in advance.

When you plan your schedule‐and thus, what specific tasks you'll work on—in advance, you'll still suffer decision fatigue, but if it's the end of the day, so what? You've already been productive, and now you're set up for an ultra-productive tomorrow.

Does this mean you don't need an electronic to-do list? Not at all, and this is where my advice diverges from Kevin's.

Kruse says to put all of your tasks on your calendar. But Branson raises a good point:

The crucial part of a to-do list is in the name – you need to actually DO the things on your list. The act of writing your tasks and thoughts down is useful in and of itself, as it helps to organise your thoughts and give you focus. However, if you then ignore your own advice and don’t follow up, the lists will lose most of their power. Quite often you will only do 50 per cent of things on to-do lists because, on reflection, only 50 per cent are worth doing. But by putting things on lists it will help clarify what’s worth doing and what’s worth dropping.

I'd go a step further than Sir Richard.

Instead of treating your to-do list as a set of things you must do as soon as possible, but only if they're important enough—surely a recipe for perpetual decision fatigue if every I've seen one‐ see it as an inbox.

That's right—your to-do list is merely an inbox. Everything you could do, should do, or need to do should initially go into this inbox so you can process it, the same way you process email.

Triage and Filtering

Kruse and Branson are both right that not everything we write down is important enough to actually do. Allen is right that we need to be the ones to decide what to work on, and that this requires some flexibility.

But I believe we can be more disciplined and intentional in our approach, and it begins with clear priorities.

The first act of leadership is to decide what matters.

In my courses, I teach instructional leaders to develop a written leadership agenda (Branson probably has something similar in his notebooks).

Your leadership agenda should contain a clear list of:

  • Issues and projects that are your top priorities
  • Issues and projects that you actively reject as priorities—these may pop up, but you'll resist them
  • Emerging issues that you need to monitor

This agenda is your mental filter as you review your vast to-do list.

As you triage your task “inbox” and organize all of the tasks you could be working on, keep your agenda in mind. If something doesn't fit with your agenda, it's easy to handle: organize it into your system for future consideration, but don't schedule it.

Let's say you have an idea for how to improve your school newsletter. You could easily accomplish it in an hour or two, and it would be a real improvement, but it's just an idea. It's not a good fit with your leadership agenda.

Write it down, sure. Put it in your task inbox. Consider it as you triage your inbox. Put it on an “ideas” list in your task app so you don't keep thinking about it. But don't schedule it.

Then, as you go throughout the day, don't even look back at your massive to-do list. It's full of things you may or may not actually need to do.

Instead, look at your calendar. No, do more than look at it—obey your calendar, because it's the keeper of all of your priorities and the decisions you've made about how to spend your most precious resource: your time.

Special thanks to David Allen and Sir Richard Branson for serving as major inspirations and virtual mentors through their books and other media. And thanks to Kevin Kruse for inviting me to contribute to his book and participate in the ongoing discussion about how we can do more of the work that matters most.

If you're a school leader who wants to have a greater impact with less stress, join my High Performance Habits online professional development program here »

Why Instructional Leaders Belong In Classrooms

Where do leaders belong?

We're often needed in the office, but we like to be “visible.” We like to be in hallways, in dropoff and pickup zones, in lunchrooms and at recess.

How do we stack up to leaders in other industries in this regard?

At Toyota, there's a concept called Genchi Genbutsu, which conveys the idea of going to the gemba, or the place where the actual work is done, and seeing that work firsthand.

Leaders who don't spend time in the gemba won't have the information they need to make decisions, solve problems, and support employees effectively.

As leaders, we need to spend our time where the work is done. We need to understand that work deeply, so we can provide the kind of leadership the organization needs.

Leadership involves making decisions—not the decisions of a distant executive concerned only with numbers, but the decisions of a supportive, on-the-ground manager who understands what's happening on the front lines, and is concerned first and foremost with the success of the people there in the gemba.

As instructional leaders, that means we need to be in classrooms. Is there any doubt or debate about this?

I know I'm not alone in this belief, because more than 3,200 people in 50 countries have joined the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge, which is all about making a habit of being in classrooms.

Documenting What Happens in the Gemba

Being in classrooms has a number of benefits, one of which is the chance to notes and provide written feedback to teachers.

Where should you keep those notes? If you use a comprehensive instructional leadership platform like TeachBoost, that's a good place.

If not, you'll probably want to save your notes in Evernote.

Get Started with Evernote for Free

If you don't have an Evernote account, click here to get started. You can get a free month of Premium (normally $5.99) when you use this link to join, and additional months when you invite a colleague.

Video Enhanced Professional Development—Is It Worth The Risk?

By David Wakefield, Co-Founder, The Formative Assessment Challenge

I had three years of public school teaching under my belt when I learned the importance of professional development.

For me, the lesson came in the form of a shared classroom with a master teacher. Thanks to the pedagogical skills she demonstrated and the feedback she gave on my teaching, I learned as much as her students that year.

Personalized PD: Powerful But Rare

Experience has taught me that this kind of personalized professional development is both the most valuable and the most highly sought-out among educators.

Unfortunately, most teachers have never gotten the chance for such one-on-one professional development, much less to share a room with a master teacher.

Instead, professional development has traditionally come in the form of campus-wide seminars and teaching conferences that, by necessity, are one-size-fits-all.

According to a 2002 study by Bruce Joyce and Beverley Showers, only about 10 percent of in-service participants actually use their new learning when they return to their classrooms. I’m not a financial genius, but this type of return on investment doesn’t seem like a great use of scarce resources in K-12 education.

Educators preach the importance of differentiating instruction for students. Why are we not doing the same when it comes to professional learning?

The good news: Things are changing. Aided by new technology and a committed group of educators and innovators, professional development is becoming more accessible and more valuable.

For those who wrote off professional development as too expensive or ineffective, it’s time to take another look.

The Emerging Role of Technology in Professional Development

One game-changer has been mobile technology, which has allowed us to leverage the potential of a focused professional network through platforms like Twitter.

Educators can now participate and develop their own professional learning network both locally and nationally through daily and weekly chats on an education topic or subject of their choosing by following hashtags such as #edchat, #educoach, and many others.

Edcamps, a form of “unconference” designed specifically for teachers and their needs, are another professional learning trend that have picked up steam the past couple of years and are popping up all around the country.

Edcamps are nothing like traditional education conferences, where the organizers have set the topic sessions and schedule. Instead, participants at the beginning of the event create the agenda.

Instead of one or two presenters talking for hours, educators are encouraged to collaborate around educational topics that impact their own daily practice through discussion and hands-on learning, according to EdCamp.org.

Choice, Time, and Feedback

Most teachers I know want to get better, and when we empower teachers to make choices when it comes to their own professional learning, results will follow.

“Effective professional development honors the autonomy of teachers but recognizes the importance of a form of accountability grounded in that autonomy,” says Dr. Jim Knight, a leader in the professional development field. Teachers recognize that being part of a profession requires continuous improvement, a learning process that never ends.

One of the most effective ways to become a better teacher is to watch others and have others watch you, whether that means a professional instructional coach or colleagues from your department or grade-level.

“Teachers do not learn best from outside experts or by attending conferences or implementing programs installed by outsiders,” wrote Dr. Mike Schmoker in 2005. “Teachers learn best from other teachers, in settings where they literally teach each other the art of teaching.”

When consulting with other teachers, the usual response is that there just isn’t enough time in the day to focus on professional learning. This is why leveraging technology is the only way to make professional learning become a part of a teacher’s workflow.

How Professional Athletes Improve

Within the last few years, video-enhanced professional development has advanced to new heights, allowing more teachers to get personalized support and coaching anytime and anywhere.

Just like professional coaches and athletes, teachers and instructional leaders should use video consistently to reflect, assess and provide feedback on their performance.

So Why Am I Such A Big Believer In Video-Based Professional Learning?

  1. It’s easy. Video as a teacher development tool isn’t a new idea. But convenience is.The technology is finally coming around so you can forget about lugging bulky camcorders or trying to figure out whether your DVD is compatible with your video player.Advances in cloud computing and mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets, which have cameras, make it possible for schools and districts to adopt and implement video-enhanced professional development into the workflow of a teacher’s workday.
  2. It’s effective. In short, video does not lie. Video is by no means a panacea for solving all problems in schools, but when used appropriately, it’s a powerful tool that can enlighten and inform a teacher’s practice.If a teacher wants to improve his or her craft, it is essential to see what our practice looks like in action and how students are responding to and processing the lesson.Educators can’t be everywhere at once, but video stops time, allowing teachers and instructional leaders to pause, rewind, and review their practice to ensure their professional learning goals are being met.
  3. It won’t break the bank. With tightening federal, state, and municipal budgets, K-12 public schools have been under intense scrutiny to find new ways to raise student achievement.Given the limited resources that schools and districts have for professional learning, leveraging video technology is a cost-effective way to provide consistent support to teachers in a more authentic and targeted manner.
  4. It makes classroom observation more useful. While in-person classroom observations are ideal for supporting new and developing teachers, they tend to be resource intensive.More often than not, classroom observations are done infrequently and arbitrarily, or even worse, out of administrative compliance, which is hardly a recipe for improving teacher efficacy.By recording the lesson during an in-person observation, the observer can now focus on watching and processing a lesson rather than frantically scripting notes.

    After the observation is finished, the observer can review the video and provide time-stamp feedback or comments at exact moments during the lesson.

    This way the observed teacher can remotely reflect and respond to the feedback and comments at their earliest convenience, or the teacher and observer can watch and discuss specific moments of the lesson during a traditional in-person post observation.

    The teacher can also share the video lesson with other trusted colleagues for further discussion and analysis.

  5. It Enhances PLCs. Video gives colleagues working together the ability to have targeted and robust conversations around the craft of teaching, turning what was once an isolated practice of reflection into a team exercise.Lesson study has been found to be a very effective way to improve teaching practice within PLCs and video can further enhance this process.While the lesson plan is a blueprint for the lesson cycle, recording the actual execution of the lesson plan can lead to a more fruitful conversation about how to most effectively teach different content and skills.

Adapting, modifying, and differentiating instruction is an important skill for all teachers to work towards, and video can help inform teachers how to do so.

Video pulls back the curtain on the classroom and gives us the ability to focus on elements of instruction to improve teaching practices on a daily or weekly basis.

Video captures our instructional footprint without bias and allows us to leverage instructional leaders whenever and wherever they are.

When educators embrace video-enhanced professional development on a consistent basis, we will join other performance based industries in gaining a competitive advantage through informed practice, an advantage that too many of us are currently leaving on the table.

David Wakefield is CEO of Sibme.

 

 

Why We Require You To Open Or Click Our Emails

If you're seeing this page, you're probably wondering why we're sending you emails asking you to click a link for apparently no reason.

It's not personal, and it's not to annoy you. The short explanation is that we assume you don't want to hear from us if you aren't opening or clicking anything we send.

This is serious for us, because if you don't open our emails, but we keep sending them to you, they won't reach anyone, and that puts us out of business.

That may be surprising, so here's a full explanation.

A $25,000 Problem

Most people on our email list want to hear from us. But occasionally people forget that their district signed them up for something, or forget that they signed up personally. And a few of these people mark our messages as “spam” (ouch!), instead of just unsubscribing.

This is a vanishingly small number of people, but it still hurts.

One of our clients, who purchased membership for all administrators in their district, must have had several people mark our messages as spam instead of just unsubscribing.

As a result, the entire district—with whom we had a $25,000 contract—was unable to receive our emails, and unable to participate in our courses that they'd paid for.

After resolving that issue manually, we set up a much more proactive system to prevent this from happening again.

You've already experienced this system: if we show no clicks for 60 days, we start emailing you daily (for about two weeks) asking you to click something.

It may be annoying, but it's incredibly effective, and it stops as soon as you click something.

If you don't click anything, we have to stop emailing you, or else we'll get flagged as spammers (even if you don't mark our messages as spam).

To date, we've dropped more than 5,000 people who never unsubscribed or marked us as spam, but completely stopped opening and clicking our emails. It hurts, but it's the only way we can reach the people who want to hear from us.

How Modern Spam Filters Work

In recent years, email providers like Gmail have started to monitor user behavior to decide whether certain emails should be considered spam.

If you continue to receive emails from someone, but don't open or click them, Gmail and other services consider those messages to be unimportant to you.

(Yes, really—Gmail knows whether you're opening messages or not, and takes this into consideration when deciding whether something is spam.)

If even a handful of other people mark that same sender's messages as spam, Gmail believes them, and is much more likely to block of all of our messages.

So it's essential that the people we're sending messages to actually open them (clicking a link tells our system that you've opened a message).

If we see no activity for 60 days, we have no choice but to drop you as a subscriber.

But that's not the only problem.

Spam Trap Addresses

Another issue we face is that some districts intentionally keep old email addresses active as “spam traps” after the employees they were once assigned to have resigned.

Let's say we email [email protected] for two years because he's interested in our content, but then Steve retires. If his district uses spam traps, they may keep his email account active to see who keeps emailing him.

Now, the nice thing to do would be to send an auto-reply saying “Steve has retired, so please don't email him any more” so we can remove him from our system manually.

But some districts don't do that; they just block us if we keep emailing Steve.

At this writing, there are around 14,000 districts in the US, and we have more than 20,000 subscribers on our email list, so even one spam trap address per district could put us completely out of business.

So, thanks for clicking the link that brought you here to let us know your email account isn't a spam trap.

If you do want to unsubscribe from our mailing list, just look at the very bottom of any email we've sent you, and you'll find the unsubscribe link. Select “Unsubscribe from ALL mailings” and you'll be all set.

Thanks for understanding.