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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.

» Learn More

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.

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.