Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Questions

Dave Dimmett over at Leader Talk provides another set of questions worth pondering to help us focus the  majority of our time and effort on what really matters for students. Try these on for size:

My recent experience with Lean Six Sigma makes me wonder, what are the value-added elements of the average teacher’s day? What are the teacher activities from one day that are adding value to student learning? If I think about the full professional day for most educators, it involves tasks that likely fall into some of these categories: adds value to student learning, doesn’t add value but is required by law, doesn’t add value but is required, doesn’t add value to student learning and can be eliminated without difficulty.

Adding new things to schools is easy.  Its agreeing on what should be eliminated and having the courage to cut that is the hardest.

Infrequently Asked Questions

This post at Leader Talk led me to this article at Harvard Business Review on the power of asking questions to lead your organization.  Polly Labarre argues that the best way to lead is through asking great questions that disrupt, challenge, and motivate.  She also shared the work of Vineet Nayar CEO of HCL Technologies, who has a set of 20 questions that he ponders daily.  So, following his model, I came up with some questions to think about for my school:


What is the purpose of schooling?


What strengths, abilities, and interest do our students have?

What do our students need to know?  Why do they need to know it?

What do our students need to be able to do?  Why do they need to be able to do this?

Would my children want to attend this school?

What are the blindspots on our campus?


If our parents could choose any school in the city, would they choose ours?  Why or why not?

Teachers and Staff

What is there at our school that would attract the brightest and best educators?

What do our teachers need today to deliver high quality education to every child?

What can I do today to encourage a teacher?

What can I do today to encourage a colleague, fellow Principal, Superintendent?

What things do I control that I should no longer control?

How can I give control to others, especially those who create value?

How can I encourage others to lead with their strengths?

What can I do to create platforms for the great ideas of teachers, parents and students at SC?

What would happen if there was no Principal at this school?

What questions would you ask at your school or organization?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Today I let someone crawl inside my head and chew on my brain cells, and it didn't feel good.  This week at school there were so many things to celebrate.  I observed class after class of engaging writing by students, excellent presentations on the history of Egypt, and teachers revising writing to a level I have not seen before.  But, I still let that one person mess with my head.  So, this is my attempt to extract those negative and useless thoughts away.

In order to get my head out away from those negative thoughts I resolve the following.

1.  Make a plan for addressing the issue that is proactive and has potential for redeeming the situation.

2.  Forget about it.

3.  Read a great story this week.  I think it will be this one or maybe this one.

4.  Finish a half-done project.

That wasn't so hard.  Some optimism is creeping in and it feels great.



Heidi Grant Halvorson on the Harvard Ideacast discussed her new ebook 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.  One of the most significant findings she highlights is an individual's belief that they can improve.  It comes down to perseverance and that awesome word: GRIT.  Intelligence is overrated.  Positive Thinking (without action) is overrated.  Determination and a "Never Say Die" attitude rule the day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peter Drucker Wisdom

Jim Champy's new book, What I learned from Peter Drucker looks like a winner.  Drucker is one of the pioneers of modern management theory and practice and Champy appears to have had a lengthy personal and professional friendship with Drucker.  Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

Peter's work had two major components. The first was the big picture: He believed that healthy organizations of all kinds — corporations, nonprofits, museums, libraries, sports teams, garden clubs, hospitals, government agencies — are the glue that holds society together and shields it from totalitarianism and economic chaos. Calling himself a social ecologist, he argued that every organization should understand its place in this sustaining mosaic and do its fair share of aiding the common good in all its actions.

The second thrust of his work focused on management per se, on organizational structure, function, and efficiency. His books and lectures were filled with practical and proven solutions to some of the most vexing challenges businesses face. For example, he was unyielding on the importance of focusing on customer needs, using time wisely, and scrapping weak or obsolete processes and products.

The two strands of his thinking intersected in his belief that companies succeed to the degree they make work meaningful, giving employees a sense of purpose and fulfillment. His ability to clearly articulate and balance these two complementary elements of his lifework, the macro and micro, was one of his great strengths. 
This connects with the management and leadership skill sets that I Kotter highlight in his article.  Leaders succeed to the extent that they can balance progress on the micro and macro areas of leadership.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Great Effort Better than Smarts

In order to learn, grow, and succeed, we must first FAIL.  That's right.  Failure is the key to success, however whether you  learn from your failures, depends on what you think about your ability and how one learns.  Carol Dweck in Mindset has made these two frames of reference quite explicit.  A new study by Jason Moser at Michigan State  University, highlighted in this Washington Post article, demonstrates that individuals with the growth mindset give more thought to their failure, presumably to learn from it, than those with the fixed mindset, who brush off their failure to their own detriment.
Lesson for schools = Praise students for effort, not intelligence.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Leadership and Management

'Balanced' photo (c) 2010, Earl McGehee - license: Perman shared this excellent article by John Kotter on the actions of leaders compared to mangers.

These two different functions - coping with complexity and coping with change-shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership

The best leaders are attuned to these set of complimentary skills.  I was thinking of this when I read this summary of Anne Mulcahy's address to the Stanford Business School discussing her work turning around a near bankrupt Xerox in the early 2000's.  She instituted immediate cost cutting and efficiency protocols to begin to stem the tide of debt, and at the same time she focused the organization on their core value of innovation, not cutting any money from research and development.  I also appreciate her comments about the centrality of communication to her successful leadership.

"I feel like my title should be Chief Communication Officer, because that's really what I do," she said, emphasizing the importance of listening to customers and employees. "When I became CEO, I spent the first 90 days on planes traveling to various offices and listening to anyone who had a perspective on what was wrong with the company. I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that's time well spent."

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Jim Collins on Great Leaders Matt Perman always has excellent quotes on the qualities of great leadership.  Servant Leadership is personified by many of the successful leaders that Collins has studied.

50 Free apps from LifeHacker Dropbox is leading the way and there are tons of new ways to use it that are worth digging into.

Never Waste a Good Crisis Michael Hyatt has often plugged the benefit of Life Planning. Having gotten a couple stents in an artery two months ago has helped me begin that process in earnest.

Grade 6 student explains how he makes apps

Obstacles Can be our Friend

In Carol Dweck's book Mindset, she quotes Bruce Jenner, 1976 Olympic Decathlon champion.
"If I wasn't dyslexic, I probably wouldn't have won the Games.  If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily ... and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work."
Obstacles can be the means of growth and improvement if we allow them to teach us to learn and improve.  We need to encourage students with struggles so that they don't use those as an excuse to give up, but a reason to be determined and persevere.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Setting The Tone

Every organization has a culture and tone.  There is one person who bears the primary responsibility for creating that atmosphere - be it positive or negative - and that would be the leader.  If your teachers are unconcerned and dismissive of students, if your parents don't demonstrate a commitment to education, if your students are mean and nasty to one another, you might want to ask what messages are you sending by your actions (or inaction), words, and priorities.

I was reading the account of Pontius Pilate sentencing Jesus to death this morning and I was struck by Pilates' flippant attitude about Jesus being the King of the Jews.  He mockingly called him the King of the Jews because he suspected that the Jewish leaders were envious.  Well, this call was taken up by the soldiers who mocked Jesus with a purple robe, then hit him and spit on him.  They took Pilate's lead and increased the mockery and degradation of Jesus.  This same tone was taken by the crowds who called for his crucifixion.  There, in a nutshell, is the influence of Pilate (and the religious leaders) who set the tone for that whole scene.  So, what messages do you believe are most important to send in your school or organization.  Here are a few that I try to instill where I'm working and living.

Appreciation - My Assistant Principal and I write Energy Boost notes as often as we see them.  Douglas Conant, formerly of Campbell Soup, wrote 10 personal notes every day to his staff.  After a tough year, John Kralik wrote a thank you note every day for a year, then wrote the book 365 Thank Yous to chronicle his experience.  Here are his tips for writing the perfect thank you note.  I recently went to the hospital for a heart problem and received the most impressive service I've every experienced.  With great pleasure I wrote thank you notes to my doctors, the nurses, and the CEO of the hospital.  I know the notes were well received, and conversely, it gave me a great boost to write and deliver the notes as well.

Conversation - Learning is social and so is leading.  I like to get out and interact with teachers before school, during breaks, and any chance I get - sometimes about school related issues, sometimes about life.  Both are equally valuable.  I don't want to act like I care.  I actually do care.  Teachers give their heart and soul to the profession and I appreciate that dedication and try and show it with my time and attention.  It's also great to meet parents in the hallways, waiting for their kids or volunteering. I learn about their successes and struggles and find out which teachers they are pleased with and what issues are causing concern.  When the leader goes out to see what is going on, the good news gets spread more often and the bad news gets handled more quickly.

Reading - One of the questions I almost always ask kids is, "What are you reading"?  I want kids to know that I value reading and I'm a reader as well.  I gladly share what I'm reading and try and find similar books for kids to read in the genre they are currently enjoying.

Learning - It goes without saying that if you want your students and teachers to constantly be learning, you need to be a learner as well.  You must be reading, soaking up new information, observing best practices inside and outside your organization, asking questions, writing, thinking, innovating, taking risks, and failing as these are the ways that you learn.

So, this post started with a pretty sour example of negative leadership.  The great news is that you can turn around a culture that is bent toward negativity with your next action, word, or thank you note.  Why don't you get started today.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Teaching is Brain Surgery... Blindfolded

I recently read Dave Levy's excellent book, Gray Matter.  In it he describes his decision to bring prayer into his relationship with his patients.  He also describes the intricacies of brain surgery by entering through the arteries with a long, pliable wire and inserting microscopic stents and glue to block off blood flow to aneurysms and clots.  It is obviously a profession demanding high levels of skill, vast knowledge of the human anatomy and patience and perseverance.  It got me thinking about the work of teaching and learning and the requirements of a classroom teacher.  They too are doing brain surgery only teachers don't have nearly as much help and assistance as our medical colleagues.  Here are several ways that teaching students is actually harder than brain surgery.

  1. Teachers do not enjoy a live video stream of the immediate effect of their teaching as they work.
  2. Teachers don't usually have a small army of assistants in the classroom to help with the performance.
  3. Teachers' students are not put to sleep while performing the procedure.  They are very wide awake and sometimes tend to fail to cooperate with the teacher's intentions.
  4. Teachers must deal with student misbehavior ranging from inattention to defiance and everything in between.

So, hail to our brain surgeons in the classroom, performing critical work on children's gray matter every day with great wisdom, exceptional skill, and unlimited patience.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Introverts Can Lead

Listning to HBR's Ideacast, I heart Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell's Soup and author of Touchpoints, explain his strategies for turning around several companies.  The final question he answered was around his character his being an introvert.  He explained that the manner in which he finally was able to overcome this trait was by openly acknowledging that he was an introvert and encouraging his team to invite him into a conversation and not wait for him to engage.  It was a powerful moment when he was able to embrace this aspect of his personality and leadership style.  Once he acknowledged openly his bent toward introvertism, he conversely became less of an introvert.   Once again this reminds me of my comments yesterday about leadership styles.  All styles of leadership can be effective.  The loud, gregarious, and extrovert is probably the most common leader style that we think of when we picture the quintessential leader.  However, quiet, reserved, and even introverts can lead.  What is more important is integrity, thoughtfulness, clear thinking, collaboration, and courage.

Monday, November 07, 2011

One Leadership Style Not Needed

I was recently listening to the Catalyst Podcast with Marcus Buckingham, in which he was discussing his new book, Standout.  He was mentioning his study of General Managers in a large company who all had very unique and different strategies to lead their divisions - and all were successful.  He made it clear that those managers would be less successful if they tried to emulate the actions and behaviors of their peers, who led in unique and individualized ways.  The style of leadership is closely tied to the strengths and personality of the leader and the strengths and personality of the team.  A bigger need is to be aware of our own strengths and seek to maximize our impact in a way that is congruent with our own leadership style.    A good question to ask would be, "When I have been most successful, what actions and behaviors have led to that success?"

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Facing Unique Challenges Builds Brain Muscles

Our students needs lots and lots of practice STRUGGLING with novel and challenging problems that they are capable of solving.  They need to learn to try, fail, try again, struggle, and ultimately succeed.  This is reinforced by a recent commentary noted on the New York Times Opinion Page, which demonstrated that students performed better on tests when given practice problems that were not all of the same type:
When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.
This practice is called interleaving and has proven effective in improving students' performance on tests.
A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders to work on solving four types of math problems and then to take a test evaluating how well they had learned. The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practiced one kind of problem at a time

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Presentations - Begin with the end in Mind

Since Steven Covey began writing about leadership and personal success back in the 80's, that phrase "Begin with the end in mind" has seeped into our culture. It is critically important when teaching or leading both adults and children. Here's what he says about your ultimate purpose.

If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.

Purpose must be explicit, clear, and meaningful to your audience. Here are some reflective questions that I consider when beginning my plans for presentations.

  1. What does my audience need to know or be able to do by the end of our meeting?
  2. Is the goal for them to have a discussion and brainstorm possibilities, or come to a decision?
  3. Will the audience embrace the goal I've chosen or am I imposing an artificial goal that the audience will resist?
  4. What are the audience's current strengths and areas of weakness related to the topic?

So, clearly you must be an expert on two subjects: 1) your content and 2) your audience, though I would argue that it's more important to be an expert on the audience than the subject. After all, you may have members of the audience with greater knowledge and expertise than yourself and, knowing that, you can tap into their experiences to craft the presentation.

Once I've reflected on the needs and perspective of my audience, I decide what I want to be accomplished. For example, in some recent staff development meetings we completed the following activities for the purposes indicated in parentheses.

1. Brainstormed a list of strengths and needs of our English Learners and our staff's expertise related to instruction of English Learners. (Building an asset based approach to English Learners and discovering the wealth of human resources available to enhance our instruction)
2. Decided on our instructional focus for the year, which is writing. (Develop consensus around the primary PD that we will pursue as a staff)
3. Made a collaborative timeline of the school from it's inception to present day. (Validate all the people and programs that have contributed to our current success and build momentum for our future work) - btw This idea came from my awesome and inspirational Assistant Principal, Ms. Sylvia Echeverria!

The success of these activities is due to the careful thought about connecting the needs of the audience and the course of action we are seeking to pursue. When these two themes align, there is energy, engagement, and productive creativity. When these two paths are disconnected, there is impassable resistance, passive acceptance and superficial implementation.

Let me close by saying a little about the tools I use at this stage. Often, I start with a blank piece of paper and pencil or pen. Despite many digital tools for mind mapping and brainstorming, I've found that the best way for me to dump out my ideas is to write them out and begin the process of re-reading, revising, questioning, and discussing with my leadership team until we reach a clear consensus on our goals and purpose.

In the next post, I'll discuss the best ways to deliver content and the processes for grappling with that content as a group.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Learning Presentations

As a Principal, I have many opportunities to present to teachers and on some occasions to my Principal peers. This important form of communication and teaching is one of the primary attributes of a leader. Below are the questions that I ponder to develop and execute the most effective presentations possible.

1. Consider what I want my audience to know and be able to do both at the end of the meeting and at some future date (e.g. end of quarter, semester, year)
2. What is the best way to deliver the content?
3. How can I grab their attention at the outset?
4. Where can I include opportunities for dialogue, discussion, and collaboration?
5. How much time should I provide for my audience to plan and develop next steps with the content?
6. How can I leave them with a bent toward action and an emotional connection with the work?

I will flesh out these questions in the next few posts to explain how I attempt to deliver quality professional development and increase the learning of my staff and colleagues.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Failure is tolerable and even desirable ... so long as you are learning. Failure that doesn't develop new learning is truly a FAIL, with no redeeming qualities. But failure, that produces lessons for the next try can truly make an organization, school, classroom, student, or teacher smarter and more successful. Liz Wiseman, in her book Multipliers introduces Lutz Ziob who was the general manager of the education business at Microsoft who was described as,
"He brings an intellectual curiosity for why things didn't work out."

We must ask lots of questions about our failures to determine why they didn't work and what we might do differently to reach our goals.

Is that your best?

Liz Wiseman in Multipliers
Asking whether people are giving their best gives them the opportunity to push themselves beyond their previous limits.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Are you Talking to Me?

If there is one trait that sets apart good leaders from great, it is the ability to listen. Here's how Liz Wiseman describes that trait.
Liberators are more than just good listeners. They are ferocious listeners. They listen to feed their hunger for knowledge. They listen to learn what other people know and add it to their reservoir of knowledge.
This type of listening is possible only if you th ink others have ideas worth thinking about. The Tyrant believes he has all the answers and is rarely ready to hear, acknowledge, and implement an idea that doesn't come from his own head.

Your Best Work

They (liberators) appear to hold two ostensibly opposing positions with equal fervor. They create both comfort and pressure in the environment,. In the eyes of the Liberator, it is a just exchange: I give you space; you give me back your best work.
-Liz Wiseman in Multipliers


Many of our district administrators have just read the book Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. I'll be posting several quotes and my comments from the book here. It was a great reminder of the power we have to make others more effective, productive, and satisfied in the workplace and at home.

Let's begin with one of the qualities of the "Liberator" as opposed to The "Tyrant".
Tyrants create a tense environment-one that is full of stress and anxiety. Liberators like Robert create an intense environment that requires concentration, diligence, and energy. It is an environment where people are encouraged to think for themselves but also where people experience a deep obligation to do their best work.
So many leaders act as if their colleagues will slack off and do nothing if they are not in their face demanding and directing their every move. My favorite Principal was Dr. Bob Bane who got out of my way and set a vision for our school. I desperately wanted to produce quality results in everything I did because of his respectful and challenging leadership.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The dirty words "Test Prep"

I've been training for a 1/2 Marathon for this June and as the race date quickly approaches I've been thinking of the parallels of our students getting ready for the annual end-of-the-year assessments. Here are some parallels that would help our students approach the testing with confidence and peace of mind.

  1. The day of the race should be a day of celebration because of all of the training that has been put in preparing for the big day.
  2. Gradual improvement day after day will result in substantial growth over the course of a year.
  3. Pep rallies and slogans are not nearly as effective as disciplined practice and engaged learning every day.
  4. Your results on the assessment will be a direct result of the efforts that you expanded during the course of the year (training period) and not the tricks you learned for race day.

Our most productive endeavor is planning the daily instructional routines that will build our students knowledge and skills over the course of a year to give them the confidence to step up to that starting line on test day with confidence and enthusiasm to show what they have learned.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Silver Lining

All of us will face hard times. Leaders, teachers, students, and families will all encounter setbacks, disappointments, even - disaster. As a school leader, we need to first manage ourselves in the midst of struggles and setbacks, then assist our staff and students to do the same.

Recently I've come across a couple resources that provide excellent tips on getting through hard times healthier on the other side. The Harvard Business Review Ideacast recently interviewed Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He has done some fascinating work with the military to test out his hypothesis about optimism and resiliency. Many of us our familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its devastating consequences. But, have you heard of Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome? It turns out an equal number of people come through great trauma actually stronger than when they started. Furthermore, the vast majority of people in between the two extremes are resilient and survive their trauma by returning to a state equally as good as before the trauma. The major difference between the first group and the the last two is optimism. Those that have a sense that things will eventually turn out better, tend to be correct. It's a self fulfilling prophecy with significant lifetime effects.

This idea was also covered by Michael Hyatt who came up with seven questions to ask yourself when facing adversity. One of his questions was:
What does this experience make possible?
There are so many examples in life where great discoveries and accomplishments were born out of loss, failure, and defeat. I read recently an article in The Week magazine about a gentleman who was mugged and hit over the head. He subsequently went to the doctor, where a brain scan found a previously undetected tumor that was removed. Basically, those muggers saved his life. For the rest of us, we can build resiliency in ourselves and those we work with and live with by modeling and teaching a positive response to challenges. I'm definitely keeping this in mind as we face the end of a school year with many teachers facing job uncertainty because of our continuing budget reductions.

Photo Credit:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Content is King

The Core Knowledge Blog has a great post on educational reformers called Ed Reformers for Illiteracy. These reformers ignore content and curriculum at our students' peril:
If you are opposed teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read. You are in favor of illiteracy, either by choice or indifference. You favor damaging our most vulnerable children by denying them the most critical thing: the functional knowledge they need to succeed.
They also point out that critical thinking is not a skill that can be learned outside of content knowledge. For example, someone who has domain specific knowledge of chemistry will not be able to apply critical thinking skills to history without the domain specific knowledge that field requires. Teaching content = Teaching reading!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hidden Agenda Unveiled

On every staff for which I have worked, there are always a few who get the feeling that I have a hidden agenda. Well, today I confess that they are correct. I have always had a hidden agenda and it's about time I revealed what I'm REALLY trying to accomplish. For example, ...

  1. When I share teacher data from every classroom on school wide assessments my goal is that teachers learn from each other.
  2. When I observe a class and head straight to the student least likely to know what's going on, I just want to make sure that student is learning just like the others.
  3. When I ask reflective questions about a lesson I've seen, I want to understand what the teacher was intending to accomplish and how she was going about doing that.
  4. When I insist on using nearly every staff meeting opportunity, it's because I believe that the more time our staff spends together thinking and discussing about teaching and learning, the better we will become.
  5. When I ask teachers to allow me to videotape and view their lessons it's because I want them to learn about their own best practices and how they can get better.

With these examples and many more, my hidden agenda is that it's all about the learning. I hope this provides some relief to anyone who was thinking I had some sinister or evil plot in mind for my methods and madness. Please excuse me for keeping up the game because I've still got a lot to learn.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Productivity Tip

Late nights can become a habit. Unfortunately, it is usually a sign of lack of discipline rather than a sign of dedicated commitment. A few weeks ago, I committed to getting to bed every week night by 10:00. I actually got to bed by 10:30 all week and here is what I noticed:

1. My energy and alertness during the day was much higher.
2. My productivity at home was better as I had a clear deadline for completing the work.
3. I was able to get up a little earlier to start the day with Bible reading and prayer.
4. I didn't fall behind on any significant projects (my one fear)

There was truly no down side to the experiment. Of course, the next week I regressed to my undisciplined self and had a couple late nights and paid the price. Looks like the knowing-doing gap rears its ugly head again. Good night!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don't be a Control Freak

Here's a great quote from Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.
The old organization was built on control, but the world has changed. The world is moving at such a pace that control has become a limitation. It slows you down. You’ve got to balance freedom with some control, but you’ve got to have more freedom than you ever dreamed of.
This is another one of those tensions that we need to manage. Daniel Pink makes the case for autonomy, purpose, and mastery as our prime motivators in knowledge work. When we try to control people, we will not get the creativity and innovation that will drive our organizations to better performance. On the other hand, we also need to measure the impact of our work. Freedom needs to be maintained within a structure of mutual accountability and measured results.

Hat tip to Matt Perman

Sunday, January 23, 2011

You need to be Positively Deviant... and Here's How

Atul Guwande in his book Better gives several examples of Positive Deviants. These are people and organizations who outperform the norm. His examples come from the medical profession ranging from hospitals who have dramatically decreased their rate of infections through hand washing to the highest performing clinics for the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis. He has some practical advise for those of us who would aspire to be positive deviants in our line of work. Here are his five actions that would enable you and I to achieve improved performance.

  1. Ask an unscripted Question
  2. Don't complain
  3. Count something
  4. Write something
  5. Change

I've been working on #2 lately, though it is no easy task. Complaining can be such an addiction. Many supervisors get trapped into looking for areas for improvement and become focused on what's not working instead of what is working.

What are some things that you do to increase your ability to perform at the highest levels?

Being Positive about Positive Deviants

There exists a system where data on performance was not collected regularly. Then, one fine day, a group of practitioners got the go ahead to allow data collection on their performance so long as they remained anonymous. To the surprise of the professionals working in this field, not every entity was a high performing enclave. In fact, the performance of all of these centers rather followed the traditional Bell Curve with a few very poor performers, a whole lot of performers in the median range, and a small band of high performers leading the field. Does this sound like your school district, your grade levels, your group of teachers? In fact, this data was collected on the centers for treatment of Cystic Fibrosis and you can learn all about it in Atul Gawande's excellent book Better.

We come to find out that the medical profession has much in common with the education profession. Sharing data on performance is not as enthusiastically embraced as one might think for a field of scientists. Likewise, getting medical teams to rethink their performance by comparing to those who are getting better results is not so common, and hardly the norm. Gawande says, "What we're not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers".

Imagine for a minute your child has cystic fibrosis and you learn that the children being treated at your child's center lived on an average just over 30 years. Then you find that the children at the most successful centers were living on average to 46. Where would you want your child to be treated?

The good news in Gawande's research is that the center that he highlighted did indeed seek out the highest performing center to observe and learn what strategies, attitudes, and practices they had in place to get such stellar results for their patients. Of course, the journey from mediocre to highly successful is not as easy as making some simple observations, tweaking a few practices and rejoicing at your new found success. There are so many intangibles that are difficult to replicate, much like the art and science of teaching!

So how can we in education take advantage of the Positive Deviants in our field in a way that is respectful of our teachers, yet insistent on learning from those teachers, schools, and districts who are outperforming the rest? Here are a few thoughts from my experience.

1. Be crystal clear about the reason for sharing data. Having landed on a few land mines of my own, I know that the purpose of data comparisons must be made clear and repeated often. It's about the learning.

2. Allow teachers to have input on what data should be compared. You can make a case for a lot of data to be compared that might give a distorted view of end results. Were the classes evenly created at the start of the year? Are there formative data that would contribute to positive end results? Discussion and debate about what data matters is healthy and will lead to a more enthusiastic response to the numbers.

3. Celebrate those who are humbly taking risks to learn from colleagues. Those who are willing to seek out learning from their colleagues need lots of encouragement and praise for their efforts. They are learners who are proving that they are open to any ideas that will help their children learn at higher levels.

If you are interested in seeing the data reports on the Cystic Fibrosis centers across the country they can be found here: *requires free registration I encourage you to compare your local center with the center at Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Top 100 School Administrator Blogs

Alexis Brett has put together a collection of the Top 100 School Administrator Blogs. It's a great place to find some new (and not so new) voices on educational topics far and wide. Take a look.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Managing Tensions

Listening to a leadership podcast from Andy Stanley recently, he mentioned the difference between problems to solve and tensions to manage. I see this played out in schools all the time.

Phonics versus comprehension

Improving our current practices versus adding something new

Direct instruction versus inquiry

Academic focus versus whole child

Stanley says the key is not to allow one side to win the argument. Eliminating that tension would lead to an imbalance. He has taught his leadership team to use the language: "That's not a problem to solve, it's a tension to manage". I think schools would do well to adopt this approach to issues such as this. Finding that right balance will unleash creativity and improe effectiveness in every area of our work.

Photo Credit: JLMPhoto

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Antecedents of Excellence

In Doug Reeves' excellent book The Daily Disciplines of Leadership, he explains that schools that regularly perform at the highest levels are attuned to the antecedents of excellence - those habits and practices that are the foundation that allows students and adults to learn and thrive. The task of school teams is to determine what the antecedents of excellence are and measure their progress in implementing those factors into every day life. Here's my stab at some elements of school life that I believe support learning for everyone.

  1. Literacy is valued by every member of the school community.
  2. Growth and progress are celebrated frequently.
  3. Hard work is valued over intelligence.
  4. Assessment of student progress and subsequent feedback is constant, integrated into instruction, and contributes to increased motivation to learn for students.
  5. Reasoning and analysis are evident from school staff, students, and parents
  6. Content is integrated across disciplines.
  7. Technology is used to allow students to create content and interact with the world outside the school walls.
  8. Character is valued equally with academic achievement.
  9. Clear expectations for behavior are articulated and reinforced.
  10. Exceptional character is celebrated and honored.
  11. Disciplinary problems are handled fairly and firmly. These incidents are used as teaching opportunities.
  12. Failure is considered a necessary prerequisite of learning.
  13. Grace and Gentleness are evident in all relationships.
  14. Teachers and administrators share an equal role in leading instructional and school improvement.
  15. Parents are partners in their children's learning through two way communication and mutual respect.
  16. Structured social interactions enhance all learning objectives.
  17. Physical education and the Arts demand the same preparation and rigor as Language Arts and Math.
  18. Students should be spending the majority of the school day reading and writing authentic texts.
  19. Non-fiction should be included in 50% of the school day.

All of these antecedents and any that you can come up with should be submitted to the Reeves test of discovery:

It is the hard work of discovery, precisely the same work we expect of our students as they learn to read, explain a proof, or balance a chemical equation... The effective leader recreates those moments regularly, not through instant wisdom and profound judgment but through questions, errors, admission of ignorance, persistent investigation, and eventual discovery.

So, what do you think? What do you believe are some important antecedents of excellence for schools?