“How” and “Why” are More Powerful than “What”

One of the many things that I learned from Jim Ellsberry during my first semester in Butler’s EPPSP program was that process was AT LEAST as important as content. That was the fall of 1995, and that may have been the first conscious moment of my conviction that the path to anything is more important than the destination. Many will argue that as long as you get to the correct destination as quickly as you can, then you are going to be successful. That would be ok, if it weren’t for the fact that we work with people. People take time. To make any change effective, people must first BELIEVE that the change is valuable.

I ran across a quote from Joellen Killion the other day regarding coaching. She currently serves as senior advisor to Learning Forward and she said: “A good coaching relationship is one in which the coach and teacher are willing to talk less at the level of practice and more at the belief level. The coach is willing to have very courageous conversations, challenging conversations with teachers about their belief systems and how their beliefs impact their instructional decisions.”

So, BELIEFS impact DECISIONS. That’s powerful!

Not only is “how” we go about our work important, so is “why”. Understanding the purpose for our future action takes into account that when we work at the belief level with others, we have a greater chance to impact their actions. With purpose comes passion and with passion comes ownership. When we get others to own the initiative, we’ve led.


Speaking with a colleague at lunch today…made me want share one of my favorite leadership books:  “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question” by John G. Miller

Here’s a sample for you from page 92:

Leadership, more than anything else, is about the way we think.  It’s a moment to moment disciplining of our thoughts.  It’s about practicing personal accountability and choosing to make a positive contribution, no matter what our role or level.

Solve a Problem Forever

In my many roles I have the fortune to interact with multiple school administrators. During my time with these great leaders, I strive to make connections and to find meaning for my own study of leadership. Recently, a theme has emerged that has wormed its way into the reoccurring conversations that I have with myself. The principle that I am calling “Solving a Problem Forever” (SPF) is one that I believe helps to set the very best leaders apart from the rest.

Have you ever said something like one of the following statements to yourself or to someone else?
“I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“This problem keeps coming up.”
“I am tired of always hearing this complaint.”

One simple example of when I experienced the need to SPF was when I was a building principal and I constantly received complaints about the drop off zone at our school. For some reason, more and more parents chose to drop their students off instead of having them ride the bus to school and this created some issues for those 300+ cars each morning. While few students were late to school, the amount of complaints I received made this a significant issue for me. It would have been easy to ignore this problem because it didn’t affect the school day much, but it did create nagging heartburn for my parents who wanted to get their children to school on time. And…I hate repeated complaints. To me, it became a cultural issue and one that I knew I needed to tackle.

So, to solve this problem, I first began by designing a set of protocols and listed them on one side of a page with the opposite side being a satellite view of our school with arrows and specific zones marked off. Knowing that developing these “rules” would not solve the problem forever, I knew that I needed to engage my teaching abilities. I made TV announcements talking to the students, sent home messages to parents, collaborated with our maintenance director to secure signage and curb paint AND I started the second semester greeting each car that entered our drop off zone with the new safety and procedural protocols. All of this solved the problem…but not forever. Knowing that the few people who think of themselves before others had the power to mess everything up, I began policing the drop off zone and assigned an additional staff person to do this on a regular basis. When a rare parent would choose to not support these new protocols, I approached their car and talked with them.

While the system wasn’t perfect, it did improve drop-off considerably. Cars no longer backed up onto the road and parents stopped complaining. I even received comments about how much they appreciated the new procedures and a few who noticed me addressing those who tried to skirt the system praised me and our school.

Leaders know that to solve a problem forever usually takes time…sometimes a lot of time. While it is impossible to solve every problem you have at a “forever” level, it is important that you work to SPF every chance that you get. Because there are so many issues that need to be managed, it can be easy to allow problems to continue because you don’t have the time to solve them; but don’t let that be an excuse. Many times the large investment up front provides more time over the course of the year as the multitude of having to “deal with something” diminishes.

Additionally, not only does SPF usually require significant time, it usually also requires dealing with issues at a fundamental level. Having difficult conversations, following up with those you are serving, and developing shared expectations that are best for students, will always pay into your time bank. When you are able to have conversations at a fundamental and foundational level, you build trust and confidence…or rather, leadership capital. When you solve a problem forever, you affect your culture and that influences other areas of your leadership.


Uncle Lloyd

One definition of “serve” is: to devote (part of) one’s life or efforts to, as of countries, institutions, or ideas. I’ve had many great examples of service in my life. Growing up in a small town with many relatives was a blessing. Of the 6 great aunts and uncles who lived in Bicknell when I was growing up, those closest to me were my Great Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd. Aunt Ginny passed away in 2010. I just attended the funeral of my Uncle Lloyd a couple of weeks ago. We celebrated 103 years of life with our wonderful Uncle Lloyd!

I can remember before my Aunt Ginny passed a time when we took our son to visit her and Uncle Lloyd so that he could hear some of Uncle Lloyd’s stories from when he served in World War II. Uncle Lloyd was a mailman in the Navy. He wasn’t involved in fighting, but he did hit the beach at Iwo Jima after everything settled down. While stories of intense battles were not told, Uncle Lloyd did share stories of service.

I never knew my Uncle Lloyd as a Navy serviceman, but I did know him as a Great Uncle (and great doesn’t refer to the fact that he is my Mom’s uncle.) He was a man of great character who was kind, giving, and very humorous. I never knew my grandfathers, but I had a great one in Uncle Lloyd. He sought opportunities to spend time with me and I can remember one short road trip to Spencer where he and I memorized all of the small towns between Bicknell and Spencer (Edwardsport, Westphalia, Sandborn, Marco, Beehunter, Lyons, Switz City, Worthington…my memory fades from here.)

Uncle Lloyd was always there for me. Many times I had projects to accomplish and my mother would send me down the street (two blocks) to get help from Uncle Lloyd. Every time I showed up at their back door, both Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Ginny were happy to see me and even happier to help me with my new project. I can remember the times when they provided more than their time. On more than one occasion, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd would take me and my siblings to Grundman’s Shoes in Vincennes to make sure that we had working shoes on our feet. They even paid for my piano lessons.

While I have many great memories of both my Great Aunt and Uncle, my favorites were those of my Uncle’s humor. Uncle Lloyd always had a joke to share and Aunt Ginny was always a wonderful audience leading us in laughing (even though she had heard the joke a few times already.) I can vividly remember one picnic at my Grandmother’s house (which was two blocks in the other direction from my house) where Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Ginny arrived on their bicycles decorated in crepe paper and balloons. We could see them coming down the street and they were laughing the entire way!

I have been blessed to have many wonderful people in my life to teach me important lessons. When it comes to service, my prime exemplar is my Uncle Lloyd. From serving his country, to serving his family and friends, he is the example of giving of oneself that I strive to come close to each day. You see, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd never had any children of their own. Their nieces and nephews, great nieces and great nephews were their children. The stories I told above are only a small sampling of stories about Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd. I have heard the same stories from my mother’s siblings and cousins (my aunts and uncles). With my Grandmother having 7 brothers and sisters, Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd were never short on nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews. As the matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a special decades-long deal with Grundman’s Shoes because I know that my Mother and her cousins took many a trip there with Aunt Ginny and Uncle Lloyd when they were children.

Thanks for letting me ramble a bit about a couple of my exemplars. In a world where people seem to be more self-centered and self-serving, it is good to be reminded of those who have provided so much to so many people.

Deepak Chopra said: “Everyone has a purpose in life…a unique gift or special talent to give to others. And when we blend this unique talent with service to others we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals.”

Teachers are uniquely blessed in that we get to utilize our talent AND we get to do it while serving others…and we get paid! What a great life we have. While I’ll never reach the level of my Great Uncle Lloyd, I can only hope that there is a student or two out there that I have had that will count me as an exemplar.

Seek First to Understand…All Stories

I learned years ago that the source of a person’s anger is usually due to their story not matching up with reality.  Simple, but still a great thought when trying to understand why someone has “feelings” about an issue.  What do I mean by a “story”?  Well, a person’s story is their version of what reality should be.  Of course, that story doesn’t always match reality.  Let me share an example.

The Parker’s go to movies VERY early.  We leave home at least 45 minutes before the show starts taking a leisurely drive to the theatre and arriving in our seats with a drink and a small snack that we plan to consume before the movie starts.  Then, we play on our phones while waiting for the previews to begin.  Yes, typically we are the first people in the theatre.  The story we play in our heads is that there is no need to rush; cashiers are quick as lines are short, and we get to sit in a seat that we prefer with very little hassle and without inconveniencing others.

In contrast, some folks must leave their homes when the movie is advertised to start, wait in a long line for a ticket, purchase 27 different snacks and drinks from the concessions, and then find their seat (usually right in front of us) 5 minutes after the movie starts thereby missing all of the valuable previews and an opportunity for the perfect seat.  They also talk for 5 more minutes as they pass their snacks around (that doesn’t bother me or anything…).  I imagine that the “late” arrivers are quite content with all of this.  Their story is that they got to a movie in time to see the “good stuff” and they are thankful that there were awesome seats right in front of this other family.  If we traded movie going procedures, the Parkers and the late arrivers would both likely have anxiety attacks.

Now, we strive to control our reality by leaving extra-early for movies.  Sometimes, reality doesn’t play out that way as we are not always able to leave at a preferred time.  Those times, when we are not able to leave early, we speed to the theater turning into the parking lot on two wheels.  I shove Pam out the door with a credit card, and I park the car and run in to catch her punching the self-serve ticket machine with vigor.  We still get to watch the previews, but we were rushed and we do not like to be rushed.  This situation may not make us angry, but we certainly are not happy because reality did not match our story of what traveling to a movie should be like.

Just like our movie going experience, when we are faced with situations that make us unhappy, we all have an opportunity to make a choice.  Either we can change our story, or we can change reality by leaving early for a movie.  In making a decision to change reality, one must weigh the level of emotion experienced with the effort that it would take to change that reality.  If something does not bother us much, and changing reality is arduous, then we are likely to change our expectations…our story.  In contrast, if something garners a great deal of emotion, we are more likely to put forth effort to change reality.  The amount of effort that we are willing to expend to affect change directly corresponds to the strength of our emotions or feelings.  That is the premise of why I like to work with passionate people. Passionate people WORK to change reality.

Of course, this principle applies when leading others.  I’ve often found that when working with someone who has “feelings” it is good to work very hard to try to understand their point of view by imagining their story for myself.  Why do they feel the way that they do?  What is their story and how is it different from mine or from reality?  I try to be empathetic and follow Steven Covey’s 5th principal:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is also a great way to deal with conflict or expectations not being met.  When the person with whom you are conversing truly feels that you understand why they feel the way that they do, you can usually be more successful when getting your own point across; and, perhaps your point will be even clearer to you when you have full understanding of all of the important “stories”.

As leaders, we must always strive to realize the stories that people have.  Remember, their story is a version of what reality should be.  Through understanding all of the related stories, we have the best chance to determine whether we need to change reality by leading others to implement a new program or procedure, or whether we need to communicate differently to help change the stories that cause people angst.

Characteristic of an Exceptional Leader

I’ve been a fan of Steven Covey since I first read his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His explanation of the four quadrants of time management and the choices we make in how we spend our time has long been a tenet of my leadership beliefs. I am a firm believer in Quadrant 2! For those who have not had the pleasure to read the book, or his book First Things First, I strongly suggest that studying Dr. Covey is a leadership staple. I have found that the very best leaders focus on behaviors that are important, but not urgent. Covey lists examples of activities in each quadrant.

Covey Quadrants

As you can see, focusing on behaviors that are in “Quadrant 2” are preferred.  What activites will you do today and tomorrow that are Quadrant 2 activities?

I believe that the very best leaders build a climate of cooperation and a strong culture of shared beliefs.  How do they do it?  They spend plenty of time in Quadrant 2.

Attached is an eight day audit.  Download the document and track your activities for the next eight work days and see where you spend your time.  Good luck!

Covey Quadrants Audit

Instructional Leadership–Now it Matters

“I can remember a time when teaching was fun.” Have you heard this sentiment in your school lately? While it is not a phrase that a building principal likes to hear, it is one that captures the feelings of many teachers. It is understandable that teachers are feeling the pressure of performance. The expectations placed on teachers have dramatically increased as our society again points to public education as a solution for improving our economy and our nation. High stakes testing of students have been the norm in schools for several years. Now, high stakes evaluations pervade our professional lives as we work to meet the expectations placed upon us.

I don’t blame those who are expecting more of us. We are in a business whose primary goal is to change people. Sometimes, however, we forget that being agents of change means that we need to be open to that ourselves. If we believe that teaching is important, then the effect of what we do must be at the very least equally important. If we want to lead learning, then we must set the example and be learners ourselves. Increasing our professional capacity should be our expectation, not our yoke.

It is understandable that legislators and business leaders were looking at improving teacher evaluations as a means to improving the education of students. Research by the New Teacher Project (2007) noted several inconsistencies and disconnects in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) between classroom results and teacher evaluations. This system has since been revamped, but in 2007 CPS relied on a system that both teachers and principals viewed as arbitrary and unfair. The system identified 93% of teachers as either superior or excellent—at the same time that 66% of the CPS schools were failing to meet state standards (New Teacher Project, 2007). In one case study of a K-8 school with about 500 students, the standardized testing scores went from 45% to 27% while the teacher evaluation ratings sat at 78% superior, 22% excellent, 0% satisfactory, and 0% unsatisfactory. This, along with a plethora of other research, has been the impetus for actions taken by our lawmakers.

The dissonance between teacher evaluation ratings and student performances are certainly not solely due to teachers being rated too highly. We know that there are many factors which influence student outcomes; however, I believe that the best teachers get the best results. Good teachers do make a difference.

A follow up study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (Sartain et al., 2011) found that an evaluation system, with proper training of teachers and principals, could be both reliable and valid. Key findings of their research on validity show that there is a strong relationship between the classroom observation ratings and value-added measures (test scores). Also, it was found that in the classrooms of highly rated teachers, students showed the most growth; in the classrooms of teachers with low observation ratings, students showed the least growth (Sartain et al., 2011, p. 9).

It is not a stretch to say that an evaluation rubric, chocked full of research-proven best practices for instruction, can be a tool for the professional growth of teachers. With a strong focus on best practices, an evaluation rubric can also be an avenue for improving student learning. For these assertions to hold any water, not only should teachers and principals be properly trained, they must also be professionally developed on the elements contained within the evaluation rubric. Best practices are only “best” if teachers understand them and see a purpose for implementing them in their classrooms.

Building principals have always evaluated teachers. As an evaluator, I have needed to understand at an intimate level all of the best practices from Bloom’s Taxonomy and learner engagement to Marzano’s high yield instructional strategies. I have also been expected to help any teacher who is not rated effective or highly effective in a specific competency. As a building principal, teachers looked to me and asked me how they could get better. This is something that I readily accepted because if I was expert enough to provide judgment of a teacher’s practice based on the standards set forth by the evaluation rubric, then I should also have had the ability to professionally develop them.

One could argue that this has always been the job of a building principal and I would agree. Now, however, the stakes have changed and teachers are seeing pay and tenure affected by their evaluation results. Not all teachers are against this. Even though much of the new education legislation is criticized as a way to cut costs and limit teacher input leading schools back to pre-union days and low pay (Wall, 2011), it is recognized by many of our best teachers that the time has come for compensation models that differentiate among levels of effort and performance (Center for Teaching Quality, 2008). The game has changed.

Most teachers want to put forth the effort to become better and I believe it is the job of the building principal to lead that charge. While managing a building well is the foundation of a quality school, a school only becomes excellent if its teachers are continually working toward improving their craft. Teaching is an art and a science and it is our duty as instructional leaders to take responsibility for the professional development in our buildings. Building level principals are seen as the most significant force in designing the foundation for learning, leading school and student performance, and designing school improvement efforts. The bottom line is that if we want to improve our schools, supporting and investing in principals is the key (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2012). Additionally, there is a “sustained history” of research linking high-quality school leadership to improved school performance. (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2012).

The learning that happens in our school happens in the classroom and while principals are not in the trenches day in and day out, they are certainly walking around and through them a lot. A principal’s ability as an instructional leader and evaluator goes far beyond the number of official observations that are conducted. While I am a big fan of classroom walkthroughs, it should be known that those who spend time conducting them and NOT connecting those visits to professional development activities lose any effectiveness they may have. Principals cannot simply visit a classroom, smile, pat a few students on the head and walk out. That is a drive-by, not a walk-through. Without connecting a classroom observation to learning expectations, the visit by the principal holds very little power to affect instruction. It is essential to connect classroom observations with proper coaching and professional development (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2012).

To do all of this—lead instruction—a principal must not only have a strong foundation of learning theory and best practice, s/he must also demonstrate their teaching prowess through instructing the teachers for whom they serve. For teachers, student learning is a must. For principals, teacher learning is a must. There simply is too much to know and understand for a principal to not have a solid teaching and learning foundation.

The time has come to invest more in principals, not less. We must have strong pre-service programs and even stronger support programs that help school building leaders to manage, lead and instruct. The job of a building principal is too complex and too important for us to cut any corners. We should be thinking how to help principals gain capacity, not how we can make it easier for people to become a principal.

Center for Teaching Quality. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.teachingquality.org/pdfs/TSreport.pdf
Grissom, J., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2012). What is effective instructional leadership? Longitudinal evidence from observations of principals. Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University. Retrieved from http://cepa.stanford.edu/content/what-effective-instructional-leadership-longitudinal-evidence-observations-principals
National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2012). The Power of the principal, advocacy in action: Research-based recommendations to guide federal policies. Retrieved from http://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/Advocacy_In_Action.pdf
New Teacher Project. (2010). Teacher evaluation 2.0. Retrieved from http://tntp.org/assets/documents/Teacher-Evaluation-Oct10F.pdf?files/Teacher-Evaluation-Oct10F.pdf
Sartain, L., Stoelinga, S. R., & Brown, E. R. (2011). Rethinking teacher evaluation in Chicago: Lessons learned from classroom observations, principal-teacher conferences, and district implementation. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. Retrieved from http://ccsr/uchicago.edu/
Wall, J. K. (2011). New laws hang teacher pay on performance. Indianapolis Business Journal Online. Retrieved from http://www.ibj.com/article/print?articleId=27029