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Roundtable: Anthony Muhammad — Time For Change


Justin Baeder: Welcome thank you, everybody, for being here. Very excited to have this chance to chat today. We’re talking about Time For Change with Dr. Anthony Muhammad and we are Dr. Justin Baeder: We’ve already done an interview about the book. We’ve spoken previously for Principal Center Radio and had a great interview there. So thank you very much, Dr. Muhammed, for joining me again to go in-depth on some of these important issues around transforming school culture, transforming school performance. And very excited to go a little bit deeper on some of these topics so thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Anthony Muhammed: Thanks for having me it’s a pleasure. I enjoyed your show and also congratulations on the latest book so honor to have an opportunity to interact with you.

JB: Well, thank you very much! And I see we have a great group of participants today our roundtable members tuning in and some guests. And the way that this is going to work in terms of asking questions—I don’t want to surprise anybody by putting you on webcam if you’re commuting or whatever you may be doing this time of day. So what we will do is use the chat to indicate if you have a question and then I will just promote you to a panelist the same way I did with Dr. Muhammed so just let me know in the chat if you’d like to ask a question—if you would like to ask a question, but not get on video please let me know and I can ask that question for you. Just type that out in the chat but for the maximum fun, we like to have people come on video and turn on their webcam and ask their questions out loud. So just let me know if you’d like to do that I can hit the button and hopefully it will work a little bit more smoothly next time. So let me know and we will get into the deeper issues of bringing about change in schools.

So Dr. Muhammad, thank you again for being here. Just by way of introduction you are the author of numerous books including Transforming School Culture, Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap, and the book we’re here to talk about today is Time for Change—which focuses on four essential skills, three investments, and one that you described as a return on investment. I wonder if we want to start by talking a little bit about your experience as a school principal and then your experience with some of the schools that you’ve worked with as a consultant over the past decade to bring about some of those same types of changes. So give us a little bit of context here for your work that went into this book.

AM: Sure, I had the pleasure to serve as a site-based leader for 11 years. I spent two years as an assistant principal and nine years as a principal at two different schools. And leadership—school leadership as the Wallace Foundation study proved—is ultra important to the growth of an institution. You can have a great classroom you can have a great but to have a great school you really need a person, a group of people as a leadership team, kind of leading the way. There’s always pockets of excellence, but to do it systemically you really need visionary and effective leadership. My experience as a leader was unfortunately like many it was trial and error and human beings aren’t really good to do experiments on.

So the more we can kind of mitigate some of the probability of missteps because students don’t get a do-over—you only go to sixth-grade one time, you know, you’re only a ninth-grader once. So my experience as a leader was a success but there were some struggles and part of what motivated Dr. Cruz and me to write this book is that leadership is a totally separate skill and we tend to make the assumption in education that just because someone is good as a teacher— you may be a great literacy instructor, you may be a great coach—the assumption is that those skills translate into supervising people to do the same job. And the prevailing research in business and leadership is taught that people who are naturally good at something are probably the least qualified to lead somebody else, because of when a person has a natural gift in something they tend to not develop certain important leadership characteristics like patience, like good communication, being precise. When something comes easily to me the assumption is it’s going to come easily to people that lead. So that leads to a little hubris, a little impatience.

So parts of my job as a teacher that came easy to me, I was pretty impatient and I had to learn the hard way through some resistance through some uncomfortable moments with teachers that I supervise because I wasn’t mature enough yet to understand that leadership is a specific skill. So as a consultant—I think I figured most of it out as a principal through hard knocks—so as a consultant as I went into the field where I was a champion of the PLC process and we had experienced great success at my former school. We were the first urban school my honored as a model PLC and the assumption was that everybody, when I walked in everybody, would love PLC the way did I do. And I had a very rude awakening that no that was more of a fallacy than a reality. And Dr. Cruz and I found that the skill level of the leader or leaders was very important to the PLC process—or any effective process for students being embraced by their subordinates was the skill level of the leader of certain characteristics that they had. And from my Transforming School Culture study if you get a chance to reach after seven identified four gaps that prevent people from embracing a collective change agenda. This book is an expansion of chapter 7 and Transforming school culture and really given some insight on huddle leaders develop their skills to help people overcome those gaps or those needs so you can get consensus for the benefit of students? So that’s probably the best analysis I can give you.

JB: Thank you. Very helpful. And the point that you made about the curse of expertise like the things that come naturally to you are things that we tend to be impatient about with other people right? And I definitely saw that as a principal in Seattle yes when I would see just the impatience of principals who were literacy experts. You know, I worked with a lot of elementary—I was an elementary principal so most of my immediate peers were elementary principals and I would see just a tremendous impatience among the principals who had been literacy coaches—which I mean they were instructionally some of the strongest principals but also had the most learning to do to figure out how to get other people on board with the changes that they in their mind it was crystal clear they knew exactly what they wanted literacy instruction would look like that was a big focus for the district to get students reading on grade level. And sometimes it would seem like they were in a hostage situation where they had kind of taken all the other staff prisoner and they were not going to let anybody go until they had their way. And that patience and that figuring out, “okay how do I actually bring people on board with this?” was a little bit more of a challenge. So I’m thinking about our roundtable group of superintendents who are in that boat of needing to carry out the work of change through principals, right?

And I think so many programs are sold as this just kind of handles itself, right? This program runs itself, you know, you make the decision you invest and boom the staff will run with it and students will benefit. But I think anybody who’s been in this business a long time knows that as you said exactly what you said, you know, leadership is make-or-break. and the way that a principal approaches a change really has a huge impact and you give an example in the book of a principal who stands up at a faculty meeting and says, so I know I’m really sorry to have to share this with you but the district is requiring us to do whatever what the staff members pick up what a faculty picked up from a principal who says so I have some bad news for you the district wants us to…whatever?

AM: Yeah that specific scenario that you mentioned is a subcategory of the skill of building trust and Dr. Cruz and I break down trust into two components which are empathy and credibility. And part trusts often people mistake the term trust for likability. I can trust somebody I dislike and I can dislike somebody that I trust—they’re very different affability versus reliability are very different. So often a leader will pander to people and what they think that inhibitions are they’re there their desires are to get them to like them, but simultaneously while they’re pandering to be liked they’re losing trust. And we cite several studies in the book about why trust has a much greater impact on the ability to lead than being liked.

And trust is synonymous with reliability so when a person is trying to become trusted you have to become credible. I like to use to Jim Collins example of the bus. The bus has a bus driver and I might think it’s a good bus but I’ve got to trust you as a bus driver. And I want to know are you a good person you care about me as a person? That’s the empathy piece and can you drive? are you are you credible? are you competent? So when a leader stands before teachers or anybody a superintendent stands in front of principals whoever is in the positional Authority at that time and acts as if they’re in a hostage situation or they’re somehow being forced to do something that they really don’t agree with intellectually or morally or professionally, what they’re showing is that I’m giving you permission to disengage. And it’s an issue of bad body language posture they’re not saying it directly, but their body language and the posture is saying more than what’s coming out of their mouth.

So I show a clip by Colin Powell on leadership and he said he was taught in the infantry school when he was becoming an officer he was told by his commanding officer that if you’re cold you can’t appear to be cold. if you’re hungry you can’t appear to be hungry. if you’re sleepy you can’t compare to be asleep because if you’re cold tired hungry and sleepy then the soldiers have permission to be cold tired hungry and sleepy. So if you want them to follow you into a foxhole around a dangerous corner your behavior dictates what they have permission to emulate. So when a principal does that I might think he’s a nice or she’s a nice person but I don’t trust them because if you’re asking me to do something that you don’t embrace then what would you expect my level of investment to be if you’re not invested in it? so whatever the leader does either builds trust or undermine truck undermines trust.

And if you want to be considered ethical then what you do has to align what your strong core values and I’d even respect you more if you said we are in negotiation with central office and we’re working on some things I think that is good for the district but they’re not quite complete yet, I’m going to get back with you because I want to be able to strongly support whatever the district askes us to do I’d respect you more if you said that then to almost in a political fashion. that’s one of the reasons people have problems with politicians they come off as disingenuous

JB: Yeah and I think that’s a situation where we don’t necessarily want to say to principals, hey you know tell us what your staff thinks and if they don’t like the idea we’re not going to do it you know because every idea is going to have pushback any change is going to have pushback and we’re not saying you know go get the feedback from your staff and if it’s not 100% positive we’re gonna can the whole thing but the authenticity of belief or understanding and being on board you know I feel like the the the weakest presentations of the district mandate by principals come from those situations where the principal does not personally understand well and other than just the details of here’s what you need to so let’s soccer if we could about the end. Go ahead.

AM: And what I like to do in scaling this up is that central office has to take some culpability there as well if principals are responsible for teachers and teachers are responsible for students the district office has to do more than just dictate we see kind of the impact of leadership skill it suffers the farther you move up the system. Classroom teachers have typically had really good relationships with kids then it kind of in wanes as you move to the principalship to central office. And the state and government they’re the most ineffective. So you seem that the further you get away from the classroom the level of culpability or responsibility for guiding people, people tend to relinquish that responsibility the further you go up it should be the opposite but if the state wants to pass a new teacher evaluation system they have a responsibility to engage the districts to get them to understand and then the district has to get the principal to commit. But it seems like the further you move away from the classroom the level of personal responsibility wanes I just find that disturbing.

JB: Yeah that is interesting and I think there are so many different things going on there with you know teachers have you know obviously the students are sticking teachers have tenure but you start to get into the principal assistant superintendent level people tend to move around a little bit more. There is less protection. You know, people are more at will at those more senior levels and I think we do see a more kind of bear exercise of power sometimes to get a change across. I was reading a Harvard Business Review article and if you’re on my email list you saw my link to that yesterday that talked about the Wells Fargo scandal when bank employees and managers would open just millions and millions of kind of fake accounts in order to hit these targets that the CEO had set and the CEO would say things like 8 is great. We want every customer to have eight accounts or eight products with us so the employees interpreted that as if people don’t have eight accounts open some extra ones for them. And the authors of the article concluded that one of the problems with conveying that strategy that it occurred within Wells Fargo and happens in a lot of organizations is that when people are not involved in the strategy and they only receive the implications for them they don’t get the rationale they don’t get the heart of it because they’re not involved they tend to mess it up in something you know.

And sometimes we see that with cheating sometimes we see that with you know just going through the motions and complying for the sake of complying without really being on board with the heart. So I think that’s probably a good segue into talking about the first investment which is the cognitive investment and let’s get into that wit and we talked about the four investments in the podcast but let’s get into this a little bit and by the way our participants today any time you have a question please please feel free to chime in in the chat I’m happy to put you on webcam to share a little bit about a situation that you’ve seen an example or pose a question to dr. Muhammad so just find that webinar chat and put you on webcam if you would like, just let me know. But yeah dr. Mohammad talked to us about the first investment the cognitive investments.

AM: the first investment is probably most profound it’s not the most difficult but it has the greatest impact and that is we know that human beings are naturally wired to solve problems. It’s one of the things one of the elements that makes us human is to need to solve problems and any organization affects you go back to Max Weber’s research favors theory was the only reason organization exists is to solve a problem. Why do we have restaurants? Because people don’t always like to cook and that solves a problem why do you have a Board of Water and light or electric cookers people need like this a problem that you’re solving so solving problems is part of what makes us human and teachers want their students to be successful now they all may go about it in different ways but I’ve never met a teacher even the least effective teacher who didn’t want his or her students to do better so every teacher has a set of problems and a unique opportunity to leader has is to connect his or her vision their proposal to the person’s natural need to solve problems. That’s a natural attraction. So if I’m having issues with classroom management and what you propose is an intervention or an investment that’s going to help me do that—that’s a person who is going to be intrinsically engaged because your needs and their needs are meshed.

Often what happens is that the leader’s intentions or the leader’s purpose are not clearly conveyed to teachers in a way that fits with their natural need to solve problems and grow and evolve. And communication becomes the bridge for that intellectual connection. I think in the last podcast I gave you the definition the Latin root of the term word means the sound of an express thought. So if I have a thought about why PBIS, or PLC, or art and science of teaching is going to help us solve a problem— that’s the only reason you would propose change is that you want to improve. If I’m poor and communicating that then the teachers or whoever I’m trying to influence they’re not really intellectually in tune with the sense and the investment but what I like them to do because they don’t see it as a benefit because it doesn’t in their mind and solve a problem. So that’s why we broke down communication which is really filling the vacuum why. You need evidence and you need to be able to articulate or be persuasive about out of all the options we have to solve this problem. This is the most attractive offer this is what a salesman does. A person has a problem that person doesn’t have the power of coercion you only have the power of persuasion why is this vehicle out of all the vehicles you could choose because your vehicles old is breaking down—this Subaru is the best option for you and leaders often don’t take on the responsibility to be the best pitch people or the best representative of their idea. They tend often many would tend to lean on authority to address an issue that is cognitive. Authority is not a good tool to invest to address an intellectual or cognitive need.

JB: I like the way you break it down in the book into two parts the cognitive investment having a data component like confronting the brutal facts looking at where we have opportunities for improvement and how we know we have opportunities for improvement. And I especially like the example of a high-performing school that has massive achievement gaps you know overall you know ninety percent of the kids are doing great but if you break it down a little bit there are some troubling patterns so there’s the data to kind of pinpoint the problem but then there’s the persuasion angle that gets at the specific solution because I think for any problem that we might identify we’ve got dozens of possible solutions and you know one option is to do nothing of course. So help us distinguish between those a little bit because I feel like the investment is so often underestimated and I feel like with principals especially who have a core of teachers who like them and support them who will kind of do whatever they suggest I think it’s especially tempting for those principals to look at that group of teachers and say, okay I have cognitively persuaded— I’ve explained it—I’ve persuaded this group of people so I’ve done my job and everybody else who hasn’t gotten on board yet they are the problem. But in the book and I think in our previous interview you said the cognitive investment really is about 70% of the battle. So what’s going on with that first group and what’s going on with kind of everybody else in terms of that cognitive investment? Because I feel like we deceive ourselves a little bit and saying okay well the teachers who like me understand it and are on board maybe they don’t quite understand and everybody else definitely doesn’t get it.

AM: Yeah, when you really look at its essence it’s not that complicated. When we give it a parallel example if a teacher went eat when the leaders looking at a teacher’s performance data the teacher says well I got 10 kids in that class who are on board and the other 20 they just sits on matter of fact is their fault. As leaders we’ve learned that it’s not politically correct or that’s not a part of our culture as education that’s we’ve shifted—Larry Lizotte, Ron Edmunds, All Children Can Learn—we’ve shifted from that kind of socially Darwinistic model. A person might think that but they would never say it. It doesn’t fit the climate of education today so if a teacher can’t say that well I have kids to do their homework who do every assignment I give them what’s wrong with the other twenty? Then why would a leader be excused from the same responsibility? Look at teachers who have not engaged like students who need intervention. If we believe all children can learn all adults can learn. They might not have learned at how you taught it because that’s where we identify for different needs there may be some needs that the ten had that you fulfilled but the other twenty may need something. Your goal is to get all thirty on board so it’s kind of hypocritical the hold teachers accountable for egalitarianism but then an administrator would act in a socially Darwinistic fashion in kind of a “my way or the highway” approach. So I would ask that leader have you analyzed that perhaps there are some needs that those teachers who are not on board have not committed that you haven’t met? Have you been clear in your explanation if you gave persuasive evidence that it’s a better way to go? have you considered maybe you’re the fifth teacher in three years maybe it’s trust maybe it’s capacity maybe it’s none of those things and it’s just challenging your authority and at some points, you may have to use your authority but ultimately everybody has to hit that target. when that paradigm shift is made it’s not about whether it’s possible it’s what do I need to do to get there.

JB: I think that’s such a powerful parallel to see you know that we expect teachers to take responsibility for student learning and not to say well half of them got it the other ones are turkeys and it’s their fault and I think that’s tricky for us because Trust is always like the air we breathe in any of these conversations and that is the second investment so Trust what was the percentage behind trust you said 70% cognitive investment once the 20 percent behind establishing trust so after we communicate the rationale just going through the book here making that emotional investment and one of the things that occurred to me as you were making your opening remarks, Dr. Muhammed was the possibility that for some principals it’s not anything that they have done to damaged trust personally it could be about the turnover context. you know And I think like when I came in as a principal the previous principal had been there for seven or eight years very well-liked very well did and because of that you know stability I think enjoyed a pretty high degree of trust and coming in as the new principal I knew I would have to establish my own reputation and earn that same level of trust and I knew that that would take time. Help us think about what could vary from school to school with different trust scenarios so like if I look at the group of principals that I supervise and I say you know they all seem pretty trustworthy they’re all very reliable people they are people who stick to their word you know they do what they say they’re going to do they are trustworthy help us understand the context that we might not be paying attention to with

AM: Great question when it comes to trust often if you’re a new you’re really inheriting issues that you didn’t create you may be very collaborative the last leader might have been autocratic. The last leader may have been very decisive and directive and you’re more about building consensus. So any leader walking into a situation as to recognize that there’s a context that he or she is going in to. And that’s something that before I would take any new position I would have to understand the cultural context that I was inheriting because that’s going to be very important in the moves that I made to what decisions do I make.

So Dr. Cruz and I like to describe kind of when it comes to trust when it becomes a new leader there’s really three ways to describe three different situations a new leader is either an adoptive parent a foster parent or babysitter. If you’re a babysitter people view you as a temporary surrogate in a long line of temporary surrogates. So babysitters don’t get a lot of respect they have an established date they’re there for a short period of time or that’s the perception and so if I’m the seventh principal in five years they see me as the next babysitter. So before they can take me serious I’m to get through that period I have to understand that’s where they’re coming from that’s how they see me.

I could be a foster and I kind of moved from temporary home it’s not it’s not for an evening it may be for a couple months it may be for a year, but when a person if you looking into the research and foster parents it’s difficult for both the foster parent and the child to get attached because their connection is is volatile you don’t know if they’re gonna be moved, adopted, a relative might take them so there’s a reluctance to deeply engage you’ve got to recognize that. Or kind of like you’re so you’re the new adopted parent they lost the old parent did they had some stability but something happened and they’re looking for somebody to be the head of household. But you have to recognize there’s gonna be an attachment to the old parent throughout the past or it’s gone on and you’re taking over. So understanding that context becomes very important. If you’re seen as a babysitter and you know you mean you got to recognize that cut that bad situation so you got to know the context that you can hear it and the level of trust that needs to be built. When it comes to being an adoptive parent you got time not going anywhere. So but if you strike in and it’s just a very short period of time you got to establish trust relatively quickly at least enough to get the job done.

So we have high turnover I believe the last data was 3.1 years is the average tenure of a principal in one building. And in urban areas and in rural communities that turnover is much greater. People got to know when you’re walking in what are you gonna be? Are you a babysitter? Are you a foster parent? Or you the new parent? And that’s gonna guide how you behave when you inherited school.

JB: I love that metaphor I think that’s so powerful because the expectation of how long are we going to have together really really does make a big difference. And as a foster parent who recently said you know said goodbye to a child who went to live with family, I definitely feel that yeah the reality of that.

And so thinking about a district that has a school that maybe has had a lot of turnover, a lot of damage to the trust that teachers place in their administrators because they know their administrators probably are not going to stick around long. I feel like there’s a tendency to reward you know your most capable leaders with kind of the easiest assignments and you know the flip side of that I mean obviously we want everybody to be successful but the flip side of that is typically there are school—there’s kind of an 80/20 to it within every organization right there are schools that are stable for decades you know they’ll have the same principal for 14 years and there are schools that have a new principal every year every two years every three years and you’ve got teachers who’ve been there thirty and they’ve just seen the revolving door. What can assistant superintendents, directors, superintendents, who are responsible for placing principals and you know to whatever degree people move around the district responsible for overseeing those decisions do to kind of rebuild that trust? I think you give a specific example in the book of a school that has had that kind of revolving door and really say like that you know that issue has to be solved almost before anything else like if we have 40% turnover we can’t fix anything until we fix that. So what can district leaders do?

AM: Recognize their responsibility in placing the right leader in the right school it’s one of the most important decisions the essential administrator will make is picking that person of people for the to lead those particular buildings their cut relationship and their link is going to be essential so if I know that this is a school to see at high turnover why wouldn’t I adjust my hiring process why wouldn’t make that a consideration in looking at résumés that if I have a person I want to interview but they have a great transcript but they move jobs every two to three years and that’s not what this school needs and that’s that person’s pattern I’m really I mean the culpability of central office I just don’t believe it’s been addressed enough. A lot of the messes that are made at the campus level are made by poor central decisions where there’s no accountability and no responsibility. So if I’m responsible for placing stable leaders in all of my district’s schools a lot of that falls on me. I have to assess their needs.

If this is a building where teachers are relatively self-directed they’re strong instructional leaders they highly collaborative then the seriousness of having a person that’s competed for eight to ten years is not as important, because those teachers are going to be strong anyway but a building—I was just recently had a conference call with a district that wanted me to come and do some in-depth cultural work. And it’s what they said—we have one title one school in the district and the poverty level there is really really high we like free to come fix our call the culture there here’s the issue. They had a principal who went on stress leave because he couldn’t handle the building he had and he came back and they assigned him to the media schooling the district they have severe reading issues so they purchased a very expensive reading protocol with training and halfway through the year realized it wasn’t the right system so they pulled it after the teachers make all of those investments.

Somehow some of the students with the biggest and most of most severe disabilities end up being placed at that school they have the highest turnover. I said sounds like they don’t have a culture problem . It sounds like they have a bad central office decision problem every single problem you gave comes right back to your decision.

So when it comes to hiring people district office has to be much more methodical and take responsibility for putting the right person or people in the right situations. Turnover doesn’t have to be this issue that we accept. We can be more proactive than that, be more open and transparent. Listen we’re looking for somebody was finally making five to seven-year commitment. Is that a commitment you’re willing to make? because I can’t place somebody in the school because they really needed that when the next good offer comes along you’re gonna take it where you’re gonna run when things get rough that should be a part of the interview process. You should ask questions about resilience longevity if that’s an issue that’s just a byproduct of poor leadership.

JB: Yeah I’m thinking about some schools that I saw kind of have a little bit of a revolving door in Seattle. You know some schools that really struggled over a period of decades to retain staff and to have a positive upward trend. I think there definitely were some you know some good decisions made in that regard to really identify people who had been in one position for a long time had been successful and then ask them to not come in in one year and replicate the success of their other building in a very different context, but to bring that same level of maturity and level of commitment to the long haul and really having a conversation that that involves discussing multiple years.

And professor Kenneth Hayes is asking you know what about multi-year contracts? Why is this not a tool that we’re using? And kind of feel free to jump in here happy to have you come on camera and ask some follow-ups here. But this is something that I see international schools using.

So at The Principal Center, we have a fair representation among Americans or English-speaking international schools that you know if you are in Myanmar or Bulgaria and you have an English-speaking school you need Brits Americans Australia you know you need people who are native English speakers to run the school—it is difficult to attract people to various regions around the world so one of the things that they do is they say this is not a one-year contract this is a three-year contract or they’ll say this is a two-year contract but you get an extra 25 grand if you stay for a third you know things like that that actually incentivize people and set the expectation that this is something that you know like the trust the stability the long-term trajectory is something that we believe in strongly enough to actually invest in it to hire for it and to make it almost our number one priority.

AM: And we do that with superintendents all the time.


AM: So it’s not as if it’s a foreign concept to us we just don’t use that same tool when it comes to principals which have a much higher leverage on increasing student achievement so absolutely I would totally be in favor of that. And perhaps we wouldn’t incentivize people to leave the position because really good principals get incentivized to leave the to go just because they make more money so why not it’s just a matter of distribution of resources why not place more resources in hiring really effective people who are gonna be stable in long term in a high leverage position it just makes sense.

JB: Yeah absolutely and I think sometimes we’ve got to have that conversation with our bargaining units with you know with the principal’s association if there is one. And I was part of a principal’s association not that was especially you know unionist in the traditional sense but one that you know did have a seat at the table and I think helped make professional decisions. But I think one of the things that were maybe hinting at here is that there can be you know even though money is probably not the main thing there can be you know some flexibility there. And certainly, I would say not all jobs are equal even if they have the same title you know there are jobs where you’re just on 47 committees and in another school, you might be on 12 and those jobs are just not the same and I think we’ve got to recognize that.

And you know and the money thing also comes in when we realize that in almost every geographic area there’s going to be another district that pays more alright I think everybody has that problem right that you know there’s another district that pays more you know those jerks two counties over that constantly stealing our people.

AM: but you want to hire people who are committed to your direction and our meeting a need that you have the need to just fill a position has to come second to putting the right person in that position. And I said it’s all situational. If you have a staff for the veterans but very student-centered highly engaged they have great practice the need for having a long term principal to build stability might not be as important but in a very high-risk area that’s had a lot of turnover and Trust is low turnover which is it’s really an issue that undermines trust. people are pessimistic. if I’m in a relationship and I’m in my fifth relationship in two years and the same pattern has emerged I get attached and the person leaves we’re human so the second skill is really about recognizing and honoring the humanity of a professional. it’s not just our knowledge base it’s not just a skill it’s not just policy people want there’s some human needs of people at and you got to know that you’re a good person you care about me just because I may struggle a certain aspect of teacher bit of teaching doesn’t mean I don’t have to right to my humanity. I may stink at differentiation but I’m still a person I need to know that Justin even if I disappoint you my humanity is not up for negotiation. and I got to know that you’re a person that I can relax and trust your vision trust your leadership and your stability and your reliability that you’re going to take us what you say you’re going to take us. that’s what we talked about with trust those are really the two basic components. If you don’t recognize the impact of certain decisions I have on these human part of the professional then you’re naive.

JB: What I think that that understanding that people are human. It sounds obvious when we say it right but what I’ve seen happen in hiring is that there there’s an expectation that the person who’s being brought in to fix the situation is some sort of superhero and I think that’s especially the case when we don’t that person and we’re bringing them in from the outside, they have this great résumé, they have these great you know letters of recommendation we place almost a superhuman burden on them so I think part of like recognizing the humanity of people is recognizing that nobody is truly superhuman and if we have those superhuman expectations—the support the resources the patience that that person is going to need to succeed are probably not going to be there and that is on us as district leaders. So with respect to that kind of superhuman expectation and kind of bringing that down and saying okay this is this is a person. Kenneth is saying in the comments here, how do we make sure that we are supporting people adequately who have been put into that difficult leadership role? So a lot of turnover low-performance building trust is going to be an uphill battle. We’ve secured this individuals commitment to stick with the school for five to seven years. How do we make sure that that we’re balancing the the urgency to bring about change? This person is not just gonna coast they’re not just gonna you know avoid stepping on toes we want to see those investments yield results. How do we support that person in developing the new skills?

Because I’m thinking about the different high schools especially in my district you know you have some high schools that are just you know everybody it knows every you know every everything is very stable everybody knows what to do nothing has really changed in a very long time so it’s easy to come in as a principal and look like you’re a super high performer. You move that person to another school where everything is in flux there’s a lot of staff turnover there is a lot of programmatic turnover where we’re trying new approaches every year, different consultants are coming in, and the skill set you know you’ve got the same person the same character but the skill set that’s required may be very very different in that school. What do we do as district leaders to be both patient and helpful to that person in developing those those different skills that are needed in that different context?

AM: What’s really ironic is that shift is right to skill number three which is professional support. People can’t do what they don’t know. So if I place you in a position where I’m asking you to perform I’m asking you to influence better performance than I have an obligation to feed you professionally to be able develop that skill set. So if we go back to trust if a schools issue is trust and you need stability, I’d rather hire somebody who is less skilled but more trustworthy and then build their skill. If you’re looking for a certain skill set that you want to develop then there’s an obligation as a leader that I have to give you that. Let’s scale it down to teachers they have administrators a lot of times talk about you got to build better relationships with kids as if by simply saying it they know how to do it. That to me triggers an investment I need to make if I’m a principal to teach teachers how to develop better relationships because if they knew how to do it the assumption is they would do it. Albert Einstein said you can’t solve a problem at the same level of intellect that caused the problem.

So whenever a person that might have been adequate in one setting without another, if I’m that person’s leader I’m asking what type of support professionally would it be a cohort or critical friends group among principals to study and grow professionally on certain issues? Would I address it with all of the administrators to emphasize district-wide problems or certain cohorts? Peter Senge hit it on the head—learning organizations are the organizations that are going to be learning is the new currency of the 21st-century organization. The organization has ability to learn and to grow and evolve is going to be the organization that stays viable. So in the PLC professional learning community concept the learning community piece it always been around they’ve been around for a long time. But Rick Dufour and Bob Baker really emphasized the professional part. And a professional’s personal goals to rite-of-passage to enter a field that is also expected to evolve in that knowledge base while they’re practicing.

So whoever you hire that’s not the end that’s the person who walked in the door. Once they walk into the door, if I was that person’s supervisor I would ask what do I need to develop? My former school was 98 percent African-American my staff was split by about 40 percent African-American 60% Caucasian and my staff really struggled with understanding responding to my students’ culture. It had nothing to do it to race to the teacher it was understanding the culture of our students when the best investments we ever made were deep training and culturally responsive teaching. Our teachers understood the route of Black English or Ebonics. They understood some of the psychological and social-emotional issues of culture, how to integrate and how to build bridges to mastery of the curriculum and content. They weren’t bad people they just didn’t know what to do. So simply telling them to be culturally responsive, without teaching him how to be culturally responsive, is a recipe for disaster. So whatever you want to see in a subordinate that’s where skill number three comes in. Have you made the adequate professional investment? Because they may be resisting because they just don’t know how to do what you’re asking them to do.

JB: Yeah and that’s a really interesting one because I think the percentages that you gave me on the podcast like 70 percent understanding what you want me to do. 20 percent the trust and the relationship and what was it for the capacity building, 80 percent? You know I think we might make the mistake of thinking that the clarity is about 10% and the how to do it the capacity is about 80 percent you know like that would be my intuition that it’s much more about the how and basically I just need to make a decision to explain its people and then send them training and we’re good to go. But you have it almost completely the other way around that it’s it’s much more about understanding the rationale and the nature of the change having the trust to you know to see that through but then the capacity building being a smaller piece a little bit.

AM: I want to clarify a little bit. That was for their willingness to engage. About 8% of those that we in our assessment were reluctant simply because they didn’t know how to do it. Some of those who committed with communication they didn’t know either but they committed because it’s it the logic of it engaged them. About 8 percent of those that we interview said you know what I’m kind of uneasy about taking this risk in practice because I’m not confident I can do was about 8 percent. That didn’t mean that everybody didn’t need training, but for about 8 percent the lack of understanding of how to perform that task prevented them from engaging. Once the task becomes clearer and they get a little bit more comfortable with their professional capacity, that becomes the bridge that gets them engaged.

JB: Okay so you have some people who will say “Yes let’s do it, we’ll figure it out” and you have other people who will wait and say, “I’m not gonna say yes until I figured it out—until I know how to do it and have that confidence in myself.” Okay I appreciate that clarification.

And you know and I see that with my own kids sometimes. They’ll say you know. “Oh no, I can’t do that.” I’ll say, “Yeah you can” And they’ll say, “No I can’t do it.” I say, “all right, well I’m gonna make you do it. And then you’re gonna see that you can do it.”

AM: And when they do it they get more confident. They might decide hey, this is not so bad. So recognize that they’re not bad people they just need some confidence in the capacity to be effective because that may make them kind of risk-averse because they kind of anticipate they’re not gonna do it well.

JB: Yeah and I appreciate you saying like that they’re not bad people because I think that’s a point that like it’s when we encounter resistance as leaders. It’s hard not to take that personally and it’s hard to separate the different reasons that people have resistance. And I think that’s why your framework is so powerful because it not only distinguishes between those reasons but it solves them, right? Like when we get the rationality cognitive investment first the relational investment second and then the how the functional investment third you know a lot of those issues kind of go away and I think the model—I’m gonna grab I’m gonna reach over here and grab a book—Diffusion of Innovations is a book that I cite quite a bit in our Organizational Learning Intensive when we talk about people’s different readiness for change.

Everett Rogers—this book is like 50 years old and you know he has the kind of bell curve of people’s adopter category. You know some people are innovators they’re always going after new ideas. They don’t need anybody’s permission. They’ll do it even if you tell them not to. You have other people who kind of follow in their footsteps and are eager to try new things as soon as they look promising, you know, like flipped classroom. You think about the first people who flipped their classroom a few years ago and get on board with that. And then the two biggest groups in the middle—you’ve got the early majority and the late majority which are each 34% of your population. So you know again kind of a bell curve distribution.

Typically I think we think we do most of our thinking and planning for professional development around that center group—the early majority and the late majority—but they’re different from one another their needs are different from one another and the pace or the order in which they adopt a change is different. And I think the lumping of everyone together is just kind of either on board or resistant it’s one of those things that keeps us from really understanding what’s going on in the change process and why people are resisting. But let’s let’s talk about that group that’s left. When we’ve done everything right when we have you know made the case, we’ve built the trust, we have built a capacity what’s left when we’ve done all of that and still we feel like we have some pushback— some people who are not on board?

AM: That’s the simple power struggle there’s no rational reason for not engaging. The brutal facts have been provided we’ve vetted the different methods of theories of what’s best. It’s not as if so yet got that through persuasion yeah here’s our problem intellectually this is the best proposal. We’ve addressed past emotional wounds we’ve built some consensus I’ve modeled for you we provided you with resources and training and practice. All that’s left is for some reason it may redefine how I view myself or my job to relinquish a level of autonomy or to cooperate, I might lose some personal definition. So it’s not a logical resistance it is you just can’t make me.

And there are some people who are like that. There’s a book called Inside Teaching by Mary Kennedy who studied some schools where people actually look forward to the recognition of almost sticking it to the man at all costs and just protesting no matter what it is because that’s how they become defined. So when that happens this is the test of the leaders resolve. And they often people use unions as an excuse. Well I’ve never read a contract that allows for insubordination and incompetence, but there’s a process you have to follow. Follow the process.

And personally and my skill set that fourth one is the easiest for me. Help me understand why and if you can’t give me a plausible explanation that I can assist you with but at this point I’m not asking you I’m demanding. And these are the parameters that I’m gonna use to it to assess your accountability. I want notes from this, I want to report on that, you need to be here at this time I will be checking on this. Put it in writing if it’s not done letter of reprimand follow that’s just insubordination. And often these tools aren’t used because of the fear that person may slander you. If they are they slanting you anyway that they may not be pleasant they’re probably pleasant now anyway this really in test the resolve of are you serious about improving the conditions for children or being protected and beloved and building consensus about invalidating you as a person. That’s why I believe being self-actualized is very important to go into school leadership because you can’t use your work environment as a way to plug in some insecurities you have. You have to be very securing yourself and sometimes you make you have to do something that for some people are not popular. And I love how Dr. Cruz described that last group he calls him CAVE people: Colleagues Against Virtually Everything. JB: CAVE people? Colleagues Against Virtually Everything I love it.

AM: Yeah so there’s some environments they don’t exist you might be able to be open in that case I like to use it’s that old Sesame Street skit, one of these kids is doing his own thing. When that one or two people become such deep outliers and another sign is the colleagues start to come to you and say that somebody needs to do something about Anthony, somebody needs to do something about Justin. When there is a public outcry or consensus but this person is an outlier that’s a clear sign that they’ve lost their political clout. Their colleagues find them disruptive and annoying in it they know that the only thing that works is in your possession which is your because they’ve tried to persuade, they’ve tried to encourage so they’re really looking you and if you don’t take advantage of that if you don’t what you’ve just said to everybody else who cooperated is that better practice as a suggestion. And as soon as I don’t want to respond to that suggestion I don’t have to. It’s a very dangerous precedent.

And I want to just kind of say this I have some colleagues of mine who I really really admire who written things as if you never get everybody or ignore the people who are not with you. Good luck with that because there’s a political aspect of school culture the separation from the formal and informal culture and if that person’s behavior is not dealt with and their clear outline there is I can guarantee you a very strong level of informal toxicity that’s eroding the foundation of what you’re trying to build. Sun Tzu is famous for saying in the Art of War when you have your enemy surrounded give them a clear exit route because the person that feels captive will reorganize and come back against you.

JB: Hmm give them exit, wow. So I think often we’re hesitant to use that skill set with that small number of people because we’ve seen it used with too broad a number of people. We’ve seen leaders who are ineffective because they don’t make those first three investments, they go straight for the withdrawal and they say “It’s my way or the highway. I’m the boss,” and they treat a large number of people as if they’re insubordinate. When really it’s you know it’s understanding, it’s trust, it’s something else. And you know it’s one that I think many leaders don’t really have much opportunity to develop because most of the time we’re not dealing with those people.

What’s your estimate of what percentage of people are we talking about here who really will respond to nothing but eventually that accountability? And how are they distributed because I accept you like some schools drive out those people some schools kind of collect those people.

AM: It’s not going to be the same in every school, but in our sample that was about 2 percent. Just totally illogical there are some people like that. Are they abundant from our sample? no. But they exist so I asked leaders to focus on the behavior if they’re resistant it has to be some reason and my goal is to try to build consensus. And once we know our necessary needs are met then you can conclude that those that did not respond to those because you would see some evidence of growth and consensus. Most people might start off somewhat reluctant you get 90 95 98 percent on board, you’re pretty confident in saying this small group or this person is a clear outlier. Something’s off because everybody else gets it like this in a way we address it is by gathering evidence on implementation. That’s how they get identified. So it’s not about walking around brooding as if we’ve committed to collaboration, but I consistently get evidence from your team logs you’re always late or you’re not contributing but the rest of your team is. That becomes the foundation of our dialogue because the accountability is an important leadership skill in general. It’s only an effective change tool for those who are not engaged. A person who’s already doing it, I don’t mind accountability, if you want as an instructional leader some exemplars from some of our formative assessments over the course of the week or the month why would I mind that? Because I’m all already doing it. You’ll gain the attention of those who aren’t and that becomes a talking point. If the expectation is that you’re going to engage and you’re not it couldn’t be because you don’t know why. Couldn’t be that you don’t know how. Couldn’t be that we don’t haven’t developed a trusting relationship that’s when you can conclude I’m not asking you here’s what’s demanded.

So you let the gathering of evidence on the implementation process guide you to those people well most people. it’s not a it’s not it’s not a change tool they’re already engaged they don’t mind accountability it’s effective for those who are the over my dead body people.

JB: the CAVE people I love that so that that really is what I love about this book just the sequencing there that we cover our bases and we cover them in order and and make sure that we’ve we’ve solved problem a move-on problem B. And only use accountability for the people that specifically need that tool to make the change do you need to run right now or do you have a minute for any additional questions.

AM: I can take one or two more and just okay as we went as I talked about my leadership journey early um trial and error making some mistakes that book is the book that I really wrote to myself that I wish I had when I started. Because I made almost every mistake in that book I made them. I was blessed to be able to recover that people were patient enough with me in 2005 I was a state of Michigan principal the year but there was a whole lot of non-principal-of-the-year years I had before then. So I think we have an obligation people like you and I will publish our thought leaders to really save people from making mistakes. The field has to evolve and that book is the book I wish I have, it’s the book I wrote to myself that I wish I had when I started so like to encourage anybody listening if you’re struggling with people who are trying to figure it out, dr. Cruz and I put that book together like a manual. And if they would read it and just apply what’s in it we guarantee you they’re gonna have a big gonna be more effective you’d have an easier time with the transition to building consensus and you can save a lot of headaches.

JB: Absolutely. All right so to all of our participants today Aisha, Louanne, Chad, Dana, Jamal, Rachel, Sarah—anybody who would like to hop on webcam and ask a question, feel free to do so. Just let me know in the chat and I’ll add you on here. And I’ll just say as we’re giving people a chance to do that and kind of wrapping up here—the way that we identify topics for our roundtable video conferences here—so this is our group of you know senior building leaders as well as the district leaders who supervise principals—the way we identify topics for these video conferences is often I will go back and listen to our principal center radio interviews if I find myself saying this one’s really good like this book you know I need to go back and reread this book and go through it and underline. and I’ve I have torn up the pages with underlining and you know I read with a pen and I’m shredding this one pretty quickly here.

So Dr. Muhammed I just have to really hand it to you for the practicality, the research. I mean this is a book that has a substantial dissertation length references and resources section and I really just appreciate the grounding in the research on change and psychology and understanding what people are going through and experience a change.

So before we take any other questions I just want to say thank you so much for writing this book. Thank you for coming on the podcast to share it with our broader audiences thank you for going deep today with our group of senior leaders who are overseeing this work I just very much appreciate the work that you do and the the the time that you’ve given us today. If people want to get in touch with you talk about some of the on-site works, I know part of the capacity-building for leaders is around these skill sets. People want to talk to you about working with you more directly on building some of those leadership skill sets. where is the best place for people to contact you personally? on my website is It has articles, services there’s a link for contact us. That email link comes directly to me. So my website is kind of the 24-hour one-stop shopping any ticketed events I’m speaking at with solution trees my partner those links there. but to contact me directly new frontier 21 calm. fabulous alright. Everyone have a wonderful day have a great weekend and thanks so much for being here take care


About Anthony Muhammad

Anthony Muhammad, PhD, is an internationally known educational consultant, a former middle and high school principal, and the author of numerous books, including Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division.

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Roundtable: Jennifer Abrams — Having Hard Conversations


About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is an international educational and communications consultant for public and independent schools, hospitals, universities and non-profits. Jennifer trains and coaches teachers, administrators, and others on new employee support, supervision, being generationally savvy, having hard conversations and collaboration skills.

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Roundtable: Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey — PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design


About Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey

Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey are professors at San Diego State University and co-founders of Health Sciences High & Middle College, where their co-author Dominique Smith is Chief of Educational Services and Teacher Support.


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Marshall Memo #796—July 29, 2019

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“You are going to have to make some tough decisions in this business, but it’s all about how you treat people. I can bring you in and give you a reprimand, but it’s how I give you the reprimand.”

            Kevin Armstrong in “Advice for New Principals,” interviews with Denisa Superville

            in Education Week, July 17, 2019 (Vol. 38, #37, p. 7),

“Getting students to explain, argue with one another, critique, and build on ideas is a long game that requires a willingness for teachers to experiment pedagogically and, in the process, set aside familiar classroom tasks that have no real purpose other than to do school.”

            Mark Windschitl (see item #4)

“As a group, consumers [of news] are terrible editors. Many are poorly informed, inaccurate, biased, manipulable, sloppy, impulsive, or self-serving. And even though some are not, the bad can quickly drive away the good.”

            Jonathan Rauch (see item #1)

“What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized – including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?”

            Natalie Wexler (see item #3)

1. Introducing “Friction” Into Digital Communication

            In this article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch says that communication on the Internet thrives on “instanticity” – the ability to get and send information with zero delay. At first, this seemed like a good thing: faster was better, “slowness was a vestige of a bygone age, a technological hurdle to be overcome,” says Rauch. However, he adds, “Slowness is a social technology in its own right, one that protects humans from themselves.” While instanticity has enabled disinformation and other unintended consequences, there’s something to be said for introducing more “friction” into our electronic interactions, designing in features that require deliberation, especially in the heat of the moment.

            Take the news. It seemed that we were moving away from traditional newspapers and magazines toward real-time, on-the-scene reporting streaming straight to personal devices, with citizens curating their news feeds and experts weighing in without being filtered by journalists and editors. “But the old media’s premises turned out to be anything but obsolete,” says Rauch. “As a group, consumers are terrible editors. Many are poorly informed, inaccurate, biased, manipulable, sloppy, impulsive, or self-serving. And even though some are not, the bad can quickly drive away the good.”

            So how can all this be slowed down? Rauch suggests building in pauses before electronic communications go out. With a tweet or a YouTube video, for example, there could be a ten-minute pause before transmission, during which time the sender might have second thoughts, an artificial intelligence fact-check might arrive, or there might be a prompt like, Are you sure you’re ready to share this with the world? Remember, it will be out there forever. Even if there were no checking or vetting, says Rauch, “the waiting period itself would offer an important advantage. It would allow thought.”

            As Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans have two cognitive systems: System 1 makes snap judgments about dangers and opportunities and works without conscious thought, sometimes saving our lives. But it’s often wrong, biased, and emotional; it underreacts and overreacts. System 2 is slower, gathering facts, consulting evidence, weighing arguments, and making reasoned judgments. “It protects us from the errors and impulsivity of System 1,” says Rauch. The more-deliberate pace of System 2 is the way we often live our offline lives: waiting our turn to speak in a classroom, sitting in rush-hour traffic, going through the steps required to get married or divorced.

            “[B]ack in the day, before instanticity, technology itself slowed us down,” Rauch continues. “Printing and distributing words required several distinct stages and often multiple people; even a trip to the mailbox or a wait for the mail carrier afforded time for second thoughts… On social media, no publisher or postal worker forces a pause.”

            Rauch concedes that social media companies might resist building in pauses, and customers might abandon platforms with such limits. But he thinks many people would welcome the idea. “Slowing ourselves down gives time for System 2 to kick in… Rethinking instanticity would help us put our better selves forward, perhaps often enough to make social media more sociable.”

“Wait a Minute” by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic, August 2019 (Vol. 324, #2, pp. 18-19),

2. Thoughts on Giving Feedback

            In this Harvard Business Review article, Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley (Center for Creative Leadership) take issue with some of the points made in a recent HBR article on feedback (“The Feedback Fallacy” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, summarized in Memo 776). Chappelow and McCauley agree that:

–  Harsh feedback doesn’t help people thrive and excel.

–  Positive feedback is critical for learning.

–  Telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach.

But they disagree in other areas and make the following points:

  • Hearing the truth in other’s comments– “Feedback is never purely objective since it is delivered from a human being with a unique perspective,” say Chappelow and McCauley. Even so, it’s important to tune in on feedback that others are giving you. After all, they’re making decisions about whom to listen to, cooperate with, trust, and support based on their perceptions of you.
  • Feedback about weaknesses– Potentially devastating events – having a horrible boss, making a serious mistake, being demoted, firing an employee – can be key drivers for improvement.
  • Understanding weaknesses– “Our work has shown that ignoring one’s weaknesses is one of the greatest contributors to individual derailment in organizations,” say Chappelow and McCauley. One unacknowledged and unaddressed flaw – for example, arrogance, inability to build a team, or difficulty adapting to a new environment – can lead to failure.
  • Getting better at the right things– One researcher found that otherwise competent leaders have often not developed in these areas: inspiring commitment, leading colleagues, strategic planning, and change management. “When you focus only on strengths,” say Chappelow and McCauley, “you lull people into believing there are no areas in which they need to improve.”
  • Giving critical feedback– The authors espouse the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach to address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional, and caring way:

–  The time and place where a behavior occurred;

–  Specifically what the behavior was: what was seen and heard;

–  The impact the behavior had on the feedback provider: thoughts, feelings, actions.

Here’s an example: “In our staff meeting this morning when we were discussing strategies for funding a new initiative, you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, ‘That idea will never work,’ before she had a chance to finish. This left me feeling disappointed I didn’t get to hear more from her, and I was intimidated about sharing my ideas with the group.” Note how it wasn’t judgmental (“You were wrong to interrupt”), not generalized (“You are always interrupting people”), and didn’t infer reasons (“Do you have no respect for other people’s ideas?”). All this makes it more likely that the person will hear and act on the feedback.

“What Good Feedback Really Looks Like” by Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley in Harvard Business Review, May 13, 2019,

3. Background Knowledge as the Key to Reading Proficiency

            In this article in The Atlantic, Natalie Wexler describes looking over a first grader’s shoulder in a Washington, D.C. classroom and noticing that the girl was drawing a row of human figures on a piece of paper and coloring them yellow. “What are you drawing?” asked Wexler. “Clowns,” the girl replied. “Why are you drawing clowns?” “Because it says right here, ‘Draw clowns,’” said the girl and pointed to the place on her worksheet of reading comprehension skills where it said Draw conclusions. Wexler picked up the worksheet and saw that it asked students to make inferences and draw conclusions about an article on Brazil – but when asked, the girl said she hadn’t read the text and had never heard of Brazil.

            This was an admittedly “egregious” example of a failed pedagogical approach to reading comprehension, says Wexler. The theory of action goes like this: “Use simple texts to teach children how to find the main idea, make inferences, draw conclusions, and so on, and eventually they’ll be able to apply those skills to grasp the meaning of anything put in front of them.” Therefore, what children read about doesn’t matter; the reading skills they acquire will enable them to pick up history, science, literary, and other content knowledge down the road.

This approach is dominant in U.S. classrooms, reports Wexler. Most teachers cover a “skill of the week” in their 90-minute daily reading blocks. They use textbooks adopted by their districts or gather their own books and forage for resources on the Internet. (According to a recent Rand study, 95 percent of elementary teachers use Google for materials and lesson plans, 86 percent use Pinterest.) Following the prevailing philosophy, the curriculum doesn’t systematically introduce content knowledge, focusing instead on a lot of fiction geared to students’ current reading levels, which are often below grade level. Again, the assumption is that by reading a lot and honing specific skills, students will eventually be able to handle more-complex texts.

Perversely, says Wexler, Common Core literacy standards have made “a bad situation worse.” The authors had the right idea: expand elementary children’s content knowledge by exposing them to more-complex texts and a higher percent of nonfiction texts. But in the absence of a curriculum that systematically introduces content knowledge in science, social studies, and other areas, the result has been many students struggling to read challenging, decontextualized texts without the background knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of them.

            Wexler believes the skills-first approach is ineffective, as evidenced by the fact that U.S. students’ reading achievement has hardly budged since No Child Left Behind. That legislation’s heavy emphasis on reading and math test scores led many schools to double down on the skills-first approach, cutting back the time spent on science and social studies (and in some cases recess) to beef up reading. And there’s more bad news: economic and racial achievement gaps have widened. Why? Because children from economically disadvantaged homes enter school with less background knowledge, and when schools don’t teach it, students fall further and further behind. One more thing: the U.S.’s international academic standing has declined relative to high-performing countries.

“All of which raises a disturbing question,” says Wexler: “What if the medicine we have been prescribing is only making matters worse, particularly for poor children? What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized – including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?” Studies going back to the late 1980s have shown that content knowledge trumps reading skills. For example, lower-skill students who know a lot about baseball do better with a reading passage about baseball than higher-skills students who know very little.

The good news is that some districts (including Baltimore and Detroit) and charter schools have adopted a knowledge-first approach, and the anecdotal evidence is encouraging. Teachers interviewed by Wexler reported much greater enthusiasm among students for knowledge-based books and texts, especially students who had been struggling readers. But since knowledge builds slowly as students move up through the grades, it will be years before there is gold-standard research proof of the concept.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., the leader of one of these curriculum efforts (Core Knowledge), cites an intriguing natural experiment in France. For many years, French schools had a heavy emphasis on knowledge acquisition, but in 1989, the central education ministry adopted the American approach, with an emphasis on critical thinking skills and “learning to learn.” The results have been dramatic, says Wexler. “Over the next 20 years, achievement levels decreased sharply for all students – and the drop was greatest among the neediest.”

“The Radical Case for Teaching Kids Stuff” by Natalie Wexler in The Atlantic, August 2019 (Vol. 324, #2, pp. 20-23),; see Marshall Memo 130 for an early article by E.D. Hirsch Jr. on the importance of content knowledge.

4. Elevating the Quality of Discourse in High-School Classrooms

            In this Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy article, Mark Windschitl (University of Washington) suggests strategies for getting away from the dreary script of “doing school” – teacher-controlled classes in which students perfunctorily cover the curriculum, respond to right-answer questions, copy lecture notes, daydream, and passively watch a few students engage in a discussion with the teacher. “This frame and its routines do not vary much across the educational landscape,” says Windschitl, “yet they remain largely invisible to the teachers and students who reinforce them daily.” The unspoken expectation is on the “consumption of knowledge… students acquiring ideas and information generated by others at the expense of learning how to use these resources, along with one’s own ideas and experiences, to produce knowledge…” Doing school “treats learning as a process that happens only between the ears of students who think and wonder in relative isolation from peers.”

            How can teachers break free of this dynamic, support academically productive discussions, and prepare all students to think independently and creatively? Working with high-school science teachers for more than a decade, Windschitl and his colleagues have concluded that there are four ways to improve what they call the “conversational infrastructure”:

  • Goal-oriented talk routines – recurring activities that elevate the level of discourse (for example, an entry task that gets students doing quick research with classmates);
  • Norms for intellectual risk-taking and equity – respecting others, equitable participation, and accountability to the scientific knowledge base (see examples below);
  • Strategic scaffolding – students can engage in intellectual work just beyond their current level of proficiency;
  • “Talk moves” – shared by teacher and students, these help deepen and extend conversations, for example, wait time, “Tell me more,” “What is your evidence?” “Do you agree with that?” “What if…?”

Here is a set of classroom talk norms, based on ideas presented by Chapin, O’Connor, and Anderson (2012) (quoted directly):

–  Preparation – We will come prepared for discussion by doing the readings and bringing notes, examples, and stories.

–  Responsible learners – We are responsible for our own learning. This means we speak, request clarification from others, ask others to repeat what they said, or signal agreement or confusion.

–  Pushing ourselves – We help one another think beyond the obvious, disagree with ideas, and draw out comments from classmates, and we are open to changing our minds.

–  Focus – Our comments and stories will stay on topic, and we have the right to explain how our contribution connects with the science.

–  Hearing from all – Everyone has the right to be heard.

–  Air time – Don’t dominate the conversation.

–  Time to think – The teacher will give think time before asking for our ideas.

–  Impulse control – Don’t interrupt or talk over classmates when they have the floor.

–  Fair critique – We, the students and teacher, can critique ideas of others, but personal attacks are out of bounds.

“The teachers we have worked with,” reports Windschitl, “have found that a well-coordinated repertoire of routines, scaffolds, norms, and talk moves will, at the very least, increase the chances that a wider range of students will feel more comfortable with participating in more relevant and rigorous talk more frequently.” Such classrooms have the following characteristics:

–  Students having authority to interpret texts and make and justify claims;

–  A focus on sense-making;

–  The production, use, and critique of knowledge by students;

–  A balance between attention to individual and collective learning.

Windschitl wraps up: “Getting students to explain, argue with one another, critique, and build on ideas is a long game that requires a willingness for teachers to experiment pedagogically and, in the process, set aside familiar classroom tasks that have no real purpose other than to do school.”

“Disciplinary Literacy Versus Doing School” by Mark Windschitl in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, July/August 2019 (Vol. 63, #1, pp. 7-13),;  Windschitl can be reached at

5. Increasing the Amount of “Mental Sweat” in Group Projects

(Originally titled No More Assembly-Line Projects”)

            In this article in Education Update, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Diane Lapp, and Javier Vaca say that when students do group projects, one person often ends up doing most of the work, and some students are left out as the group rushes to finish. The best way to prevent this, say the authors, is to design collaboration into the assignment up front and set up checkpoints so assessing quality isn’t all on the teacher’s shoulders at the end. Their suggestions:

–  Design tasks that address big-picture learning goals. A better question than “What is space junk?” would be, “How can we avoid creating more space junk?”

–  Have students tackle and get feedback on small tasks before launching a big project.

–  Establish timelines for individual and group completion of each phase.

–  Set up interim times for meeting with individuals and groups to monitor progress and provide feedback.

–  When the project is finished, have each group report on what individual students contributed. When students are polled on a public spreadsheet, say the authors, “It’s amazing how honest they are about what they did and did not do.”

–  When grading the final product, factor in individual and group assessments, and give each student two grades: on individual contributions and on the group product.

“No More Assembly-Line Projects” by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Diane Lapp, and Javier Vaca in Education Update, July 2019 (Vol. 61, #7, pp. 1),

6. What Would Be “Moonshot” Goals for U.S. Schools?

            In this Education Gadflyarticle, Michael Goldstein reflects on educational equivalents of the audacious goal set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 (putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bringing him back safely). Some possibilities: Cutting in half the number of fourth-graders reading Below Basic; doubling the number of eighth-graders who can write an effective persuasive essay; shrinking by 30 percent the average time a student spends in English-language learner status; doubling the number of students from low-income families and students of color who graduate from high school and don’t need to take remedial courses in college.

            Goldstein ends up considering some “developmental” moonshots – aspirational yet low-tech processes that teachers might be able to implement in their classrooms, with major benefits for educators and students. Some examples:

–  If the baseline “joy factor” in a class is three out of ten, doubling that to six out of ten without harming achievement.

–  Reducing a teacher’s 60-hour week to 50 hours without harming achievement or student ratings.

–  Finding ways to “flip” a disenchanted third grader into the most helpful, thriving student in the class.

–  Developing the skill to have a brutally honest conversation with a parent about an academically weak student (similar to a doctor’s talk with an ailing patient) that results in spurring improvements in the child’s short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes.

“Musings on the Moonshots” by Michael Goldstein in The Education Gadfly, July 17, 2019 (Vol. 19, #28),

7. Can Speech-Recognition Apps Improve Struggling Students’ Writing?

            In this article in Language Arts, Betsy Baker (University of Missouri/Columbia) says that as a second-grade teacher, she was a big fan of the language experience approach; she took dictation of students’ stories and this motivated them to express themselves and share their personal experiences and linguistic and cultural heritage. As speech-recognition apps became more accurate, Baker wondered if they might take the place of the teacher transcribing students’ writing, saving time and motivating students.

In this article, she describes serving as a teacher’s aide in charge of the writing center in a first-grade classroom of 22 students in a diverse Title I school. From January to May, Baker experimented with using speech-recognition apps (Siri and Dragon on students’ iPads) to develop students’ writing skills, spending the most time with students who were having difficulty. She launched the initiative using the following steps:

–  Baker recited a poem with which students were familiar, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and they chimed in.

–  Baker said the poem aloud as she wrote it on chart paper.

–  She modeled launching a speech-recognition app on an iPad and reading the poem aloud, with students looking over her shoulder to see if the app correctly transcribed her words (it did).

–  Baker invited each small group of students at the writing center to analyze the poem’s syncopation (they bobbed their heads) and the fact that snow rhymed with go.

–  She then asked students to write a similar poem about a different animal and owner, and worked with them to come up with a poem about Gary who had a little toad whose skin was green with slime, and everywhere that Gary went the toad would jump behind.

–  She spoke the new poem into the speech-recognition app, and students watched as the words magically appeared on the iPad; she then copied the new poem on chart paper.

–  Baker then invited students to orally brainstorm their own versions of Mary Had a Little Lamb, and they wrote stories about Victoria and her little dog, Jada and a small turtle, Sponge Bob and a monster bike, etc. Students worked with pencil and paper and then spoke their poems using the speech-recognition app.

–  In the months that followed, students composed variations of Five Little MonkeysRow, Row, Row Your BoatBrown Bear, Brown BearWhat Did You See?It Looked Like Spilt Milk; and narratives in which students chose their own topics, settings, and characters.

Baker found that this approach was highly motivating for students, and they used words like limousinedandelion, and unicorn. Interestingly, on days when the school’s Wi-Fi was down and the speech-recognition app wasn’t accessible, students reverted to less-ambitious words like carflower, and horse. “Speech recognition apps,” says Baker, “appeared to allow students to use their rich personal oral lexicons and cultural funds of knowledge to express themselves.” An end-of-year inventory revealed that students had greatly increased their sight vocabularies, and half of the words they knew were not in standard first-grade vocabulary lists.

            In the course of this project, says Baker, students had to deal with inaccurate transcriptions by the app. There were also times when the app would come up with inappropriate words – for example, hell instead of hill and worse (there wasn’t a child-safety feature). Baker worried at first that this would undermine the process, but found that errors actually got students reading the transcriptions of their writing more carefully, frequently engaging in word analysis and talking with classmates and their teachers about whether words made sense and were spelled correctly.

            Another glitch was that students would think up elaborate stories, launch the speech-recognition app, and forget the story – and by the time they’d recalled it, the app had timed out. The app was also not very clever at dealing with students’ false starts, repetitions, side comments, long pauses, and laughter. It turns out that planning and dictating a story is a specialized literacy skill that students needed to master – including rehearsing stories before activating the app, speaking slowly and clearly, and doing the editing on a hard copy. Students found it difficult to handle the app features allowing users to italicize, boldface, underline, and indent, and sometimes accidentally deleted entire compositions. It was difficult for students to access a separate rhyming dictionary, and the speech-recognition app didn’t accommodate students’ illustrations or make it easy to import stock illustrations from the Internet.

            On balance, though, Baker endorses the use of speech-recognition apps as one tool for young writers because of the way the app can stretch their written vocabularies and get them composing more creatively and fluently. With the proper teacher support and instruction, the limitations and glitches of the app can actually enhance students’ sense-making and critical reading skills.

“Talk to Read and Write: Using Speech-Recognition Apps in a First-Grade Writing Center” by Betsy Baker in Language Arts, July 2019 (Vol. 96, #6, pp. 358-369),; Baker can be reached at

8. Recommended Books of Poetry for Children

            In this article in Language Arts, Grace Enriquez, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Mary Ann Cappiello (Lesley University), Katie Egan Cunningham (Manhattanville College/Purchase), and Gilberto Lara (University of Texas/San Antonio) list their favorite books of poetry for children published in 2018. All the books, they say, have “a palpable sense of wonder, comfort, hope, and awe regarding the world in which we live.”

  • I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum)
  • A Bunch of Punctuation selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Serge Bloch (WordSong)
  • Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (Carolrhoda)
  • Vivid: Poems & Notes About Color written and illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt)
  • Hidden City: Poems of Urban Wildlife by Sarah Grace Tuttle, illustrated by Amy Schimler-Safford (Eerdmans)
  • Seeing Into Tomorrow, Haiku by Richard Wright, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews (Millbrook)
  • Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Candlewick)
  • Jabbberwalking written and illustrated by Juan Felipe Herrera (Candlewick)
  • World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins (Abrams)
  • The Stuff of Star sby Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick)
  • The Poetry of US: More Than 200 Poems That Celebrate the People, Places, and Passions of the United States edited by Patrick Lewis (National Geographic)
  • Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners by Naomi Shihab Nye (Greenwillow)

“2018 Notable Poetry Books for Children” by Grace Enriquez, Erika Thulin Dawes, Mary Ann Cappiello, Katie Egan Cunningham, and Gilberto Lara in Language Arts, July 2019 (Vol. 96, #6, pp. 390-399),

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9. Short Item: Women in African History

Women in African History website – This online resource from UNESCO interactive lessons and materials on prominent women across the African continent. Tabs include Spotlight on Women, General History of Africa, Open Educational Resources, Artists, and Experts.

“Women in African History” from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), 2019

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Episode 6: Turning School Improvement Goals Into Specific Aspirations

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Welcome everyone to Episode six of the Instructional Leadership Show. I’m your host Justin Baeder and our focus in this episode is on turning school improvement aspirations into specific goals. Now our focus more broadly in the Instructional Leadership Show is on three things: the Instructional Leadership Show exists to help you confidently get into classrooms every day, have feedback conversations that change teacher practice, and discover your best opportunities for school improvement.And as you may have noticed we have a challenge going on right now called the School Improvement Challenge, so we’re focused on this third priority here, discovering our best opportunities for school improvement. And it’s been so much fun to hear from you, to ask to discuss with you what your aspirations are what your goals are for school improvement. So I thought we would zoom in on that topic today specifically around those aspirations that may be a little bit on the pie-in-the-sky side—a little bit on the vague side—a little bit on the big-picture side. And I think we’ve been pressured and we’ve been enculturated to avoid those kind of big-picture dreams or aspirations or goals in our profession. I think we’ve been trained to push for things that are measurable for to push for things that are concrete and specific often to the detriment of students.

So SMART goals, right, we’re supposed to have SMART goals for almost everything. And if you’ve ever set a SMART goal you’ve probably felt this feeling that reaction that by making it into something measurable. We’re kind of squeezing the heart out of it, right? We’re kind of squeezing the essence out of what we’re really going for in order to make it something that is clearly measurable. And I think that is an inevitable tendency, but not something that we can’t work around. So I’m gonna share my work around for that that pitfall of SMART goals with you. But I think we got to start by acknowledging that aspirations are good. It is good to have hopes and dreams for your students. It is good for you to want things to happen in your school even if they’re not fully defined, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, exactly what it would look like or how to measure it. That is okay—it is okay to want these big picture things. I’m going to read some of them that people sent in on our School Improvement Challenge discussion.

One person said, “I want to improve climate and culture by stressing empathy increased student engagement in middle school. We’re working on meaningful technology integration improve morale school-wide our district focus is on SEL social and emotional learning and understanding what that means in relation to instruction and relationships working on infusing innovation in all of our classes we want to increase student agency and taking control of their own learning now I’m sure there is someone out there who has put together a scale or an instrument or a rubric or a self-assessment for student agency and innovation and engagement I’m sure we could measure all of those things but here’s what I do not want you to do I do not want you to take that scale whatever quantitative form of measurement you’ve come up with or come across online and give that to your staff as the vision, right? Like we can all recognize that presenting the means of measurement as the vision is not the right way to inspire people, right? It’s not the right way to get people to take action.

If we want people to take action, we don’t start with the measurement— we start with the dream. The author of ‘The Little Prince’ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

That is how you inspire people to go on a journey. And as I looked at these aspirations that people had for school improvement, I thought these are the kinds of things that will inspire people. This is the longing for the immensity of the sea, right? This is where people want to go. These are inherently good things, but how we get there requires us to do some other thinking. And often when we have a goal along the lines of I want to see more of X, I want to see more empathy, I want to see more innovation, I want to see more student ownership, I want to see better morale, I want to see more student engagement, often we don’t quite know what we mean by that. We couldn’t operationally define it, but we know it when we see it. So if you’re struggling to turn your aspirations into a more concrete plan, one place I want to encourage you to look is at the people that you already work with that you already admire who are doing great work in this area. So rather than start with a SMART goal and a strategic plan, and a rollout plan, and a timeline, and accountability and a walkthrough feedback form where you tell people if they are implementing with fidelity rather than starting with all of that I want to encourage you to start with something much simpler the question of who?

Who is already doing this? Who is already fulfilling that aspiration that you have? And if it’s nobody, if you can’t think of a single person who’s doing the thing that you have in mind, well you might need to go looking because it’s critical. I believe in any improvement effort to have actual examples—to have concrete examples of people who are doing what you envision—so that it’s not imaginary. Even if you are pretty sure it’s real, people are not going to fully believe that it’s a real thing unless they have seen it so a lot of schools that are trying to do innovative things. They will take site visits, you know, they’ll go on a trip, they’ll travel to another school, they’ll observe, they’ll talk with the educators in that school, and they’ll see what it’s actually like. But I’m going to guess that that’s not necessary for the improvement aspirations that you have.

I’m going to guess that you have people in your school who are already doing what you want and if you could bottle that, manufacture it, and sell it and get everybody else in your school on board with it then you’d be in great shape. But translating what some people are doing into what you want everybody to do is often pretty tough. I think the starting point is still “who?” Who do we start with for this particular initiative? You probably have people in your school—and what I want to encourage you to do is start to articulate for yourself who are the people on your staff who are already doing this well? Who are the people who are interested in doing this well? Maybe they need some training first, but I think they’ll get there. Who are the people who easily could do it, but just don’t want to? You know, figuring out where different people are I think is really critical for figuring out who should go first and who should go next. And I’ve provided a tool for you in the School Improvement Challenge called the Will and Skill Grid, and it’s a very simple XY grid. It’s just a simple two axis graph and I’ve got will on the horizontal axis and skill on the vertical axis and for any particular change. This is very initiative specific. Let’s say we’re talking about infusing innovation which again pretty vague, but we’ll get there, we’ll get more specific.

If I’m thinking about infusing innovation across my middle school I probably have a few people in mind who are already very innovative and I would plot them on this grid as very high on both will and skill. I might have other people who are all about innovation, but just not very good at it. Maybe I have a first-year teacher who really kind of struggled this year but is very innovative minded and wants to get there, they just have a lot of work to do on the skill side, so maybe they’re low on skill but they’re pretty far to the right on the the will axis. They have the will and the skill can come in time but we’ve got to figure out where people are.

What you want to do is list your staff or just print off an existing staff roster and number of people and then write the numbers on the grid. And we’ve provided a PDF template you can just print this out and list your staff and write the numbers for people. And what you may want to do is color code this like so. If you have the math department in red you can see where are the red numbers being written on this grid. If I think about okay Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jackson—and you know I’ve got everybody plotted on here— and I see these red numbers scattered in different parts of the grid you can assess very quickly and very intuitively where is my math department in terms of infusing innovation. So do that for your whole staff. Color code by team and see where people are and you will have a sense of who to start with and who to look to for specific ideas about what that improvement effort looks like.

In the case of our example here, what innovation looks like so if I have someone who I think is innovative I should probably plot them pretty high on will and skill for innovation, and I should go to their classroom and see what I like about it. When I think of that person as a person who is innovative, what do I mean by that? What is that? How does that show up in their instruction? So when we start with who, we can focus our attention on what the Heath Brothers call the bright spots and articulate to ourselves and to our staff what that practice looks like. Because here’s the problem with all of these aspirations, right—improving climate, meaningful technology integration, student engagement—those are all great things. And probably everyone will agree that those are great things, but nobody knows whether they’re talking about the same thing. We can all use those words and mean completely different things so we’ve got to start with the people that we already have in mind as doing these things and and improving in those areas. And then we’ve got to start to get more specific.

And the framework that I want to share with you for getting more specific it’s called the Achievement Science Goal System and there are four types of goals in that system. If you are a member of the Instructional Leadership Association in last week’s episode, we talked about these four types of goals and how they’ve how they fit together. But briefly they are purpose, phase, progress and practice. Practice levels are the lowest level, the most doable, the most short-term. They’re where the rubber meets the road, they’re what educators are actually doing. And purpose goals are the highest kind of head in the clouds mission vision aspiration—our dreams for our students—what we ultimately want and what we ultimately care about.

And then in the middle we have phase and progress goals now I think it’s critical to recognize that often in our profession we only recognize progress goals we only set progress goals in way too many cases I see so many district strategic planning and school improvement planning and teacher annual goal-setting processes that require SMART goals that progress monitoring type of goal where there’s a before and an after and a score and a measurement and it’s all quantitative we require that but often we don’t think about the other kinds of goals, so we don’t know how to actually achieve that goal. And on the slide here I’ve got a column for whether that type of goal is doable or not. And it’s my belief—I mean you can challenge me on this if you want, I’d love to hear some examples that you might have in mind—it is my belief that SMART goals are not really directly doable.

I don’t know of any way to directly achieve a SMART goal. We have to do other things to achieve our SMART goals, right? You can implement a new curriculum and that might raise your test scores but raising test scores is not something that you can directly do so I hope this model is helpful and in the school improvement challenge what we’ve done is create a worksheet for you to print out you can download that at and you’ll be taken to the School Improvement Challenge page and you should find that worksheet on that page or I’ve got the URL on the screen as well directly to the PDF and you may not be able to set all four kinds of goals but what I want you to do with this document is figure out what kind of goal you’re working with as a starting point and the examples that I’ve chosen today are all purpose goals these are things we ultimately want to see in our schools things that are inherently good in and of themselves things like student engagement well I don’t have to justify student engagement based on some higher purpose, right? I don’t have to justify student engagement because research says it increases our graduation rate if we have higher student engagement like well no yes a higher graduation rate will be a great outcome or a great side effect of having higher student engagement, but having higher student engagement is worthy in and of itself. It’s what we ultimately want for our students. We want them to experience high levels of engagement in their learning. It’s not the only thing we care about, but it is something that we do ultimately care about.

So figure out what kind of goal that you have. Use that worksheet, figure out is this goal a purpose goal, a phase goal, a progress goal, or practice goal and then you can look back at your will and skill grid and say, “Okay who do we have who is already embodying this? What are some of the other goals that they are working toward?” And you can start to flesh out that plan a little bit more. What I want to encourage you not to do is look at that will and skill grid and take a deficiency approach and say okay who are my least cooperative worst least innovative least engaging teachers and how can I move them I want to encourage you not to start with that approach because what you’re going to find is that changing the culture in your school changing practice in your school changing the way your teachers approach things requires momentum it is tough work and if you want to get everybody rowing in the same direction you’ve got to build some momentum you’ve got to get people working toward a common vision and objects in motion tend to remain in motion objects at rest tend to remain at rest so if you have people who are already on fire who are already firing on all cylinders and moving in the right direction start with them and build on that momentum a couple of words of caution about setting these four kinds of goals and using them when it comes to putting your aspirations into practice putting your dreams into reality The first word of caution that I have for you this is based on a Peter Drucker quote “What gets measured, gets managed” is usually used to explain why we’re setting SMART goals while we’re setting quantitative goals. I think that’s only true if we’re talking about something that can actually be done.

For example if our goal is to improve student test scores again that’s probably not our highest goal but it may be a progress monitoring goal we can’t actually directly raise test scores because they’re the result of something else that we do some sort of practice that we actually do so I just wanted to keep that in mind that SMART goals are an important kind of goal but they’re not the only kind of goal and our most important goals our mission our vision our values our aspirations typically do not lend themselves very well to that SMART goal format so if you’re struggling to turn innovation into a SMART goal you might want to put that off a little bit and say, “You know what? Maybe we’ll come up with something to measure down the road, but innovation is what we really care about and we don’t want to squash that we don’t want to crush the thing that we actually care about simply by trying to measure it” So kick that can down the road a bit and you will discover if there is something that you want to measure.

Another caution: SMART goals keep us honest about our results but they can also distract us from what we truly care about. And then finally start with who and figure out what you want them to do. And you should have people in your school already who are doing whatever it is that you envision, so we’ve been a little bit big picture today, but we try to to kind of nail down the some of the elements of your big-picture vision for improvement in your school. And if you’ve not been following along I want to invite you to join us for the full video series that we’ve got going on right now you can find it on our website at

And if you are an Instructional Leadership Association member watching this later we’ll put the full video series in our members’ area so that you have on-demand access the school improvement challenge is all about helping you identify those aspirations and turn them into reality it’s something that does not happen automatically right typing up a word document that says strategic plan at the top does not automatically produce results we know there is an enormous amount of human work that needs to happen we have to marshal people to make change together to figure out what that change looks like to work through the challenges and that is why we’re doing the school improvement challenge so that video series is available now at

A couple of other things I wanted to bring to your attention if the goal that you are working toward is around a specific instructional strategy you may want to develop a rubric for it and we have a program called the Instructional Framework Development Program that will help you think through the components of that practice that instructional strategy that instructional practice you know whatever element of teaching and learning you are striving to get more specific about and to get more consistent about as a school we’ve got a program that will help you guide your staff through articulating a rubric for that practice so that you know what you’re looking for teachers know what you’re looking for everybody’s on the same page and you have a common vocabulary for talking about that practice now having said that not all improvement efforts are around specific instructional strategies. And you know, typically the things that we’re doing as a whole school are not specific instructional strategies they’re bigger maybe they’re about social and emotional learning it may be they’re about climate maybe they are about something that is more teaching related like standards-based grading or project-based learning or you know whatever is on deck for you and that is the focus of our all new version 2.0 forthcoming Organizational Learning Intensive so coming in the month of June you will find information about the Organizational Learning Intensive and I will walk you through all of the the tools that we talked about here today and the the entire process of turning an aspiration into an actual improvement and generating organizational learning so that that improvement can be sustained so that is it for today thanks so much for tuning in to the Instructional Leadership Show.

I’m your host Justin Baeder this is a member benefit of the Instructional Leadership Association so all past episodes and future episodes will be available on demand to our members in the members’ area. We provide an MP3 version, we provide the slides as well as the video. And if you are not a member, you can watch free here on Facebook every Wednesday at 11 a.m. Now again we are taking next week off but the Wednesday’s that I’m here and can do the show we do that at 11 a.m. central and you’re welcome to tune in we’d love to have your comments and if you’re watching the replay if you’re tuning in at a different time Facebook does allow you to do that and allows you to comment and I love reading your comments as you’re watching that replay so thanks so much for being here thanks for tuning in and thanks for your comments and I’ll see you next time

Episode 5: Instructional Frameworks for School Improvement Initiatives

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Welcome everyone to the Instructional Leadership Show. I’m your host Justin Baeder and this is Episode 4: What Happens When Leaders Visit Classrooms 500x a Year? The Instructional Leadership Show exists to help you confidently get into classrooms every day, have feedback conversations that change teacher practice, and discover your best opportunities for school improvement.

It is no surprise, I am a huge advocate and fan of getting into classrooms a lot because some pretty amazing things happen. And I say that a lot—I say that throughout the year, I’ve said that in my book, I say that on webinars—and I wanted to do something a little bit different today and share with you some of the actual words of school leaders who are getting into classrooms a lot and actually seeing the benefits. And you know it’s one of those things that we all think we’re supposed to do. We all know we’re supposed to get into classrooms, but there’s there are some things that happen when you reach a certain threshold. And I think these things these benefits kick in well before the 500 mark, but the 500 mark is my recommendation.

If you get into classrooms 500 times a year you are guaranteed, my friend, to see some amazing things happen and I’m going to guess that you will see these amazing things happen well before the 500 mark. But if you’re thinking about the upcoming school year that is what I want you to shoot for—500 classroom visits a year. And that may sound like a lot but it’s really not that big a hurdle and in fact a lot of days you’re probably on track for that, a lot of days you probably are getting into three classrooms but, if you’re anything like me, those days are just not as frequent as we would like them to be, right? We know, okay I’m gonna get into classrooms today I’m gonna have to set aside some time I’m gonna have to work with my admin team to run interference for me and maybe keep someone waiting in the office for a minute so I can finish what I’m doing in classrooms. We know it’s possible to get into classrooms 3 times a day. Where we really struggle—or at least where I really struggled—was with the consistency. It was not that this was an unattainable goal that. You know, there was never a day when I could get into three classrooms it was just that those days by default tended to happen about once a week.

And three classrooms a week is obviously only one-fifth of what we’re shooting for here. We’re shooting for three classrooms a day, every day. So I’m going to give you a brief model in case this is a new idea to you, in case you haven’t seen the book or gone through the Instructional Leadership Challenge. The model is pretty simple and it’s really centered around the idea of getting into classrooms every day. And the target that I want you to shoot for is 3. That doesn’t mean you set aside 3 times it might mean you set aside 6 times. Maybe you try every single period to get into classrooms and you hope to successfully make it 3 times a day. We try to keep that bar achievable we try to make the visits not so long that they take the entire period. You know, we’re not talking about formal observations here. We’re talking about brief informal visits to classrooms that get you in there, that build relationships, that give you a sense of what’s going on and give you the opportunity to have an influence to make a difference in teaching and learning.

Now the difference that I suggest making through these visits is not like drive-by feedback. This is really much more conversational and much more about getting the information that you need to make effective decisions as a leader. So obviously observing, paying attention, seeing what students are doing, looking at their work, talking with students if it’s appropriate, seeing what the teacher is doing, talking with the teacher if it’s appropriate—you know those are the main things that you can do to gather information and get a sense of what’s going on and what you might need to do next as a leader.

The way to raise the bar on that, you know, a lot of people think, “Well, I need to give a suggestion if I’m going to raise the bar and not just kind of smile and wave.” You know, we don’t want to devote a lot of time to just smiling and waving we want this to be substantive so the way to raise the bar and make these visits substantive is to use the language of your instructional framework in those conversations. So if you are a Danielson district—if your school uses the Charlotte Danielson’s system for teacher evaluation—don’t just say, “Good job.” Look at the rubric and figure out what a good job with whatever the teacher was doing that day looks like according to the language of that rubric and work that language into your conversation.

Another way to raise the bar is to ask evidence-based questions and I’ll share some with you in just a moment so that it’s not just chitchat, it’s not just you know, “good job.” It’s not just, “Have you thought of this, have you thought of that?” But it’s actually an evidence-based discussion and we’ll get to those questions in just a moment. I’ll show you where you can get my list of 10 Evidence-Based Questions. And then the last element of my plan for getting into classrooms, and this is a plan that—these days we’ve kind of stopped keeping track—but more than ten thousand people have gone through the Instructional Leadership Challenge in more than 50 countries around the world. And I think what really makes the difference for them is the consistency. When you get into three classrooms every day and not just like the three classrooms of the teachers that you like the best, who are nicest to you, who never do anything wrong, but get into every classroom on a consistent rotation—that is what makes the difference.

All right so here is a tool that I have created to help you achieve that consistency. These are my classroom visit note cards. I believe we need to keep on track to stay on track. If you are going to make a habit and devote the time to getting into classrooms, it is worth the tiny amount of effort it takes to actually keep track of which teachers you’re visiting. And I don’t know if your tendencies are the same as mine were as a principal—I noticed that if I wasn’t intentional about it, I tended to walk right across the hall from my office and start with the lovely teacher across the hall. She had been in the classroom for probably thirty years at that point—between 25 and 30 years which was also my age—and when I say she had been in the classroom I mean in that particular classroom and this classroom was just dialed in. She had it exactly the way she wanted it— everything was optimized, everything was beautiful, everything was perfect. She was always super nice, her kids were always happy to see me. It was just a wonderful place to visit.

So that was where I always went first if I didn’t keep track. And if I didn’t look at my list and say, “Okay how many times have I already been in Pam’s classroom this year? Oh, I’ve already been in there 27 times. I better go visit some of the teachers upstairs or out in the portables or some of the teachers who always give me a dirty look when I visit their classroom.” We’ve got to keep on track if we want to make a rotation that reaches everyone. I promise you will not do this accidentally you will only do it on purpose. So if you would like a low-tech but bulletproof way to make sure that you visit every teacher in order, you can print out these note cards. You can get them at

And if you are a member of the Instructional Leadership Association and you’re listening to the audio podcast version of this episode, go to and we will also send you a link so that you can very easily print those out. And then what you do is, you simply copy them onto cardstock, cut them up—and have your office staff do this prep for you—you write each teacher’s name on the card. You write the schedule that that teacher has on the card, especially if you’re in a secondary school and teachers have a prep period and they’re teaching different subjects during different periods. You want to note their schedule so that you don’t try to stop by when they’re not there and also so you don’t visit the same class over and over again—you want to mix that up. There’s an additional degree of intentionality that you can apply here. And then simply put these note cards in a stack and visit the top 3 teachers every day. Whichever cards are in the top of your stack, take those three cards, go visit those teachers. Keep the card in your hand and jot down the date when you successfully get there and then when you get back to your office put that card on the bottom of the stack.

And however, you want to involve your admin assistant your office staff your secretary whomever in running that system, if you want them to give you the three cards in the morning that is a great way to give yourself some additional accountability. And then I said I would give you some questions that you can ask when you’re in the classroom and you know depending on your model depending on your purpose you may or may not be taking any kind of notes or providing any kind of written feedback, but at least in the conversation that you have the brief chat that you have with the teacher you know for some teachers maybe this is an email that you send afterward but I recommend that these are mostly face-to-face conversations. On the back of those notecards, you will find these ten questions. And I’ve got the template designed so that every note card has these questions printed on the back you just photocopy it two-sided onto cardstock and you’re in business.

So these ten questions are context, perception, interpretation, decision, and so on. And you’ll notice that in each of them there’s a space for evidence. And in the interest of time, I’m just to read a few of them here. So like number eight says intuition, “I noticed that blank. how did you feel about how that went?” Well, the blank is where you put in something that you saw. You put in some specific evidence so you’re not just saying, “How’d you feel it went today?” You’re saying I noticed something specific and then you’re asking, “How did you feel that that went? What was your intuition about that?” So you can get those at

And if you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association we should have already sent you a link to those if you’re listening to the podcast version. But that’s enough of my thoughts, that’s enough of my words for today. What I want to do now is share with you some of the impact that our members—that our subscribers—have shared with me. I asked earlier this week, I said, you know, who is a Deputy Head of School in China said, “I had a better pulse on the building and the teachers! I knew what was happening. I could speak to how a teacher teaches and relationships with students from personal experience. That’s Eileen continues, “Also the students would talk about my being in classrooms and it changed them and their behavior.” So thank you very much, Eileen, for sending that in.

And it’s just so reinforcing to me to hear that in all kinds of different contexts. And again, Eileen is in China. And, you know, people from around the world are getting into classrooms and they’re getting to know their students. And especially if you’re an international educator that can be a little bit of whiplash to go from one context, you know, if you’re in sub-Saharan Africa one year and then you’re in China another year and then you’re in Atlanta the next year—it can be a little bit of cultural whiplash to move contexts like that. But what rescues you from that whiplash is relationships, is knowledge of your students. Knowing what they’re dealing with, what they’re learning, who they are and there is no better place to build those relationships and build that knowledge than in the classroom.

And if you’re having any kind of trouble with building relationships with teachers, building relationships with students, I promise, spending more time noticing what they’re doing you know not going in to correct them or to fix them but just understanding them—understanding their work, understanding what they’re working on—is huge. So again thank you, Eileen. Next, I want to share some comments from Jay—thanks so much for sending these in.

Jay says, “When you get into classrooms regularly, the teachers and students expect to see more of you.” It becomes an expectation that they have of you. “The teachers also expect that you will give them more feedback, about curriculum, classroom management, and their tendencies.” And I love this sense of mutual expectation, right? Because most administrators are swimming upstream to get into classrooms, you know, we get into classrooms and everybody’s kind of like, you know, “What are you here for? Can I help you? What do you need?” And they really are uncertain and ambivalent about why we’re there and what we want and how long we’re gonna stay and it just makes everybody uncomfortable. So if you’ve tried this before—if you’ve tried to get into classrooms and you’ve found it uncomfortable and your teachers have been kind of, you know, “I’d rather you not be here. What’s going on?” Just know that that’s normal and know that that goes away as you get more consistent, as you get into classrooms more and build those relationships and people see that this is not going to be punishment. This is going to be a positive learning experience for you and a positive experience for them where hopefully they will get to give you some feedback and they will get to ask for feedback on specific aspects of their practice. I promise it gets easier.

So the more you’re there the less it’s weird for people and more people will reinforce your being in classrooms. And if they know you’re coming anyway—I think this is kind of what Jay is getting at here about expecting feedback—teachers will start to ask for feedback that they want, right? If you’ve never been in classrooms before or you’re only there once or twice a year getting feedback from an administrator or from an instructional coach is just something to endure, right? You just kind of smile and nod and wait for the person to leave and then that’s it for the year. You’re good so there’s no real reason to engage in any deeper way. But if teachers expect that you’re going to show up week after week. You know, in our model I think, in most schools, visiting three classrooms a day gets you around to every teacher about every two weeks. So if teachers know, hey you know she’s gonna stop by today. If she’s gonna stop by a week after next this is gonna be a regular thing. They don’t just decide to sit there and smile and nod and wait for you to leave— they actually invest. They say, “Hey, if we’re gonna spend this time anyway, if I’m gonna have to have this conversation with you, I’m gonna make it a good one for me.” So they ask for feedback on things that they actually care about and they actually strive to implement that feedback because they know that they can count on you to come back and support them and to follow through.

So thank you very much, Jay, for sharing those comments. And the last comments I wanted to share were from Andrea who is an instructional coach in Texas. So Andrea thanks so much for sending in these detailed comments. And Andrea shared a lot with us from a coaching perspective that I love a lot of our members of the Instructional Leadership Association are instructional coaches who are kind of in that admin world but not technically administrators but I think have some great insights on actually changing teacher practice.

So Andrea says, “I’ve found that it’s so easy to get weighed down by the paperwork and administrative tasks that HAVE to get done to run a school or a special program, like ESL. With your tools,” Like the note cards that we just talked about, “I was able to develop an instructional leader mindset that valued classroom visits, PLC collaboration, and instructional coaching. While I definitely didn’t get into classrooms every day, nor did I get into all of my teachers’ classrooms multiple times, I spent more time in classrooms this year then I have any other year.” And she continues that, “These are some of the things that happened,” And she sent me a pretty detailed bulleted list here. I love this.

So again, Andrea, thank you for sending this in. She said, “I got to know teachers better. (At least those whose classes I visited frequently.) Again, as a coach, she wasn’t working with everybody but even so that intentionality made a difference. She says, “I found more opportunities to coach teachers in less invasive ways. I learned more about content areas that I’m not familiar with.” And for my secondary people, this is huge, right? Or for secondary people who become elementary principals as I did, this is huge, right? The more time you spend in classrooms, the more you start to understand and get comfortable with those subject areas that you didn’t teach. And that’s true for all of us right? Like you’re always going to be supervising people who teach things that you did not personally teach. So this is critical for us as a developmental task as leaders. Andrea continues, I have more context to apply the ESL instructional knowledge that I have and feel more valuable contributing to my district ESL team.”

For me, this is Justin speaking again, I love that term context. So much of what we try to get people to do in our profession you know, applying models teaching curriculum using strategies that we try to push into the classroom, we push in without an awareness of the context that we’re trying to change, right? So if you can get into that context and understand it, you’re going to be much more effective at changing it.

All right, last couple of things from Andrea here, “Students saw me more, and I was able to build my relationship with them. I developed more confidence in myself as an instructional leader.” And Andrea says, I also found that, somehow, I still got the most important administrative tasks done and probably more efficiently.” And that’s the cool thing to me and I’ll comment on that now there’s a principle called Parkinson’s law. Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So if you have been feeling like you just don’t have time to get into classrooms— you’re already so busy you’re already slammed you’re working 60 hours a week how could you possibly make time to get into classrooms? I don’t want to say this is magic because really it’s not magic. It’s about your brain prioritizing with the time that you have left.

But Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So if you say to yourself, “I’m going to commit to getting into classrooms. I’m going to commit to visiting three classrooms a day. It’s only going to take me 30 or 45 minutes total and that’s going to come out of that time that I have been spending in the office or that I have been spending on discipline or that I have been spending doing,” you know, the many other things that you’re asked to do in your school. You’re going to find that you don’t have to tack that 30 or 45 minutes to the end of your workday. The most important things still get done.

It’s kind of like if you ever had a day where your secretary makes you go home because you’re sick and you didn’t think you needed to or you didn’t think you could, but your secretary just looks you in the eye and says you look like death go home and you say—I remember very distinctly a day where I said to my secretary okay okay but first I have to get a couple of things done and I was dragging, but I knew there were three or four things I just had to get done before I could go home. So I said, “All right I’m gonna get these things done as soon as I can and then I’m gonna go and I’ll take your advice. I’ll go rest and we’ll get somebody to come in and cover the afternoon duties and things like that.” So that’s what I did and I found that those tasks that I had thought were going to take me all day had them done by 11:00 AM. And I realized that was an instance of Parkinson’s law at work. Work had expanded to fill the time available for its completion when I was planning to stay all day those tasks were gonna take me all day, and then when I was forced by an insistent secretary to go home and that time available for completion compressed down to, you know, 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. I still got it done. So it’s not magic, but it does happen that way. You will get the most important things done if you get into classrooms first. So a couple of takeaways—thank you very much to Jay and Eileen and Andrea for sharing their insights from getting into classrooms this year. A couple of takeaways—first of all, this is not easy.

Getting into classrooms 500 times a year is not easy but it’s worth it. It is worth the effort that it takes and the intentionality that it takes to get into class. My second takeaway for you today is that this is doable for everyone. And if you’re telling yourself that you can’t get into classrooms because of circumstances in your school, you know, not just things that are within your control but things that are outside of your control that are keeping you from getting into classrooms I’m here to tell you there are people in much tougher situations than you who are getting this done. Now it might mean that for you to get into classrooms three times a day requires you to schedule eight or nine-time slots. I’ve talked to some people and said hey what’s your ratio like when you try to get into classrooms what’s your success rate and I say about 33 percent and I say okay well then you need to schedule nine visits and you’ll make it to three of them and it’ll work out. And it does my third takeaway for you is that as a leader you know more and you’re known more as you get into classrooms more. And this increases your influence and your impact.

So if you’re dealing with resistance to a particular change—if you have teachers that you are trying to help improve but they’re not wanting to improve—knowing them more and being known more goes a long way. That relationship makes a big difference because they know that you understand where they are when you’ve been in their classroom. You know what they’re dealing with—it makes a big difference. My fourth takeaway for you today is that it’s never too early or too late to start visiting classrooms. You may be listening to this at the very end of your school year. You may have a month left, you may be in the southern hemisphere and just be starting a new term or might be right in the middle of things. There is no bad day to start visiting classrooms. You can always start. And the way to start, my fifth takeaway for you today is just to start low-key.

Now I have a specific model for that in my book. There are some chapters in Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High- Performance Instructional Leadership that will guide you through the process of getting started, but you don’t even need the book to get started. Just get into classrooms. Be low-key, be nice, pay attention. Be curious, ask interesting questions, show respect for the work that teachers are doing. Don’t bring a clipboard with you—this is not hard it is not complicated. I did not have any particular model to follow and in fact I actually started to do a better job of it when I said you know what I’ve been trying to make these elaborate forms, I’ve been trying to collect data, I’ve been trying to fill out all these different fields on this checklist that I made my job got much much easier. When I just said I’m just gonna show up. I’m gonna pay attention, I’m going to know more and be known more through this process of getting into classrooms, and I’m going to focus on consistency. So that is what I want to encourage you to do. Whether you have school again tomorrow or you’re already on summer break when you’re listening to this, I want to encourage you to get into classrooms every single day. Do what it takes. It is not easy but it is worth it.

And if you are looking for a little bit of guidance as to where to focus, if you need a little bit of help figuring out, “Okay, I think I get it but I still feel like it’s not clicking for me,” I want to encourage you to take our self-assessment because there are six stages to this. And sometimes people have different pieces from different stages, but I really think these build on each other. And it goes from the productivity foundation to getting into classrooms consistently to having feedback conversations to having a common vocabulary for those conversations, to really being consistent over the long term that’s the fifth phase and then the strategic phase is the last. So if you’d like a copy of that rubric—the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Roadmap—you can download that and take the self-assessment. It’s kind of an automated quiz that will guide you in reflecting on your practice and figuring out where you are and where you need to focus next, and I’ll even give you a little video with customized recommendations after you go through that quiz. And that is at which stands for the Instructional Leadership Self-Assessment and that will give you a place to focus to help you get into classrooms more consistently in the coming months.

And that draws on some concepts from our flagship program the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Certification and a lot of that is also mapped out in the book, Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High- Performance Instructional Leadership. That is recently on Audible, so if you think you know I don’t have a ton time to read more books or I’ve already got my shelf full of books I know there are a ton of great books published in education every year so I wanted to make my book available in audio format as well, just in case your shelf is already crowded and you have some time when you’re in the car or away from the office when you could could be listening to something. So you can find that on Audible. And if you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association, you do not need to buy it on audible we have it in the Members’ Area if you can’t find it let me know and we’ll get you hooked up. If you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association you should have that as well. So this has been Episode 4 of the Instructional Leadership Show: What Happens When Leaders Visit Classrooms 500x a Year? I’m Justin Baeder and I will see you next time!