Leadership (57)

Your Leadership Team sets the tone for how the entire school functions.  The way in which your LT members openly and honestly share their views and make decisions with every member actively engaged becomes a model for how everyone else in the school interacts. This artcile, 5 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Meetings ... and Why it Matters provides a rationale and specific suggestions for maximizing participation. It may be as simple as just asking what a person thinks!

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By Maureen M. Mirabito


Note: This is the first of a multi-part story about Wichita Public Schools work to establish system coherence, initiative alignment, and the explicit connection to improved teaching and learning. This series will track their implementation of Indistar (KansaStar) in an effort to pull all of this work together and into a continuous school improvement process.


Wichita Public Schools is receiving national attention for its system coherence, initiative alignment, and their explicit connection to improved teaching and learning. The work that they have done (and continue to do) is impressive--integrated and well-executed systems and processes that would make Apple executives swoon. And in a smart next step to their strategy, they are expanding the use of Indistar (KansaStar) from its 28 priority and focus schools to all 90 of its school sites.

 But there is something else happening in Wichita Public Schools that is driving their strategy and their success—and for a district that has figured out how to measure pretty much everything, it’s one thing they can’t measure: removing the fear around data and performance and replacing it with belief and support in achieving real continuous improvement.

The work began five years ago when Superintendent John Allison shared his vision for the district as a new Superintendent. It emphasized a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) and was communicated as the work that the district and its schools must focus on to improve learning outcomes for all students, one by one. The work began with an intense focus on literacy and expanded to include numeracy, behavior, instruction, and data based problem solving, all referred to as protocols. I wanted to call them areas, or categories. But the more I learned, the more I understood the distinction: in Wichita Public Schools protocol means something very different than say, category, or area. Protocol implies agreement, or code. It conveys: pursuing this work at an optimal level is our promise to our students, their families, to each other and our selves. There is a role for everyone in this work—and a role of the district staff was to help principals and school leadership teams get and use data from each of those five protocols to make the best decisions to improve teaching and learning, to achieve optimization.

So often, it’s not the knowing that impedes us; it’s the fear of what we might find or how we could be judged. In the case of Wichita Public Schools, using and talking about data was their counter to fear and inaction. Once educators began to consistently and deeply use data, they discovered that most fears were exaggerated: what they thought they’d find wasn’t as bad as what they did find and even if it was, at least they found it—a necessary first step toward change and improvement.

Over the past five years, knowledge of and discussions about data have become a steady drumbeat within and around every conversation about literacy and numeracy, behavior and instruction, leadership and learning in Wichita’s 90 school sites. It goes like this: What data are we collecting? What do the data say about our district, our school, and this student? What do the data tell us about our leadership, our structures, and our instruction? What will we do so that the data look different next time?

Leading the data integration and now improvement work is Dr. Lisa Lutz, Executive Director of Innovation and Evaluation, along with her “phenomenal team of three.” Through their consistency in providing meaningful data, their promise and follow-through in providing judgment-free support, and their tireless work in making connections and creating alignment to ease the confusion and even workload of schools, they have established a culture that thrives on data as a way of deciding, learning, and connecting.  

But again, it wasn’t always that way.

 “We work with all types of data sets that provide leverage to principals and their leadership teams within the MTSS protocols. We put the data into a district and school profile, similar to a dashboard, and we train the principals on how to talk about, process, and use the data to improve their instruction. Regardless of the data, we always tie it back to instruction and how teachers can use it.”

The data profiles are updated regularly with formative and summative data; they include district level, school level, grade level, and some district comparisons. Individual student data are provided to schools separate from their profile data. The training is referred to as a STAT session, which occur monthly in Wichita Public Schools.

 “When we started the STAT sessions, principals didn’t say much. Partly because they didn’t know what to say, but it was also difficult for them to see their data up there and then have to speak to it. They felt they were on the spot. But now, it has become better than okay to talk about data. It’s really and truly the way we work now.”

This shift didn’t happen by chance. It happened because Dr. Lisa Lutz and her team provided the structure, the processes, and the timely delivery of data and training through the STAT sessions. She and her district colleagues engaged in close collaboration to identify and provide the right support and resources to school staff in the areas they required it without judgment.

“Our conversation is not personal. Our conversation is what do we need to do so that the data look differently next time we look at it,” says. Dr. Lutz.

There are two types of STAT sessions: Principal STAT, occurring monthly and including a cohort of approximately three to six principals depending on level (elementary, middle, high) with a focus on school-level data; and School STAT, occurring approximately six times per school with the principal and his/her leadership and including both school and student level data. Dr. Lutz and her small team provide Principal STAT to all principals at a district location; School STAT was offered to the 28 priority and focus schools at their school site.

This year, Dr. Lutz and her team will expand what they provided for the 28 priority and focus schools to all 90 school sites. They can do this because of the capacity they’ve been building in their principals to serve as strong instructional leaders.

“All along, the goal has been to build the leadership capacity of principals to lead this work, to know their data and be able to speak to it and help teachers to process around it to improve instruction. We have been at this for five years. So this year, when principals of all 90 sites come in with their cohorts, the sessions will be called Principals’ School STAT. Each principal will receive their data down to the student level, we will discuss it in our cohorts, and they will return to their schools to process it with their leadership and instructional teams.”


Real, Continuous Improvement  

Recently, Dr. Lutz was told that she would lead the district’s school improvement work, a likely outgrowth of the success and impact of the STAT sessions and its connection to improved teaching and learning. Dr. Lutz has both the vision for and the specific knowledge of improvement to see how Indistar (KansaStar) can provide yet another opportunity for alignment, coherence, and capacity building for the work that happens in the district and schools.

“This responsibility gave me an opportunity to think about school improvement differently. I didn’t think that the school improvement process we had been using was successful—establish some goals, describe how you’ll meet them, maybe review it all at the end of the year to see how you did,” says Dr. Lutz.

But it wasn’t just the ineffectiveness of the traditional process that got her thinking differently, it was the diversity in size, scope, needs, and pursuits of each individual school.

“There are so many different school sites doing so many different things—national accreditation processes in the high schools, title one school requirements, priority school and focus school requirements. It just made sense to have something that was common with ALL schools—a common way to monitor and continuously improve all of the different things they are doing to address their individual school community needs and optimize their Multi-Tiered System of Support every step of the way.”

Once Dr. Lutz cleared the possibility of using Indistar (KansaStar) district-wide with the State (absolutely, was the response from Ms. Sandy Guidry, school improvement coach), she took a proposal to the district’s Academic Leadership Team (assistant superintendents and executive directors) and asked them for their feedback and support. They were all in agreement to proceed.

The next step was to figure out how to integrate the MTSS work into Indistar (KansaStar). Dr. Lutz began with teams.


Building Capacity of People in the Schools

At the time of the decision to take Indistar (KansaStar) district-wide, the district had just begun to assemble District Support Teams, a structure designed to provide support and guidance to all 90-school sites in sustaining their multi-tiered system of support. Indistar (KansaStar) provided an ideal platform through which to provide a common and consistent approach for continuously assessing, planning, implementing, and supporting its very diverse schools and their communities.

There are a total of eleven District Support Teams, each comprised of three to four district level staff, including an Assistant Superintendent or Executive Director who also serves as the Team Lead.  Dr. Lutz’ team, for example, includes a special education coordinator, an English as a second or other language coach, and a director of equity and diversity. Each team is similar in composition.

Driving the work of the District Support Teams—as well as the selection of indicators that Wichita will use in its Indistar (KansaStar) system, is a very detailed Implementation Rubric.

“To support sustainability of the MTSS that has taken us five years to build, we developed a comprehensive document that describes four growth stages of implementation—emerging, developing, operationalizing, optimizing— for each of the five protocols—literacy, numeracy, instruction, behavior, and data-based problem solving. Assessments are integrated into each protocol,” explains Dr. Lutz.

Using this Implementation Rubric, Dr. Lutz and her team examined the indicators of effective practice within Indistar (KansaStar) to determine which best aligned with each of the five protocols and assigned them accordingly.

“When our priority and focus schools started with KansaStar, there were more than 150 indicators and it was really hard to know where to start or which ones to select. With our district-wide rollout, we have revised the process entirely to align the indicators to our Implementation Rubric, narrow the focus (at least to start), and take full advantage of our District Support Teams with the goal of achieving optimization in each protocol,” explains Dr. Lutz.

Wichita Public Schools does not underestimate the value and importance of continuous communication in the work of continuous improvement. In addition to the regular, ongoing support schools will receive from their District Support Teams, principals will continue their monthly training in STAT sessions: thirty minutes of data, thirty minutes processing what it means for improving teaching and learning. As already mentioned, principals will now lead their own staff through a similar approach. In this first year, however, Dr. Lutz expects a lot of time and attention spent on getting good at the process and in using KansaStar really well.

The first few steps of the first year of this new school improvement process look like this (keep in mind, principals and leadership teams have and will continue to receive training and coaching every step of the way):

  1. The school Leadership Team rank orders each of the five protocols against the four growth stages described in the Implementation Rubric.
  2. For each protocol, the school leadership team makes a warm statement and a cool statement, for example: we know we’re doing well in this area based on this evidence; we know we have work to do in this area based on this evidence. It is not enough to say, “We think.” Evidence is required.
  3. When the rank ordering is complete, the protocol receiving the lowest ranking becomes the school Leadership Team’s focus for improvement.
  4. Principals and leadership teams review the Indistar (KansaStar) indicators of effective practice that align with their lowest ranked protocol only (the alignment of these indicators with each protocol is outlined in the Implementation Rubric).
  5. In their initial plan, school Leadership Teams assess three to five indicators of effective practice and develop implementation plans for a minimum of two.
  6. Implementation Plans will be monitored through monthly Principal’s School STAT meetings, through prescribed School Reviews, and in regular monitoring and coaching in KansaStar.

“I think it is really important for us to take this slow. At our STAT session this month, we spent 30 minutes on data and 30 minutes setting the stage for how the school improvement process will work and how it aligns to the work we’ve been doing for the past five years to improve teaching and learning,” explains Dr. Lutz. “The principals’ homework for this month was to go back and share the process and how everything we are doing—the protocols, the district support team, and the school improvement process—ties together.”

At next month’s STAT session, principals will login to Indistar (KansaStar) and go through the process of how to assess an indicator. Their homework after that session will be to lead their own leadership team through the assessment of their selected three to five indicators and determine which two will be developed for implementation.

“Principals and leadership teams have been very receptive to this approach and the use of KansaStar because it pulls everything together. They knew they were responsible for implementing these five protocols with support from the newly established District Support Teams so they were like, ‘finally, we’ve been waiting for this—something that guides the work, aligns the work, and lets everyone know where we are in the process as we go,’” says Dr. Lutz.

And the priority and focus schools that were already using KansaStar?

“They were so thankful to see the alignment of indicators to protocols. To them, KansaStar felt like one more thing they had to do because they were priority and focus schools. But now, everything is integrated and aligned so they see it as a complement to their work rather than an addition to it. They were relieved to see it all come together.



District Support Structures and Processes

 The pursuit of alignment and change to the school improvement process hasn’t only impacted the work at the school level; it has changed conversations and ways of working at the district level as well.

“We’ve started to put together our own protocols for the conversations and reviews that we will conduct in the schools as District Support Teams to ensure consistency in how we approach our work and in the support, feedback, and services we provide,” explains Dr. Lutz.

The mechanism through which progress monitoring and needs identification will occur is through School Reviews. At the start of this year, the District Support Team met with the principals of their assigned schools to talk about what a school review would entail, including the agreement that before a formal school review took place, the District Support Teams would conduct informal school reviews and a minimum of ten classroom walkthroughs.  Some schools will receive quarterly formal reviews; some will receive semester formal reviews; others will receive annual formal reviews.

“The frequency of the formal reviews was determined based on the alignment of the school’s self-assessment of the protocols (using the Implementation Rubric) with their data. For example, if a school says they are at optimizing in a particular protocol but their data indicate that 50 percent of students are below the 25 percentile on screeners, there is a misalignment and they will receive a quarterly review.”

The School Reviews include three parts: the first part entails 45 to 50 minutes with the Leadership Team presenting their rank ordered outcomes (with supporting evidence) and rationale to the District Support Team; the second part involves one hour of classroom walkthroughs and a debrief of what was observed; the third part is 30 minutes with the principal to make recommendations for professional development and provide warm and cool feedback about what was observed throughout the review.

“Within three days, the District Support Team Leader must go into KansaStar and write up the report in the coaching comments—overall, what was the discussion, what recommendations were made, and what follow-up is needed by District Support Team to provide further support,” explains Dr. Lutz.

            Every quarter, the Team Leaders from each District Support Team will meet to pull up KansaStar, review the reports that were completed for that quarter, and see where the school is in assessing indicators, developing tasks, and progressing through their level of implementation of indicators.

            “We explained to schools that we were looking for alignment. If you’ve said this is your lowest protocol and highest need, are you selecting indicators and developing plans that align with that?” explains Dr. Lutz, “Additionally, our Superintendent has requested that at least one member from the District Support Team be present at the STAT session that principals are leading with their Leadership Teams to ensure both that the alignment is carrying through and that they are receiving the support that they need.”

            As superhuman as all this work and alignment seems, Dr. Lutz reminds me that they are all very much human.

            “We have the set up, now we have to execute,” she shares. “I think it is important that we take this slow enough to ensure the process works. I know it will be too slow for some people who want those plans in KansaStar now. I certainly understand that. I assure them we will get there but that it is going to take time. By the start of next year we will hit the ground running with the continuous improvement process we’ve been after.”

I don’t think there is anyone who believes otherwise.


Ensuring Continuous Improvement of the Process

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but when I ask about the feedback loop from principals on the process, she tells me about the District Workgroups that exist for each protocol. Dr. Lutz is in charge of the Data-based Problem Solving workgroup which has already outlined one of its tasks for the year: to create a taskforce of principals who have used KansaStar those who have not.

“We’re going to examine the process we’re using, including within KansaStar, for the purpose of improving the process as the year goes along. Their feedback and our response to it are critical to making it a process that works for everyone.”

I ask Dr. Lutz what else she’d like us to know about this effort and the people involved, which is clearly a testament to the relationships that she, her Superintendent, and her colleagues have built with their school principals, leadership teams, and staff.

“All along, we have honored our commitment to look hard at the data, provide real support, including alignment of initiatives and their connection to teaching and learning, and to avoid judgment. We have invested a lot of time and effort in relationships—consistency and follow-through are critical—and that has paid off for us time and time again. If you say, ‘this is what we need to do and why’ there isn’t anyone who would say no, no we’re not doing it.’

In a district of 92 schools with varying needs and pursuits, KansaStar will serve as a common denominator for sustaining and tracking improvement. It will replace a static school improvement process with responsive continuous improvement one. And it will stretch the reach of district staff without expanding them. It is the next step in the methodical and courageous work that has been growing (sometimes up, sometimes out) for years in Wichita Public Schools.

We have a lot more to learn from them and we’ll be sure to share it when we do.


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Larry Kugler is volunteering in a South African school this month.  This is a reposting of a previously published blog.

If research is so clear about the things we need to do in schools to improve teaching and learning, why is this work so difficult?  Perhaps the reason is because it’s hard to know where to start. Everything seems important, but we can’t accomplish everything at once.  But we have to start somewhere.  So which issue is most important and needs to be addressed first? How do we decide? Do we deal with the behavior problems and school culture first?  Or do we reorganize the master schedule to provide more time for collaboration?  We probably need to do both (and other things), but each one requires a huge investment of time and energy. Where to start!

 This is the dilemma Karin Chenoweth alludes to in her article “How Do We Get There From Here?” in the February edition of Educational Leadership (VOL. 72 NO. 5, pp. 17-20). She begins with a listing of five practices that research says lead to improvement:

  • Focus on what students need to learn (standards)
  • Collaborate to coordinate standards, curriculum, unit development, and assessments to measure student learning
  • Use classroom and district formative assessments to determine student progress and the needs for remediation and enrichment
  • Find patterns in data to improve instruction
  • Develop trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators

 I hope you see a link here to the organization of the indicators within Indistar. We’ve organized them by Categories, Sections, and Subsections that roughly correspond to these five areas. But Indistar does more than that. It helps break down broad areas into more manageable and achievable chunks.  In addition, Indistar assists in prioritizing the indicators so that you can achieve some quick wins and build momentum.  However, even with this assistance, there are strategic decisions to be made based on realities and the unique strengths and needs within your building. Now back to the article.

 Although Ms Chenoweth thinks each of these five practices is simple in itself, she suggests that it’s the organizational and intellectual challenges that stand in the way of successful implementation.  The organizational challenges include aligning the master schedule, curriculum, materials, routines and traditions, and the physical space to support teaching and learning.  On top of that, finding the time to collaborate is an additional organizational challenge and knowing how to effectively collaborate is an intellectual challenge.

 Ms Chenoweth provides two examples of principals entering dysfunctional elementary schools and how they approached improving their schools. Both had large percentages of students struggling to learn and high percentages of students that qualified for free- and reduced lunch. 

 In school #1 behavior was a significant problem and “The school was notorious for angry parents and difficult staff.” The principal identified another significant problem- students were bored because teachers were overlying on worksheets and the curriculum was not aligned to the standards. I’m guessing that the district assessments also were not aligned to the curriculum being taught.  

 In school #2, the demographics of the population had shifted from a white middle-class school to a predominantly Spanish-speaking population. In this school the reading and mathematics achievement gap grew the longer these students attended the school. Staff complained that the positive results they had achieved with their white middle-class students showed they were doing their jobs properly and they blamed the lack of success on the families of the students.

 Which again brings me back to the question, “Where do we start when confronted with so many issues that need to be addressed?”  It seems like an overwhelming task, yet these principals immediately addressed some of the issues while deferring others.

 Ms Chenoweth reports that the principal of school #1 recognized that she needed to address the instructional issue of what the students needed to know. Interestingly, the author did not report that the first thing the principal did was address the behavior issue.  This is often the approach taken when discipline is a major problem. I think the belief is that by clamping down on students and enforcing strict rules, behavior will improve and then teaching and learning can take place.  My experience tells me that too often behavior may improve, but unless teaching improves learning does not. 

 So this principal assessed the situation and determined that improving teacher collaboration was an organizational task that needed to be addressed.  She reorganized the master schedule to provide grade-level common planning time and moved classes around so grade-level teachers were clustered together.  Ah, the grumbling that took place!  But she believed that these changes would ultimately lead to better relationships between teachers and improved collaboration.  Which it did, to some degree, in time.  However, the principal also dealt with the discipline issue by roaming the halls to maintain order. And she utilized the new opportunities for team collaboration to engage everyone in the development of schoolwide expectations for behavior.

 This principal also addressed the discipline problem in another way.  She concluded that students were bored during reading instruction, which relied too heavily on textbooks and worksheets, and this created discipline problems.  So she sent some staff to district training and had them share what they learned.  In addition, they used their teacher collaboration meetings to develop supplementary or substitute curriculum that matched the standards.  When teachers expressed concerns that their students couldn’t achieve these higher standards, she took them to other similar schools where students were succeeding.  And finally she encouraged them to use other books to teach reading, include writing in their instruction, and substitute math games for worksheets in math.

 If you wish to read about how the principal in school #2 addressed his challenges, check out the February edition of Educational Leadership.

 Now that you’ve had a chance to consider ways in which these two principals dealt with making significant changes in their buildings, we, the IndistarConnect community of learners, would like to know what were your first steps improving teaching and learning in your building.

      What changes needed to be made?  How did you assess the current condition?  How did you decide which issue(s) to address first?

      Were they organizational – master schedule, classroom assignments, space utilization, routines, etc.?

      Were they intellectual, like knowing how to collaborate and how to work as a team?

      And finally, how did the use of Indistar help you achieve your goals and make the necessary changes?

 Click here to go to the Share Your Stuff section of IndistarConnect, and let us know about how you began the journey toward improved teaching and learning.   

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Below is an excerpt from a story that I wrote about Westlawn Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama. On paper, this school struggled with the same challenges many low achieving schools face: high poverty, high teacher turnover, neighborhood crime, below-grade level learners, limited parent involvement. In practice though, this school is showing the world that their staff, their students, and their families are more than the data points used to sort them. 

But truthfully, what is happening at Westlawn is just great practice. It's what should be happening everywhere. Whether you are a struggling school, a getting by school, a staying the course school, or a high-flying one: there is something for you in this.

If you want to learn how a school changed minds to change results (and change lives), read the full story here. Below, you'll find a brief excerpt along with brief descriptions of what the leadership in this school did first, did always, and does really well.

Excerpt: Westlawn Middle School, Huntsville, Alabama

Some stories you hear and think, there are neither the right words nor enough pages to tell this story right; to tell it the way that covers bare arms in goose bumps, that fills tired eyes with tears of triumph, that causes a pound in your chest that sounds like hope and admiration and belief; to tell it the way it feels when the people living the story tell it.

This is one of those stories. This is the story of the people at Westlawn Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama, which sits in the center of the city serving the five surrounding housing projects, the homeless shelter, and is situated on a street lined with apartment complexes where families live but don’t often stay. This is the story of educators, students, families, community members, and educational partners—and how they have built capacity, commitment, and relationships with minds and hearts and hands in a school that once had a reputation as “the place no one else wanted to be” but today stands proud with t-shirts and megaphones and achievement scores shouting publicly at pep rally’s and privately in their meetings, “We’re going to show the world.”

In 2012, Westlawn was placed on the state's failure list. It was approved for a School Improvement Grant and selected the turnaround model that replaced 80 percent of staff and the principal. That's when Ms. Alexander was brought in to lead the charge.

1. Give hope. People wanted to tell Ms. Alexander all kinds of stories and rumors about how bad the school was. She heard none of it. She tells her teachers and their students, "We write our own story, we get our own messages out. We don't let rumors or misconceptions do it for us."

2. Get out into the communities you serve. Because of high turnover, Westlawn sees new crops of teachers every year and many have never worked in high poverty, high need areas before. Every year, Ms. Alexander and her teachers do Warrior Walks in the neighborhoods where her students and their families live. They pass out information about the school that they want the families to know and have. They also do it so that teachers understand that when a student comes to school with dirty clothes, or tired, or hungry, maybe there is a reason for that. "We don't make excuses...but we do need to understand."

3. Bring the community in. Ms. Alexander invites churches and nurses and doctors and community members into the school for performances and information sessions. "We do it to get the word out about our school but we also do it to make connections for our families."

4. Build structures that support teaming and improved teaching. Right away Ms. Alexander established a strong leadership team, created times and structures for teachers to collaborate on instruction, and engaged partners to implement a student discipline program. 

5. Align everything: standards, curriculum, assessments, instruction, and professional development. To personalize learning for every student, you must be able to assess their level of mastery, adjust instruction accordingly, and support teachers in their professional growth as well. "Teachers must grow before our students can grow." 

6. Build collective commitment with the entire staff. To Ms. Alexander, this meant identifying the areas the entire faculty and staff felt were critical to turning around the school. For each area (read more about them in the full article) the team identified what the school should look like and what they would do to achieve it (Indistar was integral to this step). This collective commitment was discussed at every meeting, every week. It kept the team on task and focused on their work and achieving their goals.

The improvement at Westlawn was not without snags; Ms. Alexander was very candid about what they were and how they helped her and the school to grow even stronger. Humility, belief, persistence, and growth: it's all there.  Read the full story here.


You have a story and we'd all love to hear it. Those who have already worked with me have shared that they were not prepared for the impact that reading their story in writing would have: pride, accomplishment, joy, triumph. No matter how small or how big a story or success or experience--those sharing them and then reading them say that it amplified the resolve and commitment of their teams, of their school, at just the right moment.  To get started, email me here (write in Maureen Mirabito) or at mmirabito@adi.org. I can't wait to work with you! 

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What Works - Collaboration Works!

Larry Kugler is volunteering in a South African school this month.  This is a reposting of a previously published blog.

The February 2015 issue of Educational Leadership is titled Improving Schools; What Works?” It is chock full of really good stuff. Last week I wrote about Karin Chenoweth’s article that highlighted practices that research says lead to improvement.  This week I want to continue this thread by highlighting another article in this issue by Greg Anrig, “How We Know Collaboration Works.”  Both articles refer to practices that link to effective schools. 

Anrig, in addition to referring to his own set of documented practices, cites two large studies that support the same basic set of practices. The table below summarizes the findings in both articles.  In some cases I’ve quoted from the articles; in others I’ve summarized the findings.  I have not reported all factors cited in each article or study but have included those mentioned multiple times.

What is particularly striking is the similarity in these findings. Four basic sets of practices are noted across these articles:

  • Collaboration
  • Assessment
  • Trust
  • Leadership

 Anrig goes on to provide examples in three diverse school systems that have a history of embracing these practices.

  • Cincinnati, Ohio, a large urban school system, has employed a collaborative model dating back to the 1980s.  They utilize a team-based instructional program and use their most effective teachers to coach their peers.
  • The Springfield, Massachusetts, schools were in such disarray that they were taken over by a board appointed by the state.  From there, a joint labor-management group comprised of union, district and school-board members surveyed administrators and teachers and identified a key area of agreement – teachers needed to be involved in the decision-making process. Simultaneously, collaborative school leadership teams were established to increase parental and community engagement and school-based coaches provided support for the teaching staff.
  • Hillsborough County, Florida, the eighth largest school district in the United States, has embraced collaboration for decades.  This shared decision-making model spans curriculum alignment, test writing, textbook selection, and professional development. With about 57% of its diverse student population eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, Hillsborough has exceeded expectations and outperformed many other wealthier districts in Florida on the state assessments.

 A telling observation that Anrig makes is that these practices reinforce one another. Schools strong in all five areas he identifies were 10 times more likely to improve than schools weak in most areas.  Conversely, a school’s weakness in even one area could jeopardize progress. The five areas cited by Anrig were:

  • an aligned curriculum and assessment with meaningful teacher involvement,
  • effective professional development,
  • strong relationships among administrators, teachers, parents, and community members,
  • a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, and
  • strong leadership that engaged all stakeholders who became invested in the school improving.

 The thread running through all of this is the importance of collaboration. And providing the bedrock for effective collaboration is trust, mentioned throughout both articles and both studies. 

 OK. I’ll admit right here that Maureen's blog from Tuesday is stuck in my head.  One of her obsessions is “questions.” 

  I guess I’m afflicted with the same obsession, because this emphasis on “trust” has me wondering how do you build trust? Is it simply an outgrowth of collaboration? Are there ways to enhance the building of trust? I can imagine schools where the Culture of Candor flourishes and trust is built and can also imagine schools where it does not thrive. 

 I know this first hand, from both a positive and negative perspective.  On one end of the spectrum, was the director of my division when I moved to the central office.  She would begin a discussion with the words, “We are going to brainstorm so let’s hear your ideas.” Now we know that during brainstorming ideas are just thrown out and not evaluated at that time.  The evaluation of the ideas comes later. However, within moments we’d hear these words from her mouth, “That’s not workable.” I remember one time she replied to the high school ESOL staff member when he suggested an idea, “ You teach high school so you don’t know about elementary instruction.”  Well you can imagine how such comments were received.  They certainly did not build trust. They actually accomplished the opposite, closing down thinking and limiting our ability to solve problems.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, I’ve written before about my experience as a team leader in the elementary school where I got my first job.  The principal would often bring issues to the LT to be discussed, brought back to our teams for feedback and input, and then decided at the next LT meeting.  And these were substantive issues that built trust because everyone knew that his or her voice was being heard.  Our principal also built trust between the administration and the teachers by placing the responsibility in the teams for purchasing materials and deciding on teaching strategies that supported the standards and the curriculum. He was available to give us guidance and he also made clear at staff meetings and in informal conversation what his beliefs were and knowing this guided our work.


So my questions are:

 How do you build trust with your teachers, parents, and community?

What specific approaches do you use that help create this trust?

 What do you do that helps your teachers build trust with their students and their parents?

 Please go to Share Your Stuff and help all IndistarConnect users build more collaborative and trusting Leadership Teams by sharing you practices and challenges.

 Attached is a link to a very interesting YouTube video about collaboration.  It is found in the Teacher Union Reform Network.  Click the Turn Talk page below and scroll down to Turn Talk #7 – Learning To Live Together: Building a Culture of Collaboration Focused On Improving Teaching And Learning.  Particularly interesting is the second half of the Talk ( at about the 21 minute mark) when Dr. W. Patrick Dolan suggests a framework for collaboration that has the potential for building trust in a Culture of Candor. The first half is also worth watching. 

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If you ask the Leadership Team in Augusta, Arkansas what it takes to turn around a culture, shift a mindset, change a thought, and ACHIEVE they will tell you in one word: persistence.

So begins the story of a small district located in the Delta region of Arkansas.

"We have one stop light in Augusta, one dollar store, one grocery store. A lot of grandparents are raising children. Many teachers do not live here, some driving fifty miles to work here," explains Pam Clark, school improvement coach from the Arkansas Department of Education and who works with the Leadership Team .

The high school was placed in "Academic Distress" and the elementary school was identified as a Focus School. 

"Kids do not come form homes where there are books. They do not know about Dolly Parton's Imagination Station. They come to school and that is their first experience with learning. We do not buy into that old myth that some kids can't learn. They can learn just as well as anyone. We're proving it."

Augusta has been using Indistar for three years. They started at the same time the high school was placed in priority status. 

The Leadership Team generously spent two hours sharing the details of their growth and improvement journey with me. Read the full story HERE (it's powerful). I've extracted some pieces and highlighted them below. But FIRST, if you or your team have a story you want to tell and share with others like the one from Augusta, I would LOVE to listen (and then write). Type in Maureen Mirabito here or click: mmirabito@adi.org

Augusta Leadership Team On Using Indistar 

"We were in deep when we started with Indistar, hoping to get through today and maybe tomorrow and not focusing on the list of things we were supposed to be doing. We knew we were supposed to be doing them but we had no idea how," shares Jessica Stone, K-12 Literacy Coach.

Anything new feels clumsy at first. The night before my first day of teaching I lost sleep over when and how to make copies (I had made them at Staples prior to the start of school and I vaguely remembered hearing something about using a code...). It wasn't long before I was a copy-making expert, but I didn't show up that way. Copies, teaching, leading, improving...none of us show up as experts. But we get there. 

The Leadership Team in Augusta, Arkansas started with a conversation. An uninterrupted, protected, conversation that happened every week. Here is their process for figuring HOW to do it.

1. Schedule time to meet. Do not, under any circumstances, cancel.

The first step in building their process for improvement was to meet. They started with one hour every single week and worked their way up. Nothing moved this time. Protecting it demonstrated that the TEAM mattered and their time was valued. It demonstrated that the work was really really important.

It reminded me of a rule from childhood. My mother told me and my three siblings that we were not, under any circumstances, to call her at work unless we were bleeding from an artery or knocked unconscious. Some rules are definitely not meant for breaking.

2. Start with a few.

Like many schools, Augusta was required to assess, plan for, implement, and monitor several indicators of effective practice. But they weren't just tackling lots of indicators of effective practice; they were also learning how to work together differently. They were building language and common understanding about improvement, instruction and learning (and the role each of them played). They were developing a readiness to learn and change. They were practicing how to be vulnerable about their own struggles and successes without fear of judgement. They were replacing judgement (and fear of it) with genuine care and support for their colleagues and experiencing the most transformational relationships and professional growth of their careers. They were even figuring out how to project from the computer onto the screen (we've all been there).

Selecting a few indicators (rather than tackling all of them) gave the team space to do all of those things at the same time they were advancing on their improvement work. Talking candidly about what it means to assess students using a variety of methods and how well or often it was happening in their school became this team's version of trust-building games at an outdoor retreat: their trust-building was anchored in a specific practice related to teaching and learning, their fresh thinking was their fresh air, the action steps they built together for what would happen next was the sunshine filtered through green leaves on a shady tree. 

"Once we got the process moving, we were much more successful adding in indicators rather than trying to do them all at once"--Richard Greer, math coach and Leadership Team member.

"It wasn't always like this, our culture of trust and honesty. We have struggled together every week, sometimes every day, though some tough realizations and difficult decisions. But now it is always in the best interest of our students. It is not personal when someone challenge us. We know it is all about academic achievement and making sure that we are not just doing good enough--but that we are fully implementing the indicators of effective practice in every classroom in the best possible way for our kids."

3. Rely on the Research (Even conduct your own).

The Leadership Team talked about their use of the Wise Ways research within Indistar to guide their focus and discussions about the indicators of effective practice and to understand exactly what achieving schools do and to establish a common vision for what it will look like in their school. Student engagement was an area the team returned to over and over again each week. They reviewed the research in their Leadership Team, with teachers during instructional team meetings, and even sought help from an external partner on collecting and gathering evidence that would measure up with what Wise Ways expected.

They also interviewed students about what teachers did that was engaging and was not engaging. Their responses were "right on with the research." 

"Having our student voices, supported by research, gave us a solid foundation and platform for making changes to instruction and technique with teachers. We said, 'Our students are saying this, research is also saying this, so how will we make it happen? It was what we needed to get out teachers involved and hear their ideas and get their buy-in for making changes,"--Jessica Stone

To learn more about this district and its schools, how they moved off of the state identification list, and the percentage of their high school students that are graduating and have been accepted into post-secondary education, read the full story here.


We all have a story and we'd love to hear yours. Those who have already worked with me have shared that they were not prepared for the impact that reading their story in writing would have: pride, accomplishment, joy, triumph. No matter how small or how big a story or success or experience--those sharing them and then reading them say that it amplified the resolve and commitment of their teams, of their school, at just the right moment.  To get started, email me here (write in Maureen Mirabito) or at mmirabito@adi.org. I can't wait to work with you! 

Thank you.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, presents a portrait of the 16th president that is instructive to education and business leaders alike. Lincoln came to the presidency with little political experience and even less support from those who ran against him. Yet he selected several of his competitors to serve in his cabinet. Through the brief period of his administration these “rivals” came to respect and even revere him, both privately and publicly. How did he accomplish holding the country together and ultimately abolishing slavery given these obstacles, and what does he teach us about leadership?

Surround yourself with the best people, including rivals with different views on issues, who have strong egos and are willing to challenge your opinions.

Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary, had ambitions to be president. He ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination and was continually undermining the president to Lincoln’s cabinet, congress, and the rest of the country. However, as long as he was doing a good job at treasury, Lincoln respected and kept him on.

     Are there strong people on the Leadership Team who can represent their opinions with logical arguments?

Encourage debate and discussion and an airing of all perspectives on important issues.

For months Lincoln engaged his cabinet debating if and when slavery should be abolished. His cabinet represented a wide range of opinions on this topic. Ultimately he made the decision and informed his cabinet that there would no longer be debate. He then wanted suggestions about how to best implement his decision and issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The downside to encouraging debate can be that you constantly are arguing and at some point you have to cut off debate make a decision. The upside of debating is that everyone is heard.

     Is debate and discussion encouraged at LT meetings? Is everyone heard? Is debate appropriately cut off when it is no longer productive? Are decisions then made that each participant can support because their opinion was heard?

Bring in people with different temperaments.

Lincoln brought in Edwin Stanton as secretary of war. Stanton was much tougher than Lincoln, particularly with how to deal with soldiers who had run away from battle. Lincoln was much more lenient, swayed by the personal stories of these soldiers. Stanton was relentless in punishing cowardice. Together they struck a balance.

Is there a mix of temperaments ( Learning Styles, Myers-Briggs types, etc) who can offer different perspectives on the issues? Can some people see the big picture and like to talk about these issues forever, while others help focus on the details and nitty-gritty of getting the work done? Do you have people who represent this range?

• Know (or learn) how to relax to replenish your energies for the struggles that will surely come

Lincoln attended the theater about 100 times, even during the worst of the war. He also entertained people with his legendary storytelling abilities.

What do LT members (and actually all staff members) do to relax and replenish their energies? Are they encouraged to find outlets that help achieve this goal?

• Let go of wrongs done to you or mistakes of those around you.

Lincoln had the ability to be magnanimous, even toward those who had failed him or tried to undermine him (Salmon Chase). Unfortunately, because he was willing to give people second chances, he failed to act decisively sometimes. Case in point was George McClellan, who was head of the union army at the beginning of the war. According to Goodwin, McClelland was “narcissistic and insubordinate,” to the point of ignoring Lincoln’s orders. He should have been fired early on, which she says would have saved thousands of lives.

Can your LT members (including you) move on from actual or perceived hurts or failures of others to perform?

• Take time to reflect!

Lincoln and those around him had this time because they didn't have 24-7 cable news, cell phones, computers, etc. They had time to discuss the issues and reflect before making their decisions. Seward, for example, wrote daily letters to his wife sharing what had transpired that day, providing him an opportunity to reflect.

Is adequate time and opportunity provided to reflect on the discussions and debates before decisions are made?

Following is the entire Harvard Business Review interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin on this topic of Lincoln and Leadership. We hope you enjoy reading it and encourage you to read the book Team of Rivals to delve more deeply into Lincoln’s ability to lead. Maybe we can’t all be Lincolns, but perhaps we can be more Linconesque in our leadership style.

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Fear Is Like A Bubble You Need to Pop

My children have been collecting acorns in spiderman buckets all weekend. My oldest wants to write messages of hope and inspiration on them and give them away with the lemonade they plan to sell at a stand next week. My three year old just wants to collect as many as he can and keep them all to himself. My one year is only interested in tormenting my three year old by threatening to steal the acorns for the explosive reaction it promises (it's all about cause and effect for him). My six year old isn't interested in either the acorns or the explosions. She's too busy putting on her cowgirl boots and soccer shorts and slinging a bow + arrow over her shoulder to be bothered with acorn matters. But she is paying close attention to the behaviors of her siblings and their triggers when it comes to them.

In the midst of a battle between brothers this morning I asked Peter, the three year old, what he was most afraid of when his little brother made a swipe for his acorns. I asked him what he was afraid would happen. He told me he was afraid Danny would take them. Take them where? I asked. He didn't know, just that he would take them. I asked him, Have you ever seen Danny going anywhere by himself, or even out of these two rooms? No, he said. He couldn't think of a time. Would he feel better knowing that I would help make sure his acorns stayed safe while Danny was playing with him? He nodded his head.

I explained to him that fears were normal but that we couldn't hold onto them, that we had to let them go just like the bubbles he loved to blow. Then Anna, my six year old, chimed in from the corner she was dancing (and overhearing) in. She very calmly and confidently pointed out, "Oh, riggggghht. The bubbles are our fears. They float around and we can't quite catch them but we can pop them by touching them and if we can't reach them, we can ask someone to help us."

Bingo. We can let them go, pop them. We can always ask someone to help us.

Sometimes I struggle in confidence because so much of my life involves observing and guiding the antics and development of four small children (probably not always well), yet I'm writing articles and delivering coaching to adults. But when exchanges like these unfold before my eyes, I see my own adult behaviors and fears in them too.

Rather than a living room, I'm usually in a board room or at a conference table. I'm thinking about the roles that team members fall into (me included)--those with the ideas, who want to bring hope and inspiration, those who point out the challenges, those who expand on the possibilities, those who are afraid of failure, others who are afraid of success, those ready to take action, those who want to hold on tightly to what is in place right now. We are not devising ways to fiercely protect acorns, but we could easily replace acorns with something else--budgets, projects, programs, lesson plans, instructional strategies, procedures.

And there is an important place for all of those roles and often we all take turns playing them. We need to challenge ideas and think through their implementation. We must anticipate problems and snags. I have rarely encountered a great idea that wasn't made even better by different perspectives. Discussion and disagreement should always be part of the disruption, improvement, or transformation process--whatever it is. But we have to be careful that the disagreements and discussions are driven by courage and growth and not by fear. The times I have seen teamwork and the possibility and excitement of it fall apart is when members have used their expertise to protect their fears.

When we enter a meeting or a discussion or a project where we want to make things better, especially for kids, the most incredible and productive experiences are the ones where we come to the table as humans and get comfortable sharing what we don't know, what we are afraid of but what we hope for. That kind of approach is a contagious one, it catches. And before you know it, you're a room full of people who know some things but together, you're learning a lot more things. You share ideas, you confess fears you've yet to name, and your colleagues are making it okay for you to pop them or helping you reach them if you can't. Suddenly there is a lot more space in your mind and in your life to explore and improve and create with others.

I was coaching someone recently who was preparing for an assignment that he thought was new to him, but wasn't really. The situation was different, the circumstances. But the people were no different than those he had helped in other ways and in different places before. I asked him what he was afraid of, what made him most nervous. He was concerned that he hadn't served in the same capacity as those he would be working with, hadn't walked in their shoes.

Even though he had, that wasn't even the point. The people needed someone who could help them to think clearly about what they were doing really well and what they could stand to improve, to understand exactly what excellence looked like and felt like to them, to develop actions and assignments that would move them all closer to behaving and performing in excellent ways. This friend knew how to do all of those things expertly. He knew how to make it okay for them to be an expert and have fears and demonstrate courage in overcoming them. He was modeling it for them now.

I told him what I tell a lot of people I work with: We are all 7th graders. We all try on and wear masks to shield the parts of us that might not be cool or right or smart. The parts that might be judged by others. The parts that make us human and great and full of hope and willing to learn. Why would we ever want to cover that up? As someone once pointed out, the irony is that when we take off those masks, we become less judgmental of ourselves and others; we make it okay for others to take off their masks too.

We are all 7th graders and we want nothing more than for our actual 7th graders to raise their hand when they have a question, to smile wide with their shiny braces, to speak up even if their voice might crack, to wear stonewashed denim if that's what they're most comfortable doing. We want them to be who they are and we want their peers to accept them and help them and encourage them.

It sounds a lot like what we all want for our colleagues and friends too. Our students. Our children. It sounds a lot like what we want for ourselves. 

Call to Action (share your responses in the Comments section below)

Have you ever been afraid? Did you always know what you were afraid of or did you have to think it through? Did it prevent you from enjoying your work, building relationships, growing in your learning? How did you overcome it?

Tell us about the best teaming experience you have had. What made it the best? 

Additional Resources

The Structures These Teams Use To Succeed

Five Things You Need to Know About Indistar

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I've been interviewing principals, leadership team members, and teachers about their work to build a culture of learning, possibility, and personal best for the entire school community. From the interviews come stories of inspiration and perseverance. But not just that. The stories become play books and professional development, giving us ideas and examples of actions that work--the actual things these educators do day in and day out to make their schools a place where teachers love to be, where children know they belong, where individual progress toward learning and mastery are the standards to which all behaviors and practices are measured and, when needed, changed or adjusted. They are stories of struggle and triumph. They are stories of belief. The stories also, as my colleague Mark Williams observed, provide a language for every educator to talk about what they are trying to do and why.

I will begin to share the stories here on IndistarConnect each week, with some discussion + reflection prompts for you to use with your colleagues in leadership team, instructional team, or whole-school faculty meetings. There is so much we can learn from each other. We are all in this together. 

Common throughout all of the stories is the involvement of the principal in supporting teachers to improve their instruction. They have different styles and varying levels of instructional experience--but in all cases, they find the way to be involved with teachers, to connect them, to make it easy for them to get better.

Amanda Smillie, one of the principal that I interviewed, had this to say about her involvement in instructional matters:

I call offices black holes. If I stay in my office too long, I know I will get sucked into the day-to-day operations. I make it a priority to spend at least two hours per day in classrooms. I conduct daily classroom observations and attend professional learning communities (PLCs); I hold data meetings with teachers where to look at achievement data, formative assessment data, and behavioral data. I pull small groups of students for instruction—this year the lowest achieving groups in fourth and fifth grade to build up their weaknesses. I don’t ask my teachers to do anything that I am not doing myself, including delivering great instruction.

One of the indicators of effective practice identified as having great impact on elevating performance and outcomes is the principal spending at least 50 percent of his/her time working directly with teachers to improve instruction. 

Recently, Larry Kugler sat down with Andrew Davis, the principal of Round Hill Elementary School in Virginia to talk about how he manages his time to ensure at least half of it is spent working directly with teachers to improve instruction. Larry recorded the interview on video, which I extracted to create an interactive learning experience using Zaption, a free (upgrades for a fee) web-based tool that I was really excited to find. A new trick up my sleeve. Watch and interact with the video here and then create your own.

Note:  The width limitation of Ning does impact full visibility of this video but you can manipulate its placement with your cursor. You can also access the video in a separate window with this link: http://zapt.io/tkhd67cu

Call to Action:

Tell us how you or your principal are making time to work directly with teachers to improve instruction and what kind of impact that has had on your learning culture.

Additional Reading:

How Can I Dedicate 50 Percent of My Time Working Directly with Teachers?

Read more…

Six Things I Want For Teachers

This post was originally published on June 8, 2015.

I just returned from my daughter's Kindergarten graduation at a nearby state park. The children and their families arrived with picnic lunches and sunscreen (which were promptly ditched in favor of the football field-sized playground equipment made from wood and tires that begged to be climbed and skipped across). 

After a time, we made our way to the stone shelter where the children sang us songs they had learned and we all ate our lunches together. 

I am quite sure that my daughter's teacher is among the best that I have ever had the opportunity to know and watch and learn from. I also know this by the way my daughter thinks out loud when she's trying to solve a problem (what do I really want to know? what clues can I find to help me know more?), or read a word that isn't familiar to her (what does the picture tell me? what sounds can I make out?). I can hear her asking the questions that she has heard Ms. Weatherholtz ask herself out loud again and again and again.

It's appropriate that we are at a playground to celebrate this important day. All year long the children have played and stretched and climbed their way to first grade's door. They have been supported and encouraged and taught to look for learning in everything--a conversation with a friend, a rest in the shade, a game of hide and seek, dress up and make believe.

As a parent, you think about what you want for your children. As an educator, you think about what you want for all children. You want each of them to have a Mrs. W in their lives, someone who loves them, accepts them, challenges them, and disciplines them. Who teaches them to think, to go a little bit deeper, to self-discipline, to take a risk, to get back up and try and try again.

Feeling a little nostalgic (as these soon-to-be-first graders hummed a tune on their blue kazoos), I began to recount the year that had just passed and the years that lay ahead. As all parents do, I thought about what I wanted for my daughter, what I wanted for her classmates. And when my eye caught Mrs. W, kneeling on the floor in front of them puffing away on her own blue kazoo, I started to think about what I wanted for her, and all the teachers doing the same thing for so many in their classrooms. I thought about this as a parent and as an educator. What I came up with are takes on some of my favorite indicators of effective practice. Each of them requires a culture of trust, honesty, and shared commitment to grow and improve together. 

The list:

I want her to know how much I value her and how much my children value her. I want the school community to make sure she knows how much they value her, too.

This might be a card in her box once in a while, a little gift card to her favorite coffee shop. It might be a surprise release from her class so that she can get down to the Oriole's game a little early, maybe take in the warm ups with a cold drink and a hot dog. It might just be genuine eye-contact at pick up one afternoon that says thank you for all that you do without saying anything at all. Or it's the pull aside before school one morning to tell her, we know that you do so much and we appreciate every single detail it takes to do it. It's feeling as welcome and appreciated outside of her classroom as she feels inside of it. 

I want her to have engaging, stimulating, let's get better together conversations with her colleagues. A lot. I want them built into their day so that it is easy for them, so they can talk about our children and their strengths, their needs, and share with one another ideas they have for doing what they do EVEN BETTER.

The adrenaline rush from a great, problem-solving, brain-stretching session is what keeps us all coming back. It's when we are at our best, when we know we have more to give and to learn and to improve. Teachers need and deserve the time to engage in professional, student and instructionally-focused conversations with their colleagues. Sure it's tough to find the time to fit it into the day, to shuffle schedules around and ensure coverage for classes, but like all things--if it is a priority, it can happen. If we stop feeding a great teacher's desire to be even greater, they will starve. They might even look for that nourishment elsewhere, which would be devastating to our children, especially when it could have been provided all along. 

I want all children to benefit from the kind of instruction that Mrs. W delivers. I'm not talking about just the content. I'm talking about all of it: how she greets them when they come into the classroom, how they know EXACTLY what the rules and procedures are for every phase of the day, how they are expected to treat one another, how there are many ways to solve a problem, like asking different questions or explaining the problem to a friend. 

It isn't just the primary grades that would benefit from Mrs. W's strategies, it's every single grade, K-12 and probably beyond. But unless the principal is getting in to observe her, unless there is time for peers to sit in and watch too, unless there is time built into the schedule for collaborative and collegial sharing and professional development, unless there is time set aside for teachers to articulate about children and curriculum, instructional and classroom management strategies, it is possible that what worked so well for 27 children in a Kindergarten class will end at their Kindergarten graduation.

I want her to know how incredible it is that she teaches each student to mastery, that she differentiates her instruction based on where each child is in achieving mastery. I know this is isn't easy and I know it takes extra time, but while each child might be at a different spot, she is stretching every one of them further than they were the day before. Until finally, they are masters.

Whether she realizes it or not, Mrs. W uses constant assessment to determine what additional skills or knowledge children need before they are ready to move on. You can tell in the way she asks questions (always challenging, always engaging), you can tell in what she is focusing on in centers (or small group instruction-- heterogeneously grouped, differentiated activities and opportunities to learn). She provides a monthly calendar for parents full of daily homework activities that build on the day's lesson. There is always an enrichment companion, too, so that parents can expect more of their children at home if they have already met the objective.  

I want her to be awesome at using instructional technology to deliver instruction, to gauge student learning, to communicate ideas. I want her to be awesome in modeling it for our children and providing them opportunities to use it to communicate their learning, too. I want her to not have to worry that she is behind the curve on it; I want her to know that she will be provided all the support that she needs, even when she doesn't know she needs it.

Technology is changing what is possible in education and it is hard to keep up. Mrs. W was a master at using technology to deliver assignments to children over a winter that saw A TON of snow days. But still, I have heard her and many other teachers express a desire to know more--not just what's available, but to know exactly how they can use technology (and when/or if it's a better way) to provide differentiated learning opportunities to students, to assess their learning, to communicate ideas and knowledge between students and colleagues. I want them to know that they will receive training AND detailed demonstrations of how technology applies to their instruction and their student's learning. (I do not have the answer or a plan for that, by the way. So if you do, PLEASE SHARE).

I want her to have a restful, relaxing summer. But I want her to know where she can go to read up on research that never grows old and research that is just coming on the scene.

Summer is a great time to recalibrate. And in doing so, we make room in our brains and our behaviors to know more, to evolve, to get better. I'd love to provide her with a place she can go when she has a minute to be inspired, to be informed, to be challenged. A place she can reflect and share her reflections, and learn from other's reflections, too.

As I think about it, IndistarConnect would be a GREAT place for that to happen. So to all the Mrs. W's out there, or those who just love them and want the best for them, too: Please use this space to share what you know, ask what you don't, find what you need, and tell us what it is YOU want--for yourself, for your teachers, for your children, and your students. 

Don't Miss

Last week's post, highlighting the journey toward improvement in the Augusta, Arkansas School District. As we release these stories, the teachers and principals, and leadership team members are willing to answer questions you have after reading their story. This is a great opportunity for us to dig deeper into the ACTUAL practices that real life people in real life schools are implementing to achieve big (unthought of, really) changes and improvements in teaching and learning.

Read it HERE and then tell me what you'd love the team to tell you more about.

Call To Action:

Teachers, what do you want?

Administrators, parents, students, board members, community members: what do you want for your teachers?


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This week I’d like to deviate from my usual approach writing my blog to talk about something personal.  Yesterday as I was reading the Washington Post with my morning coffee, my eyes caught a headline in the local section that a former superintendent had died.  As a 30-year veteran of the largest local school system and a follower of local districts, I was naturally drawn to the article to see who it was.

 As I read I was saddened to see it was a superintendent I had worked for. His name was Bud Spillane, and he served as superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) for 12 years (1985-1997), which is an incredibly long tenure for a superintendent.  FCPS was and still is a very large school system.  At the time I think it was the 10th largest school district in the country with a population of about 150,000 students. Today it has over 180,000.  It’s also become extremely diverse.  One in every six students qualifies for free and reduced meals and the same percentage are second language learners. That translates into over 30,000 students in each category, with a great deal of overlap.  The county is now about 50% minority with students from over 100 nations speaking as many languages.

 During Bud’s tenure, this diversity really accelerated. Bud was about addressing not only the issue of equality, but of equity as well.  He initiated two very important programs, which dealt head on with the equity issue.  The first was providing additional funding and staffing for schools impacted by the increasing diversity and poverty.  This initiative directly impacted the schools with which I worked, as I was the Title I coordinator, which served 34 of our elementary and middle schools.  Once implemented and funded locally, federal law could not pay for them with Title I funds, so this demonstrated a long-term commitment he was making.  The second initiative was to reduce the student-teacher ratio to 15:1 in first and second grades in these identified schools. Although Title I funds could be used in schoolwide programs to accomplish this goal, Bud decided the system would also make this long-term commitment. And he supported the professional development necessary to help teachers take advantage of the reduced ratio.  This was no small feat because the political pressures from parents and community was to serve all the students, particularly those of high-powered and influential families. But Bud believed that the system needed to provide additional resources for students who did not have the benefits of their more advantaged peers.

How he implemented the Reduced-Ratio program speaks to two important lessons Bud taught all of us who worked for him and that’s really the reason I chose to write this blog.  The first was that sometimes it’s better to apologize than seek permission.  He lived by this motto and encouraged us to do so as well, even if it if sometimes raised his ire.  One way in which this played out was when he announced the Reduced Ratio program during his August welcome back to the school year speech (carried via closed circuit TV in those days). He had given no warning to the school board or to his closest advisors. I worked for the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Nancy Sprague, who was watching his welcome with us.  When he announced that not only would we implement this program, but that it would begin immediately, we all looked at Nancy, incredulous, realizing the facilities, personnel, and professional development implications of his announcement.  Well, he was talked out of the decision to implement immediately, but held fast to beginning the program in January, still a monumental task.  His decision was certainly not popular in all circles and although he didn’t quite have to apologize, he didn't ask permission. The program still persists in highly impacted schools.

The second and more important lesson, was pretty well stated in the Post’s article in this way:

“What he saw as his job was to keep the school system focused on the children, the teachers and the classroom,” longtime Fairfax school board member Jane Strauss said. “And he did that.

 And Bud real did this.  His approach was synthesized into these words, “Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing.”  Now I know Stephen Covey is credited with creating this mantra, but I’d like to think Bud Spillane was one of the first to realize it’s power and to use it so effectively. However, when he began using it at meetings and speeches, we rolled our eyes because it sounded so cliché.  But he really meant it.  He meant it for teachers and school administrators. But he also meant it for us in Instructional Services who wrote the curriculum and provided the professional development. He also meant it for facilities planners, food service providers, and bus drivers.  At his leadership team meetings, when they would discuss any issue, Bud would ask how it affected student learning? He always brought the discussion and the decision back to this fundamental point – The Main Thing.

 Years later I find myself still asking this question when working with education groups to help refocus discussions that sometimes can veer off the main thing. I’d like to think this helps keep the main thing the main thing, which is still and always will be student learning.

Thanks, Bud!

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This week‘s blog completes my review of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) series School Leadership In Action: Principal Practices.  The fifth and final segment is titled Managing People, Data, and Processes.

The two principals focus on the same important theme: protecting the principal’s time so that s/he can serve as the instructional leader in the building.  Each of them designates one staff member (an administrative assistant in one case, and one of the assistant principals in the other) to provide two important services.  The first is to help with scheduling and to serve as the building manager.  One of these principals sits down with her AP every day to go over her schedule and deal with any building issues that will interfere with her ability to provide instructional leadership.  

The second service is to guard the principal’s time. The two differ in the way they address this issue. One identifies her personal secretary to serve as a barrier to make decisions about what comes to the principal and what goes to the APs. The secretary intercepts teachers, parents, and community members with the principal’s authorization to make these decisions. The other principal establishes roles and responsibilities for the staff so if there is an issue, each person knows who to go to – and it’s not always the principal. 

Of course the reason they each work so hard to protect their time is that they each see their role as the instructional leader in their building. And what exactly does that mean to each of them?  What does the instructional leader do?  And in what ways does each person fulfill this role?  Among the guiding principles and the ways in which they define instructional leadership are:

  • The majority of the day must be spent on instructional leadership.
  • The analysis of data drives instructional decisions at the leadership and instructional team levels.
  • Every day one has a cabinet meeting with the two assistant principals. They review the day and check which observations they have completed and which walkthroughs they are doing that day.
  • One of the principals and her APs each do about 3-4 write-ups of walkthroughs and observations per week.
  • The focus for all classroom visits is to ensure that instruction is standards based and the work reflects the school’s instructional focus.
  • Being in classrooms and providing professional development during team meetings where observed exemplary practices are shared with other teachers.

You can view this segment by clicking on the screen below.

As a feature of this series, a Discussion Guide is attached here.  There are some excellent questions to help guide viewing of these videos should you decide to use them with your Leadership Team or staff.

I’d like to present one additional perspective on what it means to be an instructional leader in a building, specifically in response to indicator IE08, which states:

 The principal spends at least 50% of his/her time working directly with teachers to improve instruction, including classroom observations. (59).

I’ve presented some of the ways in which these principals meet this indicator.  In addition, I’d like you to hear what Andrew Davis, a Virginia principal, has to say about this indicator. Last year Andrew received the Washington Post‘s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Loudon County. I know I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in my blogs since I became aware of the good work he did at an Indistar school, Rolling Ridge Elementary.  Recently, he was good enough to sit down with IndistarConnect and share some of his insights. Please click on his picture to view the interview.

I hope you hear something in his interview that inspires you to share ways in which you protect your time so that you can provide instructional leadership in your building. We look forward to hearing from you.



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This post originally appeared on March 10, 2015.

Please share your reactions to this article in the Comments section below.


We understate the potential of Indistar by describing it as a tool or a system for planning improvement.

It is that, sure. But it’s not JUST that. It also, has the potential to create a rhythm for what happens in a school—how people move individually and together, how they engage, interact, behave, how strengths and weaknesses are modulated and regulated, how events and activities ebb and flow, how expectations, structures, processes, are refined and repeated and continuously elevated. How learning improves and cultures change. Completely.

A couple of years ago, Sam Redding (Indistar visionary and creator) and I co-authored a short paper on the work of Indistar—what it requires (teams), how it works (great), what it can do for schools (teams, teachers, families, students), what it requires the people in the school community to do for kids. I’ve extracted and adapted a few highlights and organized them into smaller points. 

Find the paper in its entirety attached below.

 1.     Indistar—and the ultimate goal of every student succeeding--depends on teams of people.            

 Think of a time you earned something. Really earned it. Succeeded. Chances are you didn’t will success; you worked hard at it. You focused your time (more in some areas than in others) and your effort (a little more here, a lot more there). You showed up early and went home late because you had a strong conviction for making it happen. You got the people around you involved and even a bit excited. They showed you a way you hadn’t thought of; you showed them that their way mattered.

Success in districts and schools works the same way. Students learn more (and better) when people in the school focus their time and effort on elevating their specific teaching, leading, connecting, and learning skills. They work hard at it. Consistently. Habitually. They get others involved and excited to do the same. Soon they are not just people in a school. They are the team of the school. Maybe the Leadership Team directs the action but the Instructional Teams execute it--and probably even suggest ways to improve it. The whole school becomes a team and the performance of every player counts.

 2.     No excuses: Indistar lays out what adults must do to help children succeed.

Indistar is premised on the understanding that districts and schools improve and succeed when three things are present and balanced:

  • specific expectations for professional practice;
  • personal investment and engagement to improve the school (i.e. student learning);
  • a climate of candor and trust.

Candor means unadorned honesty in examining the professional practice of everyone with the only aim to provide the right supports that will help them improve and achieve the best results for students.

Indistar has simplified and organized the research, translated it into clear statements of effective professional practice (skills), and built a platform where school and district teams can prioritize the skills (what will have the greatest impact immediately), create action steps for making them happen (who will do what and when), and communicate progress around them (here’s what’s working, here’s where we need to do better). It doesn’t do the work of district or school improvement for you, but Indistar makes it easier for you prioritize the work, communicate it, and stay on top of it. Considering the amount of distractions that creep up in a school day (okay, a school hour) that kind of support is critical.

 3.     Indistar was not named after an actual star, but its specificity and organization are really quite brilliant.

Indistar is built upon a specific set of practices or skills that people must apply diligently to successfully improve the school. They are called indicators of effective practice (note the indi in Indistar). An indicator of effective practice is a concrete, behavioral expression of a professional practice that contributes to student learning, supported by research. It is expressed in plain language so that a school team can answer easily and with certainty whether it is present or not present. The less gray area the better.

Likened to the concept of “drilling down”—moving through a hierarchy of information from the top, downwards into levels of greater detail—indicators of effective practice are the deep, specific expressions of effective practice. They are what effective practice “looks like.”

But we can (and should) dig even deeper (which Indistar does): if we are to sharpen our skills and improve, we need indicators of effective practice that “show” what the alignment looks like and how it is achieved. We need specifics.

For example, Instructional Teams develop standardsaligned units of instruction for each subject and grade level would be one indication that teachers are engaged in effective alignment. Other indicators include: Units of instruction include standards-based objectives and criteria for mastery. And Objectives are leveled to target learning to each student’s demonstrated prior mastery based on multiple points of data (i.e., unit tests and student work).

Of course, other effective practices and their indicators would provide guidance for Instructional Teams and the nature of their work. The relationships among teams, practices, and indicators are important; some are building blocks for others. Specificity matters. The interrelationship of effective practices and their indicators matters. Ensuring that everyone (everyone) routinely exercises the practice matters.

 4.     Indistar Provides A Collaborative Platform for Improving Professional Skills + Performance (think performance management).

The Indistar system guides school or district Leadership Teams in making an informed assessment of very specific, detailed indicators of effective practice and their current level of implementation: 1. Do we have the skills? 2. Do we demonstrate the ability to execute the skills? 3. Do we execute them routinely? 4. Do we execute them flawlessly?

The Leadership Team’s assessment process within Indistar is informed by links to briefs of the underlying research (Wise Ways) and examples of implementation. Web-based modules, Indicators in Action, provide real-life video demonstration of the indicators by school leaders, teacher teams, teachers, and parent leaders.

The Indistar system links the school, district, and state, so that coaches can review the work of the team and provide on-going and regular support. Reports on plans, activities, and progress are generated by district and school teams and submitted electronically to the state, replacing previously required paper plans. Because the system utilizes a continuous improvement process, the plans span annual reporting dates and remain in effect until the team provides evidence of full implementation of the indicators. Over time, the cycle is repeated to ensure that practices have become school-wide, routine, and consistent/flawless.

 5.     Indistar primes the path for success and innovation.

Indistar guides the improvement process, keeps it moving, and focuses the teams on specific areas to improve so that their time can be spent assembling the solutions, innovating the approaches.

While indicators of effective practice are necessary and useful, the real change happens (and sticks) when the people, the teams, have clarity of purpose (why are we here, what will we achieve) and understand the unique contributions they bring to the work (what is my value, how can I provide it better).

Indistar provides the research and the specific practices to improve performance but it leaves it up to you to decide HOW to do it. Understanding what effective practice looks like is one thing; giving people the flexibility to determine how they will apply the practice or develop the skill and achieve success breeds innovation, builds trust, and ignites enthusiasm in others. Soon you have a tipping point of improved performance, innovative mindsets, and increased student learning. 

Putting It All Together

Indistar has taken the best of research and turned it into simple, actionable language that people can understand and implement. It is web-based, so teams can input, track, and monitor progress in real-time. It is efficient, allowing schools and districts to design and submit relevant and useful reports specific to their needs and to those whom they are accountable. It is humble, populated with the teaching, leading, and learning skills (the what) that have proven time and time again to improve performance, but taking a backseat to the creativity, ingenuity, and experience of the educators who will implement them (the how).

Indistar is useful for all of these reasons (and so many more that you will discover as you use it with greater candor, trust, and high expectation). But Indistar works because of the people, the teams, who work hard at examining their individual and collective practice so that students can learn more (and better); who focus their time (more in some areas than in others) and their effort (a little more here, a lot more there) to perfect their skills and help students perfect theirs. Indistar works because of the people, the teams, who start early and end late because they have a new idea or a problem to solve and a strong conviction for getting it right.

Call to Action

Do you have something to add or share about Indistar and how it works for you? Please leave a comment below or add a post to Your Reflections

Additional Resources:

Download the full paper here, Indistar: A Different Kind of Work

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OK. Last week I got off my chest the dilemma we all face when reading educational research – that is, what to do when the research is inconsistent.  My hope is that it provided some valuable ideas. So now let’s move on to the last three points in the CCSSO series on School Leadership In Action segment on Creating a Climate Hospitable To Education. If you’d like to review this segment, click on the screen below.

Educate the whole child and provide supports where necessary.

 Much has been written on this topic. However, much of the recent emphasis in education has been on the narrow concept of academic achievement, often at the expense of teaching the whole child.  Yet we know that by addressing the unique personal and social/emotional aspects of the learner, we can be so much more effective as teachers.

There have been many lenses through which to view “the whole child.”   Howard Gardner has written extensively about multiple intelligences. Daniel Goleman popularized the concepts of Social/Emotional intelligence.

Programs have been developed based on the understanding that learners are different and can best be reached through multiple approaches. Bernice McCarthy’s 4-MAT method is one such approach.  4-MAT is based on the belief that there are different types of learners and the delivery of instruction can address these different types.  As McCarthy states, “What should all students know? It is simply the wrong question to ask the 21st Century Learner. The key question is what competencies should they have.” – Bernice McCarthy.

 Which brings us to Sam Redding’s series on Personal Competencies. Sam proposes four competencies, which I’ll reproduce here from The Something Other: Personal Competencies for Learning and Life:

  • “Cognitive Competency – prior learning that organizes the mind and provides associations and understanding to facilitate new learning
  • Metacognitive Competency – self-regulation of learning and use of learning strategies
  • Motivational Competency – engagement and persistence in pursuit of learning goals
  • Social/Emotional Competency – sense of self-worth, regard for others, and emotional understanding and management to set positive goals and make responsible decisions”

 Sam expands on these personal competencies and provides both broad conceptual guidance and concrete ways for the school community, the school, and the classroom to support students in the development of the competencies. The entire series can be found at the CIL site at this address:   http://www.centeril.org/research/

In addition, two other publications were created in response to a request from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS) for information on the practical application of personalized learning concepts by teachers.

Personal Competencies/Personalized Learning: Lesson Plan Reflection Guide

 Personal Competencies/Personalized Learning: Reflection on Instruction

  • Engage and listen to parents.

We all have access to our own excellent School Community Network. As stated on the home page,

“The School Community Network is in the business of connecting classrooms to kitchen tables. We've developed a suite of services and a Resource Library that help teams work together to evaluate and fortify family engagement practices and create learning environments — at school and at home — where students thrive.

Our Building Block framework supports districts and schools initiating and sustaining a systemic approach to engage families in student learning. Our program components, tools, and resources are organized by our Building Block framework which makes it easier for users to match tools and resources with family engagement objective planning and implementation.

Each of our services is designed to be used in combination with the others or as stand-alone tools for self-evaluation and planning for school improvement in the area of family engagement.”

This is a great resource, packed with relevant research, resources, and tools for connecting home with school.  Which brings me to another point. I need to be completely transparent here.  I have been tremendously influenced by my wife, Eileen Kugler, who has worked in this area for two decades and whose most recent book, Innovate Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities, specifically addresses ways in which educators can engage and listen to parents.  She gathered stories and practices from 17 educators around the world.  They range from classroom teachers to school administrators and from educational consultants to state, university, and community leaders. Their message is consistent – parents (particularly, but not exclusively, parents from diverse communities) are critical partners in education and bring great value to teaching when we engage and listen to them.  Parents and families bring insights and knowledge that are often undervalued in schools. You can read the review of her book from the School Community Network by clicking on the title of her book above.

  •  Have teachers visit each other’s classrooms to observe good practices and provide time to debrief in a trusting, risk-free environment.

It’s about collaboration and the culture of candor.  There are teachers in your school who have strengths that others can benefit from, by seeing and talking about them.  But the key ingredients are providing the time, space, and safety to have these conversations.  Both Maureen Mirabito and I have written blogs about the benefits of collaboration, so I will refer you to those and hope that what we have to say inspires you to provide these key ingredients. 

Do You Hear the Hum, Feel the Tremor?

What Can Abraham Lincoln Teach Us About Leadership?

What Kind of Leader You Are and Why It Matters

What Works - Collaboration Works!

If you’re not there yet, this summer is a great time to get started by working on the master schedule to provide the necessary time.  If you’ve already accomplished that goal, what else can you do to improve upon an already successful start? Please share your approaches to providing the key ingredients of time, space, and safety. Or respond to anything I've raised in this blog. Your colleagues across the country are waiting to hear from you!

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My first job out of college was with IBM in the Human Resources Department. I worked in Endicott, New York—the company’s birthplace (and not too far from my own). Mostly, I worked on hiring and talent spotting for the various departments and business areas. I also developed training programs around the kinds of things that are good to know and develop when you are solving problems, developing products, and delivering services with people and their different styles of learning and doing.  HR was housed along one hallway on a basement floor. My office was small, but it was mine. There was even a window, which was just right for watching feet pitter and patter past. When I met new people in my building, I’d look them in the eye but then I’d look down at their shoes. Most people put names with faces. I’d put shoes with them.

My desk faced a large whiteboard that I used to scribble and splatter ideas and plans and deadlines across. Someone had left behind one of the small iconic IBM “THINK” signs and so I propped it on the whiteboard marker tray. “THINK” was the first thing I saw, eye-level, when I glanced up from my work. It reminded me—young, romantic, ambitious—that I worked at a great company and not to forget it. It also reminded me to think. I loved that sign.  I still love that sign. Wikipedia tells of its origination like this:

At an uninspiring sales meeting Watson interrupted, saying The trouble with every one of us is that we don't think enough. We don't get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads. Watson then wrote THINK on the easel.

My little office with the little “THINK” sign was located directly across from the large conference room that we often got pulled into as managers and specialists of the human resources. It didn’t take long for me to observe that our time there was often spent solving an urgent problem, planning for a longer-term solution, fixing a snag, making it work.

But the conference room wasn’t just where problems were solved and ideas were developed and implemented. It was where we individually and as a team helped to build in each other those things that are good to know and do when you have problems to solve, products to build, and services to deliver. And there is an expectation that you will be the best at doing both.

And sometimes it was hard and frustrating and complex. Sometimes it was even sad. But it was usually, almost always, an experience where you could feel the elastic stretching further; knew you were learning something you maybe couldn’t name; softening a bit on something you’d always believed was firm. All this, because someone pulled you out of your office and put you in a room with other people to figure out how to be the best at what you do, together and apart.

And so it went with another great, first-class organization that I worked for after I left IBM (which is a great company and I didn’t forget that). It’s just that I was hired by two of THE BEST leaders in education that lived and breathed the THINK philosophy without ever having worked for the THINK company. There were also whiteboards and windows and really really high expectations to be the best at what you do and how you do it in this rural, upstate New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). But the problems were different and the services, too. But the opportunities for what we could accomplish—for kids, for teachers, for families—where resources (and not just human—all of them) were scarce, scarce, scarce.

There was a conference room there, too.

We pulled in students and teachers and researchers and parents to look hard at data and come up with an answer to problems like this perpetual one: why do we lose so many kids between 8th and 10th grade? What was that “V” shaped performance curve telling us? What will we do about it?

We brought in teachers from different counties but teaching the same grade level and conducted our own project-based learning session about “rigor”. Using their own, actual student work they talked about what they looked for in X school versus Y and Z school—and why was what they looked for different? How were these difference reflected in the student work?

In the midst of these discussions you’d pull yourself away only to peek back in again. You recognized what you were seeing: the elastic stretching a bit further; something learned that can’t be named; softening on ideas and behaviors once held firm.

Except this time, it was happening among stewards of a very very important human resource: our children, their teachers, everyone’s learning, and to be dramatic, the future—of education, of medicine, of trades, even of IBM.

I’m not as young now as I was then but I’m just as romantic. I’m not ambitious about my career but I’m ten times more so in what I know we can accomplish as teachers and leaders and educators for children.

It starts with space. You pull people out of their offices and classrooms and you put them in that space. They have ideas. They have solutions. You ask them what they believe your school can be and do and how they THINK you can be the best at doing it.

You let them THINK together. And you will hear the hum and feel the tremor and know that it is happening. You might even pull yourself away to peek back in and you will recognize it. You will recognize that something is happening with those people in that room that cannot happen when they are alone.

They are solving problems and building ideas. But even more importantly, they are building in each other all of those things that are good to know and do when you have children to help and to grow and to teach. And because there is an expectation that they be the best at it. 

There may not be a "THINK" sign, but there is space and time and opportunity to do important work and get better together. They will know they work at a great place that lets them do great things. And they will not forget it.

Additional Resources:

Structures These Teams Use

Stronger, Better Leadership Team


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For You.

You are busy, the world is big, and the amount of information in it is bigger. So we thought we would create a place where you can find useful, relevant, and interesting information that is also relevant to your work and the indicators of effective practice you have come to know and love. One place.

Use the information for your own personal development, even better, use it with your team!