This week I continue to review the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) series School Leadership In Action: Principal Practices.  The fourth of the five segments is titled Improving Instruction. I expected to hear and see some effective teaching techniques, but was treated to what I would call Part 2 of the previous segment Cultivating Leadership in Others

Both principals focused on developing teacher leaders as a way to improve instruction.  The first, Niki Brown, from Mary Harris “Mother” James Elementary School in Adelphi, Maryland, determined she needed to build teacher capacity to improve instruction.  She began by spending time observing to see which of her teachers had the ability to become leaders in her school.  Simultaneously she began building a culture of collaboration.  Her Leadership Team focused on data and incorporated cross-grade level conversations. 

Most interesting is that her teachers commented that the way she led was by asking questions and challenging her teachers to come up with solutions.  She “pushed back” to get them to think more deeply.

This issue about asking questions as a leadership technique resonates particularly this week because of two pieces I read. The first was as I was creating the IndistarConnect (IC) eBlast you received this Wednesday.  I highlighted an article that was posted in the Share Your Stuff section of IC titled, “Fast Company: The Man of Many Questions.”  The main point made by Brian Grazer, who is a Hollywood producer, is that he is most effective when he asks questions.  He suggests this approach has many benefits, including:

  • Getting people to make a case for their point, which requires answering both the big, important questions and the detail questions
  • Increasing the engagement of all those who work together
  • Asking questions that imply responsibility for the solution
  • Transmitting values without having to state them or to tell people what you want them to stand for
  • Establishing the culture of the community.

So much of what he has to say sounds just like Principal Brown and the way she approached building the capacity of her teachers. She did it by asking questions.  Her teachers took notice.  Do you think they may have adopted this approach in their teaching and asked more questions rather than giving directives and lecturing?  When you ask quality questions, the person (student) responding must do the thinking.

The second piece I read was a blog by Maureen Mirabito, one of my favorite authors.  She really inspires me and gets me thinking.  She wrote a great end-of-the-year blog titled, “Six Things I Want For Teachers.” Among the “Six Things” is the following section:

 “I want her to have engaging, stimulating, let's get better together conversations with her colleagues. A lot. I want them to be built into her 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. “

Embedded in Maureen’s hope for teachers is the ability to have open and honest (remember the Culture of Candor) conversations where questions are not only allowed, but are encouraged.  A phrase you’ll be hearing more often in your Indistar-related communications will be “Getting Better Together.” It is what really helps improve schools – the idea that building the capacity of the schools depends upon building the capacity of each one of us and that we all have something important to offer.  The essence of leadership is creating the culture that recognizes talent and finds ways to share that talent.  Being an astute observer and asking probing and challenging questions, as Principal Brown does, are two critical components necessary to achieving that goal.

 So asking questions is one key.  So, too, is recognizing talent and finding ways to share it.  Deirdre Keyes is the principal of PS/IS 206 Joseph Lamb Elementary School in Brooklyn, New York.  She is the other principal featured in this segment. She also emphasizes developing leaders, trusting them, and providing the support necessary for their development. One way she does this is by developing a “go-to” list.  This is a list of teachers who have particular strengths for other teachers to “go to” to improve their practice.   In addition, and to improve their practices, the principal supports teachers in small groups observing in each other’s classrooms.

 While this segment on Improving Instruction highlighted no specific teaching techniques, it did provide an interesting lens through which to improve instruction, one that is referenced in indicator IE02 which states, “The principal develops the leadership capacity of others in the school. (53).  This is one, of many, ways to improve instruction. We’d like to hear how you, if you’re a principal, improve instruction in your school.  If you are a teacher, how is instruction improved in your school? If you work at the district or the state, what do you do in your role to improve instruction in your schools?

Watch the entire segment on Improving Instruction by clicking on the screen below and then tell us your stories.  We’re all ears!

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href=""></a> and via email at
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