A Principal's Reflections

Education is a reflective practice. This blog provides my views on educational leadership, effective technology integration, innovation, and creating a student-centered learning culture.
  1. This post, like so many, has been inspired by something I read.  One of my favorite sites to glean more insight and knowledge on leadership is Inc.  Even though the site shares content specific to business growth and innovation so many of the articles and opinion pieces connect to leadership in the education space.  By using Flipboard I have instant access to many of the pieces that appear on Inc thanks to the fact that I have leadership set as one of my magazine categories.  If you are not using this app please download it to your mobile device.  It is one of the best ways to create your own personalized magazine based on your interests and social network activity that you can literally flip through.

    The other day Flipboard exposed me to this gem written by Nicolas Cole titled The Brutal Truth About Why Being a Leader is So Hard.  The premise of the article, as the title implies, is the inherent difficulties associated with any leadership position. Cole goes on to explain the following:


    "What's difficult about leadership is that nobody ever sits you down and "teaches" you what being a real leader is all about. There's no class in early education that defines leadership. Peers in group projects tend to label leaders as "overachievers" (and not in a good way). In college, leadership is reduced down to who is going to talk the most during a presentation. And even on sports teams, the leader is usually the best player--and wears a letter on his or her jersey as a trophy of their accomplishments."

    His synopsis really resonated with me.  It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges he or she will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  Learning about how to prepare a budget is entirely different than creating one on your own when all the unique challenges are factored in.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.  

    Looks can be, and are, deceiving.  Talking the talk has to be accompanied with walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done.  Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal who started drinking the digital and innovation Kool-Aid long ago – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” Modeling is one of the most impactful elements of leadership. It builds trust leading to powerful relationships.  

    Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction, but rather the collective efforts of all.  The premise of every decision and action has to be geared towards the “We” instead of “I”.  It’s not about coming up with all the ideas, but helping people implement not only the ones you develop, but also the ones that they develop. Leading from the front is an outdated style that doesn’t foster shared ownership.  



    It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  Work inside out to make leading a little easier by focusing on the why, how, and what in that order. Make the time to hone your communication skills, as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Mastering this art is no easy task and takes constant practice and reflection in order to improve.

    Regardless of your position leading is hard, yet gratifying work.  Keep an open mind, regularly reflect, pursue learning opportunities that push your thinking, and understand that you will never have all the answers (which is quite ok).  It is also helpful to be flexible.  I leave you with some more thoughts from Nicholas Cole that might just build greater leadership capacity in you and others:


    "True leadership is the ability to communicate and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for them. 
    It's the ability to be flexible. 
    When everyone else is stressed, you're calm. 
    When everyone else is out of gas, you inject more fuel. 
    When everyone else doesn't know what to do next, you lead by example. 
    When someone has an issue, you work with them and listen to them on a personal level."

    Stealing from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in education.  Just know that any change journey is not an easy one. 

  2. As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 


    Image credit: johnrchildress.files.wordpress.com

    Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

    Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  


    "I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

    Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

    • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
    • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
    • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
    • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

    Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

    Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

    It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort. 

  3. "People only see what they are prepared to see." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Life is full of twists and turns as well as ups and downs.  In my opinion, it is a never-ending test that determines the trajectory of our career paths.  It is not about passing or failing, but rather taking what we have learned to improve our position in life, whether that be professional or personal. Never did I once think that my professional life would have evolved as it has.  I was fortunate to become an administrator at the relative young age of 29. Three years later I became the Principal of New Milford High School. It was in this position that I really began to learn about effective leadership.  


    Image credit: http://jonlieffmd.com/

    My journey to become an administrator almost didn’t come to pass.  As a teacher, I was only afforded the opportunity to work with a limited number of students who I had the pleasure of teaching.  To increase my potential impact on more students I coached three different sports (football, lacrosse, ice hockey) and volunteered to advise the environmental club.  I was hungry to have an even greater impact on more kids, which led me to pursue my administrative credentials.  Excited and determined to lead change in a broader context, I began to look for administrative openings where I could serve more kids. I could not wait to face and overcome the challenges ahead while working collaboratively with a staff of educators committed to helping students learn.

    My excitement quickly turned into despair.  Countless cover letters and resumes were sent out with no response. I then worked to improve my cover letter and made sure my resume articulated how highlighted experiences applied to the field of educational administration. What followed was a pleasant surprise.  I began to receive numerous interviews and was on top of the world. My confidence grew, but just like a roller coaster ride it soon plummeted. In many cases I didn’t make it out of the first round, as it was determined that I lacked the needed experience.  When I eventually became a finalist for positions I often lost out to others that had applicable experience.  I sure don’t miss those interviewing days.

    I was plagued by the perception that my age and lack of experience would prohibit me from doing the job of administration. Truth be told that many of us have been in this same position.  The best way to counter this perception is to keep moving along and constantly seek out our experiences that will prepare us for new positions.  If you are a teacher or instructional coach ask your administrator if you can volunteer as an intern. We did this at my former school. In lieu of a non-instructional duty, teachers could request a yearlong administrative internship where they assisted with day-to-day leadership tasks. This was not only a great help to me and my team, but more importantly it gave these teachers relevant experience that they could put on their resume. If you are an aspiring administrator or looking to move up the ladder, find ways to get involved with the budget, observations, evaluations, curriculum development, walk-throughs, professional development, and master scheduling.  

    Perception always surrounds our work and us.  As I have moved on from Principal to my new role as a speaker and author many people assume that I am, or always have been, gifted in these areas.  The reality though is that I struggle in both areas. Public speaking has been a bit easier for me than writing. I was always terrified to speak in public prior to social media. My worst day of the school year was graduation when I had to deliver a speech and then correctly pronounce all the names of the graduating class. This posed to be quite the challenge when the parents of your students speak over 40 different languages. To successfully get through this I meticulously planned and wrote the speech weeks prior to graduation.  I also met with every single student beforehand to phonetically write out their names.  

    Over time I became a more confident and polished speaker. Through social media I found my voice. It was naturally easier to speak in public when afforded the opportunity to present on the work of my students and staff. This does not infer that I am now a gifted speaker.  Some might think this is the case, but again this is far from the truth. I work harder now than I did as a principal to prepare for diverse audiences who all have different needs and expectations.  In reality, it is the preparation beforehand and attempts to share strategies that are not only practical, but also aligned to research that aid in my delivery.  

    Writing on the other hand is something with which I struggle.  As an author of six books, numerous articles, and a blog, I am dogged by a perception that I am a good writer. Quite frankly I am not in my humble opinion.  Over the years I have had to deal with some harsh critical reviews. One reviewer of Digital Leadership said the book shouldn’t be published.  Each week I labor over creating a blog post.  Coming up with a topic is hard, but what’s even harder is putting succinct words to create a post that people want to read and find valuable.  I begin writing on Monday with the goal of having a post ready to go by the following Sunday. My mom also edits all of my posts and I try to get feedback from family and friends before the post goes live.  She says my writing has really improved, by as my mom I think that is what she is supposed to say to build my confidence. 

    So why do I continue to write then? Just because I am not as gifted as others doesn’t mean that I don’t have important ideas and thoughts to share.  Every time I write it is a constant reminder how I am working to overcome a weakness and turn it into a strength. I battle the perception that some have placed on me, but more importantly I tackle head on the perception that I often develop for myself.  Reality is determined by what people see and the actions that we take behind the scenes.  I am not sure any of this actually makes sense to you, but in my reality it makes perfect sense to me.

    Perception is important for our students and their success. They should never perceive that they are inferior to their peers if they don’t do well on standardized tests or more traditional, one-size-fits-all assessments. Some students just don’t learn this way.  We also have to be careful of developing a perception that some students don’t want to learn, as we are unaware of the challenges or demons they are tackling at the moment.  All kids (and adults) have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of a caring educator to help them find and unleash it. 

    Don’t let perception define you, your work, or your students.  Helping others to look through a different lens can lead to a more accurate reality, which benefits all of us. 

  4. We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research/design thinking to guide the work.” – Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray

    When Tom Murray and I set out to write Learning Transformed our goal was to connect as much research as possible to our ideas and statements as well as the amazing work taking place in schools, known in the book as Innovative Practices in Action (IPA’s). Research should be used to inform as well as influence the actions we take to implement sustainable change at scale.  It is also a great way to move those who are resistant to change to embrace new ideas. Below is an adapted section of Chapter 4 from our book that looks as research that can influence learning space design in classrooms and schools.

    Image credit: http://www.naturalinteriors.com/wp-content/uploads/Steelcase-2.jpg

    One area where we found a growing body of research was learning space design. In studying various pieces of literature on the effect of design, Barrett and Zhang began with the understanding that a “bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable, and healthy environment is an important component of successful teaching and learning” (p. 2). Their research suggested direct connections between the learning space and sensory stimuli among students. The evidence of such connections came from the medical understanding of how human sensory perception affects cognitive calculations. As such, Barrett and Zang (2009) identify three key design principles:

    1. Naturalness: Hardwired into our brains, humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
    2. Individualization: As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized and, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
    3. Appropriate Level of Stimulation: The learning space can offer the “silent curriculum” that affects student engagement levels. When designing the space, it’s important for educators not to overstimulate and thus detract students’ ability to focus but to provide enough stimuli to enhance the learning experience. 

    Supporting this notion, a research study out of the University of Salford Manchester (UK), followed 3,766 students in 153 elementary classrooms from 27 different schools over a three-year period, analyzing classroom design elements along the way. The report indicates clear evidence that “well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math” (Barrett, Zhang, Davies, & Barrett, 2015, p. 3). The study found a 16 percent variation in learning progress due to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Additionally, the study indicated that whole-school factors (e.g., size, play facilities, hallways) do not nearly have the level of impact as the individual classroom.

    School leaders will often write off the notion of redesigning learning spaces due to financial constraints. However, research indicates that schools don’t need to spend vast amounts of money to make instructional improvements. In fact, changes can be made that have little to no cost yet make a significant difference. Examples include altering the classroom layout, designing classroom displays differently, and choosing new wall colors (Barrett et al., 2015). These research-based factors are minimal financial commitments that can help boost student outcomes. 

    The effect of learning spaces on various behaviors—territoriality, crowding, situational and personal space—has been the focus of some sociological and environment behavioral research. The consensus of this research is that the space itself has physical, social, and psychological effects. One study measured the impact of classroom design on 12 active learning practices, including collaboration, focus, opportunity to engage, physical movement, and stimulation (Scott-Webber, Strickland, & Kapitula, 2014). The research indicated that intentionally designing spaces provides for more effective teaching and learning. In this particular study, all of the major findings supported a highly positive and statistically significant effect of active learning classrooms on student engagement. 

    In a research study on the link between standing desks and academic engagement, researchers observed nearly 300 children in 2nd through 4th grade over the course of a school year (Dornhecker, Blake, Benden, Zhao, & Wendel, 2015). The study found that students who used standing desks, more formally known as stand-biased desks, exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than did their counterparts seated in traditional desks. Standing desks are raised desks that have stools nearby, enabling students to choose whether to sit or stand during class. The initial studies showed 12 percent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equated to an extra seven minutes per hour, on average, of engaged instruction time. 

    There’s little disagreement that creating flexible spaces for physical activity positively supports student learning outcomes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not simply the physical layout of the room that affects achievement. One particular study investigated whether classroom displays that were irrelevant to ongoing instruction could affect students’ ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and learn the lesson content. Researchers placed kindergarten children in a controlled classroom space for six introductory science lessons, and then they experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the room. The findings indicated that the students were more distracted when the walls were highly decorated and, in turn, spent more time off task. In these environments, students demonstrated smaller learning gains than in cases where the decorations were removed (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).

    In addition to the physical and visual makeup of the learning space, a building’s structural facilities profoundly influence learning. Extraneous noise, inadequate lighting, low air quality, and deficient heating in the learning space are significantly related to lower levels of student achievement (Cheryan, Ziegler, Plaut, & Meltzoff, 2014). Understanding how the learning space itself can affect the way students learn is key. Part of the issue facing school leaders today is that quite often the decision about learning space design is made by those without recent (or any) experience teaching or by those with little knowledge of classroom design. If learning is going to be transformed, then the spaces in which that learning takes place must also be transformed. Design can empower learning in amazing ways.

    Today’s educational paradigm is no longer one of knowledge transfer but one of knowledge creation and curation. The “cells and bells” model has been prevalent for more than a century, but it is no longer relevant for today’s learners. As educators work to shift to instructional pedagogies that are relational, authentic, dynamic, and—at times—chaotic in their schools, learning spaces must be reevaluated and adapted as necessary. Pedagogical innovation requires an innovation in the space where learning takes place. Simply put, if the space doesn’t match the desired learning pedagogy, then it will hinder student learning outcomes.

    Fore more research-influenced ideas and strategies to transform education grab a copy of Learning Transformed. There is also a free ASCD study guide aligned to the book that can be accessed HERE.



    Cited Sources


    Barrett, P., & Zhang, Y. (2009). Optimal learning spaces: Design implications for primary schools.
    Salford, UK: Design and Print Group.

    Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F., & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever classrooms: Summary findings
    of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design). Salford, UK: University of Salford,
    Manchester.

    Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis
    identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678–689.

    Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S., Plaut V., & Meltzoff, A. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize
    student achievement. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 4–12.

    Dornhecker, M., Blake, J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of standbiased
    desks on academic engagement: An exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 53(5), 271–280.

    Fisher, A., Godwin, K., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and
    learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological
    Science, 25(7), 1362–1370.

    Scott-Webber, L., Strickland, A., & Kapitula, L. (2014). How classroom design affects student
    engagement. Steelcase Education.

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  5. Leading change in any organization is a difficult task.  In many cultures the status quo is so entrenched that shifting mindsets and behaviors can be daunting.  Clearly establishing the why is a natural starting point and can help to propel the change effort at hand.  The how and finally the what should then follow this. Even when leaders tackle issues and problems using this recipe, other challenges and obstacles frequently rear their ugly head.  The research that Tom Murray and I share in Learning Transformed can help guide anyone, regardless of his or her position, to move change efforts forward that sustain over time no matter what issue might arise.  The best LEADERS:

    • Learn
    • Empower
    • Adapt
    • Delegate
    • Engage (face-to-face and digitally)
    • Reflect
    • Serve

    In many cases, buy-in is a common strategy used to implement and sustain change. Looking for buy-in might serve as a temporary fix, but sustainable change is driven by embracement. People need to understand the inherent value that comes with them being asked to change their practice or thinking. When it comes to change, most people are naturally against it as our brains are wired to keep us safe. The only group of people who really love change all the time are wet babies (the power of a dry diaper has a magical effect).  Our practices and actions must make it more palatable and doable. Modeling, providing support, listening, and alignment to research are sound strategies that many leaders consistently utilize. Sustaining any effort relies on substance in the form of evidence of improved outcomes and efficacy. 


    Image credit: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-ways-own-cape-authentic-leadership-jill-sweiven

    With the many challenges that leaders face when it comes to change, what overreaching strategies can be utilized to make leading it successful?  The answer lies in authenticity.  Mark Bilton recently penned a piece on this topic. In his article he states the following:


    "The fast-paced, dynamic world of rapid change that used to be confined to distressed organizations is now everyone’s world. We are in a marketplace changing at digital speed. With so much disruption, new generations and a hyper-connected world where information is a commodity, the leadership paradigm has to shift. The industrial revolution model of command and control leadership is no longer effective."

    Authentic leaders embrace digital to lead successful change efforts.  He goes on to state:


    "To enable an organization to thrive today, leaders have to embrace an authentic leadership style. It promotes an engaged, flexible and innovative environment, one able to match the pace of change we now face."

    Digital leadership is authentic in nature.  It is about leveraging digital tools and spaces to develop relationships, promote transparency, showcase success, openly reflect, and share powerful stories. By communicating the why, how, and what, leaders can be proactive in creating a narrative rich in evidence, connected to research, and clearly showing efficacy. Authentic leaders understand the power of engaging face-to-face, but are also constantly working to create a new playing field by thinking forward. That’s where the digital piece comes into play.

    Mark Bilton goes on in his article to describe the five pillars of authentic leadership: collaboration, vision, empathy, groundedness, and ethics.  Each is a defining characteristic that embodies great leadership. In a digital world it is difficult to be authentic if you are not leveraging digital strategies to become better at what you do. Leaders can now collaborate locally and globally without the constraints of time and space. A vision for change, as well as the actions that follow, can be shared across various channels to build greater embracement. By engaging in digital spaces, leaders can develop a greater sense of empathy by listening to the concerns and challenges of others and then offering support. Digital spaces can provide a needed break from the daily ups and downs of the job while also providing a platform to reflect. Finally, ethical behavior can be put on display highlighting appropriate and professional use. This type of modeling can go a long way to empowering others to not just change, but to become digital leaders themselves.

    Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with. Being human is more important that being right all the time. You will never have all the answers or solutions needed to move large change efforts forward. Look to others to find answers to questions and help you achieve your change goals.  Continue to improve in ways that push you outside your comfort zone. With authenticity on your side finding success will be much easier.