Thursday, April 20, 2017

Build School Culture through Teacher Leadership

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Thank you to NAESP for publishing Build School Culture through Teacher Leadership, which highlights five practical ways in which principals can cultivate leadership in others - a Wallace Foundation principle.

Principals are accelerants of professional learning.

Principals are visionaries who raise the level of rigor.

Principals are community-builders where teachers are professional leaders and learners.

Principals are learners who practice extending and receiving help.

Principals are models of how to engage others through a strengths-based perspective.  

Principals are lead culture builders who - through shared and distributed leadership practices, promote trust open communication, transparency and collaboration among students, staff and parents.

Originally published in NAESP Communicator, December 2016, Volume 40, Issue 4

Saturday, September 17, 2016

How to Get Valuable Feedback

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There is no question that educational leaders today deal with a relentless stream of competing demands, requiring them to work at a rapid pace, shifting quickly from one task to another. Often the survival cry of “let’s get it done” is overheard from school leaders as they zigzag between incidental needs and project deadlines. As a result, sometimes school leaders hesitate to stop and seek feedback on the issues that surround them. Some leaders may feel that gathering feedback slows down the pace or creates unnecessary obstacles that could be avoided. Under constant pressure and accountability to be both effective and efficient, it’s easy to see why school leaders can be tempted to skip over the feedback process. But when they do so, they risk the opportunity to launch the best ideas, build quality stakeholder and cultural investment, and make the strongest decisions they can.

Why feedback

Seeking feedback from those around us, and even those who seem distant from the issue, is necessary to help school leaders see through lenses that are not their own. Although school leaders do have a unique view on the school or district, it’s not the only view. Often leaders are too close to their own ideas, strategies, or solutions to examine the intricacies of the issue, as well as the ripple effect of their leadership moves. Feedback offers the leader anticipation in foresight, rather than regret in hindsight.

Some leaders may have a dislike of feedback, asking, “What if I ask for feedback and stakeholders aren’t supportive?” Too often leaders are afraid of adverse feedback, so they push their idea through to implementation prematurely. Leapfrogging over feedback may feel efficient, but its effectiveness is shortsighted. Feedback not only refines the leader’s idea, but also builds stakeholder investment along the way. In the end, if the idea failed to grow, it’s because it didn’t have enough initial feedback or it really didn’t have merit at the start. But, a leader will never really know about the potential of an idea until it goes through a healthy litmus test of feedback.

Although being a feedback-informed leader is not for the faint of heart, leaders can reframe difficult feedback to see it as a helpful tool; one that helps them steer toward a more inclusive idea in a preliminary stage. When leaders become feedback-seeking, rather than feedback-fearing, the leader’s collaboration, dialogue and transparency positively pervades the school culture. Stakeholders begin to think, “My thinking is important, my input is valued, I am an essential part of this process, and the leader wants and needs my feedback.”

Feedback logistics

Too often, educational leaders are expected to be the sole visionary, navigator, and decision-maker for their school or district. Leaders must change this prevailing belief to a shared leadership model. We know that the best leaders are not a solo act; truly effective leadership is collaborative. Shared educational leaders include stakeholders in the design, implementation, and improvement of ideas, strategies, and plans. Along the way, successful school leaders also engage in a steady diet of feedback from those around them. But who should they include? By putting key issues early and openly on the table, and thinking aloud about who the issue impacts, a leader begins to openly chart the territory of the issue and gain input on who to ask for meaningful feedback.

Before jumping into the deep end of feedback, leaders should think about who (which stakeholders), where (conversations, meetings), how (informal dialogues, written prompts) and when (sequence, timeline) the feedback will be sought. All of these factors will qualitatively and quantitatively impact the type of feedback a leader receives, and moreover the trust that is created or dismantled in the process.

Inquiry model

One model of feedback gathering is questioning. Leaders should select only a few key questions to help inform and hone an idea at a concept stage. For example:

      “Who do you think should be involved in this idea/strategy/decision?”
      “Does my rationale make sense?”
      “How do you think this idea might affect ________?”
      “Could you read this draft and ask me clarifying questions that will help me crystallize my  thinking even more?”
      “Does my explanation seem clear?”
      “How do you think _________ would perceive this idea/change/plan?”
      “Is there anyone you think would want to weigh in on this idea/plan/decision?”
      “Can you think of anyone or anything I might have overlooked?”
      “Can you help me think of a different way to approach this?”
      “Can you help me by arguing the other side of this idea?”
      “Can you help me think if I have missed a step?”
      “What might be a positive (or adverse) reaction to this that I may not be anticipating?”
      “If this idea went well (or did not go well), what would be the potential outcome?

When a leader’s questions are asked openly and nonjudgmentally, balanced with the right timing and undivided attention, staff will feel valued by the leader’s inquiry. Conversely, if the initial feedback dynamics are not set up with forethought, the leader runs the risk of creating an intimidating feel. Leaders should be thoughtful and genuine about asking questions, providing authentic acknowledgement along the way. Leaders should also leave stakeholders with the feeling that they had an important and productive conversation, where the light shed will unquestionably and positively impact the outcome.

Focus group model

Another effective strategy for obtaining feedback is to turn the idea over to a small diverse team or a focus group to vet the concept. The purpose of this group could be to ask clarifying questions, evaluate the feasibility, or design for improvement. This is a particularly effective means of getting feedback, since it instills a feeling of trust. When the leader hands over the early draft of an idea, it communicates, “I need you. I am relying on you to do your best thinking for our school.” In turn, stakeholders feel appreciated and will yield quality feedback in a safe way for the leader.

Creating a feedback culture

Becoming a feedback-informed leader inevitably and positively leads to the development of a feedback-informed culture. Whether a leader uses an inquiry method or a focus group model, regular feedback loops fast become a productive and dependable way of doing business for all.  Stakeholders also seek and thrive on feedback-informed conversations, because of the early input and end value they offer, leading to shared leadership and decision-making in everyday teaching and learning. Feedback, then, is a naturally supportive and necessary leadership and learning tool, giving leverage to leaders and stakeholders alike. What steps can you take to become a more feedback-informed leader this year?

How to Get Valuable Feedback was originally posted on 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The 3 Prongs of Principal Voice


I was privileged to be a student of Dr. Quaglia's teaching on the power of principal voice at the NAESP16 in National Harbor, MD. You can find my article entitled The 3 Prongs of Principal Voice at NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) inspired by Dr. Quaglia's 2016 NAESP keynote. You can also find Dr. Quaglia's book on Principal Voice here and his research here. Join me in studying his timely and important research on student, teacher and principal voice. It will reaffirm your beliefs and strengthen your leadership commitment to make a difference for each and every person. Thank you Russ!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Be Your School’s Inspirational Leader: Key Steps


I had the honor of listening and learning from Principal Kafele at NAESP16 in National Harbor, MD, as he talked about The Principal 50, an essential compendium of professional self-reflection questions for school leaders.

You can find my article entitled Be Your School's Inspirational Leader: Key Steps on Principal Kafele's work.

Kafele emphasizes the importance of your leadership signature and the power of leadership intentionality. What is intentional is believed, and what is intentional gets done. He encourages, inspires and challenges all leaders to reflect on their practice. What evidence do you have that your school or district reflects your leadership signature? In the words of Kafele, "Leaders should look in the mirror and say...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Throw Out A Lifeline: The supports that can help new school leaders stay afloat in the principalship

Thank you NAESP for the opportunity to share Throw Out A Lifeline: The Supports That Can Help New School Leaders Stay Afloat in the Principalship in the May/June 2016 issue of Principal.

Unconferences! Changing the Way We Facilitate Professional Learning

Thank you to #NAESP16 for allowing me to share Unconferences! Changing the Way We Facilitate Professional Learning. I am inspired by the passion and energy at #NAESP16, and hope you find unconferences to be practical to your leadership and learning. You can find the PowerPoint presentation here and PDF handouts here. Attendees can also download the presentation from the NAESP16 app.

Three core goals of the presentation:
  1. Learn why an unconference is supportive to professional learning
  2. Review best practice research on professional learning
  3. Design an unconference in your school to promote adult learning, student growth and positive morale
Over my years as a principal, it took me many attempts to design the "just right" professional learning sessions for our rapidly growing and dynamically talented staff. In fact, I'll admit that no matter how hard I tried, no "one" professional learning fit everyone's needs. I wanted to change that somehow.

Then we tried unconferences, which lit up the room with ideas, strategies and sharing; changed the professional energy; and created exciting instructional momentum for all of us on staff. Unconferences have been a high leverage professional learning tool for staff and student learning, and supported our school culture in exponential ways. I wish I learned about them when I first started my principalship!

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In a nutshell, an unconference is an organic and flexible professional learning model that can be accomplished on any scale (with a team, department, staff, schools and district), where teachers and staff share their expertise, ideas and inquiry with one another in short, informal sessions. The topics come from teachers and are designed for teachers. Teachers have professional autonomy in the topics they post and choose.

A core belief of unconferences is that there is no one idea of "smart." As Lorne Michaels, Producer from Saturday Night Live said,

Instead, it's the notion that the collective wisdom of the faculty, when supported by a safe forum for sharing, can quickly and positively grow professional learning within your school (think diffusion of innovation theory!) American technology writer David Weinberger put it this way:

After three years of practicing and celebrating unconferences with my staff, I have become more and more impressed with the variety of professional topics and sharing, and an even deeper believer about the power of unconferences. A recent staff survey showed that 100% of faculty felt their professional learning increased as a result of unconferences. Wow. This feedback matched up with my informal observations that unconferences were inspiring and motivating for ALL (not just some). It's not any surprise that unconferences were fast becoming our key signature on professional learning.

The unconference ripple has been unmistakable and unstoppable. Staff often asked me, "Sandy, when's the next unconference?" or said (numerous times), "That topic would make a good unconference." Staff have also surprised me again and again by saying, "I am partnering with a staff member so we can plan an unconference session together." Who knew? I'll admit, it made my heart sing.

As a principal who loves sharing with other principals (okay, maybe I'm addicted to sharing with other principals?), I often wove unconferences into my presentations. Frequently, attendees asked me about "that part of the presentation" (the unconference part). Unconferences are so simple in concept, I felt guilty making it a presentation of its own. But I did it - so, my thanks goes to all the principals who asked me to unpack unconferences even more. It made me crystallize my thinking about why I LOVE this model of professional learning.

Not long ago, when @bmaurao attended one of my sessions on unconferences, she asked me to FaceTime her school as the opening speaker to help kick-off of their first staff unconference day. I am not sure who was more nervous (me or them), but it turned out that they experienced exceptional success with unconferences, and in fact, they have kept the momentum going on their staff! Here is just a sample of their reflections. Soon after that, I was on the phone with a different principal for a reference call, and she said, "By the way, I went to your session on unconferences and I tried that in my school! It was phenomenal and I wanted to thank you!" Again, you can never underestimate the power and ripple effect of unconferences.

In preparing for today's session, I asked staff volunteers to share their personal testimonials about unconferences. It was a feedback flood. Here's what they had to say:

"Participating in unconferences this year allowed me to gain knowledge about a variety of topics. It sparks your interest and makes you want to learn more. It is a valuable professional learning experience. It is nice to have options instead of being forced to learn a topic that may not be applicable to you. It also provides more ownership for teachers in their ability to share ideas, knowledge and experience that they have learned. It gets teachers excited about learning new ideas to bring back to the classroom that directly impacts student learning. It also facilitates a culture of shared vision and ownership of where your school is headed."  
"Unconferences are a gamechanger. They simultaneously empower educators as both presenters and learners, share in-house expertise among colleagues and provide real-time moves teachers can put into place immediately. Perhaps the best part is that the conversation doesn't end when the session does. Teachers are talking about what they learned and shared in the hallways and staff rooms for weeks to come!" 
"Unconferences provided a growth mindset culture for me - an atmosphere of collaboration, authentic, open and practical. I love learning from colleagues!"
"As a presenter of an unconference, it was really enjoyable to share something that I was excited about with other teachers who were also excited about the same thing. As a participant, I love that unconferences give teachers choice. I was able to select sessions that really spoke to me, which definitely increased my engagement and motivation to take what I learned back to my classroom. The model also allowed me to collaborate with teachers that I often don't get to see or work with, such as teachers of the younger grades. I strong sense of community is definitely developed working cross grades and across disciplines." 
"I took an unconference hosted by a ELL teacher from another school. This teacher had years of experience teaching in the classroom, and also had the state required Sheltered English Immersion licensure. This was pivotal for me as I had just received an ELL newcomer student in my class, and I directly used the resources she provided for me in my classroom instruction to support him. We probably wouldn't have crossed paths in a professional development setting otherwise!" 
"The unconference model has been empowering for teachers. This is an authentic way to let teachers know, 'You are valued.  Your knowledge and expertise is valued.  You are a key component to making this school a great place for kids, families and staff.' Through the unconference sessions I have attended in our school, I have learned from colleagues how to better support students who have experienced trauma, and how to create a safe space for ALL students that helps ALL students achieve at high levels.  I have deepened my own skills in using assessments, such as running records, and how to access school resources to supplement my curriculum.  I have also benefitted from sharing resources for both staff and students to practice mindfulness, in order to help manage stress and create a school climate that is relaxed and full of joy. In addition to all the knowledge that is shared to help students learn, the primary “side-effect” of the unconference model is the benefit to school culture, as teachers and staff from all disciplines come together to share their unique perspectives and expertise.  This builds authentic community, as everyone builds relationships around professional ideas, leading to greater teamwork, which benefits the whole school community."
"I have found the unconferences to be one of the most valuable professional learning opportunities I have had to date! The variety of sessions, materials and technological devices offered me the most meaningful learning experience. I especially liked how the sessions were open to all teachers regardless of grade level, specialty or school. The openness of the unconferences, in my mind is the foremost crux of the experience, because it allows for open and candid creativity, innovation, reflection and discussion that empowers, enlightens and truly engages the participants an unconference leaders. Unconferences are also dynamic like no other professional development opportunity, because you find yourself genuinely excited to continue the conversation, brainstorming or collaborating with your colleagues long after the sessions have ended. I have walked away from every unconference experience feeling enthusiastic and motivated, not only by the knowledge, but also the robust collegial interactions across disciplines and schools."

So, why not try unconferences? Why not start small" Remember, there is no "one"...

it's ALL.