When change happens too fast, it overwhelms people and diminishes their confidence that they’ll be successful. Skills take time to develop, and no one wants to be judged too quickly on a skill they are still developing.
But some people think they should have three or four years to implement every change. Is this an acceptable learning cycle? Do three crops of students deserve to be practiced on while we drag our feet at getting up to speed?
Of course not. Part of responsible planning is to ensure that our “implementation dip” affects students for as little time as possible.
We need a sense of urgency, and we need to move as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our success.
Here are a few things we can do to speed up change.
1. Make the case
People need to develop a shared understand of three things:
- The problem—why a change is needed
- The rationale—why this is the right change
- The theory of action—how this change will solve the problem
Too often, we identify the problem well, but fail to make a strong enough case for the specific change. When the going gets tough—and it will—resistance creeps in and people try to revert to the familiar.
2. Support and celebrate early adopters
You probably already have teachers who are pretty far along in doing what you want to take school-wide. Support them, give them access to advanced training, and make them experts. Help them become wildly successful.
They won’t necessarily want to be responsible for school-wide implementation of the change, but they serve an important “proof of concept” role, so make sure they are successful. If they aren’t, how will people who are less motivated succeed?
3. Set a date
Once the decision has been made to implement the change, don’t leave it open-ended. “When we have time” is not a date. “When there are no other big changes taking place” isn’t a date.
Set a date, and make it clear that the change will be “online” school-wide by that date.
4. Make a checklist
But setting a date isn’t enough. You also need to define what constitutes change.
When my school implemented a new writing curriculum, I made the mistake of thinking that it was enough for people to attend training and start using the new materials. Some people took off, while others dragged their feet.
As the months went by, I was dismayed to see that some teachers were not using the new curriculum. At all. One teacher didn’t even know where her copy was.
What was missing? Clarity about the key behaviors that signify the change.
I immediately came up with 10 indicators of implementation, and focused my walkthroughs for a month on these indicators. None were about skill, and all were about behavior.
As I visited each classroom, I checked: Are you starting writing with a short minilesson? Does your minilesson have a focused teaching point? Are you planning units by sequencing your teaching points? Are you documenting teaching points on anchor charts? Are you spending a good chunk of time conferring with individual students?
I collected data, and shared the aggregated results with staff. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s powerful to see that 80% of your colleagues are doing what they’re supposed to, and you aren’t. After that, things moved along more quickly.
At this stage, don’t even worry about whether people are executing these elements skillfully. That will come in time and with good coaching. The first step is to do. You can’t get better at something you haven’t started doing.
5. Coach Toward Excellence
Implementation isn’t a great destination; we need to push for excellence, and excellence requires continual growth.
With our writing curriculum, we quickly realized we needed more expertise, and that expertise came in the form of classroom coaching.
Coaches don’t particularly like being asked to help people get better at things they aren’t doing yet, so make sure you push for full implementation before bringing in coaches. But when you do, get ready for amazing growth as teachers start to zoom up out of the implementation dip.
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Do you have a story of making change happen, slow or fast? What worked for you? What barriers did you encounter, and what helped you overcome them? Leave a comment below.
When I became a principal, the first thing I did to my office was take down the giant whiteboard behind my desk.
I’m an iPad guy, no doubt about it. No one wants school leaders to take advantage of cutting-edge technology more than yours truly.
So you might be surprised to see my Tech Tuesday recommendation: The Noteboard.
As great as the iPad is, it’s not perfect for everything. I have mind-mapping apps, and whiteboard apps, and even then great new Drafts app for when I want to quickly jot down some ideas, then decide where to send them.
But sometimes, you just want to write.
Notes during phone calls.
A whiteboard is great for all of this, except…whiteboards are huge. They’re not very portable. And everyone who comes in your office can see what you’ve written.
I have a medium-sized whiteboard that I can pull out for brainstorming, but I don’t like using it because it takes up so much space on my desk. And I’m certainly not going to carry it with me around the building.
The Noteboard isn’t much more than a 7 x 5 grid of index cards, laminated together, but it’s amazing how useful it is. I can keep it mostly folded on my desk next to my computer, so only a 2 x 5 grid of cards shows at once.
This gives me plenty of space to write on, and I can easily flip to a different set of cards for more space or to hide something private.
And if I want to take it with me, it folds down to about 1″x3″x5″ and has its own cloth bag, which doubles as an eraser. Not bad for $12 (available from Amazon).
If you’re interested in a bunch of them, you can contact the creator directly for much cheaper bulk purchases. I would recommend this over making your own, even if you have a laminator, because the Noteboard is actually cut from a single large sheet of cardstock, with little “hinges” left between the panels, so it’s very durable.
From a productivity standpoint, I like that the Noteboard is big enough to get me through a day of messages and thinking (with a total of 70 3″x5″ spaces to write in), but the fact that I need to erase it periodically keeps me from just accumulating a bunch of stuff that I’m never going to act on. I have a bit of time to let stuff accumulate, but not so much that I fall too far behind on adding things to my electronic to-do list or notes.
What apps or tools do you use to quickly jot notes or brainstorm?
Over the past few years, many states have adopted much more stringent teacher evaluation requirements. We have new rubrics, more required observations, and more complex criteria on which to rate teachers.
For principals, the impact is undeniable: The teacher evaluation workload has grown dramatically. What used to be a perfunctory process of filling out a form is now a year-long process of gathering evidence on a huge range of criteria. What used to be a pass/fail process is now a detailed rating process that demands much more evidence.
I think this is a good change, but it’s one we have to handle smartly if we want to avoid being crushed under this new workload.
So I adopted a simple approach: I’m going to gather as much evidence as I can, and the teacher can supply evidence too, but if I don’t have evidence on something, I’m going to assume it’s satisfactory (3 on a 4-point scale).
If I believe a teacher’s performance in a given area is not satisfactory, I should go to the trouble of gathering evidence to back up my assertion. If a teacher believes their practice is exemplary and deserves a 4 out of 4, they should have readily available evidence. If I believe their practice is exemplary, I should have no trouble pulling out a few examples to showcase.
But what if I don’t have enough evidence? Let’s face it: this is often the case.
When it’s time to write the evaluation, we can’t include evidence we don’t have, and we shouldn’t try to mine our observation notes for patterns that aren’t there.
What most certainly should not do is to force ourselves to gather one piece of evidence for every component for every teacher. One piece of evidence may not be nearly enough, or it may be too much.
The Danielson Framework for Teaching has 22 components in 4 domains. If we focus on gathering one piece of evidence for every criterion—an enormous task for a staff of 30 or 40 teachers—what value does that add to the process?
Not much. There’s a word for a lone piece of evidence: anecdotal.
If at the end of the year, we find that we need more evidence to provide a justifiable rating on every criterion, the time to address that problem was months ago, not in our “creative writing” process at the last minute.
If I’m going to give a rating that has a negative impact on a teacher’s self-concept or employment situation, I want to have at least three specific pieces of evidence that I’ve documented in writing. I want dates and times, and I want to be sure anyone who reads the evaluation (the teacher, my boss, the union, human resources, a hearing judge) will agree with me.
This means I have to be in classrooms much more often than the evaluation process requires. Two formal observations won’t generate the kind of evidence I need.
We need to be in classrooms virtually every day, for more than a few minutes, to know as much as we need to know about the teaching and learning taking place in our classrooms.
We need to take good notes, gather good evidence, and most importantly, talk with teachers about their teaching and with students about their learning.
If we’re smart about our evidence-gathering, we can be more effective as instructional leaders and write evaluations that we can stand behind.
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In a 9-to-5 job, your work is over at the end of the day. There will be more work tomorrow, but today’s is done.
But we don’t have 9-to-5 jobs. Our work is ongoing, overwhelming, recurring, never-ending. You will never be done with all of your work.
We look forward to the cycles of the school year because they provide a measure of our progress. When the last bell rings and students head home for summer vacation, we know we’ll finally have a chance to catch up, get organized a bit, and look to the future.
But in the relentless day-to-day of our work, how do we give ourselves a sense of progress? How do we find the traction we need to keep the day from just slipping away?
You’ve probably had this experience: You spend a few minutes answering an email, and five more arrive while you’re answering that one. At this pace, how can you ever keep up with your inbox, much less get anything else done?
Or perhaps you work all day long putting out fires, going to meetings, responding to requests, and doing what you planned to do. At the end of the day, have you ever felt like you got nothing done, despite all that activity?
There’s a simple way to get traction and prevent the day from slipping away. I call it benchmarking.
When you benchmark, you know when you’ve accomplished something. If you use a paper to-do list, crossing off a finished task is a form of benchmarking. It’s tangible, it gives you positive feedback, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment and closure.
Another benchmark is what’s popularly known as “inbox zero,” when all of your email has been processed. Your work may not be done, but at least you’ve seen all of your email and made a decision about what to do with each message. Your stress level drops immediately when you don’t have any mystery emails waiting in ambush.
For me, getting my desk clean is another productivity benchmark, as is going through the big pile of paper on my desk and adding next action stickies.
As an instructional leader, you might set a benchmark to visit a certain number of classrooms each day, or have a certain number of substantive conversations about teaching with your staff.
Why does benchmarking work?
- It gives you a focus
- It gives you a specific goal
- It helps you decide what to squeeze into a spare moment or do before you leave
- It helps you recognize when you are and aren’t spending time on the right things
What do you benchmark? How does it work for you?
In his new book Improbable Scholars, UC Berkeley professor David L. Kirp examines the remarkable success of the Union City, NJ public schools. In a place where demographics (high poverty, low English proficiency, and so forth) might suggest otherwise, students are keeping pace with their peers in more affluent districts across the state.
Kirp’s premise is that fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things, with focus and perseverance, can accomplish extraordinary results. He writes:
When boiled down to its essentials, what Union City is doing sounds so obvious, so tried-and-true, that it verges on platitude. Indeed, everything that is happening in Union City should be familiar to any educator with a pulse.
Here’s the essence:
- High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three.
- Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language
- Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English.
- The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.
- Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.
- Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.
- The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.
- The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.
This is a tale of evolution, not revolution, a conscientious application of what management guru W. Edwards Deming calls “total quality management.” “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service,” Deming preached for half a century, and many Fortune 500 companies have profited from paying attention. So has Union City.
In an era of unproven high-stakes, high-consequences reform efforts (ahem, NCLB and RttT), it’s encouraging to read a detailed portrait of a district that has spent several decades getting the basics right, rather than chasing questionable fads.
Look again through the list above. Does anything strike you as strange or out of place, or does it match what you see as the ingredients of success?
A to-do list is only a useful tool if it actually helps you remember and decide what to work on throughout the day.
Too often, I don’t write down what I’m really working on, and I end up working off-list, like an actor going off-script: Sometimes it works out great, but I can’t be Robin Williams every day.
When I start working off-list, I’m like an actor who forgets his lines, not a brilliant improviser.
When something comes up, and I need to work on it today, I shouldn’t set my to-do list aside; I should put the new priority at the top of my list, and keep working my list.
If instead I start working off-list, I’ll suffer two negative consequences:
- I’ll stop writing important things on my to-do list, and it will become a collection of stuff I never actually intend to do
- I’ll spin my wheels on whatever interruptions and distractions come in, instead of promptly moving on to the next item in my list
Better Than Paper
Electronic to-do list apps like Remember the Milk and OmniFocus are a lifesaver in our line of work, because they let us reprioritize and rearrange our tasks as our day evolves. When something comes up, a few clicks or swipes can update our work plan to match.
With a paper to-do list, there’s no sorting—once you write a task down, it’s stuck there until you cross it off. Your tasks wait for you in no particular order (perhaps just the order in which you wrote them down), and every time you’re ready to move on to something else, you have to scan your entire list to pick something out.
With a well-maintained electronic to-do list, you can simply do whatever’s at the top of your list, rearrange as needed, and plow through it one task at a time, top-to-bottom.
How do you work your list?
We want to have a greater impact on the vision and instructional focus of our school, so we strive to stay on message and communicate consistently to promote that vision and focus. But when do we actually do this communication?
A piecemeal approach isn’t going to get us there. We can’t just communicate when the opportunity presents itself, or when we get around to it.
We need intentional, consistent formats, and the discipline to use them, if we’re going to communicate effectively with our school community.
But we need to make writing our newsletters as easy as possible, so it actually saves us work (instead of just adding to it).
And we need to make sure people read them.
Here are my top tips for newsletters that are effective, easy to write, and easy to read:
- Send weekly – it’s easier to get people to read something when they know when to expect it.
- Keep a list of topics you want to write about, and add to it whenever you have an idea. I keep this list in my to-do app so I always have a place to jot down my ideas.
- Use your vocabulary words—what do you want people to hear over and over again for you? Keep a list of terms you want to be sure to use every week (differentiation? personalization? assessment?), and check them off as you use them.
- Celebrate examples of what you want to see—that’s the best way to ensure that you’ll see more of it.
- Be concise—use lots of headings, bold text, and bullets. Avoid triggering the “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) reaction by keeping sentences, paragraph, and articles short.
- Use photos—since you have a camera on your phone, there’s no reason not to include photos in every newsletter. This is crucial: People look at things with photos.
- Use a template so you know what to write about, how to format it, and when you’re done. This will help you keep your newsletter to a readable length. I just use a Microsoft Word template that looks great, then send it as a PDF so people can read it on any device.
- Always talk about major initiatives—you might even have a dedicated section of your template for a given initiative so you can provide consistent updates.
Do you need help getting your newsletter off the ground? Have tips to share? Leave a comment.
I’d love to get into classrooms more, but…
I’d love to provide more meaningful feedback to my teachers, but…
I’d love to get to know students and what they’re learning better, but…
Here’s the thing: none of these are excuses. They’re reluctant statements about reality.
This is a tough job, and one that always pulls us in more directions than we can go at once. Everything we have to do is important, and everything needs to be done now, and there’s never enough time to do the non-urgent things we’d really hoped to spend more of our time on.
Steven Covey called them Quadrant II activities – things that are truly important, but not urgent compared to the fires we’re constantly putting out. Things that tend to get crowded out by the urgent.
Most of our instructional leadership work falls into Quadrant II.
The secret of Quadrant II work is a principle I call ergopneumatics, which combines the Greek roots ergo, meaning “work,” and pneuma, meaning “air in motion.”
Like compressed air, “compressed work” moves faster and is more useful. With an impact wrench, you can take the wheel off a race car in a few seconds. With your work under compression, you’ll get things done when you need to be done with them, not when you get around to finishing them.
If I have the rest of the day to write this evaluation, it’s going to take me…you guessed it: the rest of the day. And I might still decide I need to take it home and work on it more after the kids are in bed.
If, on the other hand, I have 45 minutes to write this evaluation, and then I’m leaving on a trip, I’m going to get the evaluation done.
The surprising secret? The evaluation I spend all day on isn’t going to be any better. I can write just as good an evaluation in 45 minutes, and if I have to, I will.
This is why I’m not completely anti-procrastination. Procrastination forces us into compressing the time we spend on a task. But it has downsides too, so I think purposeful compression without procrastination is even better.
Give it a try: impose a deadline on yourself, and commit to stopping and doing something else the moment that deadline arrives. (It’s essential that the deadline be made real by a commitment you make to someone else.) More often than not, you’ll be done with your task. Some examples:
- Writing anything
- Processing your email
- Working through a stack
When we compress our work, it gets done in less time, just as a compressed pile of clothes fits into the suitcase even if it looks too big before we compress it.
Why does this work? A couple of reasons:
- It focuses us on a clear goal
- It forces us to mentally keep track of whether we’re on pace, and we can adjust as needed
- It energizes us to push through and avoid distractions
Give it a try and let me know what you think. If you need to finish an evaluation today, commit to visiting a classroom 50 minutes from now, and get cranking on that eval.
Report back in the comments. How has the principle of ergopneumatics worked for you?
I’m slowly becoming a convert to the principle that you can’t motivate people to do things, you can only demotivate them. The primary job of the manager is not to empower but to remove obstacles.”
—Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert
While I agree with Adams that managers (and all leaders) should strive to remove obstacles for their teams, I think he’s failing to acknowledge the powerful role that the working environment plays in motivation.
If I believe that my efforts are futile because all the good work I do is going to be canceled out by the chaos around me, I’m going to become demotivated. So yes, it’s a leader’s job to ensure this doesn’t happen.
But are there positive steps leaders can take to create the conditions that improve motivation? Absolutely.
Motivation isn’t a ra-ra-ra game where we transfer our motivation to our employees. It’s about the kind of organization we strive to create, and organizations exist to serve particular missions.
Perhaps Dilbert readers can identify with Adams’ grim perspective, because they feel no higher sense of mission beyond making money for someone else and getting a paycheck. But that’s not why the educators I know show up every day and bust it on behalf of kids.
As a leader, you can motivate people (or create the conditions that foster motivation, if you can’t cause it directly) by clarifying the mission of the organization and creating focused energy in pursuit of clearly defined goals.
And you can make sure that no one’s effort is wasted.
Frederick Herzberg identified two basic types of motivational factors:
- Actual motivators, such as rewarding work, recognition, and appreciation, and
- Hygiene factors, such as basic working conditions, that don’t add to motivation but can take away from it if they’re lacking.
Adams is right in implying that leaders need to pay attention to the hygiene factors. But we must also make sure Herzberg’s motivators are in ample supply, too.