Time for a Leadership Charrette?

Years ago, in my first experience of a professional learning community, I learned the term charrette:

Charrette is French for “small cart or wheelbarrow.” The term (as we use it here) came into use in the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts architectural school in Paris.

Teams of students there were given challenging design problems to creatively solve under the pressure of time.

The intense teamwork continued right up to the time when a cart or charrette was used to carry the students’ competition submissions from the studio to the rooms where the reviews would take place.

Corporation for National & Community Service

Our PLC charrettes were focused on curriculum and lesson design problems. We’d put our heads together, ask for help on focused issues, and leave with great ideas for strengthening our lessons.

Wheelbarrow

As leaders, we know the importance of PLCs for teachers, but we often neglect our own needs as professionals, and don’t give ourselves the same benefit.

We need colleagues to put our heads together with in a structured way, to get focused help with the urgent problems we’re facing.

And we’re always working as we walk by the charrette, because there’s never time to bring everything to a halt. We’re rebuilding the plane as it’s flying, as the saying goes.

Let’s say you’re working on your master schedule for next year. How many times have you actually gone over your schedule with an administrator from another school?

Or say you’re overhauling your efforts to get all of your seniors to graduate. When was the last time you purposefully gathered together with your peers to ask for help, compare notes, and share solutions?

Most likely, it was at a conference or a district meeting where someone created the opportunity. In rural Washington, my colleagues have told me that athletic conferences are often where their best charrettes with other principals take place, because everyone is together and eager to collaborate.

What problems do you currently want help with? How do you seek out the peer input that can help solve those problems?

Personal Regard: Why Being Gruff Isn’t Worth It

The principalship is tough work, so it’s no surprise that it both attracts tough-minded people and makes people tougher over time.

It makes sense to be increasingly realistic and pragmatic as you gain experience, but too often we forget a key element of effective leadership: personal regard.

Gruff man with arms folded

Our society is filled with images of leaders who torment their staff: Donald Trump, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Anna Wintour, Gordon Ramsey, and dozens more.

I don’t know any principals who throw things at their staff, but I have seen, time and again, subtle moves on the part of administrators that undermine personal regard.

When we treat requests from staff as annoyances rather than opportunities to serve, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we judge a lesson without asking any questions, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we take the side of a student or parent before hearing a teacher out, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we don’t bother to find out what’s going on in the lives of our teachers, we’re withholding personal regard.

The alternative?

  • We can see ourselves as servant-leaders rather than bosses
  • We can listen
  • We can seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Steven Covey famously said
  • We can be aware of what’s going on in people’s lives
  • We can look at the enterprise of educating students as a shared responsibility, rather than a battle against our teachers

Personal regard doesn’t mean we lower our standards or ask less of people. It means we care more about people and invest more in them. As a result, we can expect more out of them.

What makes it hard to prioritize personal regard? What do you do to let your staff know you care?

When You Don’t Have Enough Evidence

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.

Evidence

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. 

8 Easy Steps to Better Newsletters

Communicate

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.

Specifically, I believe every school leader needs to write two weekly newsletters – one for staff, one for teachers (see my previous post about this).

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.

Two Lies About Teacher Evaluation and Growth

What’s the evaluation process all about? It depends on who’s asking.

With teachers, we focus on growth, and that’s generally as it should be.

With the public, we mention the growth goal, but we also make it clear that the evaluation process lets us deal with underperformance.

But in speaking to each of these audiences, we can confuse ourselves and start to believe two pervasive lies about teacher evaluation and growth.

Two lies

The first lie: “If we focus enough on improvement, we’ll never need to fire anyone.

The second lie: “Rigorously evaluating our teachers will help them grow.

Both are false. Neither is a reason to abandon the two goals of the evaluation process:

  1. Growth: To help teachers improve their practice
  2. Quality Control: To ensure high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom

If these are both good goals, what’s the problem? Simple: the two goals are totally unrelated, except in their ultimate purpose. In fact, they’re even a bit incompatible.

All professionals need to grow, and having a framework like Charlotte Danielson’s to aid your reflection and help you map out your growth process is enormously helpful. But what’s not helpful is to have someone else give you a rating and tell you where you need to grow.

Let me be really clear on this point: Giving someone a rating can identify where they need to grow—and this is a crucial starting point for growth—but it does nothing to actually help them grow.

If I’m sick, I want my doctor to tell me what’s wrong, but the diagnosis itself isn’t going to make me well.

I think we’re muddled on this issue because we fail to realize that performance has two components: Skill and behavior. If you’re talented but not really putting in much effort, you’re not going to achieve great things. On the other hand, working your tail off at something you’re bad at isn’t going to yield fabulous results either.

As administrators, our most direct influence over teaching quality in the evaluation process is on behavior: If someone is not doing what they need to be doing, we can tell them to make a change, and hold them accountable for doing so. If you’re not planning and preparing for your lessons adequately, your administrator can demand that you start turning in lesson plans. Because the focus is behavior, the change can happen immediately.

Assuming we’re picking the right behaviors, this absolutely can lead to improvement. Supervision can change behavior. But to improve skill, you need coaching. And coaching is not the same as supervision.

One of the best movements to improve coaching in the principalship is the #educoach work being done by Shira Leibowitz, Jessica Johnson, and Kathy Perret, who tell me Jim Knight’s work is worth its weight in gold. Their premise is straightforward: instructional leaders need to get good at coaching in order to help staff improve their skills.

But now it gets sticky: If we want to evaluate people rigorously so they know what they’re good at and what they aren’t, and we want to coach them to help them get better, we have to decide which hat we’re wearing at any given time.

I have to realize that when I’m wearing my evaluator hat, I’m giving up the right to serve as a coach in that moment. And when I coach, I have to set aside my evaluator mindset and work to help my “client” meet his or her own goals through the coaching process.

Hopefully there’s some alignment between what people are working to grow in, and what we see as their needs and opportunities based on the evaluation process, but beyond that, we shouldn’t muddle evaluation and coaching. They are different, and need to be handled in distinct ways.

We mustn’t believe the lies that tell us that any vague efforts at “improvement” will help people grow and ensure high-quality teaching in every classroom.

We can’t coach our way out of our responsibility to conduct rigorous evaluations, and we can’t evaluate our way to better teaching. As instructional leaders, we have to wear both hats, whether we like it or not. Just not at the same time.

Oh, and one more thing: most of us believe these lies, or act like we do. Principals who both use the evaluation process to deal with serious underperformance, and effectively coach teachers to help them grow, are few and far between indeed. More on this soon.

Can You Supervise Your Way to Better Teaching?

When I lead workshops on teacher evaluation, people always say “I want the process to help my teachers grow.”

It’s understandable: As growth-oriented educators, we want to help our teachers improve their skills.

But as I learn more and more about what leads to growth, I keep coming back to one thing that surely doesn’t: supervision.

supervision-photo

Now, supervision is essential—make no mistake. The principalship exists in part to make sure that all of our teachers are up to a certain standard of quality (hopefully a high one, though the national statistics make me wonder how high our standards are when 97% or more of our ratings are “good enough” or higher).

But does supervision help teachers improve?

Let’s step back from the question of principals supervising teachers for a minute. Does supervising, inspecting, evaluating, or otherwise observing and judging lead to improvement anywhere?

You might say yes, but if we narrow down where the improvement happens, it’s usually after the supervision has taken place, perhaps due to follow-up action like coaching or accessing a helpful resource.

I’d argue that supervision itself never causes growth. Why? Because supervision alone cannot improve people’s skills. To improve skill, you need deliberate practice with feedback. You need coaching.

What supervision can do is influence behavior. And it’s very good at this. When your staff knows what you want to see, they will do more of it, and they’ll do less of what you don’t want—if they believe you’ll notice and care.

When someone knows he’ll get fired if he doesn’t start showing up on time, he’ll start showing up on time.

When someone has decided not to follow the district pacing guide, supervision can change that behavior fast.

When someone is making snide remarks in staff meetings and bringing down the professional tone, you can set the expectation, monitor, and ultimately change the behavior.

So even though I don’t think supervision can lead to growth, I do think it can lead to improvement, because performance is a result not just of your skill, but of what you actually do.

In other words, even if you can’t use the supervision process to help every teacher grow, you can use it to lead to improved teaching and learning by promoting the right behaviors. Behaviors like being prepared every day, treating students respectfully, following through, sharing assessment results, and other actions that lead to better learning.

A lot of the behaviors we can supervise into improvement are negative behaviors—stop showing up late, stop yelling at kids, stop under-preparing, and so on—but a lot are positive, too. Before we can help people improve their skill, we need to make sure they’re doing the thing that we want them to get better at.

After all, improving an aspect of your practice can’t happen unless that aspect of practice is in your practice.

When my school began implementing a new writing curriculum, my focus was on coaching. But I quickly realized that people couldn’t be coached on something they weren’t doing. You can’t improve the clarity of your lesson’s teaching point if your lessons never have teaching points.

Before I could coach, I needed to supervise. I needed to set the expectation and follow through. Then—and only then—could I coach.

What behaviors do you want to see more (or less) of to improve student learning in your school?

Will Sharing Instructional Leadership Save You Time?

Smart principals know the job of leading a school is too big for one person, so forms of distributed leadership have made their way into most schools. Leadership teams, site councils, departmental decision-making, and other forms of shared leadership can make a school a better place because they don’t rely solely on the principal’s expertise and influence.

But if you share the leadership workload with others in your school, will this take work off of your plate?

You might think so, since dividing a pie into more slices makes each slice smaller.

Pie sliced into pieces

But the answer, according to recent research, is no:

Distributing leadership more widely in schools should not be viewed as a means of reducing principals’ workload. Leadership from teacher leaders and external sources is more likely to be goal- or initiative-specific. Principals, on the other hand, are responsible for a boundary-spanning role not typically performed by others, nor picked up by others in the absence of active principal leadership. Principals are typically involved in a great many leadership initiatives in their schools, including initiatives for which others have assumed lead roles. Their role to coordinate or link others’ leadership efforts is essential.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 65

In other words, sharing leadership doesn’t save principals time because it creates more work. The “slices” don’t get smaller because the pie gets bigger as more teachers take on leadership roles.

And this is a good thing.

I think it’s great that distributed leadership doesn’t reduce your workload, as long as your school is embarking on substantive improvement efforts. We can look for other places to save time.

As the overall leadership workload in your school increases, though, your work will become:

  • More interesting
  • Higher-level, and
  • More impactful

as your time is increasingly devoted to coordinating the amazing work being done by your staff.

How do you see your role changing as others take on more leadership? What does that coordination look like?

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