Leadership Lessons from Recipients of Gratitude

Around this time of year, I provide staff a short questionnaire to gauge their ideas on teaching assignments for next year. At the end of the survey, there is one unique request:

“Name a staff member you are grateful for this year. This can be someone that helped you, mentored you, or was just a great teammate.”

After collecting the surveys, I pick a day during a long break (like Spring Break) and commit to writing letters to each recipient of gratitude to quote the sender(s) and thank them for their service. It’s a labor of love, as it takes all day (even with the help cutting/pasting). This year, 85 people will receive letters with words assembled by me, but given meaning by their colleagues.  In more than one way, each recipient shows leadership at our school through their work with colleagues because they serve others.

The letters illuminate a few lessons in leadership:

  • A leadership “title” isn’t necessary in order to be considered a leader.
  • Leadership is helping make life/work/circumstance better for others.
  • Top traits of those we are most grateful for?  Always there when needed (presence and accessibility) and a good listener.

In the hectic pace of working in schools, it is easy to overvalue efficiency and content knowledge.  In the end, the thing our peers need most is our attention and genuine care.  The attitude we choose and bring to our peers overshadows everything we might know about being good at our jobs.

How much we care means more than how much we know.


Proposed Principal Evaluation Tool for Texas


I recently had the opportunity to work with a sharp group of administrators from across the state of Texas.  Together, we reviewed a proposal for a new evaluation tool (Principal Evaluation and Support System) for school principals in Texas, with the task of eventually creating a practical rubric for implementation.  Currently, principal evaluation tools are locally created and adopted.  The act of creating a statewide tool for principal evaluation highlights the importance of school leadership in creating the conditions for student success.

To underscore this notion, facilitators at the Texas Comprehensive Center shared 25% of a school’s impact comes from leadership and an effective school leader can improve learning from 2-7 months per year.  The messages, actions, and focus from the school leader seep into the classroom experience.

While the process of creating the evaluation form is an ongoing process continuing throughout the Spring, the premise of the rubric is intriguing for school leaders.  Texas is creating an instrument focusing on principal leadership behaviors that most impacts student learning.  In fact, the standards are intensely focused on student learning instead of managerial tasks.  

Below are the  standards, without the indicators associated with them.  It is important (and encouraging) to note that there are only 17 indicators associated with the 5 standards (3-4 indicators per standard).

  • Instructional Leadership:  The principal is responsible for ensuring every student receives high quality instruction. 
  • Human Capital:  The principal is responsible for ensuring there are high quality teachers and staff in every classroom and throughout the school.
  • Executive Leadership:  The principal demonstrates a relentless focus and personal responsibility for improving student outcomes.
  • School Culture:  The principal is responsible for establishing and implementing a shared vision and culture of high expectations for all students.
  • Strategic Operations:  The principal implements systems that align with the school’s vision and improve the quality of instruction.

The group still has a challenging mission in front of them.  In the next few months, we’ll attempt to create an evaluation tool that allows for honest conversations about observable leadership behaviors.  We will also wrestle with formatting an evaluation tool that sets a clear expectation for instructional leadership, while staying user friendly for both the appraiser and appraisee.  There are also important needs ahead, like trying to specifically address needs of equity, while keeping the system focused.

Still, the focus provided by this proposed instrument allows principals to prioritize leadership focused on student learning in the midst of a complex and demanding job.

Bring Purpose into Meetings and Work


People aspire towards leadership positions to help others (especially kids) and the organization (schools) improve.  Yet, many administrators and teachers express frustration because an inordinate amount of time is spent in meetings.  “Too much time talking about stuff and too little time actually doing it,” some lament.

Still, meetings are moments to align mindsets and share information to help accomplish organizational goals.  Any level of school leadership spends time building goals to drive improvement.  SMART Goals, Short-Term Goals, Long-Term Goals, etc.  When designing goals for improvement, I’ve been guilty of helping teams design goals unattached to purpose and relying on ambition alone.

Ambition is the desire for an achievement or distinction, typically (but not always) requiring clarity of purpose.  Goals fueled by ambition feel nice, but are not sustainable.  Ambition’s pull needs constant refueling.

Purpose keeps you moving when you hit obstacles.  When resistance and doubt creep up to derail your goals, purpose pushes you past the finish line.  Purpose is the reason your team works.

Purpose is what drives you.

Every career and every life has a purpose, but it is easy to disconnect when encountering adversity or becoming lost in tasks.  Even worse, some haven’t clearly found theirs…yet.  If two or more people are in the same room, the opportunity for leaders to connect with purpose is present.

To reconnect with purpose, ask:

  • What drives you?
  • What is common about the purpose behind your teammates?
  • When was the moment you chose this path?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

Illuminate purpose and you illuminate the path forward.

The Judge


Sometimes feedback is received well and has the appropriate level of sting (because all feedback stings), while others times it makes one feel wounded, resentful, and hurt.  The negative emotions might come from the actual experience or the words from the sender.  However, sometimes this feeling is caused by twisted self-judgment.

When kids are little, they receive well intentioned “good” and “bad” messages.  Just as a good teacher thinks aloud so  students internalize it for their own learning; messages from parents, adults, or peers become internalized in children.  Slowly, through our interactions with life, we form the judge.  Our internal judge gets out of hand if unchecked and become a voice constantly judging (and condemning) our actions (Ruiz, 1997).

When the judge hears feedback, it makes destructive comments like:

  • You’re lazy.
  • You’re not good enough.
  • You make the same mistakes over and over again.
  • This is all your fault.

The judge is not the same as a conscience, though they feel alike.  Both exist to keep a person aligned to their values, but a judge uses shame as their tool.  Left unprocessed, shame only makes someone feel small, flawed, and never good enough (Brown, 2012).

How do people react when the judge starts talking?  They may become defensive, angry, upset, and unreceptive.  All are natural reactions when someone is attacked by the demons in their head.

Good leaders (anyone that wants to serve others and help people improve), recognize when the judge is attacking people we serve.  We have a responsibility to help others improve.  Still, those we serve can’t improve unless we ask questions to help them reflect, recognize, and mute the judge.

It is easy for the judge’s voice to become mixed into the daily noise of thinking.  By helping process beliefs underneath behaviors, we isolate the noise of the judge and truly grow.

Applies to self as much as others.


Brown, Brene.  (2012)  The gifts of imperfection.  Center City, MN.  Hazeldon Publishing.

Ruiz, Don Miguel.  (1997)  The four agreements.  San Rafael, CA.  Amber-Allen Publishing.

Afraid to Fail


On New Year’s Eve, millions resolve to exercise, be nicer, to be better learners/students, and more.   New Year’s resolutions rarely work.  Many dream and strategize, but few make the jump.

The authors of Immunity to Change state most goals fail because of competing commitments that lead to paralyzing assumptions (Kegan and Lahey, 2009).  For example, in my early teens, I needed to work harder in school.  Yet my competing commitment being active with my friends.  Another competing commitment was working to have my own money.  I assumed getting serious about studying and homework led to losing friendships and financially burdening my mother.  My flawed thinking set me up to struggle, I just didn’t realize it.

How does this apply to schools?  Everyone has competing commitments and assumptions keeping them from their goals.  Some students assume, “If I make myself work harder, I might fail and be disappointed.”  It feels easier to not try or care at all.  It’s the fear of failure.

“The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.”  -Sven Eriksson

Kegan and Lahey (2009) claim we undo paralyzing assumptions by testing them with safe, yet risky actions.  Perhaps my teenage self could have cut work hours or attended tutorials for one week to see if those assumptions were true.  The test helps our brains let the assumption go and become comfortable with a new behavior.

As educators, we play an important role.  We can acknowledge the competing commitment.  We can help untangle competing commitments by helping students feel successful.  We can make a point to engage and praise student efforts when they take a risk in the right direction.

Our students engage in activities that make them feel effective.  Sadly, the opposite is commonly true.

What is your goal?  What competing commitments and assumptions hold you back?

Focus on Student Work

bad teacher

Reach into your memory banks and recall popular movies about great teachers.  The focus of the camera is the teacher; a captivating and dynamic individual uniquely holding the attention of otherwise inattentive students. Hollywood does a good job of perpetuating the idea of a teacher performing well to inspire student learning.

Similarly, the appraisal process is focused on the behaviors and actions of the teacher.  Too many teachers can recall PDAS appraisals varying from year to year based on which administrator was visiting.  Contrast this with a recent article by Mann and Mann (2013) advising teachers to evaluate the question, “How will students show me they learned the content of this standard?” (p.32).

If we intend to grow student achievement, focus must shift from teacher behavior to student work.  Schlechty (2002) underscores this sentiment, declaring observers “routinely fail to differentiate between teachers who are engaging as a person or as a performer and teachers who are skilled at providing work and activities for students that the students find to be engaging” (p. xxiv).  In order to improve student learning, skilled administrators focus on student work instead of teacher performance.

Specifically, Schlechty (2002) references the idea of a clear and compelling product.  Under those terms, students create a product directly tied to the standard the teacher intends for the students to learn.  To borrow a concept from Margaret Kilgo (2008), products must prove a verb-noun connection to learning standards.  If learning standards involve analyzing (verb) the causes of the civil war (noun/concept), the main product produced by the student should cause the student to “analyze” “causes of the civil war.”

This concept sounds simple enough, but is this our default mode as appraisers?  When we enter the classroom, do we judge the level of rigor by the questions asked by the teacher or by the task given the student?  Compound this with the fact the instructor likely possesses higher content knowledge than the appraiser, and our focus on student work becomes hazy. Instead of student work, we may solely focus on the actions and words of the teacher to behave in ways that fit our mental model of effective teacher performance.

In appraisal and feedback, keeping a focus on student work is essential.  Marshall (2009) believes evaluation and feedback easily becomes focused on pleasing the principal, not student learning (p.36).  The manner in which a teacher interacts with students and delivers information is important.  However, it is entirely possible for students to sit passively outside of the learning standard while a teacher fulfills many aspects of an appraisal process.  Failing to recognize this cheats both the teacher and student from their ideal teaching and learning development, respectively.

To grow instruction and achievement, focus on what the students are doing.

A Coaching Mindset

Can you relate to the following scenario?

The clock was ticking.  We were about 10 minutes away from the next class change, and I was struggling to get to a good place with the teacher sitting across from me.  She was relatively low in experience but not exactly new.  A number of questions were swirling in my head:  Was she new enough that she was having a hard time coming up with strategies and just wanted me to tell her?  Would it insult her if I told her what to do to improve?  Wouldn’t it save us both time if I just told her what I wanted to see?

When considering how to grow an educator or employee, many consider willingness and ability when determining how to improve staff performance.  Essentially, where an individual sits on the spectrum of willingness (attitude) and ability (competence) helps determine the manner in which to address them.  For those more willing and able, they receive more professional latitude and greater autonomy.  For those less willing and able, more directive and prescribing.

Willing and Able

It would be incorrect to assume all staff can be divided into 25% segments.  Rather, very few need the directive approach required by the unwilling/unable box.  Expectations of high quality instruction aren’t negotiable, as all students deserve a first-rate learning experience.

Teachers make scores of instant decisions during every class period impacting the learning experience for students.  While many of these decisions are pre-planned, many are reactions borne from prior experience or developed beliefs of the teacher.  A reflective conversation helps illuminate and examine the beliefs driving teacher behavior.  A directive conversation impacts the behavior only, leaving decision-making consciously and subconsciously prone to unexamined beliefs.

Directives temporarily work, but often fade away without accountability and may potentially erode feelings of trust.  Instead of issuing declaratives, administrators using artful listening and thoughtful questioning help the teacher mediate their own thinking.   Simply put, helping the teacher reflect about his or her own performance helps them grow as a professional and a thinker.

In Cognitive Coaching, the authors use the term “mediate” to describe this process.

“The word mediate is derived from the word middle.  Therefore, mediators interpose themselves between a person and some event, problem, conflict, challenge, or other perplexing situation.  The mediator intervenes in such a way as to enhance another person’s self-directed learning.” (Costa and Garmston, 2002, p. 56)

Using the mindset of the appraiser as mediator, these questions provide a starting point to encourage a conversation for the teacher.

  • How does the teacher perceive his or her own performance in contrast to a stated expectation?
  • What aspect of instruction would provide the most meaningful discussion for the teacher?
  • What is the teacher’s desired outcome for this aspect of instruction?
  • Does the teacher perceive a gap between where they are and where they could be as a teacher?

A coaching mindset refrains from identifying and solving the problems for teachers.  While solving problems helps the school leader feel like things are better, this often does not allow the teacher to fully understand or address deeper beliefs behind the behavior.  By allowing teachers to grapple with problems through reflection by using artful questioning and listening skills, teachers become better problem solvers for their future instructional growth needs.

In some circumstances, an advising and direct approach is necessary. For all other circumstances, school leaders help teachers foster a sense of self-growth by supporting and extending the teacher’s own thinking.   Although the conversation revolves around a common campus expectation for instruction, the teacher creates his or her own improvement.  Conversation examining beliefs, allowing the teacher to self problem-solve, results in stronger, authentic, and more permanent change.