Category Archives: Leadership Insights

Informal classroom observations – not just for principals anymore

classroom observationOver the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.

A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.

Benefits for coaches and teachers

Walkthroughs provide real-time feedback and an opportunity for staff to learn and grow by observing their peers’ classrooms and having structured peer coaching conversations. Staff become stronger leaders, improve their own practices, collaborate and share ideas and suggestions, and provide feedback to their peers, creating a collegial environment that supports professional growth and improvement. Protocols and tools that leverage the data can help staff deepen their professional dialogue using evidence, develop and achieve SMART goals, and self-reflect on their practices for professional growth.

Conduct video walkthroughs for coaching

If lack of face-to-face time impedes the ability to conduct walkthroughs, teachers can record a classroom lesson and send the video to designated staff members for time-stamped formative feedback, not just compliments and praise, on their instruction. This gives teachers an opportunity to receive feedback, but also to self-reflect on practice—crucial to their own instructional growth—by seeing the lesson objectively. Follow-up coaching conversations, in which the lesson is discussed, feedback is shared, and suggestions for more effective classroom delivery are provided (a glow and a grow), can help increase teaching efficacy.

Driving better PD planning, monitoring, and outcomes

Ultimately, the data gleaned from your informal walkthroughs will help your coaching and leadership teams better determine the professional development needs of your staff, gauge the value of PD sessions already delivered, and document outcomes needed for grant proposals and district reports. Perhaps even more importantly, the honest conversations your team has about the walkthrough findings can also introduce ideas for systemic changes within the school, creating a growth-oriented culture among staff members.

A supportive, visionary leader can build a strong team of instructional coaches and teachers who can help ALL teachers identify what they are doing well and areas where they need support.

6a010536aec25c970b01a3fd216cb0970bLisa Maxfield is a program manager at McREL who works with clients of McREL’s EmpowerED Suite, which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software, on effective protocols for supporting educators’ professional growth. Listening closely to clients’ needs and successes, she also works with the application’s developers on enhancements to the walkthrough platform’s templates, ease-of-use, and dashboard reporting functionality.

 


McREL’s EmpowerED Suite helps educators, from the classroom to the central office, maximize their potential to improve professional practices and make a difference in student achievement. The EmpowerED Suite, which contains five powerful applications—Power Walkthrough®, Coaching, Reflection, Evaluation, and Survey—collectively helps an entire school or district build a shared language and focus to deepen professional growth, expand skills, and improve instruction. Power Walkthrough can be used as an individual component or as part of the complete Suite. Learn more about McREL’s EmpowerED Suite.

Are great school leaders born or made?

leadershipWhen we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

Goodwin and Hein note that the results of the second study were correlational and not causal, and that perhaps low performance prompted the principals in those schools to focus on instructional leadership, rather than the other way around. How effective a leader is, it seems, depends largely on the situation. For example, Fiedler (1997) found that, in high-stress situations, experienced leaders were more effective, but in low-stress situations, those same leaders tended to rely on their experience and how they’ve always done things, which led to performance plateaus.

One final piece to consider, say the authors, is the role of coaching. Studies clearly show that principals who are coached by more experienced administrators become more reflective and proactive and perform better. In the end, Goodwin and Hein conclude, effective leadership—regardless of context—appears to require a balance of nature, nurture, and guidance.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Today’s “high tech” students need “high touch” learning environments

texting during classWe’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?

In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.

Teachers need to keep in mind, too, the importance of modeling empathy. Goodwin notes a recent Stanford study, in which middle school math teachers who engaged in an exercise on the importance of empathy cut in half the percentage of student suspensions over the school year (from 9.6% to 4.8%).

Today more than ever, teachers need to show and model empathy and provide opportunities for students to make real human connections, Goodwin concludes. While we can’t expect kids to give up their phones altogether, we can help them balance their “high tech” lives with “high touch” learning environments.

You can read Bryan’s entire Research Matters column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

School leadership in a meetingOne of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

Fallacy #1: Believing that when people know what to do they will do it. There’s difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how to do it. Without a step-by-step plan, modeling, guidance, and good descriptive feedback, very few people will take what they have learned and be able to apply it with accuracy, intentionality, and precision in a sustained manner.

Fallacy #2: Believing that fear, facts, and force will overcome people’s resistance to carry an initiative to full implementation. People around the world have known for decades that smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and a sedentary life greatly reduces one’s longevity. Yet only one person in 10 makes the lifestyle changes necessary for living longer and maintaining a high level of health. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink offers a more promising approach: Elaborate on the purpose of implementing the initiative, provide defined autonomy during the process, and assist those implementing until they reach mastery.

Fallacy #3: Believing that doing more will make us better and better. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven to be true. When schools and districts add more work within the school day, the result is that levels of productivity, trust, enthusiasm, and engagement decline. A school-based improvement plan that is built on an overwhelming list of initiatives and their associated activities—and allows little time to implement any one item—is ripe for failure. Taking time to create and maintain a single focus unburdens staff and opens doors for making the initiative “stick” for longer than one academic year.

Fallacy #4: Believing that paying attention to the “what” will bring rapid results without harming the culture. When attention strays from nurturing the culture, everyone suffers. Culture can be described as the personality of an organization, providing the “secret sauce” that keeps an organization healthy and robust. The research base from McREL’s Balanced Leadership® program emphasizes four important leadership responsibilities that require attention when a change, such as implementing an initiative, occurs: communication, input, order, and culture.

Once we accept that these beliefs are false, what else can we do differently to make sure our initiatives are implemented well, and for a sustained period? Here are four important tips:

4 TIPS FOR IMPROVEMENT INITIATIVES-01Over-communicate. During the implementation process, stakeholders need to receive ongoing messages in person, through e-mails, at meetings, and by other formal and informal means.

Ask for input. Allow staff at the school or district level to share their good thinking. Take time to establish a clear message that delineates input from decision-making. Be clear about which person or persons will make the final decision.

Establish order. Providing and maintaining a predictable environment adds stability to the organization, allowing for risk-taking within a safe zone.

Create and preserve a positive culture. Pay close attention to the people and needs within the organization.

Implementation is not an event, but instead is a systems improvement process requiring a well-developed plan that offers assistance along the way, not just a set of marching orders.

Any initiative worth the investment of time and money deserves to cross the finish line.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former teacher and central office administrator, Dr. Stone works with K–12 teachers and administrators on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

The key to using data effectively? Start with mindsets

Collecting and sharing data is critical for schools and districts to pinpoint problems and craft solutions, but data alone doesn’t guarantee improvement. A number of factors affect data use—including getting data in time to make necessary changes, the skills of those analyzing the data, and, perhaps most importantly, the mindsets of those expected to act on the data.

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Are your school improvement efforts stuck? Try an inside-out approach

At one point or another, most educators find themselves in a school improvement effort that gets “stuck.” Frustratingly, this often happens after some initial success—and then, improvements reach a plateau or even slide backwards. In an article in the June online edition of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin looks at why this happens and what schools can do to get back on track.

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Emotional intelligence: The leader’s key to great communication

When it comes to communication, teachers are like everyone else: When they listen to or interact with their leader, they want to feel inspired. Many school leaders are good at inspiring an audience with articulate, rousing speeches, but research shows that what’s more important are the small, everyday interactions that are driven less by rhetorical talent and more by emotional intelligence.

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Empowering teachers with collective efficacy

In 1999, I embarked on my first year of teaching, eagerly anticipating leading my own classroom and filled with much hope, promise, and possibility. However, as my initial year unfolded, it turned out to be a no good, terrible, very bad year (so disappointing that I even wrote an editorial about it for the Denver Post). I consider myself a very positive person—a team player—so this experience was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. What changed my hope to despair and, eventually, my profession from teacher to education consultant?

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Directive vs. collaborative leadership: Which is more effective for improving schools?

When a school needs to improve, school leaders can approach it one of two ways—tell your staff what to do and how to do it, or work together to figure out what to do and how to do it. Because the direction you take will shape the success of your improvement efforts, it’s crucial to choose the approach that’s best for your school’s needs and will help reach your long-term achievement goals.

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