Category Archives: Leadership Insights

We vs. Me: A collaborative approach to school district leadership

The more you give the more you receive….

I have heard it said many times, but have rarely seen it in practice in public schools and school districts. In my work with educational leaders, I meet many school and district level leaders who are tasked with the difficult job of improving schools and school systems that are under-performing. Under these circumstances, timelines are tight and it is difficult for a leader to be patient in order to spend the time and energy necessary to build the relationships necessary to sustain long-term positive improvements.

Today, I share with you one example of a superintendent who exemplifies the concept of sharing leadership and building a collaborative culture within his school district. While an exceptional leader, this man is also very humble, and therefore does not want to be featured by name in this blog. His story, however, is worth sharing:

What I can tell you about this leader is that he is a superintendent of a mid-sized district in the United States and that he does not fit the mold of most superintendents. The power of what this superintendent does lies in what is often unspoken. He is visible, approachable, engaging, and can lead a school board meeting effectively one day and blend into a staff development meeting as a participant the next.

My first-hand account of this superintendent’s leadership follows: I began working with his school district over a year ago as a consultant training principals and school-level leaders to use the Power Walkthrough software as a tool for monitoring instructional strategies. This training consists of one day of rigorous direct instruction and a second day of application of the learning by conducting walkthroughs in actual classrooms and debriefing each walkthrough. I didn’t realize the superintendent was even in my training as a participant until the second day when one of the principals told me. The entire time, this man, who is the chief executive for an entire school system was so unassuming and truly was engaged the entire time of my presentation as a learner, that I never would have guessed he was the superintendent. The school level leaders in the training were also very accustomed to having their boss work side-by-side with them. I was amazed to see the level of importance placed on staff development and professional learning being modeled by this superintendent.

The experience became even richer on the second day of Power Walkthrough training when we began doing classroom walkthroughs in an elementary school. Again, the superintendent was with the principals working side-by-side to learn more about instructional strategies. When I asked others in the group to facilitate conversations about instruction, it was obvious again that we were among equals. This superintendent could lead discussions, participate in them, and even make mistakes while learning with total support and acceptance from those who work for him. What made this experience even more amazing was watching how comfortable the superintendent was visiting classrooms and schools. He knew the teachers and they knew him on a first-name basis – and even more amazing to me was the fact that he also knew the students and they knew him.

At the conclusion of the two-day training, I had the opportunity to talk with this amazing district leader and I had to ask him how he was able to pull it all off…. How could a superintendent fill so many different roles and still be respected as the leader of a school district? He said it was really fairly simple, in his humble way of speaking. He told me that by sharing leadership you will become a stronger leader and that we should always approach problems as opportunities to learn. When you build a system-wide culture of learning and leading, everyone in that system is responsible and accountable for success. You can only do this by thinking about “we” instead of “me”.

What we need are more Mr. Tibbs

Not that I was shocked when I read the article, but on October 10th, The Greeley Tribune published an Associated Press report that “only about 2 percent of teachers nationwide are African-American men. But experts say that needs to change if educators expect to reduce minority achievement gaps and dropout rates.”

The article went on to report that “American teachers are overwhelmingly white (87 percent) and female (77 percent), despite minority student populations of about 44 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

I am a product of the School District of Philadelphia, a graduate of Temple University, and earned my Masters in Ed. Administration from Rider University in New Jersey. Although much time has passed since my classroom days, it is still strikingly clear that the number of minorities who attended classes with me could be counted on two hands. Forget about the feet.

Not much has changed over the years, at least not in the area of teacher and administrator education. The numbers, as indicated above, are far too few to generate the necessary impact to increase minority student achievement.

Greg Johnson, a policy analyst for the National Education Association stated that increasing the number of minority teachers is important because of “the role model factor.”

“These students need to see successful adults of color in front of them,” Johnson added.

One program which is trying to fill that void is the Call me MISTER teaching program. MISTER is both an acronym – Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models – and a reference to the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” in which Sidney Poitier’s character demands respect with the line, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”

This initiative, which is designed to put more minority men at the head of the classroom, offers scholarships in exchange for teaching in public schools. And six years after the first MISTER cohort graduated in 2004, although there has been some progress, there has not been nearly enough.

The Associated Press reports that in order to improve the national percentage of black male teachers to even 3 percent, another 45,000 would need to enroll.

The reality of these statistics is that we can no longer sit back and take a wait and see approach to increasing minority leadership in the classroom and in school administration. A pro-active approach must be taken by universities along with, federal, state and local governments to combine forces to design programs which forward this cause.

With each passing day, we fall further and further behind in this effort, while the needs of minority students, increases at an alarming rate.

Mr. Tibbs is out there. We need to support his way to the classroom!



Would the “instructional rounds” concept work in your school district?

Recently, as I have traveled to several school districts in the United States, I have been invited into some conversations about the concept of “instructional rounds”.  As I have listened, I have learned about the application of using the concept of “rounds” in the educational setting, which is quite similar to what is used to develop new interns and residents in the medical profession.

Since I work with leaders at all levels in school systems, I began to wonder how a school district would implement the instructional rounds model, so I did some investigating. I came across a new book by City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel (2009) that is dedicated solely to this concept. The book, titled Instructional Rounds in Education:  A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning provides a thorough view of the concept, and the authors make some recommendations that potentially could transform some systems.

Essentially, the premise of instructional rounds assumes that educators usually do not have a common set of shared practices that are effective – meaning that educators ranging from teachers to superintendents do not have a core set of shared practices. This distinguishes education from other professions. Instructional rounds are a process for bringing effective shared practices to the forefront of a school system:

“The basic idea is to put all educators – principals and central office administrators as well as teachers – into common practice disciplined by protocols and routines and organized around the core functions of schooling in order to create common language, ways of seeing, and a shared practice of improvement (City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel 2009).”

The authors of Instructional Rounds in Education (2009) have tested this concept in several school systems in the United States and have found it to be successful.

My questions to the educational leadership blogosphere are:

  1. Does the concept of “instructional rounds” have the potential to be implemented into your school system? What would it take to do so?
  2. Do you think this idea will bring about successful practices if implemented?
  3. What systemic changes would cause the “rounds” concept to succeed?
  4. What systemic barriers would cause the “rounds” concept to fail?



Are we doing everything we can?

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech to students throughout the nation, urging them to “set your own goals for your education—and to do everything you can to meet them.” He spoke to the teacher’s responsibility of inspiring students and pushing them to learn and closed his speech by remarking that “your teachers and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have education you need.”

Strong words and straightforward advice from this nation’s leader.

But not necessarily all true.

A former colleague, who is now an instructional coach in a school district which will remain nameless, told me recently that while some teachers embrace professional learning, too many (even one is too much) still resist the idea of using coaching or professional development to improve their teaching methods.

While I’m not astounded by this finding, I find it extremely disappointing that we are in the business of helping kids and increasing student achievement and yet there teachers out there who would rather settle for the status quo.

I’m left wondering: Are we truly doing everything we can to help students get the education they need?

Mel Sussman, a former school principal, is a principal consultant at McREL.

How did President Obama’s speech to school children affect your school?

Last week, as news of the President’s plan to address students today began to circulate, many Americans voiced support for, and concerns about, his planned speech. To be certain, this issue brought to the surface some of the deep political divisions in our country.

I’m sure the nightly news, the Internet, and tomorrow’s newspapers will be filled with stories about the broadcast, but I’m interested to hear, first-hand from educators, their perspectives on the address. For example, I’d like to know:

  • How did you handle the broadcast of the President’s message in your school?
  • What did you do after the broadcast? Did you prepare a lesson plan related to the broadcast? (Was  this a  “teachable moment” in your view?)
  • How did students (and their parents) respond to the message?
  • How did you view the message? Was it a welcome “pep talk” from the President… or an unwanted distraction?

Please post responses to these questions directly to this blog. Thank you.

Timing is sometimes everything!!!

Holding environments are where you find them! One day last week our team of leadership consultants took a rare opportunity to escape the confines of our offices and go to lunch. While I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed the hot pastrami sandwich, which I wolfed down with zest, I equally enjoyed the opportunity to share in a variety of important conversations with my fellow consultants and good friends.

We rarely have the opportunity to sit as a group and relate stories of our recent travels, triumphs and faux pas, along with sharing ideas about future work and how to improve our presentations. This was a golden opportunity in which we all equally participated. This was a holding environment in its purest form… unplanned, with no required agenda. Instead, it was a chance to gain valuable insights from one another.

But holding environments come packaged in a variety of formats.

I just recently returned from a professional development in a far-away place. The two-day event went extremely well. I was well received and the administrators who attended walked away with what seemed to be a great number of ideas which they could put to use in their own school.

However, it was the third day of consultation which turned out to be the most worthwhile for all parties. On this day, principals were offered the opportunity to meet with me and engage in open-discussions about initiatives and situations upon which they were about to embark in the coming semester.

Principals and their leadership teams were each given an hour to meet in a private location, where they could talk openly and honestly about their particular situations. In each session the emotions ran high as teams expressed their anxieties, frustrations and nervous anticipation about what was waiting for them in the coming year. This office had evolved into a think tank of the highest order.

And it wasn’t just negativity being expressed in these sessions. Both young and seasoned administrators proudly offered details of exciting new ventures, which were now only in the design stage. As much as they wanted answers from me, they were equally as satisfied just to have me listen.

It was as if I had taken the lid off the pot, allowing their thoughts, dreams, and concerns to rise to the top, just like the steam which rises from that giant pot of vegetable soup. Not that they were ever denied this opportunity… but rather that the setting, timing and cast of characters had never before come together.

Talk about the sheer power of a “holding environment,” or “safe place,” where staff members feel free to talk about what is going on in the organization; where they can express themselves, debate issues and clarify assumptions without fear of repercussion. This was certainly it.

At the conclusion of that 8 hour marathon, I walked away both exhausted and at the same time exhilarated.  Sometimes the best teaching we can do is when we provide the opportunity for people to learn together and from each other.

By Mel Sussman

Why don’t people and systems change — even when the writing is on the wall?

I recently read a book that has caused me to look deeper at the actions of some educators I have come into contact with over the past few years in multiple contexts – both as a McREL consultant and a parent. The book is called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman (2008) and as the title indicates, it focuses on looking deeply at the “why” of irrational human behavior. Now, before you start to characterize me as somebody who views the glass as being half empty, please know that I see much more that is positive in my roles, but I am still troubled by this notion of rational and intelligent people engaging in irrational decisions.

Here is a real-life example I will apply to the concepts in the book. For obvious reasons, this has to be anonymous since I am highlighting irrational behavior:

Over the past three years, I have watched a school district fall from being one of the best district’s in a particular state to one that is now below average as measured by student achievement, property values, community support, employee satisfaction, and compensation. I know what you are thinking now is probably the usual “suspects” that we often believe as educators cause such rapid declines in school systems – demographic changes, budget cuts, mass teacher turnover or retirements, etc. This example, however, does not include these “suspects” except for the economic downturn that is currently affecting all school systems in the US.

This example follows the characteristics illustrated in Sway:

  1. Loss Aversion – some of us are so afraid of loss that we simply will do anything necessary to keep things the same. In the school district example, the school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, and parents were not able to understand that “losses” were necessary in order to stay current and relevant. This district continued to build schools and new facilities, even when enrollment projections were in decline. Rather than close or re-utilize schools that were under-enrolled, this district built more schools and continued to expand capacity in the face of declining enrollment.
  2. Commitment – this characteristic goes closely with the first one. When we are afraid of loss and so committed to one way of doing business, we cannot let go or see the writing on the wall when changes need to be made. In the district example, once a commitment was made to expansion and building more schools, it was almost etched in stone. This made perfect sense in a different time when there was exponential growth and a robust tax base. This district was not able or willing to look long-term at the reality of over-building, nor were they able to sustain it. They were so “committed to their commitment” that changing the focus in light of leading indicators was not an option. This led to a reaction that was quite predictable – closing and consolidating schools to save money and more effectively use facilities which led to upheaval in the community.
  3. Value Attribution – by placing value on certain ideas or ways of doing business, we can be blinded by the amount of value we place on a single idea or group of ideas. In the district example, building and maintaining new schools was truly a core value of the district culture. The entire community came to know this district largely because of their shiny and new school facilities and the fact that schools were minimally populated or utilized by students. This was largely touted as a characteristic that set the district apart from others in the area and used widely by realtors, city council, businesses, and others to draw homebuyers and new residents  to this geographic area.
  4. Diagnosis Bias – in concept, bias exists when we view our world through a certain lens and close our minds to other explanations. A good example of this is the emergency room doctor who spends his day diagnosing and treating a relatively predictable array of injuries and ailments including flesh wounds, broken bones, heart attacks, stomach flu, etc. Not to be taken lightly for certain, these diagnoses become so common that the ER doctor (or any doctor) can easily mis-diagnose a patient by incorrectly focusing on the most obvious symptom. On the rare occasion that a patient shows up with an atypical ailment, the doctor is likely to mis-diagnose if the symptoms are similar to common ailments because of Diagnosis Bias. Now to the school district example where Diagnosis Bias is found in a history where funds are spent to build new schools on a priority basis. In this example, the diagnosis is incorrect – new schools with small student populations are needed to effectively educate students in this community. While this diagnosis may have never been correct, it is a core value of the community and very difficult to challenge or change. It has become an expectation.
  5. Procedural Justice and Fairness – as a culture, Americans value justice, fairness, and procedures that ensure fair treatment. This value is found at the core of our justice system and is embedded in modern society – actually nested in the concept of the “American Dream”. The problem occurs when procedures and protocols based on the idea of fairness cloud perceptions. In the district example, we have a community that values new school facilities with few students enrolled. The question becomes: How does this cycle get broken when money gets tight? The expectation of fairness means that an older school building with a large student population would not fit in this district. In the interest of fairness, it is easier to stick with an old value that is not economically feasible or sustainable and not think long term about what happens when resources are limited.

How does this story end? It is difficult to tell currently, but based on this model, we can be fairly sure that the district will continue to suffer through many of the phases of a difficult change process as they grieve for inevitable losses. Blame will be placed on many and school board and staff turnover has already begun, but it will be hard to see this problem through any other realistic lenses. The school board and leadership, whether new in the district or veteran will have to look at the obvious problem with few solutions to keep the status quo. Schools will have to be closed, consolidated, and re-utilized in order to stay within budget. The community will be forced to shift their value system out of economic necessity.

“Holding environments” can be truly electric!

Last week, I co-facilitated a series of Balanced Leadership sessions for school leaders here at our offices in Denver. As is our practice, we provided participants with opportunities to speak freely with one another, sharing challenges and concerns. I was struck by the fact that despite coming from all over the country (and even the Bahamas) many participants shared a common concern: a perceived disconnect between their schools and districts in which they operate.

At first, school leaders (whom I imagine are normally outspoken back at home) were reticent to engage in a discussion of this issue. But when we engaged them in a “holding environment” activity, called the World Café, which provided a forum for groups to engage in meaningful conversations, an enthusiasm for sharing and deeper discussion began to evolve among the group.

In our work with leaders, we often preach the power of creating a “holding environment” in schools, a figurative “safe place” where all staff members can share concerns, talk about what is going on in the organization, offer strategies, debate, clarify assumptions, or simply dream about initiatives, without fear of repercussion or verbal assault by others who might embrace an opposing point of view.

Too often, school leaders fail to create these “holding environments.” Mistrust and fear prevent teachers and other stakeholders from acting as true professionals, sharing ideas, and committing to a common purpose. But when then “safe zones” exist, they can be truly electric, tapping the power and collective wisdom of everyone in the school.

As you head back to your buildings in a few weeks, ask yourself: does my school have a “holding environment”? Do people in my building believe they can speak freely, even contradicting school administrators, if necessary? Are our faculty meetings a “safe place” to share ideas, challenge assumptions, and grow together as professionals?

School leadership that “sticks”

Last week I spoke to a principal who shared an interesting dilemma with me – actually a good news/bad news type of scenario. This principal had just learned by way of an e-mail message from the district office that her high school was to be the recipient of a grant for innovative instructional practices that incorporate technology. Her largest problem was the fact that she never was aware this grant was written by her district, so obviously she was surprised by this news.

Digging further into the requirements of the grant, the principal learned the grant would provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for the purchase of technology, which was desperately needed in her school. Her biggest problem was her concern that her staff lacked the capacity necessary to effectively implement and utilize the technology that was to be provided including Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas.

This principal asked me to help her brainstorm about how to best roll out this information to her staff. In advising her, I relied on a resource that I have found useful in finding strategies for making messages simple and memorable. Knowing that it will be critical for this principal to approach this situation armed with information about the grant and a firm understanding of the needs of her staff, I advised her to use the SUCCESs model presented in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick (2008). The model uses the acronym SUCCESs to outline the key components. Messages that are “sticky” are: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and illustrate points through Stories. At the school level, leaders can enhance their success in leading difficult change initiatives by using this model.

Let’s apply this model to the dilemma of utilizing the technology grant and gaining support for this from the teaching staff:

  • Simple – We have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology integration for high schools and can serve as a model for many others.
  • Unexpected – We have just been awarded a large amount of money that will bring our school into the 21st Century.
  • Concrete – We will be receiving a great deal of high-tech equipment that will enhance our instruction including: Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas. Shortly, I will have a specific plan for you that shows a building map and timeline and schedule for installation of the new equipment.
  • Credible – This allocation of money from the grant is based on a solid research base and the district entered into this application with the support of the school board, state department of education, and the grant is sourced from federal funds for the specific purpose of enhancing technology in high schools.
  • Emotional – I know this is a lot of information, and this message is unexpected, and as the principal I have mixed feelings about this unexpected change as well. I am however, very excited at this opportunity that has been given to our school and will do everything I can to support the integration of technology into our school for the benefit of our students.
  • Stories – After learning of this opportunity, I did some investigating regarding other high schools who have been awarded this grant and was fortunate to make contact with a high school principal who received this grant and implemented this initiative two years ago. According to him, it was difficult at first for the school to scale-up to meet the needs of technology integration, but through working as a team and supporting one another, the school is now very successful and a national model for this grant. We can do this too by working together and supporting each other.

Using the SUCCESs model, and framing her message in a way that is thoughtful and specific, this principal is more likely to build a cohesive and connected school culture that has the capacity to sustain efforts through difficult challenges.

Change or die – A principal’s dilemma

In my travels to many school locations throughout the United States, I often find myself working with principals of schools that are struggling with issues related to making the organizational changes necessary to improve student achievement. A few weeks ago, I spent some time with a small group of principals in a Midwestern town. One principal’s comments have resonated in my mind ever since. This particular principal, who would like to remain anonymous, shared her struggles over the past three years as she has worked to turn around her school, as student achievement has declined.

For the sake of this blog, we will call this principal Mrs. Jones. Principal Jones described to me a familiar scenario in regards to making instructional improvements in her elementary school. I asked her what she had done up to this point in reaction to her test scores declining and she explained a scenario that brings to mind a book I recently read called Change or Die (Deutschman, 2008). Mrs. Jones story, as you will see in the following paragraphs closely aligned with Deutschman’s “old” change paradigm. In this change paradigm, which is widely used in many fields, the leader of an organization uses Facts, Fear, and Force to bring about changes within the organization. Using Mrs. Jones’ example, she presents the Facts to the staff. Next, the principal uses Fear as leverage, and follows up with Force by letting the staff know that compliance will be expected and consequences will result for lack of compliance.

Let’s expand on Facts, Fear, and Force using Mrs. Jones example:

Consider Mrs. Jones’ dilemma when she learns that her school has not met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the third school year in a row and has been labeled by the state as a school that “Needs Improvement”, which is a decline in status from “Acceptable” in previous years. Based on this designation, Mrs. Jones rightfully decides that immediate action is necessary. She shares the Facts of the situation with her staff by letting them know that student achievement has lapsed and gives specific details. Next, she uses Fear by telling the staff that if improvements are not made, the potential exists that jobs may be lost and the school may lose accreditation or even be closed. She then uses Force as she lays out the mandatory new multi-year requirements for all teachers — requiring compliance with utilizing new classroom strategies and eliminating some extracurricular activities for students. Mrs. Jones uses this model as a way to bring about rapid results in student achievement.

While Mrs. Jones did see short-term improvements on interim assessments at her school using the Facts, Fear, and Force model, she did not see sustainable results by using this strategy alone and end of year state test scores still continued to decline over a three year period. Facts, Fear, and Force tends to create a lack of trust among staff and can lead to resentment among the ranks of teachers which hurts the school culture and staff morale.

Let’s fast forward three years into the future:

Mrs. Jones has another option to use as she moves into a new school year. Deutschman’s “new” change paradigm also suggests three components. Mrs. Jones could Relate, Repeat, and Reframe instead of using the Facts, Fear, and Force model. Using Relate, Repeat, and Reframe, she is able to build staff capacity, buy-in, and trust.

Using this model, Mrs. Jones approaches her problem in a different way. She first Relates to her staff in a way that shows support and mutual understanding of the problem at hand. She does this by sharing in the responsibility for increasing student achievement, making the priority universal for all school staff – including herself. Next, Mrs. Jones employs the idea of Repeating by making sure that her approach to the problem is shared and practiced by everyone in the school. Repetition makes the new strategies for improving student achievement part of the daily routine through intensive practice, in turn changing the school culture. In order to Reframe Mrs. Jones needs to help her staff see issues and problems through a different lens. This involves a cultural shift at the school because the staff is required to view students and instructional practices differently and may have to give up old practices. Eventually, the staff embraces the new way of doing business, which leads to student success that is sustainable.