Why Go it Alone?

How hard is it to share tasks and decisions when you know that you are ultimately the person responsible? What does it take to “share” leadership?  In both my work and personal life, I have struggled with this; wanting to do more than I should, be in control more often than I ought to be and really needing to learn how to share the load.

I know school and district leaders struggle with this daily.  I work with leaders who have a hard time finding a way to empower others, accept that they do not have to have all of the answers and that a collaborative leadership style will be more effective than if they go it alone.  Sometimes the struggle is so real for them that they just can not get there and they really do try to do it all.  As honorable as this leadership style can be, it isn’t what I encourage when I am working on site as a school improvement coach. Part of my task is to ensure that school leaders understand how to establish and work with a leadership team. We often refer to this as a guiding coalition.

In this week’s blog, I want to introduce you to a school administrative team who, in my opinion, have become “experts” in creating, implementing and authentically using a shared leadership model.  Our road trip this week takes us to Morrilton, Arkansas, home of beautiful Petit Jean State Park and my friends at the Morrilton Intermediate School. I want to introduce you to Sarah Stobaugh, first-year principal and Anna Henderson first-year assistant principal. IMG_2286They are joined by Janet Carner who is the Instructional Facilitator at the school. (Ms. Janet missed the photo opp.).  These three women are rocking my world as their coach.

With each of my visits this school year, I have watched them learn and grow together as leaders, first “sharing” leadership with each other and then expanding their need for a school wide leadership team.  As we continued to work together, they deepened their understanding of what they needed from others in a leadership role.  The existing leadership team was provided with the description of the role and responsibilities that Sarah and her administrative team wanted and the teachers could decide to stay on the the team or go. As Anna said, “Early in the school year we laid out our expectations for the Guiding Coalition and asked them to truly consider the commitment and if they were willing to dedicate the extra time and energy toward doing what’s best for our school. The week we waited to hear back from them all was pretty nerve-racking. Fortunately, they all chose to come back. Having the personal investment and ownership from them has been a huge game changer. We are meeting weekly as a leadership team and have become ultra focused on the right work for our kids. We are changing the way we think about everything— always asking ourselves, “what’s best for kids?”.

If you are a principal reading this and you are still struggling with the purpose and benefit of an authentic shared leadership model for your school, consider what Principal Sarah has said about her experience this year:

    “If I didn’t believe in shared leadership and building capacity in others in order to affect change before, this year has proven its importance and made a believer out of me.  We did not gain the momentum we have now until we focused on our leadership team. The first step we took was to define the role and make sure we were all in agreement as to what a leader is.  I believe some thought their role was to be “just a messenger” and not a change agent.  Once we define what type of leader it would take to get into the work, they all had to agree to be a part of it. We gave them some time to commit, and they did. To me, this was important because now the team operates on the idea that they all chose to be here rather than they were appointed.  That changes our approach to the work.  We don’t have to lead the work alone; we support the leadership team as they lead the work.  We also recognized the importance of professional development with this group.  We spend every other week in a book looking at what it takes to lead using Leading With Intention, and then the other weeks are spent “in the work.”  This approach allows us to continue to build capacity in our team while also moving forward with what needs to be done.  For example, we read about “Keeping the Student First” before we started working on the master schedule.  The conversation about the master schedule was centered around what is best for students.  This conversation may not have happened had we not discussed the importance of making decisions based on what it best for kids. This type of work is so crucial because admin CANNOT do this work alone.  I have confidence now that if I am not “keeping a thumb” on my collaborative teams that the good work is still happening because they now have greater ownership of the process.  The felt need has been created by the leaders, and that is the only way we can be successful.”

I am so proud of Sarah. As a brand new principal, she could have decided to leave things as they were and not really dug in to understand just what a leadership team could do to move the collaborative work forward in the school.  As Janet said to me, “The teachers are really understanding our purpose and each of them takes their new learning back to their own collaborative teams. As a school we are becoming more evidence based as the leadership team practices using data before they expect others to do it with them at their grade and content level teams.”

As two of the teachers on the leadership team said to me this week, “We are learning from each other. We are are not asking people to change everything that they do, we are just asking each other to do better.” Tony, I could not have said it better myself!  And, Jessica reminded me that “the school has always had fabulous data to work with…the difference is that, as a leadership team, they now know what to do with it!”  On this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I raise a glass of good cheer to the great amazing leaders, at all levels, at MMS! They are not leaving anything to the “luck” of the Irish; they are not just hoping for four -leaf clovers to bring them the results that they want…they are doing the work. Learning by doing at its finest!  So proud!!


Smart as a Fifth Grader

fullsizeoutput_104aIt was a cold, damp day in Wilson, Arkansas but there was a warm, cozy feeling in Mrs. Lights’ 5th grade classroom.  I was making my monthly visit to Rivercrest Elementary School and invited in to the room. It was the end of a busy week for me and this stop was just what I needed. Here is why…

If you have worked with me, you know that I can get a little obsessed with insisting that we have to transfer the work and learning to the student. Now, I don’t mean in its entirety but I do believe that when students do the thinking and truly understand what they are working to achieve, learning happens.  They have to see the learning targets and know what we expect. We can not keep these “secrets” to ourselves. It should not be a surprise to a student to find out, after the work is done, how we were planning to grade it or what success looked like. Imagine in your personal life the times when you had no idea what you were trying to accomplish. You work and work but see no end in sight. How does that feel to you? Anyway, I am on my soapbox again but this really is a huge piece of improving schools; the work I so strongly believe in.

Back to the 5th graders. They had just finished their first draft of an argumentative writing assignment. Each of them had prepared an argument for or against school uniforms.  Every student had a clear understanding of what the structure of their writing piece was to be.  How do I know this?  Well, to my heart’s content, each student had a scoring guide/rubric and they were actually scoring each other’s writing.  Ms. Light would call on a student to read their writing.  The student was offered an opportunity to stand or sit behind a podium with a sound amplification device (very professional!) and read their argument.  While the reading occurred, every student in the room was listening carefully and scoring the writing using the rubric that Mrs. Light had provided.

When each student finished, the learning really started! Student after student provided feedback to the reader.  Great comments were made about what was positive about the writing and very helpful suggestions were made for improvements. The conversations were based on what they knew was expected in their writing. The readers asked questions for deeper explanations from their peers and Mrs. Light guided the discussion when it was needed. For the most part though, the students were really learning from each other. It was obvious to me that they were used to working this way. It wasn’t just because I was visiting but this was how they edited and improved their writing with each other.

When the class finished their work, I had an opportunity to ask the students about what I had just witnessed.  I wanted to know if they understood the value of having the scoring guides and providing feedback to each other.  Not to my surprise, they were able to articulate just what I was hoping to hear.  These fifth graders knew that by being able to have the scoring expectations in front of them, they could clearly understand what the writing had to include, not just for the reader but obviously for their own writing as well.  And, the most important conversation that I had with them was about trust. They knew that it took a great deal of trust for each of them to stand before their peers and read and they also knew that it took humongous courage to take the feedback from the others and not feel criticized or judged. They handled it all like pros and this goes back to the environment that Mrs. Light has created.  There is a feeling of trust and respect in the classroom. It is a room where each and every student’s opinion is valued and a safe space for their thoughts to be heard.

I drove away that day with a smile on my face. I know that these fifth graders are learning to think, to hear what others have to say and to be honest and fair to each other.  I know that they are working to improve their writing and that is important but I recognized that day that the community of learners that they are part of is the value-added piece. They are experiencing great life lessons about working together in community so that they all can improve. When I grow up, I want to be as smart as these fifth graders!  Thank you, Mrs. Light for being you and doing the right work.

What’s Important

In the whirlwind of what becomes our daily lives, we sometimes need a really big reminder of what is important.  I would be the first to admit that, from time to time, I need a wake up call.  I admire those around me that are always focused with the absolute right priorities.  I do a better job of this some days than others. What truly amazes me though, is that it is easier for me to see it in others.  I can clearly see when someone else is being distracted or missing the big picture.  Or, when someone really understands what is important…

For the past several months, I have been working with Robert Morehead Middle School in the Dollarway School District in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  Principal Paulette Bell started at the school at the same time as I did as the school improvement coach.  She had never been a principal before.  As the new principal, she knew that there were expectations of her that students would become more successful at the school.  That really is the primary goal of our school improvement work.

I have to say that she approaches this work with integrity and grit.  She does not back down from what has to be done. She tackled school culture first, bringing a sense of order and calmness to the school that was evident in the very first weeks of school.  In fact, she is like other brand-new principals that I have worked with; she has spent much of this first year getting her school in order.

Before the winter break, we had a great talk about the importance of her transitioning to less managerial leadership daily habits to more of a focus on instruction and student achievement.  Don’t get me wrong, she absolutely has had student achievement as her first priority this entire year.  She just is on a steep learning curve (like we all were when we started) of trying to become knowledgeable in so many aspects of leading a school.

As I continue to coach her, I see Ms. Bell listening and reflecting.  I have watched her grow as a school leader and I am very impressed with her ability to understand the big picture of what has to be done.  She is taking steps to transition to an instructional leader. I am sure some of this seems overwhelming and some of it seems like small baby steps. In our school improvement work, it takes time for change to happen, especially when you are working to influence and impact others.

I was at the school this week.  Ms. Bell talked to me about student data that she was collecting and she told me that she was starting to have conversations with individual students about their achievement.  This is new work for her. She is learning how to read the data and really understand what it tells her about the next steps with her students.  After I left, I received this picture. IMG_1896It is Ms. Bell, at her desk, with a student. They are looking at the student’s current reality; what the data is telling them about the learning.   Together, they are making a plan of what has to happen next in order for this young lady to be successful.

This picture tells a very significant picture.  This principal gets what is important.  She is prioritizing her time to meet with individual students and she is using data to give her evidence of what is and what is not working. And, she is learning.   I see her professional growth as a new administrator.  I know that she has difficult, busy days and she has so many things that she wants to touch and impact.  Her decision, to meet with individual students, at this very important time of the year is the right work.  This week when I am back with her, we will look at every student, every grade and make a plan for the next few weeks. It is that time of the year when you want to be sure that you are doing all you can for each student.  Student by student/skill by skill.

Ms. Bell’s students and teachers are lucky to have her.  I am blessed to work with her.  Have a great week. See you next Saturday.



Sharpen the Pencils

Timing is everything. As I worked in schools this week, it felt like the absolute right time to talk about ‘sharpening our pencils’.  There were great conversations about students and learning. There were questions asked (to me and by me) about what adults actions were needed to ensure that we were doing all that we could do to meet the needs of students.  As one teacher said to me, it is a good time to park the excuses and truly focus on what can be done to help each and every student get to the finish line this year.

A great deal of my time was spent this week helping teachers and administrators understand the kind of questions that we need to be asking students to help them develop more critical thinking skills.  There is much talk about assessing students. The most important reason to assess students is so that we understand what they know and can do.  We have to know where they are on their learning journey; what they are proficient at and what they are struggling with.  We need this information often so that we can take action on what needs to be done, immediately, to help them.

Sometimes, we fail to ask the right questions. In other words, the information that we gather really doesn’t provide the evidence of learning that we need.  How we word our questions and what skills we ask students to do is directly related to the level of thinking that the student will do to respond.  We control this and it takes “sharpening our pencils” and being intentional colored-pencils-686679__340with our questioning skills to be sure that what we are challenging them to think critically. Our questions, for example, should provide opportunity for students to have to reason, to justify their answers, to apply knowledge, to compare and contrast, to write about what they are reading.  If we only ask them to recall facts we miss an opportunity to really have them think.

At several schools this week, we practiced writing assessment questions that would progressively become more complex.  We recognized that if we only give students more work to do, we will not increase the level of difficulty expected.  State and provincial assessments create opportunities for students to be challenged. They also provide opportunities and challenges for educators to ensure that students can think.  It takes stamina and confidence for our students to sit and take these large-scale assessments.  There is a great deal of academic vocabulary that they have to understand to be able to be successful.  Think about it- just understanding what it means to “justify” an answer or how to think through the process of answering a multiple-choice question are skills of success.

A shout-out to Northside High School in Lafayette, LA and Rivercrest Elementary School in Wilson, AR. In two of my sessions this week, teachers of ‘speciality’ subjects, for example, music, art, physical education, rocked it! They were totally engaged in learning more about what they could do differently to create more “thinking” opportunities. I was inspired by their questions of me and how they were willing to support what the core subject teachers were working so hard to do.   “It takes a village to raise a child” and “all means all” is alive and well in these schools!

And lastly, I ended the week at an amazing Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor concert. Two great musicians with lots of energy and care for their audience. It was so obvious that they both appreciate their fans and still love what they do.  Reminds me of our school improvement world- what our students need… to be appreciated and have educators stand before them who love what they do.  Have a great week. Ask intentional questions. See you next Saturday.


On the road again…

I know that this is the start of a great song and I can almost hear you all humming along. It really represents my thinking this week… I have been off work since December and getting ready to be “on the road again” on Monday. Three schools, two states and lots of time in the car and in the air.  And, here are my wonders about getting back at it…

As a school improvement coach, I wonder what I will find when I am back in my schools. Even though I have been able to stay in touch, I am anxious to see what work has been done and the progress that each school is making.  I wonder what we will celebrate? What accomplishments (small or big) and what progress that they have made.  It is really, really important that you stop and celebrate any positive changes in schools.  The work is hard and educators and students deserve to stop and appreciate their efforts.

I know that I have expectations that my schools have stayed the course- collaboratively focusing on evidence-based decisions and most importantly, identifying what each student needs and doing all that they can to meet their needs.  I also know that, they likely have had set-backs; school canceled due to weather, teachers out due to sickness, more expectations piled on them from outside influences and distractors that take their time and energy. In some cases, we may have to hit the “restart” button and that is ok, as long as we keep moving forward.

One thing for sure happens in February every year, the time starts to slip by.  In August and September, it seems that the school year is miles long and we will have all the time in the world to ensure learning happens with all students.  By this month, we are starting to realize that the year is moving fast and will soon be over.  It is a great month to really look at where we are and what we want to accomplish.  With the weeks left, what do we need to prioritize and really spend time doing.  Which learning outcomes are the most important and who are the students that need extra time and support and what are we doing about it?  We know that not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way.  It is the best time to really examine what we are doing with our time and support.  Is it effective?  Are we sure what we are doing is making a difference?  Or, it is time to step it up with both time and effective strategies and interventions?  There should be a sense of urgency about the year right now and if it isn’t happening in your school, how can you help it along?

I had a great conversation with a principal this week. She reminded me of the value of  the “community of learners” that the educators are in the building.  Schools are all about student learning; that is why we go to work each day, so that student learning is maximized and that we do all we can to ensure it.  While we are focused on this, we also need to remember, that as adults, we need to be constantly learning and stopping to celebrate our successes.  Coming together in community to honor each other and notice what is happening and having a little fun is important.  February is a great time to sharpen our saws, to truly consider our learning needs and take the time to reflect, renew and to learn. On the road this week, I will have the chance to work with close to two hundred educators.  Their commitment to a continuous learning journey and their own professional development is inspiring and I am so thankful to be a part of this journey with them. They know that my expectation is implementation. I want them to take back what they learn and apply it to their practices. If we don’t take action and implement, then our students do not benefit from our work.  That is true accountability for the time that we spend together.

I would be misleading you if I also didn’t say that I am nervous about being on the road.  Because I was not working for health reasons, fullsizeoutput_1023I am really hoping that I have the energy and stamina that I know I need to do this work. I am sure that I will feel exhausted at the end of the days (just like the teachers and administrators that I work with do every single day) and I know that my energy level will only stay high if I keep a positive outlook and mindset about the task at hand.  I have to continue to believe in the adults so that they can believe in the students.  I will need to remind myself that, despite my own setbacks and distractors, as long as I am working on the right work, we will move forward.

My challenge to you this week is to reflect on what this time of the year means to you. Is it a good time for you to really look at your student by student/skill by skill support?  Is there a need to change some of the ways that students are being supported?  Do you have a fear that you might get to the end of the year and not be sure that you did what you needed to do to meet the needs of students?  Checking, double-checking and triple-checking what is working or not is always a great idea.  We know that hope is not a strategy. We want to be doing all that we can to be sure of student success.  Have a great week. See you next Saturday.

Let’s Talk

As January came to a close this week, many conversations were focused on the extreme cold and brutal winter weather in Canada and the United States.  For those of us who are road warriors working with schools, these are the weeks we learn the most patience and stamina from.  We have to prepare for canceled flights and school closures; heading out in case we can make it and actually can be on site in schools and districts  that are open. We take clothes with us for all seasons and, if you are like me, you still don’t have what you really need to wear with you.  I talked with many schools and districts this week that were closed because of the cold and many friends who were stranded from missed or canceled flights.  Personally, I avoided it all as I am still recovering from my surgery (the silver lining?).  And, because I was off, I had a great opportunity to learn more about an annual event in Canada.

On January 30, Bell Canada held its annual,”Bell Let’s Talk”.  This initiative started in 2010 with the goal of increasing the conversations needed about mental health. Dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada, Bell Let’s Talk promotes awareness and action with a strategy built on 4 key pillars: Fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world-class research and leading by example in workplace mental health. For weeks leading up to the day, increased awareness is built through media sources, community initiatives and focused conversations about mental health.  People courageously share their personal stories and encourage others to boldly seek the support that is needed.  Nationally, this pulls Canadians together and we seem to become a small, close-knit community of 36.7 million people.

In 2015, I had the honor of co-chairing the writing of recommendations for a ten-year education plan in the province of New Brunswick.  As I listened to the testimonials this week of adults and children struggling with the stigma of mental health, I was reminded of very important conversations that I had during the research for the recommendations that we had to write for the plan.  During town hall meetings, focus groups and community events throughout my province, mental health found its way to almost every agenda.  Needs were identified that included ensuring that schools had ample support to meet the mental health needs of students and their families.  During many conversations, the struggles associated with poverty were closely aligned to the roadblocks of being able to seek support for mental health.  And, over and over again, I heard the simple request for more conversations, connections, relationships in our schools.

As a school improvement coach/consultant, I am expected to bring effective practices to schools and districts. I work with educators to improve so every student is able to succeed. That is what my goal is each and every time that I leave home to go to work.  The tricky part for me is just what I wrote about in the earlier paragraphs.  How do I help with the overall mental health of the student?  I am not on site long enough to really get to know students. I am not personally responsible for their education.  I don’t really have an opportunity to build relationships with very many of them in the buildings that I am in.  What I can do though, is encourage the adults in my care to care for the students in their care.  You know, take care of the teachers and they will take care of the students. That kind of thinking…

So much is written about how we need connections and relationships in our lives.  I recently read about a “young” lady who turned 102 years old.  She talked about the one thing that matters the most to her… talking to someone every day.  She said even if it is her mailman or a delivery person, she makes sure that she has a conversation or two with people, face to face, every day.  She invites people to come and talk to her. She asks for what she needs. And, what might seem to be meaningless conversations about trivial things, these can be the most important time in someone else’s day.  I know for a fact, that I get energy from other people.  I need that in my life.  I always will. And, I know that we have students and staff in our schools just like me. They need conversations, connections and relationships to stay mentally healthy.

Bell Let’s Talk really made me think about my life and my work.  I appreciate this initiative and the opportunity that it gave me and others to openly consider our mental health.  I know that I can share great educational practices with teachers and administrators but I cannot “make” them build relationships or have conversations.  This has to come from a place of deep understanding of the impact that you can have on others. You may not know your immediate influence, but each conversation and relationship could be just what the student or teacher needs to get through their day.  Because we really don’t know, we have to work from positive intent.  Knowing that each of us has the ability to increase the mental health of others should be enough for us to do what’s right- to take the time to talk, to connect, to support.

This week, I challenge you to consider your conversations and connections. IMG_1780.JPGWhat can you do to increase the opportunities you have with others?  Will you purposefully build and nurture a healthy relationship?  How will you show that dialogue matters? As you stay warm by a cozy fire, know that others need you.  And, perhaps you need them too. Have a great week.


In a world that, sometimes, appears chaotic, it is a great blessing when organization prevails. You know, when things make sense and seem easier than you could imagine.  When competency and expertise are in abundance and decisions are made based on evidence and facts. What a wonderful feeling that is when you just know that things are being done right.  Thankfully, that was my experience this week. Here is the story…

On Monday I had surgery.  It was planned so expected and necessary.  Being off the road, not in my schools and back in Canada waiting for the surgery for the past couple of weeks, caused lots of moments for reflection and maybe, just maybe, a bit of anxiety.  Being someone who likes to be in control of their own decisions and life, it is somewhat stressful to know that you are going to be completely dependent on the work of others. telephone-1822040__480 Over and over, I thought of how the surgery would go, what to expect when I was at the hospital, and, of course what the weeks of recovery would be like. And, as this week has progressed and my recovery is going well, I recognized that I was well cared for and now the work is up to me…which brings me to the work of improving schools…

Picture this- a new family moves in to your school neighborhood.  The children are nervous about starting a brand new school in the middle of the year.  You are the principal. The family comes in to meet you prior to their first official day (that would be my pre-operational visit last week for blood work, tests, etc) and from this very first experience they have a feeling about what being in your school might be like. Were they met with organization or chaos when they arrived? Were they expected or did it seem that there may have been a communication mix up and someone didn’t know or forgot that you were coming? Did they feel confident in your ability to lead the school? How would we want both the parents and students to feel leaving after this initial meeting?

My pre-op visit set the stage for me to feel confident in what was going to happen the following week. When I arrived, I was greeted with expectation and a plan was in place for the tests and sharing of information that I needed. Every health professional demonstrated competence and expertise.  I left feeling confident in their ability to take care of my needs. And, this continued on the day of my surgery.  Like the children arriving for their first day, I was a bit nervous and excited at the same time.  I haven’t been feeling my best for a long time so the excitement for me was the anticipation of how my health would improve once this was over.  For the first timers to your school, the wonder of how that first day will go with other students and staff causes many mixed emotions. For many, the excitement of a fresh start, new friends and the very important perception that they have of how your school “is” based on their “pre-op” visit and critically important to their success.  You want them to come with a positive mindset and be open and ready to learn.  For me, this was about me going with my “homework” done. I did what was asked to prepare, the experts worked with me and now the “learning” (recovery) is up to me. I have to own the responsibility for the work now.  And, isn’t that what we want with our students? We set the stage, we share our expertise, we build confidence with our practices and then we ask them to share in the responsibility by taking ownership of their learning (my healing)?

In the book, Leading with Intention (Spiller and Power, Solution Tree Press, 2019), Jeanne and I write about establishing and maintaining organization as one of the eight critically important areas in leading successful schools. Chapter 2 is dedicated to reflecting on and understanding the systems and practices that are necessary for a sense of order to prevail. We shared a story of a school in Georgia that moved from a school of chaos and disorganization with one simple change… a new principal.  This new principal started with the overall culture and introduced protocols and expectations for both staff and students that made sense.  Little things like morning routines, transitions between classes, consistent expectations by staff, increased visibility of the adults in the building and a very important expectation that the students begin self-regulating their own behaviors. In other words, they had to accept responsibility for their actions.

When we think about improving schools, our number one priority is ensuring that every single student’s needs are being met.  Sometimes, we have to get the other things in place first so the positive learning environment that we expect in the classrooms starts in the halls, the gymnasium, the cafeteria and on the bus.  It starts when we walk through that first door or have the first conversation on the telephone with someone. It starts with the on-line presence or messaging that we share. To create confidence in what we offer, we have to pay attention to the decisions that we make, the sense of order that we establish and  the messages that we are sending.   Students know when we are disorganized, when we lack the confidence or competence in what we are doing. We are not fooling them when it isn’t there.

My experience this week at the Moncton Hospital, part of the Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick, Canada was extremely positive. The health professionals and the overall system created a feeling of confidence in me and left me wanting to ensure that I now do my part to heal properly. The work of improving schools is not “one person’s” role. It takes a team with expertise to really figure out the needs of students and move forward with the right “prescription”.  It takes proven practices, caring relationships, patience and a willingness to find the cure for each and every student.

I will close this week by asking you to consider how others would describe your world. Does it seem chaotic or organized?  Do you create a feeling of confidence with others or is there more work to be done to be more competency-based in your practices?  Are you providing clarity in your messages with focus and intention?  Are you sharing the “how” and “why” so others understand the expertise behind decisions and actions? What could you do to improve these practices?  Have a great week. Thanks again for reading and I look forward to being with you next Saturday.