Less is More

Faced with challenging times, educators adjust. Parent adjust. Learners adjust. On a zoom meeting with a colleague this week I heard her say to her “students”, “Just a second… my daughter’s school day is starting in the other room and I want to make sure that she is all set.” She is the teacher and the parent at the same time.  A reflective question to consider; “Are we working from home or at home working?”. It feels like a bit of both for most of us.  For me, the past two weeks have been founded in learning as much as teaching.  Yes, I am still the teacher but, wow, did I learn a great deal.  We are definitely adjusting the sails as we go and I am so thankful for my “teachers”.

The most important lesson for me was definitely the continuous need for less is more.  Teachers continue to consider what is best and the most impactful with the least amount of stress for parents and students when they assign or suggest “home” work.fullsizeoutput_17a0  Less work but more energy being spent on connecting and continuing relationships is working for the teachers that I had the great pleasure to work with over the past ten days.

The less is more concept also applies to planning for next year; which, for most of my schools and districts, that is where time is now being spent.  Focused discussions on the essential learnings that must occur next year and how a year-long curriculum plan and master schedule might be tweaked to address the start of a very different year.  I plan to participate in this free webinar to help me think through next steps- http://solutiontree.com/MindtheGaps.   It begins with expert, Mike Mattos laying the foundation as we think about using time and interventions to take care of student needs.

Honestly, the best we can do right now for our students is to engage in professional conversations about the work that we did accomplish this year and what we need to do to get ready for next fall. We have data and the evidence of student knowledge and skills, found within that data, is an important place to start.  We know that, with six to seven months out of school, students will be coming to us with more needs, academically, socially, mentally. We also know that we have an opportune time, right now, to consider and plan for the 2020-2021 school year.  And, I firmly believe that less will be the new more.

We have to decide on essential learning outcomes; the boulders as my friend, Maria Nelson states in all of her presentations. We can consider the rocks ( the nice to knows but not essential)  and butterflies (the learnings that we touch on)  but we have to clarify and agree on what we must have mastery of.  This is the answer to the first professional learning community  process question- What is it we want our students to know and be able to do?  Authors DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many and Mattos (2016) explain in Learning by Doing, that, to answer this question, we have to “identify the essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions each student is to acquire as a result of each unit of instruction.” (https://www.solutiontree.com/learning-by-doing-third-edition.html)  Never has this been a more crucial conversation for collaborative teams then right now.

I read an article this week by  educator, best selling author and one of my personal heroes, Dylan Wiliam.  (https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-immoral-teach-too-full-curriculum). He reminds us that, even before COVID-19 and so much missed time in school, teachers face massive quantities of content that they try to “cover”.  He articulates it this way:

“There is no doubt that there’s far too much stuff in our curriculum – I’ve wondered about why this is, and my conclusion is that curriculum developers cannot bear the thought that any children might have spare time on their hands.

“So they actually make sure there’s enough stuff in the curriculum for the fastest-learning students to be occupied all year. And so there’s far too much for most students, and so teachers have to make sure of this, and some teachers just teach the curriculum, they meter it out and they go from beginning to end, and 20 per cent of the kids get it and the rest don’t – I think that’s logically consistent but immoral.”

For years, Wiliam’s expertise has guided many of us to understand the use of formative assessment and feedback in increasing student success in our classrooms.  He states in the article that when we have too much curriculum, we leave little time for knowing where students are on their learning journey and most importantly, providing them feedback so they know this as well.

As the conversations evolved during the past few days, I am beginning to fully understand that the roadmap that we create for next year must have check for understanding and built in time for intensive interventions. Yes, this is always part of our school improvement work however, for next year, in my opinion, teachers and students will need to be confident of the essential expectations of learning and time will need to be there for all students to learn.  Differentiating instruction, providing quality Tier 1, 2 and 3 interventions and understanding that time is a variable, not a fixed asset, has to be part of our planning- right now- for next year. Mastery of less rather than “covering” more will help build the best journey for our learners. It is time to build the road map, identifying what we know to be essential for student to know and to create master schedules to ensure enough time is there so all students can be successful attaining the essentials.

I am excited and so encouraged as I listen, coach and support teachers and leaders during our new normal. I heard many examples of thinking outside the box so that we can use time effectively, creating stronger teams of teachers to ensure the foundational skill will be addressed and taking the time to really identify students who will need more time to learn. Amazing “aha” moments are alive and well with collaborative teams rising to the challenge and having authentic discussions about what they know are the most important things that their students must know.

Thank you to my “teachers’ these past weeks; educators, leaders colleagues; it was a pleasure to be with you as we continue to build the plane as we are flying it.


Where Do We Begin?

In August or September, hopefully, schools will be reopening across North America and perhaps earlier, in other parts of the world.  Hallways and cafeterias will be filled with the sounds of children’s voices and “seeing” one another, teachers and students, will take on a great new meaning. Undoubtedly, there will be tears of happiness shed as classroom doors are open and students are welcomed back in to the arms of their teachers.  (I suspect that there will be tears of happiness as parents say good bye to students that first morning as well!)  Right now, however, teachers  are still wondering what will be the new normal for this return? And, from my coaching calls this week, I would say that the question keeping most educators awake at night, right now is “How will students have faired, mentally, socially, physically and academically over this extended time away from school? ”

In its report this past week, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) Collaborative for Student Growth Research Center  predicts that students will return to school with approximately only 70% of the learning retained from this school year and, unfortunately, for mathematics, the prediction is closer to only 50%. In some grades and with some students, the learning can be as much as a full year behind. (https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/04/KAP5122-Collaborative-Brief_Covid19-Slide-APR20_FW.pdf).

I am going to go out on a limb and say that planning for school re-opening needs careful attention to a few important areas. This shouldn’t be complicated but thoughtfully organized with a focus on a few important details:

  1. Gather information of what teachers currently know was learned this school year and what they can predict to be the skills/knowledge that students will be missing as they leave their grade. Working collaboratively, right now, as a grade level or content level team to have discussions about what they accomplished this year and can confidently tell the next grade will be a learning gap is a helpful first step. These vertical discussions are always a great practice and are more important, right now, then ever before. The information collected can help the teachers build a plan for the first four weeks of school that can include what the previous grade level teachers identified as possible learning gaps.
  2. Create a transition plan for the beginning of the school year that provides both physical transition and closure for this school year as an academic transition. For example, one school that I am working with is planning a first day back that allows for students to visit with their previous teacher and classmates prior to being ‘walked” to their next teacher. One school is considering a “cross the bridge” theme to provide a way to honor the end of the school year and start a fresh new one. There are delayed celebrations and graduations being planned and all of these efforts will be important to students.  Academic transitions can include at least a  four week plan to provide time for teaching and interventions as well as immediate diagnostic assessments (especially at the early grades) to determine foundational academic needs (especially in reading and math). On-going interventions  are always necessary and the 2020-2021 year will require leaders to understand and implement effective interventions that are continuously monitored and adjusted.   Timely and immediate response will be critically necessary and this should be planned now to ensure that no time is wasted once school reopens.
  3. Consider staffing for next year, especially for the first four to six weeks of school.  Plan a hands- on – deck approach to put every available adult in front of students who will need intervention and support as they come back to school.  Create a plan to put the most skilled and highly effective teachers in front of the students who need it most. Small group instruction with intentionally focused expectations on specific skills for specific students will never be more important then the opening of this school year. Master schedules need to be carefully thought out as well as who we hire and this is the time to do that thinking. Everything next year is about student learning and this plan should be ready to go when school opens without delay.
  4. Elementary schools will have a special challenge with kindergarten students heading off to first grade.  So much of the reading and writing that is accomplished in kindergarten truly grows and springs to life in the last half of the school year.  First grade teachers will face more non-readers and students who have been without structures and routines for several months. It will be very important for these students and teachers to be well supported and have a great transition plan for the first few months. What foundational skills and learning will need to be the focus?

I know that physical distancing, working from home, business closures and our ever-changing knowledge of COVID-19 has added stress and challenges, in different ways, for different people.  I know that it might be hard to do planning now for months away, however, it seems like a good time to put our energy and resources towards the way we want school to be when we re-open.

Controlling what we can control is what this is about. As district and school leaders, and of course, classroom teachers, we can control what we plan and implement for when we finally see our students again.  Educators around the world have been showing love to students in so many ways this past month; delivering meals with their lessons, staying in touch with them on a daily basis, sending them letters through the mail, holding car parades, supporting their parents, day and night, and most importantly, working to keep learners engaged through a very difficult time.

The next big challenge is how we start up again.  The true test of our collaborative efforts will be how well prepared we are to meet the needs of our students. Doing something feels great… let’s not just talk about this… we can be well prepared for 2020-2021! colored-pencils-686679__340Thanks for reading. Have a great week and stay safe and healthy.


“I have cried almost every day this week…either from exhaustion, being overwhelmed or just from seeing so many people step up and support one another”- these are the words of a district administrator as this very long week comes to an end.  As educators in North America adjust to the new normal; working from home to continue to support students and their families, trying to find the best ways to bringing learning in to millions of homes, discovering new ways to connect with families… and at the same time… being responsible for their own personal safety and the welfare of their loved ones.

There is pressure being felt by teachers and leaders at all levels to supply both online learning opportunities and to ensure that, for families without internet access, there are paper copies. An overload of messages, suggestions, expectations and virtual meetings are causing a tiredness that feels nothing like being in a classroom full of students each and every day.

The hardest part seems to be the grief being felt by teachers and school principals everywhere.  Students went home and then schools were closed… indefinitely or with a definite no return date at this point.  Teachers had no time to say good bye to the students that are such a part of their lives. The usual end of year events and celebrations that bring closure and provide opportunities to share gratitude and love will not exist this year or at the very best, be in a format that we have never experienced before. The school “family” is now separated in isolated bubbles; everyone is doing their part right now to ensure the health and safety of their communities and this means that any physical support and connection is lost.

Yes, we are all finding ways to stay connected and as I knew would happen, educators at all levels are rising to the occasion and doing their best in a very sad time.  Teachers are learning how to respond to parent and student needs from the comfort of their home, principals are figuring out how to set agendas and norms for meetings that have to be held virtually to maintain a sense of normalcy in the new school day.  In all of my coaching calls this week, the themes that bubbled up were around building connections, relationships, checking in with people and at the same time, trying to provide some structure and expectations for how this work is different.

In one call, a very wise principal stated that “we are not providing distance education or on-line learning but we are trying to have some teaching and learning during COVID-19“. I like this statement.  It is just that… we are trying to do our best to provide what we can at this difficult time.  It is not about grading papers or state or provincial assessments anymore…it is about seeing what we can collaboratively accomplish so students can continue to learn. It isn’t about how much they learn right now but perhaps that they also have some sense of normalcy, routine and feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

And through all of this, it is taking a minute to find the balance. Sitting outside in the sun, going for a walk if you are able, sharing a home-cooked meal with your family, playing a game, watching a movie, laughing at nothing or… making a snow angel. IMG_2123 Returning home to eastern Canada to snow on the ground was an adjustment. Working mostly in the southern states means that I miss most of winter.  But, a nice sunny day gave me an opportunity to appreciate my home, my family, my health.  My new “normal” is an adjustment as I learn how to meet the needs of my schools and districts without being there to wrap my arms around them.

As sheltering, physical distancing and the lack of in person connection continues to be our world, stay strong and positive.  Reach out to others when you need them or they need you -or just because it feels like the right thing to do. Schools provide much more than paper and pencil tests and learning. They provide a sense of community. This has never been more needed or evident then right now.

To my principals, district leaders and teachers reading this- THANK YOU for stepping up and constantly adjusting. My heart has been so touched by the stories of teacher “drive by” parades in student neighborhoods, the constant delivery of food to families, the online “read alouds” at bedtime and so much more. This is above and beyond the “packets” of learning being prepared and sent home.  This is all about life lessons. Our students will never forget these acts of kindness and connection during their isolated time at home.  You are making a difference.


Doing the Right Thing

Two weeks ago, when I wrote my last blog about integrity, I was just finishing an amazing week of school improvement coaching and had spent the weekend traveling to visit my oldest daughter and my sister.  I had returned to work only to have the week cut short as COVID-19 continued its march in to North America. Little did I know, when I left the school that day, that it would be highly unlikely that I would see the teachers and school leaders any time soon.

Over the past two weeks, I struggled to make the changes that are needed so quickly. What routines were normal are now missing in my day; friends and family who I had plans to see and spend time with are now virtual connections only; worrying about loved ones is a constant and knowing that the schools and districts that I support are full of questions and unknowns, makes me sad.  Despite this, we have to look for the silver linings and I want to tell you about principals that I talked with this week who are bound and determined to continue to make a difference… here they are…

The first principal I want to re-introduce you to is Sarah Stobaugh at Morrilton Intermediate School. You may remember a blog that I wrote about the incredible shared leadership model that Sarah had created with her teachers. This week, I want to give her and her community (South Conway County School District in Arkansas) a shout out for the time and attention that they are spending making sure families have food (and teaching is continuing).  image1That’s Sarah in the picture with her own bus -driving dad, delivering food to families.  With Sarah’s permission, I am sharing what she wrote about her school community this week on Facebook:

“Let me tell you what happened today. Our district prepared over 1,100 meals for our community. Teachers took time from answering questions for kids and parents online (as they try to find the best ways to serve our students through a completely different platform other than the classroom) and jumped on a bus to go deliver lunches. When they had meals left over they asked their bus driver to drive around to find more kids in other neighborhoods. They asked to go to houses of specific kids just to lay eyes on them and make sure they were ok. They looked for bikes or kids’ toys in the yard and knocked on doors to see if there were more kids inside that needed food. They weren’t satisfied until they thought they had fed all they could find. Then they went home and answered more questions and recorded more instructional videos for their students to stay engaged as we deal with these uncertain times. Tonight I know they will send up some prayers for their kids before they fall asleep. And they will wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. Our teachers are incredible, selfless people that get things done no matter the circumstance.”

The second principal I want you to meet is Meg Boyd, Principal of Edgewood Elementary School in Greenfield, Wisconsin.  I had a great conversation with her and despite the conditions that have been presented to her, she told me in, her calm and organized way, about the “virtual social” that she held with her staff on Friday afternoon. slideshow60_1She felt so positive about the chance for her staff to still feel connected and the opportunity that she had to really help create a sense of normalcy during this very challenging time.

We talked about all of the multi-tasking that has taken place this week; doing her job from home, making decisions about the direction for the school year, supporting her staff, families and students, attending virtual meetings and at the same time, trying to home school her own children.  In all of this, her biggest concern is equity; are all of her students going to have the same experiences with distance education, support etc. while they are home? She has students who need translation, interventions and she knows that many of her families are struggling. On Monday evening, Meg started a virtual story time through Facebook. She read a story to her students and teachers are now volunteering to help out and they hope to be able to do this five nights a week. Libraries are closed and she is concerned for students who do not have many books at home. I am sure her families loved her virtual story time! She also told me about a teacher who had had a “virtual conference” with four of her students just to check in with them and how she was thinking about different ways that relationships with families and students could continue.

Meg also knows how easy it would be for her teachers to work all the time while at home and that definitely is not her expectation. How does she balance the reality that there is still teaching and learning to take place with her staff’s needs to look after themselves and their families?  And lastly, she reminded me that while the situation is one we have never experienced before, student behaviors are now not getting in the way of instruction and she is confident that she could have even stronger relationships with her parents and community when this ends.

There are so many stories that I could tell you in this first week of our new way of living- people doing the right things to keep themselves and communities healthy, caring, connecting and showing that relationships truly matter. To my readers who are health care workers and others providing essential services- thank you for the tireless efforts being made. To my principals and teachers, I am thinking about you and will stay in touch as we continue to find ways to help each and every student be successful.

I appreciated every check in with me this week, every coaching conversation that happened on the phone or virtually and all of the times that some one demonstrated the absolute finest ways that we can create loving opportunities for others. Have a healthy and safe week.



Writing a blog means one of two things- I am either well organized and get my writing together well ahead of my own mandated deadline or I wait for a “sign” of a topic that I might want to write about.  I find that I write more from the heart and perhaps provide more relevancy for reflection when I respond to an experience or an adventure rather than just writing to write. This week, for whatever reason, integrity seemed to be the word swirling around in my head.

What does the word integrity mean to you?  When you hear or see the word, what is it to you? It’s a personality trait that we admire and in my opinion, it is an important value for leaders to possess. It represents honesty, being reliable and always doing the right thing.  It symbolizes a moral compass that doesn’t waver.  hand-3585349_640People who model integrity in their words and actions are people that we know we can depend on; they will come through for us and they will always do what they have said that they will do.

I watched some education leaders that I worked with this week struggle with difficult decisions.  Their hearts and heads were at odds on what was best to do. They worried about causing other people hurt or grief, knowing that the honest, right decision was going to be hard for others to understand. I knew that, as they thought out loud with me, that because they are people of integrity, they would recognize the right thing to do and that is how their decisions would be made in the end.  It wasn’t easy for them at first because it was uncomfortable to do the right thing.  Leading with integrity doesn’t always mean that you are popular or even feel great about a decision; but being true to your own values and your moral compass means that you strive to honestly live by your values. In the case of my leaders, they knew what was best for their schools and students and at the same time, recognized that not all of the adults would understand their decisions.  There would have to be thoughtful conversations to deepen the understanding because not every one was going to see the decisions in a positive light.

One thing that I have learned working in schools and districts (for way too many years!), is this… educators go to work every day to do their very best. They set out with the best intentions and they want success for their students.  And, when integrity shows up as a leading character trait, great things happen in districts and schools.  Honest efforts are put forth in the service of students.  Making difficult calls to parents are appreciated because that is the right thing to do.  Asking a peer to comply with school policies and expectations models what integrity looks like to others.  And, giving one hundred percent, no matter how tired or frustrated we feel because we know it is what our students deserve everyday, is that moral compass.

Digging deep every single day in a school means we never lose sight of why we are there. We know our purpose, our why and it always about the students. Integrity means that we get that and we know that we fairly and purposefully will take care of their needs.  And, we know that, as challenging as this is on us personally… we don’t come first… they do. That is what I saw this week in all the schools I worked. I appreciate the constant reminders of how necessary school improvement is and why I still pack a suitcase and leave home so often.  The bumps in the road can challenge our core values and cause us to pause. The fork in the road is always there. It is up to us to make the best and right decisions. Thank you to all the educators this past week, and every week, who allow their moral compass to lead them to what is best for kids.





On the road the past two weeks, I had several reminders and conversations about the importance of relationships in our education work. How critical is it for students to know that adults will connect with them AND how meaningful it is for administrators to build relationships with teachers?  I saw some great examples of trusting, respectful relationships and saw student faces light up because adults demonstrated their love and care for them.  Here are a couple of examples that I want to share…

I had an very thoughtful discussion with a superintendent about the qualities that he was looking for in a new administrator (he remains nameless only because this position is not filled yet).  As we talked about what the school needed and what he felt was most important, we circled back (actually, several times) to hiring someone who could truly take the time to build relationships with the staff.  He understand the value and need for a new principal to take the time to get to know staff and to truly listen.  Productive listening skills are a necessary leadership skill and finding ways to ensure that staff know we are listening and will respect and value their opinions goes a long way in building a positive school culture. We call it taking care of the staff so that they can feel good about taking care of the students.  We want teachers and support staff to come to work feeling valued and cared for and too many times, in my opinion, we do not pay enough attention to the culture that a leader does (or, unfortunately, does not, create). This superintendent is on the right track to make his district great… as he said… he wants to move from good to great because good isn’t good enough for his students.

In a second school in Arkansas, I had a chance to observe another school improvement coach in action.  Paula Maeker was working with teachers at an elementary school.  In every conversation,  the relationship of mutual trust that Paula had built with the teacher in her few short visits there was obvious to me. 9fVVRVL8QDyPInKWuxChngAmazingly enough, she had the same with many students in the school. One student in particular was misbehaving in class and Paula took the time to talk with the student and have him do some school work for her. His behavior quickly changed and he was fully engaged in his lesson…and it was good work. This kid went from the class problem to someone who could really perform.  Just like in this picture taken at the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zurich, the parts that make up our students are complex and many.  Teachers who figure out the workings of their students, have much more success at meeting their learning needs.

My last stop on this two week road trip brought me tears and smiles. At Robert F Morehead Middle School in Arkansas, I was able to attend the Black History Month Program. Students performed dance, songs and read poems and several times I had tears in my eyes. There were beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful moments created by the students. The staff demonstrated their faith in these students by having them be the program. Several parents were there to watch and the smiles of pride and joy in their faces were priceless. I also had a chance to be at the school book fair and watch a young boy’s absolute excitement in picking out two complimentary books to take home to read. Adults were showing their belief in him and wrapping their arms around him with support and encouragement. His joy was our joy!

This week’s questions for reflection- How important are relationships in your work with staff and students? Do you need to think about your communication skills? What message are you sending with your interest (or lack of interest) in the people you work with? What might be a first step in improving your working and learning culture? Have a great week. I will see you in two weeks- this weekly blog is now a bi-weekly blog! Thanks for reading.


The Earring

There is a clip from an I Love Lucy show that I adore.  She is looking for a lost earring in the living room. Ricky her husband asks her if she is sure that she lost it out there and she replies, “no, but the light is much better out here to see and find it.”

In his leadership book, The Advantage (2012), Patrick Lenioni uses this scene from the show to help his readers think about how often we spend time looking for answers in all the wrong places. IMG_1863That perhaps, we stay in our comfort zone, where the light is better, instead of doing a reality check and taking care of cultural issues, things that are truly the root cause of our problems.

I had a conversation with a principal this week who truly understands this culture piece of our school improvement work.  He is new to his school this year and we were having a mid-year review of his work to date.  He talked about how important the relationships in his school were to him and how he felt that he had spent so much time this first half of the year building trust and respect with students and staff.  He knows that he has a great deal of work to do around academic success but job one to him was to create a healthy school culture of adults working together towards a common good before he would see the benefits in student success.

Sometimes, in my coaching role, the opposite happens. A principal might name the problem (poor student attendance, for example) but blames the students for this and doesn’t take the time to figure out that this is a problem that he or she can solve.  We call that admiring the problem. “If the parents sent us better students, we would have no attendance issues.” The root cause(s) of the problem are ignored… as in little or no attention paid to student relationships and/or student needs, policies that work against the students, bullying issues in the school that are ignored, poor classroom management strategies, lack of engaging lessons, etc. Adult decisions and actions that can be changed go untouched because it is the student’s fault.  We forget to hold up the mirror to see what we can do about the problem. In a healthy school culture, leaders bravely “name and claim” the issues… they are not waiting for someone else to find the earring.

I read a blog this week that truly resonated with me. In it, Jeanne Spiller and Brian Butler write about the labeling that is happening with students in far too many schools and districts that pull us away from authentically seeing the needs of a student.  I especially appreciated this quote from them:

The qualifier or label is not who the student is; it merely indicates something the student may need or identifies circumstances the student may be currently experiencing. If we are not careful, we can subconsciously attribute a set of expectations to the label. “Oh, he is a special education student, there is no way he can master that standard, we should give him something easier that he can handle,” or “she’s a really low reader, she can’t read grade-level text, let’s find text she can read instead.”


Labelling can include generalizing, for example, based on poverty, race and other bias. Lots of times, we unintentionally use the labels to provide an excuse for low performance.  Again, we are not looking in the mirror or perhaps the darkest rooms to see the real needs of the students.  The labels become excuses and smoke and mirrors when what we really need to do is problem solve. Spiller and Butler also remind readers that in labeling students, we also create higher expectations for those we labeled as high achiever and lower expectations for those we labeled as low achievers.  As they explained, we have confidence in the high achievers and challenge them more often. We have less confidence in those we label as low and we don’t push them or challenge them as much.

As unintentional as our messages are, students and other adults learn quickly how low our expectations might be of them. Let’s be honest, if we walk through a door and no one expects too much from us or ignores what support and encouragement and skills we need to improve, it is easy to just do as they expect.  When we are challenged to be better and when the time is taken to get to know us and problem-solve about what we need, as individuals, we can and will rise to the challenge.

So, this week, I am asking you to reflect on your current practice of naming… do you name the problem AND claim it or do you admire it a bit too long? How often do you spend time looking for the earring in the wrong room when your time would be better spent truly addressing the current reality? Do you know what your students need to improve? What are you doing to take action? What can you do differently tomorrow?

Have a great week.