4 Excellence Hacks Every Educator Needs to Know — #SH302

by | Dec 13, 2020 | 0 comments

Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude. ~ Colin Powell

Excellence occurs primarily in two fashions: 1. Efficiencies–the things we get faster at doing so that our capacity is greater, and 2. Effectiveness–the things that we do that have an extreme impact given their intended outcome. It’s worth drawing these out a bit further so that we’re clear about what makes for excellence before we dive into some of education’s super-hacks for teachers and leaders. 

First, take a look at this 2×2 grid from InsightSquared. It is a simple, yet powerful, representation of the cross section between pursuing the right work and using the right resources–effectiveness and efficiency. Although this grid focuses on cost, we can easily replace it with any other aspect of teaching or leading in schools, such as lesson planning and the use of certain strategies in the classroom. Our later example, as in the use of homework, is often done with good intentions to increase learning but doesn’t yield the outcome we expect. As such, the teacher is pursuing the right goals, but with the wrong resource. This is an issue that we experience frequently, and, in order to achieve excellence, we need to do the right things, the right way.

With that in mind, let’s consider both concepts–efficiency and effectiveness–at once and then each separately. Although, efficient and effective are associated with one another, they are not the same thing. One is about getting faster and doing more, the other is about having a greater influence. A problem can occur when we value one over the other, though, because efficient can actually be the enemy of effective. In other words, people can get really good at following a process that doesn’t have the intended impact. 

Let’s revisit the concept of assigning homework. In the case of mathematics, we might use an assignment of 15 practice problems. Teachers (and students) can get quite efficient at assigning, completing, and grading homework, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an effective learning strategy. Quite the contrary, most homework strategies, unless used for retrieval practice or another research-based independent assignment, don’t have an effect size higher than about .28 versus implementing a flipped classroom, which has an effect size of .58

Comparing homework to a flipped classroom, which typically introduces the new learning outside of the classroom and creates opportunities to review and practice within the classroom, like homework is supposed to do, is a perfect demonstration of the difference between efficient and effective. We can efficiently do one (homework) without being effective, and we can easily implement the more effective one (flipped classroom) without being efficient (takes tons of the teachers’ and students’ time to do).  

But let’s dive deeper into the positive aspects of being efficient. Simply put, people who are efficient can get more done than people who aren’t. There are two ways that we become more efficient at any given task. The first is no secret: we practice long enough that we get better and faster at doing it. Anyone who does something over-and-over again will get incrementally better at it. The problem with this first solution is that it takes time, maybe even years, to become more efficient at many of life’s greater challenges. That’s why the second way is so important because it’s not just about the person becoming more efficient but rather uncovering “efficiencies” that can be applied as strategies. 

When we understand efficiencies in the completion of a task, we can complete the task faster, even if we’re new at it. That’s why, as long as efficiencies don’t become less effective, being efficient can allow you to do something faster, more accurately, and even more often. That’s when the concept of efficient bleeds into the concept of effectiveness. Being effective isn’t the same as being efficient because, given the case of the flipped classroom from above, if the effectiveness takes forever, it still reaps its benefits but the benefits aren’t timely. 

In that case, our job is to find efficiencies for an effective task. What are the small steps that we can take in the initial implementation of a flipped classroom that don’t take an incredible amount of a novice-flipper’s time but still count for an impact on learning? Hence, the question that every leader and every teacher should consistently ask: what are the efficiencies in making a change that will have a greater impact on what I’m trying to accomplish? Are there simple ways that I can lead better and grow faster that take less time than other strategies and garner greater results as such? We have the answer for you, embedded within the following four simple yet underused leadership hacks. 

  1. Ask For And Use Feedback Faster: 

Think about how often you’re performing any given task without an observer. Especially for tasks that are new to you, not having an observer is like slamming a bunch of weights on the bar, having no idea if you can bench press that much, and then going for it without a spotter. Even worse, you’re alone in the gym. It’s dangerous. The best hack for getting better at anything we choose to do is by finding someone to give us feedback. We have to ask for it and then use it. And we have to do that faster than we traditionally would. 

Pro Tip: Next time you ask for feedback, don’t reflect on the feedback, implement it and then reflect on the implementation.

  1. Determine Your Accountability System: 

Too often, we set goals without determining the measurements. And, sometimes our measurements are too far off to see gains as we’re trying so hard to form new habits. We say things like, I wanna lose 20 pounds or we need to increase our attendance rates this school year. While those are important and lofty outcomes, they’re not goals and they’re not the type of measurements that will hold you accountable. 

As far as goals go, the first statement’s goal should be something about being healthy or feeling good. The second “goal” should read more about daily student engagement. But, because our goal writing skills suffer so do our measurement and analysis skills. It’s far more realistic and attainable to measure more incremental goals, that’s what holds us accountable from day-to-day and even minute-to-minute. Trying to lose 1-2 pounds this week will keep you from eating the pizza for lunch; 20 pounds with no ending date in sight is a disastrous equation. Celebrating daily and weekly class-by-class attendance is not only superior to an annual number, it uncovers both the bright spots and the places that need our attention.  

Pro Tip: Underpromise and overdeliver. You may have used a strategy like this in your school or business plan, but it works just as well, if not better, with your own mental capacity for reaching excellence. If you tell yourself that you want to lose 1-2 pounds this week, and you lose 2.5, your motivation will skyrocket. 

  1. Predict Pitfalls:

Perceptual acuity is knowing what’s around the corner. Effective educators not only have a great vision but they also see the issues that are up ahead and can properly plan for them. This ability to “see around corners” is not an innate gift bestowed on natural born leaders, but rather a quality possessed by educators who are consciously present. The present leader does three things exceptionally well: 1. Tune In, 2. Presently Lead, and 3. Forecast the future

Predicting pitfalls is directly aligned to forecasting the future since leaders work to build the future they desire. As they are actively building the future, they are continually looking for blind spots that they may be missing or overlooking. As teachers begin a new unit, the pitfall-predicting master will start with a pre-assessment so that they can tailor the lessons that follow to address the actual needs of the students. This is a perfect example of predicting and overcoming a potential pitfall with planning. 

Pro Tip: Seek Counsel. It is impossible to predict every pitfall and issue that you are going to encounter. One great tip is to have a small team of individuals with whom you work and who you fully trust to call out a pitfall in your plan. This is a great component of any high-functioning PLC. Think about this team as similar to the blind spot technology on the side mirror of a car. The true power in this technology isn’t that it alerts you to something in your blind spot, but rather that it prevents you from needing to take your eyes off the road so that you can continue to face forward.  

  1. Set Clear Priorities: 

Every day there are countless things that are competing for your time. As you manage yourself throughout your day, you will need to have a clear understanding of your personal priorities. Priorities are different from goals. Priorities have to be in real-time all the time. While you might set aside time each day, dedicated to a goal that has more of a long term objective, like earning your Level 2 Google Certified Educator, your priorities are minute-to-minute decisions about things that matter most. As an administrator or teacher, you can ask yourself what do I have to do each day that will lead to the greatest impact on student achievement? The answer is going to be something about visiting classrooms, which might not align as directly to your goals as it does to what you need to be doing with your time. That’s why having clear priorities is a hack for daily excellence. 

ProTip: Use the past tense in your morning journal. Hugh Jackman, in a powerful and enlightening podcast with Tim Ferriss, describes how he writes out something as if it already happened. In the morning, he’ll write something like this: “Today, my son and I had the best time together…”  Essentially, Hugh is describing a priority that he wants to manifest on that particular day and actually texts it to his wife but in the past tense. The power is threefold: First, he knows exactly what he wants to happen (sets a clear priority). Second, he shares it with someone who can ask him about it later (holding him accountable). Third, he wills it into the universe for energy and enthusiasm (believing in himself and the world he creates).    

Bonus Hack:

  1. Power Play:

Although we don’t believe in tricks or silver bullets, there are a few power plays that great leaders learn to use over time. All of these suggestions are actually more of a way of thinking than they are actions. When you think in ways that couple things together, kill two birds with one stone, or habit stacking, you are taking advantage of what we refer to as a power play. 

In the world of sports, a Power Play refers to a time when one team has an advantage over the other since an individual may be out of play, in the penalty box or off on the sidelines. Throughout our day, we have the ability to seamlessly work and complete things that give us an advantage by saving us time and making us more effective and efficient. This may sound like a silly example, but, every morning, a great time to pack lunch is while the Keurig brews each pod of coffee. It’s a simple thing to do while the Keurig warms up and then each pod brews. Because we often make our significant others a morning cup as well, we even have more time to make a healthy lunch. While some folks will stand there, waiting for their morning mug, efficiency and effectiveness hackers use that time to couple two tasks in one. 

Pursuing excellence is a journey. The above mentioned hacks are easily doable and will transform the way you work as a teacher or leader. Just one of the hacks can change your efforts from slow and monotonous to quick and impactful. The key to excellence is knowing how to be efficient and effective at the same time so that one or the other doesn’t get in the way of your success. Let us know which hack you use this week. 

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, reflection sessions, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J.

No one knew what the devastation of a pandemic would bring in the long run–first graders not knowing how to walk the halls properly or how to manage their materials at a desk. We’ve heard incredible stories of students being oddly possessive of classroom supplies in the younger grades–markers and erasers–trivial things that are readily available. And we’re witness to students up-and-leaving a room without asking in the upper grades–something that they did without asking when they learned from home.  

It’s fascinating to see the skills that are typically taught in schools, yet never captured in any accountability rating or report card, now starkly missing from our students in ways that require tons of attention. This, among other strange byproducts of time away from school, dramatically impacts culture, our well-being, and our abilities. Because we are challenged by such new and different problems in schools these days, we can quickly lose our sense of purpose in what we do. Purpose is such a strong indicator of groundedness that when it’s not clearly defined can bring misery.  

So, as we look within ourselves, we want to approach introspection the best way that we know how, effectively working toward finding our solid ground. Instead of just thinking about ourselves and dwelling on our work or lives, we offer very succinct prompts to begin your professional introspective analysis. 

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      •  I know my purpose at work each day.
      •  My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.

The answer to the first prompt may seem simple and intuitive at first, such as, “Of, course, I know my purpose, I teach. I’m a teacher. My purpose is to impart knowledge.” But, work beyond surface responses that don’t provide the specificity that truly reflects your inner definition of the purpose behind your work. You might come to something like “My purpose is to change lives” or “I plan to influence the system to be more innovative than education typically is.” The grander the statement, the better. Next, ask yourself the second prompt…if your purpose no longer matches your daily activities, you need to reclaim your ground. 

Reclaim Your Ground: Empowerment

No matter what happens, it is within my power to turn it to my advantage.  ~ Epictetus

Once you clearly identify your solid ground, you need to reclaim it. There is serious power in taking control of the things that you can. Despite all of the challenges in schools for teachers and leaders, there are several elements of schooling that we directly impact and that are within our control. A few that we work through in our school leadership training are as follows:

  • Visiting classrooms 
  • Planning with high-yield instructional strategies 
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Empowering teacher leaders 
  • Creating a winning culture
  • Clarifying the vision of the school
  • Praising others and using feedback cycles for school improvement 

The next step is to identify a process goal within a particular area that we can control for the day or week. If classroom management is a challenge, then that can become a clear area of focus. Danielle Doolan, team member of The Career Contessa, which “…helps working women be more fulfilled, healthy, and successful at worktell readers this: 


Process goals are the specific actions we take to increase our chances of achieving our outcome goals. These are the behaviors and strategies that we implement that help us set a path to achieve our desired result. Process goals are 100% controllable.”

This is of vital importance as you work to reclaim your ground. Process goals require specific actions. Those actions are under our direction and control. Determining the specifics of what you work on each day creates a greater sense of calm, connectedness, and confidence (The Three Cs of Empowerment). 

  Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I feel connected to my work.
      • I see the results of my efforts.

Take the time to think about your responses. If you feel connected and you are seeing results, what is contributing to your success? Name it so that it can be repeated. However, if you are reading this and you find yourself disconnected and frustrated, start by identifying a couple goals that you would like to achieve this month and be sure to identify the actions you need to take to reach success. 

With the clarity of our purpose in mind and process goals for taking action, we are ready to bloom. 

Thrive in Your Ground: Blooming

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you. ~ Epictetus

Identifying, finding, and claiming your solid ground will provide the necessary foundation to thrive in work and life. We approach thriving and this journey of development from a different angle than your typical school leadership training. The reality is that we don’t see the effects of all of our decisions right away. Development takes time and is actually a practice of redundancy and habit formation. Thriving can actually seem uneventful at first for those who love to start and try new things. Setting and starting activities and initiatives is fun, but the real work is in the day-to-day activities that will bear the fruit of our labor. 

This pursuit and drive forward flourishes in what Jim Collins describes as The Hedgehog Concept versus what he explains to be the work of the fox. The fox, “[is] scattered, diffused, and inconsistent, while the hedgehog understands that driving toward a concrete destination is what really works.” Thriving is focused and consistent; something that many of us struggle with in a time when so much has changed and so much is still uncertain. Disillusionment is born from doubt, skepticism, and suspicion about which direction we’re going and why. We get back on track when we find our inspiration and we rekindle our passion. 

Consider the following questions regarding how your purpose is congruent with you developing and growing in your role–thriving for the future.

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
      • I am passionate about my daily purpose.

We find inspiration in the people with whom we work, not just because they’re doing the work but because they want to get better at it. In all of our findings, readings, and trainings, we’ve realized that the most passionate people are inspired by the company they keep and the strategies they use as a team to improve. We call that a learning culture and a performance culture because it’s based on continuous improvement and a desire to do whatever we can to find success. We also recommend that leaders measure purpose and other aspects of school culture so that we can lead from a point of our strengths and work on the areas that require our attention. 

Assessing School Culture with REPSS

In our book, Building A Winning Team, we developed TheSchoolHouse302 Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools (REPSS) to measure a school’s culture using the perceptions of the staff. This process can create greater levels of clarity, trust, accountability, support, growth, and innovation in schools–all indicators of highly supportive, effective, and caring cultures.

This month we are completely focused on the purpose aspect of the survey because it sets the stage and tone for the other areas. You’ll find some of the reflection questions throughout the blog post and below as well. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions/prompts to fully unveil your purpose and consider the power in knowing the aggregate answers that your school community might post if they took this survey together. What might you do with that data as someone who wants to lead better and grow faster? After all, if things aren’t as good as they should be…or could be…then we have work to do. 


Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools


  • I know my purpose at work each day.
  • My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.
  • I feel connected to my work.
  • I see the results of my efforts. 
  • I tell a positive story about my workplace. 
  • The school brand communicated to the public is the same as the culture I experience as a professional. 
  • Our school’s core values are so clear that I know what is expected of me on a daily basis.
  • I find the work I do rewarding. 
  • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
  • I am passionate about my daily purpose. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.


TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.


Joe & T.J. 


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