The R.E.A.L. Playbook for School Culture

The R.E.A.L. Playbook for School Culture

Culture is often a hot topic for school leaders, but it also typically goes undefined without a real playbook for leaders who want to cultivate it within their school 

Every school leader knows that culture is king. When the school culture is positive, every effort, initiative, and goal is that much easier. Of course, nothing makes school leadership easy, but the right culture can do wonders. The problem is that culture, albeit named as an important driver of school success, is mostly elusive. School leaders, especially new school leaders, often wonder: What does it mean to cultivate a positive school culture? What leadership actions do school leaders need as both agents of change that solve critical problems but also compassionate leaders who support the school community? Let’s first examine the balance between pressure and support. 

The Pressure and Support Model of an Effective School Culture

School leadership is synonymous with school improvement. We’ve never met a school leader who wasn’t on a mission to improve one or more aspects of their school to support students, teachers, and the community. To make a change, disrupting the status quo and putting pressure on people is inevitable. The number one thing that people don’t like is change, and the number two thing that people don’t like is the way things are. But disruption and pressure alone, without adding support and scaffolding change, is just bad leadership. If we want people to change so that student achievement improves, we need to support that change to occur. 


That said, “supporting” people without the pressure and expectation to change means that we’re supporting the status quo. It’s easy to think that we’re supporting people when we leave them alone, back off because of initiative fatigue, provide “autonomy” to implement as they see fit, or any other mechanism of support for their current reality.

Unfortunately, this effort has an adverse effect. Not that autonomy doesn’t have a place, or that initiative fatigue isn’t real, but teachers’ desire to be effective and make a difference means that we need to hold really high expectations for their work. Effective school leaders know that support with some pressure moves the needle of student achievement, which helps foster a great school culture. That’s why we built the R.E.A.L. Playbook for school culture. Leaders who use R.E.A.L. for both pressures and support end up with cultures that can sustain change while creating a supportive environment. 

The R.E.A.L. Playbook for School Leaders

  1. Relentless. The first aspect of the Playbook for an effective school culture is for school leaders to remain relentless. This means that they attack old, persistent problems from second to second as if in a battle with a fierce competitor. These kinds of leaders are rarely satisfied, and they take extreme ownership of everything. They are constantly looking at problems through a new lens, and they don’t rest until persistent problems are solved in a sustainable way. 

Highly effective school leaders never accept defeat because that would mean giving up on students and teachers. That said, it is common for leaders to fall into a trap where certain aspects of the school culture are left alone, usually because one or more aspects of the culture have been accepted for so long that they seem like they’ll never change. Relentless leaders build positive cultures because of their refusal to relent until the culture improves. 

  1. Experimental. The second aspect of the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to become more experimental. Experimental leaders are willing to fail faster by implementing and trying ideas and strategies more quickly. They’re always on the lookout for something that can make a difference for their school community. They embrace the notion that we can’t continue to do what we’re currently doing if we want new or different results. 

But, experimental leaders are not always innovating at scale and certainly not recklessly. That drives everyone nuts and has the opposite impact on culture than what we’re striving to achieve. Instead, experimental leaders find small pockets of the culture that are willing to implement something new to experiment with results. They rely on first followers and networks, and they wait to confirm better results before requiring everyone within the culture to change all at once. 

  1. Agile. The next strategy in the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to support a culture’s ability to remain agile. This might be foreign for many school leaders, but it means decreasing the number of people who provide input on any given program or initiative. This doesn’t mean that we won’t need everyone’s input; it just means that we can’t take everyone’s input on every new approach. 

When John Kotter published Accelerate, he introduced a business concept that speeds up the initiation of new ideas and pockets of implementation with his theory that we can create small webs of people who can move faster than the whole company can do as a large enterprise. The same is true for schools. Great school cultures are always agile in their ability to change quickly when the need arises. 

  1. Learning Culture. The final tactic in the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to shift from a teaching culture to a learning culture. In a teaching culture, the adults in the school are there to impart knowledge; in a learning culture, everyone positions themselves as a learner first, before any other position of authority or power. This starts with the school leader who takes on the role of what DuFour and Marzano named Leaders of Learning

This intention to use the school as a place to learn and grow by everyone who works or enters the school transforms the culture into a place that doesn’t propose to have all the answers and allows everyone to learn with what Richard Elmore described as a “beginner’s mind” in one of his last podcast appearances before he passed.


Other Mindshifts for School Leaders

Using the R.E.A.L. Playbook as a school leader is a mind shift. The strategies are a deviation from the general school leadership practices in lots of schools. In our recent book, 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders, we describe this change and many others so that school leaders can lead better and grow faster as agents of change through the use of both pressure and support. 

For school improvement to be a reality, we need new models for how we think about our culture and how we go about challenging the status quo. A commitment to the R.E.A.L. Playbook is one step to taking your school to the next level. 



As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you.

Joe & T.J.

Developing a Learning Culture: How School Leaders Can Use B.A.S.I.C. to Drive Change

Developing a Learning Culture: How School Leaders Can Use B.A.S.I.C. to Drive Change

The culture of a workplace–an organization’s values, norms, and practices–has a huge impact on our happiness and success. ~ Adam Grant

Developing a Learning Culture

We always say that school leadership is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Unfortunately, no matter which way you turn, the complexities of school leaders seem to be amplified. You may be feeling like every new initiative adds one more thing to your plate. We’re not going to tell you that it “gets easier” or that it “slows down.” In fact, school leadership stands to get harder and go faster. That’s why school leaders need tools–tips, strategies, and tactics to handle the hard stuff and simplify what seems too complicated to tackle. 

If your system is like ours, your team is focused on multiple initiatives at once: making MTSS more effective, embedding Social Emotional Learning in every classroom, taking a more restorative approach to student behavior, finding ways to tackle unfinished learning, uncovering supports to retain staff, filling vacancies months after the school year has started, and the list goes on. What we know for sure is that none of these initiatives will work in a static environment, and they’ll fail if we see each of them as silos.  

In Passionate Leadership we described a learning culture, defined below. In a learning culture, everyone is a learner. The opposite is a teaching culture where the staff comes to work to impart knowledge but not receive it. For schools to thrive, we need learning cultures. For some schools, this is a huge shift; for others, minor tweaks will get you there. We’re going to unpack the best and simplest path to a learning culture so that every school leader has the tools they need. 

A model learning environment is a space of contentment, comfort, and value with an extreme focus on learning. It’s vibrant and radiates positive activity, grounded in an emotional connection between the students and teachers.


Lifelong learning isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s a mindset that all staff–paraprofessionals, teachers, counselors, building and district administrators–must embrace. Take a look below at the graphic that describes the fundamental differences between a learning culture and a teaching culture. In a learning culture, schools thrive; in a teaching culture, schools just survive. 

Great school leaders know that a successful school rises and falls on the degree to which the staff engages within a learning culture. That starts with assessing your current reality as a school leader, classroom teacher, or support staff. Take a moment and answer the questions below. Assess your classroom, school, and/or district through the lens of the survey questions. 

Assessing a Learning Culture in Schools 

  1. Is your classroom/school/district culture dynamic or passive? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  2. Is your classroom/school/district culture motivated or uninspired? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  3. Is your classroom/school/district culture courageous or fearful? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  4. Is your classroom/school/district culture resilient or submissive? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  5. Is your classroom/school/district culture supportive or compliant? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  6. Is your classroom/school/district culture authentic or unreliable? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  7. Is your classroom/school/district culture intrinsic or extrinsic? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  8. Is your classroom/school/district culture growth or fixed? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?

Hopefully, you answered positively to at least some of the 8 indicators of a learning culture versus a teaching culture. Every school can work on culture, some are working to change culture, and others are using tools to sustain what they have. No matter the case, accepting the status quo never works. You’re either working on continuous improvement or you’re watching things slide backward. The status quo never gets better on its own. To help you on your path to a fully functional learning culture, we introduce B.A.S.I.C. as a model to get you there.


The B.A.S.I.C. Strategy to Develop a Learning Culture

To build a learning culture, and to battle the constraints of a teaching culture, we need to keep things B.A.S.I.C. We can’t stress this principle enough–in a time when things are getting more and more complex, school leaders must create simplicity. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Keeping things simple is at the heart of B.A.S.I.C. When done well, students and staff thrive.



The B in B.A.S.I.C. represents Belief. Beliefs are the fundamental driving force of the school. They are the foundational principles that guide decisions and empower the staff. By identifying what a school believes–the core that guides decisions at every level–clarity is achieved. 

Schools are famous for their vision and mission statements, but they should also have core values, which are the backbone of the belief system within the schools. As an example, does everyone believe that all students can and should learn in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment? How about this: all staff will hold all students to high expectations in any school activity

One important tip for school leaders who are trying to change culture is that you don’t do so by trying to change beliefs. This might sound counterintuitive, but much of leadership is counter to what we think. To change beliefs, we have to change behaviors. When we have core values, we need to identify the behaviors that are associated with each. People either believe their way into behaving or behave their way into believing, and we’re far better and faster at the latter. That’s why we focus on behaviors first. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

What are my school or classroom beliefs that help guide decisions within our culture?


The A in B.A.S.I.C. represents Alignment. Think back to all of the initiatives we named earlier. There is no shortage of ideas, programs, challenges, and criticism. The superpower of an effective leader is being able to take a multitude of seemingly separate, and sometimes competing, initiatives and align them as all being the same thing. Whatever we name as needing our attention is likely something aligned with student success. The leader keeps the main thing, the main thing. 

For example, many schools are focused on a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) for student achievement, but the question is how does MTSS serve and connect with all of our other initiatives? In other words, how does MTSS fit with restorative practices, social-emotional learning, after-school enrichment efforts, etc? When we take a systems approach–as we described in 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders–the answer is simple. Leaders show everyone else how all of the initiatives are aligned with our greater purpose and school-wide goals. 

One important tip for school leaders is to think of alignment as an illusion. Alignment in schools is a perception. When people say, “This is one more thing,” it’s because they don’t see how all the things connect. It’s the leader who explains the connections so that others understand how it all works together. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How aligned are your initiatives to what can be considered the main thing?


The S in B.A.S.I.C. represents Support. We cannot overstate the importance of support. Burnout is real and we are seeing it play out in our schools every day. Support is dynamic and can take on a variety of different forms. We mentioned social and emotional learning (SEL), which should include staff SEL as much as it does the students

Support can be demonstrated in many ways, including how school leaders allocate funds, dispense resources, find coverage for classes, assign duties, and a host of other ways. One key to promoting a learning culture is to make sure that supports are in place for people to take risks with new learning. No one can learn in a culture that doesn’t value failure. In a supportive environment, It’s okay to try new things and see things differently than we did in the past. It’s the only path forward. 

One important tip for school leaders who want to foster a supportive environment is to remember that support doesn’t come without pressure. Support without pressure is support for our current conditions–the status quo. Pressure without support is not fair, though, so school leaders have to balance their methods of pressure with the support needed to meet high expectations. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How are you actively and consistently supporting your students and staff?


The I in B.A.S.I.C. represents Implementation. We often wonder why things don’t go the way we intended–whether in life, school, or business–and we are prone to blame a person, a product, or an initiative. Usually, though, the problem is implementation. One key to implementation that a learning culture gets right is that everyone owns the implementation strategy. As we’ve stated, people either believe in the vision and direction, or they at least understand the expected behaviors necessary for the change to occur. “Ownership of and commitment to change have the greatest bearing on a major change effort’s outcome.”

Implementation requires consistent oversight and widespread ownership. In a teaching culture, people view implementation as someone else’s problem. In a learning culture, we’re all picking up pieces of the implementation life cycle. In a teaching culture, folks wait for conditions to be perfect. In a learning culture, we’re only striving for one or two examples of where progress is being made. 

One important tip for school leaders who are focused on implementation is not to confuse implementation with starting something new. When implementation fails, it’s often because we started something but didn’t adhere to the other aspects of our B.A.S.I.C. strategy. The tip is that implementation requires ongoing feedback. Only with feedback can we sustain the implementation of something new, and in a learning culture, we’re always trying to get better at whatever the new initiative is. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How well are you giving feedback to the people who are working toward the implementation of a new initiative?


The C in B.A.S.I.C. represents Consistency. We wrap up B.A.S.I.C. with consistency because it is the glue that holds everything together. We cannot know how well something or someone is performing without evaluating how consistent they are. If we’re totally inconsistent with a new change that we’re putting into practice, then we’ll never really know if we’re getting new outcomes. Without consistent efforts, any improved result is due to chance. It’s only with consistency that we can measure our progress.  

Without fidelity of implementation and thorough and consistent effort and execution, we will never know if something is actually working. Consider how often we jump from curriculum to curriculum or from one learning series to another, ultimately blaming the ineffectiveness of the product. In reality, we may not really know why the initiative is failing because of inconsistent practices. 

One important tip for school leaders is that in a learning culture, people stick to the new initiative because they’re hoping for a positive change. In a learning culture, people aren’t afraid of trying something that doesn’t have proof that it will work. The only proof that they need to try something different is that what they’re currently doing isn’t working. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

What initiatives do you have going on that you need to determine how consistently they’re being done with fidelity? 

Using B.A.S.I.C. is a tool for school leaders who want to develop a learning culture so that change initiatives thrive. There’s no doubt that school leadership can feel complicated, and we’re often faced with so many goals that it can seem impractical to achieve them all. But, when we use B.A.S.I.C. within a learning culture, we’re able to find success because of our focus on beliefs, alignment, support, implementation, and consistency. 

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us, and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

3 Ways to Get Ahead–How School Leaders Look Beyond Their Shadow to Create Better Conditions

3 Ways to Get Ahead–How School Leaders Look Beyond Their Shadow to Create Better Conditions

Groundhog Day for School Leaders 

I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank Piña Coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over and over? ~ Phil Connors in Groundhog Day

February is home to a few special events, such as Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the Super Bowl, and what we really look forward to at TheSchoolHouse302, Groundhog Day. Not only is this an important day that lets us know how many more weeks of winter we should expect, but it reminds us of the insightful and introspective comedy film, Groundhog Day, featuring Bill Murray as a cynical T.V. weatherman named Phil Connors. 

Phil is begrudgingly on assignment covering the annual event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. And, maybe because of his ironic behavior about the whole thing, Phil ends up stuck in time, living the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again. He lives the same events, interacts with the same people, and consistently makes the same mistakes. The genius behind this film, and the point it raises for us as people and as leaders, is to question the approach we take each day in life and work. Phil learns as the days unfold in precisely the same way, that every time he awakes to the same song, we should see opportunities in life, not obstacles. 

Once Phil realizes he’s stuck in a time loop, he first sees his situation as a curse. It isn’t until he learns how to live well with a full heart and good intentions that he brings his very best self to every situation, improving the lives of others, which eventually allows him to break free from the continual loop in which he is stuck. In the beginning, Phil is cynical, derisive, ungrateful, and curt. As he learns, in the end, he finds himself whole, he reflects, and he improves his ability to see the power in each day. He gains insight, and he also falls in love. 

We don’t have the ability to redo days or to make them perfect. But, what we do have is the ability to manage our mental map–how we view ourselves and our world. We do have the distinct freedom in life to turn obstacles into opportunities. The following model provides three clear behaviors that will help school leaders to avoid the mental map trap of deficit and liability thinking. 

A Mental Map for School Leaders

Minding Your Mental Map

As leaders, we have to be mindful of the map that our brains make of ourselves, other people, and the world around us. The average person has between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day with up to 95% of them repeating themselves. In other words, 95% of the thoughts we hold at any given moment are occupying space that they have already occupied in the past 24 hours. And, considering that 80% of our thoughts are negative, that’s a lot of unproductive time and energy. Negative thoughts are a liability for leaders. We call this “liability thinking” because the thoughts are burdensome, blur our thinking, and limit our ability to move ahead, forcing us into a recurring scenario. Negative and limiting thoughts are like Groundhog Day because when we live in their shadows, the future we predict is blurred by bad weather. We can get stuck in the same place, repeating our lives, through our thoughts and actions, in an unproductive way. But, that doesn’t have to be the case. We can learn to look at opportunities instead of obstacles. We can learn from what happened to Phil Connors. 

#1. Flip Your Thinking

We have to remain sensitive to our own thoughts to make sure that they are not sabotaging our personal and professional success. How we think and see situations has consequences regarding our ability to successfully navigate through complex situations. The answer often runs counter to our innate ability to generate solutions to common problems. It means that we have to flip our thinking, taking the following approach to thoughts and ideas: 

Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. 

This seems odd at first, but the language we use, out loud and in our minds, is powerful. As Judith Glaser says, “our words create worlds.” Next time you find yourself saying something like, “I don’t want to be overweight, I need to lose ten pounds.” Flip it and say, “I want to be fit and I’m going to lose ten pounds.” Loss aversion, according to psychologists, creates a strong response in our brains to avoid setbacks versus looking toward progress. It’s the negative “expression of fear” versus the positive outlook. Flip your thinking by flipping the language that you use. 

Foresee opportunities, not challenges

Our primal nature is designed to recognize potential threats and challenges. In many respects this is important, safety being the first, But, it also means that we can become mired in the obstacles in front of us instead of the possibilities that await us if we flip our thinking. In his book How Successful People Think, John Maxwell reminds us that our thinking is what makes for great leadership. How we think, what we think, when we think, where we think, and with whom we think are all important. Successful school leaders learn to explore “possibility thinking,” which changes the path of our energy toward “accomplishing tasks that seem impossible.” Possibility thinkers believe in solutions. One technical way in which this can be done is through the use of a SWOT analysis, focusing intently on opportunities, not threats, as we work to make big things happen.

Think with your team. 

Too often, especially when challenges arise, school leaders turn inward and work to solve problems in isolation. Instead of saying more and explaining their thinking, they keep it to themselves. Flip your thinking from an internal monologue to an external dialogue. Use your team. Every thought that a school leader has doesn’t need to be a fully realized great idea. In fact, the best ideas come from gathering perspectives. Great teams don’t just work well together, they think well together too. 

#2. Don’t Jump to Judge

The best leaders know the appropriate times to play the role of the judge, and those times are rare. But, as evaluators, supervisors, observers, and performance appraisers, we often find it hard to take off the boss hat so that we can truly come alongside others versus looking down from above. The key is knowing the difference between coaching and judging, being able to see positive intent, and working to empower people to have a voice on the team. 

There’s a difference between a coach and a judge. 

One key to making sure that you don’t become a judge when you’re looking to coach is to remain conscious of what it means to build buy-in from your boss, your team, and your employees. When we judge a person or situation, especially without constructive criticism, we break down the connection that we need to be able to coach. In Conscious Coaching, Brett Bartholomew reminds us that coaching is best when it’s with someone, not to them. We must remember to be in the moment, experiencing it with the people, rather than passing judgment after the fact. The best coaches stop the game and call the plays; they don’t just scream in the locker room. 

Always assume positive intent. 

Assuming positive intent, especially when someone does something that seemingly goes against the core values of the organization or directs judgment in an unhealthy way, is really hard to do. Great school leaders can have really good “intent antenna” but not all antennas work perfectly every time. For that reason, we have to take a step back from these difficult circumstances to analyze intent before coming to any conclusion. Insteading of jumping to judge, “the first crucial step is to let any initial upset subside. Emotional business decisions–especially those based on anger or fear–are rarely good ones.” Stepping back gives us time to evaluate, which is important because we typically judge ourselves by our intent and others by their actions. Let’s flip that and become more critical of our own actions while exploring the intent behind what others do. 

Empower people to be open to giving and getting feedback. 

According to Stone and Heen, giving and getting feedback is incredibly difficult for three reasons: it can simply be inaccurate, it might be coming from someone we don’t respect, and we take it to heart that it’s about ourselves versus our work. The problem with anything that thwarts or stalls a cycle of feedback is that it doesn’t support our growth the way that feedback can when it’s healthy and received well. For feedback to be a norm, leaders have to model an identity that growth is important for everyone. We communicate the need to get better, we empower people to give us feedback, and others will accept our feedback in return. The key is in developing a culture where everyone has a desire to learn, grow, and improve in our efforts to reach toward excellence through candor and compassion. It all starts with giving and getting feedback.  

#3. Adapt, Don’t Adopt 

Some school leaders fall into the trap of thinking that adopting a canned program or embracing a certain ideology will be enough. There is no doubt that there are models of excellence that can be effective, but for the long-term health of the organization, school leaders must ensure that any program they bring on is aligned with the core values of the school or district. When leaders simply adopt a program it rarely works, mainly because the staff will lack ownership and many will hang on to the old adage that “this too shall pass.” We always hope that these new programs will overshadow our problems and meet our needs. But, the problem is that many of the programs are mere band-aids to the real problems that need to be addressed, some of which are persistent in ways that programs can’t handle. The better response is to adapt your initiative to fit the school, not the other way around. 

Suffering from perceptual illusion. 

Too many school leaders suffer from the inability to accurately see a situation in its true light. One of the reasons is due to “perceptual illusion,” which is when we hold a perception as true due to the way it appears in our minds yet this “truth” is actually a misperception of the actual nature of a person, place, or thing. We contend that this is primarily due to a lack of solid foundational knowledge or a gross generalization of something that we think we understand but don’t. People who suffer from perceptual illusions aren’t the same as people who are simply “full of it.” Perceptual illusions actually create the reality that we know something when we don’t. Whether it’s a lack of practice, experience, research, or arrogance, the illusion prevents growth, gains, relationships, etc. from progressing the way we believe they should. The only way to avoid this cognitive deception is to work hard to really learn in new areas of our lives. Read the books you buy, seek out experts, and remain intellectually humble. Don’t simply adopt an idea until you know it well enough to adapt it. 

Use multiple sources to connect the dots. 

There’s always more than one authority on a subject. Great leaders know how to curate tons of information, synthesize new ideas, and communicate them for a change in practice. The problem is that we can get caught up in thinking that one source or one guru has the answer to a given problem. To build a unique culture, school leaders need to take into consideration as much expert advice as possible and then make something altogether new. Influential leaders possess divergent thinking, which “is the ability to uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that usually fall far apart. People with this skill can match dissimilar concepts in novel and meaningful ways and uncover new opportunities that others may overlook.” Fidelity to a program, process or even diet is one thing, but adopting a practice from one source of information is destined to fail within a culture that has its own set of beliefs and behaviors. As Seth Godin always says, “without a doubt, the ability to connect dots is rare, prized, and valuable. Connecting dots, solving a problem that hasn’t been solved before, and seeing the pattern before it is made obvious, is more essential than ever before. Why then, do we spend so much time collecting dots instead?” Stop collecting single dots and start seeing their connections to move ahead.  

Mold to fit and flourish, don’t crush and crash. 

Great school leaders build; they don’t bust. Yes, great leaders know how to disrupt, but they do it productively by moving the team forward. Too often disruption and transformation are confused and replaced by an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new approach. Even the worst practices can be blown up with enough pieces to put back together versus bashing everything to oblivion and starting fresh. One benefit to employing people who have the “impulse to break” things is that their “flashy ideas may energize and inspire others,” but those who value building something tend to stick with projects, teams, and organizations much longer, playing the long-range game to flourish beyond any seemingly quick fixes. It’s far better to mold what you have than to end up with nothing at all. 


Persistent people have the ability to change the trajectory of their lives as well as the lives of others. They push past the mundane, seeing a future that is bright and different from the present. “Resilient people actually resist illnesses, cope with adversity, and recover quicker because they are able to maintain a positive attitude and manage their stress effectively.” The key to leading yourself and others is being able to see the silver lining while the gloom is taking place, not after. To do so, we often have to flip our thinking, empower others, and adapt something new to meet our needs. It took him a good while, but when Phil Connors made the switch in Groundhog Day, he ended up happier than before he got trapped in the loop. When we mind our mental maps, we can get ahead by seeing beyond the shadows of where we stand.  

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

A School Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Using the LIST Model to Solve Problems

A School Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Using the LIST Model to Solve Problems

Systems Check

There she was–angry, frustrated, scared, and thankful all at the same time. The emotions ran together as she stared at her blown-out tire on the side of the highway. Now that she was safe, and the car was on the side of the road, she was angrier than anything–angry at herself for not taking care of the issue when she first noticed it. For weeks now, she felt how the car was pulling to the right more and more, and she sensed that her wheel alignment needed correction ever since she hit that massive pothole after the snow melted away. 

But, it was easily ignored with a little adjustment to how she held the steering wheel, and her work got in the way of what she knew was the need for a systems check and tune-up. Even though she knew that she was compensating for the alignment being off, she never realized the wear-and-tear it was causing on the tires or the potential harm she was putting herself in by ignoring the issue. Stuck on the side of a major interstate, she could kick herself for thinking that she was too busy to address what she knew was an issue, and now her situation is much much worse.  

Aligning Systems 

Alignment is critical to overall efficiency, and it impacts the performance of the car. More importantly, it is part of a network of critical components of a vehicle that allows it to function properly. Schools, businesses, and other organizations are really no different. They are made up of many parts that all serve specific and necessary functions, and if one part is misaligned, the entire organization will suffer. The challenge is to identify the parts that aren’t functioning properly, understand the context of the misalignment, and pursue a solution that will be sustainable. As such, school leaders need to be able to align systems and take notes when they’re not. 

Kirsch, Bildner, and Walker tell HBR readers that for solutions to organizational issues to work, “systems entrepreneurs must have a deep understanding of the system or systems they are trying to change and all the factors that shape it.” In other words, leaders need a deep understanding of their systems to implement new solutions to problems that may, in fact, be caused by the system itself. One such system, with all its facets, policies, and engrained practices, is our school system. From federal policies to state departments to local school districts and even school reform specialists, systems thinking is needed for any substantial changes to be made, especially when problems are age-old and persistent

The problem is that leaders often make four critical mistakes: 1. Implementing solutions before we truly understand the problem, lacking the discipline for learning within the system before looking for solutions; 2. Treating the multitude of symptoms rather than taking a holistic approach to the problem; 3. Mandating wholesale general solutions for unique situations before gaining an understanding of the context; and 4. Making rash decisions that ultimately won’t make sense to the people who matter most. It’s why we developed a new model for school leaders who want to use a systems-thinking approach, but first, let’s define “systems thinking” for school leaders. 

What is Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is defined in a number of ways, but the essence of the notion is that systems thinkers bring together the complex parts of a whole so that sense is made regarding how each part is interrelated. The idea is mostly applied to problem-solving in terms of understanding the larger context before applying a new theory of action. Systems thinking is used in teams so that leaders build a unified perspective before moving to problem-solving whereby everyone might otherwise have a unique perspective of the problem. 

Not using systems thinking as a leader compounds issues because the dynamics and complexities are misunderstood or the team doesn’t have a common vocabulary or there is a lack of discipline with learning (both individually and together). Without systems thinking, the solutions proposed will likely be misaligned to the actual problems at hand. And, the larger the system, the more important it is to have a thinking strategy for problem-solving. We propose a simple model for applying systems thinking to school leadership. 

LIST: A Model for Systems Thinking 

Our model for systems thinking is simple so that school leaders can lead better and grow faster. We use LIST because, at the core of s systems-thinking approach, we are listing all of the parts of the system, which are intertwined to make up the system itself. These cogs are called the interdependent parts of the system. But, that’s not enough, organizations that excel at systems thinking need to be learning-oriented, improving themselves through new developments; they need to understand the context of the system through sensemaking; and they need to have the temperament to build the relationships necessary for sustainable change. 

That makes up LIST and it demonstrates that the technical aspects of interdependency and sensemaking are bookended by the soft skills of learning and temperament. School leaders can remember LIST as a model and use it to address problems in their schools before the wheels are wobbling and we’re on the side of the road. 

Learning: Effective school leaders use the discipline of self-improvement to impact organizational development 

The more a leader learns, the more they develop their capacity, and the greater they equip themselves with the skills to handle complex situations. A focus on self-development also leads to an impact on organizational development. When the school or school system is in a constant cycle of learning and growing, it handles change faster and better than when it’s stagnant. We wrote about this concept of learning in Passionate Leadership, where we uncovered one key to schools that have high levels of achievement for students and teachers. We named this type of environment a “learning culture.” In a learning culture, everyone is apt to learn, bringing their “I’m a learner, first, and a teacher or student, second” mentality to school each day. This completely changes the organizational dynamics in how we approach problems. And, it works best when the school leader sees themselves as what Ryan Hawk calls a “learning leader.” 

The good news is that if you’re reading this blog, you want to lead better and grow faster. You’re already practicing what it takes to be a learning leader, applying the discipline for self-improvement, and hopefully modeling that for others in your system. It’s the first aspect of systems thinking that we introduce because without learning as a core tenant, all other aspects of systems thinking will fail. You can’t take a systems-thinking approach if you’re stuck in the way that you see yourself or the system in the first place. 

Interdependent Parts: Effective school leaders can identify all of the moving parts that make up the whole

One requirement of systems thinking is that all of the moving parts are identified. Understanding the parts in and of themselves is not enough. It’s critical to know what they are, the purpose they serve, and how they function within the whole system. Each part plays a specific role and has a relationship with other parts. In other words, each part functions individually and as a fraction of the whole. 

Recognizing this is especially important when organizations are large or simply complex due to the nature of their scope. This interdependent connectedness means that leaders can unintentionally make decisions in one area that initiates a domino effect in other areas. And, weak areas, or areas with multiple deficits, put an unnecessary strain on the system as a whole–much like the tire that blows because the wheels aren’t aligned. Very small misalignments in one moving part can have a major impact on the system as it moves in unison. 

School leaders can easily fall prey to a misaligned systems problem because of how many moving parts are within a school. We can identify these parts in the curriculum as it unfolds for the learner or as each part of the school works in isolation but also within a system–food services, teaching, and learning, mental health and wellness, buses, etc. The more moving parts that you can identify, the more you need to apply a systems approach, most notably when there’s a problem. 

Sensemaking: Effective school leaders understand that context plays a role in problem-solving 

Every school and the school system is multifaceted and complex. From large to small schools, there are hundreds of moving parts and people, each with its own context. Karl Weick, the organizational psychologist, coined the term “sensemaking” as the leadership skill in understanding the context of situations to draw out issues needing a solution. Executives who are strong in this capability know how to quickly capture the complexities of their environment and explain them to others in simple terms.” For systems thinking to be at its best, teams have to engage in sensemaking as a precursor to problem-solving. Understanding the true nature of an issue is the only way for a solution to be complete.

Sensemaking often leads to empathy as well, which is a leadership superpower. When we know the context of a person or situation, we can see more clearly why something is a problem. And, we can address the circumstances far better if we don’t use blame as our first reaction. Sense-makers do so through the use of a “beginner’s mind.” Rather than applying the typical preconceived notions and foregone conclusions that come from an expert stance on things, they ask questions and create space to make the most sense of what’s actually going on

Temperament: Effective school leaders stay calm, show care, and build relationships with the people they serve 

As a leader, your temperament is important in every scenario, but it’s even more critical in times of change and when we’re implementing new ideas. That’s why we’re including it as a key aspect of systems thinking for school leaders. Complex issues are dynamic and traditional problem-solving methods fall short. Instead, leaders must bring calm to a scenario, show care for the team of people interested in identifying the moving parts and making sense of them for a solution, and build the relationships necessary between people and departments for change to be sustainable. 

Baldoni, the executive coach, and author, says that temperament is a strong attribute of leadership; those with a temperament that is more focused on others will be those who can lead the most effectively.” Systems thinkers have to be focused on their own emotions; they realize that their reactions–positive and negative–are contagious. Being calm brings necessary peace to the people as they work to solve big problems. Without it, we don’t maintain proper perspective, which ends up damaging relationships between people and departments.  

That’s our model for systems thinking. We have used LIST in large and small organizations, and we encourage you to employ this with your team to ensure that you’re applying the important principles of thinking systems as a school leader.

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

The A, B, Cs of a Beginner’s Mind: 3 Tips for Solving Old Problems with a New Approach

The A, B, Cs of a Beginner’s Mind: 3 Tips for Solving Old Problems with a New Approach

Great leaders understand that their own learning directly impacts their effectiveness. ~ TheSchoolHouse302

Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, a Sōtō Zen monk, is known for his words of wisdom about directing our attention to ourselves as learners, not through what we’ve accomplished but through what we still don’t know. “Soto Zen Buddhism is distinguished by its focus on the down-to-earth practice of “everyday zen.” 

We appreciate this sect of Buddhism because it encourages awareness of the workings of one’s own mind as a means of living mindfully in all areas of daily life–at home, at work, and in the community. This is powerful as learners and as leaders. His famous quote goes like this: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” This means that there are occasions when experience is the enemy of understanding. The longer we see an issue one way, the harder it is to change our minds about that issue. And, the longer a problem persists, the more likely it is accepted as unsolvable. 

Suzuki teaches us that “the mind of a beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.” The mind of an expert is often the opposite, coming to a conclusion based on what we already know versus the promise and potential of making new discoveries. This is a persistent problem in all fields, and we see it alive and well within education. The field of education is riddled with this problem, holding on to traditions and activities that we refer to as “Protected Untouchables” in 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders.   

We can point to a number of things that we still do the same way that we’ve done for years, despite the research that tells us otherwise. Consider grading practices, such as the 100-point scale or the way we average students’ assignments within a marking period. First, there aren’t valid reasons for why we do this, and, second, there’s clear research that tells us that other approaches would serve our learners–both their academic and social well-being–better if we made significant changes to our current practices

Even at Yale University, where grading is said to have begun, professor of psychology Dr. Laurie Santos still must enter grades even though her very own research shows that it hinders the learning process. This speaks to the numerous challenges associated with large-scale change, which requires a completely new way of thinking. 

Grading is just one example of so many other long-standing traditions. But, it can be used to support the notion that education is an impenetrable industrial complex. We’re trapped within a system of schooling that spans from kindergarten through college that relies on methods and practices that are designed to measure learning, but then fall short in actually determining mastery. We keep a practice in place that thwarts our ability to meet our own predetermined goals. Pick another problem; the story is the same.

Part of the problem is that we think like experts. We are so used to doing things one way that we can’t see any other options, even when the literature is clear in our own field. The opposite approach is to use a Beginner’s Mindset, stepping back to see a problem from a whole new perspective. This is why certain school systems are unsuccessful with changes. They’re looking at the problem with the same lens that they used to create it. One reason that keeps us from sustaining new changes is that we constantly flip back-and-forth between one initiative and the next or we go back to what we’ve always done because it’s what we know, even when it doesn’t work

We learned from Richard Elmore that a beginner’s mind is the approach necessary to challenge old and persistent thinking. What we need more than anything are models for generating new designs for how to tackle old problems. Your journey to having a beginner’s mind can start today, but you must first hold yourself accountable to the following A, B, Cs of a Beginner’s Mind. If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re willing to challenge the status quo with new mindshifts for teaching and leading in your school. Let’s get started with three simple steps that any school leader can take. 

#1. Ask Questions–Generate probing questions, don’t accept a singular perspective to see the challenge with a new perspective 

Excerpt from 7 Mentals Shifts: Finding New Ways to Think About Old Problems

It might seem unbelievable that our expertise could actually interfere with our ability to solve problems. Abraham Luchins (1942), a German psychologist, conducted a famous study called The Water Jug Experiment. The study was designed to investigate mental flexibility in thinking. In other words, if people can successfully solve a problem one way, can they shift their problem-solving process when faced with similar, but different, problems? Could people identify new, simpler, more efficient ways of solving a problem or does their previous knowledge create mental rigidity in their thinking?

Lutchin’s findings are clear. Once we have success with solving a particular problem a certain way, we continue to apply that same approach time and time again. This limits us from solving persistent problems because we get stuck with old ways of thinking and the model we used to solve the problems that didn’t work on our first attempt. To battle this, great leaders learn to ask effective questions. As E.E. Cummings penned, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” 

We subscribe to what Todd Henry has to say in Herding Tigers about gleaning information from the team: 

Because of vastly different life experiences, each person on your team has a unique perspective. Those experiences create filters that we can’t help but bring to the work we do. Two people can look at the same problem and see two entirely different things. This is why we need one another in order to see the full picture. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds to gain this perspective. A big part of this process is establishing regular feedback loops with team members so that you can (a) reinforce the ‘main thing’ and (b) hear their front-line perspective on the state of their work. 

Pro Level Tip: Memorize great and useful question-stems to help generate good conversation and discussions. Questioning is a skill that requires practice and repetition. If you are at a loss on where to start, always remember the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling: “I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.” Beginners ask lots of questions, and so should you. 

#2. Be Vulnerable–Always think like a novice, and never overestimate your own expertise

Vulnerable leaders are “more interested in understanding reality than in being right and are not afraid to accept that they are wrong.” Being vulnerable does not mean being weak. In fact, admitting failure, blindspots, and challenges, helps the team to better understand the gaps in a transparent way. If we’re going to solve problems, we have to first be clear about what they are and why they exist.

One of the things that leaders who have a Beginner’s Mind are adept at doing is consistently working toward self-improvement. Not only are they on a quest to learn more and get better, but they also communicate their own weaknesses as well as the way they’re trying to address those deficiencies to their team. This puts us in a position with less authority over what it means to be an expert, but it also fosters the mindset that we ought to act as novices whenever we can. The novice mind, as Suzuki demonstrated, is the one that’s most open to learning and change. 

Pro Level Tip: We have to be willing to ask the team, “what am I not seeing?” or “what am I missing?” Letting your team know that you are aware of your own blindspots is empowering for them. It also builds trust. Remember, one of Covey’s high trust behaviors is to Get Better. When you do that with transparency and the help of your team, you’ll build even stronger bonds with them, and they’ll see that using a Beginner’s Mind is important for all of us. The way to shed your expert brain is to be vulnerable about what you don’t know and what you need to improve about yourself.  

#3. Create Space–Get past the constant noise, and don’t operate on autopilot

Very often, if we are so close to a situation that we cannot see it clearly. Our emotions, busyness, and distractions veil our site and hinder our ability to solve problems effectively. This is essentially the forest-for-the-trees argument, and despite the cliche, it’s true of many leaders. To practice a beginner’s mind, we need space. The constant noise of the day-in-and-day-out scenario can keep us on autopilot. Solving problems requires thinking differently; thinking differently requires time and space. 

There are times when we literally need to separate ourselves from a situation to be able to lead it effectively. It’s been documented that we make up to 35,000 decisions a day; if that’s true, then many of our important decisions deserve more thought and attention than we’re giving them on autopilot. 

Pro Level Tip: Literally separate yourself from a situation when possible. If it is a non-threatening emergency, go for a walk, stand up, grab a glass of water, or simply make time and space away from the decision at hand. Allow yourself to free your mind so that you are able to revisit the situation with a clearer perspective. The most mentally tough people don’t make decisions with haste. They’re positive, rational, and focused. That only happens when they create space for themselves

Final Thoughts

Like most things in life that are worthwhile, embracing a beginner’s mindset takes time and effort. It’s something we know that we should do and then as the day progresses, we find ourselves head down, working hard, and pushing for results, only to find ourselves falling back into the old habits that Suzuki-Roshi warns us of. That’s why we created the A, B, and Cs of a Beginner’s Mind: Ask Questions, Be Vulnerable, and Create Space. It’s simple enough to follow and powerful enough to produce results. Remember, to lead better and grow faster, we are working on progress, not perfection. Ask questions, Be Vulnerable, and Create Space. 

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

Great School Leaders Think About Their School as a Brand: 5 Ways to Tell Your School’s Story

Great School Leaders Think About Their School as a Brand: 5 Ways to Tell Your School’s Story

Great School Leaders Know How (and Why) to Tell Their School’s Story

We think that everyone can agree that there simply is not enough good news being spread among the masses, all around the world. That’s why we loved John Krasinski and his show, Some Good News, during the pandemic. It was a great reminder to all of us that great things were happening despite the rest of what we heard and saw on TV. Spreading the good news about our schools is no different. 

The most important reason to tell your school’s story is that if you don’t control or contribute to the narrative, someone else will. And, the media is quite negative; as the old saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Why? The reality is that our brains are attracted to it and controversy sells. A Pew Research Center’s study revealed that most people believe the media negatively contributes to our view of the world, yet, we still tune in.

64% of Americans say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today.

~ Pew Research Center

That’s why we need to highlight as much of the positive news about our schools as possible. Great leaders embrace this responsibility, and they learn to brand well. This post is designed to help you to tell your school’s story better or, at the very least, to validate the ways in which you already spread your school’s good news. 

The second most important reason to tell your school’s story is that your school deserves to have a brand that attracts top talent. With staff shortages and shallow application pools, school leaders are missing opportunities to showcase their school if they don’t have channels for doing so. The fact is, when it comes to attracting, hiring, and retaining teachers, there are–and will continue to be–winners and losers. Some schools and districts will fill their positions to a greater degree than others, and it will come right down to one thing–the reputation that your school culture has within the community. 

If you have a crappy internal culture, that’s the place school leaders must start and change fast. The best way to do so is through a pressure and support model that’s designed to set clear values and high expectations that are attached to strong staff support.  

But, if your school is already a decent place to work–treating teachers and other staff with dignity and respect–you should be telling your story as loudly and as far and wide as you can. The first step is that all school leaders must learn to think like marketers. 

School Leaders Should Think Like a Marketing Agency

Thinking like a marketer is not something you likely learned in your principal preparation program. That’s because the people who build those programs are former school leaders, and they didn’t likely think like marketers either. TheSchoolHouse302 is to the rescue; we always try to demonstrate the nuances of leadership, including the counterintuitive nature of leading well and the aspects of school leadership that you can’t find from most other leadership development firms. With that said, we’re here to tell you that if you don’t have a marketing hat as one of your many school leadership thinking caps, you need to get one…fast. 

To get you started with your new marketing mindset, we developed five marketing considerations for school leaders that come from research and evidence in the field of marketing. Again, most school leaders don’t study this closely, but you do–or at least you do now–which gives you a competitive advantage when it comes to building your winning team.

5 Ways for School Leaders to Think Like a Marketer 

#1. Culture is King–Marketing is about who you are, not what you are 

The first principle of marketing is that it’s not just advertising; it’s all of the lived experiences that your customers and employees have on a daily basis. You can advertise anything you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s real. Marketing starts with the culture of the school. It’s everything you do. For a long time, schools could operate without a customer service mentality because going to school is compulsory–everyone needs education and everyone sends their children to school. School choice changes that reality. Parents have options and teachers have options, more options than ever before. If we don’t build a positive culture on the inside of our organizations, nothing we say to advertise our schools will matter

Pro Tip: Great school leaders don’t just know that culture is king, they measure it. Check out our Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools (REPSS) for an example of an instrument that can measure the success and needs of any school culture.  

#2. Great Brands Make a Difference–Marketing is about innovation and leadership 

School leaders who care about marketing can learn from great brands like Patagonia, which has “cause no unnecessary harm” as one of its four core values. For schools to follow the “we make a difference” principle of marketing, the school should clearly be innovative, making a substantial change to what it means to be an effective school. The new crop of teachers who are entering into education wants to work at schools that are not only having an impact but are doing things differently, breaking the traditions and testing new waters. School leaders who want to reap the benefits of an innovative environment need to build a brand that speaks to taking risks and pushing boundaries. 

Pro Tip: Revisit your vision statement and core values. Do the words speak to innovation, leadership, change, and risk-taking? If not, consider a revision. The information that you have posted online are your marketing materials. 

#3. First Follows Matter–Marketing is about knowing “the others”

One thing that great marketers do is to find their people. Seth Godin calls this tactic the “people like us do things like this” phenomena. People want to be part of something that makes them feel included with a sense of belonging that fills a very natural human desire. Knowing this helps leaders to make decisions about who to give certain tasks to and how to spread news quickly when the need arises. School leaders know who the big fans are of the school and those are the people who need to know first when something special is happening or when something new is on the horizon. They are the marketing team, whether they know it or not. 

Aside from Godin, you can check out this concept in more detail from Li Jin who wrote about 100 True Fans, Kevin Kelly who talks about 1000 True Fans, and Derek Sivers’ famous video called, Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy. The point is that when you want to market something, you need to spread the word through the voices of the people who are likely going to tell the story by finding “the others.” 

Pro Tip:  School leaders who want to build a reputation outside of the school walls should create a marketing team to discuss what to market and how to market the school’s story. The first step in this direction is to simply add a “marketing” agenda item to the leadership team meeting. 

#4. Stand Out Amongst the Crowd–Marketing is about being unique 

Unfortunately, schools in America are all very much the same in terms of the student and staff generic experience. It’s still very common to see English 9, English 10, English 11, and English 12 as the high school English curriculum versus naming these courses and teaching them thematically through the use of unique content and experiences that are relevant to our diverse student populations–whether that be their background or interests. The good news is that becoming unique and marketing something special about your school isn’t difficult. If you want to attract people who want to belong to a special experience then you need to market the uniqueness of your school or district. 

Pro Tip: Reflect with your team: what makes our school different for students and staff that would help us to stand out in the crowded space of teaching and learning? What can we do that would make us unique and special for our students and staff? 

#5. Show Up Regularly–Marketing is about being consistent

Anyone can send a tweet once in a while to demonstrate the things that are happening in their school. That’s not enough. Great marketers all have one thing in common–which is also common among great leaders–they’re persistent and resilient. They consistently show up with great messaging, new material, and interesting stories. Their news is on multiple channels with tons of likes, positive comments, and shares. The great story that you have to tell is only as good as your reach and the response that you get from your audience. The key is to be loud and proud. 

Pro Tip: We hate to say it, but get on Twitter. Three posts a day is the magic formula. If you’re on Twitter, get on more often. Twitter has become an educator’s workspace for sharing ideas, posting photos, and building a school, district, and personal brand. We’ll see you there: @tjvari & @Supt_Jones

Your School is a Brand 

As we wrap up this post, we encourage you to think about the things that great brands have that schools also tend to create: vision statements, core values, logos, merchandise, etc. As a school leader, your access to taking photos, posting news, and promoting a daily message is far greater than what many other professions offer in terms of an image. It’s just about taking advantage of what you’re already doing by telling your story to the world. 

And, we owe it to ourselves and the profession. When you see schools in the news, it’s rarely a depiction of the good things that we’re doing. Let’s change that narrative together

We want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 


We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.