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.

Read This: School Leaders, Build Your School Brand with these Two Powerful Books

Read This: School Leaders, Build Your School Brand with these Two Powerful Books

School leaders who want to build a strong school brand recognize the importance of learning specific skills to do so effectively. This month Joe and T.J. offer two books that reinforce the 5 ways that school leaders can think like a marketer and tell your school’s story.

  • Culture is King–Marketing is about who you are, not what you are 

  • Great Brands Make a Difference–Marketing is about innovation and leadership 

  • First Follows Matter–Marketing is about knowing “the others”

  • Stand Out Amongst the Crowd–Marketing is about being unique 

  • Show Up Regularly–Marketing is about being consistent

Joe’s Pick: The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference

Featured Authors: Linda Kaplan Thaler & Robin Koval

Joe is a huge fan of Thaler and Koval’s work. The Power of Small is born from the genius that has birthed some of the greatest marketing advertising campaigns that we are familiar with. The simple mention of Aflac and our mind immediately goes to the duck. Enough said, they’ve done their jobs. 

What’s special about this book, though, is that it IS NOT a how-to book, but rather a book filled with stories that showcase the right mindset in order to be successful. We can’t ignore the details, the small things, and the discreet chances of success. 

T.J.’s Pick: This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See

Featured Authors: Seth Godin

T.J. may be Seth Godin’s biggest fan, and This is Marketing is definitely one of his favorite books. The power in Godin’s work is how he frames marketing. He explains that it’s not just about selling “soap.” Instead, marketing is really about solving a problem. Godin talks about how a leader is someone who is willing to do something that might not work and how that changes the culture forever. 

Most importantly, Godin breaks down marketing into five crystal clear steps that you won’t want to miss. He skillfully acknowledges the traps that we all fall into without being offensive or condescending to his readers. He doesn’t just highlight our mistakes but encourages us and provides a great path forward. “Ship the work!” “Ship it!”

Technical Tip for Leaders Who Read

Each month, Joe and T.J. leave listeners with a tip. Both of these books should be read patiently and studied all the while. Joe mentions the art of Sacred Reading and how monks studied the bible to truly understand what they were experiencing. Although these aren’t holy texts, the idea is to fully embrace what you are reading so that you are a different person when you are done. 

Enjoy both of these books to lead better and grow faster as school leaders. We always appreciate a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. 

Let us know what you’re reading by contacting us at contact@theschoolhouse302.com. And don’t miss our leadership newsletter every week by subscribing on the site. 

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.

Read This: School Leaders, Build Your School Brand with these Two Powerful Books

Read This: Two Books that School Leaders Must Read to Better Support New Teachers

If You’re Going to Lead then You Must Read

Learning and growing as a school leader through reflection, training, and experience is a professional choice. One powerful way to improve is through reading great books, which is why we feature two books on a particular topic each month. These are books that we have curated from 100s of titles to help school leaders to lead better and grow faster.

This month we are completely focused on the 5 ways that school leaders can support new teachers. These are five research-based strategies to support and retain your most vulnerable teaching population. This is critical because we are definitely facing a crisis in education. School districts are moving to four-day weeks simply due to lack of staff. In a recent Ed Week article by Madeline Will, she wrote the following,

“…the researchers estimate that there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies in the nation. They also estimate that there are more than 163,500 positions filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified or are not certified in the subject area they’re teaching.”  Will, M. Ed Week (2022)

The data are staggering. If you want to dig into the government database and find out specifics in your state, click here

The Definitive 5 Ways to Support New Teachers

#1. Maintain high standards while providing support for growth

#2. Increase productivity by being present and using praise

#3. Balance risk and autonomy to unlock innovation 

#4. Communicate the expectations of the position 

#5. Provide meaningful mentorship

These are proven ways that demonstrate support, while maintaining a culture of excellence and high standards. To support these efforts, we feature two great books to help you as a leader. 

Joe’s Pick: The Power of Unstoppable Momentum: Key Drivers to Revolutionize Your District

Featured Authors: Michael Fullan & Mark A. Edwards


The Power of Unstoppable Momentum is an incredible book with very specific examples about how to achieve dramatic results in your school. 

There are a few features that really stand out for Joe in this book:

  • Technology is not the answer. Time and time again research shows that technology is a tool that highly effective teachers master. The tool itself is not the answer.
  • Fullan and Edwards provide very specific ways for schools to excel, specifically through coherence, which is the “…the degree to which people at the school and district levels have a common sense of the district’s core priorities and how to achieve them” (Fullan & Edwards, 2017).
  • Lastly, they provide clear models and examples on where incredible work is being done. We love when books have these features, which is why we offer examples of success in our books too. 

T.J.’s Pick: Retention for A Change: Motivate Inspire, and Energize Your School Culture

Featured Authors: Joseph Jones, Salome Thomas-El, & T.J. Vari

We rarely promote our own work, but this book is written on the topic of teacher retention, and we dedicate two chapters to new teachers. This is the second book in a two-part series designed to attract and retain incredible teachers. Both books, Building a Winning Team and Retention for A Change are built on the effective reading strategy, BDA. 

T.J. dives right into explaining how school leaders must embrace their responsibility to build a culture that Motivates, Inspires, and Energizes the staff. 

He emphasizes that the book is filled with practical stories that any school leader can implement for great school success. 

Lastly, this book is filled with models to guide leaders. Whether it is the BDA, which can be applied in a number of strategic ways, or striving for Habitual Happiness Highpoints, the models guide school leaders. 

Technical Tip for Leaders Who Read

Each month, Joe and T.J. leave listeners with a tip. Both of these books should be read with your team. They are not to be read as simple words on a page. Both books are written in a way that allows the school leader, department leader, or team leader to reflect on their own team and practices. 

Enjoy both of these books to lead better and grow faster as school leaders. We always appreciate a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. 

Let us know what you’re reading by contacting us at contact@theschoolhouse302.com. And don’t miss our leadership newsletter every week by subscribing on the site. 


We can’t wait to hear from you. 


Joe & T.J.


The Definitive 5 Ways that School Leaders Can Support New Teachers

The Definitive 5 Ways that School Leaders Can Support New Teachers

The expert in anything was once a beginner. ~ Helen Hayes

We’re going to put it right out there, the education profession is in trouble. Fewer-and-fewer teachers are entering into the profession, with over a 30% drop in teacher prep program enrollment. Couple this with an unprecedented number of teachers who want to leave the profession, and we are well within a serious crisis. 

Teaching is an incredible and noble profession. The complexity of the job requires not only technical and content expertise, but also a profound love for kids. The degree of patience, understanding, and generosity needed to connect and motivate students is not common within other professions outside of education. Believing in the incredible and positive mark that we can have on a child seems to have somehow lost its allure. Regardless of the multitude of reasons why this is the case–ranging from pay to feeling unsupported–many potentially great teachers are not choosing this profession. We need to do something about it. 

Source: Madeline Will, EdWeek

However, there are still great people who are entering the field, choosing to be classroom teachers. For those teachers, we applaud you. With that said, applause and a well-stocked teachers’ lounge aren’t enough. School leaders have an important role in supporting new teachers to substantially increase their chances of remaining in the profession. New teachers leave within their first five years at a much greater rate than those who leave after year five. Much of this is within an administrator’s control, which is why we put together the following strategies for school leaders who want to hire and retain the best staff. 

Before, During, and After Hiring (BDA)

A well-known reading strategy that good readers inherently understand is called “before, during, and after,” (BDA) which refers to what good readers do before reading, during reading, and after reading a selected text. Simply described, good readers prepare themselves for the text of their choice by thinking about and connecting to prior knowledge; they ponder the text while reading by summarizing and pausing to improve comprehension; and then after reading, they reflect on the content of what they read. In doing so, they have stronger comprehension than readers who don’t use BDA successfully. 

The same is true for employee motivation, support, and retention. Once a new teacher is identified and hired, the “after” part becomes critical in how we support them. For many new teachers, the next few months and years are pivotal. 

Teachers with 1 to 5 years: The Vulnerable Valley

The first few years for a teacher are when they are most vulnerable. Doubt, fear, uncertainty–all emotions that work their way into a new teacher’s mind. Make no mistake, there is nothing like suddenly being in charge of a group of students who you have to educate. Words can’t describe the level of responsibility and inadequacy that many new teachers experience early in their careers. Despite this being normal and really okay for that matter, many new teachers struggle. Too many of them leave. The following five strategies create a meaningful support system for new teachers, and we hope that it helps with our ability to have them choose to stay instead

The Definitive Five Ways to Support New Teachers

#1. Maintain high standards while providing support for growth

A culture of growth has a balance of pressure and support. High expectations grounded in support and encouragement yield results. School leaders who are supportive but don’t set high expectations not only support mediocrity but fail to tap into the human desire to get better. 

Even worse is the leader who applies pressure through unsupported expectations. Without a structure of support–including resources and time–teachers experience burnout. The result of a high-pressure, highly supportive work environment is extreme growth. New teachers (and veterans) desire growth and progress and that feeling leads to greater rates of retention. 

Pro Tip: Set meaningful and realistic goals early. Granted, there may be state-required metrics as well, but don’t let them be the only metrics used to establish meaningful benchmarks that demonstrate growth.

Example: Create meaningful formative assessments so that teachers can see their student’s progress, which leads to a greater sense of self-efficacy as a teacher. 

#2. Increase productivity by being present and using praise

Relationships are everything. Leaders have to build connections with the people who they lead for increased motivation and retention. That means spending more time in their spaces and not in our offices or conference rooms. When you’re present as a leader, it’s easy to find quick moments to praise the work that people are doing. Use the One Minute Praise that Blanchard and Johnson teach. You can’t go wrong! This model of being present and giving genuine praise in the moment leads to productivity at a new level, and productive happy teachers are more apt to stay at their schools. To harness the power of praise, check out our four part praise model that we wrote in Retention for a Change.  

Pro Tip: Praise needs to specifically identify what is being recognized. TheSchoolHouse302 Praise Model is research-based and designed to reinforce desired behaviors. 

Example: “Jill, excellent job using the Muddiest Point check for understanding formative assessment. It’s a quick and easy way to identify an aspect of the lesson that students are struggling with or just need some additional clarification. Taking time and going back to see what needs more clarity is critical. Great work!”

#3. Balance risk and autonomy to unlock innovation 

Any sector of business depends and thrives on fresh, original thinking, taking chances, and exploring new ideas.” Teaching is no different. Leaders who support new ideas, encourage risk-taking, and praise out-of-the-box thinking drive innovation. Teaching is an art and a science that needs to be supported, encouraged and honored. An environment that supports creativity creates highly motivated and loyal individuals who are apt to try new strategies, create new lessons, and find unique ways to reach every student. New teachers want to know that they can challenge the status quo and pave a path for the future of education. 

Pro Tip: Encourage teachers to use specific strategies, skills, or technology that are learned during professional development experiences and invite yourself to see them fail in action. Walkthroughs don’t have to be a “gotcha.” In fact, they should be a tool to observe and coach, especially when teachers are learning a new skill. Support them when they fall and treat that as normal.  

Example: Instructional technology is fairly common in schools, but it is reported that 30% of software licenses that get used, only 2.4% are used intensively. That’s a lot of waste! Consider your RTI or MTSS initiative and the technology and diagnostic assessments used to support them. Are they being used? And, if so, to what extent? Maybe the expectation isn’t clear that they should be trying these new tools despite the fact that they might not work at first. 

#4. Communicate the expectations of the position 

Another aspect of teacher motivation, support, and retention comes through quality feedback. Whether this is through a formal evaluation system or walkthroughs, if you want your new teachers to grow, feedback is king. Your feedback should be aligned to the goals of the school and district, should be frequent, and should be easy to implement. The appraisal system must continue to communicate to the teacher about their role long after they are hired into it, and it should support their sense of belonging through a refocus on their purpose each time you meet one-on-one. We call for frequent walkthroughs, quality feedback, and more face-to-face meetings about performance. Let the teacher know you care about them by investing in them. Performance feedback is a lot less daunting when someone knows that you believe in them, which is especially true for new people.

Pro Tip: Feedback should be built around TheSchoolHouse302 Meaningful Feedback Model–A.F.A. This model is designed to ensure growth and forward progress. 

Example: “Joe, very nice job with today’s turn-and-talk. Not only was the strategy used effectively, it demonstrates your ability to use what we learned in our faculty meeting this month. Student voice matters and so does your ability to make adjustments based on professional learning in our school. Fantastic!”

#5. Provide meaningful mentorship

In Leading an Inspired Life, Jim Rohn writes, “Don’t take the casual approach to life.” Casualness leads to casualties. Seek out the mentors who you need and will lead you to greatness in your field.” Although Rohn is not writing to the leader, we like to look at it through that lens. Administrators who take supporting, coaching, and growing novice teachers casually, will only end up with casualties. Provide mentors who are skilled at planning, at managing time, at navigating difficult situations, and who are inspirational. Also, don’t consider years of experience to be a determining factor for a great mentor; sometimes, the best mentors are the ones who were just mentees a year or two ago. 

Pro Tip: Mentors should have training, be paid, have clear guidelines, and a well-developed checklist to use on a monthly basis. Below is just a quick sample of a checklist that can be used on Day One. Notice all of the items are basic. However, don’t let that fool you. It is the simple things that we don’t want to gloss over that can cause the greatest frustrations. 


TheSchoolHouse302 Mentor/Mentee Checklist

Day One


  • Has been given a key fob to access the building. 
  • Has toured the building and knows where key offices are.
  • Has received the phone list and knows how to contact key individuals.
  • Has received their employee ID card. 
  • Has received a parking pass and knows where to park.


  • Has received their email account.
  • Has logged in and accessed the learning management site (LMS).
  • Has successfully navigated their courses and student roster in the LMS.
  • Has tested out the instructional technology in their classroom.


When school leaders use these five strategies with new people, they’re far more likely to stay in their schools and in the profession. All educators have to play a role in keeping our best and brightest new people in the spirits needed to make it past year five. Principals and assistant principals have a serious responsibility in this work, and we want to help you to make the difference that you set out to make when you became an educational 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.

Claim Your FREE Copy to Our Praise Practice- Practical Praise Giving Tips for Principals

Claim Your FREE Copy to Our Praise Practice- Practical Praise Giving Tips for Principals

Learn how you can give practical praise each day as you lead your school to develop a better and more positive culture through this complimentary eBook we use in our workshops to help principals all over the nation and subscribe for more resources like this one delivered to your inbox. 

Congratulations on claiming your copy - you may download it here: https://theschoolhouse302.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Technical-Tip-Praise-Practice-A-Model-for-Specific-Praise.pdf