Retaining Teachers: 3 Important Strategies for School Leaders

Retaining Teachers: 3 Important Strategies for School Leaders

Teacher Retention: A School Leader’s Top Priority

Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together. ~ Scott Hayden


Retaining teachers is at the top of the priorities for every school leader. This has always been true; effective school leaders have always worked to retain their top talent. But, these days, school leaders are counting their blessings if they’re fully staffed. The teacher shortage is real, and although it has impacted some regions of the country more than others, having a quality teacher in front of every student is a must. “More teachers are choosing to leave the profession, with the teacher supply shortage expected to reach 200,000+ by 2025.” 


One problem with teacher retention is that school leaders don’t always have the tricks, tips, and tools associated with technical human resource training. The fact is that school leaders haven’t traditionally thought about their schools within the marketplace of hiring and retention. We’ve argued that school leaders ought to think about things like branding, marketing, storytelling, and recruiting–all important aspects of being a great place to work and filling vacancies quickly when they arise. The truth is that retention starts long before you have positions to fill. That said, we have to work hard to keep the people we have by making our schools the best places possible to work and learn. 


Remember, though, there are things that are out of your control as a school leader. You probably can’t alter the compensation and benefit package that your school or district offers, sweetening the pot to keep people from leaving (see picture below regarding teacher pay). You also probably can’t change work hours, increase flexibility, or give people more days off. The rigidity of the profession is contributing to the diminishing number of people entering it. But, this shouldn’t stop us from pushing back on these boundaries or putting forth the effort to create an awesome environment for teachers. 


Source: NEA, Educator Pay Data

Let’s talk about what we do have within our sphere of influence as school leaders. We want to bring three critical areas of educator retention to the forefront of your mind. The first may seem simple and obvious, but the data tell us that managers around the world, including school leaders, get it wrong and don’t do it enough. The second may seem out of reach given the constraints we listed above, but that’s not the whole story. And, the third is a missed opportunity in schools to build collective efficacy while putting your teachers’ voices on center stage. Let’s dig deeper. 

Three Critical Areas of Educator Retention

#1. Celebration and Praise Your Teachers

Praise in the workplace is arguably the most misunderstood and underused form of feedback. We train school leaders how to use specific praise in districts all over the country, and it often takes months and years before the power of praise is realized through effective language selection. One reason for this is that our brains are wired to find the negative so your praise may be falling short for the mere fact that your teachers are looking for what you’re pointing out that they did wrong versus what you may be trying to communicate that they did right. 


We built a praise model in Retention for a Change that’s steeped in research from neuroscience and behavioral psychology. We wrote about it again in Invest in Your Best (to be released in December of 2023). Here’s a sample that you can use for practice in your school. The point is that your praise needs to use language that is very clear to the receiver that you’re impressed, happy, and excited with their work, that you’re specific about what it is you’re praising, and that you provide a reason for the importance of the desired outcome of their work. We praise people for two results: increase their pride and fulfillment with their achievements and reinforce what they’re doing that we want them to repeat or do more often


Unfortunately, many school leaders and organizational managers use praise sparingly, sometimes on purpose. We get this question all the time: what if I use praise too much and people become less focused on improvement because they think they’re good enough? If you use praise well, that won’t happen. The opposite is true. Praise is motivational, inspirational, and energizing. The good news is that with leaders out there who think like this, your school can be a place that attracts and retains talents because you’ll be using praise well and more often than other school leaders. 

#2. Find More Time for Teachers 

Many teachers would actually like more time for their job-related tasks than they would like more money to do them. We’ve seen survey results that demonstrate that teachers rank the need for more time over the need for increased pay. Wow! That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also pay them more; we’re advocates for better compensation for educators, but, like we said, that’s more likely to be out of your control as a school leader than the time requirements that you put in place for your staff. 


This is another important strategy for retaining your teachers, and one that we dedicated a chapter to in Invest in Your Best. Especially with your most valuable staff members, the last thing you want them doing is spending their time on tasks that don’t result in the impact that they have the potential to achieve with students. The goal is to analyze and inventory all of what we ask our teachers to do day-to-day. Each day matters. What are the regular daily routines and duties of our teachers? What do we ask of them on professional learning days? And, what types of reports and paperwork are they submitting? We have to think about eliminating anything that isn’t directly associated with teaching and learning. 


Here’s a quick list of 6 questions to think about with your school leadership team: 


  1. Do our teachers have duties that put pressure on their planning time? Is it essential to have them do these things or can we find another way? 
  2. How much planning time do we have within the work day and can we increase that…even by five minutes? 
  3. Are there reports, lesson plans, PLC minutes, observation forms, etc. that we can eliminate or streamline? 
  4. What do our professional learning days entail? Can we give teachers a period of reflection time on PL days and decrease the “learning time” from 6 to 4 hours (as an example)? 
  5. Are there days in the year–PL days, beginning and end of year days, etc–that we can make more flexible? 
  6. Do we have any days of the year or partial days where teachers can work from home?


We’re not devaluing professional learning or even the need for teachers to cover lunches and recess, but the exercise of answering these questions on a regular basis should give you some ideas about how to create time and space for your teachers. With these questions in mind, as you approach a professional learning day, for example, you may realize that there are opportunities to create flexibility.  


One last aspect of time. Everyone has the same 1440 minutes in a day and not all people manage those minutes the same way. How we view time is often driven by our perception of it and our capacity to use it. This means that as a leader you can capitalize on others’ perception of time by helping them manage themselves better so that they can accomplish more. In short, don’t assume that people know how to take a series of tasks within an allotment of time and complete them efficiently. Our job as leaders is to help everyone else maximize their potential and help them learn to navigate their day effectively amid all the demands.

#3. Create Leadership Opportunities for Teachers 

When we consult with schools and districts, and we find out that they don’t have a school leadership team–composed of teacher leaders–it’s the first thing that we help them to develop. After that, we help them to build the capacity of their teacher leaders to take control of new initiatives so that they unfold successfully. Here are the two basic concepts: 


Concept #1: School leaders can’t do everything themselves. They need a supportive and reliable team.


Concept #2: Great teachers don’t automatically make great leaders. Their prowess in the classroom doesn’t change the fact that they need leadership training. Our best teachers have the potential to lead, but only if we support their growth and development. 


We contend that the all-hands-on-deck approach is the only way that great schools thrive, and that a positive school leadership team is the best avenue to collective teacher efficacy. In a school environment where both are true–everyone working toward the same goal with teachers at the helm–you’re retention efforts don’t land squarely on your shoulders but live within the culture of the school itself. 

The Final Word on Teacher Retention 

We were talking to a school principal recently, and he was worried about a position he had vacant and the lack of applicants in the pool. We asked him what he was doing about it. Perplexed, he told us that he was checking the posting several times a day, but nothing beyond that effort. Unfortunately, postings alone fall short. They are a great traditional method of hiring, but there are countless other steps to take. 


We gave him several strategies for becoming far more aggressive in his outreach, including a search on LinkedIn that we modeled, which revealed several teachers in the area who were #OpenToWork but who certainly didn’t know about his posting. 


The point of the story is that attracting, recruiting, and retaining talented teachers has to be strategic. Gone are the days of passive culture building or relying on the HR department to fill our positions. School leaders need to learn to play an active role in maintaining a culture that teachers desire. Using praise, finding time, and developing teacher leaders are at the top of our list of ways that we can work to retain teachers, and we hope that you find value in making an effort in these areas in your school or district. 


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.


Two Must Reads on Navigating the Challenges of Implementing Initiatives for School Leaders

Two Must Reads on Navigating the Challenges of Implementing Initiatives for School Leaders

Walk into any school and you’ll find countless different types of work being done. Yes, teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do, but a great school culture, one where teaching and learning can thrive, is about so much more. Creating this kind of culture places a huge demand on countless people who are doing exciting work. But, at times, with all of the spinning plates, it can also be overwhelming.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fast-paced, whirlwind of initiatives and responsibilities that can tax even the most formidable educator. The goal is to successfully lead initiatives, striving to achieve the goals of the school, yet without burnout looming. This requires the effective use of proven leadership strategies along with a collaborative approach, paving the way for successful implementation.

That’s why we picked these two books as our recommendations for school leaders who want to implement initiatives well. They provide the tips, tools, and tricks for the necessary learning and insight to do just that.

Joe and T.J. Recommend that School Leaders Read These Two Books


These two books are powerful reads that can transform how you operate and manage initiatives in your schools.

T.J. tells us that one major takeaway that we had from Right From the Startwas to find bright spots. Jim Marshall tells us that school leaders often look for gaps to fill, but the bright spots show us the places that need replication. The bright spots are those areas that are working well and performing optimally. We often want to fix things, but it is within the bright spots where we identify what is working and potentially what can be reproduced elsewhere.

Don’t miss what we say about the power of preplanning as well!

In our recommendation that school leaders read Every Teacher a Leader we emphasize the need to build teacher leaders and to invest in the capacity to influence others. School administrators cannot do it all, and they certainly won’t do it well without the help of teachers. Schools are constantly implementing initiatives and that reality should prompt every school leader to embrace this mindset–the need for teacher leaders–and drive change through their development.

The classroom is the most important space in a school, and at the end of the day, teachers need to be inspired and empowered to teach, learn, and lead.

Our reading tip for this month is simple: find reading material and books that support the ancillary aspects of what you are trying to achieve. For example, if you are implementing restorative practices in your school, don’t only read books on that topic. Yes, it’s critical to become highly skilled in that space, and there are great books to help you on that journey, however, digging into Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch, which covers the psychology of change, can prove to be invaluable. Pick something up that isn’t in the typical school leader’s library or playlist.

Enjoy these books to lead better and grow faster as school leaders. We always appreciate a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. And, if you read our newest book, please rate it on Amazon. It helps.

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

We can’t wait to hear from you.

Joe & T.J.

4 Implementation Pitfalls that Every School Leader Must Avoid

4 Implementation Pitfalls that Every School Leader Must Avoid

Successful organizations understand the importance of implementation, not just strategy, and, moreover, recognize the crucial role of their people in the process

                                                ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer

There’s no shortage of initiatives in education. Talk to any teacher, school, or district leader, and they can quickly rattle off a handful. We aren’t interested in debating the validity of certain initiatives or their worth, but rather in how to ensure the successful implementation of those that schools pursue. 


What we will debate, though, is that you cannot have a shaky implementation plan and expect solid results. The fallout is too great, potentially impacting staff morale, leading to frustration and burnout, poor student outcomes, and wasted resources, including both money and time. That’s why we’ve outlined the top four pitfalls of initiative implementation and how school leaders can avoid them by leading better and growing faster. 

#1. Failing to Pre-Plan

Pre-planning is the backbone of any implementation strategy. The problem is that too many school leaders fail to plan in a way that takes all factors into consideration. The status quo planning that we see when we work with school districts is typically the nuts-and-bolts of initiating something new, not the actual implementation of it. 


We want to illustrate this with an example. Suppose your school or district is about to embark on a grading reform initiative. How much time do you spend pre-planning, forecasting, and developing a lead group of supporters, what Derek Sivers refers to as first-followers? Let’s take a look at what it means to plan for each. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Pre-Plan


Pre-planning: You need a full scope-of-work plan, which can be  6-, 12-, 18-, or sometimes up to 36 months. We often start the work without the end in mind. We live in a culture that celebrates when we start something new rather than the true accomplishments associated with completing a task. For that reason, you need to pre-plan, before you start, with the goals, metrics, and outcomes associated with the successful implementation and support of the initiative. 


Forecasting: Great leaders can predict the future. It’s not that they can close their eyes and use a special power to see into the distances of time; it’s that they can use the past and present conditions to make critical decisions about the likelihood of one or more outcomes. Pre-plan by asking yourself what happens in the form of success or failure as you implement. 


Developing first-followers: We can emphasize this enough, you need people who have worked out the kinks and know the path forward before you expect the others to cross the chasm. You have to bolster your early adopters and their power to get it mostly right before anyone else, especially the late-adopting skeptics, will even dip their toe. Being prepared means that you have people who can say, “I’ve been doing this for a while now, and it works; it’s not hard, and I can show you how too.” 

#2. Failing to stay the course

This is the grand pitfall of them all because it’s the most common, and we see too many school and district leaders leading in fear that their change initiatives are going to cause too much disruption that it will lead to confusion, staff turnover, unproductive and unhappy staff members, or, worse yet, their removal. Unfortunately, any and all of these outcomes can be a reality. The good news is that they are avoidable if you follow the advice in this blog post and pay significant attention to pre-panning. The bad news is that you have to endure the conflict associated with change. As we always say: the definition of leadership is influence; the challenge of leadership is conflict; the result of leadership is change. 


One of our favorite authors and marketing strategist, Seth Godin, says that leadership is about inflicting pain on the people you seek to serve. That is true, but only if you seek to help people. The essence of change is uncomfortable and disruptive. Leaders who accept the status quo aren’t helping people grow and perform at their best. The problem is that pushing for positive change can be counterintuitive because it is disruptive. This instability is often what causes leaders to pull the plug on something too soon, which can lead to initiative fatigue. Initiatives alone are not the problem, or even the number of them (which we’ll cover in the next pitfall) but rather how well we manage them. Many times we turn our back too fast before anything sticks, only to find ourselves searching for another initiative to implement to solve the same problem we originally were working on. (That’s one reason why we wrote 7 Mindshifts, by the way). 


This is the number one reason why seasoned teachers say, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work.” The reality is that we didn’t really “try” that before with fidelity. We started to try it but never got far enough into the new practice to benefit from the proposed new outcomes. If you study a change curve, like the J-Curve below, you’ll find the typical point at which weak leaders retreat–somewhere during the period of disruption, when folks are most confused, disgruntled, and feeling unproductive with the new initiative. That’s precisely when we see leaders listening to the people about their woes and worries and reverting back to the way we’ve always done it rather than staying the course. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Stay the Course 

Great school leaders anticipate the curve. We have to expect a timeline that includes disruption and even chaos. The best thing that we can do while this period unfolds is to focus on the data we have from prior to the initiative, the vision we have for the change, and a mere understanding that we’re going to have to suffer a bit until we get to the desired state. Let’s unpack each. 

Data from before: If you’re introducing a new math program, it’s likely because the last math program wasn’t working for all students. When people say that the new program isn’t working–and it might be true during the initial stages–we have to go back to the data we have that the last program wasn’t producing results. We always say that we would rather have new problems than old ones. This may require disaggregation if the general picture is good. Good is the enemy of great, and great initiatives are the ones that reach all students. Use the data you have from before, and don’t expect the new data to tell the story you want from the desired state. In schools, this may actually take years. 

Using the vision: Candid and compassionate communication is paramount to success. And, as much as we hear about vision, vision, and vision, we can’t communicate the vision enough. We work with schools on this kind of necessary leadership all the time–both learning to be candid and solidifying the vision. You can’t communicate your desired and proposed outcome enough while you stay the course. 

Knowing that we have to suffer: This might sound a bit weird, but leaders who stay the course also communicate upfront the challenges that will be encountered on the journey. It’s hard to tell people to row in a direction when they don’t know where they’re going. But, as John Maxwell says, the leader is the one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. We have to empathize with people, demonstrating and communicating that we understand the pain but we believe in their capacity to make the changes we’re expecting. Don’t confuse this with permitting low standards or lack of accountability for making the change. We’re just letting folks know that we expected there to be bumps and bruises along the way. 

“The Intranet Portal Guide” – David Viney 2005 [ISBN: 9780955077401]

#3. Failure to braid the new work with existing initiatives 

If you’re hearing people say, “This is one more thing,” as they refer to your new initiative, it’s likely because they don’t see the bigger picture or the vision was not communicated clearly. The leader has to zoom out so that people can see the forest for the trees and how the work weaves together. In this case, you have one of two problems: one, the initiative is actually one more thing, or, two, we haven’t done enough internal branding and marketing


Take, for example, restorative practices, if staff only see this as a different disciplinary tactic, or letting kids get off easy, rather than a full-scale approach to improving student behavior within the diversity, equity, and inclusion model, they won’t take ownership of the initiative. To bring everything into full view, you need three strategies: inventory your initiatives, develop buckets, and create materials to support how everything fits together. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Braid the Work

Inventory your initiatives: The first step in braiding the work together is to know all of the work that’s going on. This is as simple as doing an initiative dump activity. Get a group of teachers or principals together and make a list of all the initiatives going on. 


Develop buckets: Your initiatives are likely to present in categories. Think broadly and then narrow them down. For example, your grading reform initiative, your inclusive teaching strategies, and your restorative practices can all fit under an umbrella core value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These buckets can become core values or principles of some kind. 


Create branding materials: Much like CASEL has done with their work, you can create a visual representation of your key initiatives within the buckets you formed in the last step. These are materials for distribution and use at meetings to show staff how all the work braids together into important necessary work for your school or district. You’ll get much less of an argument from people when they can see the big picture, but you have to see and understand it first. 

#4. Failure to focus on the how as much as the what

Too many school leaders focus on what needs to change without spending enough time on how it needs to change. An easy example here is to spend all of your efforts getting people behind an initiative that amplifies student voice through classroom discourse without providing training on strategies, like Kagan so that teachers understand more about how they should implement them in the classroom. 


In recent years, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on communicating the WHY for organizational and individual success. We agree. People need to understand the vision and rationale as they begin to “buy in.” But, actual full-scale buy-in is a myth according to Dr. Douglas Reeves, until, of course, people attempt to make the change that’s expected of them. The buy-in myth is only debuncted by accountability structures for ensuring that the new initiative is being implemented with fidelity. You want to move from a culture of why to a culture of try, but first, you need everyone to know how to try the new practice in their space. This happens in three simple steps that any school leader can put in place to support an initiative. 


What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Focus on How

Step 1–Identify a new strategy: It doesn’t matter what initiative we’re discussing, you need to start small with one or two strategies that you want everyone to try. Think “cycles” for restorative practices or Round Robin in the case of Kagan or a new way that you want teachers to use the learning management system. Identify a practice that you want people to do differently, change, or more of. 


Step 2–Teach it to everyone: Use your faculty meeting, PLCs, or professional learning day to teach the new strategy, process, or procedure to everyone. Build in time for practice if possible. 


Step 3–Watch them practice it: Use an existing structure, like peer observation, coaching, or walkthroughs to literally check off the fact that everyone knows how to do it because you observed it in practice over a period of time after everyone learned it. This is the proper space for feedback, praise for the people who are successful and corrective feedback for those who need more support to be successful. And don’t get us started on feedback as a primary leadership skill; it’s still the most misunderstood and underused form of leadership in schools. We can help with that too, which leads us to our bonus failure. 

Bonus Failure for School Leaders Who Want to Lead Better 

Here’s a bonus failure that goes in all four buckets above: the failure to provide feedback on the initiative as it unfolds in practice. This is a two-way street–feedback for those implementing to get better at implementation and feedback from those doing the implementing on how it’s going and what parts need more support. Take, for example, what McKinsey Global reports about initiative implementation: “Three practices can significantly increase the chances of success: maintain implementation rigor across the transformation program’s later stages, using the program to upgrade talent, and investing in the right resources at every stage. Companies that implement all three practices are 3.4 times more likely than their peers to say their transformations’ impact was sustained for more than three years.” 

You can’t do any of these three practices without systems and cycles of performance feedback to support the people implementing. The good news is that more schools are dedicating resources for coaching (like instructional coaches for teachers and leadership development coaches for principals). The bad news is that we’re still seeing a lack of the systemization necessary for feedback to happen within cycles of improvement and a real need for training in the elements of feedback for it to be effective. In the school systems that have embraced the need for feedback, like the coaching work we’re doing with Long Beach Unified, we are seeing and hearing a difference in the way feedback is being delivered to transform new initiatives as well as everyday practices.

We fully acknowledge that the details and specific application of these principles vary based on the school, context, and needs of each organization. TheSchooHouse302 offers professional learning, coaching, training, and resources to support school and district leaders in implementing these principles effectively. Reach out. 



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.

Juggling Multiple Priorities: A School Leader’s Guide to Effective Planning and Implementation

Juggling Multiple Priorities: A School Leader’s Guide to Effective Planning and Implementation

The Art of Juggling as a School Leader 

There are educational giants whose mere mention of their names conjures awe, respect,  inspiration, and admiration. Some of our edu-heroes are Booker T. Washington, Horace Mann, Madeline Hunter, and John Dewey, to name a few. Enrico Rastelli doesn’t typically make the list, but in 2023 he is someone educators should revere. Rastelli considered the greatest juggler of all time, grew his signature act, juggling 10 balls, 8 sticks, and 8 plates – sometimes with one balanced on his head or even while jumping through a hoop! A juggler might not be the first recipient of an edu-hero award, but we think differently about that. Figuratively speaking, our best educators are master jugglers–juggling multiple priorities and initiatives that all seem urgent, competing for time, resources, and energy. 


Consider the following areas of focus that many educators have prioritized recently:

These are just a few of the major initiatives and scopes of work that school leaders are building into their system to ensure successful student achievement. The challenge is that school leaders are expected to implement initiatives while educators are adapting to them simultaneously. The workload is immense, which is enough to have anyone’s head spinning. With so many different initiatives and priorities, school leaders must master planning, executing, monitoring, and correcting.


The challenge is that school leaders are expected to implement initiatives while educators are adapting to them simultaneously. ~TheSchoolHouse302


The School Leader a Master Juggler 

Education leaders must possess similar skills to that of a juggler, especially as they lead their schools and districts through the complex and intricate landscape of 21st-century teaching and learning. Like Rastelli, school leaders must possess a keen understanding and control of their school. As an expert juggler can skillfully toss and catch various objects, school leaders must execute the school’s vision and mission with the precision and finesse necessary to avoid overwhelm and fatigued. 


Effective school leaders also have a rhythm and method to manage the multiple competing priorities so that they flow and work together with and among all initiatives while involving each stakeholder group. Juggling priorities with proper communication is a key component of school leadership and, when done well, leads to student success. 


Lastly, effective school leaders anticipate and recognize patterns and situations similar to how a juggler can with a variety of moving objects. The consistent honing of these qualities is necessary to effectively manage the multi-faceted aspects of the daily operations within schools. The goal with every initiative is not to be one more thing but to add layers, working together with everything else to bring about positive changes for all students. 

Bowling Pins and Plates: The Marriage Between Non-Instructional and Instructional Priorities

One fascinating element of juggling is all of the unique and different objects that are being wielded through the air. Although different in many ways in both size to weight, the objects are transported smoothly with what appears to be very little effort. The same is true with the synchronization in what creates a harmonious learning environment. At TheSchoolHouse302, we champion the idea of not getting caught up in dualistic thinking. It’s easy for us to see management and instruction as competitors, but they are not. In fact, management is the foundation for exceptional instructional leadership. And, yes, all leaders in schools should be focused on both.  

One way to ensure that the two are working together is through our Anchor, Focus, and Align Model (A.F.A.), which we use with school districts as they learn the foundation of what it means to provide meaningful feedback

Anchor: By establishing the anchor, school leaders create the reference point that helps you maintain focus and remain steady on your goals. We anchor our work to the vision and values. 

Focus: Once the anchor is established, focus involves prioritizing tasks and responsibilities so that efforts are continuous. We focus our work on incremental and continuous improvement. 

Align: Alignment refers to a learning culture. Every action, strategy, resource, and people should be coordinated in a cohesive manner. We align our work with the professional learning necessary to achieve success. 

When all three work together, a clear sense of direction is maintained through intentional choices. A.F.A. optimizes performance and maximizes impact because there is a throughline woven among all the various initiatives to maintain the clarity that they support one another, regardless of their relationship to instructional or non-instructional goals. 

Planning, Follow Through and Follow Up 

To emphasize and establish the importance of coordination among initiatives to reach success with them, we clearly identify the difference between the three stages of successful initiative implementation:

  1. Planning for implementation
  2. Following through on implementation
  3. Following up on implementation

Let’s consider what each means and why they’re all important for progress to be made. 

Planning: In our interview with Jim Marshall, he stressed the fact that prior planning for the successful implementation of an initiative is critical but doesn’t happen to the extent it should. When initiatives fail, we have to evaluate whether it’s the program or the people who are putting it into place. Often, it’s a people problem due to improper planning.

Technical Tip: The first step is to accurately define the problem that we’re trying to solve and create a thorough outline of the tasks, steps, and resources needed to be successful. We suggest using the systems thinking model that we wrote about in 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders, called The Octopus Approach. 

Follow Through: Follow through is different than planning. In fact, excellent planning builds in follow-through, which is aimed at successful implementation and sustainability. We don’t want to become paralyzed as we review the data, create a plan, and prepare for perfection. We just heard from a teacher about grading reform, and the sentiment was that everyone would need to be trained, qualified, and absolutely ready to implement the new structures. 

That’s not practical, nor is it even possible. When we’re talking about new initiatives, we look for a culture of try versus a culture of why. Yes, we can get clear on the rationale in the planning phase, but during implementation, we need everyone to make an effort. As we’ve heard from Dr. Douglas Reeves, the concept of “buy-in” is a myth. Follow-through means that we make certain that the program is off the ground and being implemented, even if it’s rocky and imperfect. 

Technical Tip: Follow-through consists of initiative monitoring. This is the effective use of data to help navigate the initiative’s progress. This information is invaluable as the team identifies successes, unearths areas of improvement, and celebrates small and early wins. 

Follow-Up: If the follow-through is a problem, follow-up is likely non-existent. Follow-up is the outcome of successful follow-through. Follow-up is about adjusting, tweaking, and altering the program based on relevant data and information. Schools are not static entities, and conditions change all the time. As one initiative is launched, another one may be required and is closely related to other work being done. Without follow-up, programs and initiatives can falter and halt without us even knowing. If you’ve ever tried to implement a new practice only to find out that no one is putting it into action, you’ve encountered a lack of follow-up on your expectations. 

Technical Tip: Follow-up includes using observation, feedback, and support so that the implementation remains adaptable and suited to the needs of the school. Without it, you can end up with zero change, weak implementation, and disgruntled people who see initiatives as “one more thing.” 

Sustainability Planning: Avoiding the One More Shiny Thing Theory

If there’s anything that we want to impress upon school leaders, especially new school leaders, it’s that all of your projects and initiatives should be considered under the singular vision of your school or department. Successful initiative implementation rests on the leader’s ability to continue and expand them over time. And, anything worth changing is inherently inconvenient, at least at the beginning of implementation, so building them into existing practices and the school’s culture is vital for ongoing success. 

Consider goals like de-tracking students or grading reform. They can seem like separate and different initiatives if they are not planned well. However, through careful and thoughtful planning and communication, they should both be aspects of your equity initiative. By identifying and recognizing the similarities of certain initiatives, you have the ability to capitalize on all efforts, resources, time, and people. Always consider your school values and align the projects to the heart of your school’s vision. That way, anything you implement as “new” falls under an already established expectation for the academic success and well-being of your students.  

In schools where the new shiny thing to do is deemed “one more thing,” it’s often because of improper planning. Take time to identify how the initiative aligns with your established program of work, how it will be monitored as it unfolds, and the feedback necessary to make it excellent. 

Next Steps for School Leaders 


We challenge our readers to enumerate all of your initiatives and assign them to one or more of your core values under the singular vision of your department, school, or district. After that, evaluate your communication plan. Successful initiatives are transparent. Consider all stakeholders. This will capture the Anchor in A.F.A.

Follow Through

Next, we challenge you to comb through your professional learning plan and align your initiatives to the PL offered throughout the year and within your professional learning communities (PLCs). This will confirm that there is adequate training and support. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge, skills, and resources to successfully implement the initiatives. This will capture the Focus in A.F.A.

Follow Up

Lastly, we challenge you to embrace a growth mindset and accept that plans need to be adjusted through feedback and support. Your follow-up, as everyone implements, will allow you to provide feedback, both praise, and correction, to make sure that you’re making real progress toward the goal. This will capture the Align in A.F.A. 


Successful initiatives are transparent initiatives. ~TheSchoolHouse302


We fully acknowledge that the details and specific application of these principles vary based on the school, context, and needs of each organization. TheSchooHouse302 offers professional learning, coaching, training, and resources to support school and district leaders in implementing these principles effectively. Reach out. 



 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.

Two Must Reads on Navigating the Challenges of Implementing Initiatives for School Leaders

Two Must Reads for School Leaders Who Want to Build a Learning Culture within Their Schools, Leading Better and Growing Faster with Joe and T.J.

Joe and T.J. Recommend that School Leaders Read In Search of Deeper Learning and Fearless Schools

What you’ll discover in this episode of Leading Better & Growing Faster w/ Joe & T.J.

  • We recommend In Search of Deeper Learning for school leaders. 
  • We also recommend Fearless Schools for school leaders. 
  • Why in the world is Joe wearing a NASA Jacket?
  • There is “deeper learning at the margins and why the periphery is more important than the core.” This is an excellent example of how this book pushes the boundaries. 
  • The key tenets of a learning culture.
  • Evidence of learning. What does it look like in classrooms? 
  • Trust is imperative for psychological safety.
  • Focus on learning at every level within the hierarchy of schooling.

In each episode, Joe and T.J. leave a tip to lead better and grow faster. This month’s reading tip is to read these books with your team! Don’t miss what Joe says about it. 

Developing a learning culture requires time and effort, but the dividends are incredible. The chart below features the key characteristics of a learning culture versus a teaching culture. More on how to develop a learning culture can be found in Passionate Leadership.  

How does your culture stack up?

The Leading Better & Growing Faster with Joe & T.J. Show

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

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.


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.