Navigating Educational Riptides: 3 Strategies for School Leaders

Navigating Educational Riptides: 3 Strategies for School Leaders

Effectively navigating the high seas of leadership requires a seasoned leader who can manage high-pressure situations where quick and decisive decision-making is necessary for the well-being of their schools. The savvy and wise leader is attuned to the school and navigates the waters like a seasoned captain. As we introduced Brian in a previous post, we indicated that he was in his third year; he was learning and feeling his impact and the undercurrents of his decisions. A critical first step in becoming a great leader is knowing how big the waves are that you’re making, good or bad. Yet, not all rough seas that we experience are generated or even within the control of the leader. Worse yet, many decisions cannot even be avoided, and if you struggle against them, the situation is likely to only get worse. 

The ocean has wicked currents that are essentially channels of water that can pull a person completely into deeper, dangerous conditions. In fact, the United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on our nation’s beaches exceeds 100. What’s fascinating about riptides is that they are commonly found near the shoreline, where people feel safe; yet, an unknowing or unassuming beachgoer can quickly find themselves getting pulled way out into the ocean. Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards and are referred to as “drowning machines.” And interestingly, you can’t fight your way out of a riptide; you have to swim with the current until you can find an exit. Tell that to someone who feels like they’re being pulled into shark-infested waters. Yikes! 

Our goal isn’t to be overly dramatic or suggest that leaders need to walk around with life rafts. First, that would be weird, and second, a liferaft isn’t a very useful item to have in a school. But, similar to the perils of ocean riptides, the educational challenges that we encounter have the potential to be detrimental, significantly diverting a leader and a school from their intended course.

Thinking back to Brian, as he becomes more perceptive and mindful of his decisions, he must also be aware of the riptides that seemingly come out of nowhere and can completely pull him and the school in the wrong direction. Consider for a moment the narrow definitions and measures used to account for student achievement and school success that are used by most communities. Very often, it is a one-sided equation–over-emphasis on standardized testing that casually overlooks many of the successes that a school is achieving. Not only does this taint the public’s perception of the school, but with enough pressure, it can force a school to abandon certain initiatives to double down on raising test scores.  

Principal Brian was, in fact, impacted by this very scenario. He initiated a robust student-centered activity period that emphasized social and cultural awareness, which included club meetings and student government to hold various student-led events. Unfortunately, this effort was viewed as nonessential and unimpactful toward student growth, causing the school to change course. The following semester, the activity periods were turned into study periods and test-prep sessions to improve student performance on standardized assessments.

Please don’t think we’re opposed to strong performance on assessments or efforts to ensure that our students are learning each and every day. Rather, it’s the single, convenient measures used to drive agendas and over-politicized change that fail to account for some of the incredible work being done by phenomenal educators. Phew! We said it. 

The problem with Brian’s scenario is that the riptide of test score accountability pulled the school away from something that had major benefits for young people. The riptide itself was probably unavoidable, but fighting against it was. As you’ll see in the following piece, Brian should have leaned into the riptide, held onto the activity period, and stayed the course for calmer waters. 

3 Strategies for Working Through the Riptide

We’ve already said it, but it’s worth repeating: you can’t fight rip currents. In a recent blog, we mentioned the game, Name that Riptide, as a means of pinpointing the factors that pose a threat to our success this year. We identified a few that are common:

  • budget constraints
  • external community pressures
  • policy changes
  • staff shortages 
  • lack of resources

We could list more, but you get the point and could probably add a few of your own. It’s vital to understand that these issues act as riptides; we need strategies to navigate them effectively rather than trying to avoid them and allow them to take us out to sea. This is crucial because leaders can survive any given rip as long as they have tools. That said, let’s look at the best 3 ways to navigate riptides as an educational leader. 

#1 — Open Communication

We know what you’re thinking: open communication is a very common recommendation that’s become trite. That said, it’s still true and unfortunately, many leaders still get it wrong. Don’t confuse more communication with better communication. We stress effective, open communication because misinformation or, worse yet, a lack of communication are two powerful riptides that can pull people in the wrong direction. 

How to build a culture of open communication:

  • Be transparent. Transparency is about sharing relevant information with key stakeholders. This sounds easy, but many school leaders struggle with transparency because it requires vulnerability and a willingness to share challenges, mistakes, and uncertainties. The last thing a leader wants to do is reveal information that could make them appear incompetent, undermining their authority. Done skillfully, though, the leader will build trust and unite the community. Brian could have been more transparent about the activity period’s benefits, working on adding the study sessions rather than replacing the school’s initiative. 

#2 — Continuous Improvement

Too often, the negative “we’ve done that before” mentality can create serious riptides within any organization, literally dividing a staff. If we’re being totally fair, the sentiment is not completely wrong, but that’s because the problems and challenges remain the same. They’re constant. We will be the first to admit that we cannot lilypad our way out of problems by jumping from solution to solution, hoping that one will work eventually. Rather than being so focused on solving problems, what we need is a culture that reinforces expectations for better performance and goal attainment. The key to successfully navigating riptides is to make incremental gains. We should be looking for progress, not a quick escape. 

How to build a culture of continuous improvement:

  • Establish clear feedback mechanisms. This strategy also supports and reinforces open communication because it requires transparency with things like updates on progress toward established goals. If you survey a bunch of staff members, they’ll likely reveal that they are in the dark on a number of issues. We know this is not intentional from school leaders, but in order for people to consistently support efforts, they have to be in the know. Clear feedback on progress will help everyone understand and accept necessary changes and small steps toward success. Imagine the difference had Brian been clear on what the activity period was doing for kids; no one would have argued that it wasn’t helpful. 

#3 — Self-Development

This is an often overlooked strategy because so much of professional learning is geared toward the system and not the individual. Although that’s important, a self-development mindset positions you to navigate the complexities of education more effectively. The relentless dedication to self-development can become the cornerstone of transformative leadership, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and success. We ought to be strong before the riptide hits, diminishing its natural strength against our own understanding of it and the power we have to navigate it. 

How to build a culture of self-development:

  • Lead by example. It’s imperative for leaders to showcase their commitment to self-improvement through visible actions. Share success stories of your own personal growth to inspire others. Let them know what you’re reading, the webinars you’re attending, the professional learning you’re embarking on, and, most importantly, why! Human connection is powerful and no more powerful than in education. Be a connector through vulnerability and a willingness to share your journey. Brian was probably steeped in the research about student connection with school beyond academics, even what that can do for test scores. He should have been open and adamant about it. 

You can’t avoid riptides, but you can navigate them effectively. Fight against them, and you’re doomed. Understand them, provide feedback as you experience them, communicate transparently about their impact, and you’re bound to find your way back to the safety of calmer waters in no time. 


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 Undercurrents of Decision-Making: A School Leader’s Guide

The Undercurrents of Decision-Making: A School Leader’s Guide

Brian has been a school principal for three years, and he finally feels that he’s finding his stride. While talking with Brian about his goals for the school year and the successes he has had to date, we found ourselves continually circling back to the various reactions that people have to certain decisions. Brian noted that his estimation of peoples’ responses was wrong at times, too often in fact. What he thought would create a major kickback recently, didn’t cause a stir, yet another decision he made, which was seemingly harmless, caused staff to panic. Perhaps, as a school leader, you can relate.

Every decision you make, big or small, creates undercurrents that ripple throughout the school community. These undercurrents can potentially have a profound impact on the staff, students, the greater school community, and, ultimately, the direction of the school.

Schools are notorious for implementing countless initiatives, all with good intentions in the name of a “need” or an “improvement.” We’ve implemented many of these initiatives ourselves–with varying degrees of success, mind you. School leaders embark on these new journeys to improve their schools, yet we find a spectrum of results, reactions, and responses to what we propose.

It’s probably not surprising, but we’ve yet to meet a school or district leader who willingly disrupts a school simply to wreak havoc on it. Yet, albeit comforting, we’ve also yet to find a school leader who didn’t have experience with the implementation of something that would help students, only to be met with despair by the staff. Despite what some would like to believe, school leaders want to improve student performance while supporting teachers, typically with the least amount of disruption possible. It just doesn’t work out that way.

Unfortunately, what is often underestimated is the scope of the initiative and the numerous decisions that will create countless undercurrents. Let’s take a look at some of the top initiatives implemented over the last couple of years. We’re sure that you could add to this list below.

• Technology Integration: Many school leaders have aggressively sought to integrate technology into the classroom with the goal of enhancing the student learning experience and improving their digital literacy skills.
• Personalized Learning: Many classrooms are very diverse and in multiple ways. Tailoring education is not just nice to do; we know that meeting individual students’ needs benefits all students.
• STEM Education: Schools are very aware of the need to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education programs to prepare students, especially students of color and female students, who are traditionally underrepresented for careers in these high-demand fields. STEM is the future of the economy.
• Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): It cannot be said enough, especially after COVID, schools know the importance of emotional intelligence and the interpersonal skills necessary for student development, alongside academic achievement.
• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Schools have also focused heavily on creating inclusive and equitable learning environments that recognize, address, and support the diverse needs of students from various backgrounds. It’s important to note that it is the role of a school leader to confront and alter inequities, yet even these initiatives can be met with resistance.

These five areas are massive efforts and require a tremendous amount of time and expertise to get right and implement effectively. These aren’t programs or short, quick fixes, but rather holistic efforts to effectively meet the needs of our students and the demands of our communities.

Consider SEL as an example. SEL is not new, but the intentionality and focus within the curriculum and other school-wide efforts is a new approach to it. To illustrate the depth of the initiative, we’ve built TheSchoolHouse302 Initiative Chart to demonstrate how detailed and involved a particular initiative can be.



We share this chart not as a “How To” on implementing initiatives, although that’s important; instead, our focus is on the details that this provides, which reveals just how each aspect of the initiative is very involved and requires a large degree of work. If it looks a little overwhelming, it’s okay to acknowledge that an SEL initiative is a large undertaking. Underestimating the scope of an initiative is one of the most common mistakes that a new (and seasoned) leader makes.


Each of the 7 areas can be broken down into several smaller segments to detail the intricate work that needs to take place for successful implementation. Going through this exercise is powerful because it not only shapes the scope of work but, more importantly, provides a view into what the work entails and how it involves and impacts the school community. Remember, your decision to embark on any new journey is either going to have a ripple effect toward success or trigger negative ways of dissent.

Rippling Toward Success or Triggering Negative Waves of Dissent

It can’t be said enough that the decisions you make as a school leader have the power to create positive or negative undercurrents that can shape the entire school community. By being mindful of the impact of your decisions and by making choices that are in the best interests of the school, you can create a more positive and productive learning environment for everyone, even when you’re making significant changes and improvements. To do so, perception and mindfulness are two skills that school leaders must master. 

The Power of Perception

One of the most important things to remember as a school leader is that your decisions are not just about the content of the decisions themselves, but also about how they are perceived. As American political consultant and strategist Lee Atwater said, “Perception is reality.” Every decision you make sends a message to the school community about your values, priorities, and commitments to creating a positive learning environment.

For example, if you make a decision that is seen as unfair or unjust, it can create an undercurrent of skepticism and resentment among staff and students. This can make it difficult to implement other initiatives and can even lead to a decline in morale and productivity.

On the other hand, if you make decisions that are seen as thoughtful, transparent, and in the best interests of the school community, it can create an undercurrent of support and positivity, rippling out toward success. This can make it easier to implement new initiatives in the future and can foster a more collaborative and productive school environment. We can’t overstate how critical transparency and approachability are for school leaders. 

The Importance of Mindfulness

The second critical skill is mindfulness. We believe the mindful leader to be a present leader. As a school leader, it is important to be mindful of the potential impact of your decisions. This means being fully present and mindful when making decisions. Take the time to consider the different perspectives of the school community and weigh the potential consequences of your actions. It also means being open to feedback and making adjustments as needed. 

Here are some tips for being more mindful as you’re making decisions:

  • Be present: With social media, email, and other buzzing, flashing devices, school leaders can often be swept away from a conversation right at the moment. Avoid this by committing to be present when you’re gathering input or communicating a decision. There’s nothing worse than a school leader whose attention is divided. 

  • Consult with others: Get input from a variety of stakeholders, including staff, students, parents, and community members. Great leaders surround themselves with individuals who are willing to say what needs to be said and who have the perspective of the community at heart. 

  • Consider the long-term impact: Don’t just think about the immediate consequences of your decisions. We believe this is why so many educators are frustrated. For too long, leaders have made decisions for short-term wins without taking into account the long-term consequences. Considering how decisions might affect the school community in the years to come is the hallmark of a future-driven leader. Don’t miss what Donya Ball says about it

  • Be open to feedback: We know this is hard, but as Maxwell explains in his Law of Solid Ground, trust is the foundation for success; it requires a culture that expects courageous conversations and candid feedback. Be willing to listen to feedback from others and make adjustments to your plans as needed. Don’t forget, too, that one step in the implementation phase is making sure that implementers are getting feedback and taking action on it. 

As we always say, leadership is complex, but it does not have to be complicated. One powerful way to uncomplicate leadership is through effective decision-making. This involves understanding the undercurrents created by decisions–the ripple effects that extend beyond the immediate outcome toward clearer waters or waves of dissent. The use of our Initiative Implementation Chart contributes to creating positive undercurrents that foster trust and, ultimately, advance student learning and overall school success.

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.

Undercurrents, Riptides, and Swells: Navigating the Seas of School Leadership

Undercurrents, Riptides, and Swells: Navigating the Seas of School Leadership

“Do you have a minute?”

School leaders make countless decisions every day, and every decision impacts something or someone. Great leaders are very aware and sensitive to this truth because they understand that even the most benign decision may have undesirable and unintended consequences. For this reason, effective school leaders develop the ability to zoom out from a situation so that they can see the bigger picture before making a decision, answering a question, or working to solve a problem. 

The skill to step back, be patient, and not respond too quickly is definitely one that every school leader needs as they walk the halls of their school on any given day. As former principals ourselves, we can vividly remember the number of times that members of our school community would approach us with this simple question: “Do you have a minute?” We’re fairly certain that this question ranks as the most commonly asked question to school leaders. 

Every time those words are uttered, a request, an idea, a complaint, or an issue usually follows. That’s the nature of schools and the demands that get placed on school principals. In many ways, though, that’s also the joy of the position; within every question, every minute, lies an opportunity. As school leaders, we can do so many wonderful things through the decisions we make. We can open doors that were once shut, we can provide opportunities that may not have existed, and we even create possibilities that help people dream big.   

As school leaders, it’s essential to recognize the dynamic nature of leadership and the challenges that come with it. Just like the vast ocean, school leadership can be compared to various elements such as undercurrents, riptides, and swells. Each one offers valuable insights into our journey as educational leaders. From the decision you must make in a moment’s notice to the challenges that distract your efforts to the unforeseen ups-and-down of the ride, we must always set sail for the best possible outcomes for our students. Let’s dive even deeper into uncharted waters.

The Undercurrents of Decision-Making

Two of Joe’s sons are ocean lifeguards in the beautiful town of Fenwick, Delaware. As lifeguards, they’re trained to see issues before they develop into real problems. The ocean is as powerful and deadly as it is beautiful. And much like the unseen undercurrents that shape the movement of the ocean, every decision a school leader makes creates ripples that impact the staff, the students, and, ultimately, the direction of the school. 

Whether it’s deciding who will serve on the instructional leadership team or implementing a new bathroom policy, each action sends waves through the school’s ecosystem. It’s crucial for school leaders to be mindful of how their decisions create undercurrents. Each undercurrent we generate changes our school community in ways that we may not even recognize at first

School leaders must never underestimate the profound influence that they wield and the weight of their decisions, even quick one-minute discussions in the hall or office. Every choice, every word, sends ripples throughout the school community. These ripples shape the culture, morale, and even the brand of the school as a place to work and learn. 

Like ocean lifeguards, who must be vigilant in identifying potential dangers, school leaders must be mindful of the far-reaching consequences of their actions, as they have the power to either enhance or hinder the growth and well-being of staff and students.

3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Undercurrents of Their Decisions:

As we navigate these undercurrents, we must prioritize transparency, collaboration, and thoughtful consideration of minute-to-minute decisions to ensure that our actions propel our schools in the right direction and don’t alter the vision that we’ve established for success. We suggest asking these three questions whenever a “quick” decision comes your way

    1. Who else should be included in this conversation before I make a decision about this item? Is this my decision to make, or are others more involved in this work?

    2. How fast does this decision need to be made? Is speed important or is thoughtfulness the key?

    3. What else should we consider? Are there alternatives to our current program, process, or policy?


    Caught in the Riptides

    Riptides, notorious for their powerful currents, can swiftly pull swimmers away from shore. They are a constant threat and commonly can be found on the East, West, and Gulf Coasts. Rips, as they’re often referred to, can be likened to the challenges and distractions that divert school leaders from their educational vision, mission, and core values. As educational leaders, we can find ourselves caught in a metaphorical riptide–situations that threaten to pull us away from our core values and previously set objectives. 

    One of the most recent rips that we can think of and cannot hide from is the politicization of education. Here’s what that means for school leaders: To politicize something is to focus on how to play it for an advantage in the pursuit of power and prestige. Although education is highly political, it doesn’t mean that it has to be politicized; however, this is what has occurred in many school communities in America. 

    In a highly politicized local school community, school leaders may find themselves pulled in different directions and distracted from their core educational values due to external pressures to conform to certain political ideologies or agendas. This can lead to decisions and policies that place political considerations first over the best interests of students and the quality of the education that we provide them. 

    We could easily play the game, Name that Riptide, to identify what is threatening our success this year. These could include budget constraints, external community pressures, policy changes, staff shortages, and more. It’s vital to recognize these distractors as riptides so that we can develop strategies to navigate them effectively. Otherwise, they pull us out to sea rather than allowing us to stay the course. By anchoring ourselves to our educational compass–our vision, mission, and core values–we demonstrate resilience in the face of conflicting priorities.

    3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Riptides that Can Take Us Off Course:

    As we identify and recognize the riptides within our schools and systems, we must prioritize and solidify our vision, mission, and core values. These three areas provide the solid foundation necessary for leaders to chart their true north

    1. What are some common “riptides” affecting your school community that can divert you and your team from their core values? How can you and your team best identify these challenges?

    2. Which recent riptide distracted you from your goals, and what can you do differently in the future when a riptide seems to take hold?

    3. How can you communicate your vision, mission, and core values in a way that deters people from even attempting to alter your direction?


    Riding the Swells of Adversity

    The third oceanic element that we want to dive into is the swells. Just as experienced sailors navigate the swells and waves of a rough sea, educational leaders must handle challenges and adversity with skill and precision. Swells represent the highs and lows that inevitably come with the educational territory. Every year, school leaders will face a variety of issues. We’ve mentioned a few already–budget cuts, managing a variety of different conflicts, adapting to new educational initiatives, special education policy changes, etc.–all can be compared to rolling on a stormy sea. 

    Let’s consider technology integration into the classroom, as an example. This can be an ongoing challenge, especially with the rapid evolution of the available tools to support teaching and learning. One recent swell is the advancement of artificial intelligence. As AI becomes more accessible and easier to use, it poses a number of threats to how students can gather and present information, including inaccurate information and the opportunity to cheat. 

    Albeit scary for teachers and school leaders, we must navigate the use of ChatGPT, and similar AI tools, rather than pretending that we can avoid them. We appreciate Wharton Professor Ethan Mollick who pivoted to requiring his students to use ChatGPT in his class rather than penalizing them for its use. As Professor Mollick says, using AI effectively is an “emerging skill.” This is a great example of “riding” the swell rather than being pummeled by it. 

    With the right mindset, effective school leaders view these swells as opportunities for increased collaboration, professional growth, and even innovation–ultimately, steering the school community toward calmer waters. By understanding that change is inevitable, school leaders can guide their schools through even the most tumultuous ups and downs.


    3 Questions that School Leaders Should Be Asking about the Swells of Adversity:

    As we identify and recognize swells, it’s vital that the school leader navigate them well by focusing on the broader context and not just the particular issue at hand. The swell can beat against the boat or we can use it to create momentum in our already established direction. 

    1. What are some examples of “swells” in your school that you are currently facing?

    2. What does it look like to embrace one or more of the swells you’ve identified, rather than trying to avoid them?

    3. Who on the team can become an expert in the swell so that we understand what it means and what the future will look like when it hits?


    The High Seas of Leadership

    In the realm of school leadership, drawing parallels with some of the toughest oceanic elements provides us with valuable perspectives. As a seasoned captain navigates the seas with skill and intuition, educational leaders must also chart a course that recognizes the power of their decisions and the undercurrents they create, the potential of being caught riptides, and the ability to ride the swells of adversity. 

    Our journey as school leaders is filled with intricate dynamics. Every decision, every challenge, and every triumph shapes the future of our students and our communities. 

    It’s our job to evaluate our decision-making process, avoid the distractions that take us off our path, and embrace challenges as opportunities to enhance our efforts. Great school leaders take advantage of the conflicts associated with school improvement rather than allowing the storms that arise to capsize the ship. 

    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.


    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.


    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.