Leadership Hacks

Revitalize Your Campus PD

Teacher best practices over the past few decades have moved toward a more student-centered approach.  The idea is that teachers are not the bearers of all knowledge, but instead facilitate lessons so students can construct their own learning; instead of filling a bucket with water, learning is more like building a birdhouse out of new and used material.  The birdhouse metaphor highlights the fact that learning must be built using materials or knowledge that already exists by finding new uses for or by applying it in new ways.  In this respect the student is in charge of his own learning and can discover knowledge through his or her own experiences.  

While such an approach is extensively backed by research and has largely inundated teacher practices, it has not necessarily been applied to teacher professional (PD) development.  Instead, teacher PD most often comes in the form of one-time workshops led by an expert that imparts all the information the teacher needs to become more effective.  Unfortunately, this approach has the same side effects as teaching students in this manner:  low retention, lack of ownership of information, inability to apply the new knowledge, and the absence of real learning.  Such approaches have proven time and time again to result in minimal to no change in teacher practices. 

We must instead situate teacher PD in the context of their actual working environment, meaning the classroom.  When PD is situated in the classroom context, teachers are required to consider practices that don’t necessarily align with the new classroom strategy or approach.  This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance (an uncomfortable feeling that actions, knowledge, and/or beliefs are not complete or congruent which then leads to further action or reflection to arrive at a resolution).  Situating learning in the classroom context also allows teachers to really dive into the new approach, to practice, to fail, to dialogue, to reflect, and to truly go through an active learning experience.  Such an approach allows teachers to go beyond knowledge, and to enter into application, reflection, and true belief change.

Active learning such as this can come in many forms including these eight examples:

  1. Classroom Support:  an administrator’s or instructional coach’s most important job is getting into the classroom and coaching teachers.  What better way to situate learning in the classroom context than to use it as a learning laboratory?!
  2. Activities that Induce Thought, Reflection, and Dialogue:  Collaborative approaches to learning such as PLCs, study groups, PLNs, Lesson Studies, and peer coaching empowers teachers and builds campus instructional leaders.  Teachers leading their own learning also eliminates trainings that are impractical, unreasonable, and irrelevant.  Teacher led discussions also allow teachers to deconstruct beliefs that can then be rebuilt as new beliefs that align with best practices.
  3. Looking Beyond the Theoretical: Ensure all discussions from one-to-one conversations to staff meetings all include the theoretical but never forget to address the practical questions and issues from the classroom.
  4. Trainer Mock Lessons Embedded in Workshops:  If a sit-and-get training is necessary, at least ensure that the trainer demonstrates with a mock lesson.  This allows teachers to see first hand how the approach works in a real context and helps them to apply the theoretical in practical ways.
  5. Teacher Mock Lessons Embedded in Workshops:  Go a step further and allow teachers to practice during the training using the new strategy with their peers as faux students.  Follow up with opportunities for feedback and reflection.  
  6. Video Recording:  Video recording lessons can be a great reflective tool for teachers.  Check out THIS post for more details on how you can use video recordings as a reflective and training tool.
  7. Model Teachers:  Provide teachers with a model classroom to observe in a real setting.  This can be an assistant principal or instructional coach doing a model lesson or even a knowledgeable classroom teacher who has mastered the new strategy.  This empowers teachers to be instructional leaders and provides other teachers with concrete examples as well as a mentor teacher.
  8. Don’t Forget Relationship Building:  Without relationships providing the necessary and intense constructive feedback that most of these examples require is quite impossible.  Teachers will trust other teachers, and even administrators for that matter, only if the relationship already exists.  Don’t forget such a crucial step to building a campus focused on teacher learning.
Leadership Hacks

10 Ways to Prime Teachers for Change

Man often becomes what he believes himself to be.  If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it.  On the contrary, if I shall have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning.

-Mahatma Gandhi

To change someone’s practice means also to address their beliefs.  So, in essence, to change teacher practice, we must address the beliefs they hold including beliefs about teaching, learning, students, knowledge, their campus, and many more.  But how do you begin to change teacher beliefs?  While this process is more complicated than a single answer, one important aspect to consider is the difference between beliefs based on evidence and beliefs that are only perceptions of reality (Richardson, 1996).  Consider a teacher that resists integrating technology in the classroom only because they perceive it as a waste of classroom time, not because they’ve experienced failure with technology, or that they’ve read empirical evidence against technology in the classroom, or that they’ve witnessed fellow teachers struggle with technology.

Such beliefs not based on evidence are actually more difficult to change than beliefs based on evidence as evidence can be deliberated, reframed, and contrary evidence can be provided.  Perceptions, however, cannot be disputed as they are based on more implicit individual characteristics rather than logical reasons.  The most reasonable conclusion, therefore, may be to actually provide reflection time for teachers to unearth or to formulate logical evidence to support those perceptions, therefore transforming beliefs based on perceptions to beliefs based on evidence.  At this point, the new reform message can be presented with coherent and logical evidence that now has the opportunity to create dissonance within the teachers that initiates action and belief change.  This reflective moment to convert implicit beliefs to more explicit beliefs is a vital step toward belief change and therefore change in teacher practice.  

How, then, do you create this reflective moment?  Consider some of these activities to elicit reflection from your teacher before a training:


  1. Free Association Brainstorming:  Give teachers 10-20 post-it notes and ask them to answer these three questions:  (1) “What was your first feeling when you heard about this new training/instructional approach/theory/etc.?”, (2) “What are you feeling now as you sit in this training about this new training/instructional approach/theory/etc.?”, and (3) “Where are these feelings coming from?”  Once they’ve completed writing on the post-it notes they stick them to a designated area that is discussed in whole group.  This gives the PD trainer an opportunity to know the audience and how to address the concerns of the teachers.  This also gives teachers the opportunity to truly understand why they are resisting or even not resisting the change.
  2. Create a Metaphor/Simile:  Often beliefs and emotions are much more complex than our language has the capability to express.  Ask your teachers, then, to create a metaphor or simile that illustrates their feelings and/or beliefs about the training.  For example, a simile might be, “I feel like a pair of dirty underwear.  This training is just the next thing to wear for a while before we quickly change to the next once things start to stink.”  Such an activity can be enlightening and fun for everyone involved.
  3. Choose a song:  Ask teachers to choose a song that reflects their beliefs or feelings about the training.  As an added bonus, you could ask a few teachers or groups to even perform their song!
  4. Directed Writing:  Provide a text for teachers to read that serves as an anchor for thinking.  For example, if providing a training for guided reading at an elementary school, ask 1/2 of your teachers to read a brief article about the benefits of guided reading and the other 1/2 about the benefits of an alternative instructional approach.  Then, ask them to write a short reflective piece about their thoughts.  Groups could then be jigsawed to allow for discussion and further reflection.
  5. Artifacts:  Provide artifacts that represent the focus of the training.  For example, give teachers a bag of math manipulatives for a training on using concrete math representations in the classroom, or demonstrate the use of an apple tv in an instructional way for technology integration.  Ask teachers to then write their first thoughts and feelings when experiencing the artifact.  Follow the writing activity with small group or whole group discussion.
  6. Art:  Ask teachers to create some kind of visual representation of how they feel about a particular campus initiative.  This could include drawing, painting, sculpture making with Play-Doh (for those early childhood educators), etc.  Follow up with small group or large group discussion to make their feelings and reasonings more explicit.
  7. Double entry journal:  In a journal ask teachers to write their feelings about a training on the left side and their reasons for feeling this way on the right (alternatively you could just draw a line down the center of a piece of paper if you do not have journals).  This requires teachers to attach evidence to their perceptions about a training.
  8. Critical Incident Journal:  Ask teachers to write a story about a time that they have experienced this particular classroom strategy or technique that may have particularly influenced their beliefs about the strategy or technique.  After writing the story ask them to answer questions like, “Why was this significant to you?”, “How might this experience have influenced your perception of this technique?”, “Could you interpret this experience any other way? If so, how?”, and “Could the results of this experience be attributed to any other factors other than this classroom strategy?”
  9. Rate it:  Post statements or photos around the room that support the classroom strategy being taught within the training.  Give teachers three different colored stickers (red, yellow, and green).  Ask teachers to take a gallery walk and place red stickers on statements/photos that create anxiety, fear, restlessness, anger, etc., yellow stickers on statements/photos that elicit minimal feelings or thoughts, and green stickers on statements/photos that excite, invigorate, and/or align with their current beliefs.  Follow this activity with a review of the colors for each statement/photo.  This activity gives the trainer a great assessment of the overall beliefs and perceptions of the room.
  10. Emoji Fun:  Using a program like Padlet, TodaysMeet, Socrative, or Verso ask teachers to post emojis that reflect how they are feeling about the training.  Some of these programs allow categorization so you can see quick data on the overall feelings of the room.  Follow up this activity with small or large group discussion to make feelings more explicit.  

Using these strategies can be a fun way to begin a training, but they are also essential to ensure that teachers are bringing their beliefs to the surface.  Only once their beliefs have been exposed can they then begin to be shaped or completely changed.  And once belief change has occurred, long lasting, sustainable best practices can be expected.


Richardson, V. (1996). The role of attitudes and beliefs in learning to teach.  In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (2nd ed., pp. 102-119). New York: Macmillan.


One of the Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done

Trust.  Without it any organization fails to reach its full efficiency potential.  Employees avoid risk taking for fear of ridicule.  Managers fail to delegate tasks because they fear others will not rise to the occasion.  Supervisors micromanage because they fear employees are not being productive.  Change moves slowly or not at all because all decisions are passed through an information bottleneck.  Through these examples we can clearly see the antithesis of trust:  fear.  And as we all know fear paralyzes.  It destroys motivation to try new things.  It fogs the mind, hindering creative thought.  It halts all movement for growth.

Like many schools, we have talked the game of growth mindset and constantly have reminded our teachers that we as administrators are here to help, to support, to coach, and to guide, but such good intentioned speeches often fall on uncultivated soil, and for good reasons.  Many teachers have had experiences with administrators that have done nothing but break trust, creating in them walls that defend their heart from ridicule and embarrassment.  Simply put, teaching is a personal experience into which the heart and soul is poured quite liberally, exposing a vulnerable display of self, leaving one’s identity in range of criticism.  Without trust these walls can never be penetrated, no matter how well intentioned the feedback, transforming constructive comments into painful jabs.  

As of the 2016-17 school year the implementation of the new Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (TTESS) throughout our state has created more stringent evaluations with the potential of further revealing teacher weaknesses in and out of the classroom.  On top of the new TTESS expectations, we also began to use the Swivl robot to record our teachers to allow more in depth reflective opportunities.  In fact, every teacher would be expected to record themselves at least once throughout the year.  Needless to say, such an expectation resulted in quite the anxiety in our teachers.  Nearly each teacher suddenly experienced a fear of failure, of being exposed, of being less than expected.  I can say this with confidence because I too experienced the same fear.  Why?  Because Todd Nesloney, Melissa Boenker, and I developed an insane plan to also record ourselves teaching a class.  And not only that, but to show those recordings to our teachers at our next staff meeting.  But wait, we also asked our teachers to rate us using the same TTESS rubric that we would also be using with them on their evaluations and share their ratings with us anonymously through a google spreadsheet.  

Needless to say, the thought filled me with dread of losing credibility with my teachers, of being labeled an incompetent assistant principal, of being exposed as a fraud.  Each of us experienced similar fears, but nonetheless persevered and carried through with our plan, knowing that such a demonstration of transparency and vulnerability would develop in our teachers a sense of trust and a strong message that we are serious about having a growth mindset.  Our teachers completed the following recordings and subsequent reflection meetings without complaint and with complete fidelity.  I am very proud of our teachers and the courage they too demonstrated in the name of growth and doing what is best for kids.

Each day my principal, Todd Nesloney, begins our morning with the same exhortation:  “Be brave.”  As the leaders on our campus, we not only have to speak these all important words, but also live them out.  I’m reminded of the quote, “Life begins at the end of our comfort zones.”  I now exhort you to be brave, to do what it takes to build trust within those that follow you, even if it means demonstrating wild trust in them.

Leadership Hacks

Lights, Camera, Teach, Reflect

Any good teacher understands the value of learning and personal growth.  Why else would teachers pursue new and creative ways to engage their students, to lead them to new depths of thought, and to open up their world to new possibilities. Teachers desperately want to be effective, because they care about their students.  However, the process of learning and perfecting new approaches has one key ingredient that is sometimes skirted over a little to hastily:  reflection.  We all reflect to a certain degree; otherwise we would never see any need to improve our practice at all.  But do we reflect on our lessons to the level of depth that leads us to the specific deficits or weaknesses in our daily behaviors of which changes will lead to highly impactful improvements on our practice?  Such reflection requires an individual to give immediate attention to the behavior at hand, otherwise our memory fades and we lose the details of the event.  Luckily we live in a century that has a tool that will not fade like our memory and will capture the truth (whether we like it or not) and that is video.  

On our campus we have seen video be a powerful tool for self-reflection and a driver of growth and change.  Doing so was simple but effective.  Below you will find three ways to use video on your campus, two of which I have personally used and a third that I have recently read about and I plan to use soon.

  1. Video Learning Teams (VLTs):  I first learned of VLTs from a book called Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction written by Jim Knight, pioneer and advocate for the instructional coach approach.  Simply VLTs are groups of teachers that agree to review one another’s recorded lessons and subsequently provide feedback.  I first presented this idea on our campus as an option for growth.  As a rule for myself and those I supervise I have one most important rule:  I don’t care how you do it, but you always must be learning and growing in some way.  VLTs was one option that I provided our campus to learn and grow.  I was pleased to have ten of our forty teachers sign up to participate of which I created three groups.  The process was simple:  (1) record the first teacher’s lesson using the Swivl Robot (more information on the Swivl Robot HERE), (2) share the video with the recorded teacher, (3) the recorded teacher watches his/her video and provides two or three big “Look For’s” to give the group an area on which to focus their feedback, (4) share the video with the other group members who then take notes and prepare for feedback, and (5) the group meets to watch any important parts of the lesson to help shed light on practice and feedback is shared.  The process is then repeated with the remaining teachers within the group.
  2. Campus Wide Video Reflections:  Because we believe in the power of video reflection so much on our campus we actually made it a requirement for each teacher to be recorded at least once during the school year.  Establishing this requirement set off several alarms in our staff, so to show teachers how serious we were about having a growth mindset during this experience all three administrators also were recorded while teaching a lesson (more about this powerful experience in the post One of the Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done).  Also to calm teachers’ fears we set a rule that only the person being recorded would ever see the video unless they explicitly asked someone else to watch it.  In fact only two people ever had access to the video at any given time:  myself who recorded the video using the Swivl and the recorded teacher.  Setting this rule set minds at ease even further.  Simply recording teachers, however, would not lead to a direct realization of areas of needed growth or to subsequent action.  To encourage the growth process further each teacher was required to then write a short reflection on their strengths and weaknesses within the lesson, rate themselves in their area of refinement from our teacher appraisal system, and create specific actions that would be taken to address the areas of needed growth.  Lastly, each teacher shared the reflection with their appraiser, and followed up with a one on one meeting to further reflect and create an action plan.
  3. Video Stimulated Reflective Dialogues (VSRDs):  VSRDs are very similar to Video Learning Teams from above, but with one important distinguishing element.  Once a teacher has been recorded all those involved, whether that be an administrator and teacher, or just two teachers, watch the recorded lesson.  After the lesson has been watched once the two meet to watch the video a second time but this time with additional reflective questions.  In other words, the video serves as a “stimulant” for discussion.  For example, if in the video a teacher responds to a student’s answer with a correction rather than a probing question, the teacher may be asked, “Why did you choose to respond this way?  What other responses may have further prompted the student to think through the problem?”  Such a dialogue requires great trust between the two participating parties, so make sure strong relationships have been formed before attempting VSRDs.

Using strategies such as these can sometimes be uncomfortable, but I leave you with this quote:  “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  True growth and change require a little bit of discomfort, but the lives you will impact will be worth all the effort.