Three Ways to Walk the Talk as a Passionate, Authentic Leader

This post was collaboratively written by Paul Erickson, Principal in KS, and Nathan Lang, former administrator & current education consultant in Nashville, TN.

Three Ways to Walk the Talk as a Passionate, Authentic Leader!
As leaders, we are hyper-cognizant of how our messages are communicated and perceived. Our change efforts may be thwarted at the first sign of incongruent messaging. When a new idea emerges, we are obviously excited at the potential and may be tempted to jump before thinking through the nuts and bolts. When communicating our passions, it can become unfortunately viewed as empty platitudes: a “chicken soup for the soul” without the chicken and too much broth. Is being passionate and authentic mutually exclusive?

We don’t believe so. Here are three ways that you can be passionately authentic, inspiring your circle of influence to act instead of “like/RT/heart.”

1. Back it up w/ data. When we say data, we’re not talking about data in the traditional school leadership sense, but as historical leadership data. How have you historically taken an idea and turned it into a reality? How have you historically pronounced a direction and then followed through in walking in that direction. Before making your next bold statement, do a background check on yourself to first determine how credible you’ve been with follow through. You’re being judged not by your idea, but by how you’ve acted on it.

2. Ensure your home team is feeling your message. Branding works effectively when your school family embraces your message. Sure it’s a positive ego stroke when your global PLN retweets your message 100+ times, however, there is no tangible impact on the students and staff you serve if they aren’t embracing your message to the same degree. We challenge you to monitor your tweets for a week using this guideline. If you drop a quote or share a blog and no direct colleague retweets or likes your particular post, delete it. The attention from your global PLN might feel good, but its influence is infinitesimal. If your home team isn’t cheering for your message, it is not worth sharing. Passionate and authentic leaders are embraced by their local PLN because what they promote is backed up by what their staff and peers experience.

3. Commit to choosing “we” over “me.” Passionate, authentic leaders walk their talk by focusing on one goal–building group capital. While they are relentlessly committed to learning, they realize that their passions, interests, and areas of study are only worthwhile if they motivate and impact the community of learners they serve. While it’s tempting to frame ourselves as transformative edu-heroes, the only real superpower lies in the group of educators we lead. Teacher Collective Efficacy, teachers learning together and having confidence in their group competence, has an effect size of 1.57 (Hattie, 2015). This trumps anything we as leaders can accomplish on our own. Therefore, the challenge is to continually reflect on this question–Whose efficacy are you building in your leadership efforts? Yours or the group you lead?

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google once said “Passionate people don’t talk about passion. They live it.” We would further express that passionately authentic leaders inspire through their messaging, but invoke transformation through their actions. They leverage the cause to produce an effect. They say it. They do it. They live it.
Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of visible learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1 (1), 79-91.


Don’t Blame the Lettuce


“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk and author of Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

I’ve written, tweeted, and talked A LOT about spring in schools and the incredible stress that it brings educators. When stressed, especially in late spring as we close out the school year, blaming others is a common default.

Teachers might say “of course my fractions lesson went south. Johnny wouldn’t sit still and wouldn’t stop disrupting the class with irrelevant questions and noises.”

Principals might say “of course the Instagram initiative to brand our school didn’t launch. The teachers are so set in their ways and resistant to technology.”

Both might say “of course Family Literacy Night was poorly attended. These parents never come to anything. They don’t support us and don’t care.”

One school might say about another school/teacher “of course they got new classroom furniture. They get anything they want. They are the favorite school in the eyes of the principal/superintendent/Board.”

We blame others when results and reality don’t match our desires, goals, and needs. Blaming others is inherently human. Emotions like disappointment, frustration, and envy happen. We can’t control that. However, we CAN control our response and we CAN choose analytical thought and self-reflection over blame.

Thich Nhat Monk eloquently explains that we don’t blame the lettuce when it doesn’t grow, “rather we look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun.” (1991, 78)

Instead of blaming Johnny for ruining our fractions lesson, perhaps we should look more closely at WHY he is disrupting the class. Maybe there is a mismatch between the curriculum and Johnny’s developmental readiness to learn said curriculum? Maybe Johnny disengages in math because our relationship with Johnny is poor? Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like or relate to. Quality of instruction and sense of belonging are not Johnny’s responsibility; they are our responsibility. We are part problem and part solution. We can be the reason Johnny misbehaves during our fractions lesson or we can, through quality of instruction and strong, loving relationships, be the reason he succeeds behaviorally and academically.

Instead of blaming teachers for “resisting technology,” we should take a mirror check and examine what has led to said resistance. Has time, energy, and effort been put it into developing teachers’ social media savvy as it relates to branding themselves and their school? Do teachers see HOW branding benefits them, their students, and the district as a whole or has it just been thrown at them as something trendy and something they need to do NOW? Teachers don’t resist technogy simply because they are set in their ways. We are part problem and part solution. We can be the reason teachers resist technology or the reason they enthusiastically embrace it.

Instead of blaming parents for poorly attending a Family Literacy Night, we should examine how this event was promoted. Did we send home notes that are still crumpled up in the darkest recesses of our students’ book bags or did we use multiple and divergent communication tools like Facebook and mass email? Did we build students’ enthusiasm for this event the days and weeks prior to it or did we just slap it on the calendar and expect everyone to remember and come? Last time I checked, kids enthusiastically begging their parents has a causal relationship with parents attending events. We can be the reason parents don’t attend events like Family Literacy Night or we can be the reason they come in droves.

Instead of getting jealous over what other schools or teachers have and assuming they are the principal/superintendent/BOE’s pet, analyze the effort and strategy used in getting more, different, and better resources. Did they simply ask for it when we never did? Did they present a compelling case for more, different, and better resources through presentations to the principal, superintendent and/or the Board of Education? Were, by chance, the other schools/classes just in greater need of the resources than we? Have we taken the time and made the effort to consider what unique resources we have that others do not? We can be the reason others have it “better” than we do or we can be the change-agents that make our schools and ourselves worth investing in.

Never blame the lettuce, even in the stress of spring. For we are the fertilizer, the sun, the water. We are the reason for growth and the lack thereof it. To me, that’s a good thing, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are the most influential to the success of our students and our schools. I believe that with every ounce of my teaching heart and soul, and I hope you do, too. However, if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you for it. I never blame the lettuce 🙂


Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1991. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness to Everyday Life. New York: Bantam Books.

Your PLN: Fuel for an Empty Tank

This last week I found myself flat out-of-breath. No, I didn’t run a marathon, take on a Spartan Challenge, or even ride my bike to work. I just found myself exhausted from the stress that comes with spring when you teach or lead a school. While I’m huffing, puffing, and in need of some rest, there will be no break for me. There is just too much important work, and I know that our school family at Union Valley Elementary is counting on me. Plus, spring break was just a couple weeks ago! Isn’t funny how spring break can actually leave us more worn out than how we felt pre-spring break? Despite that, rest doesn’t energize me. What really puts gas in my tank and pushes me past fatigue and doubt is my Professional Learning Network.

I’m talking about the Twitter tribe I connect with daily, #leadupchat. This group fills my tank every time we connect on Twitter and Voxer. In addition, to this group, my PLN right here in Buhler Schools synergizes me to shake stress and exhaustion. This group, my #313teach crew, helps me revisit the WHY of what we do as educators, and when the purpose of what we do becomes clear, that’s when I’m fully rejuvenated and ready to ride. I needed my PLN this week to put fuel back in my tank and help me remember that…

What We Do Matters…Forever
What I’ve learned year after year watching, talking, and deeply connecting with fellow educators is this….what we do matters. When we teach or lead a school, we make an impact, an immeasurable and lasting impact. I consider education a service, maybe the greatest service one can provide. Isn’t it invigorating to know that as a an educator the service you provide can be remembered for a lifetime? Think about it. How many teachers, education service-providers, will you fondly remember for your entire life? My guess is several. Will you remember your Internet or cell phone service provider for a lifetime? No, you won’t. You will remember that teacher, coach or principal that believed in you, invested in you, and helped you realize a dream. I remember mine. Huge shout-out here to Mrs. Adams, Mrs. Bolton, Coach Zeyen, and Coach Porter. We’ve talked about this a LOT recently as colleagues in USD 313, as well as in my #leadupchat Voxer group. Knowing that our kids will remember us–forever–puts fuel back in my tank.

What We Do is Messy But Beautiful 
Teaching and leading are messy jobs, and the stress of spring makes our work even messier. The mess of our work is darn-near defeating because there is no clear map for tangible success. That leadership truth really gets to me at times because I work hard to set goals, develop clear action plans, and monitor progress all along the way. However, when we really think about it, the mess and the murky map for success make sense considering what we’re working with. Our raw material is the human spirit! We cannot predict or measure the impact we have on one’s spirit, especially that of a child. However, we can guarantee this: What we do transcends what everyone else feels successful about…more money, higher status, exclusive privileges. Our measure of success can’t be found on a bank statement or reflected with a country club membership. Our success is measured by the young lives we guide, influence, and transform. Have you ever experienced a moment with a child when his/her life’s trajectory took off and at that moment you knew that he/she was going to make it? I know you have. Moments like that are richer than any CEO’s bonus package. Embrace those moments and share them with your PLN; stories like that put fuel back in our tanks.

What We Do is a Lifestyle Not a Job
I was recently talking to a non-teacher friend of mine who shared this sentiment…”I hate my job with every fiber of my being.” Have I had bad days as a principal or teacher? Absolutely! However, after 12 years in education, I’ve never been more passionate about what we do as teachers or school leaders and I’ve never been more connected as a learner. Twitter, Voxer, texting with my PLN isn’t a part of my job. It’s a part of my lifestyle. I actually have better days professionally and personally from the ideas, inspiration, support, and synergy I experience on a daily basis with my PLN. Yes, I like summer vacation, spring break, and take a sigh of relief when the bell rings at the end of my day and say to myself, “Whew. I made it again.” Nevertheless, my professional learning journey never stops. Think of your non-educator friends. Is their work a passion or a job? Is their work an event that consumes a large part of their day or a lifestyle that leads to professional and personal improvement? Those of us who have PLNs are blessed with professional learning lifestyles. Who needs a job when you have that?

My PLN…#leadupchat and #313teach….I needed you this week. Thank you for the perspective, passion and synergy. With you, I’m refreshed, refocused, and ready to relaunch as a leader!

Let. It. Go.

Let. It. Go.

We’re not talkin’ Frozen here, folks.  We’re talkin’ shared leadership. It’s a must!

There may not be a more stressful time in schools than now.  Just take a moment and consider all the different activities and initiatives consuming your energy and effort.

  1. Unmet learning targets…there’s so much yet to teach and LEARN!
  2. Onslaught of state and nationally mandated assessments…tis the season!
  3. Evaluations–you’re either getting one or giving one!
  4. Planning for next year–activity calendar, master schedule, professional development opportunities….they are calling–PLAN ME!
  5. Daily grind–Nuff said.

These are just the basic staples of this stressful and demanding time of the year.  Throw on top of that your commitment to connection and staying regularly dialed into your Professional Learning Network via Twitter, @Voxer, and @SlackHQ (new tool for me, love it) and you’re probably feeling like this….



None of these responsibilities or commitments is any less important than the other and so many of them are roles that transcend choice and, simply put, must be filled.  So what are we to do about all this?

Work harder!  Wrong. We already are working our tails off, devoting maximum levels of time, energy, and effort.

Start saying “no” to new opportunities so you can keep life manageable?  Sounds like a quick way to stagnate your professional growth. “Yes!” leads to risk-taking and new learning! We preach this endlessly in Twitter chats, right?

My suggestion…start letting go.  The reality of life as an energetic, passionate, motivated, and already successful educator is this…we are inherent dangers to ourselves.  How?  We try to start doing X while still doing Y.  Multitasking is a myth. Energy is no good if spread too thin.

We need to let go of roles and responsibilities that others can and are WAITING to do. Trust others and give them chances to take leadership roles off your plate. Maybe not the entree, but certainly a side, or two, or three.

By not letting go, you’re really saying…

  1. I don’t trust anyone
  2. I have no faith in the organization to sustain without me
  3. I am not committed to growing fellow leaders

Who wants to say that? None of us do, but our hoarding of leadership is saying just that loud and clear.

Please take a moment to consider what you can let go and who you can trust with a leadership role or responsibility that is a barrier for you right now.

  • Teachers, maybe you can empower students as leaders and let them take the role of questioner or even assessment designer?
  • Team leaders, maybe you can empower a peer by trusting him/her to head the next committee meeting?
  • Principals, we are the guiltiest of this. Trust the teachers!!! They can lead the school to new heights if we trust them to do so. Let go, better yet, get out of the way!

Stop being a reservoir for more, and instead, start a steady stream of shared leadership.  Let. It. Go.  You’ll be a better leader for it.




Lead with Heart

Although branding one’s space relies heavily on matters of the mind, without a direct connection to the heart and soul of the organization, there is no real story to tell.” Excerpt from Power of Branding by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo

As a leadership team in Buhler Schools, we’re making “branding” a focus for 2016. Branding may conjure up images of Coca-Cola cursive font, slogans like “Just Do It,” and Cam Newton dabbing it up after a touchdown in the Super Bowl. While those icons are certainly symbolic of branding, branding your school or district is much, much simpler. It’s as simple as telling your school’s story….frequently, publicly, and most importantly, with heart.

To brand your school or district with heart, you must lead with heart. Leading with heart is a concept I became familiar with while reading The Power of Branding by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo. ***Sidenote: This book is soooo good that I’ve read it twice in the last six months.*** To lead with heart, one has to develop a deep understanding of what is at the core of his/her school or district. One must know exactly what breathes life into his/her own work and the work of those he/she serves. For us in Buhler Schools, culture, collaboration, and innovation are at the core of who we are as leaders and are what breathe life into our work. We know this, routinely talk about it, and capture examples of each when telling our story. Whether it’s a casual conversation with a prospective family, a tweet during a classroom observation, or polishing off a staff meeting with bucket-fillers, these are the rocks in the story we are writing.

Leading with heart is certainly a perspective but its power lies in daily actions. Here’s an example from me as a building principal.

Celebrate! At the heart of our school’s culture is our commitment to celebrating our students. We celebrate students’ daily awesomeness via Twitter at #UVlearn. Below is a “Hard Work Selfie” tweet where a young man was “sent to the office” to showcase his exceptional performance in class. The second Hard Work Selfie spontaneously happened with a student displaying leadership in the lunchroom.

We also recognize students’ behavioral growth, leadership, and social-emotional awesomeness through the distinction, Captain/Captina of Character. Staff members, from teachers to paras to custodians, nominate students that go above and beyond the Character Ed call of duty. They do this by emailing me and I then recognize the student the next day at our school-wide morning assembly. We have recognized almost 30 different Captains/Captinas of Character this school year. These are two ways we tell our school’s story and extend our belief that kids and their progress are worthy of celebration. These actions clearly demonstrate that kids are the main characters in our story and their awesomeness is our ongoing theme!

Leading with heart is a concept worth living and definitely one worth sharing. Several times throughout the month, I will update this blog to include additional examples of leading with heart. However, we’d be falling short as tribe if we didn’t extend this concept further. Therefore, I declare February “Lead with Heart Month.” We will all greatly benefit as leaders to know how you lead with heart. Please use #leadwithheart this month to share YOUR examples on Twitter. Your story is worth telling. Now start telling it with heart!

***Motivation and inspiration for this blog post came from Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo. In their book, Power of Branding, they present the compelling concept of leading with heart. I highly recommend it to any teacher, principal, or district leader.***


Fit Leadership

Tis the season to resolve toward leading a fitter lifestyle. Investing in a gym membership, ordering a fresh new pair of workout shoes, and flipping through a Muscle and Fitness at the grocery store are efforts many of us are making as we seek a physically fitter 2016. These are worthwhile efforts, as physical well-being is important. According to Tom Rath, author of Well Being, “good physical health” is the most desirable status for people when asked the question, “what do you want the future to hold for you?” We each have one body; we better take care of it. Our leadership well-being is also something to take of. We have one shot to lead, so we better know what to do with it. The following principles will help us become fit leaders, ready to take on the challenges of the new year and maximize our school’s potential.

Principles of Fit Leadership

Goal-Setting–Professional athletes, to those of us just looking to lose a few pounds, do best when they set clear, specific, tangible goals.  Arnold Schwarzenegger always thought he could be the most dominant bodybuilder on the face of the earth, but it didn’t just happen by chance. At 19, Arnold already had the most massive chest and arms in the game of bodybuilding, but he took runner-up in major, international competitions to competitors who had tree trunk legs to match their thick and chiseled upper bodies. With clear, specific goals to improve his lower body, Arnold turned his peg legs into pillars of strength and size, which allowed him to become Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia and stay there for six straight competitions.

The Terminator teaches us a valuable lesson here. Sure, we may have the talent necessary to be outstanding school leaders, putting our schools on our backs and carrying them to the Super Bowl of 100% parent-satisfaction and record-setting test scores. I’m being facetious here, folks. However,  seriously, we will never be the best leaders we can potentially be without clear, specific, and tangible goals. Where do we need to improve? Providing teachers with personalized professional learning opportunities? Engaging, involving, and empowering parents as partners in their children’s education? Using formative assessment data to guide instruction so that students’ unique learning needs are met? Clear, specific, and tangible goals (ones that we can and actually will pursue!) will help us become fitter leaders.

Collaborate–Find a workout partner! Collaborating in the gym leads us to train harder, achieve better results, and, believe it or not, actually enjoy the experience! Professional Learning Networks do the same for school leaders! George Couros shares that “isolation is the enemy of innovation.” Without a tribe pumping us up, we’re relegating ourselves to the same ideas that have gotten us minimal results. Find a tribe and unlock your leadership potential!
Habitual–Physical activity has to become routine to have an impact. So do many effective leadership practices. We can’t do one walk-through and proclaim ourselves Instructional Leaders. We also can’t tweet once a week and proclaim ourselves Connected Educators. Working out cannot be a singular act if it’s going to impact or SAVE our lives. Leadership is also NOT a singular act. It’s a passion that is developed over time through the habitual exercise of effective practice.

Mirror-Check–There is a reason mirrors adorn the walls of health clubs. We need to see ourselves morphing into the fit body we’re working so hard to develop. We also need to see the lack of progress if we’ve been skipping out on workouts. The mirror sometimes affirms and sometimes it disappoints, but it never lies. In the mirror, the truth comes out. How beneficial would a mirror-check be for us as leaders? Regularly stepping up and looking in the mirror provides us with an authentic picture of reality. To be fit leaders, we mustn’t hide from reality; we must embrace it, reflect on what we see, and then create a vision of what’s to come.

Adapt–Been doing the eliptical for three weeks and still out of breath when you climb the stairs to your second floor office? Then stop! Been emailing staff links like “50 Free Google Apps!” and you see no difference in frequency of tech integration among teachers? Then stop! To achieve optimal results, we must adapt our workout regimens to fit our bodies’ current needs. To achieve optimal results as a school leader, we must adapt our leadership regimens to fit our staff’s current needs.
Overtraining–There is such a thing. Overtraining happens when an athlete performs more training than his or her body can recover from, to the point where performance declines. When athletes jump too quickly with the frequency, intensity or duration of their workouts, they may actually lose strength and speed. Overtraining is a serious monkey wrench to those who work arduously toward fulfilling their physical fitness potential. Overtrained athletes keep working harder, but don’t see results and eventually burn themselves out. Can a similar phenomenon occur among leaders? Can leaders actually “overlead?” YES! When staying late at the office results in zero change in our staff or student body, then we need to go home earlier. When working on the 2016 master schedule now results in a 2016 that is no different than 2003, then we need to chill. We are all guilty of “overleading.” We need to take a break and harness the power of white space as we seek a fitter year of leadership in 2016.

My #leadupchat tribesman, Dr. Ryan Jackson, and I have had fun connecting over the past year. He’s a gym rat like myself, and we’ve been chewing on the idea of  Fit Leadership for a while now.  Please post thoughts anad pictures to #FitLeaders.  Thank you for reading and seeing the connections between fitness and leadership. Whether it’s at school or the gym or BOTH, may 2016 be the fittest year ever for you!  

Hope is not a Wish


Christmas and New Year’s are seasons of joy, love, and hope. We share the joy of gift-giving and receiving. We love the time we have with family and friends. We hope for a better 2016 when we create New Year’s resolutions. In the spirit of the season, I’d like to dig a little further unwrapping one of these feelings through this blog post. Only a Grinch would analyze joy or love, so we’re not touching either of those. We’re going to dig into, unwrap, and redefine hope.  

We do a lot of “hoping” in education. We “hope” school finances will improve so we can afford the resources we need to teach and lead. We “hope” students’ home lives will stabilize so they can focus at school. We “hope” students become more motivated and thus work harder. We “hope” that a grumpy, burned-out colleague retires at the end of the year.   

We sound desperate when we use hope this way. We sound unconvinced that anything willactually improve as a result of our hope. Because hope is tossed around so desperately and unconvincingly, it gets a bad rap. Hope is used interchangeably with wish, diminishing its value. The aforementioned statements are not ones of hope, they are wishes. Go back and substitute “wish” for “hope” and you will detect zero change to the meaning and feel of each comment. They are wishes, and wishes, my fellow educators, are for genies and folks gazing at shooting stars. Wishes are not for change-agents, striving to make a lasting impact on their students they serve.

I’d like to help us create a new definition for “hope.” A definition that will guide us to better outcomes for our students. Hope is not a wish, folks. Hope is a confident expectation of what will be. In other words, it is a promise. See how different that is than a mere wish. When we truly hope, we confidently expect a given something to happen, and through our volition, we promise a given outcome will be reached.  

We hope a student will read fluently by the end of the year because we are going to present him with ability-appropriate texts, confer with him daily, and maintain a laser-like focus on his reading strengths while simultaneously supporting his skill deficits. Do you see how different that is than wishing he will reach grade level by the end of the year?

We hope a student will show self-control in whole group settings because we are going to create an environment that engages his interests and passions, conveys mutual respect, and is rich with unconditional love. See how different that is than wishing he will mature?

We hope a veteran colleague channels her passion for her craft in a way that cements herself as a teaching legend in the last years of her tenure. We hope a veteran colleague will do this by collaborating with her daily, empathetically relating to who she is in and out of the classroom, and giving her the benefit of the doubt if she’s less than perfect on a given day. See how different that is than wishing she will realize she’s burned-out and stay home next summer, permanently?

Do you see… better yet… feel how hope transcends our normal use when we frame it as a promise backed by action?  

Unwrap hope this Christmas. Don’t wish things will get better for you, your students, or colleagues. Confidently expect success.

I’d like to thank Andy Addis, Pastor at Crosspoint Church (Hutchinson, Kansas), as the inspiration for the idea of unwrapping hope.  I enjoyed “schoolifying” his conceptualization of hope.  Lead up and preach on, sir! 

Better Together: Leverage the Power of Group Capital

In our fifth grade hallway, there is a poster that states, “Real heroes don’t wear capes.”  The purpose of this poster is to encourage students to look beyond stereotypical role models–professional athletes and pop icons–and consider the real difference-makers in their lives–teachers, coaches, and parents.  I love the mantra and the idea it promotes, but it has me thinking about my own job as an elementary school principal.  I’m viewed as a leader (not a hero, but a leader), but how much impact do I really have?  Qualitatively speaking, I know I support, serve, and influence our students and staff daily in ways that improve what they do–learn and teach.  However, quantitatively speaking, I don’t have much impact.  According to Hattie (2012), the effect size of a principal’s impact on student learning is .39.  Not bad, but not all that good.  In comparison, a student aging one year and attending an average public school results in an effect size/impact of .40.  When I first came across this statistic, I admittedly felt disappointed, maybe even a little defeated.  If you’re a principal coming across this finding for the first time, you, too, may be feeling disappointed and defeated.  However, the good news is that we don’t have to transform students’ lives on our own.  In fact, the more we do AS individuals or the more we do TO individuals, the worse the results are.


The Myth of the Transformative Leader

Transformative Leaders are those that embrace the moral imperative of raising the bar for teacher performance and closing the achievement gap by inspiring (or intimidating) teachers to new levels of energy and commitment.  They do this through their own heroic efforts.  Think of the Joe Clark story captured in Lean on Me.  The transformative model asserts that declaring a vision and motivating teachers to “join the cause” are enough to flip schools to achieve unprecedented results.  The reality, as research shows, is transformative leadership rings in at a paltry .11 in terms of effect size.  (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  Teaching test-taking has an effect size of .22 (Hattie, 2012), which means we’d be better off teaching students how to highlight key words in standardized questions than spending time proclaiming visions and motivating teachers.

The Mediocrity of the Instructional Leader

Okay.  So principals should keep the cape in the closet (or the baseball bat if you’re Joe Clark), and, instead, step into the impactful shoes of the instructional leader, right?  Most building leadership programs are built around the model of instructional leadership where the principal supervises individual teachers’ implementation of curriculum and instruction initiatives.  This results in the principal asking for lesson plans, studying them carefully, administering formal observations, and then debriefing with individual teachers on their performance.  The impact of this type of instructional leadership rings in at a stable .42 (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  This is a slightly better result than what Hattie found among “average” principals, but when you think of .40 being what we get when kids age one year and just come to school, .42 is far from desirable.

What Truly Impacts Learning?

The problem with the aforementioned models of leadership is that they are individualistic.  They assume that if we have better principals (transformative leaders), then we have a better school.  They assume that if we have better teachers (courtesy the supervision of the instructional leader), we have a better school. The reality is…..individuals (be it principals or teachers) don’t change schools.  Groups change schools, and to utilize the power of the group, you have to CHANGE the GROUP.

When principals focus on changing the group and utilizing its power, they are, in effect, building group capital.  Building group capital has an effect size of .84 (Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008), making it the undisputed heavyweight champ of leadership influences.  Within this construct of building group capital there are two critical factors:

  1. The principal makes the progress of the school a collective endeavor.  One-on-one appraisals take a back seat to Professional Learning Communities.  Teachers don’t comply in order to achieve better results in their own classrooms, rather they COMMIT to improving the school as a whole.  They do this because they are a part of a team, a bona-fide PLC.

Example–Organize opportunities for teachers to observe other teachers in action. Through peer observations, teachers not only pick up tricks of the trade, they also see how every team member is contributing to student learning, thus generating an all-hands-on-deck approach.  Principals, please don’t expect teachers to do this on their planning period! Arrange for a sub to spend the day, relieving teachers for 45-minute increments so that teachers can do this during the regular day.

  1. The principal leads professional learning among staff.  The principal does less supervising and facilitates more LEARNING.  Principals build professional learning into each school day and use teacher observation, not to appraise or evaluate, but to supplement and strengthen professional learning.

Example–Create and habitually contribute to a hashtag to promote best practices among colleagues.  Check out #313teach and #448teach and see what our district in Buhler Schools and a neighboring district Inman Schools have done with their best practices hashtags.  Through tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting you are facilitating continuous learning opportunities that are accessible to your PLC and a global audience!

We are better together.  That’s the undeniable reality of leadership.  Let’s keep the group capital ideas rolling!  If you have an outstanding idea for building group capital among staff, please use the #bettertogether.  With something as simple as #bettertogether, we can build our own capital as a global group of lead learners!


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes. Education Administration Quarterly, 44, 635–674.

**In addition, I must give a ton of credit to Michael Fullan, specifically the leadership genius he shares in The Principal.  This is a book SO GOOD I read it twice this summer!**

Fit in as THE Leader

Going into middle school, I knew I had to have a certain look to fit in.  Baja jackets or hyper-color T-shirts, yep, had to have them.  Guess Jeans and Doc Marten boots, you know it. I mean I was walking into a middle school in which all THREE district grade schools converged into one melting pot of adolescent anxiety.  I knew that if I didn’t have the look, I wasn’t going to fit in.


You know you had one….

We laugh now at the mid-90’s garb we blew our allowances on, but the truth is….fitting in is important.  Fearless leaders who flip schools from dysfunctional to pillars of schloarly excellence don’t dare or care to FIT IN, do they?  Well, in my mind, they better if they want to understand and meet the needs of their students and staff.

The concept of fitting in naturally evokes visions of weakness.  Fitting in, though, is not about being a follower or caving to the consensus.  Rather fitting in as a school leader is about surveying the terrain of needs, transparently sharing how you’re going to fulfill those needs, and, lastly and most importantly, walking the talk by showing up and meeting those needs.

I’m in my first year as principal of Union Valley Elementary School in Hutchinson, KS.  I’m five weeks deep into the job and I’m loving every minute of it.  I’m loving my role as Union Valley principal because I’ve taken the time to “fit in.”  I’ve taken the time to survey staff and student needs and thoughtfully created a concrete plan to meet those needs.  I’m working hard to walk my talk and fit in as THE leader.  Playing on the metaphor shared earlier, these have been my Guess Jeans and Hyper-Color T-shirts to fitting in as our school leader:

  • Visibility–Upon getting the job as Union Valley principal, I informally visited with a number of staff about what they would like to “see” out of me as the school leader.  They regularly and strongly told me that they would like to see……me.  Message heard.  I’ve worked hard to be visible in the classroom (45 documented learning walks in the first eight days of school), in the lunchroom, and in the parking lot during dismissal.  Being visible has helped me make connections with all members of our learning community–teachers, parents, cooks, custodians, etc.  It also has helped me realize what a STRONG school we have and where I fit in as the leader. 
  • Communication–Our WONDERFUL secretaries shared with me that “communication,” in their eyes, is paramount to effectively leading a school.  Again, message heard.  Morning Announcements, a daily 10-minute whole school assembly, helps me connect with and communicate to our staff and students on a daily basis.  Morning Announcements has helped us become one big, happy, well-informed family.   I’ve also worked to harness the power of digital communication through recording quick videos to connect with both staff and parents.  Prior to the start of school, I created and sent five minute videos to both staff and parents.  These videos helped viewers better know me as a person and understand my leadership style.  They also proactively informed viewers of important upcoming activities, beginning and end of day procedures, and shared important info regarding new district initativies–bond updates, new math series, and standard-based report cards.
  • Fun, Energy, and Soft Skills–The UV staff and students were hungry for fun, energy, and “soft leadership” and I’ve worked hard to deliver all three.  Sometimes these efforts are big.  For example, we loaded up on the “energy bus” as a whole staff our first day of PD and went out to coffee at a local cafe.  However, more importantly, these efforts are small and continuous.  We’ve made “greeting others” a school-wide goal.  Never will a staff member or student walk down the hall by himself/herself and not be greeted with a hug or high-five or at minimum a pleasant “good morning.”  These small initiatives have helped me “fit in” in a big way.

In summary, “fitting in” has been essential to our successful start at Union Valley this school year.  My job isn’t to be the iconic leader who puts the school on his back.  My job is to effectively read current strengths and current needs and work to develop both.  If you’re new to a school this year, no matter what the role you have, think about what you can do to “fit in.” You and your school will be better off for it.

Why can't these make a come back???

Why can’t these make a come back???

Here are a couple of videos I’ve used to communicate with parents and staff.  I’m a video-creating novice.  I used Touchcast to create and share both.  If you’re new to creating videos, I highly recommend TC. If I can use it, you can.

Parent Communication via Video

Staff Communication via Video

Celebrate New Principals!

Celebrate New Principals!

Next Friday I have the privilege to present at the Beginning Principals Conference for new principals in my home state of Kansas.  I am beyond excited to see what talented leaders we have joining us in the field next year!  I hope that my 30-minute presentation on Technology and Leadership gives our new principals a tool or two to employ next year and beyond.  However, my much bigger hope is that they come away from the day, feeling recognized, celebrated, and empowered as leaders.  They need to know that they were chosen for their positions for a reason: our schools–staff, students, and parents–need them!

The reality of the principalship is that it is hard, really hard.  In Kansas, we have never faced more policies, pressure, and not-so-positive publicity in education, and that’s educators as a whole.  Principals, even in the good times, are challenged, criticized, and rarely recognized.  I think about my six years as a principal and I have been challenged to a physical altercation, berated with more than PG-13 vocabulary, and dodged routinely at the grocery store.  Of course, there have been a gazillion positives that have balanced out the not-so-fun moments, but we’re not people who regularly get pats on the back.  Furthermore, consider how principals have been portrayed in pop culture.    Well, 80’s, 90’s pop culture 🙂

PrincipalBBrfastPrincipal Vernon from The Breakfast Club. The classic jerk principal full of empty threats at which students feel obligated to rebel.

PrincipalSkinnerPrincipal Skinner from The Simpsons. The classic socially awkward, zero-life-outside-of-school principal who slinks through the day just hoping to avoid getting reprimanded by the superintendent.

PrincipalBeldingPrincipal Belding from Saved by the Bell.  The classic cheeseball principal that nobody takes seriously.

These principals are fondly remembered by us, well, at least those of us in the 30-and-up crowd.  I’ve even playfully dished out Principal Vernon’s “you mess with the bull, you get the horns every time,” to an ornery sixth grader.  I’ve also exceeded my quota of cheesy thumbs-up signs in the hall courtesy a time or two.  However, these characters do not represent who we are or what we do as principals.  Nevertheless, these are the images that come to mind when people think about principals.

So my challenge to you is to find a new principal, welcome him/her to the field, celebrate the work that got him/her here, and offer your support.  You can do this as a fellow principal, as new principals crave and need peer support.  You can do this as a teacher, as there is not a more comforting feeling for a new principal than knowing teachers have his/her back.  You can do this as a parent, as the most memorable compliments we ever receive are from the parents who entrust us with their children every day.

Pick up the phone to congratulate a new principal.

Hit him/her up on Twitter or Facebook.

Send an email NOW, as this is typically the first week principals are back at it.

Best of all, stop by his/her school, shake hands, and say, “You’re the right person for the job. We’re lucky to have ya.”

I encourage you to email me or hit me on Twitter with your story of congratulating a new principal to the field.

Thanks for reading!