Friday, May 29, 2015

The Principal's Summer Excellence Checklist

I I vividly remember ending my second year as assistant principal and moving into my new role as principal.  Thoughts flooded my mind as new initiatives, new ways of doing things, and aspirations for excellence permeated through my brain. After about two hours of getting virtually nothing done, I stopped what I was doing and started writing down topics on a big white board in an empty classroom.

"I want to make this a great place for staff and students."  That thought continued to go through my mind as I wrote, but it gave me very little opportunity to put all these initiatives and ideas into an order that made sense. When I finally sat down and looked at the board, I noticed something was missing, ORDER.   I created categories that supported my ultimate goal, and then moved ideas to the appropriate category.  Little by little, my plan started to come together.  As a result, some of my greatest ideas disappeared, while some of my ideas that were a little fuzzy turned into something fantastic.   When I made a checklist, I was able to ensure that I turned my grandiose ideas into an intentional plan of action.

The Principal's Summer Excellence Checklist 


  • When the teachers come back, what is your plan to capture their hearts and engage their minds in believing that all kids can learn? 
  • How will you create a culture that embraces the strengths that everyone brings to the table and accepts the weaknesses that also come with them?
  • What is your plan to build a culture that excites students  and staff about learning? 
  • How will that culture permeate throughout every classroom in your school?


  • What are the campus' expectations for instruction in every classroom?
  • What professional development will you provide to help teachers develop the skills to meet those expectations?
  • How will you leverage collaboration to allow teachers the time to work and learn together to develop the skills within your expectations for instruction?
  • What is your plan to monitor those expectations, and how will you respond when expectations for instruction are not being met?


  • What is your plan to monitor the learning for every student throughout the school year through the use of assessments?
  • What professional development will teachers need to develop formative assessments that will tell you and them if students are learning?
  • How will you leverage collaboration to help teachers develop the best assessments for learning?
  • How will you collect data in an organized fashion to determine if students are learning or if instruction is meeting the needs of all kids?


  • When students are failing to learn, how will the campus, individual staff members, and teams of teachers respond to students in a systematic way?
  • What professional development is needed in the area of intervention, and how and when will you provide that?
  • How will you use collaboration as a tool for teachers to discuss students that are failing and develop interventions to meet their needs as the first step of the RTI program?
  • How will the campus leadership team monitor student progress and develop triggers that will ensure that no child falls through the cracks?  
  • How will you respond when interventions are not being provided to a student or groups of students?


  • When students have mastered a particular skill, what extension opportunities should be offered to them?
  • What professional learning will your staff need over extension opportunities such as personalized tasks or #geniushour?
  • What competitive activities can students participate in that are academic in nature?
  • What clubs or organizations can students participate in where they can extend their learning in deeper and more meaningful ways?

College and Career

  • Preparation for college and career begins in kindergarten, so what are your expectations for exposing students to all types of careers and the college pathways to get them there?
  • What professional learning and information do teachers need to be exposed to, so they can be equipped with the information to prepare students for college and career?
  • How will you monitor if college and career is truly happening on your campus, and how will you respond if it is not?

Master Schedule

  • How will you ensure that collaboration for teachers is guaranteed for all staff? 
  • How will you ensure that intervention for students needing additional time and support is built into the school day?
  • How will you distribute duties equally to all staff?

  • How will you elicit leadership from your teachers and support staff?
  • How will you create a leadership team that helps the school improve as a whole?
  • In what ways will you develop leadership capacity in your students?
  • How will you involve parents and the community in your school?

Student Behavior
  • How will you update the student code of conduct and ensure that it is communicated to all students and staff?
  • What is the system that teachers will use to respond to minor behaviors prior to sending them to the office in a consistent fashion?
  • What is the parent communication requirement in everyone's response to inappropriate behavior?
  • When a student is sent to the office for misbehavior, what is the communication loop back to the person that referred the student to the office?
  • If the teacher does not see a change in behavior, what is the communication that should be expected from the teacher to the administrator?
  • How will you gather data on student behavior to determine if the campus is effective in the expectations for and the responses to student behavior?
  • How will you promote, support, and celebrate excellent student behavior in a manner that will create a culture that excellent behavior is a great thing to strive for?


  • How will you communicate to the staff in a way that keeps them aware of and prepared for all campus events?
  • How much advance notice must you give teachers about upcoming events and tasks so they will be prepared? (No last minute emails!!!)
  • How and when will you communicate student progress to parents regarding grades, attendance, and behavior?
  • How will you leverage social media as a tool to show the great things happening on the campus, and how frequently will you do that?
  • How will parents have a venue to express their concerns or frustrations to teachers and administrators in a constructive way, and how will you promote this form of transparency?
  • How will teachers and students know that your open-door policy is truly open?


  • What will you celebrate in relationship to the expectations listed above?
  • How will you celebrate growth of the entire student body?
  • How will you spotlight exemplars of excellence in students, staff and teams?
  • How frequently will you take time to celebrate publicly?
  • What methods will you use to celebrate? (i.e. - Assemblies, parties, treats, social media, announcements, etc.)
  • How will you encourage celebrations to come from all members of the community so that it is not perceived as just a "leadership thing"?

There are probably a ton of other things to put on this checklist, but I hope it gives you a starting point to make next year the greatest ever.  If nothing else, I hope you find the structure of this post as a reminder to make sure you don't leave out any of the big components that will make your school the greatest it has ever been. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Future of Standardized Testing in Texas: The Partner has Changed, but will the Dance remain the Same?

Texans are jumping up-and-down this week because the Texas Education Agency changed its testing contract from Pearson to ETS (Read more here). This is an historic change because Pearson has been testing Texas kids for over 30 years.  This decision is nothing short of landmark because Pearson has had a huge impact on our education system for most of my life.

And I'm not the only one shocked by this decision. If you look at the paper, Twitter or Facebook, you will see lots of people very excited about the change and very hopeful about what the new testing company will bring to the table.  There is already talk of how much easier testing will be under the new testing company.

But before you get too excited, I just want to pose this question.

Are we going to dance the same old dance but just with a prettier dance partner?

What I mean is this. The test has been extremely challenging for students as the overall performance has not changed in the past 4 years. Let's be honest the passing standards have not risen for the past 4 years because the test was overwhelmingly difficult and quite confusing to the students. (If you don't believe me, then are you smarter than a Texas 5th grader in Reading, Math or Science?) So my question is this. How will a new testing company make the STAAR test a better one for our students and a better reflection of their learning?

If the test can't become more reflective of the real teaching and learning that's taking place in the school, then what difference does it make who the publisher of the test is? After all, it will still be a faulty test (not just my words, read this) that paints a poor picture of what's really happening in schools, and parents, teachers, and legislators will be right back where they left off, vilifying the testing contractor for making a bad test.  Furthermore, the unnecessary stress placed on students, parents, teachers and leaders will leave Texas no further ahead than where we are now.

Since we have a new dance partner in education, I hope we also have a new song that we can dance to. I think we're all ready for that kind of change.  I know the supporters of public education are.

How about you?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Are You McFarland USA?

Last month, I saw McFarland USA. The movie is based on the true story of teacher-coach, Jim White, who took 7 impoverished teens from the migrant school of McFarland High School and turned them into cross-country champions for the state of California. What was interesting about White was his reputation as a teacher-coach that had overstayed his welcome at too many schools, and now, he was at his last stop in the teaching profession, McFarland, USA.

As the movie began, I thought to myself, "Oh great...  Is this another Freedom Writers or Stand by Me? Is this another Hollywood depiction of a heroic teacher who helps a few kids succeed in a hopeless American school?  Will I see the principal as another apathetic and overwhelmed leader?  Will I see another disconnected community with frustrated parents?"  After all, when was the last time, Hollywood actually portrayed a public school as something more than a death trap where only a few kids learned from the one and only teacher that could teach?  That is not the true story of American schools, so at the very least, I was skeptical.

Wow, was I surprised?

McFarland was nothing like any movie I had ever seen.  The students wanted a better life.  The principal was actively supportive of White and the team.  The parents and community rallied around the team and ultimately transformed McFarland as a whole because Coach White, the washed up coach, not only changed the lives of his students, but he was the catalyst that transformed a struggling school and community into a positive place that rallied around its periennial state champion.  In this case, it wasn't the campus or district leader that led the change.  It was the teacher who led, and the leaders who followed.  If White had waited for leadership to take the lead in building his team, he may have never had a championship team or even a team at all.  If he had waited for permission to create something new, he would have never changed the lives of his kids.  White didn't wait for a leader to lead his vision, because he was the leader.

So are you McFarland, USA?

If you're waiting on someone to create the conditions for you to make the ultimate impact on kids, please stop.  That someone is you.  If you are waiting on the community to rally around you, please stop.  Create a contagion that forces the community to follow you.  

Pride and success can only be built with a passion for excellence. With passion you can create something that has never been built before. You can change a culture that has been desperately yearning for it.  You can change lives.

Coach White built McFarland, USA for several reasons. Because he had no other career options, because his back was against the wall, and because he had unbelievable grit and determination, he was able to inspire an entire school community to believe in his commitment to one thing, excellence.   We must remember that we all have the ability to transform our schools and communities if we will believe in our passion and our abilities. 

There is a Coach White within each one of us, and it is our job to dig deep to find our inner leader and push ourselves to believe in the power of our position. No matter what role you play, you must always remember that you have the potential to transform an entire community if you will believe in your potential and passion.  The only question we have to answer is this. Will we wait for someone to give us permission to live our passion, or will we take full advantage of the opportunity that has been given us?


Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Perfect is your Leadership Vision?

I am very fortunate that for my 40+ years I have had 20/20 vision. I've never needed glasses, and I've always been able to spot things from very far away with my hawkeye vision while at the same time being able to read virtually anything that is placed in front of me no matter how small the font. But I have to be honest with you. I'm starting to notice that my awesome eyesight is starting to fail me, as my eyes occasionally require more squinting than they used to.  While I can come to grips with the notion that my eyesight is slipping, my pride and youthful ego will not allow me to concede defeat.

How Good is your Leadership Vision?
Are you near-sighted? Are you far-sighted or do you have perfect 20/20 vision?  This quick little description should tell you fairly quickly.

Near-sighted Leadership
n - The ability to see things up close, but unable to see things from far away.  

If you are a nearsighted leader, you're able to see the present reality very easily as well as all the problems and issues that are right before you; however, you're unable to articulate what they doable future really looks like to your followers because you can't see it. Therefore your followers are frustrated because they don't know where you are leading them since you can't see what the organization could become in the future.

Far-sighted Leadership
n - the ability to see things clearly from far away; however, you're unable to see things immediately in front of your face. 

A leader who is far-sighted is rather utopian in his views. He has grandiose ideas of what the school could become and how great it could be for kids and staff.  The problem with farsighted leadership is that the leader can't see things that are immediately before him. He can not see problems easily, and he has a difficult time articulating steps to lead staff to Utopia. Therefore followers under this form of leadership are frustrated with him because they can't get a clear answer as to what to do right now to fix today's problems.  

20/20 Vision
n. - the ability to see things close-up and far away perfectly. 

This form of leadership is the best of both worlds. The leader is able to easily identify the organization's current reality and can articulate to the staff what needs to be done immediately to fix today's problems. Furthermore, the leader is able to articulate today's actions in a way that leads to a promising future because the leader can actually see and articulate what the organization can become if everyone comes together for kids. A leader with perfect vision also has the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses as well as potential in every staff member.  He can help each follower develop strengths to address their weaknesses and move the organization one step closer to realizing its vision. 

Seeing is Believing
Seeing what's directly in front of you is important, but it is equally important to be able to see further down the road. It's easy to get tunnel vision and ignore either the present or the future and that will always lead you back to the past.  But leadership vision is different from human vision in that we can improve it if we want to.   Leaders must constantly evaluate themselves to ensure that they maintain the delicate balance of addressing the reality of today while maintaining the focus on tomorrow. Having 20/20 vision may not make your leadership perfect but it will lead your organization a little closer to perfection than it was before. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Be the Bridge for All Kids

Kids are getting ready for summer.  Teachers are ready to wrap up 2014-2015, and parents are ready for kids to come home for summer.  Our minds are ever focused on ending this year, but we must remember that the end of the one year leads to a beginning of the next one.  What kids learned or didn't learn this year sets them up for what we hope they learn next year.  

Summer break can be viewed as either a break or a transition based on mindset.  If viewed as a break, very little carries over from one year to the next.  If viewed as a transition, then strategies, interventions and supports will carry over seamlessly from one year to the next like a bridge connects one piece of land to another. 

If we want kids to continue to grow and reach success from year to year, we must remember these things.

  1. Kids regress over the summer, and struggling kids regress even more than their average counterparts.
  2. Teachers spend at least the first 6 weeks of school experimenting with strategies until they find the right ones to help every child succeed.
  3. Struggling kids need successful strategies to follow them in the same way that their performance data follows them from year to year and school to school.
  4. Transitions from grade to grade and building and building can negatively impact kids without a well-defined transition plan.

Be the Bridge

Here's my challenge.  Be the Bridge!  Don't miss the opportunity to set your kids up for success next year.  Transition sheets or notes are a great way to help kids start next year off on the right foot by preparing next year's teachers to help them continue on their path to excellence.  A transition sheet/note can have performance data on it, but to make it even more powerful it must also have strategies and notes about the child to give next year's teachers a head start with students that they don't know.  Examples of useful information on a transition sheet/note could include the following:
  • What strategies helped the student with problem-solving?
  • Is the student a kinesthetic, auditory or visual learner, and how did you address this learning style in your instruction?
  • Does the kid respond well in a one-on-one setting, in groups or whole group?
  • Does the student benefit from preferential seating, manipulatives, a copy of the notes, or graphic organizers?
  • What interventions help this kid learn best?
  • If the student had behavior issues, what behavior supports helped him/her improve on their behavior?
If you think about it, these are questions that teachers will spend the first 6 weeks of school answering through trial and error, but with transition sheets/notes passed from this year's teacher to next year's teacher, next year's teacher set up for success on the first day of school.  If you have students  that benefited from your great strategies to help them reach excellence, please take a second to write down those strategies and share them with next year's teacher. 

Sink, Swim or Cross the Bridge

Kids are going to end this year and start next year, but here's an analogy for you to consider.  Think of summer break as a river.  Kids are standing on the bank of this year and across the river is the beginning of next year.  High performing kids are strong swimmers and will cross the river of summer just fine.  Average kids will make it across for the most part on time with little difficulty, but struggling kids will obviously have greater difficulty making the transition, and if they manage to swim across without drowning, they will be behind the rest of their peers (that is called regression).  We owe it to all kids to build a bridge by passing along all of the great things that helped all of our kids learn and create consistency from one year to the next, so that all kids can safely cross the river of transition and begin next year right where they left off this year.  You never know.  Being the bridge for all kids might just be the one thing that helps a potential dropout turn into a standout.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Flip this School - A Growth Mindset for School Improvement

My wife loves shows like Flip this House, and I occasionally watch them with her. These do-it-yourself programs hook my wife and countless viewers into the possibility of taking a horrible house and converting it into a masterpiece of a mansion. It amazes me how these people can see the potential in such failure and transform nothing into something along with a nice profit, I might add.

So let's apply that mentality to our schools and classrooms.

At the end of the year, we look at what we've done.  We analyze our data, determine our strengths and weaknesses and make a plan for next year.  Every school makes a plan for next year, but leaders and teachers utilize a growth mindset for excellence.  They develop improvement plans based on a Flip this House mindset while average leaders replace what they don't like, and below average leaders build a whole new plan or stay with the one they have.

Flip this School Mindset

Below are 8 strategies that excellent leaders employ to grow their school into excellence. 

1. Identify your Vision
What do you want your school to look like in 3-5 years?  Without a vision of where you want to be, the next 7 steps are pointless. 

2. State your Mission
What is the purpose that the staff have been brought to this school?  Is the purpose simply to teach all kids or to guarantee that all kids learn?

3. Gauge Strengths 
What works well currently in your school to support the mission and vision that you can bring forward into next school year?

4. Identify Weaknesses
What does our data tell us that we must improve on next year?  What groups of kids are struggling and which essential skills are they lacking, and which skills do the teachers and staff need to address those weaknesses?

5. Obtain Professional Learning
Based on identified weaknesses, what is the most critical professional development needed to improve teacher quality and effectiveness in meeting the needs of all kids and moving closer to the school's mission and vision?

6. Make Cosmetic Changes
Which practices and actions are effective but with minor tweaks can be brought forward to better support the mission and vision?

7. Remove Ineffective Practices
Which actions are redundant or have no purpose in supporting kids and what can you do to remove them?

8. New Practices
Which actions are needed to change the culture or structure of the campus and what professional learning will be needed to implement these practices with fidelity?

Flipping is not as Hard as It Looks

School improvement is not about change, but growth and continuous improvement.  Just like the do-it-yourself shows, school improvement is hard work, but it isn't ridiculously difficult work. The recipe is pretty simple. Identify what is structurally sound in the school, and build around that. Add features or actions that enhance the productivity of the school and the collective capacity of the staff.  Ensure that the focus stays on learning, not just for students but all staff as well, and keep your eyes on the prize, what the school must become in 3 to 5 years.  By using these few strategies, school leaders can flip their school and turn a nice profit, which would be all students reaching high levels of learning.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

26 Traits of Terrific Teachers

Teacher Appreciation Week is here, and it is time to give thanks for all that teachers do for our kids. In this post I'd like to take a moment to go beyond appreciating these outstanding people for choosing the noblest profession of all. Sure, teachers need to hear that we appreciate them for teaching kids, but they need to hear even more that we appreciate all the things they do that are above and beyond mteaching and learning. So with that I would like to share with you:

26 Traits of a Terrific Teacher

Adaptable - to their teaching environment and the numerous needs of their kids Irregardless of the resources they have or the expectations placed upon them.
Believer - in their own abilities, the abilities of their kids and in the power of education. 
Counselor - to help kids conquer the emotional barriers that consume their lives. 
Diverse - in their approach to help all kids learn. 
Energizer Bunny - #NuffSaid
Father - to the many kids that don't have a positive male figure in their lives. 
Guide - to show each kid his way to a prosperous future. 
Honest - with themselves first and with everyone they influence second. 
Innovative - in finding new ways to help each kid learn. 
Jack of all Trades - skills that are often developed through many hours outside of the work day. 
Knowledgeable - in content, pedagogy, law, and countless other things that are needed to make them effective. 
Learner - because they know that the teacher must always be the first learner. 
Mother - nurturing kids and providing them the love that many do not receive. 
Neighborly - always modeling how to be kind and considerate to everyone they meet, especially those who don't respect them. 
Optimistic - seeing the opportunity in every obstacle. 
Persistent - because giving up on kids is not an option. 
Quick - in their response to every situation. 
Resilient - picking themselves up and dusting themselves off when they fail. 
Supportive - of kids, peers, parents, administrators and education as a whole. 
Tenacious- full of grit and determination to help every kid learn. 
Understanding - that learning takes time and that some kids grow faster and in different ways than others. 
Visionary - in their approach to improve the profession and the world one kid at a time. 
Wild - about life, kids, teaching and learning. 
X-Ray - the ability to see the potential in every kid. 
Youthful - in their approach to life and teaching. 
Zealous - in their love for learning and their passion to instill that love for learning in every child. 

There are too many other adjectives that I could use to describe teachers, but the bottom line is this. Teachers are not heroes. They are superheroes, and they take on superhuman qualities that no other profession requires. This week I challenge you to thank a teacher not for what they do, but for all the things that you'll never know that they do. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Overcoming the Real Barrier to College & Career, Poverty.

As we strive to prepare every student for a college and career future, we must acknowledge that poverty plays a big part in whether or not a student will choose to pursue an education beyond high school.  In the graphic to the left, the Center for Public Education estimated in 2003 that 65% of students of poverty became Non-College Enrollees (chose to not go to college), while 34% of students of poverty enrolled in college.  In other words, 2 out of 3 students of poverty chose to not attend college.

Let's get Real about Poverty!
More than half of our country's students come from poverty.  If you multiply that number times the chance of enrolling in college, that means that 33% of our nation's kids (Yes, 1/3 of our kids!!!) will not even attempt to enroll in college.  To put it in the simplest of terms.  One third of our kids will pretty much be limited to very few options to pull themselves out of poverty.

What can we do about that?

As educators, we can do a lot to fix that problem.  Below are some ideas that we can use to inspire all kids especially those of poverty to choose a college and career future.
Source: Center for Public Education
2/3 of 
students of poverty arenon-college enrollees, while 1/3 enrollin college.
  • Talk about college and career as something that every child can do.
  • Talk about scholarships that can be earned.
  • Talk about how college and technical schools aren't just for the "smart kids" or the privileged kids.  It's for all kids.
  • Take students to colleges and technical schools.
  • Tell stories about students who overcame amazing odds to put themselves through school.
  • Continuously and intentionally integrate college and career into instruction.
  • Support extracurricular and cocurricular organizations in taking students to colleges and technical schools.
  • Help every family complete the FAFSA.
  • Develop personal graduation plans that all students actually own.

If we want to pull more students out of poverty, we must quit talking about guaranteeing learning for every child, and focus delivering on that promise.  The deck is stacked against students of poverty, and the only way they will remove themselves from that cycle is if we do whatever it takes to expose, inspire and ultimately enroll every student in a college or technical school.