Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

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Staying Out of Solutions

This week, I pick up the story of Sandra’s efforts to improve teaching of polynomials. Two weeks ago, I wrote about trying to get her some help from the math specialist working at the central office. When I called the assistant superintendent of instruction, she was rather intrigued by the factoring problem. She put me onto Antonio, someone who works in curriculum and instruction and was a legendary high school math teacher before moving over to the central office. I spoke briefly with Antonio and was impressed with his enthusiasm. That afternoon I provided an e-introduction between Antonio and Sandra, asking Sandra to follow up.

When I arrive at my office a little after 7:00 a.m. on Monday morning, hoping to take care of e-mail and voice mail before the day heats up, Sandra is pacing in the entry with a big smile on her face. “David, I had this great meeting with Antonio last Friday after school. We talked for about an hour and a half all about the factoring problem and the importance of Algebra 1 as a gatekeeper course. He was fantastic. He’d actually seen this method—the box method—of factoring before, but said he’d never tried it. He is interested in seeing how it might work with students and he had dozens of other ideas about how to strengthen our teaching in Algebra 1. I’m so excited! I can’t wait until our next Algebra 1 team meeting on Wednesday.”

Not wanting to dampen Sandra’s enthusiasm, I’m worried that she will fall right back into the trap of bringing a solution into her team meeting before her teacher colleagues have even acknowledged that a problem exists. “Come on in and sit down. Sandra, I’m so pleased that you had a good meeting with Antonio. I was really keeping my fingers crossed because often the central office can be unresponsive to teacher needs. I’d heard Antonio was different and I’m glad you’ve validated that. Let’s talk about a strategy for your Algebra 1 team.”

“What do you mean?” Sandra asks. “Let’s start by doing some quick-and-dirty analysis of the attitudes and capabilities on your team.” Sandra says, “Ok, well a bright spot is Kathy, my special education partner in the Algebra 1 inclusion class. She’s willing to try anything and she often takes what we do in my class and uses promising strategies with her self-contained math class.” “Sounds great,” I say. “How about Fred, Jane, and Carol?” Sandra groans, “They’re really tough. Fred engages in daily countdowns to his retirement three years away, Jane is a re-purposed typing teacher who got her math credential to save her job, and Carol often misses meetings.”

“I know it’s tough, but let’s try to de-personalize the situation and think about their interests. They all want to have a good day in the classroom, right?” “Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” says Sandra. I continue, “Let’s try a thought experiment. You can label each one of them as either comfortable with the current situation, in denial that factoring is an important teaching and learning challenge, or they are in a stage where they are trying to make changes and improvements, but aren’t sure where to go and/or aren’t having any success. Easy handles for the three are complacency, denial, and confusion.” “Sure, David, that’s easy. Fred is complacent, Jane is in denial because doesn’t understand factoring all that deeply herself, and Carol is just AWOL, so I don’t know. Kathy is the only one who I would say could be described as in the confusion stage.”

At this point, it is important for me to be supportive in my roles as principal and instructional leader. I need to be realistic and acknowledge that Sandra is working with a weak team without letting that be her excuse for her steamrolling the team or just giving up. I’m now into full coaching mode, trying to get Sandra to break the habits of an eager young teacher who believes she has the key to success in her hand. She may be right, but being right will not do her any good if she is unable to bring the more veteran teachers along.

“From what you are telling me,” I say, “you’ve got one willing ally and three others who need a major mind shift if your collection of teachers is going to come together as a team and improve the situation in Algebra 1. Do you remember the last time we spoke I told you I’d hoped that the curriculum and instruction department could help you mine the benchmark assessment data to see if there was evidence that factoring is a central problem?” “Of course,” Sandra says. “Did you and Antonio discuss that?” “Yes, in my excitement about his enthusiasm for working with me, I forgot about this. He said that the benchmark data would probably show a correlation between factoring and overall success on the assessments. He even thought we might be able to demonstrate correlations to Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus. The problem is that no one has ever asked for the data this way before, so it might take him a while to get it.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Sandra, this is great news. I would like you not to try to move too far with your team until you have the data from Antonio, assuming that he will be successful in getting it. For now, please put the box method aside. Journal about it to yourself, if you like, but I urge you not to bring it up with the team until they are ready to hear about it again. What makes sense to me for this week is that you will meet with the team and update them on your discussion with Antonio—without mentioning his enthusiasm for the box method—as a way of preparing them to engage in some data analysis when he has something for you to look at.” “Ok, but that sounds like a pretty short meeting to me,” Sandra replies. I respond, “I also suggest that you begin the discussion with them that we started a couple of weeks ago. You don’t have to get very specific, but you can tell them that through the spring you will want to engage them in a deeper investigation into Algebra 1 performance. Notice I’m not saying ‘factoring’ because they haven’t agreed that that is a problem.” “Sure, I get it. I’m starting to see a path forward.”

“One more thing, Sandra. You need to speak with Carol about missing meetings. Would you like my help?” Sandra thinks for a while and looks unhappy for the first time in our brief meeting. “Carol is just so brusque and nasty. I would like your help, but I don’t want to seem as though I need it.” “Ok,” I say. “I’ve made clear my expectation that every teacher will participate on at least one course team. Try catching Carol to remind her about the meeting on Wednesday. If she doesn’t show up again on Wednesday, then you will need to confront her and request via e-mail a meeting with the three of us. I’ll let you run that meeting in my office and I’ll be there to verify my expectations for all faculty. You’ll be in charge to the greatest extent possible.” “I’m not looking forward to that,” says Sandra.

Sandra goes off to prepare for her first period class and I open up my e-mail, thinking, “If it comes to a three-way meeting with Carol, it will not be fun.”


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Using Data to Motivate Change

Before Sandra, the Algebra 1 team leader, can make progress with her team, they need a reason to think about changing their classroom practices. When Sandra presented the factoring method, it came out of nowhere for most of the teachers in her group. One might have been asking inside her own head, “Why is Sandra telling us about this? Yeah, factoring is a problem, but kids either get it or they don’t. I don’t see why I should consider some new method just because she thinks it is a good idea.” My suggestion to Sandra that she work with a math specialist in our fictional effort to improve Algebra 1 performance is based on a belief that if teachers (or anyone) can understand student learning data and their role in influencing it, then they may be motivated to make change. To move ahead, Sandra must step back and think about what motivates people to change (or not).

Kurt Lewin (1947) made the claim that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. As an organizational behavior theorist, he thought a great deal about how interpersonal forces push people in various directions. He used the metaphor of freezing and un-freezing to explain how change happens. We can imagine the Algebra 1 team frozen in their tried and true method of factoring that they had learned as students and always taught as teachers. Sandra had an epiphany when a student who had moved to her school from another state showed her a different method. Sandra started to un-freeze because she saw the simple logic behind the method and how it might be easier for students to grasp and remember. In Lewin’s terms, she moved in her un-frozen state to a new position—in this case with respect to factoring. But what we so easily forget in our enthusiasm for a new solution is that those around us have not had the same un-freezing experience. Sandra presented the new method to a room full of icebergs and there was little discernable effect.

If Sandra is able to show the Algebra 1 teachers data indicating that an inability to factor polynomials is a root cause of D’s and F’s in Algebra 1, she may be able to use that as a “heater” to un-freeze the teachers on her team. Why? Because the teachers want their students to succeed, which in turn reflects positively on them. Presumably, student success is their reason for teaching. The problem for Sandra is that her teachers may simply see factoring as another in a long list of concepts, tools, and algorithms that some students “get” and others don’t. Presenting concrete information about the role of factoring in student success can serve to spotlight the process and draw teachers’ attention.

Sandra’s leadership challenge in un-freezing the team is a little more subtle, however. She cannot walk into a future meeting, present the data, and tell them that it proves factoring is important. She will need to help them work through the data in a manner that they voluntarily share her perspective—become un-frozen as she is—and therefore motivated to make change. Her goal is to create changed perspectives so that the teachers are more amenable to addressing the puzzle of teaching factoring more effectively.

Weisbord (2004), an intellectual descendent of Lewin’s, elaborates the problem of un-freezing and moving to a new understanding by claiming that there are four different mental states in the process of change. The figure below demonstrates his four stages.




Adapted from: Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weisbord argues that people who are content with or in denial about the present situation are very unlikely to make any changes. They have constructed a reality that suggests to them there is no reason to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Osterman and Kottkamp (2004), as I mentioned in my last post, explain how presenting data makes contentment or denial more difficult and therefore opens up individuals to considering change. Weisbord maintains that people must move out of their contentment or denial before change or improvement (what he calls renewal) can happen. There are no shortcuts, though. Confusion is a necessary stage prior to achieving renewal. Thus, anyone starting out in contentment or denial will first need to move through the stage of confusion before getting to renewal. This is a major red flag for Sandra. If she is successful in presenting data that teachers find compelling, as they un-freeze and start to move they will likely become somewhat demoralized in their confusion. This manifests with teachers in many ways that are rooted in a fear that trying something new may produce worse results for students. There is no do-over. The year rushes on and it is possible for many reasons that trying a new factoring method will generate even worse results than before, with possible long-term consequences for students. Sandra’s instructional leadership ability will be greatly tested if she is successful in moving her teachers into confusion.


Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics, Part 1: Concept, method, and reality in social sciences: Social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1, 5 – 41.

Osterman, K., & Kottkam, R. (2004). Reflective practice for educators: Professional development to improve student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited: Dignity, meaning, and community in the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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A Persistent Problem: Factoring Polynomials

Today, I pick up the conversation with Sandra, the Algebra 1 team leader, where we left off last time. She comes to see me about a week later, having thought more about her aborted attempt to introduce a new method of factoring into the Algebra 1 team’s teaching.

Sandra begins, “I thought a lot about your comment that my solution was searching for a problem and that my approach was putting the problem all on the shoulders of the students. It seems to me that our teachers are not fully taking responsibility for the factoring problem because they are not yet thinking about what they should do differently. If my idea didn’t happen to grab them, for some unknown reason, then they would forget about it as soon as they left the meeting. So, what do I do?”

The truth is, I don’t know how to solve the factoring problem. I probably can’t factor a polynomial myself. But my job is not to give Sandra the answer, even though that is the role into which most of us cast leaders. “You’re in charge, you fix it.” I can’t accept that role even if I were tempted to do so. I simply don’t know enough about high school math curriculum and instruction. Instead of taking on the responsibility of giving teachers “best practices,” I am better off remembering my aspiration to lead learning for lasting results. I need to think through how to help Sandra move from problem articulation though action planning, assisting her along the way.

“Sandra,” I ask, “do the Algebra 1 teachers think that factoring polynomials is a problem?” “There you go again,” she replies. “The problem is so obvious. We’ve got large proportions of students earning D’s and F’s and we complain in nearly every meeting that the students don’t know how to factor.” “Ok, let me put this differently,” I say. “Do the teachers on your team own the problem? Do they think they have a role in creating it?” “Oh, no way!” Sandra bursts out. “They think it goes back to middle school and the kids not learning basic operations, math concepts, and on and on. They can fill an entire 45-minute meeting pointing out what our students didn’t learn in middle school. In the last few minutes they will all agree that the Algebra 1 curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep, so they need to rush on and can’t deal with students’ learning gaps along the way.”

The puzzle for Sandra is to get her teachers to stop blaming circumstances outside of themselves and their classrooms for the factoring problem. The student context is real and must be considered, but progress will not be made until teachers look at what they do influence. Preaching won’t work. The teachers will not listen or, worse, they will stop attending team meetings. Here is where data become important. Osterman & Kottkamp (2004) write persuasively about how to use data to unpack teaching problems that no one wants to own. The collaborative processes involved make the work a little more complex than it may seem on the surface, but for now it is important to give Sandra an anchor for working with her teachers.

“I would like to suggest,” I say, “that you mine the data on factoring that you have from the past couple of years of Algebra 1 common assessments. If you find little or no growth in students’ ability to factor after they come to our high school, then it seems to me that puts your team on the road toward understanding the teaching problem.”

Sandra sits in silence for several moments, then replies soberly, “I think we have the information sitting around, but getting access to it and organizing it is a big job. I don’t know where I’ll find the time. I’m not the department chair so I don’t even have a released period.”

Now we come to a point of reckoning for me as principal. I’m brought face-to-face with the fact that I may be asking teachers to do something—analyze common assessment data for a specific learning problem—without having built the organizational and personal capacity for them to do so. I have a responsibility either to wrest some additional full-time equivalent (FTE) for my teacher corps from the central office or find it within my existing staffing formula to provide on-site data assistance if I want busy teachers to do this work. In the meantime, I’ll need to patch something together to help Sandra.

“Sandra, I understand your time dilemma and I want to help. If you trust the mathematics curriculum specialist from the central office, I’m going to ask the assistant superintendent for instruction to give us some of her time to help you mine the data. She knows how to use the district’s data warehouse and I think she could save you a lot of time. I don’t want her to give you answers. I just want her to give you data you and your team members can analyze, possibly with some additional help from the specialist.”

“That would be great,” Sandra replies, “but I see this taking a long time. Everyone has a busy schedule and meanwhile large numbers of kids continue to fail in this all-important gateway course.” “I understand the urgency, but it will take time to bring your teachers around to understanding the problem anyway and we know we won’t do any worse in the meantime. Let me rough out a timeline for working on this problem and you let me know if it makes sense. It’s now just past the middle of February. I think if we can get the specialist working with you in the next week or so, there is enough meeting time for you and your team to gain a deeper understanding of the problem and maybe some of the root causes by the end of the school year. I will pledge workshop money to you and your team to spend a couple of intensive weeks during the summer to create a strategy for strengthening teaching and learning of factoring by the beginning of the next school year. How does that sound to you?”

Sandra smiles. “You’re ever the optimist, David. I’m willing to give it a try. I think that one or two of my teachers will work with me on understanding the problem and we might pull in one or two more with the incentive of workshop pay. If you get me some help, I’ll take another run at this. I really think we can do better.”

As Sandra leaves, I pick up the phone to call the assistant superintendent for instruction. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping I can deliver.


Osterman, K., & Kottkamp, R. (2004). Reflective practice for educators: Professional development to improve student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Group Inertia: Where Promising Ideas Go to Die

Blogger’s note: When I started this blog last year I was worried about being able to keep it up. As you can see, my concerns were warranted. It has been nearly 10 months since my last post. My apologies to anyone who might have been waiting for the next one. I am committed to doing better.

Two people responded to my April 27, 2014 post (though they did so to me personally, rather than by leaving a comment) with essentially the same frustration. Having read my vignette from research they wanted to know what might have been done to make the learning experience more meaningful for teachers and more impactful on student learning. In response, I’ve decided to put on my principal’s hat for a few weeks. What I am about to say may seem simplistic to some, but it represents how I think about these kinds of problems from a principal’s perspective.

I’ll begin where the story left off with an imagined dialogue between the chair of the teacher collaborative team, who I’ll name Sandra, and myself. Let’s imagine that Sandra made an appointment to see me and walks into my office:

“David, I just don’t know about our effort to work with collaborative teams. I presented my Algebra 1 team with a great new way of factoring polynomials and they just sat there with no response. Only Mary, my special education co-teacher, and myself even tried to implement the idea. No one wanted to talk about. This is just so discouraging. It feels like such a waste of time.”

I respond, “Do you want to improve the situation or disband your Algebra 1 team?” “Of course I want to improve the situation,” Sandra replies, “I really believe in the power of collaboration to improve teaching and learning.” “I do, too,” I say. “As principal, I am striving to make this a powerful lever to improve student learning and overall school performance.”

Sandra, in her eagerness, short circuited the collaborative team process by presenting a solution to a problem about which no one had thought seriously. This is a common difficulty for energetic teachers (or anyone, for that matter) who want to make a difference and are convinced they have a good idea. Short on time and strong in their passion to implement ideas that have caught their imagination, teachers and administrators often fail as advocates for their pet ideas. The result can be resignation that change will never happen, or private trial and error in one or two classrooms. My challenge as principal would be to help Sandra see that she needs a different process to bring along teachers who presently are disengaged from her team. But I cannot simply tell her what to do. I need to help her discover a new path and I need to provide the time and resources she needs to follow it.

“Sandra,” I begin, “What is the problem your factoring method was intended to solve?” “What are you talking about? Of course the problem is that many Algebra 1 students cannot factor polynomials, preventing them from succeeding in this course and beyond.” “Ok, I understand, but that is only the student’s problem. What is the teaching problem?” “Oh, you mean pedagogy, I guess,” Sandra replies. “I hadn’t really figured that out. I just know the students cannot do it.”

Sandra has fallen into a trap that has been set by more than a decade of high-stakes, high publicity accountability. The way into the trap is a bit convoluted, but it starts with the disaggregation of student data. Knowing which clusters of students are not meeting standards is certainly helpful. Some districts, such as the one featured in the research discussed in the last post, insist that teachers understand and work on the achievement of individual students, another potentially positive step. But now the trap is set.

With a sharp focus on student achievement, teachers we have observed in our research tend to think and talk about students alone. They ask, “What does the student know and what is she/he able to do?” and “Why didn’t the students absorb what I taught?” Good questions, but the next one is equally important, and rarely asked. When teachers know that students are not succeeding on tasks such as factoring, an important question follows: “What could change in my teaching that would improve these students’ knowledge and skills so they can perform the task?” In fairness to Sandra, she tacitly asked that question and explicitly answered it with her new factoring strategy. So, why didn’t the other teachers go along?

No one joined Sandra in the new factoring method because they did not see or agree with the link between the problem and what Sandra proposed to solve it. Skeptical, or perhaps never even interested, they endured the meeting and dispersed to their classrooms, doing what they always do. Sandra’s new method requires effort and may actually fail, thus reducing motivation for anyone else to move away from their more comfortable routines in the absence of compelling reasons to do so.

I believe that what Sandra needs is a longer timeline and an inquiry-based approach to collaboration in order to address the complex teaching problem of factoring polynomials. She may benefit from a strategy I will begin to describe in my next post.

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The Challenge of Teacher Learning That Impacts Student Learning

Algebra 1 teachers gathered in the pre-dawn chill of a portable classroom. Their collaborative team meeting began with three present and three more trickling in hunched around their paper cups of hot coffee. The chair, operating from her written agenda and district protocols, directed discussion to student achievement data. Focused first on areas of persistent student failure, the debate quickly shifted from evidence of learning to airing opinions on the value of having students re-taking tests when their grades fall below a certain level. Bringing the group back to the agenda with about 20 minutes left in the 45-minute period allotted for collaborative team work, the chair energetically presented a new way of factoring polynomials. All were silent until she finished, with the exception of the chair’s special education co-teacher who expressed eagerness to try the method in her self-contained classroom. As the warning bell for first period rang, teachers gathered up papers, books, and coffee and bustled out of the room.

This kind of meeting, tucked away in the far corners of a jam-packed workday, seems typical of attempts to have teachers collaborate in a manner that improves teaching and learning. The meeting was largely focused on achievement, deficiencies were noted, and a solution was presented. I was present as non-participant observer conducting research on the operation and output of teacher collaborative teams. As I left the meeting and walked to my car, I wondered: Did learning happen? How would I know? How does it affect students? Principals and other leaders may want to ask and answer these questions to understand what teacher collaboration means in their schools. Creating a supportive context for teacher learning and connecting what is learned to classroom practices presents a vital challenge to instructional leadership.

Organizational design, deliberate or accidental, greatly influences whether or not teacher learning takes place. The high school in which I observed this collaborative team meeting was, in my view, better designed than most to support teacher learning, though it had some serious weaknesses. The design was deliberate and took place through specific management initiatives over time.

Research colleagues of mine and I use four critical areas of organizational design to analyze the potential for teacher learning: scope, formal structure, decision making process, and support (Bauer, 1998; Bauer, Brazer, Van Lare, & Smith, 2013; Shedd, 1987; Shedd & Bacharach, 1991). For this particular school, scope was clear. Collaborative teams were to focus on issues of student achievement, rather than departmental business. Formal structure was also obvious: teachers knew they were on the Algebra 1 team, meeting for 45 minutes every two weeks. The role of chair was never in doubt. Decision making protocols, in contrast, were not evident. Typical of other teams we observed, ideas such as the new factoring method were presented, but it was never clear if anyone was expected to use them or what would happen based on results. If the factoring method seemed to work well, would all teachers adopt it? No one knew. Most remarkable in this high school was the level of support. The long-serving principal adopted a collaborative team model several years before it was mandated by the district. Having developed a school-based data warehouse and analysis mechanism, the principal used his staffing formula to provide the faculty with a data expert and a pedagogical expert—one to help teachers with analysis and the other to assist with responding to what they learned. Time was a critical support factor that appeared to be in short supply.

What was the result in this apparently well-supported system of teacher collaboration? I caution the reader that what I am about to say is based on very few observations of the people on this particular team, but it is similar to what our research team found in nine other schools in this district. I received permission to observe the two teachers who said they would try the new factoring method in their classes and attended the entire class period on the days they scheduled it into their lesson. The special education teacher ran out of time in her self-contained classroom. The collaborative team chair who initiated the idea taught the new method to her students in the last ten minutes of the class period I observed. I was unable to determine if she returned to it in subsequent lessons, though she seemed motivated to do so.

Did teacher learning happen in the collaborative team? A little. Teachers discussed typical learning problems in Algebra 1 that often lead to a D and F rate among students of at least 30%. Learning was enhanced by the chair’s presentation of a new factoring method she had never tried but wanted to. She explained how the method works and how she envisioned introducing and working with it in her classroom. Horn (2010) calls presentation of learning problems (factoring, in this case) with examples replays and the articulation of possible teaching responses to the problem rehearsals. These are building blocks of teacher learning as they work in teams. (For more detail, see Van Lare & Brazer, 2013; Van Lare, Brazer, Bauer, & Smith, 2013.)

How does such teacher learning affect students in classrooms? In this case, marginally at best, and perhaps not at all. Only two teachers of the six present expressed any intent to try the new factoring method; only one of these two actually did so on the timeline projected to me. I was unable to learn the effects of these trials because the next two bi-weekly collaborative team meetings were cancelled for various reasons. When I finally returned to a second meeting, the focus of discussion was far away from factoring as new imperatives of the waning school year took precedence.

Managing a large school with dozens of collaborative teams is challenging for even the most gifted leaders. Merely setting up teams and hoping they will be productive rarely leads to meaningful change. The challenge for leaders is creating a climate of inquiry that supports and encourages all teachers to engage in learning that is action focused so that classroom improvements are more likely to be attempted and evaluated. Principals and their leadership teams must ensure that the designs of their schools motivate, enhance, and perhaps demand both inquiry and action. Risks of failure are substantial, but improvement is unlikely if action does not follow from inquiry.


Bauer, S.C. (1998). Designing site-based systems, deriving a theory of practice. International Journal of Educational Reform, 7(2), 108 – 21.

Bauer, S.C., Brazer, S.D., Van Lare, M.D., & Smith, R. (2013). Organizational design in support of professional learning communities in one district. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 49 – 80). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shedd, J. (1987). Involving teachers in school and district decision making. Ithaca, NY: Organizational Analysis and Practice.

Shedd, J., & Bacharach, S. (1991). Tangled hierarchies: Teachers as professionals and the management of schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Van Lare, M.D., & Brazer, S.D. (2013). Analyzing learning in professional learning communities: A conceptual framework. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 374 – 396.

Van Lare, M.D., Brazer, S.D., Bauer, S.C., & Smith, R. (2013). Professional learning communities using evidence. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 157 – 181). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Physics

Jordan had a remarkable gift. After 20 years of teaching high school science, he could orchestrate a class of 30 physics students working through a lab that required them to apply what they knew of trigonometry to problems of momentum, trajectory, and gravity. As students struggled to get a ball to roll off a ski jump-like ramp and land in a cup on the floor, they would pepper Jordan with questions that arose from the frustration of their ball landing anywhere but in the cup. With patience born of wisdom, Jordan would answer their questions with more questions, demanding that his students engage in inquiry to solve their own problems, rather than simply “do” a lab.


As an assistant principal preoccupied with discipline and attendance, I was Jordan’s evaluator. My teaching career consisted of teaching high school history and economics, with some brief inept attempts at middle school math and reading. When I emerged from graduate school, my pedagogical content knowledge was weak and narrow. What could I possibly offer to Jordan in the evaluation process? I stumbled upon borrowing from Jordan’s method with students to approach our evaluation discussions from an inquiry stance. “Why did you set up the lab that way? What worked well? What would you have done differently? Was trigonometry helpful, or did it get in the way?” Answering my questions, Jordan helped me write up my observations of his classrooms. But something more important happened, he guided my learning.


Querying veteran teachers assigned to me in the evaluation process, combined with efforts to leverage what I had learned in high school, college, and graduate school, I was able to broaden and deepen my pedagogical content knowledge in a variety of subjects. Enough of my study of the Second British Empire stuck to me to be able to discuss and learn about the World History curriculum. Years of playing in orchestras provided a foundation for assessing the quality of high school ensemble rehearsals. Diving into my shallow reservoir of math knowledge helped me to learn about the difficulties of teaching factoring and applying the quadratic formula. The expert teachers who educated me as we fulfilled our bureaucratic duty of teacher evaluation helped me to become conversant in a wide variety of content and prepared me to lead other teachers’ learning, though I didn’t know it at the time.


The recognition that principals are more effective when they lead instruction has become commonplace. How to lead instruction, however, is a matter of some debate. In many settings, what passes for instructional leadership is actually the monitoring of classroom practice and outcomes. For example, principals are exhorted to analyze data to help them to identify and address achievement gaps. They engage in walk-through visits to classrooms to learn whether and to what extent teachers are in sync with pacing guides and applying what the principal may have promoted as best practice for classroom teaching. What such behaviors represent may be instructional leadership, depending on their emphasis, but my suspicion is that data analysis, classroom walk-throughs, and other highly-touted leadership practices aren’t really leadership at all. They are management tools that focus on compliance in a belief that if teachers do what administrators ask, desired outcomes will follow.


The central problem with prescribing administrator behavior and teacher practice is that the prescriptions may be entirely wrong. Searching for how to improve instruction by looking at various kinds of test data may keep answering the question, “How are we doing?” over and over again, but it will not likely lead to answering the question, “Why do achievement gaps persist?” And if those gaps persist despite teachers’ best efforts to apply what they have been told are best practices, then demoralization follows. Improvement in student performance is not likely to occur as a result of the application of solutions when the nature of classroom problems and challenges is not deeply understood.


It makes sense for principals to engage teachers in learning about teaching and learning outcomes that are less than what was expected. I am not the first to come up with this idea as the current national infatuation with professional learning communities suggests. But how does a principal foster teacher learning? Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) argue persuasively that principals learning alongside teachers is one of the most powerful means of improving student achievement. Their meta-analysis does not explain how or why this particular mechanism works, but I have a few hunches.


When principals sit down with teachers to analyze persistent problems such as students’ inability to comprehend and retain non-fiction texts, weaknesses in basic operations that impede algebra achievement, or the ineffectiveness of interventions to improve special education students’ performance, they signal first and foremost that teaching and learning are of primary importance to the principal and to the school. And, the inquiry stance embedded in the act of learning alongside teachers strongly implies that there are no pat answers to the problems that vex teachers every day. Learning more about such problems may help teachers to find more effective solutions than those being handed to them from somewhere else. Learning processes are slow and much less certain than following prescriptions, therefore apparently more risky.


Prospective and practicing principals and assistant principals reading this will likely react the way my administrative team did each time we had to decide who would evaluate the calculus teacher: “I haven’t taken math since high school, so what can I offer in the discussion, and how could I possibly lead learning when I am so ignorant?” Any subject could be substituted in place of calculus. Many administrators, feeling some degree of helplessness, will move to the position that they understand pedagogy generally and can help that way. I believe that is not good enough. To lead teacher learning that improves student learning requires being sufficiently conversant in all the subjects taught to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with teachers, individually and in groups, about what should be taught and how it should be taught. Teachers should be acknowledged as experts and be celebrated for their expertise, but principals and AP’s need to know enough about a range of content and pedagogical needs to show their appreciation in meaningful ways and challenge teachers to greater effectiveness.


Stein and Nelson (2003) call for administrators to develop their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in specific areas in which they did not teach. While a step in the right direction, their prescription does not go far enough. Expanding prospective administrators’ curricular reach should begin in leadership preparation programs by having candidates broadening and deepening their PCK in at least a few areas. Administrators (preferably supported by district professional development) could embrace PCK development as an important aspect of their professional growth throughout their careers because no one can develop the required breadth of expertise all at once, prior to assuming an administrative role. In addition to what administrators are able to learn about curriculum and instruction on the job, they need consistent professional development to help them expand the subjects and levels in which they are conversant in order to lead learning school wide.


I am grateful to Jordan and many others who taught me a great deal. I wish I had known more about how to structure teacher learning and collaboration when I was a principal because I know that for me and for my school, it was hit-or-miss. The next post tackles the issue of managing to maximize teacher learning opportunities.

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The Boring Foundation of Leadership

Working as a new, young assistant principal, I found the department chairs up in arms about their “abatements.” “Where are our abatements?!?!” they would bellow regularly in springtime faculty meetings as budgets were running out. “What the heck is an abatement?” I wondered. Over time, I found out that our decentralized inventory system required department chairs to keep track of books, lab equipment, athletics uniforms, etc. As they collected the various items necessary for education at the end of the school year, there were students who inevitably had lost their book, balance, or jersey; thus, they had to pay the school bookkeeper, creating an abatement or credit to the departmental budget. Where did the money go between the student payment in spring and departmental budgets the following fall? No one seemed to know.

I learned later that the school was running deficits every year of tens of thousands of dollars on an annual books and supplies budget of about $160,000 (some years the English Department alone had $10,000 in lost books). Why was this allowed to continue? It all comes back to the abatements. The budget office for the district looked at the school’s allocation and how much was spent. Should there be a deficit, no matter. They simply looked at the school’s total bottom line. If it added to less than zero, then the cash receipts from the year made up the difference. (Departmental carryover money also filled the deficit, creating anger on another front.) This solved an accounting problem, but it was the source of department chairs’ frustration because they needed their abatements to replace unreturned books and other items. The budgets they received from the principal were never adequate to cover the previous year’s losses.

The abatement problem created an infection of irresponsibility. Without seeing the money back in their budgets, department chairs had little motivation to try to collect it in the first place. Furthermore, why bother to maintain a positive balance in your budget if carryovers simply disappeared and no one seemed to care about the school running a deficit?

Few things are duller to many prospective and practicing education leaders than budget planning and budget control. But when problems such as those I’ve described fester, they hamper leadership in three critical ways: 1) important teacher leaders—such as department chairs—are constantly annoyed and feel as though they cannot be effective in their jobs; 2) trust within the school is eroded when no one really understands why apparently irrational things happen; and 3) money as an important catalyst for change is never available. In these situations, tackling the tedious opens up possibilities for creative leadership.

When I moved into the prinicpalship of this same school a few years later I was determined to transform the department chairs group from a squabbling, discontented collection of respected teachers into a well-functioning collaborative team that could help me to guide the school toward continuous improvement. I started with the budget by inviting the chairs to build it with me—something they had never done before. We also made a compact that had the following critical components:

Principal Responsibilities Department Chair Responsibilities
Provide accurate monthly budget statements Screen budget requests from department members and avoid deficits
Prevent departments from over-spending by comparing records and requisitions Submit requisitions for all purchases, rather than going outside the system with telephone orders or personal payments
Centralize inventory control with a new barcode system, relieving department chairs of the inventory burden Work with faculty to make sure the centralized system is used for all students
Preserve carryovers within district guidelines and return all abatements to departments Avoid deficit spending

Within the first few months of the new school year, trust between department chairs and me regarding the budget was rock solid. Nearly all of them cooperated in the new budget system and were elated when abatements and carryovers showed up in their monthly statements. I was fortunate in three important ways. First, my secretary had bookkeeping education and experience. She designed the monthly spreadsheets in a manner that department chairs could easily understand. She never gave me a requisition to sign unless there were sufficient funds to pay for it. Second, my assistant principals were diligent and persistent in putting the book, equipment, and uniform inventory system together. Third, we had dedicated staff and parent volunteers who bar-coded more than 15,000 volumes and built the database for a computerized inventory and billing system—something brand new to schools in those days.

With budget management under control, I was able to have individual and collective conversations about how our resource allocation, limited though our budget was, could better support academic needs. With much greater certainty about how much he would have to spend, the Social Studies Department chair willingly gave up a few thousand dollars to be used elsewhere. With no more excuses about not knowing what she really had in her budget or where the abatements were going, the athletic director was forced to live within her (rather substantial) means. We funded desperately needed science equipment and supplies, greatly improved copier service, replaced 15 year-old math texts, and never ran a deficit.

Management was at the core of Ellwood P. Cubberley’s early 20th century conception of the professional principal and superintendent and remained for many decades the central focus of what we call education leadership today (Murphy, 1992; Tyack, 1974). As schools and society have become more complex with increased demands for higher graduation rates, more diversified programs, special education, and second language instruction—among countless changes and reforms—obsession with managerial tasks and efficient outcomes has persisted (Cuban, 1988). Although the 21st century has brought a new imperative that principals lead instruction (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2008; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004), good management is still highly valued (Grissom & Loeb, 2011). My discussion of the need to resolve a persistent budget deficit emphasizes the importance of sound management.

But good management alone is not sufficient for defining effective leadership for one must ask the kind of question that continually engages me: Management for what? What are we trying to accomplish by managing well? The answer for me lies in improving the quality of instruction for all students. When a school runs well—financially, socially, and structurally—then it becomes possible for the principal to lead teacher learning that fuels student and school improvement.

The next two posts will address the issue of teacher learning as a means to improving educational outcomes for all students by asking the following question: What is the principal’s role in fostering teacher learning and collaboration? The management challenges that underlie this kind of leadership will be explored in these and additional future posts.



Cuban, L. (1988). The managerial imperative and the practice of leadership in schools. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Grissom, J., & Loeb, S. (2011). Triangulating principal effectiveness: How perspectives of parents, teachers, and assistant principals identify the central importance of managerial skills. American Educational Research Journal, 20(10), 1–33.

Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2008). Linking leadership to student learning: The contributions of leadership efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 496–528.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.

Murphy, J. (1992). The landscape of leadership preparation: Reframing the education of school administrators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.