Tough Conversations


Tough conversations


A teacher who has known me for many years, knows that I appreciate my job because of the energy I receive every day from teachers and students. Yes, Sunday night is not always easy on the soul but once I’m in the building on Monday morning, all is well. I avoid my office as much as possible during school time and work the job in classrooms and hallways. 

It doesn’t hurt my allegiance to the job that many members of our staff have been together for years and those that have been recently hired have melded in nicely with the family. Truly, it is all about relationships. 

Yet, in our job as building administrators, there are times when we can’t avoid the tough conversations. Good people make mistakes. Conflict can happen when perspective and personalities collide. That’s the time the Principal needs to step in and take the conflict head on. Rick Dufour has stated that Principals should confront those individuals who are not committed to the values of their team or professional learning community:

They are willing to use their authority to break down the walls of educator isolation and create new norms of collaboration and collective responsibility for student learning.

But when you’re in the midst of the conflict with people you care about, having tough conversations is one of the hardest parts of the job. I have not always done it well, but here are some things I’ve learned:

1. Eat the frog

Productivity expert Brian Tracy says that we should tackle our most difficult and important task first thing every morning. The concept is that if we can “eat the frog”, everything else will seem easy. Don’t wait for the day to go by. Procrastinating may result in your “deciding” not to tackle the issue at all. And, the conflict may fester if you wait too long to intervene. 

2. Prepare for results

I prepare bullet points for every tough conversation I have in person or on the phone. There is a natural tendency to lighten the exchange with your colleague so if you don’t plan for the result you want, you simply won’t get there.

3. Lead with the punchline 

The tendency is to begin a difficult chat with small talk to lighten the load. Writing in the Harvard Business ReviewPeter Bregman suggests that leading with the tough news will ensure that the recipient will hear the constructive criticism with clarity. 

4. Listen as much as you can

If you want the colleague to change a habit or behavior and be personally reflective, they need to know that you care about their improvement. Validate whatever response they may have…if it’s valid of course. But listen either way. 

5. Take good notes. 

A tough conversation might take unexpected twists and turns. Be sure that the meeting is documented accurately.

6. Follow up (both right after and set date for next meeting)

Long term success is based on at least a second follow-up meeting to reinforce your message. Set a date for that meeting before the first meeting is complete.  

7. Assume good intentions

Most people want to do well at their job and truly care about professionalism. Let good intentions be the default unless you know otherwise.


There is great satisfaction in caring boldness and seeing progress as the result of these tough conversations. 

An Attitude of Gratitude



Thanksgiving may be the best American holiday as there’s so little baggage attached to the celebration. It’s free from religious or political dispute and we don’t have to worry about emptying our bank account for gifts. 

Thanksgiving is also a time to be together. According to trade organization Airlines for America, around 25 million Americans will be flying the friendly skies in the period from November 21 to December 2, 2014, an increase of 1.5 percent from last year. Thanksgiving allows us the opportunity to mend broken relationships and settle age old disputes between friends and families. 

At some point in the midst of the travel, the cooking, and the football, we will get around to thinking about what we are thankful for. Many of us are thankful for our relative wealth compared to our neighbors across the globe. Forbes Magazine reports that “the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants.” Yet, we know many neighbors who are struggling this time of year – it would be good to devote some of our time planning how we can support those families.

Yet, perhaps the best gift of Thanksgiving is that it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our personal attitude of gratitude. While we reserve the New Year for unique resolutions on individual improvement, let’s retain the Thanksgiving holiday as a time to build thankful habits that will last long after the last turkey legs are polished off. Growing that positive mindset, no matter our circumstances, is a gift that not only feeds our own soul, but impacts everyone we touch. 

I continue to be thankful to work in my community and to have given service for thirty years to a profession that is more of a ministry than a job. Happy Thanksgiving all. 

Wisdom From a D.C. Cab Driver


I’m writing this post at Reagan International Airport, after working with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in D.C. for the last three days as part of the Principal’s Standing Committee. My 15 minute cab ride from my hotel to the airport was with a driver named Mekonnen. The cab had two small American flags with stems placed carefully in the heat vents on his dashboard and our driver was eager to oblige my desire to chat.

Mekonnen grew up in a small country in Eastern Africa named Eritrea, just north of Ethiopia.  He came over to America a few years ago with his wife, also from Eritrea, and they are planning on becoming naturalized next year. The couple just had their first child and they reside in Baltimore, about an hour from Washington. It’s much cheaper to live in Baltimore, he explained, as his apartment there is only $800 a month. 



While I’m sure he misses his homeland, Mekonnen has great respect and affection for the United States. He sees significant opportunity for his family in the US and has experienced nothing but friendly and accommodating Americans. Mekonnen’s cab driving supports his wife’s schooling and as a result, she will be a nurse within the year. He explains that back in Eritrea, many citizens vehemently criticize the US, buoyed by US official pronouncements over the last few years that this African country harbors terrorists, which is likely true. Mekonnen admitted that the main post-secondary pursuit for most young men after high school is to “learn how to fight”. His experiences in America don’t at all match the impressions he grew up with.

As we departed, I had less cash then I thought and in addition to the fare paid on a credit card, all I had was a dollar to give him. He took it willingly and I hoped my best wishes for his family counted for something. Mekonnen cheerfully smiled and the thought occurred to me that he is likely more thankful for his life then many of us are. As he said to me, “when people ask if I want to go back to my homeland, I tell them that I’m already home.”

While I always learn a great deal from my work in D.C., I may have learned more today from a 15 minute cab ride.

How are New Hampshire Schools Utilizing School Wide Assessment?


 We can’t forget that assessment is all about our students.  

This year marks 30 seasons of my working in the education business. I could write 30 blog posts on what has changed in those three decades, but there is no doubt that assessment was viewed very differently when I began teaching in elementary/middle school in 1984.

We rarely thought of assessment as formative – as a tool to drive our instruction. Instead, summative quizzes or tests were given when we deemed it “time”. If a student didn’t do well on an assessment, the fault usually rested with the child, not the teacher.

The variety of assessments was sparse. Most schools gave a large standardized test such as the California Achievement Test, the Iowas, or perhaps the Stanford, but the test results took months to come in and even when they did, they were too old to be relevant. We often used these outcomes to determine Title 1 or Gifted and Talented eligibility, even if the results were four months old.

Now we have computer adaptive tests, (e.g. STAR, NWEA), many diagnostic tools (e.g. AIMSweb DIBELS), and literacy benchmark assessments (e.g. DRA, Fountas and Pinnell) that allow the teacher the advantage of standardization as well as one-on-one contact with a student.

Of course, when I began, there were no high stakes tests – no state assessments such as NHEIAP, NECAP, or Smarter Balanced.

I was reflecting recently on what how my fellow New Hampshire schools are implementing for school-wide assessment so I devised a Google Form survey, sent it out on our Principal’s Listserv and received responses from school leaders in 26 New Hampshire schools. Yesterday I sent the results to the same Listserv. While hardly scientific, there are some interesting results:

  • A full quarter of schools surveyed are not using Curriculum Based Measures (CBMs) for reading or mathematics. Of schools that are utilizing CBMs, AIMSweb and DIBELS are the clear winners.
  • About 1/5 of schools surveyed do not administer a benchmark assessment for literacy, but for those that do, the DRA and Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System are the clear winners – and are tied for percentage of use.
  • Nearly all schools have bought into the Computer Adaptive Assessment bandwagon with NWEA leading STAR 4 to 1.
  • Schools are primarily utilizing home grown assessments for writing, although three are aligning themselves with Lucy Calkins’ approach.
  • The amount of school wide assessments given varies widely with nearly two-thirds administering three or less and a third giving four or five assessments.
 Are you surprised by the results? 


The Next Generation of Educators


 Three intuitive educational leaders facilitating the popular live Twitter chat #satchat from ASCD’s Leader to Leader Conference

I finally realized something this weekend. I am not remotely part of the “next generation” of educators who are going to change the world and usher in a new renaissance of learning. Their vision is based on a creative approach to curriculum and instruction, embracing new technologies and a data driven (but not too data driven) approach to assessment. At 53 years of age, I still have plenty of ingenuity and resourcefulness left in me, but the 30-somethings I hung around with the last few days are truly impressive. 

As I type this, I am sitting in the Reagan National Airport reflecting a bit on the latest ASCD Leader to Leader Conference (#ascdL2L) that began Thursday and finished this afternoon. By far the most illuminating part of the three days was my interaction with the participants. 

If every teacher and administrator in America was in the same league as those I collaborated with at L2L, we would easily rank #1 on international measures such as the PISA  and the TIMSS and we would barely need the NAEP to measure our nation’s school effectiveness. These young educators have passion, they understand the power of new technologies, and they are brave enough to create adventures and see them through. They also have the confidence to admit mistakes and the drive to continue with their vision. 

What is different about their insight and talent than what we see in most schools in this country?

  • They understand that specific knowledge is not as important as what is accomplished with that knowledge. The conversations we had were about process and creation, not memorization and facts. They know intuitively that the days of the sage educator as the only purveyor of knowledge died with the advent of the Internet and Web 2.0. 
  • They are young enough to realize what it was like to be a new educator and they know what we need to retain and grow excellent teachers. They have passion and joy.
  • They are instinctively collaborative, whether they are shy or brash, introvert or extrovert. They would rather work together to solve a problem than design an elaborate plan alone on their laptop. They don’t have to be in the same room to collaborate either. They can use a Google Hangout, Voxer, or Skype to keep the flow of ideas going.
  • They are wicked smart, plain and simple. They have enough smarts to be surgeons, top litigators, or successful entrepreneurs. They picked education as their life’s work because they chose the thrill of changing the world for kids instead of working for financial security. 

Brad and bill

A selfie moment with creative educator (and co-founder of #satchat) Brad Currie (left).  

Yes, there were naive moments when the thirty somethings, even some with Ph.D.s, needed (and I hope heeded) the advice of “seasoned” veterans. But that only reminded me of the best teams (the Red Sox last year in fact), who win because of the amalgamation of the vets at the top of their game with the youthful players who bring a spark to every contest. 

I am optimistic that my generation can partner with this new batch of educators to radically improve education as we head into this new era of flipped classrooms, the Common Core, the information revolution, and the transformation of our world economies. My worry is that since it’s my generation that is still largely in charge of our nation’s schools, are we ready to accept the wisdom of those a generation younger? We may have the leadership common sense but we need to capture the fire of those who are nipping at our heels to grab a piece of influence. We have to let them in as leaders and partners. 

Don’t Underestimate the Quiets

This past year I’ve engaged in frequent conversations with colleagues around the social continuum of extraversion-introversion and how it relates to our staff. Lately, I find myself apologizing for ignoring the needs of introverts in my life, especially teachers who may be overwhelmed by my extraversion. How many times have I barged into a teacher’s classroom at 7:30 in the morning wanting to banter about  the success of the Red Sox the previous night? Or perhaps I suddenly wanted to discuss some pedagogical issue without realizing that this introverted teacher just wants some peace and quiet in order to get ready for the day.

Three things I have learned about introversion which has helped me tremendously:

  • Introverts are not shy. They often just need an environment that is not too stimulating in order to be productive and happy.
  • Introverts receive energy more from within themselves then from outside sources such as this meddling but well intentioned Principal. 
  • A colleague told me recently that I like my job so much because I draw energy from other people – and clearly a school building full of hundreds of people has a copious amount of energy to give. But this is not true for all.

Every week I share both a professional article and a video as part of my blog to staff I call “The Sunday Blast”. The most popular video I’ve shared with my colleagues has been Susan Cain’s TED Talk on “The Power of Introverts” based on her best-selling book Quiet. Please take the time to view:

I’m convinced that an organization benefits from having both introverts and extraverts as part of its structure, especially in a collaborative environment where professional learning communities drive much of the decision making around students and the function of the school itself. I’ve been influenced greatly regarding this continuum by my friend, workshop-mate and self-proclaimed introvert Tony Baldasaro who has written about this topic in an article in Edutopia

As we reflect on the social factors inherent in our schools, we must be aware of the “Quiets” and the power they can bring to a staff. Most importantly, as I have learned, we must simply be aware that “Quiets” exist and their style needs to be honored and appreciated.

Is there a “Quiet” in your life that is misunderstood? Make it a goal to reach out to this colleague appropriately when school gets rolling again. 

9 Books for a Principal’s Summer Reading



Summer is a time for reflection for the Principal. Yes, we work throughout the hot months, but the job during July and the first half of August is closer to 40 hours a week, not 70 or 75, and evenings are mostly ours. I have to use this time to catch up on professional reading. Partly for your reading pleasure and more for my own accountability, here’s what on tap for summer 2014:

Improbable Scholars by David Kirp.

This is a story of a school district in New Jersey that over time has done surprisingly well. We’ve heard this story before.  A poor district beating the odds and a researcher-writer (Kirp) coming in to document their success. Reviews are mixed on the book but it was highly recommended by NH Superintendents.

Five Levers to Improve Learning by Tony Frontier and James Rickabaugh

So many of us have been working hard for decades to improve schools and yet, data has shown little systemic growth nation-wide. The authors hope that the the simple adage that we need to work smarter not harder holds true. 

How Teachers Can Turn Data into Action by Daniel R. Venables

The author is a veteran of not just the data wars but also professional learning communities. Venables gives solid advice for teachers on dealing with a life awash with data.

Switch: How To Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath

The Heath brothers explore the conflict in our minds between our rational and emotional minds. I started this book when it debuted but never finished it. It is a good companion to David Pink’s work.

The Handbook for Smart School Teams: Revitalizing Best Practices for Collaboration by Anne E. Conzemius and Jan O’Neill

This book riffs off the “SMART” acronym for data driven decision making. It is more of a handbook than a front to back read. 

RTI In the Early Grades by Chris Weber

Chris is a former Principal who understands elementary schools and Response to Intervention or (Instruction as we say in New Hampshire). He’s also part of the Dufour/Solution Tree/PLC cadre. 

Catching Up or Leading the Way by Yong Zhao

While slightly dated (2009) Zhao lays out his perspective that we may be emphasizing standards and standardized tests more than the skills we need to stay competitive in a changing world. Zhao is one of our field’s best thinkers and NHASCD is bringing him in to Concord, NH on April 3, 2015.

Digital Leadership by Eric Sheninger

Eric is everyone’s favorite digital Principal and no one is better known in this area.  Eric is also fortunate to have Yong Zhao compose the forward.

Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman

Calkins has been the most influential educator in the area of literacy, certainly in the Big Apple and perhaps throughout the country. This book was selected as last year’s #1 educational book on the New York Times Best Seller List. 

If you read any of these, would you please comment here or throw me an email? I’ll refer and review some of these titles in the Fall. I hope you’ll use the next two months to reflect and write about your learning. Read on.