Leadership- Here’s a Secret

Okay, a catchy title! However, are there really any secrets to leadership and leading a school?  It is not an easy question to answer.  Is there one thing an educator can do to be more effective? Absolutely not. Is there one quality all effective leaders have? I think there is–belief in their ability to influence students’ achievement.


In education, the concept of belief is defined by a person’s sense of efficacy, a strong belief they can make a difference in the lives of students.  Ideally, an entire staff should have high personal efficacy. Why?  Because a collective belief in the abilities and possibilities existing for each student in their school can affect achievement, behavior, and students’ self-efficacy. Students learn better and achieve more when people believe in them. Unfortunately, the opposite is equally true.


Seven Ways to Increase Efficacy

Here are my top seven ways to increase your efficacy and to positively impact the efficacy of your staff:

Communicate:  A school leader cannot under communicate a positive belief in students or staff.  When you are around a staff member who is negative about students let them know in a professional way that it is not acceptable.  If you say nothing, you give the impression you agree. Invest time in communicating your beliefs and be visible.  Increased visibility can lead to improved relationships through active listening and communication.

Climate:  A supportive school climate sets the tone for people to be productive and positive about work.  Reflect on these questions:  How collaborative you are as a leader? How welcoming is your school to the public? Are you easy to reach as a principal? Or are there many layers a person needs to pass through to see you?  Climate, alone, does not make a school effective. However, there is no doubt that successful schools have a healthy, positive climate and culture.

Be Positive:  This is a choice that great leaders make.  In education, great leaders communicate a positive message about the capabilities of students and staff to reach their individual potential.

Safety:  Staff and students perform their best when they are not fearful of punishment or reprisal.  A trusting environment where staff and students feel safe is needed for innovation, creativity, and for people to do their best. A key aspect of efficacy is optimism, which translates into a school’s staff believing that they can positively impact students’ lives as well as their own and colleagues.

Hiring Staff:  Teachers need to know instructional strategies and content but learning will not happen if they do not believe in the ability of students or their ability to meet the challenges they will face. If you sense an applicant is not student-centered and does not believe that all students can learn and move forward, then don’t hire them.

Professional Development:  Excellent professional development gives teachers skills to be more effective.  Improve your school’s climate and build efficacy by involving staff in professional discussions of what kinds of staff development they need.  Staff appreciate being involved versus being told what to do. By doing this, you can avoid efficacy being challenged because a teacher does not have the best practice strategies needed to support students.

Create Goals:  Work with staff to create goals meaningful to them and based on data. Involving staff in goal creation is empowering and increases ownership of the goals. Resist the easy route of telling people what to do. Goals rarely work when they are delivered as marching orders.


If you have read my other blogs it is clear that I put a great deal on the shoulders of the school leader.  The principal sets the tone models the culture and communicates the story through his or her words.  You will never find an effective school led by a person who does not believe in students.  But, the leader alone will not make an effective school.  Effective school leaders also hire and retain staff who collectively believe they can make a difference in the learning and lives of students.


What the principal tolerates defines leadership.
The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook

The Writing Teacher – Test Prep or Real Writing


We all want our students to love writing and write well. We all want our students to pass our state’s writing test. These two goals create a great tension, and too often, test prep wins out. And so, students write from prompts most of the year. I can’t say this enough: Writing to prompts does not develop writers!

Yes, I want students to become test-wise by experiencing writing to a prompt. If we simulate state test conditions over two days every six weeks, students will gain enough practice. However, to make these simulations benefit students, make a list of areas that need mini-lessons and additional student practice. It could be learning to write a compelling lead or introduction, paragraphing, varying sentence openings, using strong verbs, or specific nouns, etc.

When students apply craft and writing conventions to topics and genres they select, they can grow as writers. Choice leads to students selecting a topic they care about and love. The result is that students are more willing to work hard at improving their writing by investing the time it takes. So, here’s a key point to remember:

Teach students to write well, revise, and edit, and they will pass the test.

Each year that we buy into the pressures of test-prep-writing, we lose multiple opportunities to teach students the craft and art of writing. The caveat is that for teachers to teach writing, they need to do four things:

  1. Write, Write, Write. This can be objective observations about students,  letters to friends and family, a blog, a diary, or journaling about a trip. The point is that by writing, we raise our awareness of the process, and that understanding enables us to support student writers.
  2. Read professional books and articles on the writing process. Learn what published writers have to say about teaching writing. The more you learn, the better you’ll be able to support your students.
  3. Read children’s literature so you can develop a bank of mentor texts. Find mentor texts that students can study to deepen their knowledge of genres, leads, endings, uses of dialogue, or how writers handle shifts in time, etc.
  4. Organize instruction into a workshop and set aside 45-minutes of writing time at least four, preferably five times a week.

Present mini-lessons on writing craft, conventions, and genres. Keep them short and interactive. Keep the workshop authentic by offering students choices.  Unlike test-prep writing, students will be at different points in the process. To bring closure to any stage—talking about ideas, brainstorming ideas, planning, drafting—negotiate a deadline date with students.

Professional articles and books will guide your planning of mini-lessons and offer suggestions on modeling and thinking aloud to show students what writers do. Pair-up with a colleague and support each other, observe each other, and you will find that your students will crave more writing time. Most important, allow yourself to make mistakes knowing you can learn from these and give yourself the gift of time as you traverse new paths!

You can learn more about the writing process and teaching writing from Laura Robb’s Heinemann books: Teaching Middle School Writers and Smart Writing: Practical units for Teaching Middle School Writers.

Leadership: Building a Positive School Community

Creating and maintaining a positive climate can be challenging.  A  positive school climate makes work more enjoyable for staff and can improve learning!  I have always felt I can sense School climate the moment I walk up to a door. Do signs say visitors must report to the main office or do they say please report to the main office?  How is a visitor treated by office staff when entering the main office?  Is student work posted for students, staff, and parents to see? These are just a few of many ways to gauge school climate.  I propose, if the climate and culture are good, much can be credited to the leadership and modeling of the school leaders,. If on the other hand, the climate is poor, this also can be a result of less than purposeful school leadership.

Remember, what you do communicates what you believe. Your actions can make a difference! So, how do you make an impact on the climate and culture of your school?  Here are my top five ways.

  1. Be visible:   It is easy to feel tied down to a computer.  Administrative jobs have a lot of paperwork to complete and reports to write.  My goal as I move towards the end of one school year and towards a new school year is to be even more visible.  Take time to greet students when they come to school in morning, visit classrooms, the cafeteria, bus duty, and school events.  Students, staff, and families want to meet the principal, but for this to happen, the principal needs to make it a priority.
  2. Take a lunch break: Have lunch with students because it’s a great way to get to know and connect with them.  In my school, we have special lunches at the start of the year for new students.  Students connect over a  meal and can meet teachers and me.  Kids across the world love lunch time.  Lunch is an opportunity to talk with friends and relax.  It is also a great time for the principal and staff to connect with students.
  3. Talk with Staff:  In a world where people can always be off to the next important issue, it is easy to forget the benefits of small chat.  As a school leader, you need to know your staff and students, conversation has always been a great way to achieve this goal.  Conversation allows you to communicate what you believe and build relationships with students, staff, and families.
  4. Tell your School’s Story: Eric Sheninger, in his excellent book, “BrandED” notes the principal needs be the storyteller and chief for their school.  Eric also reminds us that we need to tell our story or someone else will.  Using social media allows a school to communicate information quickly to students, parents, and your community.  Facebook, video, Twitter, and Instagram are free, allowing you and your staff to inform and celebrate all that occurs in your school.  Communicating and informing in a positive way impacts how people view your school, which impacts climate and culture!
  5. Model the Standard:  As the leader of the school your actions and words communicate what is acceptable.  If staff see you yelling at kids, you give them permission to do the same.  If you’re a sloppy dresser, you give permission. If you are anti-technology, you give permission.  If you have low expectations for students, you give permission. If you communicate a fixed mindset, you give permission.  Set the tone in your school! Your words and actions communicate your leadership and what you believe.  Strive for congruence between what you say and what you do! Be an advocate and champion for learning, growth, and excellence! Most importantly, model and communicate your high expectations relentlessly.

Great school environments were not created overnight and negative environments cannot be fixed immediately. Both types of cultures are perpetuated by the principal.  The principal has the ability to shift, shape, and create a positive school climate and culture.  Lead with purpose and passion and create a school culture great for students and staff.  As a principal, you will spend many hours in your school.Make it a goal to spend time all members of your school community and realize you have the ability to make the culture and climate better.
Check out my book The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook


Enjoy this great blog from guest author, the amazing Dr. Mary Howard! Also, check out all the great articles and information at Valinda Kimmel- Collaborate. Innovate. Create.

On December 26, 2016, Val Kimmel wrote a remarkable post titled: Response to Intervention: We Know the Models, But where’s the Magic? Val’s question has lingered in my mind for days because it reflects the deep-rooted fear I’ve been unable to shake since RTI became widespread in 2004. Like Val, I worry:

What I worry about is that in the process of intervening for readers, we extinguish or at the very least, postpone the absolute sheer delight that comes with reading great texts.


Since “literacy consultant” is THAT THING I DO, I’d like to reflect on my hopes and dreams for RTI. I still believe that tremendous potential could reside in the RTI framework. Yet the concerns I described in 2009 in my book, RTI from All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know, continue to plague us and thwart our efforts to create a model worthy of our children.

As I travel across the country, I find the words ‘teaching with heart’ have become inseparably intertwined in my discussions about RTI. I’ve watched as our HEART has dissipated from view in too many schools and I know we will only achieve the RTI promise if we can reawaken our HEART with a model we can all be proud of.

So in that spirit, I suggest five ‘heart goals” that could breathe new life into RTI. (WARNING: I’m going to be blatantly honest so proceed at your own risk)

Classrooms with HEART

Heart begins from the moment we open our doors until we close them at the end of the day and is elevated by all we do in between. We have a professional responsibility to model by our every action that we are richer because we’re blessed to have each child in our presence. We greet them with gratitude when they enter our room, send them on their way with a smile, and commit to being present in every learning moment in the middle. HEART will never exist at a teacher’s table where paperwork is deemed more important than actively engaging in “kidwatching”, dialogue and support. We have unlimited opportunities to offer words of support and encouragement in brief interactions that lead to monumental possibilities. HEART happens when we treat children with the same respect we ask of them because respect is two-way street. We strive to make every child feel that they are the most important person in the room because they are! Never lose sight that we may be the only place a child is celebrated. That thought alone should inspire us to celebrate from the HEART.

Practices with HEART

Everything in the RTI structure pales in comparison to our first line of defense – the classroom teacher of tier 1. I am convinced that we will only bring our HEART to RTI if we focus first on the bulk of the day because 30 minutes can never make up for what happens the other five hours of the day. Time is a precious gift and we shut down our HEART each time we waste even one minute. In our misguided RTI enthusiasm, the most critical features of teaching with HEART occur in tier 1 but are sadly the first to go. Some things must be carved into instructional stone with a place of honor in the daily schedule where nothing can stand in the way. Daily HEART MUSTS include read-aloud, independent reading, and one-to-one conferring. I’m not talking about basalized anthology read-aloud accompanied by scripted low level questions, independent reading that denies children of books that could make their hearts sing simply because it does not fit our identified ‘label’ or reducing reading to computer screens riddled with heartless questions and activities. I’m talking about daily access to exquisite books with choice and conversations that revolve around those books. We can never be so busy that we ignore the spirit of RTI with HEART.

Interventions with HEART

We are really missing this RTI HEART and in the process breaking the very hearts of children who can least afford it. If our interventions reflect one-size-fits-all small groups with another teacher who has no vested interest for or knowledge about that child (also known as the ultimate heartless bluebirds and redbirds ‘walk to intervention model’) – we have failed. If our interventions are more akin to barking at print or laboring through too hard or boring books children care nothing about – we have failed. If our interventions insult children with stacks of time-wasting fill-in-the-blank sheets, coloring for the sake of coloring or a myriad of trivial activities – we have failed. I can’t think of a better way to suck the very life from RTI than joyless interventions with joyless books in joyless conversations within joyless teaching. Interventions with HEART are the polar opposite, rising from thoughtfully responsive experiences with books that inspire engaging conversations enriched by teachers who let their HEART lead the way

Data with HEART

I’m not even sure where to begin with what has the greatest potential to kill our RTI HEART than the heartless ways I see data used. Of course data is a crucial aspect of any high quality instructional approach and central to our interventions. But the minute we reduce children to spreadsheets, we lose the child in a heartless process. Too many children end up in interventions who do not belong there or are subjected to heartless interventions because we allow data to blind us to the child in front of us. Until we stop talking about children as numbers and start talking about them as learners based on our knowledge of those children with daily formative data at the center, RTI is forever doomed. Nothing will ever replace HEART DATA that comes from teachers who are present in the learning moments that inform our efforts to ensure accelerated progress that moves children from where they are to where they need to be. Teachers who use data with HEART know that a number devoid of a child is empty at best. We must stop using numbers to define children and start using the child’s name and our knowledge of that child based on real life learning day-to-day experiences.

Schools with HEART

I have been very vocal in my belief that no human should be allowed to spend one penny on any program, initiative, approach or assessment unless that person has a strong background in literacy and knowledge of the children those things can impact for better or worse (and only following in-depth schoolwide conversations about how it will benefit children). Schools don’t need more scripts and yet programs are at an all time high. What we do need is more professional decision-making and I happen to know that teachers are hungry for knowledge that leads to powerful decisions that take place in the learning day. Until ongoing professional learning with HEART is a priority, we will continue to spit into the RTI wind and little we do is ever likely to matter. WHAT (things) have become far too important in our schools at a time when it is our WHY (beliefs) and HOW (practices guided by those beliefs) that matter. What we buy are only ‘things’ until a knowledgeable teacher breathes life into them in the best interest of children. HEART comes from professional responsibility to children, not compliance. Fidelity to programs without fidelity to children will forever keep our RTI HEART in a dormant state.


I’d like to close by emphasizing that teaching with HEART is the professional responsibility of every educator and nothing – not RTI, Common Core or anything else most surely lurking around the next corner – should ever be allowed to silence our instructional HEARTBEAT. Heartless teaching will mar every effort to meet the promise of RTI and disrespect the unlucky recipients of those models. Our children are the markers upon which we measure HEART and that happens only when we can honestly say that children leave a learning experience better than they were when that experience began. HEART is measured by the level of instructional JOY we are each willing to bring to the learning table. How can we ask children to bring their HEART to the experience if we can’t bring ours?

So let’s reawaken our RTI HEART in 2017. Our children are depending on us!


–Dr. Mary Howard