Posts Tagged 'school leadership'

What Mother Teresa can teach school leaders

Dennis Sparks Knowing my interest in leadership, a friend gave me Mother Teresa, CEO, whose authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, extract eight principles from Mother Teresa’s work:

1. Dream it simple, say it strong.

“Mother Teresa is one of those humans who had a simple dream that profoundly changed our world. Her dream was helping the poorest of the poor. She began with that vision, then developed a clear plan for making it come true. Everything Mother Theresa did in her life stemmed from defining her vision and aligning and rallying all of her resources and supporters to her goal….

“‘Saying it strong speaks to the constant need for a leader to consistently speak with passion and conviction about her vision for her organization. She also must act in ways aligned with that vision.”

2. To get to the angels, deal with the devil.

“Leaders need to know where to draw their lines. Sometimes you have to compromise. You need to have the courage to decide which compromises are acceptable and which are not. You will not always make the right choices and you will get criticized for them. Mother Teresa was criticized about many of her choices. Her response was to stand by her beliefs and focus on getting her job done.” 

3. Wait! Then pick your moment. 

 “A balance between action and reflection is critical to keep focused during the emotional ups and downs of leadership. When reflecting, ask yourself if you’re moving toward your vision, laying the groundwork to ensure you are ready once the time is right.” 

4. Embrace the power of doubt.

“Doubt isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith. Obstacles are a daily part of life. You can have faith that something good is going to happen, but doubt how you were ever going to get there. When we embark on journeys into the unknown, it is important to acknowledge and process our feelings of doubt. Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your beliefs and free you from that fear.”

 5. Discover the joy of discipline.

“In leadership, as in life, discipline is about doing…. Discipline is about the long-term benefit. There is no shortcut or miracle pill. It takes effort and willpower to succeed at business and in life. Procrastination is the enemy of discipline. Mother Teresa believed that if you took care of your small responsibilities, life would reward you with bigger responsibilities.”

6. Communicate in a language people understand.

 “Many people approach communication as a matter of consistency, clarity, and presentation style.… Mother Teresa took the opposite approach. To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking.… She used this information to adapt her language, naturally but intentionally, to that of other people, while paying close attention to their responses. Did they understand what she was really saying? Were they open to her words and intentions? Did she need to stop and listen some more?”

7. Pay attention to the janitor.

 “One reason Mother Teresa touched people so deeply was that she made them feel heard and valued. She understood that at the most basic level, we all want to feel valued in what we do, whether by our families, our friends, or our colleagues….

“How do you make people feel valued? Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names.” 

8. Use the power of silence.

“For a leader, applying the power of silence means clearing your mind and listening to your inner voice. Silence of the mind – stopping your mind – is critical.…

“To silence your mind, begin by eliminating all distractions. If you are in your office, close the door and turn off all devices that would be distracting, such as your cell phone.… 

“If you take time to silence your mind regularly, your mind will find the answers you need for every aspect of your life.”

“You don’t have to be a saint to benefit from Mother Teresa’s leadership principles…,” Bose and Faust conclude. “Start today by picking one principle that resonates with you. Implement it and begin to change how you lead your life or your organization. It will make a difference.”

Which of these principles most resonates with you? 


5 essential skills for every leader…

Dennis Sparks

I have seen leaders rise or fall based on the presence or absence of one or more of the following skills:

1. The ability to discern and paraphrase the assumptions, values, and points of view of others with sufficient skill that those with whom they interact would report that their leaders accurately understand their perspectives.

2. The ability to effectively manage one’s feelings and to discern and respond appropriately to the feelings of others.

3. The ability to manage one’s responsibilities efficiently and with integrity, which includes but is not limited to email and social media, short and long-term planning, and task and project management.

4. The ability to effectively delegate meaningful responsibilities to others in the school community without micromanagement by providing appropriate support and skill development to ensure success.

5. The ability to facilitate meetings (or when appropriate delegate their facilitation) that achieve their stated purposes and are satisfying to participants.

Do you agree that these are essential skills? What skills have I missed?

“Every encounter matters”: An interview with Chris Kennedy

Dennis Sparks

When I am asked to name a school system leader who is an exemplar in the use of blogging and Twitter to further educational purposes, Chris Kennedy is the first person that comes to mind.

Chris is superintendent of schools in the West Vancouver School District in British Columbia. Chris’  blog, the “Culture of Yes” and tweets (@chrkennedy) are a model of of how school leaders can use social/learning media to teach, encourage, celebrate, and link educators within and beyond West Vancouver. As a result, Chris’ influence is felt not only in British Columbia but throughout North America and around the world.

So I was particularly eager to see Chris’ responses to these questions.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity.  They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control.  This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students – how will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves.  They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often get distracted.  That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller.  I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, and the community.

Sometimes teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger.  As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.


Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Dennis Sparks

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views.

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny. . . . Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify. . . . Always think before speaking. . . . With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.”

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures.

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.

“Pursue what you most love about your job with vigor and passion”: An interview with Justin Baeder


Dennis SparksI admire Justin Baeder’s blog, Eduleadership, because he is equally at ease clarifying abstract organizational-system issues as he is offering practical strategies for addressing the day-to-day challenges of managing one’s work and life. I also admire Justin’s blog because he reveals his thinking through consistently clear and accessible language.

Justin, who is director of The Principal Center, was for 10 years a principal and teacher in Seattle, Washington. He is now a full-time consultant focusing on high-performance instructional leadership.

For all those reasons I was eager to interview Justin.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from doing it, observing it, or studying it?

Justin: It’s taken me a while to realize this, but I think the most important function of school leaders is to build the capacity of their organizations. I see so many leaders trying to bring about change for change’s sake, or because they have a particular issue that they’re passionate about.

You can use your positional power to change people’s behavior, but if you want to build lasting change in a school, the real work is investing in capacity-building. As leaders, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re asking people to change because it will truly enhance their practice as professionals, or simply so we can say we’ve implemented the change.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Justin: When you’re starting out as a leader, it’s important to be willing to do anything that needs to be done…once. If you’re doing something more than once, it’s critical to take a system-building perspective, because you don’t have time to make the same decisions over and over again.

We all understand the importance of school policies—policies for other people to follow—but even more important are the policies we put in place for ourselves, to help us treat people consistently and avoid redoing the mental work of making decisions.

This is the key difference between new and experienced administrators—those with experience know their personal policies and follow them. If you start out viewing every decision as a precedent for future decisions, you’ll actually gain experience faster than if you wait for these policies to settle into your practice by default

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?

Justin: Let’s face it: this is tough work. Leading schools is demanding and often stressful. I think the people who thrive are those who find what they love most about the job, and pursue that with vigor and passion. Everything else they treat as a challenge—not a burden to bear (that gets old quickly!), but as a puzzle to figure out.

It also takes a certain selflessness and dedication to the work as inherently worthwhile. If you view your work as a never-ending series of hassles, you’re going to have a lot more stress in your life than if you view each day as a series of opportunities to make direct and indirect (sometimes very indirect!) contributions to student learning.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

Justin: My boss, Pat Sander, used to say “Justin, I’m puzzled about something, and I wonder if you can help me with it.” Usually, this was her way of gently critiquing my decisions as a new principal, but she wasn’t just being polite; she was modeling an inquisitive approach to leadership. Similarly, Stephen Covey reminded us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

When we ask questions, we learn. When we ask “Why do we do this?” or “Why don’t we do that?” we learn more about the systems that are in place, and the systems we should put in place, to create lasting improvements in our schools.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Justin: Too often, we don’t inquire deeply enough into the reason for teachers’ resistance. In The Human Side of School Change, Robert Evans points out that there are many reasons for teachers to resist new practices, the most common of which is essentially “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

What seems like a common-sense improvement to us may in fact be a very threatening change to teachers, because they’re being asked to give up something they’re good at and start doing something new and unfamiliar.

Is a “best practice,” implemented poorly, better than a mediocre practice implemented well? It depends, and our job as leaders is to ensure that any new practices are implemented well, and this means supporting people through the learning curve.

I encourage principals and teacher leaders to “work smart” – that is, to apply their energy to a small number of areas or activities in which they are likely to make the largest difference for students and the school community. From your experience, what are those few areas/activities in which school leaders would have the biggest impact on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

Justin: Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has an excellent book called Leverage Leadership, in which he identifies seven “levers” through which leaders can improve their schools. The two “super-levers” he identifies are data-driven instruction and student climate, and I think he’s right on.

Stepping back, though, I think the way we can have the greatest impact is to build lasting systems—organizational habits, to borrow a phrase from Charles Duhigg—that will keep on creating great results and continuous improvements, year after year.

A great example is Professional Learning Communities (I’m referring specifically to the work of Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, and their colleagues). Rather than focus on a specific problem, PLCs give school-based teams a set of habits they can develop to foster continuous improvement.

As leaders, the more of these systems we can put in place, the greater our impact will be.

You can find Justin Baeder’s writing at and follow him on Twitter @eduleadership or Google+ at +JustinBaeder.


Why it’s essential for principals to engage with their peers in team-based learning


Dennis SparksPrincipals need opportunities to collaborate with their peers in the type of learning they will use to lead their schools toward increased student achievement. —Hayes Mizell

When leaders engage in team-based professional learning with other leaders as a means of continuous improvement they develop an understanding that can only be acquired through direct experience of why teamwork is critically important for teachers in their schools.

Leaders who pursue with their colleagues stretching, worthy goals that cannot be achieved through independent action truly appreciate the power of professional communities to alter beliefs, deepen understanding, and change daily practice. In addition, leaders acquire knowledge and skills that help them solve significant problems.

Today I will identify one or more colleagues to join me in a project that will require new learning on our parts for its successful completion. The project might be as limited as designing an agenda for a faculty meeting whose primary purpose is to create productive discussion among teachers about an important school wide issue or as complex as creating meaningful professional learning communities in the school that effect every teacher and benefit all students.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership. It is my most recent and I think best book, available as a Kindle book for $14.39, which is just 8 cents per day as a source of professional learning and encouragement in developing valuable new habits.]


Why leaders must first change themselves

IMG_1365Each week this summer I’m introducing a blog theme that connects popular and important posts from recent years. Each theme offers a number of perspectives on a perennial challenge of school leadership.

This week’s topic is “leaders change first.”

This week’s theme could be alternatively titled, “Do what you’ve always done and you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

What leaders believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis matters. That’s why significant change in teaching, learning, and relationships in schools begins with significant changes in leaders.

I encourage you to scroll through articles in this thread to find those that match your interests.

In addition, I encourage you to take a closer look at these essays:

“Doing what we’ve never done”

“6 choices that can have a profound effect on the school community”

“8 ways you can become a positive deviant”


Why trying to improve student learning while decreasing physical activity is like shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon


Physical and emotional energy are arguably a school community’s most important resource. Skillful teachers and administrators have always known how to heighten, moderate, and refocus that energy as situations demand.

However, outside forces can sometimes have a profound effect on energy in classrooms and schools. Federal, state, and local policies have unwittingly conspired to decrease physical education requirements and even eliminated recess in a misguided effort to improve test scores.

Students who are not able to discharge their energy in appropriate ways are far more likely to create management problems. So it’s not surprising that at the same time that physical activity has been declining in schools students diagnosed with attention-related disorders and discipline referrals to administrators have dramatically increased.

In addition, because students’ health correlates closely with their ability to learn, eliminating physical activity to improve test scores is self defeating. It is also a source of the youth obesity and other health-related problems that plague our country.

Therefore, I was pleased to see a new report from the Institute of Medicine that asks the U.S. Department of Education designate physical education be a core subject, as reported by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

About the report, Strauss writes: “While definitive data are not available, it says, the best estimate is that only about half of young people in the United States meet the current guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily.”

Strauss adds: “The consequences of inactivity are very real, the report says. ‘A lack of activity increases the risk of heart disease, colon and breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, and other diseases. Recent studies have found that in terms of mortality, the global population health burden of physical inactivity approaches that of cigarette smoking and obesity. Indeed, the prevalence of physical inactivity, along with this substantial associated disease risk, has been described as a pandemic.’”

Given the strong link between physical health and learning, it is difficult to fault this recommendation, although I know its implementation will be challenging given the narrowed, standardized-test driven focus of many schools.

What do you think… Is this recommendation just one more responsibility unfairly added to an already overflowing curriculum or is an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity essential to students’ learning and health?


Leadership 180: Why leaders without integrity fail

Dennis Sparks

Only one thing is more toxic and destructive then a promise made and not kept: a pattern of promises made and not kept.  – Roland Barth

Leaders’ integrity is their most important leadership attribute. Leaders display integrity when they align their actions with their values, match their actions with their words, and keep their promises. Leaders’ integrity is also measured by their honesty in forthrightly expressing their views on important issues. Such integrity enables members of the school community to trust their leaders, which, in turn, affects the level of trust felt throughout the community.

Today I will carefully consider whether my words and actions match my values, whether I fulfill my promises, and/or whether I speak with candor on important subjects.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership. It is my most recent and I think best book, available as a Kindle book for $14.39, which is just 8 cents per day as a source of professional learning and encouragement in developing valuable new habits.]

9 ways you know a school culture is in trouble

Dennis SparksYou know a school culture is in trouble when…

1. Truly honest conversations are most likely to happen in parking lots…

2. The only honest things people say in meetings are complaints…

3, Leaders don’t show up for meetings as promised, or show up late and/or leave early…

4. Cynicism triumphs over healthy skepticism

5. “Authorities” of all sorts — from the principal to the district office to consultants — are reflexively distrusted and dismissed…

6. “Good enough” could be the school’s mission statement…

7. Being “crazy busy” is a sufficient reason for not doing what you said you would do…

8. After just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like grizzled veterans who are deeply entrenched in their ways…

9. Educators feel more professionally connected to followers on Twitter they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

What are other signs of a troubled school culture?

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,810 other followers



Recent Twitter Posts


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,810 other followers