Thursday, January 28, 2010

Seeking Consensus

I’m fortunate to be able to work with lots of teachers and principals who are working together to improve their schools. Often I’m asked to help them design a process that will provide for thoughtful discussion of the issues and help the group reach agreement on how to proceed. Here’s some advice I give groups that are just getting started.

Spend time agreeing on norms for both your operation and decision-making. I’ve always liked the Norms of Collaboration developed by Garmston and Wellman. Information can be found at

Be clear about the process you will use to reach agreement. Consensus is often preferred but can be quite elusive, particularly when there are strong feelings about an issue. A few years ago I was introduced to theFist to Five, a way to measure the level of agreement on an issue. I like the process because it avoids voting and creating winners and losers. When using the Fist to Five, ask every participant to raise his or her hand and indicate their support, from a closed fist (no support) to all five fingers (a great idea). It’s an easy way to determine where a group stands on an issue and the need to continue discussion. Many groups I’ve worked with continue the process until everyone can hold up at least three fingers.

Always be clear and the purpose and goals for every meeting. Provide an agenda that is clear about topics, action that may be requested, and the time for each item.

Consider using a parking lot to gather information from members about the meeting. A “parking lot” is one way to anonymously provide feedback to other participants and to facilitators. One model I’ve used is a grid of four blocks---one indicating what went well, one indicating what needs improvement, one for questions, and one for ideas to improve the meeting.

Structure time for the group to pause and reflect on the meeting. Identify a way for every member to comment on the meeting and the processes used during the meeting.

Keep notes of the meeting and allow time at the end of the meeting for the group to be clear about next steps and any responsibilities that may have been assigned.

I’m always looking for good ideas about how to assure that meeting time is productive and that members feel the processes have helped the group move forward. I’d love to hear from you about ways you make your meetings productive.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Great Resources for Principals

I'm always looking for resources that can help principals. One of my favorite websites is The Principals' Partnership (, sponsored by the Union Pacific Foundation. The site includes lots of useful articles including a set of over 200 Research Briefs ( that provide information about all of the important topics faced by principals. The briefs can be easily downloaded for your use.
There are also a couple of articles at the site that share tools for improving instruction. They include First Things First ( and Improving Instructional Quality (
I hope you find these resources helpful. Let me know of any great resources you find for helping principals.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Time Management for Principals

When I was a principal I started every school year with unlimited energy and a commitment to make a difference in the life of every student in my school. As the year progressed I found that my time was consumed by a multitude of tasks, individually important, but collectively distracting. They often kept me from my primary responsibility for assuring a quality instructional program.

In order to protect time for classroom visits, working with teachers on improved instruction or collaborating on school improvement, I developed a set of processes that helped me manage these multiple priorities. There is no one perfect strategy---except the one that works for you. But, here are four of my personal favorites.

Create a “Tickler File” - Many tasks and responsibilities occur annually. A tickler file is a way of creating a reminder about the tasks so they can be anticipated, planned for and accomplished. Some friends had a set of file folders labeled by month. Others used an electronic file. Even others had a daily tickler file rather than a monthly file.

Use a Journal - I’ve found that using a journal as a “running” record of notes from meetings helps me create a “to do” list. This ensures that everything is in one place rather than on multiple pieces of paper or sticky notes. The journal also makes it easy to look back and find ideas and tasks that emerged at earlier meetings. While I keep a paper journal, others are electronic.

Take Control of E-Mail - Check e-mail at set times, not continuously. If you can, respond when you first read a message. Handle them as a group---start with the first and move through them until complete. I like to use descriptive subject lines to identify the substance of a message. I also try to keep messages short and am real clear about what response may be needed. I also turn off the automatic notification of e-mail. When it beeps, it distracts me from my work. I recently read a book that suggested not checking e-mail before 10 am so that the first few hours of the day are focused on your most important work, rather than responding to the most recent request.

Establish Norms Around Access - Everyone wants an “open door,” but a literal open door can lead to fragmentation. Identify a quiet time each day to respond to e-mail and to work on important tasks. Don’t reinforce the idea that you respond the moment you receive a message. Establish norms around interruptions. Work with you administrative assistant to protect time. I scheduled time every week to visit classrooms, talk with students and work with teachers. When I was involved in these activities, everything else waited.

Chapter J in The Principalship from A to Z describes even more ideas. I hope you find my tips helpful and would enjoy hearing from you about ways you juggle the multiple priorities faced by every principal.