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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Strategies Leaders Can Use to Stay Out of the Weeds

By Barry Saide & Nicholas Diaz — April 26, 2017 8 min read
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Today’s guest post is co-authored by Barry Saide, Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction, and Nicholas Diaz, Chief School Administrator. Both are leaders for the Frelinghuysen Township School District (New Jersey).

Have you ever been so deep into something that you fail to see an exit strategy?

We call that..."In the Weeds.”

Being in the weeds often happens when we are trying to balance multiple roles and responsibilities at the same time. How do we keep ourselves out of the educational weeds as demands and expectations increase at almost a daily rate? And, how do we continually maintain high standards for ourselves and others so we can all ‘win from the weeds’ when work magically appears after everything on our to-do list is crossed off?

In our experience we have found many successful strategies to keep us out of the weeds. Unfortunately, we visited the School of Hard Knocks and found some of these the hard way. That happens sometimes, but maybe our attendance at the School of Hard Knocks will prevent you from taking the same class.

The five strategies we feel are most successful for keeping clear of the weeds are:
Relationships, Relationships, Relationships (R³): relationships, like real estate location, mean everything. If we’re not singularly focused on sustaining honest relationships with our staff and students on a daily basis, even the best, research-based initiatives or strategies will not work. This mindset of cultivating, building, and sustaining daily relationships clearly conveys to everyone at Frelinghuysen Township School that we care about them as individuals. Rita Pierson, in her famous Ted-Talk, stated, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” (Pierson, 2013). We believe that universal truth extends to everyone: staff will not follow leaders who don’t care about them.

A big piece of building R³ is being present. Being present for us means our open door policy is a start. We expect to have our doors open, but do not expect all teaching staff or students to use it. An open door policy is one educational strategy that meets one kind of learner. What about those who don’t take the initiative for whatever reason? How do we connect with them?

One way we build relationships is through daily learning walks. One of us will visit each classroom each day for a minimum of ten minutes per room. Our role is not to interact or formally observe, but to watch, notice, and learn as an additional student in the class. Prior to leaving, we leave a post-it note on the teacher’s desk with two positive comments based on our experience (Zoul, 2010). If we have a question or concern, we can address it another time.

A second way we look to build upon relationships is to cover teacher’s classes. When a teacher wants to observe a colleague, attend a half-day training, or has a personal matter that he/she has to attend to, one of us covers the class. The only thing we ask for are lesson plans and a seating chart. The rest we’ll figure out. Covering classes has introduced us to new favorite read aloud books, interesting math games, and kept our teaching practice sharp. It also allows us to see the curriculum in action to better understand what our teachers see. Establishing relationships helps to build a positive school culture one classroom at a time, and as Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker, 2004).

Power Up: Check for energy efficiency. How are we handling the ‘little things’ before they become ‘big things’, and we end up in the weeds? How do we maintain a status on the pulse of our community so we know the current climate in our buildings? Making informed decisions is an art and a science, much like good teaching is. We should always make sure we’re interpreting and handling each situation that arises with the right amount of deft based on the information given. Ask ourselves if the situation requires grace, patience, time, force, or some combination. Whatever decision we make must be thoughtful, so we can own it and explain it, whether the situation goes well or sideways. How we interpret situations and respond to them sets the tone for how our staff will, too. Every one of us has a finite amount of energy, and we need to use our emotional, physical, and mental energies with surgical precision if we’re going to maximize our days and win from the weeds.

One way we make sure to use our energy efficiently is to meet with our union leadership team daily. Whether we share coffee in the morning, a quick conversation in the hallway, or a discussion after school, our union leaders know what our staff is thinking and feeling. We make sure on our end that our questions remain simple: how are people feeling? Is there anything we can do? How can we help? Our goal is to keep energy levels up, and we can’t do that if we’re uninformed.

A second way we’re aiming to sustaining staff energy is to build in a flex period one day a week for each staff member in next year’s schedule. This flex period will be student-teacher contact time, but is free from subject specific time allotment or state mandates. Teachers can use this flex time to take risks in their teaching and learning, in an environment that will celebrate this. We look forward to our staff celebrating their successes and failures equally with one another. That way all will grow together. This leads into...

Leverage our existing leadership: Would you ever buy a sports car so it would stay parked in the garage? Would you keep it in the driveway with a tarp over it during the spring and summer months? Of course not. So, why hire staff who add value to an organization, and not let them add that value? Perhaps there’s someone we can create a job description for who can build our school or district footprint in a way we can’t. Opportunities like Technology Coordinator or After School Activities Specialist can provide avenues for our teaching staff to continue to grow as they add value. Perhaps something more informal would be a fit for certain staff members. Helping to coordinate a family literacy night, anti-bullying week, or turn-keying a professional development experience would be a better (and safer) investment for our staff who like to lead with limits. Leveraging leadership requires balance. And, strong leaders know when to lead, when to model the way, and when to get out of the way and let their staff do the work. Sharing our leadership will help create the environment to win from the weeds.

Internal Audit: After checking on how we’re best using our personal energies and human resources, it’s important for us to do an internal audit every six weeks to examine how we’re maximizing our physical resources and allocating funds. Much like on-going formative assessment, a good internal audit will help to ensure that district funds are being maximized and allocated appropriately. Perhaps, just as important, the internal audit will help identify any risks the district faces and streamline district systems to ensure staff are working efficiently. A good leader will also be transparent and share the findings of the internal audit to assure the various stakeholders in a school community that all resources are being allocated effectively.

Our most recent internal audit identified that our staff were quick to identify students who were struggling, and to put interventions in place. However, as administrators, we were inconsistent in our follow-up on the success level of these interventions, provide an avenue for additional dialogue outside of the formal I&RS process, and move to the next level of RTI, when needed. To remediate this, we established a Pre-I&RS referral form and follow-up meeting (PIC), moving I&RS to the second stage of RTI. We established four to six week intervals from PIC to I&RS meetings, with on-going communication between all members of I&RS through Google documents. Teachers could provide consistent tangible examples of the status of interventions, and we could utilize the data in forming future decisions to support the needs of each student.

Elevate and Celebrate: At this point you have a great starting point for your work as a leader. As you work alongside your staff, you will find that the initial excitement for the work will wane and can ultimately lead to its end before reaching the ultimate goal. A great way to keep things going is to celebrate the small milestones with your staff. These small milestones become big milestones, and celebrating them will validate the work and encourage all to persevere. While all staff are not created equal, neither should a leader try to put forth a generic celebration.

One way we celebrate our staff is through the Five Minute Message. Five minutes at the beginning and end of each monthly staff meeting is dedicated to a staff member sharing a new approach taken when teaching a subject, an epic classroom fail/success, or a strategy or skill he/she has in their toolkit that’s a “go to” for them. We share openly, as well. By opening the door to conversation about practice, we’re also further tightening the bond our staff has with each other and us. Winning from the weeds means we all teach, learn, and lead together so everyone in our district wins.

To learn how to win from the weeds has not been a smooth transition, and it will not be for anyone who adopts part, or all of this methodology. We’ve learned what works for us through trial and error, and best laid plans. Some of our strategies may not work in specific buildings or districts, or may not fit philosophically with everyone’s ideas of leadership. All of these thoughts are fine, because in the end, continually thinking and trying new ideas to see what works will enable all of us in education to win from the weeds. And when we win, children and their families do, too.

Barry Saide has been in education for 16 years. He is the Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction for the Frelinghuysen Township School District, in Newton, New Jersey. Connect with Barry via Twitter @barrykid1 or on his website www.barrysaide.com.

Nicholas Diaz is the Chief School Administrator for the Frelinghuysen Township School District. He is a former first grade teacher, assistant principal, and principal. He lives with his wife and nine children.

Drucker, P. (2004). The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done. New York: HarperCollins.

Pierson, R. (2013, May). Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion (Video file). Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion

Zoul, J. (2010). Building School Culture One Week at a Time. Larchmont: Eye on Education.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.