Education Opinion

For Leaders, Preparation Is Key

By Starr Sackstein — February 05, 2019 4 min read
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Guest blog by Michael Sonbert

There’s an old boxing expression that goes like this: Boxing matches are won on the road, not in the ring.

The message here is simple.

By the time the two fighters square off, the match is already decided. The fighter who trained harder, the fighter who is more prepared, the fighter who spent more “time on the road” (picture Rocky Balboa or his protege, Adonis Creed, jogging through the icy streets of Philadelphia) will win.

In boxing, preparation is key.

It’s the same thing in education (and, well, pretty much everything). But often, school leaders go into coaching or support meetings with teachers woefully underprepared. They haven’t collected data, they don’t have clear actions for the teacher to work on, they haven’t designed a model or prepared a practice session, they haven’t created goals, next steps, accountability measures, and on and on.

The result of this lack of preparation is often meandering meetings that are largely conversational. Meetings that run long. Meetings where skill-building is nonexistent. Meetings where a bunch of things are discussed and some suggestions are made and a lot of questions are asked and maybe some materials are shared, but where nothing happens that will make the teacher significantly better at their craft. Sometimes, teachers simply tolerate these meetings as they know they just have to nod and smile and the leader will leave and be gone until the next meeting. Meetings like this can stunt teacher and student growth as well as lead to teacher disinvestment as they may feel their time was wasted.

While most leaders agree that they should meet with teachers, fully prepared, they also tell us that it’s hard for them to be any more prepared because they don’t have the time. And certainly, time can be a huge constraint for school leaders. However, I’d argue that schools leaders don’t have the time not to be as prepared as possible. In our work, we often observe school leaders having the same conversations with teachers in March that they were having with them in October.

From asking for the teacher to create measurable objectives for every lesson to requesting a smoother transition back from lunch, these school leaders are losing time by not supporting the teacher in being as successful as possible on the first try. These leaders are losing time every instance they have to address something they mentioned in a coaching meeting but didn’t actually build skill on. They’re losing time, potentially, every time they have to speak with a frustrated parent who wants to know why their son or daughter is failing. And if a teacher is really struggling, they’re definitely losing time handling discipline issues and even looking for new hires.

So what’s the answer?

We can’t create time where time doesn’t exist. But what we can do is prioritize the most important work. Which is supporting teachers in designing and delivering engaging and meaningful lessons to students and creating a safe and warm classroom culture where high expectations are the norm. But to do this, school leaders have to make a choice. Well, actually, many choices.

Choices about what the high-priority items in their school are and what the low-priority items are. Once these are chosen, leaders should focus the majority of their time on the things that will move instruction and students furthest fastest. While also delegating the low-priority work to other leaders in the building. And, even if the school leader is all alone on their leadership team, delegating is a great way to increase teacher-leader opportunities, something many teachers say they’re looking for.

At the top of every leader’s list should be things like observations and data collection, coach meeting preparation, coaching meetings, email feedback, walk-throughs, and lesson-plan feedback. Of course, things like monitoring transitions, supporting lunch duty, arrival, dismissal, and others, have to happen. Yes, if the superintendent calls with an emergency, leaders should take the call. And sure, building relationships with families and community members is important.

Though I’d argue that the best way to build those relationships is by having a really great school. And the easiest way to lose those relationships is by promising a great school and not delivering. But the work, the real work is in the training and targeted support of teachers in the building so they can be their absolute best for their students.

We give this coaching to school leaders all the time. And here are the three things that follow: The first is that every school leader we give this coaching to names lack of time as an obstacle to being as prepared as they’d like to be. The second is after we’re done dissecting their calendars, no leader is fully maximizing their time. And third, once we focus on the high-priority work over low-priority work, they get time back. And once that time is used to be uber-prepared going into coaching meetings, teachers move more quickly, and the most important people in their buildings, the students, benefit.

How can we better prepare at leaders to ensure that hard work gets done well? Please share

Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Educator Training. He's a former ELA teacher, instructional coach, and the director of strategic partnerships with Mastery Charter Schools: the largest turnaround school network in the country. He has trained thousands of leaders and teachers from around the world on instructional best practices, school culture, and teacher coaching. He has a bachelor's degree in media studies from Queens College in New York and a master's in special education from Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. Sonbert is also the founder and lead singer of the bands, The Never Enders and Disco Thieves.

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