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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

4 Protocols That Can Shift Your Teacher-Leadership Meetings From Drab to Fab

By Peter DeWitt — July 26, 2022 7 min read
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School principals and district-level leaders often have difficulty finding the balance between completing management tasks and engaging in instructional-leadership practices. However, one place where leaders can hone their instructional-leadership skills are within the very meetings that have already been established in their schools or districts. Unfortunately, taking a meeting from a place where adults are talked at and switching it to a place where adults learn from one another requires a shift in mindset.

In the work I do focusing on de-implementation, which is the abandonment of low-value practices (van Bodegom-Vos L. et al. 2017), I often poll participants in the audience to ask what they would most likely agree to de-implement within their own practices. Meetings are one of the top answers.

I’m not debating that teachers and leaders may meet too many times. That is for them to decide. However, I do believe that meetings could be a wonderful opportunity for leaders and teachers to engage in learning together. And that could simultaneously help leaders develop the credibility that seems so elusive when it comes to instructional leadership, as well as provide a venue where the voices and ideas of teachers can be elevated.

This is where protocols enter the equation.

If leaders truly care about the well-being of their staff and are also looking for ways to support their staffs’ ideas, then they must be willing to engage in meetings that focus on learning. They must also give educators the opportunity to process the information they glean at those meetings, which could now be referred to as professional learning and development.

4 Protocols to Consider for Your Next Meeting

Lately, I have had countless conversations with leaders and teachers who say they don’t feel supported. The issue is that they have a common language around the word “support,” but they don’t have a common understanding of what support means. It’s almost as if lack of support is a go-to comment, but no one takes the time to enter into a conversation to define the word. Protocols can help alleviate this issue.

My friend Jenni Donohoo is an expert at using protocols, and I have learned a lot from her over the years. Two of the protocols I am highlighting here are practices that we have used together in some of our joint work, and she has influenced me to use protocols much more often.

I have been using the first two protocols over the last few years both for in-person work and my online courses. As with any blog post that I write in which I focus on a specific number of books, strategies, etc., I know there are many other options I could have highlighted. If you are interested in sharing your go-to protocols, please feel free to do it on social media along with this blog.

1. Success Criteria – Although developing success criteria is a valuable strategy for teachers to use with students when it comes to highlighting what students will learn during a lesson, I find that it is also a great protocol to use with an audience of educators.

In the workshops, coaching sessions, or keynotes that I facilitate, I use Mentimeter (learn more about it here) to ask the audience what they want to learn while they are working with me. Believe it or not, I often find there are educators in the audience who have been “voluntold” to be there and really haven’t a clue what they will actually be learning. My goal as a facilitator is to make sure I connect to the educators in the room as much as possible. Success criteria help me meet that goal.

How it works: After providing the audience of educators with my success criteria for the session, I then ask them to take a few minutes to provide some specific learning they would like to engage in during our time together. They have a code through Mentimeter and can input their success criteria that everyone in the room can see on the Mentimeter screen. Here is a YouTube video I created focusing on the topic of developing success criteria.

2. SWOT – When running professional learning and development, I see part of my role as facilitating conversations among teams that often go unsaid back at their schools or districts. If partners or teams want to authentically collaborate with one another, then they need to challenge each other’s thinking and engage in some difficult conversations.

SWOT analysis stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and the protocol allows educators and their leaders the opportunity to have those difficult conversations, because it gives everyone the opportunity to talk about positive issues and negatives ones. Of course, it’s up to the facilitator to set the condition of psychological safety so the people in the room feel comfortable having those conversations.

How it works: Typically, I provide the audience with the image below. They are given 20-30 minutes to focus their SWOT discussion on whatever the focus of the day may be while they are in the professional learning session. For my work, it’s usually a SWOT analysis on instructional leadership, developing collective leader efficacy, or beginning the de-implementation process.


3. ICQ – This is a protocol I learned from Donohoo. I stands for “Interesting,” C stands for “Connection,” and Q stands for “Question. It’s really just that simple.

How it works: Using Mentimeter, I have an interactive slide on which the audience’s answers will appear. I place the ICQ slide after chunks of information that I want them to process.

As a facilitator, I believe it’s important for the audience to have time to connect the content to work that they are already doing or ask me questions that they still have about the content. When it comes to interesting, it gives me the opportunity to see what parts of the learning is resonating for them the most. And of course, the Q for question provides us with the opportunity to explore some questions they have where the work is concerned.

4. Realm of Concern – Too often when educators come to professional learning and development, they do not always see what they have influence over back at school. What we know is that when educators and leaders do not see what they have influence over, it can lead to a lack of agency and motivation. Considering our present teacher shortage, and those who are leaving the profession in droves, we should all do what we can to make sure educators leave our professional learning sessions feeling motivated and empowered. This is where the Realm of Concern protocol comes in, which is another that I learned from Donohoo.

How it works: Using the image below, I make sure that all of the educators in the room have access to Post-it notes, chart paper, and markers. Educators need to write each area of concern they hold on individual Post-it notes. Each participant can do this individually or if they come as a team, they can decide together which concerns should be written on the notes.

Citation: Daniel Baron

After the teams are finished writing each concern on Post-it notes, they are asked to stick all of the notes on the section of the chart paper that says Realm of Concern. After they finish placing the notes on the Realm of Concern area, they have to engage in a discussion and decide which notes they feel they have influence over (not control) and move them to the section of the chart that says Realm of Influence.

It is interesting to hear the conversations focusing on what people believe is a concern but not within their influence. There were a few times when a team wrote that student engagement was a concern, but they did not believe they had influence over it. That is where facilitators step in to unpack that concern.

In the End

We don’t use protocols just to use them. We use protocols to focus on specific areas of learning, elevate the voices of the people around us, and engage in conversations in which we can learn from one another. Too often, educators have had the experience of showing up to professional learning and development and are talked at instead of talked with, and protocols can help shift that dynamic.

For school leaders looking to engage in deeper instructional-leadership practices, these protocols, most of which can be found on the School Reform Initiative website, will help elevate the conversations in the room and potentially deepen the impact of teaching in the classroom.

However, those leaders who are looking to engage in instructional leadership must help staff members shift their mindsets so they realize that meetings are indeed a place where adults can learn from one another.

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.


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