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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: The Biggest Mistake by Administrators ‘Is Putting Tasks Before People’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 10, 2019 23 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen an administrator make (or, if you are an administrator, that you’ve made)? What should have been done, instead?

Commentaries from Anne Vilen, Marcy Webb, Dr. Jason Kotch, Roxanna Elden, Baruti Kafele, and Dr. Manuel Rustin “kicked off” this five-part series. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Marcy, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Dr. PJ Caposey, Sarah Said, Amy Fast, Andrew Miller, Anthony Kim, and Edward Cosentino share their observations.

Response From Dr. PJ Caposey

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, speaker, and author of six books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for Meridian 223 in Northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

I often share with others the advice given to me by my favorite mentor—if you do not fail, on a relatively grand scale, multiple times per year, then you are not trying enough. I espouse this belief and trumpet it to all those in my charge. Still, there are some mistakes that should not be made. To use an athletic analogy, it is OK to commit a turnover in basketball if you are going as hard as you can and trying to make a play. It is not OK to argue with the official and get yourself a technical foul. Simply put, not all mistakes are created equal.

This past year, I made the grandest mistake of my career. And it was an inexcusable one. That is correct, in my 11th year as an administrator and as a ‘leadership expert’ who gets the privilege of working with schools across the country I stubbed my toe—and it hurt.

The situation was simple. We have declining enrollment trickling through our buildings, and it was about to have a profound impact on one of my buildings. Two summers ago, I alerted the principal to the impact it would have in her building and encouraged her to start making plans for reductions. I directed her to be collaborative and to ensure that the reductions kept us in a place where we could achieve our larger goals and objectives.

Year one goes by, and there is no true plan. I press on the principal that this is a priority and I need a comprehensive plan by Thanksgiving with a recommendation. The principal comes through. The day before our November board of education meeting, the principal has a meeting with her staff and presents to me the plan shortly thereafter.

The plan led to near revolt. In order to accomplish an arbitrarily set goal of reducing teachers to preserve our budget, we would cut ELA instructional minutes. The process alienated certain teachers, divided other groups of teachers, and cost my principal an extreme amount of political capital. It was all on my head. This situation was 100 percent my fault. And what was worse is that even when I tried to take the blame, I still did not receive most of it. I let my principal and my teachers down.

So, here are my key takeaways from this situation:

  1. Not everything can be delegated

Delegation is an essential part of leadership. I view delegation as my primary chance to develop leadership capacity and a key way to invest in both current and future leaders. That said, not everything can be delegated. I learned that if I am directing something that is going to lead to a loss of employment, that I need to do that work.

  1. Not everything can be collaborative

How incredibly naïve of me to ask my principal to be collaborative about creating a new schedule that would lead to people losing their job. It was an unfair position to put everyone in—from the teachers to the principal. Collaboration is great and should always be our first instinct—but false or pseudo-collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all. In this instance, no consensus could be reached, so administratively a decision had to be made. People spent tens of hours of energy into something, and it appeared they were not listened to despite the best intentions.

  1. Financial goals should never be the primary goal

Healthy finances are key to leading a sustainable organization and effective schools. Financial goals should support goals, however. Meaningful financial goals should impact all decisionmaking, but as a secondary consideration. For instance, it would be great to add a math coach to support growth in that area, but to do that, we would have to deficit spend and we will not make that choice. This makes sense. Simply cutting in order to cut as part of a wider strategy is not the best option—particularly when finances are healthy.

  1. 10/1 ratio

It takes a whole lot of good to erase a little bad. Likewise, a whole lot of good can be erased with a little bad. Leaders must think through the scenarios they place themselves in, are placed in by others, and they place others in. I always talk with my team about playing chess, not checkers. In this scenario, I was caught playing checkers, and it impacted the trajectory of the entire year.

Response From Sarah Said

Sarah Said is currently a district-level administrator that oversees English learning and bilingual programs in two elementary school districts in suburbs south of Chicago. Sarah spent over a decade teaching and advocating for English-learners spanning from the early grades to high-school-aged. She has a graduate degree in Instructional Leadership: Literacy, Language, and Culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is married and a mother of three who enjoys traveling with her family:

Stop! Tune Out! Enjoy!

My Administrative Mistake: Lack of Self-Care

In writing this blog post, I thought first about writing about something on a more technical level when it comes to the craft of leadership. In all honesty, leadership is a much deeper endeavor that involves more self-reflection than people realize. We think about our triumphs ... we love to think about our triumphs ... let’s just face it, we’re obsessed with our successes. This makes us weak. We drive ourselves into weakness because we want our schools and programs to surpass all standards. The problem is that eventually we become our own worst enemy. As I write this blog post, I will tell you that I am by no means a veteran administrator. I still have a lot to learn. The one thing that I did learn this past school year was the importance of self-care for school and district leaders.

What do I mean by self-care? I mean giving yourself a chance to revive and recover from the day-to-day struggles you have as an administrator. For those of you who read this post who are teachers, teaching is not easy. Administration is also very complicated. First, you have to have the field knowledge—of course. But there is another type of knowledge that you need to have, and that’s the knowledge to inspire other adults in order to impact the lives of children. I hate to say this, as good you are, not everyone is going to love you. You need to be able to live with that. Also, you need to be able to put work aside and simply relax. I’m terrible at this and need to get better myself.

One thing a superintendent I worked for said to me was, “I don’t care if your car is the first in the lot or the last in the lot, I care that the work is done, and it is done well.” I’m an early bird. I love being the first in the office. Because I love the quiet and I am more productive that way. But getting to work at 6:30 a.m. means that I should not be staying at work until 8:00 p.m. We need to know how to “stop,” “tune out,” and “enjoy” before we burn out.


Really, just stop. We have to give ourselves limits. The more we keep going, the more likely we are going to make a mistake. Now, easier said than done. You know that if and when you take time off from your position, whether it be a sick day to take care of a child or a week to go on vacation with your family, you’re going to get multiple emails for tasks and questions and more to do just piling on your desk. Easier said than done, we need to try to understand what needs to be delegated and to whom we should delegate it. Also, as much as this hurts, we have to have the understanding that “we...can’t...do...everything...”. Ouch! That does hurt. However, we need to look to our teams and members of our teams who exhibit leadership qualities to support us. No, we are not asking others to do our job for us, we are simply sharing leadership of the department. Just please ... don’t give your team members your busy work. Remember, we don’t want them to antagonize us.

Also, in order to “stop,” we have to not be as accessible as we would like. I have made the mistake of responding to a staff member’s late-night text. Even worse, I have taken a weekend phone call to allow someone to vent about school-related drama to me. Don’t do it! Give your team parameters on when they can call or text you. I don’t think they would like to get a Saturday call from you. There are other ways to show your team members you care. I’m sure Hallmark makes some kind of a card for that ...

Pretty please with sugar on top ... stop sending out emails at crazy times at night. People know you work hard. You don’t need to send an email at 2 a.m. to prove that you are. And ... people also don’t want 50 emails from you in their inbox when they come in on a Monday. ... Yes, I am guilty of this myself. I have a no-sending-emails policy to staff for myself over weekends and vacations. I write a to-do list of what needs to be done on Sunday night before I go to bed. I send one email to my team on Monday with a list of items for the week. They actually like getting one solid email from me and they have said that it actually guides their week.


I think all administrators wish that there was some kind of cerebral switch that just lets you “tune out” all the work-related stuff. It’s hard. Sometimes, you just can’t tune out. It can get to the point that your staff get exhausted just from listening to and watching you. Yes, all you do is think and talk about work ... your own family does not want to hear about it. It’s a terrible thing for a spouse and children to have to deal with.

So, how do I tune out? I go to the gym! During a really tough administrative year, I got an OrangeTheory membership. For those of you who are not familiar with OrangeTheory, it is a circuit-based gym where each station has a different workout. I actually got the idea from reading tweets on the hashtag #FitLeaders. I have been following #FitLeaders and its founder @RyanBJackson1 of Tennessee who is an educator and the CEO of #TheMount. His wife Leticia Skae, @LSkae, who teaches ELA is also part of the movement. Watching them inspired me to learn how to really let some steam off in my workout. That helped me tune out and really enjoy life outside of school.


Yes ... you can enjoy your life. I know as leaders, we feel that we have to be self-sacrificing. If we are to have fun outside of work, some of us feel like we have tasks that have to get done. Many of us are 12-month employees. We don’t get the summer breaks that the teachers and some staff in our districts get. We have to take advantage of our time off or we will burn out. I can tell you this from experience. I was the administrator who did not take their vacation days as I should. I also ended up checking emails and working from home when I was supposed to be on vacation. I experienced one of the toughest burnouts to the point where I almost left this profession. Yes, we’re passionate, but we have to have limits. Do not let this happen to you!

I have had to leave town and even the country to be able to enjoy time with my family. If you have the means to do that, then do it. I have family in the Middle East that I visit on a regular basis. I usually then take a couple of days off in a coastal resort and have fun with my husband and kids. It’s OK! Your department or school will survive if you have a couple of days of fun.

Not practicing self-care will lead to burn out. This leads to poor decisionmaking. Poor decisionmaking leads to terrible relationships with staff, poor implementation of any type of vision you have, and your team hurting because they have a leader that is everywhere. Not only will your team suffer, your personal relationships will as well. So, when you’re trying to pull those all nighters, think twice. Remember that it is not worth the headache for you. The work will get done much better if you have actually slept and cleared your mind. Passion is important, but have passion for precision. Self- care will give you that precision.

Response From Amy Fast

Amy Fast is an assistant principal in McMinnville Ore., education commentator, and author of Its the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education:

It was teacher-appreciation week at our school, and I was scrambling to get a catered lunch set up. I was carrying a table out to the commons when one of our teachers stopped me and inquired, “Do you have a second to chat?” I grimaced with a look of “I wish, but not exactly.” The clock was ticking down to the lunch bell, and I knew if I didn’t get this task finished, I would let down my principal who was counting on my help to pull this off.

I saw the look of disappointment on her face, and the irony of it all hit me like a ton of bricks: I couldn’t give this teacher my time because I was too busy setting up for teacher-appreciation week. How embarrassing. The best way to appreciate someone is to give them your time and give them your ear. Giving them lunch is great, too, but not at the expense of them feeling valued in the daily grind. In my embarrassment, I self-corrected. I set the table down and said, “Of course. What’s on your mind?”

By far, the biggest mistake administrators get sucked into is putting tasks before people. When I was a teacher, I had no idea the extent of the duties administrators were tasked with completing. Most administrators have done the job of a teacher, but few teachers have experienced the role of administrator. Therefore, it’s all too easy for administrators to play the card of “they just don’t get it” when crunched for time and under pressure to turn in that report, finish that paperwork, or set up for that event.

But the truth is, all educators feel the weight of being measured on their outcomes and being judged on what we get done, and so, it’s easy to interpret our value in how much we accomplish. But, in reality, our success isn’t reflected in the tasks we complete but rather in the people we inspire. This is true for teachers as well as administrators. People who work inspired will always accomplish more in the end than people who simply work hard. Putting people before tasks promotes ownership because they know you trust and believe in them. When people feel trusted in and believed in, they feel empowered in their work, the tasks feel less like a burden and more like a calling, and as a result, more people step up to get the tasks done and get them done well.

So, how do administrators self-monitor where they’re investing their time and their efforts, and how do they put people before tasks?

  1. Continually seek feedback on how staff are feeling. Carving out time during different parts of the year to have one-on-one 10-minute meetings with staff where they get to own the agenda is a great strategy. In addition, giving staff surveys to elicit their perceptions on how valued and appreciated they feel helps administrators put their finger on the pulse of the collective well-being.

  2. Track your time. Before leaving work each day, reflect on how much time was spent at your computer or on a task rather than interacting with and investing in the human aspect of the work.

  3. Be intentional with your time. Proactively carve out time during your day to have face-to-face conversations with staff and students. Ensure that you’re not only interacting with the same staff that you tend to gravitate to but that you’re making it to different parts of the building and engaging with different stakeholders.

  4. Beware of your micro-behaviors. Simply going through the motions of investing in and appreciating people isn’t enough. If your words and actions say, “I appreciate you” and “I hear you” but your face says, “I am stressed about all that I’m not accomplishing right now,” no amount of face-to-face time will matter. Our body language communicates way more than our words or our time ever will. Practice gratitude and do everything you can to ensure that your mindset is actually one of appreciation so that your investment in others won’t be a hollow one.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

I think one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen administrators make is lack of clarity on how decisions are being made. These are often referred to as “Decision Rules,” which are basically the spoken (or unspoken) processes and persons that are involved in deciding. We’ve all been involved in a decision where we are unclear of our role in that process. Then when the decision is made, we might feel frustrated or unvalued. Instead, administrators need to be clear of who is making the decision and how it will happen.

For example, an administrator might be sharing different options of schedule changes in order to receive feedback and decide. What could happen is the administrator isn’t clear what the process is she/she has in his/her head. Is it decided by majority? Is the administrator the final decider and only asking for feedback? Is it consensus, and all must agree? It is critical that this is clarified. If not, trust between staff and administrator is at risk. People appreciate and need clarity, and making decisionmaking rules visible and not hidden can make the process of that decision clear and build trust as well.

Response From Anthony Kim

Anthony Kim is the author of The NEW School Rules (Corwin, 2018). He is a nationally recognized leader in education technology, school design, and personalized learning. As founder and CEO of Education Elements, he has been involved in helping hundreds of schools change the way they think about teaching and learning:

Despite heroic efforts and hard work, district and school administrators often find themselves not achieving the results that they expect. It is rarely the fault of the individual or the amount of time spent working to solve a challenge, and much more often that their teams have not spent enough time learning how to work together most effectively.

In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the U.S. sent a team with the proudly coined nickname, the Dream Team. It was a group of the league’s top talent—Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, and others—but the focus on talent only turned out to be their downfall. The Dream Team ultimately failed to meet expectations, losing badly to Puerto Rico in the first round. Instead of relying on individual strengths and skills, they should have spent more time learning to work as a team. This is a story I have seen played out in schools and systems again and again: Like the coach of the Dream Team, administrators need to help us become more than the sum of our individual efforts.

While many administrators are well-versed on how to teach others to collaborate, there are a few critical elements of teaming that, when implemented with relatively low levels of effort, have outsized results.

Good teaming includes:

• Proper onboarding - Onboarding should not be a checklist item or a tactical activity. It is of critical importance to support the integration of new team members into the organization.

• Culture of learning and iterating - Organizations needs space and the mindset to learn and improve on a regular basis. Teams need to be safe places for members to share and try ideas.

• Utilization of common protocols - Meetings can be a waste of time without protocols in place. We need to make the time in meetings count and be as effective as possible.

If we think of organizations as vessels moving through water, and the people within the organizations as engines for progress, we can’t just rev our engines harder to make more progress; we actually need to work on the shape of our vessel—i.e., how teams are organized. Focusing on the shape of the vessel will make it easier to get where we want to go. And as we do this work, we need to keep in mind that the shape may need to change as our strategies, goals, and roles change and evolve.

Across the hundreds of schools I’ve visited, I spend more time looking for what helps some succeed and I have found that the common factor for success is highly functional teams. Highly functional teams are able to exercise the following 6 practices:

1. Planning for change

2. Building trusting teams

3. Defining the work before the people

4. Aiming for safe enough to try instead of consensus

5. Harnessing the flow of information and sharing it quickly

6. Creating a learning organization that evolves

Regardless of what or how many initiatives a district is implementing, without working on the shape of the vessel (the organizational design), organizations have a high probability of failure and a propensity to make unintentional mistakes versus taking deliberate and safe risks. A lot of energy and resources will be expended but without achieving the anticipated results. As Tom Northrop states in his book Five Hidden Mistakes CEOs Make, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If we want different results, we must change the way we do things.”

Response From Edward Cosentino

Edward Cosentino, is the co-author of 7 Steps to Sharing Your School’s Story on Social Media, a Routledge Eye on Education book. He is the principal of Clemens Crossing Elementary School, a K-5 in Maryland where he tells the school’s story using #gr8suCCESs on social media:

During my 15 years as a school administrator, one of the biggest mistakes I have made and witnessed has been the “one size fits all” reality to staff meetings and professional learning sessions. Staff meetings are often rushed at the beginning of the day when teachers are more focused on the day ahead or at the end of the day when they are exhausted and ready to go home. Professional learning days or half days are inconsistently attended, and the content of the information sometimes is irrelevant to a portion of the attendees due to the unique position in the school.

How can we make professional learning experiences worthwhile to all faculty and staff and avoid a “one size fits all” reality? How can we change outdated approaches to differentiate the needs of participants to meet the needs of individuals within a school building? How can we harness technology for the staff-meeting experience and to help people who miss meetings have a similar experience on their own time? These are important questions to consider. We ask our teachers to differentiate their teaching to meet the individual needs of their students. Shouldn’t school administrators do the same thing for their staff? I am still trying to figure this out after six years as a principal. How can we differentiate professional learning, while implementing school system initiatives, addressing school-specific needs, and leaving “administrivia” to email and weekly staff newsletters?

Some possible solutions to this challenge are...

Communication - Communication is key to reducing the time spent during faculty and staff meeting focused on items that can be shared by an email. Administrators can also reduce the number of emails sent out during the week by collecting those items and including them in one succinct weekly update. Of course, email urgent or important items during the week as needed.

PLCs - Create high-interest professional learning communities within your school. Seek out volunteers to lead sessions and provide staff the opportunity to attend sessions that interest them.

Mini edCamp - Establish a professional-development day or an extended staff-meeting time using the edCamp model where discussion topics are based out of interest and lead or facilitated by teachers within the building.

Technology - Harness the power of technology. Technology is evolving daily, and there are a variety of tools to help enhance the staff-meeting experience both in person and remotely. Interactive technology such as Kahoot and Google Forms can help you get instant feedback. Podcasts, Google Classroom, and Screencastify are ways to use technology to present information to maximize your time together or allow for remote engagement.

As I continue to learn, grow, and evolve as instructional leader, I know the importance of maximizing the precious time we have during faculty and staff meetings. Providing opportunities for staff to learn and grow is essential in a school setting. Furthermore, the traditional “stand and deliver” method of staff meetings often miss intended audiences or provide information that is not relevant. The use of proper tools to disseminate information instead of meeting is essential and easy in this information age we live in today. Furthermore, providing a variety of ways to learn and grow with technological tools to enhance the experience keeps everyone engaged and informed. It also provides a model for teachers to initiate and use in their classrooms.

Thanks to P.J., Sarah, Amy, Andrew, Anthony, and Edward for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Three in a few days.

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