The Gift of Trust

“The waste of life occasioned by trying to do too many things at one time is appalling.”

-Orison Swett Marden

Orison Swett Marden wrote a book in 1894 titled Pushing to the Front and founded Success magazine in 1897.  He was the Stephen Covey/Malcom Gladwell of his day.  It’s amazing that over 120 years later, we are still discussing many of the same life and leadership lessons.

Marden’s quote symbolizes the biggest hurdle school leaders face- prioritizing what is important.  If everything is important, then nothing is important.  School leaders have an obligation to simplify the complexities of modern teaching and learning.  There are far too many hands in the pot.  Too many chef’s in the kitchen.  Too many jockeys, not enough horses. Too many…well , you get it.  Everyone wants to give their ten cents to “fix” education.

Maybe education needs to be fixed.  I am not so sure.  What I am sure of is that there are too many people who are far removed from the schoolhouse, from the classroom, trying to tell teachers what and how to teach.  Most, not all, are well-intentioned.  They want schools to produce students who will contribute to their communities, to their country.  Don’t we all want that?

School districts are being micromanaged by the federal government, state governments, and local municipalities.  This gets passed on to school boards and makes its way to the schoolhouse.  The autonomy of the classroom teacher has been replaced with constraints that are building a generation of self-doubting, stressed-out teachers, who are questioning their career choices.

Despite all of this, our teachers are working harder than ever.  They work longer hours.  They do more with less every year.  They are heroes to their students.  They juggle the demands of teaching with the needs of their own families.  Most importantly, they never make excuses when their students struggle.  They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back to doing their best for each and every student.

What can we do for them?  What gift can we give them?  It’s simple, we can give the gift of trust.  We can remember that they are experts in their profession who know their students better than anyone else.  We can support them, provide resources and training, then get out of their way and watch them work their magic.  We can make sure that their time is spent on what is most important, the children.  Let’s give teachers the gift of trust, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Happy four years of blogging to me…

This was my first post four years ago.  I’ve written dozens of posts since, but I revisit this one to remind myself why I started.

So, why call a blog Common Sense School Leadership?  As far back as I can remember, when it comes to following someone, all I have ever wanted is to be led by someone with common sense.  It seems like a simple and practical wish.  Common sense leaders are confident in their ability, but also keenly aware that they don’t know it all.

Leaders with common sense have a balanced perspective on life and work.  They work hard and play hard and they never take themselves too seriously.  Common sense leaders protect their employees in the way that Todd Whitaker discusses in his book, Shifting the Monkey.  Common sense leaders intuitively know how to motivate, inspire, and challenge those who work for them.

Can anyone be a common sense leader?  Probably not, common sense is hard to teach.  You might be a common sense school leader if…

-your first thoughts are always centered on what’s best for students when solving problems.

-you see teachers as leadership assets in your building.

-you recognize your own power and reflect on whether your decisions are based on protecting or maintaining that power, or what’s best for your students and staff.

-you allow for some wait time before making important decisions.

-you value laughter and it can be heard throughout your building.

-you lean on others for advice and seek it out when you’ve made a mistake.

-you trust others, even before they’ve earned it.

Common sense leadership is needed now more than ever.  The number of changes occurring in schools across the country requires common sense leadership that can help students, teachers, and parents understand it all.  How about if we all try to be the common sense school leaders our communities deserve?

School Leadership: It’s like riding a motorcycle!

I began riding a motorcycle over two years ago.  I never had any intention of becoming a biker.  I was happy and busy and certainly didn’t need a new hobby.  I was 51 when I started.  Such a cliché.  Mid-life crisis, right?  Not really, but it’s hard to overcome appearances.  I blame my friends.  They started riding a few months before me, got their licenses, and took to riding like ducks to the water.  Every time we got together they would ask me when I was going to join them.  I scoffed at them, laughed, and tried to change the conversation, but they sowed a seed.  I finally gave in and tried out my friend’s bike.  I was hooked.  A week later I bought my first bike (I’m already on my second, it’s bigger and faster of course).  Over the past two years I have put in about 11,000 miles on my bike(s).  I’ve been to Key West, Daytona, and all over the Maryland/Delaware area.  The more I ride, the more I see the parallels between riding a motorcycle and school leadership.  Here are a few of those lessons learned:


Before I could take the motorcycle license test, I had to get experience.  You have to ride a motorcycle to get better at it, so for three months I was “riding dirty,” with no license.  I would ride around my neighborhood, never venturing too far.  One day I was at a stop sign.  I thought the bike was in first gear as I prepared to take off.  I wasn’t in first gear.  I was in neutral.  I picked up my feet (bad decision) hit the throttle and fell over.  Luckily, my body broke the bike’s fall.  I was bruised along the right side and very embarrassed.  It took me a while to re-build my confidence, but I did.

Lesson:  Riding a motorcycle and school leadership require balance.  School leaders who forget to nurture their personal lives will lose their balance and fall over.  Sub lesson: Never give up! 


Just after getting my license, I was heading down a very busy four lane highway.  I was behind my friends and decided to zoom past them for fun.  I didn’t see that the traffic in front of them had stopped.  I hit the back brake too hard and my bike started to fishtail.  I was headed into the back of a mini-van and swerved off the road into a grassy median strip to avoid a collision.  I stayed on the bike, went down a small hill, and gradually worked my way back to the road.  I was uninjured, but startled by how quickly things went bad.  I spent the next several weeks working on my braking skills.

Lesson:  Know when to slow down.  School leaders are always on the go.  Sometimes we have to hit the brakes and change our path to avoid burning out or colliding with others.

The Ride

Not all my lessons have come from mishaps.  Riding a motorcycle is freeing.  It’s like riding a roller coaster without the rails.  The people I ride with agree that once you learn to ride a motorcycle you gradually relax and think less about the “how” and start enjoying the “why.”  When you first start riding you’re thinking about the clutch, the gear shift lever, the brakes, the throttle and everything else that goes with staying up and on the road.  Later on, these become second nature and you begin to have fun.

Lesson:  Once you become an experienced school leader you can begin to enjoy the job in its entirety.  Try not to get so caught up in the minutiae that you fail to enjoy the children, the staff, and the parents.  Being a school leader is fun, enjoy the ride.


Riding a motorcycle takes patience.  One of the first things you learn in a motorcycle safety course is that you must assume that no one can see you.  Ride like you’re invisible.  Every time I get on the bike I must remind myself to “be cool.”  It doesn’t take long on a bike ride before someone in a car does something dangerous that puts you in peril.  If you internalize everything, it will consume you and you can easily become an aggressive rider.  Ride with confidence, but never assume others are paying attention to you.  Be cool.

Lesson:  You control your emotions and your response when things go wrong.  Be patient, take time, and breathe before you make important decisions.  Nothing good happens when decisions are made in anger. 


Being confident on a bike is important, but over-confidence is a problem.  I learn something new every time I ride.  I am always trying to improve my skills.  The moment you think you’ve mastered the skill of riding a motorcycle is the moment you need to put the bike away for good.  Humility on a motorcycle will keep you safe and, hopefully, alive.  After just two years of riding, I know I have much more to learn.

Lesson:  The best school leaders understand that their growth and learning needs to be continuous.  School leaders who think they’ve “arrived” will eventually find that their destination can never reached.  Overconfidence in school leadership leads to a lack of collaboration.  Schools need leaders who recognize their limitations and value the knowledge of others. 

Chrome up, rubber down.  Ride on!

Teamwork Gets Things Done!

In many school districts, students either have returned, or will be returning soon.  It’s an exciting time of the year filled with anticipation.  While summer fun is winding down, students, teachers, and parents are looking forward to the new school year.  Teamwork plays an important role in the success of schools.  The challenges of teaching and learning are far too great to be approached at the individual level alone.  What can schools do to build great teams?  What can they do to make sure that our schools are models of collaboration? Let’s hear from a few strong school leaders who understand the magic that happens when schools foster teamwork.

As I think about the importance of building great teams in elementary schools, this quote by Stephen Covey comes to mind, “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate, we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.” I believe that teamwork is at the heart of the important work we do in schools, because the work is so critical it cannot possibly be done in isolation. My belief is to model the importance of teamwork with teachers through various structures, such as my leadership team and school improvement team. I put relationships at the forefront of all the work that happens and trust develops over time between all staff members. If teachers can see the results of a highly effective leadership team and school improvement team, they will believe in the power of collaborative planning for instruction and will begin to see the academic benefit in their students’ scores. Modeling, guiding, setting expectations, and asking reflective questions are critical in the beginning stages of building teams that truly know how to collaborate. In the words of Roland Barth, “The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” I believe this at my core, and it is my hope that every administrator will believe this also.

Lisa Koennel/@LKoennel/ Principal, Richard Henry Lee Elementary

Building great teams within an elementary school is essential to creating a student-focused positive culture. It’s paramount to develop teacher leadership through intentional empowerment as a means to grow and develop high functioning teams. When you have teacher leaders who are willing to be selfless, committed, positive, and sacrifice for the good of the team, you have the makings of a great team. It is essential to build leadership and empower from within in order to facilitate the development and performance of school-based teams. Once you’ve created leadership within each team, the functionality of the team is enhanced from within. We develop teacher leaders through empowerment and strategic placement in positions where their talents are maximized and their ability to lead has the greatest impact on their team, and thus student achievement.

Chris Gordon/@Gordon_ChrisG/Principal, Point Pleasant Elementary

Beginning with the end in mind is so important. That “end” for different people on the team involves helping everyone attain a level of success, a level of leadership or embarking on and empowering others for the roles in which they aspire. All teams work towards both long and short term goals while operating within a shared vision and meeting established goals. Both are achieved by working collectively towards the attainment of these goals while cycling through the improvement process. On a personal level, it involves that collaborative work while fostering a sense of family. Building and maintaining the team includes open communication, accountability with commitment, a positive and optimistic attitude, trust and a level of reflective adaptability. I would never ask anyone to do something I am not willing to do or learn myself; walk the talk in a way that is inspiring to others.

Denise Faidley @DeniseFaidley/Assistant Principal, Glendale Elementary

Teams, for me, need to be diverse.  I need different perspectives and different personalities on the team.  I need to person that is creative-minded who comes up with an awesome plan, but I also need to person that brings that plan to life by looking at it logistically.  I need someone that is data-minded, paired up with the person who is going have resources and ideas of what to do with that data.  As we know, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and they need to be able to build on each other.  I need a team that maintains positivity, even during the hardest of times.  They need to be cheerleaders for each other and most importantly, for the kids.  I make this happen by making intentional decisions about who to place together and when I interview, I include the team members so we can collaboratively find teammates that work together well.

Cheryl Cox @CoxCherylcox628/Principal, Waugh Chapel Elementary/

Team building is always a hot topic in the business world and it is certainly as buzzed about in the field of education. Andrew Carnegie famously stated, “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Isn’t that what every leader desires; to achieve uncommon, amazing results! We are after all in the business of education youth, a most important profession.

As far as building a team, I don’t know if there is an exact formula. However, I know that I have always focused on modeling the characteristics and qualities of a positive team member. I attentively listen to the concerns, ideas, and opinions of others. I demonstrate a willingness to assist in any way possible. That could mean sweeping the floor in the cafeteria or teaching a small group of students. I let others know that their efforts, dedication, and hard work are valued and appreciated. I encourage the team when they are down. I am honest with my team in an effort to grow them individually and the team. I acknowledge, appreciate and utilize the individual talents of each team member.  In summary, I try to lead with kindness. I believe that when individuals know you care and are willing to go all in, team building is easier. Kindness and consideration builds trust and trust leads to teams working together towards a common vision.

Tamara Kelly @tamjkell/ Principal, Belle Grove Elementary

To me, building strong teams means giving teachers opportunities to have leadership roles along with providing guidance and expectations for what needs to be done. Having your pulse on what is happening while trying not to micromanage is a delicate balance. If folks feel micromanaged my thought is that you will have less buy in, if any at all. Also putting good (and consistent) structures in place will help make teams more effective. One last thought is creating an environment where reflection with thoughtful/non-judgmental questions are used to promote growth in your team members is key. This will also help build stronger teams.

In my eyes, leadership is about getting the most out of the people you are leading with the goal in mind to positively impact student achievement. If that is the case, they must have opportunities to take on these roles. The job has become increasingly complex, and we as principals can’t do it all. You must have people around you that believe in what they are doing, and taking on these roles to be active participants in effective structures. This will support your overall goal of enhanced student achievement.

Jason Otte @fishingfan24/Principal, Windsor Farm Elementary

Thanks to Lisa, Chris, Denise, Cheryl, Tamara, and Jason for sharing their sage advice.  Our students deserve schools that model teamwork and collaboration.  Most of us agree that these are skills that will make our students successful in the 21st century.  Content knowledge and strong communication skills are important, but our children will need to grasp the importance of relying on others and working together for the good of the team.  When school leaders and teachers model those skills, students learn to appreciate their value.  Best wishes on a great school year!

Advice from principals on how to get that first teaching job!

The hiring season is coming up for many school districts.  Excited and motivated young graduates will soon be applying for their first teaching position.  The thought of that first interview can make even the most confident aspiring teacher a little queasy.  Here are a few tips from veteran principals to make your interview a positive experience and help you get that job!

Donna Usewick (@dsusewick), principal at Oakwood Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland suggests the following:

“I think prospective teachers should be prepared to have specific examples when answering questions. For example, if they are asked what strategies they would use when teaching students to respond to text, they should have specific examples of what they have used and what they might want to try in the future.  They should also not be afraid to say, I didn’t have a lot of experience with something and why, but give the impression that they are willing to learn on their own or seek assistance.”

Jason Otte (@fishingfan24), principal at Windsor Farm Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland says:

“My tip would be to make sure that the teacher makes it clear they have a positive attitude and are open to being coached because there is so much to learn and demonstrate.  Specifically, I want to know how they will stay organized with all they will have on their plate.  By specific I mean, do they use a calendar, do they use binders for paperwork etc.?  At the end of the interview, I try to articulate exactly what I am looking for so that they can reflect and decide if this is the right place for them.”

Lisa Koennel (@LKoennel), principal at Ridgeway Elementary in Severn, Maryland offers this advice:

“My main suggestion is for candidates to let their personalities shine through in the interview. They should show their passion when answering questions by giving insight into their relationships with students and the impact they feel they can make on students’ lives.  I am always impressed when they demonstrate some knowledge of the school community by doing their homework prior to the interview.”

Ginger Henley (@miss_gingerann) principal at Walter S. Mills Parole Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland notes:

“The first thing I notice is how the candidate is dressed.  It sounds so simple but I have had candidates show up in LulaRoe leggings and very casual and/or unprofessional clothing.  I perceive that as the candidate is not taking the interview seriously, therefore it makes me cautious that they will not take the position and responsibilities seriously.  First impressions make a difference.  Secondly, brand new teachers need to show their passion for students in the interview.  No matter what question they are being asked, if they can gear their answer towards student success and their passion for the profession, it will set them apart from other candidates.  I can teach you what you need to know to be a successful teacher, but I cannot teach you passion for student success.  The candidate has to bring that to the classroom, the school building and the interview!”

Jeffery Haynie (@crazydukie), principal at Solley Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland encourages candidates as follows:

“They should have done their research to learn as much about the school as possible; how will their work impact the mission and vision of the school?  All of their answers should revolve around the students and the social, emotional, and academic impact. I always listen to the answers that are given… I don’t want a text book answer, I want to know that what they believe about students is firmly founded in each of their answers.”

Excellent suggestions from an experienced group of school leaders.  Teacher candidates should know that, sometimes, the decision to hire them, or not, will be based on the “right fit” idea.  It will take patience as you go from interview to interview.  If you’re fortunate, you may have more than one offer to consider.  If that’s the case, go with your gut.  Where did you feel more comfortable?  Which interview left you feeling inspired or motivated?  If you’re a qualified candidate, you will probably get a job.  Stay positive.  As mentioned above, show your passion.  Then, once you get the job, be prepared to work harder than ever.  Good luck!

Leading for Language

This article appears in the January/February 2017 edition of Principal magazine.  All rights reserved.

English Learners: A Principal’s Handbook

Kelly Reider and Christopher Wooleyhand

Kelly Reider is coordinator for English language acquisition at Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Christopher Wooleyhand is principal of Richard Henry Lee Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

How are schools currently meeting the needs of English language learners? Let’s take a look at the numbers. From 2003 to 2011, 600,000 new English learners entered schools across the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The gap on the NAEP reading assessment between fourth-grade English learners and their peers is 36 points, also according to NCES. Plus, in a 2013 study, the California Dropout Research Project found that English learners are twice as likely to drop out of school than those with English proficiency. Given these concerning statistics, many educators across the country are anxious to find comprehensive ways to support English learners. These five suggestions are a starting point for schools looking to make a difference in the lives of students who are just beginning to master the English language.

Focus on developing academic language. No student is a native speaker of academic language, the vocabulary and grammar we use in school to talk about academic content. For more and more students—not just English learners—there is an increasing gap between the language that students use socially and the language of school. Even though students may be highly intelligent and capable, they may still struggle in a school setting if they have not yet mastered certain terms and concepts. Schools need to assist students with understanding the differences between “formal and informal language and how to express themselves and their ideas in expected ways,” according to The Great Schools Partnership. Principals can:

  • Work with staff to identify the academic language requirements of their curriculum and provide not only content objectives but also academic language objectives in their lesson planning.

Encourage teachers to focus on all three levels of WIDAs (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) features of academic language: vocabulary usage, language forms and conventions, and linguistic complexity. Teachers can provide sentence frames to teach students the target language and to scaffold their use of academic language.

  • Provide opportunities for interactive speaking activities that support student-to-student practice with structure and vocabulary, since oral language development is the precursor to literacy.
  • Make academic language development a schoolwide focus. Encourage authentic and meaningful opportunities that simulate real-life learning via project based learning, communication for a purpose, and the immediate application of academic language skills. Teachers can and should model academic language daily.

Offer comprehensive professional development. “Drive-by” professional development—those one-time sessions of sharing tips and strategies—are not effective for building a lasting culture of language development. Ongoing, job-embedded programs and planning builds staff buy-in and gives teachers the time and space to improve their efforts. Principals can:

  • Encourage teachers to participate in PD about English learners that combines face-to-face sessions, coaching, modeling (live and video), team planning, and professional learning communities, as well as online formats for book studies or discussion between sessions.
  • Give teachers the freedom to choose from a variety of resources and strategies according to their personal background and skills as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” approach
  • Provide professional development on English language development for both content teachers and English teachers. English language learners spend most of their day in mainstream classrooms.
  • Use teacher planning time to jump-start collaboration by having teams work together on classroom plans and projects.

Provide structures for ongoing collaboration and job-embedded professional development. Your English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher is not just a valuable resource for students, but also a language development expert with much to share. Make it clear that you support the role of language experts. Principals can:

  • Showcase the knowledge of the ESOL teacher at staff meetings by having him or her be part of a grade-level teams and by having them take a collaborative planning role.
  • Provide opportunities for co-teaching and co-planning as a professional development tool. Content and language teachers can share their knowledge through planning and delivery.

Foster a culture that values relationships, equity, and diversity. Schools should see diversity as an asset and home language skills as an enrichment. Encourage your staff to be self-aware of the way their own background, relationships, and assumptions may interfere with relationships and learning in a diverse classroom. Principals can:

  • Use videos and/or book studies to generate conversations with your school community. Some options are: The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande; La Bestia, a film about a child’s journey from Central America to the United States; and Kids Like Me: Voices of the Immigrant Experience by Judith Blohm.
  • Conduct bus tours of your school neighborhoods to allow teachers the opportunity to identify available resources (churches, recreation centers, clinics, library, athletic fields). This may prompt valuable discussions on the impact of the community on student attendance and achievement.

Promote parent involvement. Research shows that one of the most accurate predictors of a student’s achievement in school, regardless of income or social status, is how a child’s family fosters learning in the home and how much they are involved in their child’s education. In their 2011 book, Home-School Relations: Working Successfully with Parents and Families, Glenn Olsen and Mary Lou Fuller found that the dilemma for many schools is how to involve parents in their children’s schooling amid language barriers, immigration status, and work schedules. Principals can:

  • Knock down barriers to English learner parents’ attending school functions by providing interpretation and translation at all parent meetings and events. Arrange child care, provide food, and offer events at different hours of the day to attract parents who work different hours or perhaps several jobs. Offer transportation to school meetings or take the meeting to the community at recreation centers or churches.
  • Create focus groups of parents to hear their concerns or needs. For schools with one large English learner community, schools can provide targeted community sessions, such as a Hispanic Parents Group, which would give ownership to parents to set their own agenda around school issues. Schools can make sure that all parents are connected to the school communications via email and phone access.
  • Encourage English learner parents to volunteer. Consider each parent’s strengths and how each can contribute in his or her own way. Many English learner parents feel uncomfortable in classrooms but are willing to help during lunch or monitor students at recess. Principals should make it clear to parents that it is natural to feel uncomfortable at first, but to stay involved. Provide a contact person that EL parents can go to for questions and concerns.

Closing the achievement gap and lowering the dropout rate must be a priority for school districts across the country. School leaders should recognize that the best strategies for English learner students are also highly effective strategies for all students. Schools that are strategic in their planning will find that the more we address the academic language needs of their English learners, the more successful all students will be. This is the essence of leading for language and the starting point to a rewarding journey.