3 Phrases That Will Change How You Lead

Changing how we lead isn’t always easy, in fact changing behavior can be downright difficult.  We have to consciously work to shift behaviors that may have been ingrained over time. We’ve practiced behaviors that may come naturally but we have to ask ourselves is it really working? Our schools desperately need leaders who are willing to change and seek out new opportunities.  

As I spend time with educators, I have become more aware of the ingrained language we collectively use in education.  Language has power. Too often I hear the same words or phrases used by leaders that indicate a culture of powerlessness or that unintentionally supports the status quo.  Here are just a few common responses I hear to new ideas or opportunities: Great idea, but we don’t have the time (or money, or staff). We’ve never done it that way. We have too much on our plate right now. Let’s form a committee to talk more about it.  ALL of these responses have become habitual and actually shut down possibility and opportunity before they even have a fighting chance.  

If you want to start seeing potential where others see problems, try shifting from a language of status quo to a language of possibility.   Practice incorporating the following three phrases to change your pattern of thinking into your daily work and I think you’ll be surprised with how these subtle shifts can open up new opportunities for the team and organization you lead.

  1. Yes, and…  Creativity is fueled by the uplifting words and actions of others. When faced with a new idea it can be tempting to offer a “yes, but..” pointing out reasons why it may not work. Instead try to build on the idea, but adding a “yes, and..”  Focus on taking someone’s idea and making it bigger. “Yes, and….promotes a positive dialogue whereas “yes, but . . . ,” shuts down the conversation.

  2. How might we…?  These three words are  powerful because the “how” implies there is not yet an answer and there is room for discovery, the “might” implies there is a world of possibility, and the “we” implies we are in this together. “How might we . . . ?” becomes an irresistible invitation to the work. Once people accept your invitation, you can continually nudge them further.

  3. What if…?  These two little words are quite possibly my favorite two words when combined, because together they have so much power. The utterance of these two words opens up a world of possibilities and signifies that the person asking them doesn’t have all the answers. They are open to exploring new ideas. One person asking, “What if . . . ?” is intriguing, and a collective group of thought leaders or educators within an organization asking, “What if . . . ?” is powerful.

What are some ways you might incorporate these phrases into your work? What are some habits in your language that maybe blocking what you need to change? I’d love to hear about the new possibilities and opportunities that shifting your language can create.

The Report Card as a Design Challenge

“Mommy, can I open my report card?” Jake asked me at least three times on our four-minute walk home from the last day of school. I was a little surprised at his eagerness as we’ve never made grades a big deal in our house, but he just finished third grade and was clearly excited to see how he had done.  He was also excited to read what his teacher had written about his progress this year. I convinced both boys to hold off on opening report cards until after dinner when we could look at them as a family. I don’t know if it was the additional anticipation or the hope that somehow the report card would be different at the end of the year, but opening the report card was a disappointing experience for us all.

It was the box standard LAUSD report card that assigned students a numerical value on a 4 point scale.  Both boys had a fantastic year, their report cards were full of 3s and 4s. We read off the categories and celebrated success, but were unable to answer the simplest of questions.  Owen, who is very talented athletically, asked why he only received a 3 in PE. No clue. Then we moved on to teacher comments which consisted of a few pre-written comments that teachers click on. That was it.  After 180 days of learning that was all the information we received. Sadly, as a parent, I was disappointed but not surprised. I was surprised that my boys wanted more. They wanted comments from their teachers on what they excelled at and what they might need to work on.  Now I totally get that our teachers (whom we love) were following LAUSD protocols and did everything they were told to do, but I wonder if their practices might change if they saw what it was like for a student to open the report card. What an opportunity for a redesign!

Having been a part of “Report Card Redesign Projects” at the district level, I know what a long bureaucratic process it can become. Don’t get me wrong it is important that we tackle these problems at the systems level, but I don’t think it should stop innovation at the school or teacher level.  What if we empowered teachers or school leaders to redesign their own report card? What if schools started with a question—How might we design a report card that provides meaningful and actionable information in a parent-student friendly manner?— and then empowered those closest to students to do something about it.  Yes, we may still be required to have the official standard report card, but there is nothing to say that schools or teachers can’t attach their own documentation. Here are two examples I have personally seen in action that make a difference for students and learning.

  • School: Design 39 in Poway has questioned everything, so it’s no surprise that they are also rethinking how to report student progress.  They are choosing to report student progress via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards. Growth Guides weren’t anything fancy, in fact when I visited Design 39 their first iteration of a growth guide was an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.

  • Teacher: When I worked as a principal, I had a rockstar team of first grade teachers who never felt that the “district report card” was enough so they created their own. As a team, they worked together to create a template of the types of learning feedback they wanted to share in narrative form. They wrote about students’ strengths, areas of growth and areas for improvement - including opportunities for summer learning and reinforcement.  

What does your current report card communicate to parents and students about the last 180 days of learning?  What is their experience opening the report card? Does this experience match your core beliefs about learning?  If not, don’t wait—redesign it! Like others you may still have to complete the required, official documents but there is nothing to say you can’t add your own. The more clearly we can share authentic feedback with students, the more engaged they become in their own learning process.

Celebrate, Support & Empower Teachers (Especially the Rulebreakers)

In the midst of the last week of school chaos, I find myself being very reflective about the year.  I am filled with deep gratitude and appreciation for teachers. I love seeing students walking to school with cards, flowers, and gifts for their teachers who deserve this appreciation and so much more. Do we appreciate and celebrate teachers enough through the school year?  Do our current methods of appreciation and support encourage teachers to stick with the status quo? How might we shift our support if we are hoping teachers will join us in reimagining learning for students? What would it look like if we supported and empowered teachers to no longer conform to an archaic school system?


As Ted Dintersmith details in his latest book, “What Should Could Be: Insights & inspiration from Teachers Across America”  innovative teachers all over America are bucking the system and showing us the way forward, they are refusing to conform to practices that don’t meet the needs of students.  While inspiring to read about these “rulebreaker” teachers, rule-breaking isn’t always received well within school communities. Education isn’t alone, most industries don’t welcome those who challenge their long standing wisdom or practices.  If we are going to ask our staff and faculty to intentionally challenge the way we have always done things, then we must also support and empower them.

Reflecting back on my time as a school leader, here are three strategies that I found useful to both support and empower teachers who were ready to shake things up:

  • Give Permission - As silly as it sounds give teachers explicit permission to question and rattle the collective mindset.  Teachers may experiment, but they are unlikely to challenge the status quo without the support of the school leader. And while talking about permissions, teachers shouldn’t ever need permission to: make the best instructional decisions for students in their class, be learners in front of their students, or take risks that benefit students.  This is only the beginning of what could be a very long list, but you get the idea. What permissions do you need to give your teachers?

  • Be Explicit About What Outdated Practices Can Be Left Behind - Remember that memo was that sent out 5 years ago detailing a testing protocol for math facts? Me either, but some administrators and teachers do.  With the best of intentions, they will follow the established rules until they are told otherwise. Explicitly communicate which practices can be thrown out to create space for new ones. Or even better, are there outdated practices you might encourage your teachers to question?

  • Provide Air Cover - The idea of air cover comes from the military world. It essentially means that aircraft are used to provide protection for ground forces when they are engaged in a difficult operation against possible enemy attacks. While teachers may not be physically attacked, those in our schools who are making changes can sometimes feel under attack from parents, the central office or even sadly, from their colleagues. Where can you provide air cover for those making changes at your school?

Knowing there are big challenges ahead for all educators, let’s support and empower our teachers to question rules, traditions, and practices.  A school leader questioning “the way we have always done things” can be very powerful, but imagine if EVERY teacher at a school was engaged in the same process. So yes, let’s celebrate our teachers for providing another year of learning for kids, but more importantly, let’s empower and support them to teach outside the lines. Collective and intentional rule-breaking can help us step into the universe of possibility.

What Rules are Getting in Your Way?

Challenge Rules With a Simple 1-2-3 Approach

It’s budgeting season, which means as a parent volunteer I am spending more time than usual at  in budget meetings.  The goal is pretty straight forward - plan a budget for the 2018-2019 school year that aligns with our school’s charter and is responsive to the needs to of our students.  We’ve had an incredible fundraising year, so you’d think these meetings would be fun and full of possibilities. Sadly, the meetings seem to be filled with what we can’t do, bureaucratic red tape, union rules and time constraints.  Quite honestly, they are some of the most frustrating meetings I have ever attended and I know I am not alone in experiencing this. In fact the majority of our k-12 educational organizations are strongly bound by rules and traditions. Instead of approaching new ideas with a “yes, and” attitude, it is not uncommon to hear all of the “yeah, butts” first.  I wonder how many times new ideas are shut down without a lot of dialogue because people see that the new idea might violate a rule, routine or tradition.

The culture of schools is radically at odds with the culture of learning necessary for innovation.
— Tony Wagner

For most of us, the rituals and routines of schools have become well-established habits.  We don’t even question them anymore or have any expectations that school should operate any differently than it is - especially when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  But what if all of these rituals, routines and rules are actually get in our way? What if they are getting in the way of learning for students? What if they are getting in the way of our teachers who are trying to innovate?  Shouldn’t we do something to change them?

Let’s all channel our inner rule-breaker and see if it helps us make progress.  Go ahead... break a rule! We don’t encourage rule breaking lightly, but what if you took the time to look at the obstacles in your way and challenge them. They might not even be that big of an obstacle in the first place. In fact, what is the simplest thing you can reimagine that will have the most profound impact?  Is there something small, a practice or a rule that has bothered you at your school? If so, investigate it using a simple one-two-three approach:

  1. Identify one simple rule or practice getting in your way,

  2. Ask why the rule or practice exists, and

  3. Modify the rule or practice to make a big impact.

Here’s an example of a teacher who had great success breaking a rule.  Ashley Auspelmyer, the lead teacher of Studio D, a school within a school at Westwood High School, ran into a challenge with the established hall pass rule. Not uncommon, Westwood has a rule that states any student out of class must be in possession of a hall pass and each classroom is only given one or two hall passes to pass out at any one time. Yet, as an interdisciplinary school, the expectation for Studio D  is that students are not limited to a classroom setting; they are out and about talking to people as a part of their learning. How could Studio D support this type of learning, with only one hall pass for 116 students? After identifying the rule that was getting in the way of learning, Ashley printed 116 hall passes, one for every student in Studio D. In the future, Ashley hopes that this modification of the “hall pass rule” will lead to a culture change across the entire school, one that says we can trust our students to do the right thing. A bathroom hall pass rule seems like a small thing, yet it was a huge barrier to the type of learning experience they were trying to create.  

What rule, practice or tradition will you question?  I know the next time I attend a school budget meeting, I am going to actively work to turn any “yeah, butts” into a “yes, and…” by having examples of other schools who have found a way around the constraint in question.  I’d love to hear about your experiences. What rules, practices or traditions are getting in your way?

When Was the Last Time You Were Bored?

“When was the last time you were bored?” was the question posed by Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant, host of @Notetoself, during a session at SXSWedu earlier this month.  The question stumped me. The last time I was bored?  I’m a working mom of two elementary school kids currently launching my first book who also volunteers to run our school’s foundation.  Who has time to be bored? I can’t remember being bored since at least 2008. Who cares?  And yet, the question lingered and nagged at me long after Manoush’s session.  On the flight home, other questions started flooding my mind. When had life become so busy? Was I wearing busy as a badge of honor?  How much did my phone and all the apps, dings, texts and notifications contribute to my business? Was any of it necessary? And worse, what was I teaching my kids by living such a busy life largely dictated by my phone?

In Bored and Brilliant, Manoush shares incredible research about how our smartphones are not only taking control of our lives but are actually reshaping our brains.  She offers seven challenges to help you establish a baseline for your habits and clear some of the noise to create the space for boredom.  Was I ready to take on the challenge?

When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as we were headed to Mexico for five days.  Sharing what I learned with my family, I committed to really disconnecting for our vacation.  No facebook, Instagram, Twitter or email. I was ready to turn it all off. When I told my boys, they cheered (and I knew they would hold me accountable!)  We all agreed our goal was to get bored and it was the best thing we have done as a family in a long time. Our days were filled with sandcastles, ice cream cones, and naps in hammocks.  I felt so happy watching Owen, my seven-year-old, laying by the side of the pool watching a line of ants do their thing. It was then that I decided I wanted more of this and I was capable of making it happen at home as well.  

Vacations end all too quickly and life resumes with all the daily challenges.  While life isn’t as slow as it was on vacation, we have managed to slow it down.  Getting bored is now an option at our house. We are creating space for thinking, creativity, and downtime that we hadn’t done before.  Thank you Manoush, for reminding me that I am in control of when my phone gets to interrupt my life and I don’t need all those notifications all the time.  Thank you for helping me see how important my habits are in setting the tone for those around me. It will be an ongoing journey for sure, but given the choice, I’ll choose the boredom badge over the busy badge anytime!

When was the last time you were bored?