Esprit de Corps: Creating Positive School Relationships

Back to School

From my years as an elementary school principal, I still recall the excitement and anticipation of the new school year when teachers returned to prepare for the arrival of their students.  It is a special feeling and one that continues to stir within me every year around this time. Teachers buzzing about arranging their classrooms with desks, chairs and tables and colorful decorations that were both functional and fun.  Materials and supplies neatly organized and readied for day one.  Teachers visiting one another’s classrooms exclaiming how wonderful they were and looking for ideas that could be added to their own. 

I recall one year when an intermediate teacher informed me that she would not be setting up her classroom prior to the students arrival.  Instead, students would arrive to an empty room without anything on the walls and furniture and materials stacked in the hallway.  She felt strongly that it was the students’ responsibility to arrange and decorate the classroom, not hers.


It was an interesting proposal and one that I wholeheartedly supported given her rationale.  When students arrived, they were bewildered and invigorated at the same time.  I recall the students, sitting on the floor of an empty classroom, listening with curiosity to the teacher explaining to them that this was their classroom as much as it was hers and together they would be able to arrange and decorate it.  She emphasized that they were going to be a team and that strong teams worked together to solve problems and make decisions while respecting the opinions of others. 

Students were arranged in teams and were asked to generate multiple ideas that they would be able to present to their classmates for approval, revision or rejection.  Various standards in language and math were creatively woven into the project as students wrote, calculated and presented to one another.  Over those first few days, more and more ideas were put into place and the classroom began to take shape.     

She emphasized that they were going to be a team and that strong teams worked together to solve problems and make decisions while respecting the opinions of others.

As a student of leadership, I realized that what was happening in this class was different from many others.  Phrases such as “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship” are often posted in classrooms. While those sayings are both noble and true, this class went a step further.  This class was not only about teacher/student relationships but relationships between students.  It was a quest to establish an esprit de corps among the entire class—teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student.  In time, parents became part of the equation, too. 

They established an identity by creating a class name, symbol, flag, song, pledge and agreements that would bind them together as one.  When you asked students what class they were in they didn’t state the teacher’s name, they stated their team’s name.  Students felt that they were part of something bigger than themselves.

What I observed over the course of the year was a tight-knit group with an attitude that no obstacle was too large for them to conquer.  Students were taught skills not only in self-regulation but also in how to help others in the group with their behaviors, social skills and academic learning.

es·prit de corps
/eˌsprē də ˈkôr/

a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.

Students set academic goals for the class, not just themselves.  Students learned to work together in teams to teach, support and encourage one another.  The teacher involved students in the lesson planning process, seeking input as to how to best teach content in a way that students would find motivating.  Motivation became everyone’s responsibility, not just the teacher’s.

When assessment results became available, team results were examined before individual results.  Students learned the concept of mutual accountability and realized that their efforts contributed to the overall group.  Celebrations were not just for individual achievement but for class achievement. 

Everyone had to learn how to accept criticism, handle rejection and check their egos.

That is not to say that this was always a smooth process.  Establishing an esprit de corps never is.  The students—and even the teacher—had to learn how to get their needs met within the structure of the team. Everyone had to learn how to accept criticism, handle rejection and check their egos.  Reflection was a central part of this project with team meetings held regularly to analyze potential problems and solve existing problems away from the heat of the moment.  

At the beginning of each year we have to remember that students’ social lives have been disrupted.  They are concerned about who their teacher will be and also which students will be their classmates.  Teachers have a unique opportunity at the start of the year to begin to foster an esprit de corps among their students that will allow them to thrive individually and collectively, socially and academically. 


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Thriving in the Meteor Shower of Back-to-School Initiatives

Meteor Shower

One of the brighter meteor showers of the year—Perseids—occurs every year at the end of July and the beginning of August.  It is spectacular not only because of its brightness but because, on a good night, you can see up to 60 to 100 meteors in an hour if the conditions are right.  Recently, after spending the day working with school leaders in preparing for the upcoming school year, I sought refuge in the quiet night and settled in to watch this spectacle.  The sky did not disappoint.  As I watched, my mind kept thinking about the similarities between the night sky and the work I had engaged in with school leaders during the day. 

School leaders had communicated to me that they were concerned about the overwhelming number of new and updated initiatives that they were attempting to implement during the upcoming school year.  They also realized that all initiatives were new to the new teachers they had hired over the summer.  The list ranged from school-based to district or even state-based initiatives, academic initiatives such as new reading programs, updated math materials, new technology, new instructional strategies, social and emotional initiatives and the like.  Each of these blistered across the landscape of the new year like the meteors that showered the night sky.

They also shared with me how they felt as they sat through their own personal Perseids when their district held its well-intentioned annual leadership retreat full of high-speed presentations from various departments designed to inform administrators of the new and revised initiatives for the upcoming school year.  School leaders were now faced with how to communicate—and implement—these changes to and with their faculties while avoiding the same rapid overload they had just experienced.

I am sure there are many school administrators who feel as if they live in the middle of a meteor shower with initiatives and directives zooming by with every new meeting and email.  To help manage this chaotic and complex environment, here are some key points from school leaders who were trying to navigate this shower in a way that was respectful and user-friendly to teachers.

Not All Meteors are Equal:
Discern the most important initiatives

While the beauty of the meteor shower consisted of the various streaks of light across the night sky, it was not that hard to distinguish between the spectacular and the not-so-spectacular.  Similarly, great school leaders possess the ability to know the difference between what is insignificant, important, and most important.  This skill—discernment—is a critical skill necessary to survive—and thrive—in the meteor shower.   

To assist in helping school leaders discern what is most important, each school made a list of all the initiatives that were to be implemented during the school year regardless of origin.  Needless to say, there was no shortage of meteors on each school’s list!

The next step was to put the lists aside and instead of focusing on the initiatives, focus on the student achievement needs of each school.  School leaders knew that they first had to be clear on their most important student achievement goals and the gaps in their performances, and then ascertain how well the initiatives aligned with closing those gaps.  They realized that many of the new initiatives, while legitimate, did not always address their most important needs. 

It was a challenging task because the case could be made that everything on the list was important; however, the school leaders realized that if everything was deemed important, nothing was going to be important.  They also understood that to be successful they had to do a few things very well—not everything.  The key was to identify those few things.

As a result, those initiatives that aligned with the schools most urgent needs were given the highest priority in term of attention, time and implementation.  Other initiatives were delayed, or given lower priority, which meant that they would be addressed but with significantly less intensity and effort.  Other initiatives were eliminated or received “compliance treatment.”     

Encourage Brilliance
Be diligent in focusing on what is most important

While observing the Perseids meteor shower, I certainly had no impact on the length or intensity of the meteors.  However, school leaders had considerable influence over the intensity and length of time for how programs were to be implemented in their schools.  They valued their teachers and were empathetic to how challenging it is to simultaneously teach and learn new skills as teachers are asked to do.  They knew that if posed with too many initiatives, teachers wouldn’t have the opportunity to become skillful enough in those that were most important.  They also wanted to avoid the “illusion of change” whereby initiatives are presented but with no real follow-up. 

To remedy this, once school leaders identified the initiatives that aligned with their greatest student achievement needs, they calculated the amount of time and resources—or organizational capacity—that they possessed to truly implement their initiatives in a manner that resulted in both strengthening instruction and in increasing student achievement.  School leaders calculated minutes available during teacher pre-service days and throughout the year that could be used to support teachers in learning these new skills.  Each school then examined the human capital, such as instructional coaches, administrators, district personnel and external providers, who could assist in a successful implementation.

It became apparent that even with narrowing the scope of new initiatives and allocating time and resources, school administrators continued to be concerned that they did not have enough time or resources to provide the high-quality follow-up and feedback necessary to develop a high level of skill in multiple initiatives for all teachers.  Administrators were juggling multiple meteors, too.   

The key was for school leaders to clearly define what a high-quality implementation for each initiative looked like.  Furthermore, they created implementation progressions that described what implementation would look like at the early, developing, consistent, and impactful levels of development.  These tools would serve as roadmaps that would not only provide clarity about the different levels of performance but also allow teachers to self-assess their current levels, track their own progress and seek out support that was specific to their needs.  

On a regular basis, each teacher would complete a self-assessment and set short-term implementation targets for each initiative to be shared with administrators who could monitor growth, arrange support and hold teachers accountable for meeting performance expectations.  By focusing on specific areas of growth, it would help alleviate the pressure for teachers to learn all aspects of the new initiatives immediately.  Teachers who already possessed skills or who developed skills quickly could progress at their own rates, and teachers who needed more time and support would progress at a pace that aligned with their personal skill levels. 

The success of most initiatives depends on the ability of teachers and administrators to be diligent in focusing on what is most important over a long period of time.  Many well-intentioned initiatives have gone by the wayside because people got caught up in the ever-present meteor shower and lost focus on what was most important. 

To help with this, school leaders developed a system by which every two weeks, teachers—based on their self-assessments—would write their targets on an index card and post it in their rooms.  During walkthroughs, administrators would be able to write specific, targeted feedback on the back of these cards.  At the end of the two weeks, teachers would add their own reflections and submit the index card to an administrator followed by writing new target cards.  The ultimate goal was for teachers to self-assess their own learning and take charge of their own professional development on the school’s most important initiatives. 

Impact Student Achievement

Life in schools—particularly at the beginning of each school year—can be like living in the middle of a meteor shower.  New and revised initiatives fly in from all directions.  A skilled leader will

  • determine the most important needs of their students and which initiatives align with those needs.
  • provide clarity as to what the initiative should look like in the classroom.
  • allow teachers to take responsibility for deliberately developing their skills in a reasonable environment.
  • provide support so that each teacher can progress to a level of development that impacts student achievement.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

Historic Florida School Rises Again

“F” stands for FAST, not Failure

Fessenden Elementary School in Ocala, Florida has had its fair share of challenges over the past 150 years.  Opened in 1868 with the original mission of educating freed slaves, Fessenden provided educational opportunities for African American students during a time when racism and racial segregation were the norm.

Today, Fessenden Elementary School, a racially integrated school that is part of the Marion County School District, continues its quest to serve students who live in poverty.  And, once again, it has overcome its latest challenge—a school grade of “F” issued from the State of Florida in 2018.  As one of only twenty-five elementary schools in Florida with such a designation, Fessenden found itself in the lowest one-half percent of schools in the State.  However, by embracing the mindset that “F” represented Fessenden Fast, not failure, the historic school demonstrated significant growth and earned a school grade of “C” after only one year.    

To effect this growth, a team of committed teachers, staff and school administrators, along with support from the Marion County Public Schools, the State of Florida School Bureau of School Improvement, and external school turnaround support from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc., helped Fessenden take its next step towa the prominence deserving of its history.   

To begin the journey, a new principal had to be hired, a team of committed teachers and staff had to be put in place, and a turnaround plan had to be designed and put in place—fast

Identifying a Leader

The first move that Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Grantham and Area One Director Melissa Kinard had to make was the hiring of a new principal—Lacy Redd.  An experienced Florida administrator, Ms. Redd had experience in multiple districts and multiple schools where there were large number of students who lived in poverty.  Fessenden would become her newest challenge. 

Building a Team

The next step was for Ms. Redd to build a cohesive team out of the returning staff members and replace multiple teachers who left the school through normal attrition or through mandated transfers dictated by the State due to performance.  Hiring a quality staff when qualified teachers were limited and the stigma of being an “F” school was ever-looming proved to be a challenge.   Over the course of the year, the churn of teacher turnover remained constant with numerous teachers being hired, many classes having multiple teachers throughout the year, and some classrooms being staffed by substitutes. 

To help provide support to the instructional staff, Ms. Redd and her assistant principal, Ms. Lisa Coy, rebuilt their leadership team to include instructional support personnel.  By the end of the first semester, three instructional coaches—Ms. Courtney Hauck (Math), Ms. Angela Slagle (English/Language Arts) and Dr. Suzy Colvin (Multi-Tiered Support)—were added to the team. 

Phase One: Fessenden Fast

Ms. Redd realized from the onset that strong instructional processes had to  be in place for Fessenden to be successful.  To assist with this task, Ms. Redd turned to a partner with whom she had worked before—Mark Rolewski from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc.  Having served as a turnaround principal himself and working with turnaround schools from across the country for the past twenty years, Mr. Rolewski helped Ms. Redd design and implement Phase One of the turnaround process—Fessenden Fast, where the “F” grade represented “fast,” not failure.   

Fessenden Fast combined a results-oriented, collaborative, standards-based instructional approach in which teams generated common laser-like goals and used common short- and mid-cycle formative assessments to determine the effectiveness of their instruction.  Recognizing that only one out of every four students at Fessenden was reading at grade level and armed with data generated from the frequent assessments, teams were able to make timely instructional decisions and provide additional opportunities to learn—within and outside of the regular classroom—for students who were struggling. 

Teachers remained focused and diligent throughout the year by engaging in ongoing, team-centered professional development that strengthened skills in collaborative planning, instruction, and reflection, and created a culture of mutual accountability centered on results.  Teams were also provided with opportunities to develop high-quality student tasks aligned with the standards and learned brain-based instructional techniques designed to engage all students—particularly those who live in poverty—in learning. 

Phase Two: Fessenden Forward!

Of course, building a school that lives up to the reputation of its past requires more than a one-year commitment.  Therefore, formal planning for 2019-20 began in January 2019, long before the results of Phase One were known.  Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is designed to build on the strengths of Fessenden Fast and further lay the foundation for continued improvement at the storied school.  The five components of Fessenden Forward! focus on the school team strengthening their ability to know their students, teams, standards, instruction and results.

Fessenden is a school that was created to beat the odds.  A committed group of people with clear goals and path can continue to create a school that is deserving of its history.  As third grade teacher,Ms. AJ Vereen stated, “I’m excited about the 2019-20 school year.  Let’s go!”  Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is already underway!

There is No Freedom without Education

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Happy Independence Day!  As we celebrate this holiday with fireworks, patriotic songs and picnics, we should take a moment to reflect not only on our current freedoms but also our continuing obligation to continue our journey to create a more perfect union for all Americans.

Today, among all the festivities, is a good day to take time to read—or re-read—The Declaration of Independence.  Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson in consultation with the Committee of Five, it outlined the colonies’ intention to be absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.  It’s only a ten-minute read, even less if you skip over the body of the document devoted to outlining the specific grievances against the King.   

Most Americans are familiar with the part of the preamble which outlines our individual rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

The remainder of the preamble emphasizes that the new government would derive “their just power from the consent of the governed” and that it is the responsibility of the “People” to institute, alter and, if necessary, abolish a government to achieve these rights. 

Four score and seven years later, President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address recounted this point when he referred to a “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”.

These are the freedoms that are celebrated today—the freedom to govern ourselves to ensure that our rights cannot be taken away or infringed upon by a possessor. 

However, we must also reflect on my second point—our obligation to sustain and improve upon a form of governance that protects and, as appropriate, expands to all our citizens the freedoms our Forefathers worked so hard to secure. 

We must recognize that fundamental to sustaining and refining such a form of government is a strong educational system which provides everyone the opportunity to learn our true history—both the positive and negative—and to learn how to engage civilly in the discourse necessary to effectively govern ourselves.  That is our obligation.  It is an ongoing effort that must be persistently addressed in our federal, state and local governments as well as in every school district, school, classroom and home. 

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Jarvis in 1820:

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

So today I celebrate the courage of our Founding Fathers to declare their independence and their wisdom in recognizing that education must be a centerpiece of sustainability and progress.  Additionally, I applaud all those who continue to educate, support and invest in our schools as we persist in our efforts to create a more perfect union for ALL Americans.  For without them, we wouldn’t be celebrating with fireworks, patriotic songs and picnics.

Happy Independence Day! 


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



What are you waiting for?

498 words
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Are you asking the most important questions?

Effective school leaders who find themselves leading lower-achieving schools must have a clear focus on theStudent in front of blackboard with complex problem on board. one most important thing in school—student learning.  However, with most schools already in session for nearly a month, many leaders still aren’t monitoring student learning as closely as they should.

Here is a typical conversation I have with school leaders during this time of year.  See how you would answer the questions at the end.

I notice that the first unit of study listed in your 3rd grade Mathematics curriculum map consisted of 10 days and focused on exploring equal groups as a foundation for multiplication and division and included the following standards:  3.OA.1.1, 3.OA.1.2, 3.OA.1.3 and 3.OA.3.7.  I also notice that the unit has already been completed.

      • How many students met the criteria for mastery of these standards? 
      • How does that number compare to your overall goal for proficiency in Mathematics for this school year?

Do you have the answers?

If so, you should be on your way to developing the habits that get your school off to a great start.  You are communicating to your team that you are a results-driven leader and influencing them to always be examining if their instructional decisions are impacting learning.

If not, you have to ask yourselfHow many students met the criteria for mastery of these standards? if student achievement is truly your number one priority and if it is, if your leadership aligns with that belief.  In my experience, leaders who closely monitor the outcome—(student learning)—not just the process (e.g., checking lesson plans and walking through classrooms and providing feedback on instruction)—know the answer to these questions and so do their teachers.

The early weeks of the school year are critical to establishing the habits for long term success and effective schools already have feedback—in the form of data—to determine the effectiveness of  their instructional decisions on the standards that have already been taught.  With the feedback gained from this type of system, leaders and teachers receive timely feedback necessary to quickly determine not only if their achievement levels align with their overall goals but, more importantly, if their interventions are working and if any changes need to be made in their teaching.

What do you need?

To be able to accurately answer these questions, five things must be in place.

    • Common student achievement goals
    • Common unit assessments aligned with the standards and levels of cognitive complexity
    • Common scoring to ensure consistency
    • Collective and transparent reporting of achievement data
    • Ongoing opportunities for students to demonstrate growth or mastery

Too many low achieving schools wait for the results of benchmark assessments that are administered way too infrequently and don’t provide timely feedback that allows for rapid decision making.  You have to ask yourself if student achievement is truly your number one priority and if it is, if your leadership aligns with that belief.You simply can’t wait for an entire quarter for this information!  While these types of measures are important and should be part of a school’s assessment palette, the results generated from such assessments should validate what you already know from the data you have been gathering all along.

What are you waiting for?


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Teachers AND Teaching: The Leadership Decisions that Matter Most

Teacher Moving is Only the First Step

People and ProcessThis is the time of year when leaders make their most important decisions.  When it comes down to it, there are two critical factors that will determine the student achievement results for the upcoming year—teachers and teaching.

No doubt, school administrators are spending considerable time thinking about teacher “moving”: retaining their most effective teachers, replacing teachers who won’t be returning, and reassigning teachers so that they may become more effective.

Administrators know that if they are able to replace a less skillful teacher with a more skillful one, they upgrade the instruction in their school.  Conversely, they know that if they replace a skillful teacher with a less skillful one, the overall quality of instruction decreases.

Great attention is also being paid to placing teachers on the right teams in hopes that they will find the right “chemistry” that will allow them to work together in a highly collaborative manner.

Strengthening Teaching  is the Critical Step

However, improving instruction through personnel changes and reorganization of staff is limited.  The most effective school administrators understand that the real power is in strengthening the teaching in their schools.

Strengthening instruction within a school is challenging as it must ultimately result in changing the behavior of teachers both inside and outside the classroom.  And, for a variety of reasons, behavior change is the most challenging of all as it requires us to learn new skills as opposed to relying on our habits.

Most leaders focus on improving instruction by offering teachers various professional development opportunities during the summer and throughout the school year.  Many will focus on specific instructional techniques that teachers will be asked to practice in isolation.  This is a failed model that only works for a very small percentage of teachers.  Unfortunately, it often contributes to many teachers’ distaste for professional development.

As opposed to focusing first on instructional techniques, effective leaders begin with helping teacher teams establish clear student achievement goals.  They help teachers understand that the goals are the end and teaching is the means to that end.  Too often, leaders design professional development without clarity of purpose or clarity of student achievement goals.

Effective leaders also help teacher teams create core values that, together with their performance goals, will guide their individual and collective behaviors as they strive to strengthen their instruction.  These leaders establish opportunities for teachers to learn and practice new behaviors as well as receive the reinforcing and shaping feedback that encourages them to grow.

Compared to focusing on teachers, strengthening teaching is hard. It’s not about teachers nor about professional development of isolated instructional techniques.  It is about leaders who have the skill to clarify the student achievement goals that are most important to the school and to establish a safe, nurturing and collaborative culture that encourages the behavior change that is necessary for schools to be successful.

During this most important season that includes some of the most important decisions that a school leader makes, ensure that you are focusing on teachers, teaching and…leadership.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Today’s Decisions are Next Year’s Results

one-way-or-another-way-street signThis time of year, I spend time with many principals asking them about their plans for the upcoming school year to strengthen the most important variable that increases student achievement—instruction.  After all, it is the most critical time of the year for making the decisions that will ultimately determine the future success of a school.  Miss this opportunity and you will have to wait another entire year for it to come around again.

Based on my observations, three different types of principals are evident this time of year.  They are Busy Principal #1, Busy Principal #2, and Productive Principal.  Each is well-intentioned but only one leads to the path to success.

Busy Principal #1 is consumed with the current day-to-day operations of the school and hasn’t had time to think deeply about the instructional decisions that will impact student achievement in the upcoming year.  Let’s face it, leading a school is chaotic and testing season only adds to the fray.  These busy principals are not thinking too far into the future other than examining their staffing numbers and contemplating personnel issues such as who will be returning, who will be departing, and who will be moved to a different position in an attempt to increase the quality of instruction through personnel changes.

Busy Principal #2 appears to be on the other side of the spectrum.  They, too, are strategizing personnel moves but also have already made their decisions about the major processes they will put in place to improve instruction for the upcoming year.  You can hear the excitement in their voices as they are eager to get started.  Some have even scheduled or begun the trainings.  They are off and running!

When working with a Busy Principal #2, I often hesitate to ask what led them to selecting their new initiatives because I know they already have their minds made up.  I know that they often have based their decision on something they have heard at a conference, something that another school has done, or something based on this year’s hot book, topic, or buzzword.  While each of these decisions is  well-intentioned, I always wonder if the initiative—even if implemented well—will actually solve their most pressing problem.  Unfortunately, it often doesn’t.  In this case, busyness becomes the illusion of change.  Lots of excitement, materials, and initial training but ultimately little impact.

Productive Principals are different.  Before these principals even consider a new initiative they pause to clearly identify the problems that, if solved, would give them the results they desire.  Charles Kettering, the former head of research for GM, wisely said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”  All principals would be better off if they heeded this advice.

Effective decision-making does not begin with what I refer to as a “shopping trip” whereby principals browse and select from the plethora of interventions that exist without first considering their most critical needs.  It begins with a deliberate, thorough and less-busy process that includes clearly identifying a critical problem to be solved and determining the root causes of this problem before “going shopping.”

Busy is not always productive.  Productive is not always trendy or flashy.   To solve your most critical problems it is often better to go slow to go fast.

Will your decisions align with your most critical problems?  Your future results depend on it.

(You can read more about Productive Principals in my article on the Transformational Principal.)

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

An Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

First, I’d like to congratulate you on your appointment as the United States Secretary of Education.  I share with you the passion of influencing the lives of children through education.  I am particularly ardent about providing educational opportunities for students who live in poverty.

I’m sure you would agree that whatever form of governance schools use, they should implement the best possible programs and practices, ones that have been tested in rigorous research and found to be effective.  Evidenced-based solutions are a bi-partisan, non-political issue that focuses on common ground and, in my opinion, has the potential of having the greatest effect on student achievement regardless of the school a student attends.

Our country, as well as others, has invested extensively in high quality educational research.  The pace at which we are accumulating evidence of what programs and practices are effective in reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and other areas is astonishing.  My former colleague and current Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Robert Slavin, claims that “If all 52,000 Title I schools adopted and implemented the best of these programs, the U.S. would soon rise in international rankings” and “achievement gaps would be cut in half.” With the potential of results like that, it seems to me that this is the topic that should be on the forefront of our national dialogue on improving all of our schools.

As it relates to evidence-based solutions, I encourage you to use your platform as Secretary of Education to do four things.

  • Elevate the conversation and celebrate the promising news regarding the body of educational research that is available to educators. Understand that most practitioners continue to be unaware of this information or are skeptical of its worth.  Use your voice to let educators know that the research is legitimate and that it contains a body of knowledge that will enable them to become more effective in raising the bar for all students.
  • Adopt policies that will help support educators at all levels to understand which programs and practices are most effective. It is challenging for educators to wade through the labyrinth of claims that many companies make regarding their products.  To assist the public in making informed food choices, the federal government requires food manufacturers to accurately label their products.  To assist in keeping our citizens healthy, the federal government requires that claims made by pharmaceutical companies are supported by evidence and federally approved.  In education, there are no such regulations to help protect our students.  Providing such guidelines will go a far way in assisting educators in making informed choices for our children.
  • Establish policies at the federal level that encourage states, districts, and schools to adopt and successfully implement evidence-based programs and practices. Adequate support must be provided to educators at all levels to encourage them to select research-based solutions and implement them successfully.  When schools successfully adopt and implement these solutions, our students—particularly those who live in poverty—are given the best chance for success.
  • Continue to support and fund the continuation of educational research so that we can continue to verify its effectiveness and relentlessly identify new practices that will help us to serve all students. While much has been done to establish a strong research base in education, we must continue to foster our nation’s innovative spirit and encourage our educators to develop new ways to best teach our students.

It is my hope that by doing these things we can change the current national debate from bringing students to high quality schools to bringing high quality evidence-based education to all students. 

Let’s make our schools greater.


Mark T. Rolewski, CEO
Ro Educational Leadership, Inc.

Mark T. Rolewski is a former teacher, principal, and central office administrator and currently the CEO of Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. He has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years.

Four Items that Should Be on Every School Leader’s Holiday List

Maintain Your Focus during the Holiday Run

The holiday season—Thanksgiving through the winter break—provides some unique challenges for school leaders.  It is a time when school leaders are busy attending holiday concerts and plays, organizing food and gift drives for needy families, while still  responsible for  the normal (normal?) day-to-day operations of the school.  With all the busyness of the season, both professionally and personally, the mid-year point is one of the most important times of the school year and effective leaders remain diligent about the academic achievement of their students.  Here’s a “good list” to help school leaders remain focused during a chaotic time of year!

#1 Revisit Specific School Goals
During the summer months and into the beginning of the school year, school leaders spend valuable time working with stakeholders to identify specific goals for their schools.  However, at this time of year, I spend a significant amount of time in schools asking administrators and random teachers what those goals are.  Unfortunately, it is uncommon to find someone—administrator or teacher—to speak clearly and in great detail about those goals.  Let’s face it, teaching and leading a school is challenging work. As a former turnaround principal, I know this firsthand.  It is difficult to stay focused in an environment where anything can, and often does, happen.  School leaders who are diligent about keeping their teams focused on their most significant goals have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.  The research is pretty clear:  Clarity of goals among all stakeholders, including administrators and teachers, is an essential first step to achieving them.

Mid-year is a natural time to revisit these goals and strengthen their clarity among all stakeholders.  In assessing this area, I listen closely for administrators and teachers to clearly communicate their measureable goals in the key content areas at the school, department, grade level or content area as well as individual
teacher goals. I have found that when educators speak in terms of numbers of students as opposed to percentages, it makes a significant difference.  When educators see percentages they think data; when they convert those percentages into numbers, they see students.  Let’s listen in on a teacher leader who understands the power of knowing where her school is going:

Our goal is to receive the highest rating assigned by our state.  To achieve this status, our school has to average 62% in each of the nine categories that make up our school rating and we have clear goals in each of these areas.  As a math teacher, my department has three Numbers of studentsoverarching goals: student proficiency (56%), student growth (68%) and student growth with our lowest quartile students (65%).  In the area of proficiency, we know that 56% equates to 672 students out of a student body of 1200.  Of course  we are working so that all students are proficient, however, 672 represents the minimal number of students who must be proficient in math.

Now, we have specific goals at the 6th, 7th ad 8th grade levels.  I am a seventh grade teacher who teaches six preps a day.  Overall, I teach 150 students.  56% of 150 equals 84 students, however, we don’t pro rate our goal like that.  Because I am an experienced teacher and two of my sections include advanced students, my target is 70% or a minimum of 105 students.  This number allows for me to help compensate for the less experienced teachers on our team who, at this point in time, are still in the early stages of developing their skills.

When listening to this teacher, it was clear to me that she was clear about her school, department, grade level and teacher level goals.  Additionally, she was aware of the concepts of individual accountability and team accountability.  She clearly knew where the school was headed and understood her department, grade level and personal responsibility to make it happen.  If you and your teachers can speak clearly about the direction you are
headed, you are in a prime position at the mid-point of the year.  Of course, knowing where you are headed is only one part of the equation.

#2 Determine Current Status
While understanding the organizational goals answers the “Where are we going?” question, the status component answers the question “Where are we now?”  By mid-year, schools have collected enough data to inform them of where they are relative to their most important goals.

While most schools administer large-scale formative assessments that provide big chunks of data, it is the schools who use multiple data points—including attendance and behavior as well as multiple sources of academic performance—and use judicious decision-making to determine specifically which students are on track to accomplish the school goals, that are more successful.  Again, let’s hear from the teacher we came across before:

Based on our school-wide data we have determined that if the state calculated our school status today, we would be a little short of our goal.  We have gathered data for each component that makes up our status and know which areas are on track and those needing additional attention.  Overall, in math, using our data from district-wide formtop-257883_1280ative assessments, our unit assessments, and teacher judgment, we are pretty much on target as it relates to proficiency with our data showing that 670 students are projected to be proficient.  That puts our department two students under our minimum target of 672.  In 7th grade, we are a little ahead of our target and my personal data shows that I am five students above my minimum number of 105.  Those five students are helping to make up for a deficiency that we have with one of our teachers who continues to struggle with classroom management.

 This teacher not only has a clear picture as to where the organization wants to go but is also clear as to where the organization is relative to those goals. Again, she demonstrates her understanding of individual and mutual accountability by recognizing that the team results are more important than her individual results. Understanding the organizational goals and knowing your current status are important steps to accomplishing your goals. However, they only serve as prerequisites to where you ultimately want to go.

#3 Celebrate Growth and Effort
In our constant drive for improvement, we often forget to celebrate the steps along the way.  We are fully aware that there are some students who are struggling and we acknowledge that we are struggling to reach them.  However, there are many students who we have impacted and we need to take the time to recognize the impact of our efforts and theirs.  So, as we celebrate the various holidays, let’s be sure to celebrate the achievements, growth and effort put forth by our students and ourselves.  We need to recognize that motivation builds when we receive feedback that reinforces what we are doing that is working, not just the feedback that is designed to redirect our efforts.  Let’s see how our teacher is approaching this critical step:

I’ll be the first to tell you that while the data from my personal classes is above my minimum and our department is very near our projections, I am not satisfied with our results.  I know we can and will do even better.  colorful lens-1237823_1920However, I have learned to stop and reflect on the progress my students, my team and I have made.  I have to think about how far some of my students have come as they continue to put forth the effort to learn the content of 7th grade math.  I have to help my team understand and celebrate our collaborative efforts that focused on understanding our standards, asking students to do cognitively complex work, and strengthening our instructional skills.  Without each other, we would not be where we are now.  I know I am often too hard on myself and tend to focus more on deficits than strengths, but I feel like I have worked harder this year than ever before and it is paying off for my students—our students—and our school.

 Celebration is often left out of the equation for success.  Yet we know that a strong combination of heavy doses of reinforcing feedback mixed in with some redirecting feedback is a strong recipe for success.  Mid-year is an important time to recognize our accomplishments, growth and effort.

#4 Create a Short-Term Plan
The final step in the process is to recognize that there are areas that need to be maintained and areas that need attention.  I have often said that you can’t accomplish your goals at mid-year but you sure can derail them.  Similar to a great basketball or football coach, school leaders help teams to make the necessary adjustments that will allow them to accomplish their goals.  It is evident to me that most schools tend to make adjustments that focus on structural changes such as tutoring, Saturday school, small group interventions and the like.  More effective leaders understand that structural interventions are only effective if they are combined with instructional interventions.  For instance, Saturday school (structural) is only as effective as the instruction that occurs during that time.

Short-term plans should focus on small steps that can easily be monitored and provide the necessary focus and feedback needed to move toward your most important goals.  Let’s hear from our teacher one final time:

We have refined each of our plans relative to the nine components that make up our final school rating.  In 7th grade math, we are going to spend more of our team time gaining a deeper understanding of our standards and designing lessons that more closely match the cognitive complexity that our students need to better understand math and that they will experience when they take their exams.  We are also going to continue to develop our skills in implementing cooperative learning techniques that ask students to be more engaged with their learning as opposed to us.

We will determine our effectiveness by examining our data at the end of each unit as a team and as individuals.  I will also be working with my colleague who is struggling with classroom management in helping her be more consistent in her responses to students’ behaviors.

Once again, this teacher demonstrates a relentless desire to refine and implement a specific plan that is aimed at closing the gap between their goals and their current status.  Her team has short-term goals that can be monitored and measured as a way to provide them with the much needed feedback that will allow them to know when they are successful and when they are not.  As always, she recognizes her role as a leader in her efforts to help her colleagues.

Mid-year is a time to ensure that all stakeholders know where they stand relative to the school’s most critical goals and are making the necessary adjustments so that the goals can be met.  Because school’s can be chaotic—particularly this time of year—it takes strong leadership from both administrators and teacher leaders to remain diligent in our focus.


Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Putting the Growth Back into Teacher Growth Plans

Making Teacher Growth Plans Relevant, not Compliant

Growth ImageAt this time of year, teachers across America are designing and submitting for approval their Professional Growth Plans as part of the evaluation process.   This annual ritual asks teachers to identify and develop a plan of action outlining an area of instructional growth.  While this activity is well intentioned, it is my observation that these plans are largely ineffective, completed primarily to comply with state and district requirements, and—most importantlythey take away valuable time necessary to truly improve instruction in schools.

Think about how this ritual typically unfolds.  It begins with school administrators explaining to teachers the content, process, and format for developing such a plan according to district guidelines.  Teachers, in turn write up their plan, submit it for approval and, if necessary, revise it based on administrative feedback.  Once approved, teachers—due to their chaotic schedules—typically place their plan on a far back burner and continue their daily routine of planning, collaborating, teaching and completing the various other demands of the profession all the while trying to sustain some type of life outside of school.  Come spring, teachers dust off their plans and begin the process of trying to document that they have completed their plan and frantically assemble the requisite documentation that will eventually lead to meeting the requirements of the plan.  The results of the plans are submitted to the appropriate administrator who, in nearly all cases, provides the stamp of approval indicating that the requirements have been met.From an administrative standpoint, multiply this by the typically large number of teachers an administrator evaluates and you begin to understand the massive amount of time it takes to complete an activity that yields very little return on investment.  Teachers and school leaders—especially in turnaround schools—have little time to engage in time-consuming activities that take away from true school improvement
efforts.  After participating in and observing this phenomenon for almost forty years as a teacher, principal, central office administrator and leadership consultant, I believe it is time to revisit this massive waste of teacher and administrator time.  Here are my ideas.  As always, I’d like to hear yours.

The first issue that needs addressing is the timing of when the plan must be designed and submitted for approval.  In nearly all states where I have worked, this is around the month of October, which often coincides with the end of the first quarter.  In my opinion, this is a terrible time for a teacher to identify an area of growth!  Often our new teachers are already treading water as fast as they can trying to keep up with the behavioral and academic demands of the classroom, and we shout from the shore, “How about learning a new stroke?”  Experienced teachers, too, are busy meeting the demands of student learning with little time to reflect on identifying a new technique.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are some teachers who handle this activity just fine.  However, I think that with better timing we can significantly increase the return on investment of this activity.

I think a better time to identify and design a plan for developing a new instructional technique is in the spring, sometime after the final evaluation and before the end of the school year rush.  Teachers—as all good teachers do—could spend part of their summer reading the educational research associated with their topic and thinking about how they will turn this newfound knowledge into a skill once the school year begins.  Simply put, summer affords teachers the time to learn about the new technique and plan how they might integrate it into their teaching repertoire.

Plans that are implemented at the beginning of the year also benefit from the additional time—sometimes an entire quarter—that a teacher can practice a new skill.  Imagine how much more skilled a teacher would be if they studied cooperative learning, for example, in detail over the summer and began implementing it the first day of school.  Research has proven that time is important to learning something new, and maximizing the entire school year as opposed to starting after the first quarter just makes sense. (See Table 1)

Comparison of Traditional and Recommended Growth Plans Timetable
Table 1: Growth Plans Comparison Chart

I often present the groups I work with the following scenario:

“Two people join a gym.  One joins alone and the other joins with a friend. In six months time, which person do you think will still be going to the gym to work out?”

Overwhelmingly, people select the person who joins the gym with another person as the one who will sustain their gym routine.  When asked why, they always cite the benefits of being encouraged by and accountable to another person.

To me, the idea of each teacher identifying in isolation a new technique to learn and practice alone in the classroom without the benefit of a supportive colleague significantly decreases the probability of the plan being sustained.  It’s no wonder why, as a part of my trainings, I ask teachers around November or December what they have selected for their focus area and very, very few are able to tell me.

The solution is to encourage teachers to develop their plans in collaboration with others—a colleague, a team or an entire faculty.  In many states teacher autonomy to choose what they want to work on is critical.  However, influencing teachers to work collaboratively does not violate the intent of this provision.

Feedback and Follow-Up
For one to become skilled in a new technique, it requires practice, feedback and time.  However, teachers often practice new techniques by themselves in their classroom with little or no feedback.  This type of practice tends to not result in very high quality as there is no frame of reference other than one’s self.  Imagine what a great cook you would be if you were the only one to ever taste your cooking!  It is not only important to become skillful; it is essential that we become skillful enough to affect student learning.  This level of skill requires that we receive ongoing feedback and follow-up.

Skillful 2Furthermore, learning a new skill can be uncomfortable.  Neurologically speaking, we are much more comfortable relying on the skills that have become habits as opposed to learning something new.  Learning a new skill requires that we use the part of our brain that causes us to slow things down—or be deliberate—so our brain’s can learn the new behaviors.  Over time, we learn to be less deliberate and more comfortable with our new skill.  As we become more and more skilled we have to continue to receive feedback that will allow us to perform at an even higher level.  Too often, after the first wave of discomfort is gone we think that we are now skilled.  Understand that there is skill and then there is “skillful enough to impact student achievement.” Becoming highly skilled requires learning a skill and then being comfortable with the discomfort of learning it at a higher level.  This cycle needs to be repeated in an ongoing manner to reach the level necessary to make a professional growth plan worth the effort.

To remedy this, I believe that all professional development plans should include provisions for ongoing, actionable feedback that leads to high quality skill development.  If we want to increase the rate of change, we must increase the rate of feedback.  We also have to challenge the traditional thinking that feedback must come only from an administrator.  Again, time is a significant variable and administrators simply do not have enough time to provide feedback to all the teachers that they are charged with supervising.  Therefore, it is paramount that professional growth plans include provisions for peer feedback and time must be allocated for colleagues to serve as support to their fellow teachers.  Without this, plans are pretty much worthless.

Observation of New Techniques
When working with teachers on new techniques, the overwhelming request I receive is that they want to be able to see it implemented in a high quality manner.  Often, there are no models or exemplars to show them.  Videos can help but tend to be less personal.  When coaches can model the technique or when teachers can visit classrooms where their desired learning can be demonstrated, it adds tremendously to their understanding, particularly when they can talk with other teachers about the nuances of learning or implementing a new skill.  Once a teacher has a picture in their head about what quality can look like with students, it adds significantly to their learning.  All professional growth plans should include observation of the technique as part of the plan.

Tied to the Needs of the School
Often, teachers have the autonomy for selecting the technique that they wish to learn.  While autonomy can contribute to motivation, for some reason this is not true as it relates to the professional growth plan since often compliance, not passion, continues to rule the day.  While I am an advocate of teacher autonomy, I believe that schools—particularly turnaround schools—have comprehensive needs that will only be solved by dedicated people all pulling together in one direction on the techniques that will matter most.  For example, I notice that a teacher might focus on homework as an area on which they want to improve their skills.  While this might be appropriate for some schools, strengthening one’s technique in the use of homework does not have a significant effect size when compared to a technique such as cooperative learning or reciprocal teaching.  Therefore, I recommend that in particular cases, school leaders should work with teachers to identify techniques that will have the largest impact on achievement in the school.

Impact on Learning
Finally, professional growth plans must not only focus on the process of learning a new skill but should also include provisions for its impact on learning.  In working with teachers on developing new skills, we eventually reach the point when we start asking, “So what?  Who cares if you have learned a new skill?”  The ultimate question is “How did learning a new skill affect student learning?”  I always encourage teachers to include measures of student learning so that they can see the impact and value of learning a new skill.  There is a distinct difference between a teacher who returns to a session and is excited that they have implemented a new technique and a teacher who returns and shares student achievement data showing an increase in student learning.  Remember, data are feedback and building student achievement measures into a plan guides it toward a higher level of implementation.

Administrators and teachers—particularly in turnaround schools—are busy people and have to be efficient and effective in their work.  AImperativennual professional growth plans as outlined in most districts’ teacher evaluation process often have a large impact on time but little return on investment
in terms of strengthening instruction or increasing student achievement.  It is imperative that we be thoughtful when implementing this requirement and do it in a manner that makes it both meaningful and impactful for all parties involved, especially our students.

Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the eighth installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.