5 Ways to Impact School Culture Regardless of Your Title


Leadership has much more to do with one’s influence than one’s title. Too often we wait for someone with a certain job description to “fix” a seemingly broken culture, and while it is certainly frustrating when the one tasked with leading doesn’t rise to that occasion, we have a moral imperative to step up to the plate to make our schools places where humans grow and thrive because our students and those who work on students’ behalf deserve it.  If we all take responsibility for influencing school culture, how can we best leverage our influence?


1. Assume best intent.


Probably the most impactful shift we can make is to establish a norm of assuming best intent. Think back to a time when your supervisor assumed the worst about a situation in which you were involved or oversaw.  Maybe he or she assumed you were not working hard enough or did not care enough, but in reality, you didn’t have all the necessary information to complete the job effectively or efficiently.


Did his/her assumption of worst intent motivate you? Did it make you want to go above and beyond? Probably not. Oftentimes assuming the worst actually has the opposite effect. While it might intimidate people into compliance, if they’re already doing the best they can with what they know, that won’t make much of a difference. In the end, they’ll just hide their inadequacies from you or avoid taking risks out of fear that they will disappoint again. On the other hand, when people assume the best in others, we’re given the benefit of the doubt, and that trust in us empowers us to take risks, use our creativity, think outside the box, and dive into finding solutions for complex problems.


2.Surround yourself with greatness.


You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Research has demonstrated time and again that people are generally unaware of the social influences that surround them and how those influences impact their day-to-day thoughts. And, because our thoughts usually manifest our actions, it is safe to say that the thoughts of those with whom we spend our time strongly impact OUR impact..


So, if you’re hanging around the water cooler with that guy who’s constantly complaining about everything and everyone, chances are you are, in turn, going to start feeling more exhausted, more hopeless, and more easily frustrated … by the very same events or situations that you’d otherwise likely tackle with a positive attitude. On the flip side, if you hang out with people who inspire you, challenge your thinking, are solutions-oriented, and laugh frequently, your engagement and performance at work will likely improve.


3.Elicit feedback from those you trust


Self-awareness is perhaps the most important leadership strategy one can implement … and it’s possibly the hardest as well. One of the reasons people struggle to identify the areas in which they can/should improve is because our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses. For example, my strength is that I’m a global thinker and an ideas generator. At face value, these are good things, but, there is a shadow side to every asset.


The shadow side of being a big-picture person is that I get bored by and bogged down with the day-to-day details that bring that big picture to life. The shadow side to ideation is that I am unafraid of change and maybe even sometimes instigate change for change’s sake. This can be off-putting to others–especially the 99% of people for whom change is scary and something to be avoided.


However, with awareness of my shortcomings, I can work on and improve upon my blind spots. This awareness, though, usually needs to be purposefully cultivated. It is not innate. I am lucky to have amazing coworkers who double as best friends. Because we trust each other and are willing to be vulnerable with each other, we often ask for brutally honest feedback from one another–feedback that, in the end, will only serve to make us better, stronger, and intentionally growing.


4.Know your sphere of influence.


Oftentimes we think we need to rise to a traditional position of power to have an influence on the vision, the culture, the policies, or the practices. That is far from true. One of the biggest misconceptions about leadership is it must be top down. Ideally, people in positions of power would also be amazing leaders, but even when they are, leadership cannot be unilateral.


“Leading up” and “leading across” is just as important as “leading down.” There is nothing more disheartening than when an amazing classroom leader does not exhibit those same leadership qualities they have with their students when it comes to leading their peers or superiors.


I think people greatly underestimate the power of leading those in their sphere of influence. Frustrated by your boss? Instead of complaining, how could you lead him or her to see things differently. Frustrated by your peers? Rather than complaining about their efforts, have you considered inspiring them (as you would surely do with struggling students)? It’s not condescending; it’s proactive. We can choose to be victims of the system, or we can choose to influence the system. It’s really that simple.


5.Make your WHY transparent.


The hardest thing to overcome when changing a culture is a broken why. An example of a “broken why” in the field of education is someone who wants results on paper at the expense of real results for students, i.e, they’re willing to go to great efforts to increase test scores even if those efforts don’t, in the end, produce more driven, accomplished, engaged students.


The good news is that most people who have daily contact with students have a very intact why. It’s rare that someone who works in schools doesn’t want best for the students he/she serves. Most of the conflict I’ve observed in schools is a result of one person not fully understanding the other person’s intent. Rarely would we argue about policy or practice if we thought the person who was behind that policy or practice truly wanted what was best for students. We get in trouble, though, when we don’t bring that why to the table and surface it for all to see. The most important advice to remember when trying to impact change is to lead with your why. Always.


Amy Fast is a third-year assistant principal at McMinnville High School in McMinnville, Oregon. She has been in education for seventeen years and her research and writing largely focus on redefining the purpose of education in America. You can connect with Amy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/fastcrayon or email her at fast.cranny@gmail.com

I Don’t Know The Answer


I do not know what the next big thing in education is going to be.  I do not know what new technology devices are coming around the corner or the future impact they will make in our classroom.


At times, I do not know what will be the best way to help that struggling student. A teacher needs help; I might not know what to tell them to get them going in the right direction.  There are times I do not know the answer to a question from a parent or director.  


There have been hundreds of times in my career when I could hear myself thinking, “I do not know the answer.” During that brief moment, it feels depressing to think that I may not be able to help, encourage, direct, or lead.


I think we all have been in that situation where the pressures and challenges around us bring us to a point where we tell ourselves, “I do not know.”  My friends, I am here to tell you that not knowing is not the end of the road.  You do not strike out when you reach the phase of uncertainty or discomfort.  As long as we try and keep trying, we can still make an impact. We might not know the answers, but we can always try.  


As educators, we face thousands of decisions each day.  There is no doubt that we will come to a challenge that makes us step back, pause, and more than likely, doubt ourselves.


The most significant thing that I have learned during my time as an educator is not to give up.  There are going to be days that seem to just make us want to give up because we do not have the answer.  I do not have the solution to help you if you face this challenge, but the following mindsets have helped me in the past.


Make decisions on what is best for kids

Common sense.  We are in this business for kids.  Everything we do should be to help our children become their personal best.  Every decision should be base on helping each child learn at high levels in a safe and secure environment.  What other reason are we in education?  Our focus should always be on what is best for the children that enter our doors each and every day.


Todd Nesloney, a good mentor and friend of mine, said, “It is common sense, but is it common practice?”  We need to make it standard practice to make any and all decisions based on our children.  When we do not know the answer, think about what would be best for your students.  In the end, they will be the ones who will reap the benefits of your decisions.  When you do not know the answer and are not sure what to do….think about what would be best for your kids.


There are no problems, only challenges.

An old mentor and friend always told me this.  She reminded me that we need to stop focusing on things as problems.  Look at them as challenges.  Challenges can be overcome while problems, stay as problems.


Each day we may encounter challenges in our classroom or school, yet they are only challenges. Sure, some challenges can be conquered in mere minutes, while others seem to take days or weeks.  The underlying, common factor…they can be overcome.  Try to focus on challenges for what they are — an opportunity for you to discover a solution.  Remind yourself that if you run into a question you don’t have an answer for it is simply a new challenge; a chance for you to shine.  In time, if you persist, you will overcome those challenges.


Two Heads are Better Than One

We are better together.  We need to stop looking at challenges as our own and embrace the idea that those around us might be able to offer insight or advice that may help.  When we open up and seek input from others, our challenges often become easier to overcome.  We have become a society where asking for assistance is seen as a weakness.  There have been plenty of times in my career when I kept my mouth shut in fear that I would be looked down upon or viewed as incapable. I still feel that way at times, but at least I am learning to welcome insights from others.


At times it is others that are asking the questions and seeking our input.  Why not put our heads together and find a solution. Collaboration involves people looking for solutions.  Along the way they learn and grow together. We become a better team when we work together to overcome a challenge.  We do not have to have the answer to every question, we just have to be willing to work together to find solutions.  


It is key that we surround ourselves with people who understand that collaboration involves two parts:  (1)  providing assistance and (2)  asking for assistance.  We become stronger when we share our ideas and learn from one another.  I might not know the answer, but someone in my PLN might have an idea.  If we seek input, we find input.  When we learn from others, we can share what we learn, and the process never ends.  Keep seeking out others you can grow and learn from.  If we do not know the answer, then take time to learn about the answer from others.


Go for it

Sometimes it is not that we do not know the answer, it is that we fear what it takes to get the answer.  We fear the steps that are required to approach the answer that might help us.  It is a risk for us to take.  


The real fear of all of us should not be the fear to take the necessary steps but, instead, the risk of not taking any steps and being stagnant.


Education is full of risks.  Try it, do what it takes to help the kids, ask others for their opinion, but no matter what, go for it.  A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what it was made for.  Set sail into the face of challenge.  Yes, there is a possibility that we will not be successful. However, failure is guaranteed is you never try.  Going for the answer to one question may lead to more questions, but it may also lead to the answer to questions you didn’t even realize you had.  You will never attain the answer unless you first try.


Try and Try Again

We fail.  We fail and fail again.  No matter if we take a risk, ask others for input, see things only as challenges, and put kids first….we can still fail.  Our lives are full of failures, but if we look closely, it is also full of us getting back on our feet and trying again.  

Sometimes the answer we chose will not be the right one.  We will make a mistake.  Don’t let that stop you.  Don’t let that cause you to say I do not know the answer.  Keep trying.  As great educators, we see failure as a learning opportunity.  Those that are knocked to the ground only remain a failure if they stay there.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back into the game.  


“I do not know the answer” is not a final statement.  We have other opportunities to seek out the answer and learn from our experience.  I do not doubt that there will be many more times when we face a question or situation where I do not know the answer.  It is not the end, only the beginning.  I do not know the answer…..but I will persist and seize the opportunity to learn, forge forward, and become stronger in the process.



Michael Ogg is the principal at @AltonElementary in @BrenhamISD.  Michael is a husband and father of two beautiful girls. He is beginning his blogging adventures at Culture of Potential. Follow Michael on Twitter at @PrincipalOgg.

I Am Advocate…Hear Me Lead


I am a passionate educator who strongly believes that every child can learn. In that same mindset, I believe every educator is responsible for fostering an environment in which learning can take place at its highest level. Educators are the facilitators of learning. We are the conduits through which our students receive what they need. Therefore, we have to be on our top game, ready to engage, inspire, and initiate learning that takes our students to a deeper level of strategic thinking and understanding.


I recently attended a conference with several educators. The conversations that took place during the breakout sessions were enthralling! We shared our struggles, successes, and concerns. We shared valuable resources with each other and listened as teachers, counselors, and administrators shared their experiences. Repeatedly I observed seasoned teachers and new teachers sharing a similar need…to be supported. Not by the administration, or their district, but by each other. Over and over again, I listened as the teachers around me said how much they had learned just by listening to each other and sharing resources and experiences. They valued the input of their peers. We are not meant to be islands alone in our quest for student achievement.


We are leaders! Often times we use our voices to express the things we don’t like, the things we want to see change. However, it’s not enough to simply voice the changes.We need to be willing to initiate them, model the change, support it, and encourage it! We are mentors whether we carry the official title or not. However, we cannot impact our students or fellow teachers if we don’t look at ourselves, first. We need to look at our strengths. How can I use my strengths to empower or offer support to my students and my fellow educators?  


I am an advocate. I advocate for students, families, and fellow educators. With an advocate’s mindset, I look for students or fellow educators who need my support, guidance, or encouragement. It is my strength. I am perceptive and have a strong sense of service to the people around me. It is what motivates me to learn and grow each day to be better than I was the day before. I am continuously looking for innovative ways to inspire learning, create thoughtful discussions among my students, and accurately assess their learning. This search empowers me to be ready, full of information and resources which then allows me to support my students as well as my fellow educators.


As educators, we often find ourselves in a place where we need guidance. It is in this place where we need teacher leaders to step in and bring their expertise to the table. We ALL have strengths, something we feel confident in. I am confident in my ability to observe and identify needs in students. I also feel confident in my ability to search for resources which will aide in the areas I have identified. However, I lack good organizational skills. This is my area of weakness and where I need support. I often ask for help in this area of my teaching. I am so thankful to the teacher leaders around me who help me find better ways to organize my life in the classroom. Without their leadership and support, I fear I would be living in chaos! We need teacher leaders who will share their expertise.


Strength-Based Leadership

How can you use your strengths to lead? Teacher leaders have qualities that inspire leadership in others. They identify their strengths and are willing to share their knowledge with those around them. They also openly admit when they need help and look to their professional learning network for ideas that will help them grow.


When we create a dialogue that initiates, models, and encourages educators to work together, we all win. We are collectively leading each other into a future where support, empathy, encouragement, and a growth mindset are established as not just an expectation but a reality. How wonderful for our students who are watching us and modeling their learning behaviors based on what they see us doing.


Our voice is powerful, and our ability to lead with an advocate’s mindset is crucial if we truly want to create an environment in which learning can take place at its highest level.


Liz Savage is a passionate elementary teacher in Cabot, AR and author of REdefined: Becoming a Fearlessly Unique Teacher in a Traditional World. Follow her on Twitter at @SavageLizabeth, and for more information check out savageteacher.com.

The Road To The Principalship: How to Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be

The Road To The Principalship:

How to Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be


Each spring, assistant principals begin applying for principal positions. There may only be one opening in your district or you may be applying in another school system. Assistant principals often apply for principal positions with hopes of becoming the instructional leader, leading school improvement, and supporting student understanding. Over the years, I have observed too many assistant principals who try to build their resume’ in a weekend, rather than during the time they are serving as an assistant principal. The road to the principalship involves the following behaviors and demonstrated leadership skills. If you highlight these skills on your resume’, but have not put your words into action, then it will be difficult to compete for a principal position. 


1) Good Leaders Ask Great Questions

Ask questions and it will appear that you don’t know it all before you become a principal. As a principal, you will continue to ask teachers, principals, students, and families questions. Too often, assistant principals spend their time trying to prove that they could be the next principal in the school district. No leader can know every curriculum area, understand every school board policy, or how to lead in every situation. If you ask questions, it will show others that you are a lifelong learner and that you are willing to grow as a leader. “If you want to make discoveries, if you want to disrupt the status quo, if you want to make progress and find new ways of thinking and doing, you need to ask questions” (John Maxwell, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, 2014).  Continuous improvement begins with answering questions, rather than checking off goals. Too often, assistant principals begin asking questions about the principalship when the job is posted, rather than throughout the school year.


2)  Build Relationships

Show me a leader who can build relationships with students, families, teachers, community members, central office staff, and stakeholders and I will show you a future principal. Great leaders demonstrate an outward focus. Are you a leader who focuses on building your resume’ through your accomplishments and daily agenda or do you lead with others? You can climb to the top of a mountain alone, but it is much more rewarding to take others on the journey. When an assistant principal interviews for a principal position, the answers often begin with “I”. Interview teams are looking for leaders who start their answer with “We.” Look at your experience as an assistant principal. What have you done for others? Some assistant principals are excellent at building relationships with students, but they have not practiced building relationships with other stakeholders.


3)  Stand Out In The Crowd

When 40 assistant principals apply for a principal position, it is typically a tie on paper. In other words, the experiences all look similar. A strong principal candidate should stand out from the rest of the candidates. Some interview teams say, “The cream rises to the top.” If you list curriculum leadership, bus duty, car rider line, supervision and evaluation of teachers, and conference attendance, then you are no different than the rest of the applicants. During your time as an assistant principal, you can use your strengths to stand out in the crowd. Are you strong with technology integration? You could lead Tech Tuesdays. Did you develop a new program for struggling learners or did you implement the program that the school already had in existence when you took the position? Does your middle school have a unique after school program or school clubs that you helped coordinate? When you can put your stamp on a project and it has your leadership imprint on it, then you will stand out from the crowd. In other words, as a leader have you been a compliant leader or a contributor? When you are known as a district leader, then others will want to promote you as a building leader.


4)  Be A Risk Taker

Too many assistant principals play it safe, because they feel like the road to the principalship is through playing by the rules. While you should follow board policy and the direction of your building principal, you should also take risks. Education is changing at a rapid pace and the best principals are risk takers. You can be a disruptor by implementing Genius Hour, a Makerspace, a new master schedule, student recognition, or supporting a data wall and time for analyzing student data. If your references say you were a risk taker and you made the school better as an assistant principal, then you will have the qualities that the committee is seeking in a principal. When you take risks, you may fail. However, failure is a great teacher and you will be more prepared to become a principal. Risk taking leads to school improvement and great principals are not afraid to take risks.


5)  Be A Collaborative Leader

One of the biggest mistakes assistant principals make is striving to become #1. As you see other assistant principals in your school district, you may view them as the competition. You may be unaware of your own competitive nature and you may focus on beating others in order to become number one. Unlike the NCAA Basketball tournament, you do not become the champion by defeating those in your bracket or school district. Central office staff watch how you interact with others in meetings. Do you seek first to understand or do you dominate meetings? Do you have the best interests of students in mind or do you want your opinion to be heard? When do you recall working with other principals and assistant principals in the district? Are you so focused on building your resume’ that you do not support district goals? When you sit down for an interview, you may be eliminated from the pool of finalists based on your eagerness to climb to the top. If you are not viewed as a team player, then the interview team may view you as a team slayer (Sanborn, 2011).



Most educators don’t earn a masters degree in order to be an assistant principal. The goal is to become a principal. When an assistant principal position is posted, I am often asked, “What are you looking for in a principal?” While it is a great question, the time to demonstrate that you are principal material is throughout the year. Some aspiring principals burn bridges by overreacting to a board policy or state mandate. Many quality leaders have been overlooked in the interview setting because the words on the resume’ do not match the leader’s actual work in schools. You can write technology leader, instructional leader, collaborator, and innovator, but your actions should support the resume’. Leadership coach Steve Cosgrove shares, “You don’t get there by wishing, you get there by doing.”


Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz shares 3 Questions Asked of Every Leader:


  1. Can I Trust You?
  2. Are You Committed?
  3. Do You Care About Me? (Others)

Serving as a building principal is a privilege and a responsibility. Work to develop your leadership skills, but remember to build others on your leadership journey. How are students and adults better because you were the assistant principal? How have you added value to the principal? The time to build your resume’ is daily, not when the principal jobs are posted.


Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (Arkansas). Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Secrets of School Culture

Secrets of School Culture

As school leaders, we understand that one of our most important responsibilities is building school culture.  We want to lead a school where kids enjoy learning and adults enjoy working.  We want to lead a school where teacher capacity is enhanced and student achievement is elevated. We want to foster a school culture that empowers educators and inspires kids.  So how do we do that?


Here are my 7 secrets for building a strong school culture:


  1. Connect with your values


It’s easy to get into a routine.  We go to work everyday; we teach lessons; we lead faculty meetings; we email parents; we supervise carpool … and the list goes on.  We make a million decisions every day, and many of them, we’re barely aware of.  We get bogged down in the minutia and the mundane, so we need to continually remind ourselves why we do what we do.  At our school, we have each written our own professional oath — modeled after the physician’s “Hippocratic Oath.” These oaths are posted on our websites and outside our classrooms. They keep us connected to our core values, and they remind us why we come to work each day.  


  1. Identify your vision


Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” It’s important for every school to have a vision that drives the faculty — a goal that propels the school forward. We understand the importance of “learning targets” for students because we know that when kids understand the destination, they can own the journey.  Adults are no different. The vision provides the goal around which everyone rallies.


  1. Cultivate the collaboration


I believe teachers are stronger when they collaborate. “Iron sharpens iron,” “two heads are better than one,” and that sort of thing.  The term, “collaboration” has actually become something of a cliche.  But in my experience, this cliche is rock solid.  At our school, we have started a competition called, “Collaboration Bling,” where teachers are recognized for observing each other’s classrooms.  We have conducted a faculty meeting via “Twitter chat,” and our last faculty meeting was conducted “Edcamp” style. The best professional learning does not take place in a workshop, it takes place when teachers are hanging out with their colleague down the hall.


  1. Raise the expectations


There is a robust body of research around the role of high expectations in school. The conclusion is clear.  Kids rise to the level of our expectations.  In our school we talk about expectations during morning announcements.  I have gone into classrooms prior to testing to talk to the kids about my expectations for their academic growth.  We also encourage students to have high expectations of themselves, so students set their own academic goals in conferences with their teachers.  We don’t limit our hopes to the realm of academics, however, because we also asked all our students to write their dreams on our “Wall of Dreams” in the hallway.


  1. Personalize the data


I’ve told my teachers many times: “We don’t want to get better by accident; we want to get better on purpose.  Data is what allows us to be strategic.”  I am proud of how my teachers use the data to drive their instruction and increase their effectiveness in the classroom … but it is my hope that they never lose sight of this: ultimately, it’s not about the data; it’s about the kids.  We did not get into education to raise test scores; we became educators to make a difference in the lives of our students.  It is easy to be bogged down in the numbers, but we must remind ourselves that we are not analyzing “data points” … we are talking about children. Analyzing the data is useful, but we must never lose sight of what that data represents.


  1. Engage with the students and teachers


People know what you value by how you spend your time.  I believe that the best school leaders are not consumed with managing programs, they’re preoccupied with people.  They are passionate about connecting with the students and the teachers in the building.  School culture is not built through emails and memos; it is built through relationships — one conversation at a time.  You don’t shape school culture sitting behind your desk; you shape it in the halls, in the classrooms, the lunchrooms … doing whatever it takes to engage with those around you.


  1. Bring the positive energy


Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”  And as Todd Whitaker quipped, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.”  Without a doubt, the leader of the school sets the tone in the building. The enthusiasm that we bring to work every day will be contagious.  And the positive energy that we inject into the little moments of the day will make a big difference.  A positive school culture is not built overnight, and it is not the result of a single program or initiative.  It is achieved by taking advantage of the little opportunities to make a difference and elevate the positive energy in the school.


Good School culture is not accidental; it is the result of intentional decisions.  The seven strategies listed above are all VERBS.  They are things that we can all choose to DO!  Every school can have a culture that rocks!  It’s a matter of choices.


Danny Steele is in his 24th year of public education, and the 2016-2017 school year will mark his third year as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System. He is also a husband and dad! Read more by Danny.