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

Without Limits

Without Limits


There’s a scene in a movie called Without Limits that I love. Bill Bowerman, the Oregon track and Team USA track coach, is sitting down for a coaching session with Steve Prefontaine. Pre, as many knew him, had that front runner mentality. Always in the front. Always in the lead. Always pushing the pace. Always giving everything he had. For Pre, victory came in outrunning and outlasting your competition.


And it’s no exaggeration to say that he was wildly successful doing this. Pre was an Olympian, and he held every record from the 2,000 meters to the 10,000 meters (a HUGE range for those of you who aren’t distance runners). A phenomenal talent, his drive and his plan took him quite far.


But there’s a problem with front running: It takes considerably more effort to lead than it does to follow. Drafting behind a runner makes the leader work harder to cut through the wind. But that’s a huge mindset shift for someone like Pre who has always operated out of a different posture with great success.


In the scene I mentioned in the movie, Bowerman is trying to convince Pre that there is a better way. Pre states, “I don’t want to win unless I’ve done my best. The only way I know to do that is to run out front and flat out until I have nothing left.”


Watching the movie, it’s easy to see that some mix of pride and an incredible faith in his own talents are holding Pre back. You see, Pre wants to believe that there is nothing he can’t do. That he lives and runs without limits. Bowerman confronts Pre in a moment of disillusionment and reminds Pre that yes, he does have limits, but that he should be thankful for them. They’ve let him fly pretty high so far.


As a leader, I find myself trying to be that front runner too many times. I want to give it all, to lead with that same mentality that Pre had, forgetting that in the end, it wasn’t successful for him. It’s not likely to bring the success I want either.


But that idea that Pre mentions haunts me a bit.


“I don’t want to win unless I’ve done my best. The only way I know to do that is to run out front and flat out until I have nothing left.”


When I read it again and think about the amount of energy given to work (even when it’s valuable work), I can’t help but think about the ways I can see myself trying to adopt the same mindset.


How many times have I worn exhaustion as a status symbol?


How many times have I given my all at work and not had enough left in the tank to invest at home?


How many times have I skipped lunch to keep pushing through to get things done around the office?


How many times have I self-imposed all of this when nobody else needs me to keep “front running” like this?


I’m not at all saying that our work as leaders and change agents isn’t worthwhile.  The problem is that we have so many things that are absolutely worthwhile pulling on us. School, family, friends, & faith all pull at us, and we owe it to ourselves and to those we love to make sure the tide isn’t pulling us too far in one direction or another.


We cannot give our all to everything. There’s just not enough of us to go around.


I don’t want to end up with nothing left to give in one area of my life. So, here’s a start for what we can do to combat that:


Identify your pitfalls.


Define your priorities.


Gut check regularly (preferably with someone else you trust to be honest with you).


Life is too nuanced and unique for me to make hasty generalizations here about how everyone should answer these questions, but I will say this: Everyone needs to be asking them, and we all need to be processing these things in the company of those we trust.


Our reality as leaders and change agents is not one that is without limits.


Try as we may to avoid it, you and I will both fail if we do not recognize this reality. Not might. Will.


I can promise it won’t be easy, but I can’t see energy invested here being anything other than time well spent. The work you are doing and your relationships with others are too important to pretend that you can simply press on without limits.
So before you move off to another corner of the internet, stop for a minute. Think about the pace you’re running at. Is it sustainable? How can it be changed? What would that look like? Is it worth it to you to get it right before you hit your limits?


Aaron Hogan is a committed connected educator in College Station, TX. He currently serves as an assistant principal at a 5/6th grade campus. Additionally, Aaron wears the hat of husband and dad! For more posts by Aaron check out his blog at afhogan.com


A year after launching #Leadupchat on Twitter (eventually becoming part of a larger movement, LeadUpNow) we are celebrating the tremendous successes and stories of leadership and growth amongst our fellow colleagues and friends. As we reflect on these successes, we immediately conclude that one powerful aspect has been a continual strand through it all. The tribe.


What are tribes? Tribes are powerful connective entities, analogous to synchronization, chain reactions, and storytelling.


Connectivity. At first glance from an outsider’s lens, there is a clique-like connotation surrounding the induction into such a group. Or that it’s an inwardly focused endeavor concerning your goals and your individual growth. Leadership today truly is about connecting like minded people together. Everyone wants to contribute to something, it resonates at a soul satisfying level when we know that we have added value to an ideal or vision larger than ourselves. Today’s relational economy increasingly will be founded in this concept of tribe, the power of a collective over that of the lone wolf.


We’ve discovered It’s truly about illuminating others in the tribe, and furthering the tribe’s influence and impact.  For educators it’s all about the impact on our students. In turn, we receive support, affirmation, Tribes Quoteencouragement from our tribe. As one of our fellow tribe mates routine expresses it is only as lonely at the top as you allow it to be. With a tribe no one is ever alone.


Synchronization. The synchronization of a tribe is analogous to honey bees determining where to build their beehive. When a bee scout discovers a promising site for a potential home, it returns back to the waiting cluster of bees and performs a “bee dance.” The dance is essentially a cryptic description of the site. Other bees will fly out to the site themselves and report back to the cluster via the bee dance. Bees that discover the more desirable sites dance longer, ergo influencing more bees to check out their site. Returning scouts will also head-butt other scouts to stop dance-promoting others sites. The entire swarm of bees will mobilize to their new home based on this process of nest selection. Interestingly, the queen does not make the final decision or weigh the options.


Tribes are synchronized much like the bee hive decision making phenomenon.  Tribes make collective decisions by information gathering (shared personal experiences), weighing options together, and collectively choosing a destination that is most attractive.


Chain Reactions. A runaway chain reaction describes a reaction that occurs when one single nuclear reaction causes one or more subsequent nuclear reactions, thus leading to self-propagating series of these reactions. A nuclear chain reaction releases several million times more energy per reaction than any one chemical reaction. When a tribe member shares a personal experience or blog posts, it becomes a nuclear chain reaction. That one reaction inspires others to change direction, inspires a another blog post, or provokes thinking which leads to new action.


Storytelling. Campfire stories may seem like an esoteric example, but let’s examine further. Stories told around the campfire range from whimsical to legendary, from inspirational to fear mongering.  We distill these stories into bits of wisdom, inspiration, and learning. They get passed from generation to generation. Their story became our story. The stories of successes and failures from our tribe become part of each of us. They become part of our story. We’re not merely telling our story (that becomes an abstraction), we are co-sharing and engaging in dialogue about our experiences as they parallel to our unique circumstances. People learn, not because we’ve expertly imparted our knowledge, but because we’ve experienced the stories together.


At the end of the day, our job is to create a place where the tribe can come to share with one another and support something we believe in. A tribe will continue to impact change as long as there is a constant synergy of new ideas, creative leadership, and renewed vision. A tribe is a dynamic connected movement with a commitment beyond oneself. At Leadup we will continue to be committed to moving the conversation about education forward in a way that will empower edleaders to effect change in their sphere of influence.


What is your tribe? What are you doing to build it?


Nathan Lang and Jeff Veal are the co-founders of leadupnow.com and #Leadupchat. For more info...

#BetterTogether: Leverage The Power of Group Capital

Today’s Blog is by an incredible lead learner/Elem. Principal, Paul Erickson, in Hutchingson, KS. making a difference! 

In our fifth grade hallway, there is a poster that states, “Real heroes don’t wear capes.” The purpose of this poster is to encourage students to look beyond stereotypical role models–professional athletes and pop icons–and consider the real difference-makers in their lives–teachers, coaches, and parents.  I love the mantra and the idea it promotes, but it has me thinking about my own job as an elementary school principal.  I’m viewed as a leader (not a hero, but a leader), but how much impact do I really have?

Qualitatively speaking, I know I support, serve, and influence our students and staff daily in ways that improve what they do–learn and teach.  However, quantitatively speaking, I don’t have much impact.  According to Hattie (2012), the effect size of a principal’s impact on student learning is .39.  Not bad, but not all that good.  In comparison, a student aging one year and attending an average public school results in an effect size/impact of .40.

When I first came across this statistic, I admittedly felt disappointed, maybe even a little defeated.  If you’re a principal coming across this finding for the first time, you, too, may be feeling disappointed and defeated.  However, the good news is that we don’t have to transform students’ lives on our own.  In fact, the more we do AS individuals or the more we do TO individuals, the worse the results are.

The Myth of the Transformative Leader

Transformative Leaders are those that embrace the moral imperative of raising the bar for teacher performance and closing the achievement gap by inspiring (or intimidating)  teachers to new levels of energy and commitment.  They do this through their own heroic efforts.  Think of the Joe Clark story captured in Lean on Me.  The transformative Model asserts that declaring a vision and motivating teachers to “join the cause” are enough to flip schools to achieve unprecedented results.  The reality, as research shows, is transformative leadership rings in at a paltry .11 in terms of effect size.  (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  Teaching test-taking has an effect size of .22 (Hattie, 2012), which means we’d be better off teaching students how to highlight key words in standardized questions than spending time proclaiming visions and motivating teachers.

The Mediocrity of the Instructional Leader

Okay.  So principals should keep the cape in the closet (or the baseball bat if you’re Joe Clark), and, instead, step into the impactful shoes of the instructional leader, right? Most building leadership programs are built around the model of instructional leadership where the principal supervises individual teachers’ implementation of curriculum and instruction initiatives.  This results in the principal asking for lesson plans, studying them carefully, administering formal observations, and then debriefing with individual teachers on their performance.  The impact of this type of instructional leadership rings in at a stable .42 (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  This is a slightly better result than what Hattie found among “average” principals, but when you think of .40 being what we get when kids age one year and just come to school, .42 is far from desirable.

What Truly Impacts Learning?

The problem with the aforementioned models of leadership is that they are individualistic.  They assume that if we have better principals (transformative leaders), then we have a better school.  They assume that if we have better teachers (courtesy the supervision of the instructional leader), we have a better school. The reality is…..individuals (be it  principals or teachers) don’t change schools.  Groups change schools, and to utilize the power of the group, you have to CHANGE the GROUP.

When principals focus on changing the group and utilizing its power, they are, in effect, building group capital. Building group capital has an effect size of .84 (Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008), making it the undisputed heavyweight champ of leadership influences.  Within this construct of building group capital there are two critical factors:

1. The principal makes the progress of the school a collective endeavor.  One-on-one appraisals take a back seat to Professional Learning Communities.  Teachers don’t comply in order to achieve better results in their own classrooms, rather they COMMIT to improving the school as a whole.  They do this because they are a part of a team, a bona-fide PLC.

Example–Organize opportunities for teachers to observe other teachers in action. Through peer observations, teachers not only pick up tricks of the trade, they also see how every team member is contributing to student learning, thus generating an all-hands-on-deck approach.  Principals, please don’t expect teachers to do this on their planning period! Arrange for a sub to spend the day, relieving teachers for 45-minute increments so that teachers can do this during the regular day.

2. The principal leads professional learning among staff.  The principal does less supervising and facilitates more LEARNING.  Principals build professional learning into each school day and use teacher observation, not to appraise or evaluate, but to supplement and strengthen professional learning.

Example–Create and habitually contribute to a hashtag to promote best practices among colleagues.  Check out #313teach and #448teach and see what our district in Buhler Schools and a neighboring district Inman Schools have done with their best practices hashtags.  Through tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting you are facilitating continuous learning opportunities that are accessible to your PLC and a global audience!

We are better together.  That’s the undeniable reality of leadership.  Let’s keep the group capital ideas rolling!  If you have an outstanding idea for building group capital among staff, please use the #bettertogether.  With something as simple as #bettertogether, we can build our own capital as a global group of lead learners!


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes.

Education Administration Quarterly, 44, 635–674.

**In addition, I must give a ton of credit to Michael Fullan, specifically the leadership genius he shares in The Principal.  This is a book SO GOOD I read it twice this summer!**

To read more great insights by Paul