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Just Ask

Questions-Ask Us


For the last five years, I have spent Christmas holiday in Puerto Rico. In addition to spending time with family, it is a time to “recharge my battery.”  I disconnect, for the most part, from my devices and corresponding communications and focus on resting.  It is something I didn’t learn to do until the last few years and a practice that is important for all of us to embrace.  As the adage goes, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others.

There is a countdown to the final days on the island and a rush to make sure we get to our favorite coffee houses and restaurants—since for the most part we fill our days with eating and walking and sleeping. Reality begins to really creep in as we travel to the airport for our journey home and back to work. 

This year, as we were waiting for our plane, I passed a customer service desk that said in both English and Spanish: Just Ask.  First impression was, “What a great message to customers!” I passed other similar desks which all had the same message—Just Ask.  They had something else in common.  NO ONE was manning them.  By the third time, my impression changed from “great message” to “OK, who do I ask?”

Expectations can turn to frustrations

Somewhere in my unconscious, before reading their sign, there was awareness that if help was needed, it would be provided.  However, that awareness became an expectation when it was so boldly announced, not once, not twice, but three times throughout the terminal.  When I could not find someone at these desks to help me, there was not just disappointment, but also frustration bordering on anger.  Why invite me to ask, if no one is going to be there to answer? They had promised me something and then did not deliver. Better not to promise or offer at all.

Value the Questions

The same idea applies to leadership.  There is an unwritten contract between leaders and their teams.  Each has their own perception of what to expect from the other—an internal perception based on experiences. Those perceptions become more concrete when either side makes a commitment to the other to do something or act in a certain way.  At that point, when there is no follow through, simple disappointment (still a problem that needs to be addressed) becomes festering frustration. This frustration erodes relationships.  Leadership is about relationships. 

A great way to build relationships is to create a culture where questioning and asking is encouraged and valued.  Questions empower people. Answering questions demonstrates you value people.  Questions and answers help clarify and clarifying prevents mistakes and miscommunication.  It prevents drift and helps keep the focus on what needs to be done to achieve objectives.

Some Dos

Do make yourself available and approachable —giving clear information and allowing for questions upfront saves time down the road.

Do reflect on what you want to offer your staff, how you will provide it and the why. This prepares you for sharing your ideas with people.  Tie everything to building relationships and achieving objectives.

Do be clear about your expectations of staff. Be specific.  Give examples of both what you want and what you don’t want. Encourage questions.  Have your staff verify and explain what they heard.  Listen to feedback and when appropriate adjust your expectations.

Do ask your staff to express their expectations of you—ask questions and clarify when there is a difference in thinking. Again, listen to their input and be open to change.

If you offer something, make sure you have the resources needed and can follow through, and then…FOLLOW THROUGH.  Broken trust is more difficult to rebuild than establishing trust in the first place.  Broken trust destroys relationships.

Differentiated Tip: Is that Telling or Asking

Differentiated Instruction

Mr. Abernathy was ready and eager for his monthly coaching visit with Janie.  He had prepared lesson plans to teach his students about sentences that tell something and sentences that ask.  When he had pre-assessed his students (a strategy Coach Janie had taught him in a prior visit) he determined that several students didn’t understand the difference between the two types of sentences.  His question for Janie was what could he do?

Janie explained that pre-requisite skills must be taught to these students in a small group setting. She provided an oral and written activity to address the students’ difficulty.  First, they applied the strategy to sentences that tell, and then to sentences that ask.


Sentences that Tell

Janie guided Mr. Abernathy through the following activity:

Mr. Abernathy: We are going to learn about sentences that tell.

Coaching Tip: Janie coached that IF students need to have the term “statement” in their repertoire, add to this definition: Sentences that tell are called statements.

Mr. Abernathy:  Here are some examples of sentences that tell:

  • I go to school because I love to learn. That sentence TELLS why I go to school.
  • I come home in the afternoon. That sentence TELLS when I come home.
  • I put my clothes in my front closet. That sentence TELLS where I put my clothes.
  • The dog has a red coat. That sentence TELLS what has a red coat.
  • My father is a very tall man. That sentence TELLS who is a very tall man.

Now, you give me sentences that tell.

Coaching Tip- “When you are certain that students are firm in giving you sentences that tell, bring in non-teaching examples-sentences that DON”T tell.”

Mr. Abernathy: 

My turn- My dog is big. This sentence TELLS me how big my dog is. IS my dog big? This sentence does NOT TELL how big my dog is.

My turn- I came home at 8 PM. That sentence TELLS when I came home. Did I come home at 8 PM? That sentence does NOT TELL when I came home.

Coaching Tip:  “Continue to model teaching and non-teaching examples. Once your examples have been given, then ask the children to orally identify whether a sentence tells or not.”

Mr. Abernathy:

The dog is walking. Does that sentence tell?

The house is on a quiet street. Does that sentence tell?

Is my mother tall? Does that sentence tell?

Coaching Tip:  If students answer incorrectly, correct by saying- My turn- that sentence does NOT TELL me if my mother is tall. It ASKS if my mother is tall.  Continue to orally present teaching and non-teaching examples of telling sentences.

CAUTION- be careful not to form a recognizable pattern when giving teaching and non-teaching examples- 2 sentences that ARE telling, 2 sentences that are NOT telling. Some students will think that they can get the correct answers by determining the pattern. The pattern should be random:

  • 2 teaching examples
  • 1 non teaching
  • 4 teaching examples
  • 2 non teaching examples

When students are firm on answering orally, then have them identify telling sentences and sentences that don’t tell in writing. First teach the end mark.

Mr. Abernathy:  IF it’s a telling sentence the mark at the end of the sentence is a period. What do we call the mark at the end of a telling sentence?

Students:  A period

Mr. Abernathy:  Yes, a period. (Have students point to the end mark.)



Janie explained that when students are firm on sentences that tell, then Mr.  Abernathy could introduce questions. 

Mr. Abernathy: There are other kinds of sentences. Some sentences don’t TELL us anything, some sentences ASK something. Sentences that ASK something are called questions.

Coaching Tip: Teacher should give teaching examples of questions. Follow the same format as when teaching sentences that tell.

Mr. Abernathy:  My turn, if I say a sentence that ASKS something say question, if it DOESN’T ASK something, say no.

Is my house small? Is that sentence a question? (Students respond question)

My school has a playground. Is that sentence a question? (Students answer no)

Coaching Tip:  Once students are firm on sentences that tell and question, then combine the two.

Mr. Abernathy:  If I say a sentence that tells, say tells, if I say a sentence that asks something say question.

Coaching Tip:  Be careful to intersperse “question sentences” and “telling sentences” randomly.  Once students are firm orally, then they should respond in writing. Teach the end mark for questions.

Mr. Abernathy: If it’s a question, the mark at the end of the sentence is a question mark. What is the end mark of a question?

Students: A question mark.

Mr. Abernathy:  Yes, a question mark. (Have students point to a question mark.)


Additional Strategies

 If further differentiation is needed:

  • The naive group can continue to identify whether a sentence is a telling sentence or an asking sentence.
  • A more proficient group can turn a telling sentence into a question sentence and vice versa. (A dog is red- Is a dog red?)



Pre-assessment and ongoing assessments are essential to effective instruction and more specifically integral to successful differentiation. After identifying the instructional needs of students, teachers need to identify the skill or sub-skill that needs to be taught, reinforced and brought to mastery for each student.  This is best done via small group instruction. 

Students should first be taught what something is, and once that is firm, taught what it is not (teaching and non-teaching examples).  Using well paced questions that draw responses from students is an effective and engaging instructional strategy.

How Learning to Drive Taught Me about Alignment!

leader on gearsI

It was the summer of 1976 and Bob, a good friend and classmate, was teaching me how to drive stick with an old 1956 pick-up (since I was born in 1956, I know longer agree with that being old). Bob was a big, easy going Californian and no matter how the gears ground, he showed no signs of discomfort. He just kept telling me to work the clutch slowly until I got the feel.

“Get a visual of the gears meshing and aligning as you release the clutch. Feel the gears engage.”  I felt like a character out of “Caddy Shack” listening to Chevy Chase tells me to “be the ball.”

My first solo flight out, in the midst of trying shift gears and make a turn, I side-swiped one of the new trucks on campus.  The bursar, Fr. Stella, a short but energetic man, called me into his office.  I knocked with trepidation. He looked up from his work and yelled, “If you don’t know how to drive, why are you driving. Stay away from the truck!” Needless to say, I did—for at least a week.

So here is the analogy. The truck is your school or any organization.  Unless factors are in alignment, you either don’t move forward or your lose control. 

Five Steps of Alignment

Step One: Identify

Before you can align factors, you need to identify those factors.  Start with your vision and goals and then work backwards. Some questions you should reflect on:

  • Where do you want to be by the end of the year (or whatever time frame you are exploring)?
  • What behaviors do you want in place by that time?
  • What kinds of skills are needed to get there?
  • Can we break those skills down to their smallest units?

Step Two: Assess

Once you have an idea of where you want to go, you need to assess what resources you have to help you get there. Those resources can be materials, facilities, partnerships, time, and of course, your staff. You identified the skills needed in the reflection exercise above. Now assess your staff to see what skills they have and/or their level of expertise with those skills, as well as what materials/resources they need to reach the goals and objectives you identified.

Step Three: Design and Develop

Based on the assessment, develop professional development (this can be done in-house, but often is better done by an outside objective group, at least at the start) that targets the specific skills needed to reach your goals and meet your staff members at their individual levels of expertise. This is best done by creating tiers of staff, grouping them by skills level.  Go back to content that was developed and tweak it to meet the needs of each of the tiers—in other words provide differentiated instruction. If you are going to use a professional development company, look for one which works in conjunction with you, as partners, as opposed to a group that works in a vacuum and just delivers professional development without your input.

 Step Four: Implement

There are three major phases of the implementation:

  • Schedule time for the training and gather resources/materials participants will need
  • Conduct the training (the training should be interactive and be a combination or presentation, group discussion and activities (case scenarios, role plays, etc.)
  • Evaluate the training (data collected should help determine if you met the needs of each tier and like any formative assessment guide future training)

Leaders should attend all training.  Not only does this send the message that professional development is important, it also allows leaders to be active participants. They can enter into discussion with staff clarifying ideas and goals.  It also lays the foundation for effective monitoring, since both leader and staff are sharing and hearing the same information about expectations.  

Step Five: Monitoring and Support

The focus of monitoring and support should be on the information trained—another level of alignment. This doesn’t mean you ignore other pertinent issues that you see. It does mean you go in with both the teacher and the administrator sharing an understanding of expectations—there are no surprises. It is a team approach to making sure each teacher is successful in their classroom or stated another way it ensures there is an effective teacher in every classroom. (Note: if you see a pattern of other pertinent issues this should be documented and should serve as a basis for the next round of professional development)

Training, even the best, only relays information, it doesn’t guarantee staff will use or implement it correctly.  Remember, what is monitored and supported grows. There are two strategies which increase the chances of implementing training with fidelity.

First, the research is pretty clear.  We learn more effectively and efficiently when the items that are trained are embedded in the daily routine (another example of aligning your efforts). People also are more successful at implementing new skills when they get immediate and accurate feedback while they are using those skills. Coaching is proven to be an effective form of support. Who and how you choose and support coaches is a topic for another post.

Second, leaders need to monitor staff as they visit the classrooms and meetings.  Here is where participating in the training pays off. Look for the strategies that were trained. Provide supportive supervision.  What does that mean?  See if the strategies are being implemented and if they are being implemented well. Reinforce staff when they are implemented well.   If they are experiencing difficulties, discuss the difficulties with them and explore solutions.  Document your visits and the successes and difficulties you see. Look for patterns. Use that information to guide both individual support via coaches and future professional development.



A recent study found that educators failed to make connections between student performance and what they as teachers needed to learn in order to raise student achievement. Although it is true that educators are in great need of professional growth and support, offering professional development that is not aligned with school and student needs is akin to prescribing medicine without first understanding a patient's symptoms. If we do not connect professional development with school improvement needs, our efforts to advance learning and teaching in our schools will not be completely successful. 

Everybody is Doing It

What kind of leader are you? Do you want to be a Leaders of Leaders or a Leader of Followers?  What is the difference? Here is a quick and simple explanation of the difference.

The Leader of Followers tends to have to micro-manage a lot of things.  People are asking for permission and directions.  They do what everybody else is doing.  They don’t want to stand out.  They want to be safe.

The Leader of Leaders creates a culture where parameters, roles and responsibilities are shared upfront.  Resources are provided.  People are encouraged to tackle the problem and produce solutions.  They aren’t afraid to voice an idea that is different. 

Here is an old Candid Camera video (hoping I am not the only one that remembers Candid Camera) that is funny but makes a great point about how we are influenced by the people around us—and the culture of a building is about people and how they act. Change how people act and you change the culture. 

Culture peer pressure

Watch the Video

Three Things that Create a Culture of Change and Growth

Be Clear and Transparent:  What do we mean by clear and transparent?  Clear means understandable—providing specific information.  What are you asking your people to do? Why? What are the benefits and results for people?

Transparency is the free flow of information within your organization with all members of your organization—getting the right information to the right people in a timely manner.  Far too often, vagueness seems to be the order of the day--whether it is because the leader doesn’t have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish and how it can be done or because they lack the courage to take a stand (vagueness is safe), the result is the same-no transparency and lack of success.  Transparency is a choice.  It is easy to speak of transparency, but the moment of truth is when you act on your words and are transparent.

Invite others to act with you: People want to be part of something that is special, that is bigger than any one person.  They want to be part of a team of people that connects to meet a challenge and create a change for the better.  People want to be involved and engaged in the discussions—not discussions after decisions have been made, but discussions that lead to the decisions.  They want to be heard and valued.

Most of all they want to act-they want to do.  Discussion and planning are important, but if those plans are not translated into action people disengage.

Be Honest and Fair: Trust is the basis of any successful relationship. Nothing builds trust like honesty and fairness. Honesty and fairness make people feel respected and valued.  It tells people that your expectations might be high and that you are demanding, but they will always know where they stand.  You will be consistent in your dealing with them because honesty and fairness breeds consistency.  It also promotes honesty from your team. That honesty helps the free flow of information free of fear. The focus becomes the work and the results.


Research (Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (1999). Shaping school culture: The heart of leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.) seems to indicate that a positive culture results in several benefits:

• Fostering effort and productivity.

• Improving collegial and collaborative activities that in turn promote better communication and problem solving.

• Supporting successful change and improvement efforts.

• Building commitment and helping students and teachers identify with the school.

• Amplifying energy and motivation of staff members and students.

• Focusing attention and daily behavior on what is important and valued.


Culture affects our behavior.  How it affects and what it affects can be determined by strong leadership.  It can produce engaged and invested people that challenge each other and grow or it can maintain the status quo where people continue to act the same way getting the same results. 

Want to change a life?


Take a minute. Can you remember your first mentor? What made your remember them? More than likely they made a lasting difference in your life.  

Looking back, I am grateful to have had so many people mentor me.  There was Renee that worked for a congressman who told me that if I wanted to get involved in community work I needed to develop the hindquarters (she used another word) of a turtle because I better get used to be kicked around a bit.  She also taught me that today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s ally.

New York State Senator Donald Haplerin was a great mentor.  He had a vision for what he wanted for young people in his district. He wanted to work with all youth, not just the good ones, but the ones that were struggling. That wasn’t a popular position for an elected official. One of his interview questions to me was, “I want you to work with kids that others might not like, can you do that?”

He was a constant source of support.  He made himself available. He advocated for both me and the group.  He was brave and conscientious enough to give both positive and negative feedback.  He taught me how to accept both and move forward. As a result of his mentoring, his vision prospered. He attracted other people to his cause via his passion, his influence and his talents. He made a difference in my life.  That is what a mentor can do!    


What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a learning and development relationship between two people in which one who is more experienced and knowledgeable helps to guide the other.  It involves communication and relationship building. Some of the basic issues the mentor and the mentee agree on include:

  • Committing time to the relationship
  • Meeting times
  • Goals and objectives
  • How they will communicate and how often


So, why should leaders mentor?

Here are some reasons why it pays to mentor:

  • Passing on your experience and knowledge—paying it forward for the people that helped you—
  • Setting an example
  • Ensuring a legacy for your vision and philosophy
  • Satisfaction at knowing you contributed and made a difference in someone’s life
  • Helps you hone your skills as you focus on how to help someone else. Makes you focus on specifics or actions that might have become second nature over the years, or fallen into disuse
  • Generate new ideas as a result of the mentoring relationship
  • Improves your relationship building skills –connecting you to the younger generation of workers


Choosing the relationship?

You have decided you want to be a mentor. There are several people that have asked you and you are considering. Here are some questions for reflection that will help you make a good decision on whom you should mentor.

  • Do you have a sincere interest in helping this person succeed?
  • Is there mutual interest and compatibility?
  • Do you both share the same understanding of the mentor relationship?
  • Do you have a clear understanding of your role?
  • Are you the right person to help this person achieve their goals?
  • Are you feeling enthusiastic about being a mentor and helping this person?
  • Are you willing to use your network of contact to help this individual? Do you have an active network you can access?
  • Do you have the time to help this person and are you willing to commit that time?
  • Do you have the support you need to be able to engage in a mentoring relationship in a meaningful way?
  • Are you committed to developing your own mentoring skills?


How do you know if you are ready to be a mentor?

Mentoring is not something that should be taken lightly or entered into lightly. If someone has approached you to be their mentor, take some to reflect on why you should say, “Yes.”  Complete the following sentences to help you decide on your answer.

  • I want to be a mentor because…
  • I want to participate in this mentoring relationship because…
  • My experience and expertise will contribute to this relationship by…
  • Specific things I can and am willing to do to help my protégé are…
  • Therefore, I will…


Mentoring is an intense relationship which calls for a serious commitment by both the mentor and the mentee. There are benefits.  The relationship can provide both people with a greater clarity on life and career choices. It provides new insights and perspective into the culture and organization of the group; exposure to different perspectives and cultural values; greater career satisfaction; the opportunity to develop new networks; access to new resources; and an increase opportunity for success in areas that are not addressed by traditional professional development or on the job experience. Mentoring makes a difference. 

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