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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. 

How to write a paragraph in six easy steps

Kid Write Paragraph


The teachers at one of the schools with which we work participated in a discussion group about the importance of students becoming effective writers.  At the conclusion of the discussion, they agreed that writing skills are essential for success in college and in the work world.  They also came to a consensus that the teaching of writing in their elementary school must lay down the basics skills for writing from which students can build.

One of the teachers, Mr. Abernathy was looking for some clear steps on how to teach some of his struggling students how to write a paragraph.  He approached his coach, a JP School Improvement Specialist and she shared these six steps to writing a paragraph.  The coach, Kim, explained up front that these six steps could be done all in one lesson or may need to broken up for the more naïve students such as English Language Learners. In other words, Mr. Abernathy, needed to assess his students (something he had been doing on a consistent basis using formative assessments) and then differentiate instruction as indicated. 

Kim also explained that it was important that Mr. Abernathy bring each student to mastery on each step before moving on to the next step.

The Six Steps

Step One: Ask students to read the assignment

Example: Please write a paragraph on the favorite thing you like about yourself. Call on several students to tell the favorite thing they like about themselves. Choose one sentence to model.

Step Two: Write the main sentence

Teacher:  The first thing I need to do is write a Main Idea sentence. This is also called a topic sentence.  The Main Idea tells what the paragraph will be about. The main idea of our paragraph is to tell what is the favorite thing you like about yourself? What is the main idea or topic of our paragraph- teacher verifies: Yes, the main idea of our paragraph is “What is the Favorite Thing About Myself?”

The teacher calls on a student and asks, “What is the favorite thing you like about yourself?”


Student: I like my personality the best. The favorite thing I like about myself is my personality.

The teacher should call on several students for responses making sure each sentence starts with “The favorite thing I like about myself is ____________,” and then chooses one to model.

Teacher: Tell me what specifically about your personality you like.

Student: I like that I am friendly and make friends quickly.

Teacher: “Yes, now put that in a complete sentence.”

Student: “My favorite thing about myself is how friendly I am and how I make new friends quickly. “

The teacher should accept all reasonable answers (if necessary, model the complete sentence for the students using yourself as the subject). 


Step Three: 3 Rules about Sentence Writing

Teacher (As you write say), “Rule One for writing a first sentence in a paragraph. I am moving in from the margin to start the first sentence. This is called indenting. Here’s a rule: The first sentence of a paragraph is always indented. Listen again; the first sentence of a paragraph is always indented. Say the rule.

Students respond: “The first sentence of a paragraph is always indented.”

Teacher verifies: “Yes, the first sentence of a paragraph is always indented.”

Teacher: “Rule Two, I started the sentence with a capital letter. Here’s a rule. The first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter. Listen again: The first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter. Say the rule.”

Students respond:  “The first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter.”

Teacher verifies: “Yes, the first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter.”


Teacher: “Rule Three. This sentence tells, so I put a period at the end of the sentence. Here’s a rule: Put a period at the end of every sentence that tells. Listen again; put a period at the end of every sentence that tells. Say that rule.”

Students respond: “Put a sentence at the end of every sentence that tells.” with the rule and then the teacher verifies:

Teacher verifies: “Yes, we put a period at the end of every sentence that tells.”


Differentiation tip: If when Mr. Abernathy pre-assesses his students and determines that several students don’t understand when a sentence tells something and when it is a sentence that questions, that pre-requisite skill must be taught first to those students in a small group setting.


Step Four: Supporting Details

Teacher:  “Now we need supporting details. Supporting details tell more. Tell me more about the main idea.” Call on individual students. In the example we are writing, tell me some details about why you like to make new friends.

As before, if a student gives an incomplete idea, ask them to tell you more. If they do NOT use a complete sentence, acknowledge the good idea and ask them to say it in a complete sentence. Model a complete sentence if necessary. Write the sentences on the board.


Student 1: When I make new friends I learn new things. (Have students start each sentence with “When I make new friends _____________.”) Write the sentence on the board

Teacher: Good. You were specific and you put in the form of a complete sentence. When I make new friends I learn new things. What new things have you learned from your friends?

Student 1: It is interesting.  I have learned about their holidays which are different than mine. I learned what it’s like to be in a big family.

Teacher: So, in your first sentence I learned that you like making new friends because you learn new things. Now, I know 2 of the new things you learned were about their holidays and you also learned what it’s like to be a member of a big family. Can you tell me that in a sentence(s)?

Student 1:  Some of the new things I learned were about my friends’ holidays. I also learned what it is like to be part of a big family.(Write the sentence on the board)

Teacher (As you’re writing, say, again):  "I started the sentence with a capital letter. Remember the rule. The first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter. Say the rule." Signal

Student 1: "The first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter.

Teacher Verifies: "Yes, the first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter."

Teacher: "This sentence tells, so, again, I put a period at the end of the sentence. Here’s a rule: Put a period at the end of every sentence that tells. Say that rule." Signal.

Student 1: "Put a period at the end of every sentence that tells."

Teacher Verifies: "Yes, put a period at the end of every sentence that tells."

Get a total of 2 or 3 supporting sentences from several individual students, but choose sentences from one student to write on the board.

Teacher: "That is great information and again, you put in the form of complete sentences."  Call on another student

Student 2:"I like making new friends because I get to play more games."

Teacher: "Can you tell me more about the kinds of games you play with your friends?"

Students 2: "We play video games and we play baseball."

Teacher: "Great answer. Nice details. From our first sentence I learned that you like making new friends. Now, I learned that you like making new friends because it gives you the opportunity to play more games like video games and baseball. Can you give me that in a sentence(s)?"

Student 2: "I like making new friends because I get to play more video games. I also get to play baseball."


Step Five: Conclusion

Teacher: “Now, we need a conclusion, or concluding sentence. A concluding sentence finishes the paragraph. Tell me how you would finish up your paragraph?”

Student: “I am glad I am friendly because making new friends and learning new things is fun and exciting.”

Teacher writes the sentence on the board reviewing rules for sentence writing as above.

The final paragraph on the board would look like this:

     My favorite thing about myself is my personality. I like how friendly I am and how I make new friends quickly.  When I make new friends I also learn new things. Some of the new things I learned about were my friends’ holidays. I also learned what it is like to be part of a big family.I am glad I am friendly because making new friends and learning new things is fun and exciting.


Step Six: Student Review

Teacher: “Let’s review what we did:”

Teacher: “First, we wrote a main idea or topic sentence that told what the paragraph would be about. What did we write first?”

Student: “A main idea sentence.”

Teacher:  “Yes, a main idea sentence.  Next, we wrote supporting sentences that told more about the main idea. What did we write next?”

Student: We wrote supporting sentences that told more about the main idea.

Teacher: “Yes, we wrote supporting sentences that told more.  Last, we wrote a conclusion that finished the paragraph. What did we write last?”

Student:  “We wrote a conclusion that finished the paragraph.”

Teacher: “Yes, a conclusion that finished the paragraph.”

Teacher: For each sentence, we followed these rules.  The first rule is we indented the first sentence of the paragraph.  Say the rule?”

Student: “Indent the first sentence of the paragraph.”

Teacher: “Yes, indent the first sentence of the paragraph.” The second rule is we started every sentence with a capital letter. Say the rule.”

Student: “Start every sentence with a capital letter.”

Teacher: “Yes, start every sentence with a capital letter.” The third rule is we put a period at the end of every sentence that tells. Say that rule.”

Student:  “Put a period at the end of every sentence that tells.”

Teacher: “Yes, put a period at the end of every sentence that tells.”


Follow up:

Have the student write down the paragraph. Continue to use this instructional format as a model for the students’ next five writing assignments.  The teacher should model each assignment as above.  During the fifth repetition, (adjust according to student needs and assessments) upon completion of the model paragraph, erase what you wrote on the board and have students write their own paragraphs.


An effective strategy for instruction is to break the information into the smallest units of information and then teaching those units in the proper sequence and checking for mastery. The six steps above are examples of how this can be applied to paragraph writing and is effective both as strategy for introducing students to this information the first time and for struggling students.

Next Blog Post: How to manage independent learning for paragraph writing

Writing— Still a Needed Skill in the 21st Century


During a recent training teachers and leaders answered this question, “Which academic skill has helped you the most overall? Helped you moved forward and upward?”  The most frequent answer was writing. 


Answers vary.  Here are some of the more common responses:

  • It helps me clarify my thoughts
  • It allows me to share my ideas clearly with my supervisors and team members
  • It creates a document to which people can refer for guidance

Connected to Success

Writing may be by far the single academic skill most closely associated with college and work success.  We know this, but yet, look at the following statistics from the Alliance for Excellent Education (2011)—Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment. They are causes for concern:

  • Poor writing skills cost businesses 3.1 billion annually (National Commission on Writing, 2004)
  • Only one out of four twelfth-grade students are proficient writers (Salahu-Din, Persky, and Miller, 2008)
  • Nearly one-third of high school graduates are not ready for college-level English composition courses (ACT, 2005)
  • College instructors estimate that half of high school graduates are unprepared for college-level writing (Achieve, Inc. 2005)
  • College graduates earn 70 percent more than high school graduates (Taggart et al., 2001)
  • More than half of adult scoring at the lowest literacy levels are dropouts (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005)

More and more colleges are requiring well developed writing skills, research capabilities and thinking skills. This means we need to provide students with strong skills during their k-12 experience.   Students need to learn how to:

  • Write Expository, descriptive, and persuasive pieces
  • Pre-write, how to edit, and how to re-write a piece before it is submitted and, often, after it has been submitted once and feedback has been provided.
  • To present arguments clearly, substantiate each point, and utilize the basics of a style manual when constructing a paper.
  • To write free of grammatical, spelling, and usage errors.

Next Blog: How to write a paragraph in six easy steps

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