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Triggers, and I don’t mean the horse or it is not easy being green

When I was a boy and things were going right for me, the “green face” would appear.  It was something of a cross between nausea and nervousness. Whatever it was, people knew I was upset.


not easy being greeen

As I got older the “green face” evolved into the “jaw breaker.”  When I heard something that was frustrating or angered me, I ground my jaw.  During staff meetings, people would bet on how quickly the “jaw breaker” would appear.

Both of the “green face” and the “jaw breaker” were destructive to my leadership style.  They didn’t inspire confidence.  They didn’t make my staff feel safe.  They demonstrated my lack of self control.  If I couldn’t control myself, how could I expect to lead others and expect them to follow me?

Triggers and Cues

What I needed to do was first figure out what was causing “green face” and “jaw breaker.”  Yes, I know it was when I was upset, but it was important to determine exactly what was getting me upset.  I had the good fortune to have known and worked with Dr. Barry Glick.  He taught me about triggers and cue—if he is reading this, he might be wincing at my interpretation.

Cues are those physical reactions that let us know we are getting upset. It could be your body starting to shake, sweating or eyes tearing up. It could be a “green face” or a “jaw breaker.” When you identify your cues, take note what is happening.

This should help you identify your “triggers.”  The things people do or the situations that cause you to get angry, to think unclearly, to be stressed.  These are also the things that left unmanaged or uncontrolled can cause us to make bad decisions and to act rashly.

What can you do?

Keep track of the things that “trigger” reactions from you—a log is a great way to do this.  Regular reflection and recording your observations are great strategies. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I respond out of anger or frustration today?
  • What were the results?
  • Did I get my desired outcomes?
  • What happened right before I responded in anger or frustration?
  • Why did I get angry or frustrated?

Also keep track of the “cues” your body is giving you when you are reflecting on your behavior:

  • Did my body language change?
  • Did my facial expression change?
  • What if any, were my physical reactions? (Sweating, quickening of my breathing, etc.)

Use this information to determine your cues and triggers.

Now what?

Once you have identified your cues and triggers, think of specific strategies and alternative responses you can use to manage them.  Much like we teach students alternatives to fighting, yelling out or being disrespectful, leaders need to manage their responses so they can instill both respect for themselves and others, while allowing them to lead.  Here is an example of what we are talking about.

Frank is an assistant principal.  Whenever he is dealing with teacher observations, he becomes a bit anxious and starts to feel a little queasy. When he has to provide teachers with feedback, and he feels they are defensive, bordering on defiant, he then starts to feel his breathing increase.  He gets angry and his responses are a bit harsh.

In this example, the triggers are conducting the observations themselves and Frank’s perceptions about teacher responses to his feedback, specifically when they sound defensive or defiant.  The cue is his increased breathing.  When Frank feels this way there are some things he can do:

  • Take some deep breaths—controlling your breathing does help.  Practice deep breaths through your nose and out your mouth
  • Stop and think before you respond—if you can’t do this hold off responding until you are in more control

More importantly is once you know the “what” and the “why”, is preparation.    

  • What will you do when you feel one of your cues or are affected by a trigger?
  • Think about and decide on alternative responses and reactions beforehand.
  • Practice them—roles play-with someone you trust.


The first person leaders must lead is themselves.  Leaders need to be aware that how they respond, both verbally and physically (via body language) affects how people see and hear them. It affects the quality of their leadership and therefore affects the quality of their team’s work.  If people feel a leader’s anger or frustration, they most often miss the content of the message.   Delivery is just as important as content. 

Friday Reflection: Watchfulness



People like to be recognized—some because of selfish reasons, but most because we all like our work to be appreciated.  Study after study tells us that money is not the big motivator, satisfaction is.  As leaders we need to be watchful, grateful and expressive about the good work of our team.

Questions for leaders to consider:

  • Does your team know your expectations?
  • Do they know what you are looking for when you visit their classrooms?
  • Is your team aware of goals and objectives and how they relate to your school’s mission?
  • Do you set time aside every day to watch them at work and observe what they are doing?
  • Do you provide immediate feedback and if need be follow up with more explicit feedback later on?
  • Are you collecting the right kind of data and actively using it to guide your leadership and your staff’s work?

Watchful leaders are observant. Watchful leaders are proactive. Watchful leaders protect their people.  Watchful leaders are effective. 

The M & M’s of Good Leadership

During those infamous staff meetings that were mentioned in a previous post (see “Information without Relations is just Yadda, Yadda, Yadda”) there was a monthly agenda item to assess how we were doing.  We drew our questions from our grant contract’s goals and objectives.  One of those questions was, “How many people were served this month?”

Now, that is not a bad question—especially if you are working with a resistant population.  Getting them into the door and into seats is an important step, and it should be monitored. We can’t stop there.  We need to measure what happens once we get them into those seats.  Are they learning? Is there an increase in their skill level, whether it is reading, writing, math, or any other content area?

What you measure, is what works!

Here is the simple truth— it is the actions and strategies we define and monitor that are successful.  It is not complicated and it is not even hard to implement. It just calls for preparation and consistent follow-through.  Neither of these is especially exciting, but they are essential.



Measuring and Monitoring—M & M

Like anything else, when we take the time to break a task down into small steps, the task becomes clearer for leaders, and then it becomes easier and clearer for leaders to share with their staff. This is part of the preparation referenced above and will make the monitoring and measuring of strategies/behaviors effective. A good way to approach M & M is to think about monitoring and measuring the same way you ask your teachers to approach formative assessments.  They should be done regularly and used to guide future actions.

Leaders need to work on guidelines both for themselves (you always want to be able to give clear and consistent answers) and for their staff--what you don’t want to happen is a staff person saying to you after the first month or even week, “I thought you meant something else when you said that.”  A little upfront work, and preparation, pays off in big dividends. They need to be addressed before you begin the implementation process and they need to be clearly presented to your staff beforehand, so everyone starts off on the same page. Encourage questions and input. It will only make the process more effective.

Three M & M Guidelines

Identify specifically the skill or behavior you want to monitor and measure

  • Ask why!
  • Does this skill or behavior address a real need of the staff?
  • Does it support the change you are trying to implement?

What will you measure?

  • What does it look like?
  • What do you want to see when you walk into the classroom?
  • What should the teacher be looking to see when they are teaching?
  • What should the student be doing?
  • What is the outcome you are looking for?

How will you monitor and what data will you collect?

  • Monitoring needs to be embedded in the leader’s daily routine. Set time aside in your schedule every day to visit classrooms, grade level meetings, etc. These are not only opportunities to observe, but also to provide direction, feedback and reinforcement—and, of course, build relationships.
  • Create a form (these days you can do that using Google Docs or something similar and access it from your smart phone or your tablet) using the answers from the section above. For example, if the strategy you are implementing is classroom management you might have a form that lists physical set up of room, classroom rules posted, student recognition system, etc. You can also ask your staff to participate in the data collection (they can use the same form and it allows them a voice. It is also interesting to compare your observations with theirs and discuss similarities and differences)
  • Involve students in the data collection process by having them fill out a survey.  Just like with your staff it is important that the process and what you are trying to accomplish is clearly defined and explained.
  • Give FEEDBACK!  There are at least two reasons for monitoring. Check on your progress to an identified objective or goal AND provide guidance to your staff to help them reach that objective.
  • Set benchmarks and celebrate when they are reached.  Recognize staff work and achievement.  Celebrating “small” achievements along the way is just as important, if not more important as reaching the goal.


People need to be developed-both leaders and staff.  The development process is a thoughtful process and calls for preparation, implementation and feedback.  All of the process needs to be monitored and measures (M & M).  Such a process affects not only people, but the system in which they are working.  Changing (improving) both people and the system are essential to success.

Here is a quote from Michael Fullan’s book, “The Principal”:

“Countries that have a strong teaching profession and legions of great teachers—such as Singapore, Finland, or Canada-did not achieve that state by using the crude method of reward and punishment.  Instead, they established a ‘developmental’ approach to making teachers more effective: the developed leaders, such as principals who could help teachers work together in a focused way to use diagnostic student data linked to the improvement of instruction in order to get better results; they operate in transparent ways so that people can learn from one another; they monitor progress and intervene when necessary. In short, they create high performance expectation and cultures.” 

Information without Relationships is just Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Years ago, about 35 more or less, I made several mistakes as a new and inexperienced leader.  There is one out of the many that sticks out.  Every Friday, we had staff meeting that could last anywhere from one to three hours. I thought I was being comprehensive. Part of the goal was to share information.  Finally, my assistant director shared some feedback with me. 

“Listening to you at meetings can be overwhelming. There is so much information, ideas and directions that we get lost in the confusion.”


It was great feedback! It caused me to reflect on my objective, examine my approach, evaluate the outcomes and adjust what I was doing.

A lesson that was learned, but I was not able to verbalize until I read Michael Fullan’s “Leading During Change”, is that information without relationships clogs up the communication pipeline.  Equally, a flood of information not aligned to a goal or specific action rarely gets implemented.  What people hear is just “Yadda, yadda, yadda!” What we want them to hear is clear, concise pieces of information that will help them be more successful and advance the vision and mission of the group.

Let’s look at just two strategies for this kind of communication. 

Data + Relationships = Knowledge

One way to define knowledge is the application of information to secure a desired result.  Leaders must create a culture where knowledge is a priority.  One approach to establishing and nurturing such a culture is building relationships.  Here is a question to reflect on. Who are you more likely to listen to, someone you know and trust or a stranger? Most of us will answer the first choice—someone we know and trust.  It makes sense then for leaders to place creating relationships at the top of their “To Do” list. 

Here is another nugget from Fullan: Turning information into knowledge is a social process—leaders NEED good relationships.”  Good leaders commit themselves to constantly generating and increasing knowledge—knowledge that is useful and helpful to their team.

Align the information with your vision and their needs

Information is good. If we want to turn it into knowledge, it needs to fill a need. There needs to be a ready opportunity for application of the information and for staff success. 

When leaders are deciding what information they want to share they should consider:

  • Does the information address a need of the staff? (How needs can be identified is a topic for another post!)
  • What, if anything does the staff need to use the information? (Materials, tools, etc.)
  • Have you shared with your staff that you will be monitoring how they use the information and what specifically will you  be monitoring (what behaviors and actions)
  • Have you shared what will determine successful use of the information and what does not


Leaders promoting change must be concerned with both providing information and the strategies needed to using that information.  The goal is to change information into knowledge.  Ultimately, we want to create a culture of knowledge sharing—where staff as a common practice shares what they have learned with each other.  For that to happen, they must feel connected to a higher moral purpose (your vision) and to you and their fellow team members (relationships). 

Leaders should:

  • Create opportunities for learning both in training and embedded in the daily work day
  • Designing settings and events that prompt the use of this information
  • Cultivate an environment via expected behaviors and norms where knowledge sharing can occur
  • Get involved and personally  participate  in the process—actively listening, questioning and providing guidance

If you are not looking for it, you won’t find it!

Think back.  How many times have you planned training for your team?  You have done the assessment and the surveying of staff needs and wants.  You did the research and identified good content and qualified trainers.  You created a great buzz about the training and get not only a great turnout, but great participation.  The evaluations come back and they are positive. 

During your walk-throughs over the next couple of weeks, you keep looking for some application of what was trained and so enthusiastically received, but you don’t see it.  What happened?

Here’s the thing

You can do all the training you want, good training, but if you don’t work on the culture they return to, then change may not happen—and in my experience, doesn’t happen.  The question then arises, how are we defining culture?

Most of the leaders we are coaching respond, “We have a strong culture. It is positive.” More times than not, they are right. Lawrence Lezotte (and if you have been reading this blog, you have read this before. Like all good thoughts it bears repetition) tells us to remember that:

“First, existing schools represent a system-in-place. Second, the system-in-place is ideally suited to produce the results the school is currently getting. Third, any change in the desired results from the current system-in-place is going require a change in the mission, core beliefs, and core values that underpin the system, especially if the goal is to permanently sustain the desired change.”

In other words, when all we do is focus on sharing information or data, rather than providing clear strategies for use and evaluation of that use, all the training in the world will fail.  We need to change culture, create new settings and monitor.  We cannot take staff, train them and then return them to the same setting they left.  The training focus has to be on not just informing and changing staff, but changing what they return to and providing a context for that change.

Principal Observing Teacher


4 Things Leaders Can Do

  • Overtly inform you staff how the training aligns to your mission and vision when introducing and talking about  the training
  • Participate in the training—provide input both as a participant and as the leader—don’t dominate, participate.
  • At the end of the training identify with your staff key content that should be implemented in their classroom, and specific behaviors you would like to see. Have a discussion on how this new information can be implemented immediately.
  • Monitor and Feedback: Visit classrooms and look for the behaviors you identified. Provide positive reinforcement when you see it and when you don’t see it, explore with the teacher why you are not seeing it.  It should not be a punishing process, but a discussion. Help them identify obstacles and solutions; clarify information they might not understand; and let them know you will be back. Then make sure you go back.


Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it doesn’t happen solely through stand-up training.   It happens when we make the change relevant to our staff, keep it consistent with our mission, and set the expectation and means to see it applied.  The ideas that grow are the ideas that are monitored and nurtured through effective feedback. If you are not looking for it, you won’t find it! 

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