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To Email or not to Email

E-mail is a great tool and like any other tool, it is more about HOW is it used than what it is.  More and more people are sharing how email dominates their day. There is an expectation that since email is instant communication (for the most part) responses must be instant.  That constant flow of information can (and usually does) negatively impact on the amount of work we get done as opposed to the amount of emails to which we respond.

Here is a March 22, 2016 article that makes “The Case Against Email.”

Now as often is the case, there tends to be a swing of the pendulum, an either/or situation that paints issues in stark black and white.  Often issues like this have shades of gray to be considered as well. It may not be about using email or not, but when and how.  In other words, we want to manage our email as opposed to having it manage us.

Here are some simple guidelines that might help:

  • Establish a three email rule. If there are three mails in a row about the same topic I talk to the person directly.  This usually addresses the question or the issue more clearly than additional emails.
  • Limit the time you spend on email.  There are some who suggest not looking at your email first thing in the morning because you will get sucked into spending the next several hours writing and responding.  Each of us has to find what works best, the main focus on being limiting email time and expanding work/people time.

If you are a morning email person you might consider these strategies:

  • Go through your emails quickly (I use either the subject line or the sender as indicators) and identify what emails need to be addressed immediately, which can be addressed later in the day or week, and which can be discarded.
  • Keep a daily to-do list and align your email choices with the list. In other words, if the email is about an item that is on your to do list, you want to respond. If it is about another issue that will take you off task, put it in the “get to later pile.”  If you feel like you have to respond to the “get to it later” pile, send a short note explaining you received their email and will get back to them later in the week. (This has the added benefit in this current immediate response world to let people know you got their email-you recognize both their importance and the issue’s importance.)
  • Remember set a time limit and keep to it.

Not sure if limiting your email will help you get work done? Start a log and monitor your current time usage for a week. If you have a smart phone, you create a note or document and just keep a running log of how you are spending your time. Then following week, apply the strategies above, and continue with the log.  Compare the two weeks, if there is no difference, then you have no problem, but if you note an increase in time spend on actual work as opposed to talking about the actual work, you may want consider the above points.

A final thought, emails as useful as they are, can be confusing to the reader. Have you ever received an email and wondered, “Are they mad?”  Often the tone of the email is hard to decipher.  Email is a tool to help us be efficient. It can’t replace a personal contact. A short call or a walk over to the person’s office or desk can contribute to creating and reinforcing a strong working relationship.  

Tip from the Field: Using Videos Effectively

Videos have become increasingly more prevalent in today’s classroom.  We all know that watching a video about a certain content area can be extremely valuable to enhance learning- especially for our children with limited schema, but, like everything else, it is not just what we do but HOW we do it.

Kim Burgess, one of our top JP School Improvement Specialist made the following suggestions to a group of teachers about effectively using videos:   

“Videos can be extremely powerful tools for enhancing student learning in the classroom. To ensure maximum benefits for using the visual aid, the following steps from SPARKed should be considered:


1.      Preview the content to make certain it is appropriate

2.      Select short segments that are truly applicable to your lesson

3.      Ask students to write about what they know on the subject


1.      Give  students a specific assignment to focus on while viewing the video

2.      Show one short segment at a time so that you can direct the learning experience


            Check for understanding through group work and/or discussions

Videos used correctly should enhance instruction and result in an interactive experience for both the student and the teacher.



Are you asking the right questions?

Questioning, or more correctly effective questioning is an essential component of classroom instruction and like most effective strategies, it is a thoughtful process. It doesn’t just happen. Effective questioning can be used to elicit immediate information about student learning—it is way to incorporate formative assessments into every day.  As a way of conducting formative assessment, it allows an opportunity for deeper thinking and provides teachers with significant insight into the degree and depth of student understanding. It engages students in classroom dialogue that both uncovers and expands learning.  Seen in this light, you can understand why effective question should be an important part of your teaching style.

The essential, preliminary step before posing a question is - PLANNING effective questioning.  Deep and thoughtful planning must be used to determine what kind of question will elicit the information YOU need to check for understanding and monitor your instructional effectiveness.

The next step after asking the question is also critical- what we do with their responses…this information  provides us with a decision-making point as to where further scaffolding is warranted or not.

Let’s think about open-ended and closed questions – what’s the difference between the two? An open-ended question is likely to draw out a longer response than a closed one.  Which one is going to give you the most information about the students’ understanding?  So, which type should we use most often?

Open-ended-absolutely!  By turning a closed question that can be answered with a specific piece of information ("What answer did you get for number 5?") to an open-ended one that allows for more than one response ("How did you get the answer for number 5?"), we can provoke more insightful commentary from students.

We need to intentionally PLAN to stop and check for understanding at various places throughout the lesson so we can plan for future instruction. These periodic checks allow us to determine the following:

  • What the learners know
  • What they DON’T know
  • The extent to which a learner is linking background knowledge with newer concepts
  • Whether there are any misconceptions that are getting in the way of understanding

By intentionally and systematically providing checks, we minimize the chance of not recognizing the trouble areas.

What should be our focus during the questioning process? Our purpose should be on determining what the students know and don’t know.  It is about uncovering information, not testing. We want to look for anticipated misconceptions or partial understanding.  Then we want to use that information, that formative data to adjust instruction.

One way this can be done is by using Robust questions which set up subsequent instruction.  Robust questions provide the information you need to further prompt, cue, or explain and model.  When students are able to answer robust questions thoroughly, it indicates they are ready to further refine their understanding as they work with groups. They are able to receive less and less teacher involvement.

Consider this exchange:

Teacher: What is a nocturnal animal?

Student: An animal that stays awake at night.

Teacher: Good. What is a diurnal animal?

Here the teacher is quizzing, not questioning. The teacher is running through a list of technical vocabulary (nocturnal, diurnal) to determine how closely the student's answer matches the book definition.

Now consider this exchange:

Teacher: What is a nocturnal animal?

Student: An animal that stays awake at night.

Teacher: Tell me more about that. Does a nocturnal animal have special characteristics?

Student: Well, it doesn't sleep a lot.

Whoa- what has been revealed?   A misconception!

 This student is making a completely reasonable answer, based on what he knows and doesn't know at this time, and incorrectly assumes that nocturnal animals are sleep-deprived.

The teacher didn't teach this, but the student believes it nonetheless. It is the follow-up probe that makes the difference. The teacher's intent in using a question is to uncover, not test.

And here's where the teacher uses his thin-slicing abilities to make his next instructional decision. They could say the following:

Teacher: I'm thinking of those pictures we saw of the great horned owl and the slow loris in the daytime and at night. Does your answer still work? [A prompt to activate background knowledge]

Alternatively, the teacher might say this:

Teacher: Let's take a look on page 35 and reread the second paragraph. Does the author agree or disagree with you? [A cue to shift the learner's attention to a source of information]

Robust Questioning is a great strategy that not only engages your students, but provides you with formative data to guide your instruction to better meet the needs of your students. 

Leadership and Authority

For many people leadership equals authority—and that is true.  The question is how do we use that authority? What is your style of leadership? Where does your authority find its source?

I am a big fan of Michael Fullan.  In his book “Leading in a Culture of Change,” he shares Daniel Goleman’s 6 types of leadership:

  1. Coercive: The Coercive Leader demands compliance.  His message to his team is, “Do what I tell you to do.” There is no questioning or explaining, just demanding.
  1. Authoritative: The Authoritative Leader mobilizes people toward a vision. This leader invites you to come along, but maybe it is come along and follow directions.
  1. Affiliative: The Affiliative Leader creates harmony and builds emotional bonds. This leader puts his people first. 
  1. Democratic: The Democratic Leader forges consensus through participation. They consult with their group and solicit input. They want to know what their people think.
  1. Pacesetting: The Pacesetter sets high standards for performance. They set the bar for all the group by setting the example.  They want people to approach tasks as they do—usually high energy all the time.
  1. Coaching: The Coach develops people for the future—they look to create a pipeline of leaders that will sustain their vision.  They listen and prompt their team with questions that encourage them to think and act based on what they have learned.

Two of the leadership styles listed above were determined to negatively impact on the people being led.  They are the coercive style and the pacesetting style.  In the first case, people resent and then resist the efforts of the leader and therefore their vision. In the second case, people burnout trying to keep pace.

The temptation is to read this list and try to identify what kind of leader you are. Nothing is that black and white. I would venture a guess that at one time or another each of these styles are used by leaders depending on the situation.  If your building is burning down, you don’t want a Democratic Leader trying to take vote on what to do. You want a leader that is going to say, “Do what I tell you to do!”  If you are trying to decide how to address a problem that has been identified in your school, maybe you want a Democratic Leader, willing to listen and come to a consensus.

Effective leaders take the time to reflect on the different styles of leadership they use and how they use them.  Like most things, data is important. Keeping a journal is a great way to document the situations that present themselves during the day and how you deal with them.  Ask yourself, did what I did get the results needed? If not, what could I have done differently? Do you see a pattern in your behavior? What one behavior, if you changed it, would impact your work positively the most?

Finally, we need to examine where we draw our authority. In the beginning, it is usually from the position itself.  Our title identifies us as the leader.  This alone is not enough to make you a leader or give you authority.  Effective leaders are “influencers.”  They know that there is very little they actually control. They also know that by building relationships there is much they can influence.  It is probably the single most effective strategy for a leader.  You build relationships by being sincere, honest, and consistent. You listen, and provide feedback and when it makes sense you take input and you apply it. You create and nurture a climate of accountability. You let people invest in your vision.

The fact is that leadership is a complex process.  Sometimes the leader needs a hammer to drive home their points and sometimes they can use a baton to orchestrate.  

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