Saturday, March 9, 2013

Academic Dean SMaC Down

Jim Collins is the lead author of Good to Great and Built to Last. Some people I know and respect a lot (I'm looking at you, Dave Levin and Chi Tschang) talk about these books all the time. These two tomes form the basis for a lot of really smart thinking: The Hedgehog Concept, the Flywheel of Success, Clockmaking vs. Telling Time...It is from these books that I have learned the lessons of Admiral Stockdale and, I'm sure, other important concepts that I refer to often. The thing is, though, that I've never actually gotten all the way through either of these presumably great books. I am ashamed.

But Collins's latest book, Great by Choice (synopsis here), is different. Once I popped the cover - to my disappointment, inaudibly - I couldn't put it down. Nonetheless, I had to temper my excitement to make myself stop to reflect on how what I was learning about applied to my own life and work. What I found was that this book could have been called Greatest Hits of Things that Have Plagued Hawke Throughout his Short but Action-Packed Career, except that's tough to fit on a cover, so I can see why Collins chose Great by Choice instead. 

A lot of this book came down to the idea that the most successful organizations in tumultuous environments succeed because of their consistency.

One thing I have failed at in the past is the Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs principle of conducting small-scale experiments before diving headfirst into a new project. Our school now does a great job of this, and Someday I'll write a follow up to Teachers Falling Down to highlight some of the other principles in this book (The Twenty Mile March; Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs), but today I want to focus on the SMaC recipe, specifically as it applies to my job as Academic Dean (which involves a lot of monitoring of student learning, setting the direction for parts of our academic program, and - my favorite - coaching teachers.)

SMaC stands for Specific, Methodical, and Consistent. These are the relatively few ultra-specific things that a company decides to stick to in terms of standard operating procedures. Southwest Airlines, for example, chose to only fly one model of airplane, so all of their pilots and all of their equipment would be compatible with every one of their airplanes. Here is the draft I came up with for my own job,  I'm posting this so you can offer feedback and suggestions. Please do...I've been doing this particular job ( for about eight months, and I could use your help and advice regarding the things I should stick to. I should also say I'm currently at about 70% on sticking to these...this is not a reflection of what I currently do, but rather what I think I should probably do.

My (draft) Specific, Methodical, and Consistent recipe for Academic Deans:

  1. Plan Your Time: Hold a consistent 45-90 minute weekly meeting in which you define priorities,  script out the critical moves for the week, and translate the priority plan for upcoming months into calendared actions. Once a month, spend 60 minutes updating your priority plan.
  2. Do your research: Before opening a blank document, spend at least 10 minutes searching for something to modify and build from. This applies to curriculum, lessons, and systems.
  3. Focus on developing teachers and leaders: Spend at least ten hours per week (approximately 20%) interacting directly with teachers, either in coaching meetings, real-time coaching sessions, modeling, or PD. Model for teachers at least an hour a week  (2%)- this can be in Morning Meeting, a sample lesson, or via a video in the memo.
  4. Stick to two essentials per person at a time: Limit my coaching conversations to two essentials, not moving on until they are mastered. Ground every conversation in long-term outcomes for kids, and conduct observations and debrief conversations with the relevant Essentials in hand.
  5. Feedback is a Gift: When given the choice between giving or holding back feedback, always give feedback. In-person feedback is better than hand-written, which is better than e-mail. Regularly ask for feedback from others and narrate how you are incorporating feedback.
  6. Monitor Student Learning: Every fall, ensure that each teacher has a proven method for monitoring individual student learning between IA cycles. Check in on this system at least once a month.
  7. Push the rigor of every lesson to meet the needs of the highest-performing students in the class.
  8. Five at a Time: Keep a list of experiments running at any given time; this list should not exceed five. When beginning an experiment, calendar a time and date to evaluate the experiment's effectiveness and determine at what scale to apply the results of the experiment.
  9. Set the Tone: Smile, give Precise, Descriptive Praise, and engage in practical conversations about teaching as often as possible.
  10. Walk the Walk: Perform every duty you expect others to perform, at least once per grading period, so you know what is involved and what you are asking people to do. This includes lesson planning, unit planning, duty coverage, grading, re-do system filing, teaching, etc. This will maintain the empathy and understanding you brought with you when you entered this role, will lead to more thoughtful decision-making, and will help build your credibility.

What do you think? What would you add? What would you subtract, modify, or combine? I would love to hear from teachers, Deans, Principals, people in other roles inside and outside of education...Any help you can provide would be really helpful!


  1. I'm curious, which of these do you feel like you're not consistent with? For me personally, I'm working on 1. and 2. myself. And, just like you have no more than 5 experiments going on at one time, you should not be trying to build more than one habit at a time.

    I strongly recommend following the blog Zen Habits to learn more about how to build habits. Here's one of my favorite posts from that blog:

  2. Hi Deborah (and thanks for commenting!) At some point, I've struggled with all of these. As a principal, #5 was a point of weakness (and frustration for others), and #1, #4, and #8 weren't really on my radar. #2 was a constant struggle, but not from a habit perspective - it was just hard to find anything that directly applied to our situation. Here, as part of a network where so much is standardized, #2 becomes much more of a lever.

    Right now, though, I'd say #4 is my biggest struggle, because it requires the discipline to ignore things we could make better right now.

    I'll check out Zen Habits - interestingly enough, I just read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and would recommend it if you're interested in learning more on the topic.