Reevaluating Reading Instruction

In Leading with Focus, author Mike Schmoker says "research shows that the acquisition of knowledge and vocabulary through content-rich curriculum may be more important to reading than any other factor." This content and vocabulary can come from a variety of sources. In his book Focus, Schmoker shares that a content-rich curriculum must include regular, in-class opportunities to read and discuss newspapers, serious magazines, biographies, memoirs, etc. He also writes "no evidence proves that an approach focused on the technical aspects of literacy helps students become more sophisticated in their reading.” Reading growth depends, more than anything, on our ability to build up students' knowledge base and vocabulary.

Why do I mention Schmoker's work on literacy? Because the Edutopia article below includes reading growth in one of their 10 most significant educational studies of 2020. A K-5 study indicates that "social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement." I don't know many details of the study, but the results should definitely cause us to ask questions.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Improving Society Through Literacy Instruction

Vicki Davis, “The Cool Cat Teacher,” once shared the following on social media:
    • Nearly 85% of the juveniles who face trial in the US juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
    • More than 60% of all US inmates are functionally illiterate.
    • 53% of 4th graders admit they read recreationally “almost every day” while only 20% of eighth graders say the same.
    • Teenage girls between 16 to 19 who live at or below the poverty line and have below average literacy skills are six times more likely to have children out of wedlock than girls their age who read proficiently.
So, I challenge you to look at reading differently. It isn’t a standard. It is an essential to living a better life. When you help a child become a better reader, you are helping them live a better life.

I have written previously about the importance of literacy and hiring teachers who are passionate about literacy instruction. Both are extremely important. When Mike Schmoker says “Wide, abundant reading is the surest route out of poverty,” there is an abundance of research supporting his claim.

It is imperative we reach students early and often. Phonics instruction is critical. But, we can’t stop there.

In his book Leading with Focus, Schmoker says “Research shows that the acquisition of knowledge and vocabulary through content-rich curriculum may be more important to reading than any other factor.” This research should impact the way we view literacy instruction. We are all literacy teachers and should be teaching literacy through our specific content areas.

In my first week at a new school, I observed multiple teachers infusing their own personal reading passions into their classrooms. This must also be a regular occurrence across grade levels and content areas if we’re going to make a huge dent in the statistics above. 

We can’t instill a love of literacy into others if we don’t have the passion ourselves.

It begins with us. I agree with Donalyn Miller when she says, “Being a master reading teacher begins with being a master reader.” We must model lifelong learning through reading.

As teachers, we should all strive to be master reading teachers by combining personal reading passions with a curriculum that is rich in content and vocabulary. 

If we’re in the business of changing lives, few things will have the impact we desire like changing the way many of us view literacy instruction.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

The Value of a Coach

“Why does our school need an instructional coach? If our teachers need coaching, they shouldn’t be here!” 

This was a comment by a school board member at a previous school. Much could be said in response to this perspective on education, but I want to briefly share some thoughts on the statement. The truth is, teachers are professionals and professionals in many fields benefit from the expertise and perspectives of coaches.

As a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, I still follow the career of Albert Pujols – arguably the greatest right-handed hitting baseball player of all-time. In the post-game conference after tying Willie Mays for 5th on the all-time homerun list, Pujols credited his hitting coaches with helping him make adjustments prior to the historic achievement. Albert Pujols, also known as “The Machine,” still finds value from utilizing coaches. It’s what professionals do. Tom Brady has a quarterback coach. Tiger Woods benefits from golf coaches. Being coached is not reserved for the less talented. Being coached is about moving from where we are to some place better. 

Teaching should be no different. The expertise of a good instructional coach is invaluable, and a good one can take teaching to higher levels. When this happens, a teacher’s impact improves through increased and deeper student learning. 

Just like professional athletes, teachers should continue growing no matter how many years they’ve been in their profession. Risk-taking and lifelong learning should be modeled in every classroom.

Truthfully, each one of us in education, no matter our role, should make learning, reflecting, and growing a part of our what we do. It’s the only way to keep providing students a high-quality education. For teachers, instructional coaches are able to help facilitate this in a high-quality manner that is non-threatening and non-evaluative. They also help protect us from complacency and status quo.  

Being coached is what professionals do. 

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Teacher, Lean On Me

Educators have always needed each other. Whether that need is an understanding ear or a helping hand, the empathy of a colleague can be just what we need to keep us going. This year more than any, we must be intentional about seeking and sharing encouragement. We are all being asked to do more than what has been typical. In a sense, we are first year educators all over again.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown shares a study which was conducted with a group of military members who constantly felt exhausted by the demands of their work. The study found they were actually exhausted from loneliness. Not just loneliness from their families, but loneliness from connections and inclusion among those with which they served.

This should serve as a valuable lesson for educators. The demands and stress of balancing in-class instruction, distance learning, social distancing, extra sanitation efforts, and the coming and going of quarantined students may challenge us like never before. For many, it will feel like we’re living in a constant state of exhaustion and loneliness. 

We need to be intentional about checking in on and encouraging one another. Sometimes, though, we will be the ones in need. Now is not the time to let pride get in the way and keep us from seeking help. Our sanity demands that we stay connected and lean on each other. 

As the study Brene Brown shared suggests, perhaps by doing these things we can muster the extra energy needed to get through this year and provide our students the level of education they need and deserve. Perhaps, too, that same extra energy will allow us to have something left in the tank when we return home to our families. 

We can’t do this alone. This school year will require us to lean on one another like never before. Let’s be intentional with serving and encouraging each other. May we also be intentional with seeking help when we need it. 

We won’t regret encouraging others or being encouraged by others. However, we will have regrets if we try to get through this school year alone.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Happy Accidents - Myth or Reality?

“We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.” ~ Bob Ross

How are mistakes viewed in your classroom? A good litmus test would be how students respond when a mistake is made. Are they concerned about losing points or potential consequences? Or, do your students embrace mistakes because they are opportunities for growth?

Hopefully students view mistakes as learning opportunities. If not, it is critical that we address whatever is getting in the way. 

Mistakes Are Okay

How many students have experienced a teacher saying mistakes are okay only to lose points on an assignment that was graded too soon in the learning process? They have learned those who “learn quicker” get higher grades. Students should have opportunities to make mistakes and receive feedback before they’re graded for content knowledge or application. Otherwise, mistakes truly aren’t okay. One goal of education is to learn knowledge and skills and how to apply them to new situations. Unfortunately, our system is not set up to best celebrate those who learn...but rather those who learn quicker than others. 

Happy Accidents

Are “happy accidents” a myth or reality in your classroom? Every teacher should evaluate his or her classroom practices to determine if mistakes truly are encouraged and embraced. I believe that it is impossible to genuinely embrace mistakes as part of the learning process if grading occurs before students have had the opportunity to learn from feedback.

We should not allow traditional grading practices to get in the way of powerful learning opportunities. If a student has already been penalized with a poor grade, they no longer believe there is an incentive to continue learning. In fact, learning stops once a grade is received. Feedback and extending questions are needed to further learning.

When students feel free to make mistakes, only then can mistakes become happy accidents which boost learning.

I’ll close with a couple of quotes from John Hattie:

1) A grade is an announcement, not feedback. 

2) If kids aren’t making mistakes, there isn’t much learning going on. 

May we all be challenged to boost the volume of feedback we provide while establishing cultures which truly do embrace mistakes as part of the learning process.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

If I Had A Different Mom

“Mom, you’re the best mom ever!”

“But, if I had a different mom she’d be the best mom ever.”

She was six years old at the time, but our middle daughter recognized that a different mom would likely make her feel as loved and important as she does now. It was not to say she wished for a different mother. Not at all. It was another example for us of her amazing empathetic understanding of people and the world around her.

We all want people in our lives who will love us, meet our needs, and give us attention. Young people are no different. When students say “Ms. So-and-So is the best teacher ever,” what they’re really saying is they appreciate how that teacher made them feel. How they took time to get to know them and care about them. Perhaps even how they made their content come alive. But, ultimately, it’s about feeling loved, safe, respected, and important.

Have you ever noticed an elementary student say every year that their current teacher is the “best teacher ever?” Students do not have a deep understanding of pedagogy, curriculum, etc., but they do understand the feeling they get when they’re in a caring teacher’s classroom. 

Anybody can be that caring person in the life of a child.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but below are some ways we can be a positive influence on the students we serve.
  • Greet students at the door with a smile and some form of “hello.”
  • Get to know them – their interests, passions, strengths, weaknesses, dreams, fears, etc.
  • Talk to them about topics unrelated to school or content.
  • Recognize and celebrate their achievements – large or small. 
  • Offer praise and encouragement.
  • Show up to their after-school activities.
  • Call them by their first name. As Dale Carnegie says in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “the sweetest sound to a person’s ear is the sound of their own name.”
  • Give fist bumps or high fives.

I made a quick run to Walmart last summer for supplies I needed for yard work. While there, I ran into the aunt of a student who told me how much her nephew enjoyed me being his principal. The reason was because I gave him a fist bump and called him by name on a regular basis. This junior high student was impacted in such a way he shared it with his family. 

When my wife and I served as house parents at a children’s home, we made a point to have dinner with everyone around the table each evening. There were no electronic devices. It was just us, as a family unit, talking about our day and whatever else may be on our minds. The girls in our home said evening mealtime was one of the things they appreciated and valued the most. Some even said they had never experienced that before.

Young people crave personal connection. They want to feel recognized, loved, respected, valued, and supported. They want to know that they matter to somebody. And, it’s best if that “somebody” is one who can be a positive influence.

We can, and should, be that influence in the lives of our students.

As Josh Shipp says, “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

Being a caring adult will make you “the best teacher ever” in the eyes of your students. And, who knows? You may just inspire a child to greatness because of it.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Why Your Administrator Appears to be Under Communicating or Not Listening

Stay in education long enough and you’ve likely either heard or said one of the following:

My principal doesn’t listen.

My principal doesn’t care. 

My principal doesn’t communicate enough (or well enough).

These are legitimate concerns, and effective communication is vital to the success of any organization. Most administrators truly are good people who are well-intended. However, their communication, or lack thereof, can become misinterpreted, misunderstood, taken personally, or perceived to be rooted in malice.

Below are a few reasons why administrators may appear to be under communicating or not listening:

They are trying to prevent more stress.

We all know teaching is stressful. Sometimes administrators choose to not share certain information to avoid adding additional stress onto teachers. It is important that teachers are able to maintain their focus on teaching. Some information will generate worry and stress that reduces a teacher’s effectiveness during planning and instruction. 

They are trying to respect your time.

Most administrators understand how demanding teaching is. There are demands placed on time, emotions, and energy. Administrators may attempt to keep from overburdening their staff by respecting and protecting a teacher’s valuable minutes during the day. 

The answer is no.

Sometimes an answer of “no” is interpreted as not listening or not caring. If the reason for a “no” was not shared, it’s okay to seek understanding. Seeking understanding is better than living with an incorrect assumption. 

They have poor body language/nonverbal communication.

Administration is a social position which requires building and maintaining relationships. Some administrators are natural introverts and live outside of their comfort zone each and every day. Their body language and nonverbal communication can sometimes be misinterpreted as not listening or not caring. 

They forgot.

Administrators are human, too. In the craziness of a given day, it is easy to forget something important. Sometimes I can’t even get out of my office before distractions prevent me from remembering where I was going. I often ask staff to send me an email reminder because I know how easy it can be for me to forget. This has proven to be helpful. 

They are stressed or busy, too.

Fulfilling a large number of responsibilities and obligations can be stressful and time-consuming. Teachers definitely understand this. Administrators often have to triage needs or requests as a teacher’s emergency may not be an administrator’s emergency at that moment. Critical discipline issues, central office directives, etc. can often dictate the degree of urgency for any given situation.

A lack of communication, or its perception, can only be improved by better communication - from both sides. While it is the responsibility of any leader to constantly work on improving his or her communication skills, there are some things that teachers should do when left feeling frustrated.

Practice patience.

Extend grace.

Follow up.

Assume good intentions.

Administrators and teachers serve on the same team, and good team members practice effective two-way communication. The four strategies listed above aren't just for teachers. Teachers need their administrators to practice patience, extend grace, follow up, and assume good intentions as well. If both sides are effective in these four areas, communication and culture will be greatly improved.

If communication is a struggle for you, it is important to develop an effective system. Emailing myself works for me. Whenever I have a thought or need a reminder, I pull my phone out and send myself an email which serves as a constant reminder each time my inbox is open. If I'm unable to email myself, I ask staff to email me a reminder. Your system may be different, but the important thing is developing something that will work for you (and those you serve).

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

3 Books to Enhance Your Teaching Tomorrow

Teaching is incredibly challenging and tiresome, and that’s often the result of many additional responsibilities which are not directly related to actual lesson planning and instruction. Teachers work hard, and there is not enough class time in a school year to adequately teach all of the expected standards. I don’t like to say “cover” the standards. Truthfully, it’s not about “teaching” the standards either. The ultimate goal of a teacher is to facilitate learning - not to teach or cover standards.

So how can we maximize the time we do have to achieve the greatest impact? 

I’ve been a firm believer for years that enhancing classroom instruction doesn’t have to take a major overhaul of what’s already occurring. It is possible that only a few minor tweaks are needed for tremendous impacts on learning and achievement.

Leaders often tell teachers to increase the amount and quality of student writing, become better questioners, or teach in a way that makes learning stick beyond the test. In some cases, there may be little to no support in helping educators grow in these areas. 

The three books below provide great blueprints for maximizing the time teachers have with students.

Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2nd Edition) by Mike Schmoker

Focus is one of my personal favorites, and even John Hattie has said Schmoker “lit a fire” with this book. In the first part of Focus, Schmoker shares what he has learned from his extensive research of schools that have made incredible gains in student achievement. He discovered three different areas of focus that schools have had throughout amazing turnarounds: guaranteed, viable curriculum, formative assessment, and increased literacy. The most impactful part of the book, in my opinion, is the 2nd half where Schmoker had dedicated chapters by content area. These chapters explain how teachers can increase the quantity and quality of reading, writing, and discussion/debating in reading, math, social studies, and science. His strategies are simple, applicable, and impactful. They can deepen learning, reduce grading, and increase student engagement.

At the end of last year, I purchased each of our teachers a copy of this book. Knowing it was unlikely every teacher would read Focus in its entirety, I encouraged them to read the chapter pertaining to their content area at some point prior to returning to school in August. Elementary teachers were to (at minimum) read the reading/ELA chapter. During one of our back to school meetings, we had a good discussion about literacy in our school. Specifically, we began to develop a plan to increase expectations for ourselves and our students in regards to the quality and quantity of writing students would produce. This was the starting point to addressing a gap we knew existed in our curriculum. 

Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom by Connie Hamilton

Questioning is truly an art form, and it’s critical to increasing our students’ cognitive engagement. Unfortunately, it’s often a forgotten component in teacher prep programs and professional learning opportunities. For years we have been told as educators to increase the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) in our content standards while receiving very little, if any, quality training in how to effectively do so. Improving the quality of our questioning, and being purposeful with the type and timing of our questions, will move student thinking and learning deeper than we might have imagined was possible. 

Hacking Questions helps us learn how to:
  • Become more aware of the unintended messages we send to students through our current practices
  • Cognitively engage each and every student through our questioning
  • More effectively and efficiently gauge student learning and understanding
  • Avoid a culture of disengagement
  • Match our questions with our purpose
  • Engage our shy students
  • Respond to students who do not know an answer (or simply say “I don’t know”)
  • Become more intentional with closing a lesson and maximizing learning when students return the next day
  • Increase student reflection
  • Model how to use questioning to seek understanding
  • Help our students become better questioners
  • Help students break through struggle
  • Transfer ownership of questioning and learning to the students

Connie Hamilton does a terrific job of sharing her experiences while providing many applicable, effective strategies that can be implemented to improve questioning in the classroom. It’s a book every teacher should read before their first day of teaching, and it’s also one we should revisit regularly to finetune our questioning and move student understanding to deeper levels. More importantly, it’s a book that can help us teach our students how to become better questioners and learners themselves. 

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain

How often do we encourage our students to study for a test? How many of us have scolded students when they didn’t study? 

Do we teach students how to study or simply instruct or encourage them to do so? And, if we do teach them study techniques, what are those techniques based upon? How we studied when we were in school? Strategies we learned from our own parents or previous teachers? Research?

Yes, there is research about what works best to make learning stick. While some of the strategies proven to be effective by research may be unconventional, many traditional methods of studying simply do not work. 

Well, they may work for a test. But, as the authors of Make it Stick have said, “cramming leads to faster forgetting.” 

The authors of Powerful Teaching do a wonderful job of blending the science of learning with applicable, proven classroom strategies. In addition to providing teachers research-based methods to use in the classroom to make learning stick, the authors share effective studying techniques to teach our students to use in and out of the classroom. 

The biggest premise of the science of learning has to do with the purpose of the strategies. Many teachers have long thought the purpose of teaching was to impart knowledge to students. Learning science, and Powerful Teaching, stress that we need to focus more on pulling information out of our heads. We typically spend too much time trying to put information into students’ heads rather than have them practice pulling information out. We often view retrieval as a way to assess students, but Agarwal and Bain suggest that retrieval is a learning strategy - not an assessment strategy.

Powerful Learning details four main techniques based on research: retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition. The authors provide a myriad of classroom strategies that will help us maximize learning and take advantage of what research has shown to be more effective. Not only will students retain more, but their anxiety levels will decrease as well. 

Doug Dunn is currently junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

We Talkin' Bout Practice?!?

Yes, I’m going to talk about practice for a moment. Not about skipping practice as Allen Iverson famously did in 2002, but rather the importance of maximizing our time while in practice. As is the case with many things, there are parallels between the sports arena and the classroom. Whether you are a coach, classroom teacher, or administrator, my hope is that this post prompts reflection as we consider how to best utilize the short amount of time we actually have with our athletes, students, or staff. 

I was blessed to coach some extremely talented players and teams during my time as a head basketball coach. We experienced a great deal of success but had to do so in unconventional fashion. The year we won a state championship we only had seven players. That made it extremely challenging to practice in true, game-like conditions. But, we found a way to make it work. 

One of the reasons we were so successful during our two Final Four trips in 2004 and 2005 was due to free throw shooting. As a team, we shot over 75% both years during the Final Four. This was truly amazing! 

We must have made free throws a priority in practice, right? 

Not exactly.

Before I share a story I’ve never shared publicly before now, I must preface by saying this post is in no way intended to diminish the quality of individuals and players on the teams I coached. They were incredible young ladies who were very talented at basketball. They were tremendous kids, from tremendous families, and are all very successful in their own right today. I was extremely proud of them then and even more proud today. They are fine people and wonderful spouses and parents. 

This post is about acknowledging a weakness and then guiding a team through that known weakness. It’s also about having the courage to steer away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. 

We were terrible free throw shooters. Our opponent in the state 3rd place game in 2004 knew that. Midway through the 4th quarter, I made the decision to hold the ball at halfcourt while on offense to force Mound City to get out of their suffocating 2-3 zone. Our 4-5 point lead seemed like much more, but I wanted to generate a larger lead to close out the game. I felt they couldn’t guard us man-to-man. Knowing we were 50% as a team shooting free throws, the opposing coach instructed his players to foul us rather than change their defense. We went to the free throw line and made both shots. 

Thinking he wouldn’t foul us again, we held the ball the next trip down the court. I was wrong. They fouled us to force more free throws.

Again, we made them both.

After this happened for a 3rd time, my mind was off to the races. What should I do? Everybody in the arena on the University of Missouri campus was watching and critiquing my coaching decisions in one of the biggest games in school history. Not much pressure!

Here’s a rundown of some of those thoughts…
  • We only had one senior, a non-starter, on our team. I knew we’d be favorites to win the state championship the following year. 
  • We were terrible free throw shooters, and I didn’t want free throws to keep us from winning a state championship next season.
  • I had been hounding our team about spending extra time before and after practice to address their weakness. Doing so was a rare occurrence, and I had grown frustrated during the season.

So, what adjustment did I make after being fouled on three consecutive trips down the court?


In that moment, I was thinking about next year. Crazy, I know! We were in the 3rd place game in the state, and next year had no guarantees.

I leaned over to my assistant coach and said, “If we can’t make our free throws we don’t deserve to win.” I can’t believe I actually said that in the biggest game of my life. In my first season as a head coach. In a huge game for our school and community. That moment presented what I felt at the time was a win-win scenario. Either we win the 3rd place game in the Final Four, or our girls learn the hard lesson that they need to put in extra time shooting free throws. My efforts to convince them had fallen on deaf ears, so maybe the pain of losing and the hunger to return to the Final Four would motivate them. I still cannot believe I was okay with using that game as a teachable moment.

The game ended with us shooting a perfect 12/12 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter, and we won the game.

How in the world did that happen?

I was asked about that in the post-game press conference. How could we go 12-12 in the 4th quarter when we had been 50% as a team the entire season? It was a great question, and my answer revealed publicly that we had quit shooting free throws earlier in the season “because it wasn’t working.” 

Yes, I quit spending (wasting) practice time on free throws. If it wasn’t going to help us, our time needed to be spent on something which would have a greater impact. 

This is where I believe the lesson lies for teachers and coaches. As world-renowned educational researcher John Hattie likes to say, “It’s not about what’s about what works best.”

Just as a teacher has limited time in a classroom with students, coaches have limited time with their players. We must maximize that brief amount of time with instruction, practice, and learning which will yield the greatest results.

For our team, there were more impactful drills we could be running than shooting free throws. The goal was to be as good of a team at the end of the season as we could be, and our practices needed to be designed for that purpose. I failed at inspiring them to put in the extra work on their own, but I could control the practice schedule.

Studies indicate that we grow more from focusing on our strengths than focusing on our weaknesses. I believe our teams were a true reflection of this. We used the time that would have been spent shooting free throws on things which would help us become better at what we were already good at - defense, rebounding, offensive efficiency, passing, and layups. 

There was still the occasional time in practice to shoot free throws in pressure situations, and this may have helped us during our state playoff runs. However, there was no longer time allotted for the mass shooting of free throws. This was difficult for me because I thought that is what coaches had their teams do. I played and learned under multiple hall-of-fame coaches and tried to mimic as much of what they did as possible. But, as is the case with every new team or class of students, we must adapt and evolve with the individuals and groups we lead. Their talents and needs are different, and we must be able to meet them where they are - not necessarily follow a prescribed recipe that may have worked with a previous group. 

There are times when that recipe should be replicated, but it’s important to recognize when it should be aborted. 

I began coaching stuck in tradition. That tradition was simply mimicking the way I had been taught. We frequently see this in sports and in the classroom. Coaches and teachers often do things for no other purpose than that’s how they were taught. Mass free throws? Piles of worksheets? Whatever the case, there are often better ways to utilize the time we have with others and maximize the growth of those we lead. The same is true for administrators leading teachers.

Tradition doesn’t always make you better. Oftentimes, it’s a roadblock to excellence. As administrators, coaches, and teachers, it is imperative that we do not allow our stubbornness to become a roadblock for others.

Choosing to not focus on something doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Free throws are definitely important. However, we should focus our time and energy on those things which are most important at that moment. Those things which could make us even better. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We know there’s no silver bullet in education or coaching. This worked for our team, but it may be something totally different for your team (or classroom). 

The key is knowing where your team is and being able to take them from where they are to someplace greater. The methods and strategies may differ for each group, but the common theme is the pursuit of excellence. There is no particular step-by-step roadmap for excellence. It’s all about starting from where you are and finding a way to maximize the talents of those you serve.

I was privileged to coach an incredible group of champions. Yes, they did win the 2005 state championship - the only state championship in the history of Chadwick High School. They became champions because they pursued excellence. Their path may not have been the same as other teams, and that’s okay. They pursued excellence through their effort, teamwork, vision, commorardarie, and hunger to understand the game of basketball at a deeper level.

Their pursuit of excellence has carried them well through life. They’ve become leaders in their homes and communities. Earned advanced degrees. Become published authors. I am extremely proud to have played a small part of their lives.

As educators, we hope to prepare our students for life. Oftentimes, it is our students who end up doing the teaching. Those Chadwick teams taught me a great deal about leadership and life. And for that, I’ll be forever thankful that I got to be their coach. 

One lesson I learned is to not be afraid to step away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. Making the decision to quit shooting free throws wasn't easy, but it ended up helping our already good team become an even better team. That particular group needed something different, and it worked.

I'm not sure we would have become state champions had we continued with the status quo and tradition. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

The Best Thing I Saw Today

“What is your biggest weakness?”

A school board member asked this question during a recent interview. I was prepared with an answer as it’s a common question, but my answer was the result of a great deal of reflection. 

I have struggled at times with not recognizing or acknowledging some of the good that’s right in front of me. It had become one of my biggest weaknesses. My staff deserved better. They needed me to be better, and I needed to do something about it. 

The first thing I needed to do was determine why. Why was I not seeing or acknowledging the positives which were all around? It wasn’t because of a lack of good. And it wasn’t because I didn’t care. Something was getting in my way.

And there it was. A Marcus Buckingham quote which resonated with me more than any quote had in some time.

Leaders are fascinated by the future. You are a leader if and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Because in your head you can see a better future. The friction between "what is" and "what could be" burns you, stirs you up, propels you. This is leadership.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. Our schools and students cannot reach for greatness unless we’re pushing the status quo and striving for something better. However, my focus was out of balance. I had been allowing my focus on the future to cloud much of the good happening right in front of me every day. 

“What could be” was blinding, and it became a detriment to my staff. They knew they were doing good, but I wasn’t always seeing it. I needed to be better for them so they could be better for kids. 

While I serve our small K-8 district as both superintendent and principal, I have been blessed with a phenomenal assistant principal. We've had regular conversations about how to raise staff morale. And, together, implemented multiple things to be better for those we serve. 

One of things we did I’m most proud of was our effort to recognize and document the Best Thing I Saw Today. We made a point to be regularly visible around campus and in classrooms. We were on a mission to find something good. Once we did, we would journal it on a shared file that each staff member had access to. The link to that file was also a part of weekly staff newsletters.

What started out as a mission to find the good became a friendly competition between our assistant principal and me. We enjoyed finding the good, sharing our findings with each other, and then sharing them with the staff. We both found ourselves in better moods, and the staff appreciated the acknowledgement.

Our staff knew we were on a mission to find and acknowledge the positives all around campus. In communicating this with them and keeping up with our documentation, we had established built-in accountability. This was important. While some weeks were more difficult than others due to various distractions, we found great value in being held accountable by maintaining an updated Best Thing I Saw Today journal. It was genuine and sincere, and just want I needed to maintain a better balance between “right now” and “what could be.”

Hawk Nelson, a contemporary Christian music group, has a line in a song which says you’re gonna find the good if you’re good at looking. They’re absolutely right. And it's important for all of us to become good at looking for the good. 

It’s all around us.

Just waiting to be noticed and acknowledged.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

The Power of Video

Watching ourselves teach on video can definitely raise anxiety levels! There may not be a strategy for improving as a teacher that requires more vulnerability and trust. Bring up micro-teaching to a group of teachers and many may not know what it is. Explain it and you may see eyes rolling or bodies cringing. It can be scary for those who’ve never experienced it. It can be a game-changer for those who have.

The purpose of this post isn’t to explain micro-teaching or all of its potential benefits. The purpose of this post is to hopefully generate enough intrigue to learn more about it and hopefully give it a try.

Before I truly understood the research behind micro-teaching, I used a similar approach with my basketball teams. Many sports coaches often do. It was one thing for me to tell the team (over and over) the importance of staying in a proper weakside defensive position or blocking out every shot. I grew frustrated when I felt like I was just a broken record playing for deaf ears. The quality of feedback I was able to provide drastically improved when the team was able to observe themselves by watching game film. They were able to see the game from an entirely new perspective and gain a deeper understanding of how to better play the game of basketball. The “aha!” moments during film time were critical to our state championship season.

Micro-teaching is one of the most impactful strategies teachers can employ as far as raising student achievement. According to John Hattie’s Visible Learning Research, it has an effect size of 0.88. This means that students of teachers who utilize this strategy can experience growth of more than two years in one year’s time. This impact alone makes it a strategy all educators should consider utilizing!

Just as watching game film with a basketball team can help athletes gain a deeper understanding of ways they can more positively impact the outcome of a game, teachers can watch their “game film” to better understand how they can have a greater impact on student learning. 

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey wrote a brief article for ASCD explaining micro-teaching. I encourage you to read it to learn more about how to effectively utilize this amazing strategy.  Show & Tell: A Video Column / The Micro-Teaching Advantage

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

What Should Coronavirus Teach Schools?

“Dad, this has been the best day since we’ve been home from school.”

That comment from my oldest daughter was a punch to the gut and a wake-up call to what our kids need more than anything right now.

Our family had just spent the evening playing cards. That’s it. We were simply spending time together. Nothing fancy. Just sitting around the table.


As a school administrator and father, I have been trying to balance a variety of needs for our students at school and my own children. Yes, we’ve all been spending a great deal of time focused on meeting the educational needs of our students. Many educators have also gone above and beyond by meeting various physical and emotional needs of their communities.

This is all important. No doubt.

However, my daughter’s comment after a few rounds of Skip-Bo made it evident what our kids need now more than anything.

They need time.

Not time alone.

Not time for packets of school work.

Not time for video games.

They desire spending quality time with those they love.

As parents, many of us have had our lives slow down the last few weeks. How are we spending that time?

My daughter’s comment brought me face-to-face with the reality that I haven’t made a point to give her and her sisters enough of what they desired most.

My time and attention.

I’m not going to spend time in this post making excuses or justifying why with all of the responsibilities I juggle. I have a feeling many of us could fill pages with excuses.

And for what purpose? Those excuses don’t mean anything to our kids. Spending time with us does.

As an educator, this is generating even more reflection about the work schools are sending home. Schools, by and large, do a great job serving their communities. Meeting the educational, physical, and emotional needs of students are a part of this and are very important.

What if our purpose during this time wasn’t to serve by sending home mountains of work?

What if our purpose is to help our parents find ways to spend more quality time with their kids?

What if we could help our families by releasing the pressure, stress, and anxiety of meeting expectations of completing homework and packets?

Would our students be better because of this?

I know my own kids would value and appreciate more quality time. Quality time playing outside. Quality time playing games. Time spent cooking together. Time just spent together. 

Could these family interactions create a stronger end product than the stresses of meeting a school’s homework expectations? 

Yes, many of you are probably having similar thoughts as I am at this moment. There should be a balance. Yes, there should. 

Sometimes, though, finding that balance seems easier said than done for the families we serve. Sometimes finding that balance is tough for my own family. The arguments over homework can ruin an evening. Sometimes those arguments result in a need for separation. If we only knew how often this occurred in our students’ homes, we might rethink what is being sent home.

Some of our students need quality time with their loved ones more than they need a packet of work to complete. As an educator and parent, this presents a unique dilemma for me. What is the best way to go about this?

I don’t always have the solution. What I do know is that this doesn’t just apply to school closures due to COVID-19. This is an every day of the school year issue. 

This will not be a post to delve into the homework debate and discuss the related research. We should be familiar with this already.

If anything, school closure magnifies the importance of helping our families spend more quality time with their kids. Our students desire and need this more than anything. When life returns to “normal,” we should have these conversations with our parents, teachers, students, and staff. Let’s listen and then work together to help make the family units in our communities stronger and better than ever. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Win a Championship, Ruin a Program

“Coach Dunn, I want to thank you for ruining our basketball program.”

I can still hear that voice from 15 years ago. It came from a grandparent of a former player who had quit the team the year before. To this day, that moment remains an incredible lesson learned that I now rely on as a school administrator.

There is so much truth to the quote “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader. Sell ice cream.”

Leaders cannot please everyone. 

I learned during the spring of 2005 that it doesn’t matter what you will always have detractors. The program wasn’t “ruined.” The community had just experienced the most successful two years in school history.

In 2004, we went 23-8, won a district championship, advanced to the state final four, and finished the season winning the 3rd place game.

In 2005, we went 27-4, won another district championship, and again advanced to the state final four. That season ended with a victory in the state championship game. It remains the first and only state championship in any sport in school history.

The program was not ruined. This family had simply been frustrated with the role their grandchild had on the team. While many were thrilled to have been a part of or witnessed what was an incredible two-year journey, not everybody was. 

Those two years were just my 2nd and 3rd years of teaching. I was young, naive, and still had much to learn. That moment with the grandparent has been one of the greatest learning experiences in my career. No matter what role I felt I had in the team’s success, that statement in 2005 carried an incredible dose of truth. That truth was not in the statement itself. That truth was in the fact that you truly cannot make everyone happy. We shouldn’t even try.

This is not to imply that we shouldn’t care about proper leadership, collaboration, communication, and taking care of those under our supervision. Not at all. This is to say that we must be strong enough to make the decisions we feel are best for the team - whatever that team may be. We must make them with integrity and the best of intentions. And, we must do what we can to communicate those intentions. 

We still won’t please everybody. When we try, we end up upsetting even more people. We need to believe in our decisions and be strong enough to stick with them despite the naysayers. Those decisions will sometimes be unpopular, but that does not necessarily mean they are wrong.

We won’t always win. And, we won’t always be right. But, it is the only way to win “championships” in whatever arena we may be in.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Placing Student Teachers

I never had a student teacher during my ten years in the classroom. I always wanted one, but it never happened. It was likely because there wasn't a student teacher requesting a math placement at our school after I had surpassed the required five years of experience. In hindsight, I wonder how effective I would have been as a cooperating teacher. Probably better than my own experience, but what kind of lasting impact would I have had on a future teacher? My mindset at that time wasn't about impact. Rather, it was similar to the excitement I had heard others express about reduced planning, grading, and teaching. My desire for a student teacher was rooted in selfishness - what I could get out of it rather than what I could contribute to our profession. 

Sadly, I feel this mindset exists far too often in education. What level of consideration is given to placing student teachers? How much control should universities have in placing students, and what role should school administrators play in determining who to accept and where to place them?

Most of us have had a student teaching experience, and we appreciate and value its importance. It's incredibly vital, and the amount of consideration given to placing student teachers is reflective of how we value the experience and our responsibility for developing strong teachers. 

Through my conversations with other teachers over the years, it is common to hear about how teacher preparation programs didn't truly prepare teachers for teaching. This could be a result of both the required coursework and the student teaching experience. Student teaching should result in professional growth through more relevant experiences.  Candidates should leave their semester or year having experience with curriculum development, implementing research-proven strategies, trying new strategies, failing and trying again, and reflecting on their impact on student learning. They should understand the importance and value of learning targets, success criteria, and their connection to student achievement. Student teachers should learn how to incorporate quality reading, writing, and discussion. They should have extensive practice with feedback, formative assessment, and analyzing data. Student teaching should be the beginning of “knowing thy impact.” Most university student teaching supervisors do not have the time to engage student teachers in the reflective conversations necessary to grow in these areas. It’s the cooperating teacher who should be responsible for modeling and facilitating appropriate reflection. This short period of time could be the most critical for teacher development. This short period of time could also help set a student teacher up for success - and possibly keep them in the profession long-term. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I by no means expect student teachers to be seasoned veterans the first day they assume their own classrooms. That is not a fair expectation. However, it is fair to expect them to have foundational experiences in each of these areas. They need a starting point from which to grow. And, every student with a first-year teacher deserves a well-prepared and well-trained educator. 

What does the student teaching experience look like in your school? How much thought and consideration is given to placing teacher candidates? How are cooperating teachers determined? It shouldn’t always be the teacher with the most years of experience. Sometimes the best experience comes from a younger teacher who’s growing into a potential rock star. It’s the teacher who understands the research, has a vast toolbelt of effective strategies, is a risk-taker, and reflective. 

As an administrator, I believe we must go further than giving a blanket "yes" to an email when a university requests placing a student teaching candidate. 

Ask to see transcripts.

Several years ago, there was a student teacher requesting to teach math in a building I served as principal. The transcript was full of F's and drops in even the most basic math classes. Efforts to take and pass remedial classes showed similar results. I could not, in good conscience, accept this student teacher. It was not fair to the students who would receive her teaching. My decision to refuse this placement was what was best for my building. My students were my ultimate responsibility. 

Check references.

Not every person going through a teacher education program deserves to be (or should be) a teacher. It's okay to check references to determine if they would be a good fit for your students or your building. I will not go into specifics here, but there are times where it's obvious a student teacher would not be a good fit. It's okay to tell the university no. Again, we have an obligation to our students and our district to provide them with the best educational experience possible. We also have an obligation to maintaining a positive culture in our buildings.

As education leaders, we do have a responsibility and obligation to honor and respect the student teaching process. This can sometimes be difficult to balance with the responsibility we have have to our districts and buildings. Universities have established placement criteria, and they can sometimes be persistent or pushy. However, it's important to remember that it is us who make decisions for our schools. 

It is important, though, to establish good working relationships with the universities. I have found that when I explain my reasoning for refusing a student teacher, my reason is understood and respected. Most student teaching supervisors have been educators and can appreciate the position taken. These are not always easy conversations, but they are necessary and important.

It is important we give a great deal of consideration to both the student teacher and the placement teacher. 

What criteria do you have for placing a teacher? It is important to remember that a student teacher will see their cooperating teacher as a person to emulate. The goal is to produce the most well-prepared and highly-trained teacher possible. It may be the best person in your building to learn from is a seasoned veteran. Sometimes it is not. Have those conversations with the university. A criteria based on years of experience alone isn't always what's best. What is best is providing a student teacher a truly valuable experience while simultaneously providing your students a quality education. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Closure, Packets, Grading, & Relevancy

What should our students do during a school closure? This is a question educators are facing throughout the world. Nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic is easy or normal. District and school administrators are doing the best they can to make appropriate decisions in the wake of so much uncertainty. Teachers are, too, and may be feeling enormous pressure to provide quality learning experiences from home. 


Many students are being sent home with packets of work. This can be fine, but I’m definitely concerned about the contents of the packets. We know that John Hattie’s Visible Learning research tells us homework has very little impact on student achievement. In the lower grades, the impact is almost nil. When that packet of little educational value is the cause of household arguments and stress, we should reflect about what truly is best for students and families. 

I have heard teachers say that workbook pages do a great job of “teaching” the material so students can do the work. This greatly concerns me. If a teacher believes this to be true, that teacher just made him or herself unnecessary and replaceable. The single most important influence on student achievement is the teacher in the classroom. Hattie’s research tells us just that. When you look at the Visible Learning List of Influences and Effect Sizes, what you see is that almost everything above the 0.4 hinge point (one year’s growth in one year’s time) is within a teacher’s control or influence. We need to be very careful about believing a worksheet can provide adequate learning. 

And, how can we be sure the work is being done correctly? My hall-of-fame high school basketball coach used to say “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Correct practice makes perfect.” The inability to ensure our students are doing correct work causes more concern.

What about grading?

I do not believe these packets should be graded. In a world where equitable access to education and opportunities is of high concern, few things expose the level of inequity like packets being sent home. Not every student has adequate internet access. Not every student has somebody at home to assist with the work. Requiring students to purchase materials or supplies during this time magnifies more inequity. Many students do not have transportation for group work. All of these, and more, make grading even more challenging. 

What would these grades communicate…..Learning? Compliance?

Attaching grades to work is a way of telling students “do this or else!” It is a way educators wield power and control over students. It’s how we give meaning, purpose, and value to assigned work when there otherwise may be very little, if any. 

(Do teachers really want to grade all of those packets when students return??? Free yourselves!)

Students desire authentic, relevant work. They should use this time to read and write. They should be documenting this moment in their lives by recording their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and fears. Twenty or thirty years from now they will appreciate being able to read their reflective writing and remember what is was like to live through this historical period in time. 

We can help our students do just that. We should send them home with journals and writing prompts. Years from now, they will appreciate that we provided relevance to their lives during school closure and coronavirus. Truthfully, that’s what education should be all the time…providing authentic, relevant educational experiences.

The picture below is a great journal example from Bryan Shaw. You can also find it by clicking here

If you’re interested in reading more about packets, worksheets, and grading, Jennifer Gonzalez does a great job digging deeper in her Cult of Pedagogy blog post “Frickin’ Packets.” 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Acknowledging Our Loneliness

Educators are exhausted. The various stresses placed on teachers and administrators can't fully be appreciated or understood unless you've worn our shoes. The day-to-day grind of worrying for our students, meeting their individual needs, planning lessons, grading, attending meetings, questioning our own abilities, etc. takes its toll. This doesn't include the energy needed to be on top of our game for each class of every day. On top of that, there are mandates passed down from our legislators, school boards, and administrators which add to already full plates. We give so much to our work, and our students, we often do not have much left in the tank for our own families and children. 

All of these things, and more, leave us tired. When we talk about our exhaustion, these are some of the reasons mentioned. However, there may be another underlying cause we're not aware of. 


In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown shares a study which was done with a group of military members who constantly felt exhausted by the demands of their work. The study found they were actually exhausted from loneliness. Not just loneliness from their families, but loneliness from connections and inclusion among those with which they served.

Only those of us who've been in education can fully understand the things which exhaust us - many of which result in emotional exhaustion. 

Perhaps our exhaustion is rooted in loneliness more than we realize. There are several possible contributors to our loneliness. Some were mentioned above. Other possibilities? Perhaps we're the only one in our building who does what we do - or teaches what we teach. This leaves very few, if any, to lean on. We may not feel appreciated or understood. Maybe we don't feel empowered or that our experience matters. You may relate to some of these or have a completely different experience altogether.

Perhaps we should talk about loneliness more often. Loneliness within our profession is real and likely not understood or acknowledged enough.

What do you feel are some strategies or ideas which could increase our sense of connection and inclusion? Do you believe feeling more connected in your school could increase your energy level?

The bottom line is we need each other. We understand our pressures and demands more than anybody else. Let's lean in to one another and build each other up. If we won't do it, who will?

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Sitting in the Deep End

"When I sat in the deep end, I didn't even sink!"

My middle child was so excited she could sit in the "deep end" of the river during one of her preschool field trips. Her statement was more profound than she realized. 

The truth is, she would never learn how to swim if she continued to sit in the deep end. The water was still shallow, and she was comfortable. Learning to swim can be difficult, but it almost never happens without stepping out of our comfort zone (the shallow end), taking risks, getting water up our noses, and trying again. 

Teaching and leadership are the same way. The only way we will ever grow and improve is to get out of our comfort zone and sink a little. Sitting in the deep end can be dangerous with contentment and status quo lurking nearby. 

In the book Kids Deserve It, Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome encourage us by saying "If we're willing to stick out our necks, stumble and fall, and occasionally get hurt, we'll end up giving our students a better education than they ever dreamed of."

They also add that "We can't expect our kids to be growing, learning, and pushing boundaries unless we're doing the same."

They are right. It is my belief that our responsibilities as professionals dictate we make sure that sitting in the deep end does not become the norm. We must stand guard against complacency and the status quo. Our students deserve teachers who continually search for ways to foster engagement, cultivate curiosity, and facilitate deeper thinking about their content and the world around them. Our teachers deserve leaders who foster cultures of reflection while challenging the status quo and (less effective) traditional mindsets and practices. 

Nesloney and Travis Crowder say in Sparks in the Dark that "Teaching is as much about teacher growth as it is about student growth." In fact, "Great teachers crave growth, and they seek challenges that will help them evolve as educators." 

If our schools and classrooms are to truly be cultures of learning, it is up to us as teachers and leaders to be "lead learners" and set the example by sharing our own learning, successes, failures, and passions. Imagine the possibilities when entire classrooms and schools genuinely seek to quit sitting in the deep end and push themselves beyond their comfort zones!

If we are not currently seeing this in our schools and classrooms, we must ask ourselves why. As Mike Schmoker says in Focus (2nd edition), "One of the hardest places to look when things aren't going as well as we hoped is at ourselves and our own attitudes, practices, and skill sets." We should each be challenged to regularly reflect upon our own impact on learning and be willing to step out of our comfort zones. When we do, we could end up giving our students a better education than they ever dreamed of! 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.