Principal Impact

A Reflective Journey with Principal Hackett


Starting with a Vision for Collaboration

I now consider myself a recovering principal. After 7 amazing years (and 2 overwhelming years during COVID) as the principal of Little Mountain Elementary in Monticello, MN, I made the difficult decision to explore an exciting new opportunity. Working as a consultant with FIRST Education didn’t present itself the way I would have imagined. At Little Mountain, we had been working on rebooting our PLCs. In full transparency, a few years earlier I had tried to launch the PLC process with our teams and failed miserably. We were using the same agendas during each collaborative meeting, talking about the same students, sorting through the same data, and having very little impact in the classroom. Our teachers were craving relevancy, and this system wasn’t giving us what we needed to make observable gains. We needed a re-do. That, of course, is easier said than done. Having been on board with the first run of PLCs, our teachers were less than enthusiastic for a PLC reboot. Fortunately, I was connected with Garth Larson and Cale Birk before the pandemic, and I knew I could reach out to them for help after their book PLC 2.0 addressed so many of our concerns with traditional PLCs. It was through this work to strengthen our collaborative teams and identify the impact of our instructional strategies that we discovered the power of Observable Impact and Collective Efficacy in our PLCs. Our collaborative teams at Little Mountain worked closely with Cale Birk to redefine PLCs and restructure our collaborative time. The Little Mountain teams also helped to develop tools, resources, and documents that are used by Observable Impact schools throughout the US and Canada, many of which I get to work alongside in my new role as the Associate Director of the PLC Center with FIRST Educational Resources.

It could be a PLC reboot or the stale staff meeting or the district strategic direction that no one reads…change needs to start with a vision. “What’s Our Vision?” is a question that we don’t ask in education nearly enough. We are quick to grab onto new initiatives or systems for many different reasons, but so often they are not the right reasons. We purchase a new curriculum resource because it led to the district next door having their test scores jump a few points or because it aligns with the common core. We implement a new behavior management strategy because our favorite author just wrote a best-selling book on the topic. We participate in a wordsmithing workshop to adopt a new district vision statement because it needs a refresh. But how often do we identify our vision before taking action?

One of the tools we use to identify a clear vision when working with schools is called Worst/Best. It is one of the more popular tools we introduce because it can be used in so many different situations. Our first steps with the tool are to use a strategy called creative inversion. Creative inversion is a process commonly used by innovative companies outside of education to solve problems. And it starts with the worst in mind. For example, if we were creating a vision for how our PLCs should function at the highest level, we would ask teams to list indicators of the worst PLC in which they have participated. This is the easy part! Teachers and leaders have all be in PLC meetings that have no agenda, discussed topics that aren’t relevant, lacked multiple sources of input, consistently rehash the same subjects, and on and on. We follow this by asking teams to discover the best from the worst. We literally draw a line across the tool from the worst and identify the exact opposite of the worst, thus giving us the best traits of a PLC. Teams all over the US and Canada are using the Worst/Best tool to raise the level of accountability in their PLCs and discover the ever-important norms that guide collaboration.


The last two steps of the Worst/Best tool brings clarity to our vision. All of us have, at one time or another, been through a norming exercise that never amounted to anything other than words posted on a wall. At this point, we need to develop a clear vision of collaboration from our bests if we hope for follow through and action. Teams will create a specific, descriptive, and observable summary of what will happen during PLC meetings from the list of bests. The key here is to rely on the description being observable. Inevitably, educators will fall back on education buzzwords such as collaboration, engagement, and culture when creating their bests. All of those traits are positive and certainly should be included within a high-functioning PLC. However, we need to ask ourselves, “what does an engaged PLC look like?” or “how will we know when collaboration is at its best during PLCs?”. And the last step is to describe in detail what we hope to see as a result of our collaboration. If all of our bests are present during our collaborative team meetings and we have a clearly defined vision of what can be observed in our meetings, what will the result be? And this is where we connect our collaborative efforts to student learning and achievement.


As mentioned earlier, the Worst/Best tool can be used to create a vision with almost any challenge at the building or district level. By co-creating a vision of the best from our experiences of the worst: professional development, school dance, cafeteria, graduation, strategic direction, vision statement, field trip, classroom expectations, or PLCs, we create a path to action and impact. Without a clear vision of PLCs, teams will continue to struggle in connecting their collaborative efforts to observable impact in the classroom. However, by having a descriptive, clear, and observable vision, we can start to see our vision transferred to the classroom and finally understand the value of collaboration.


Where is our Normal?

If you sat down with someone in education and asked their opinion of the last 19 months, you would be likely to hear keywords that include: equity, struggle, learning gaps, strange, distance learning, burnout, different, absent, and impossible. When I look back on what we have accomplished as a district and a school throughout the pandemic, I am beyond thankful that I get to work alongside educators that will always do what is best for kids. Even with the talent that we put in front of our kids each day, we are feeling the effects of the pandemic, of spouts of hybrid and distance learning, and of a year where we didn’t see our kids’ smiling faces. I don’t think any of us imagined, even in the middle of the pandemic, that we would still be dealing with the daily ruction that has become our reality. Currently, our students are in person, we are allowed to teach in small groups, and our daily schedule more closely resembles that of pre-pandemic days. It’s difficult not to ask the question, ‘where is our normal?’

Going into the 2020-2021 school year we understood that there would be learning gaps from distance learning, hybrid models, and classroom setups that required separations from our teachers, bringing back memories of pictures from a 1950s classroom. We knew our students who had the spring of their kindergarten year taken away would be missing the most important 3 month stretch for mastering early literacy skills. And while those learning gaps certainly exist, we have worked hard to expand our strong systems of support and provide all students the intervention they need and deserve.

With all of those affirmations, the question that continues to keep me awake at night is, ‘where is our normal?’ Why doesn’t our school environment feel closer to pre-pandemic than mid-pandemic? Our staff are even more skilled and prepared, now having learned and utilized several engagement, instructional, and technology tools through distance learning, than they were before the pandemic. Our professional development opportunities are focused on Observable Impact Tools to ensure that our teaching strategies not only work but are effective in helping students to make gains. I believe that most educators and elementary systems are prepared to attack those learning gaps and make a difference in the years to come even though it will be a struggle at times.

In reading several articles over the last few weeks, many researchers believe our students are 1-2 years behind emotionally. Combine that with some of those same students being 1-2 years behind grade level academic expectations, and we can start to understand why our ‘normal’ will take years to recover. The pandemic has been a traumatic event for so many, and as much as we want to shelter our youngest learners from the outside world, they are likely to be the most emotionally impacted of any age group. Reading through an article like this and observing our students’ behavior/mental wellbeing, we can come to a quick conclusion that the uneasy feeling in education is a reflection of the mental health and social-emotional struggles than the learning gaps from the pandemic. In a system that was lacking in the number of emotional and mental health support staff for students and families before the pandemic, it’s clear to me that our ‘normal’ rests in being able to address the trauma, in our students, staff, and families, that the pandemic has left in its wake. The positive connections and ability to build resiliency within our students have never been more important, and there is no time to waste.


Out of the Fog

In some ways, it’s hard to believe I have been away from writing for a year. At the same time, the last year has felt like walking through a thick fog. It’s not as though reflection subjects have been scarce. 2020 was a year most of us won’t look back on with fond memories. We left our school in the middle of March because of Covid-19. Shortly after, George Floyd was killed and protests became extremely violent in the Twin Cities and throughout the world. The summer was a waiting game followed by countless hours of planning, replanning, and more planning to bring the kids back to school. The 2020-2021 school year was like nothing we have ever experienced in education. Each day we had new information and new plans to keep our kids safe from a virus that was starting to leak into our community and school district. Our goal was simply to keep the kids safe. Academics came in second place to the Covid guidelines and procedures. Almost all administrative and staff meetings consisted solely of Covid conversations. The winter brought on a new surge in positive coronavirus cases, and we moved from in-person learning to hybrid to distance learning in short order. An unprecedented presidential election was followed by protesters entering the nation’s capital and continued political and racial tensions. At a time when connections with our students could not have been more vital, we were making sure the students had masks on at all times and 6 feet of distance between everyone was the expectation. Hugs were needed but not allowed. Smiles were present unseen.

Through all of the challenges, our staff never faltered. They met each new guideline, new procedure, and new learning platform with the kind of grit and determination that we hope to instill in our students. Finally, with the release of the Covid vaccines, we are starting to step through the fog. Conversations have shifted to academics. Learning is now front and center. The students are allowed to play with their grade level friends at recess instead of only being with their classmates from the time they enter the building until the time they leave. Of course, there are still challenges, both in school and in the outside world. As I write this blog post, Minnesota is trending on social media platforms because another African American life was taken at the hands of the police. Covid-19 cases are on the rise because of the new, more contagious variants.

With two months left of our 2020-2021 school year, I have no doubts about making it through the rest of the school year (something none of us could have said in September, November, or even February). I am also confident that this trip through the fog is going to make us stronger, more efficient, and better prepared to meet the needs of our students. As difficult as this last year has been, we would be doing our students and families a huge disservice if we didn’t take time to learn from our journey and change education for the better because of it. Our PLC teams have started meeting again and documenting their learning with the help of PLC 2.0 tools. We were able to connect in ways we never thought possible with new technology, communication, and teaching strategies. Now is not the time to turn our back on the challenges we faced but rather embrace our growth and use our new skills to benefit student learning. We are all ready to leave the fog behind us, and we will be better for our kids and families as we step into the future of observable impact.


The Right Tools

This weekend in Minnesota was unseasonably warm for the beginning of March. Keep in mind that means temps in the low 50s. But anytime we hit 50 degrees after a long winter, everyone flocks to be outside. I would imagine people in the warm weather states would be bundling up and shaking their heads at us. I saw motorcycles, people jogging in shorts, jeeps with the tops open, and more outside activities in 2 days than in the last 4 months.

To celebrate the “nice” weather I took my daughter, MarLee, and her friend to practice riding their bikes. MarLee (5) got a new bike for Christmas and was excited to ride it. She quickly found out her old, smaller bike was more comfortable and easier to ride. This started me thinking about the tools and strategies we use for students in school.

MarLee was able to ride her new bike, and by the time we packed up for home it was the bike she preferred. It’s faster and looks much better than her old hand-me-down bike. The old tool (bike) was the one she had confidence in, and it took that review to move on to the next step.

How often are we using the wrong tools for our students and watching them reach a level of frustration that cuts off learning? Most reading specialists I know will say, confidence is the number one thing our students need to make breakthroughs in fluency. Just like MarLee riding her bike, the right tools and some confidence can make all the difference for our learners.

It is also a good reminder that our old tools shouldn’t automatically be thrown out for the new tools (for more reading on those difficult conversations and culture shifts, I would strongly suggest Brad Gustafson’s blog). However, we should have open discussions and evidence-based reality about what makes a positive impact for our students. Our staff recently started exploring new tools through the PLC 2.0 toolkit that we will use to answer the question of what makes the biggest impact for our students. The Right Tools can make all the difference!


Observable Impact and PLC 2.0

Last month the staff at Little Mountain started on a new journey. We had been down the PLC road previously, and that road eventually led to a dead end with me as the driver. In my mind, I knew what PLCs should look like. At least I thought I did. I was reading every DuFour book I could get my hands on, and I truly thought I understood how our staff was going to improve their instructional strategies through increased collaboration. We participated in team-building activities and personality identifiers in order to better understand our similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses. We practiced agenda building and norm creating. We introduced data gathering and figured out which data was most important to us. None of it seemed to make a difference in the team rooms when all of that prep and practice was supposed to translate into increased academic scores and improved teaching.

In my 7 years as an elementary principal, my failure to mold the PLC process into a productive system was one of my biggest regrets and left a host of questions unanswered. Where are the holes? What are we missing? What training do we need to get better? Who has the answers? Eventually, like so many other failed programs or initiatives, PLCs fizzled out. Teams were still meeting, but not with a true purpose. Our teams collaborate exceptionally well, but when I would meet with teams I could tell the PLC process wasn’t leading to improvement or collaboration that improved student learning in the way we all hoped.

Fast forward to the summer of 2019. Monticello hosted the PLC 2.0 conference with First Educational Resources. The authors of PLC 2.0, Garth Larson and Cale Birk, gave me their book to read the night before the conference started, and it was like they were speaking to me directly. The obstacles that other leaders were facing were laid out in front of me. The struggles of PLCs from leadership and staff perspectives were spelled out clearly. We were not alone in the ineffective PLC sinkhole that we found ourselves in. But the research was still clear; effective collaboration can make an immediate impact on classroom instruction and student achievement. It was time for a reboot, and as everyone in education (and life) knows, going after anything the second time after a setback doesn’t guarantee success.

When I got deep into reading PLC 2.0 (and constantly heckling Cale and Garth for more information) I realized observable impact was more than just a process for collaborative time. Observable impact should drive all things in the classroom. When we incorporate a certain strategy, what is the observable impact? When we use this engagement strategy, what is the observable impact? When we introduce learning targets a certain way and cycle back to them throughout the lesson, what is the observable impact? There are too many strategies, tools, initiatives, and assessments in education for us to not ask the question, “how do we know?” If we look at everything we do with a focus on “how do we know”, I believe it will lead us to weed out what doesn’t work and focus on what does.

We were fortunate to have Cale Birk work with our staff last month to keep moving forward and get a better understanding of how PLC 2.0 is a process for collaboration and improvement rather than an initiative. We are early in the learning curve, but I’ve already seen the positive impact our collaboration time can have in 2.0 just by asking the PLC teams to identify their areas of focus. Teachers and staff having full input in where we focus our energy and how we address areas of concern is a powerful approach. I’m not bringing a stack of assessment data to a PLC to analyze and talk about only to repeat the next time. Our teams are beginning to address their biggest concerns in everything from student engagement to assessments. We have created our vision of a learner at Little Mountain, we have identified our biggest concerns in the classroom, and now we will turn to the 2.0 toolkit during collaborative time to help guide our next steps and document our progress. To be continued…


The Quiet Learner

I try to treat all of our students as if their parents were standing right next to them. I hope I don’t need that reminder to be kind, respectful, and caring, but it is a good reminder that we serve students AND families…even if the adults aren’t next to us during the day. Like anyone, I miss the mark at times. I can be short when I’m running late or miss a faint “hi” or forget a name. Most of the time, I can tell if I have fallen short with a student and make an effort to connect with them to make sure they know I noticed them. Most of us in education would agree that every interaction with students is important. Our care and consideration to make kids feel valued can mean the difference between learning and disruptive or between excitement and dysregulated. We all know the many ways our students seek adult attention through both positive and less than positive means. What I’ve observed more and more lately is that our quiet observers learn from our interactions perhaps as much as the students who are outwardly seeking attention.


Recently I was subbing in a classroom, and I was having one of those interactions with a student that stick with you for several days and keep you smiling. The student talked about the fun he had at recess and some amazing snow forts that I just need to check out as soon as possible! We talked at length about the details, the teamwork, and the fun with the new snow that made the fort possible. The conversation was full of laughter and joy. It was a day-maker for me. But it wasn’t that student that has me writing today; it was a student who was sitting on the side watching, observing, and smiling.

I took notice of another student who was quietly listening and observing our conversation. He smiled when we laughed, and you could just tell he was completely engaged in our conversation without saying a word. When the conversation was over, there was a forceful sense that the quiet observer got every bit of joy and enjoyment out of the snow fort conversation as we did.

This is a small example, and as I continue to reflect I want to explore more about how our quiet learners interact, and feel most comfortable interacting, in the classroom. What I’m learning is that those priceless interactions with students have even more at stake than I originally thought. Our students are always learning from conversations and communications; perhaps even more when they can watch, listen, and observe.


2020 One Word – IMPACT

IMPACT – My one word for 2020 is about making a difference. When you look up impact, one of the first definitions reads, “the action of one object coming forcibly into another.” While I’m looking to make an IMPACT in 2020 in many ways, I’m not talking about putting my head down and forcing my way through change. Another definition you can find for IMPACT is, “to have a strong effect on someone or something.” I want my influence to be strong, IMPACTful, and purposeful. I want to make connections with students more meaningful and professional development opportunities for our staff more effective.

I am sure this isn’t anything new for a principal. Most of us want to make a bigger IMPACT than the year before or even the day before. I try not to lose sight of my why which keeps me motivated with a positive attitude in making a difference for our students each day. The real question I have now is more about the how. This summer I was introduced to the term Observable Impact from Garth Larson and Cale Birk, authors of PLC 2.0. In their book, Larson and Birk use their success and experience to provide direction, strategies, and tools to collaborative teams. The idea that collaborative teams can help students achieve at higher levels is nothing new. However, providing a framework for teachers and educators to be able to observe the IMPACT that comes from their collaboration (and answer the “how”) is groundbreaking in many ways. I am looking forward to starting a positive change in 2020, with the help of Garth and Cale, which leads us to a place where our collaboration has a definite and observable IMPACT in our classrooms.

Meaningful change takes time, and this will be a learning process for all of us at Little Mountain Elementary. But I can’t help but think about the complete mindset shift that originates with observable IMPACT as the focus. How are the professional development opportunities/staff meetings making an observable IMPACT in the classroom? How are the behavior interventions we put together making an observable IMPACT in and out of the classroom? Will it be easier to discover what is really important for our students and what we can do without when we shift our mindset? Is there a shift in culture when we are purposeful and always looking for results from our actions in everything we do? I’m looking forward to forging ahead and finding these answers in 2020




Room for Collaboration

Recently I had a leadership experience that made me think a little deeper about collaboration. In early November, we added a new section of 2nd grade. Adding a section after the start of the school year is not something we have done in my time as the principal at Little Mountain. I have been part of the planning team for these additions in previous roles, but I have never lead the charge. As a new principal, I had a great mentor in Joe Dockendorf  (the person I was replacing as principal and the new assistant superintendent). I must have called him at least one time per day for every question you can imagine about how to be an effective principal. Sometimes I knew the direction I was headed and only needed the support of “go get it.” Other times I had no idea where my mind was headed, and I needed to talk through every detail. He was always there for me, and he helped me make better decisions for our families and our students. Now that I’m in my 7th year as principal, I know Joe is still a phone call away, but our conversations are less frequent as I’ve learned the ins and outs of daily principal life. We all have someone in our professional lives we can turn to with questions and support. The question is, why don’t we utilize that collaboration more often? A quick phone call to Joe to talk through how best to help our students be successful in their new classroom ended up with a brainstorming session and several strategies that ultimately made for a smooth transition.

That quick, effective collaboration got me to thinking about another Joe. Joe Sanfelippo’s weekly one minute walk to work is observed closely by his thousands of followers. Joe’s message concludes with a leadership challenge in the areas of reflection, relationships, connections, celebrations, communication, and teamwork. Each week he closes with “we’re all in this thing together!” In those quick and powerful words, Joe Sanfelippo never fails to remind us that we need to collaborate because it’s best for kids. In addition, we should be intentional about how we interact to meet the needs of our students in all stages of our careers. We have programs for new teachers, collaborative connections for our nontenured staff, and mentorship opportunities when we are new to a position that accelerates our learning curve. It seems to me that we should find a way to keep those connected learning opportunities moving forward. PLCs in our buildings accomplish this at times, but do our teammates push us out of our comfort zone enough to challenge our thinking?

In our staff meetings this year, we have explored the quote from David Weinberger, “the smartest person in the room is the room.” It’s important for our staff to know we are better when we learn together during our professional development. And to take it a step further, we no longer have rooms or walls to confine our learning or our connections. Our collaborative conversations to meet the needs of our students is available through Twitter, Voxer, Google Hangout, and other social media apps. We have no excuses to keep our expertise to only “the room.” What are other teachers doing to push student learning? What strategies are working to build a positive culture and impact social learning opportunities? We don’t need to wonder anymore. In fact, it’s our job to form those connections, from phone calls to PLCs to staff meetings to Twitter, that will help all of our students succeed.


Assuming the Best

It seems like a simple idea and a given in education: We always assume the best for our students…don’t we? As much as I’d like to say we give our students a fresh start each day, I’m not always sure that’s the case. In working with our students day after day, is it possible that we start to teach to labels and past experiences? And before I go any further, I need to make sure I clarify that I’m extremely lucky to work with a staff at Little Mountain Elementary who go above and beyond for our students to give them the best chance to be successful on a daily basis. When I talk about “we” I am writing about all of us in education in general terms. But if I’m being completely honest, I’m guilty of identifying students by how they perform academically or behaviorally at times.

I started thinking about assuming the best at a recent event in our building. Our 4th graders were fortunate to have Youth Frontiers with them for an all-day Kindness Retreat last month. Shortly after beginning the event, one of the team leaders from Youth Frontiers asked for volunteers. The students would be asked to do some acting and improvising in front of 150 of their peers. Of course, when asking a group of overly excited 4th graders if they want to volunteer for something (even though they had no idea what it was), 95% of them raised their hands in anticipation. As I was watching this process unfold, that’s when my mind started thinking about assumptions. Would our staff have picked those students to volunteer or would we have picked students who were always outgoing, good students, maybe a background in acting? Not surprisingly, the three students who were randomly selected and not necessarily gifted in those areas never faltered. They were funny with their answers to goofy questions and improvised without missing a beat to the strange scenarios put before them. They had the entire gym laughing right along with them the entire time they were on stage.

The team members from Youth Frontiers had no predetermined assumptions about kids. Every 4th grader who walked into the gym that day to high fives, smiles, and welcomes from the high school student leaders and Youth Frontiers team did so with a fresh start. They were all able to forge their own learning and their own path for the day. As an observer, watching our students learning outside of their normal routine and performing tasks that were quite different than a typical school day was powerful. I learned so much about our students in that environment. The question I continue to come back to is how do we create that feeling for our students each day?

The above quote from Brene Brown rings so true in my experience. In the best of classrooms, this quote might read, “All I know is that my classroom thrives when I assume my students are doing their best.” Ken Williams is one of my favorite authors and speakers. His work with PLCs and culture is the way we should be developing our schools. Each time I see Mr. Williams speak, he never misses the opportunity to say “learning for all means all. All means all!” In order to embrace that mindset and be purposeful about learning for all of our students, there needs to be a shift in thinking. If we don’t think a student can master a standard, they won’t. If we don’t think a student will reach a reading benchmark, they won’t. If we don’t think a student can make it through a lesson without being disruptive to others, they won’t. If our Youth Frontiers leaders had hesitation and caution when they selected the three 4th graders to come up on stage for the Kindness Retreat last month, the students would have reacted with that same hesitation and caution instead of absolutely rocking it.

Our students will perform to the expectations we put in front of them. They all deserve a fresh start and high expectations every day they walk into our classrooms. One of the great Confucious quotes is, “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are usually both right.” In the arena of education, our students need that belief modeled for them. Let’s set the bar high, remove labels, and believe in them even when their confidence waivers. All means all!


Booktalk DJ Extreme

This blog was recently published on the Scholastic Reader Leader blog. It is co-authored by Brad Gustafson and Gabe Hackett, two school leaders from Minnesota. 

We (Gabe and I) have been collaborating on a cross-site video series called “BookTalk DJs” with students. The series features passionate readers from both our schools who share books they love in an engaging DJ theme. The response from our students has been so positive that we wanted to invite educators to join the fun. Do you think you have what it takes to earn the title of “BookTalk DJ Extreme?!”

I (Brad) believe talking about the things we enjoy is a basic part of the human experience. If we go to a movie or eat a meal we enjoy we’re naturally inclined to share our experience with people we care about.

I (Gabe) have seen this play out with students ever since our students started producing “Booktalk DJ” videos together. In a recent recording session, one of our student DJs said, “Mr. Hackett, I was hoping you would pick me, so I made up a DJ name, picked my book, and I’ve been practicing!” One of our 5th grade classes even picked their next class novel based on a book recommendation from Greenwood’s BookTalk DJs.

We (Brad and Gabe) believe students’ reading lives should mirror some of the same things they’ve come to love outside of school. Similar to telling a friend about a favorite food or movie, providing students the opportunity to talk about the books they love is a cornerstone of an authentic literacy experience. Modeling this practice is equally important, and that’s where “BookTalking” comes in to play.

We’re inviting educators everywhere to post a super-short BookTalk video with what you’re currently reading to #BookTalkDJExtreme. Watch the short (one-minute) video by clicking HERE.

Keep in mind, most BookTalks do not need to be fancy productions or recorded on video. We’re taking this project over the top because our students have enjoyed the theme so much (and it’s a great way to model how fun school can be)!

We can’t wait to see what you’re reading!  

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