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How to Apply the Ethos of the Craftsman to Our Leadership


This is not another article on leadership admonishing us to be more productive, relational, or visionary. There are too many of those. Instead, this is an article about how to apply the ethos and values of craftsmanship to our leadership.

I first ran across this concept in an inspiring article in the Art of Manliness blog.* I am borrowing heavily from that article. My contribution is providing examples and biblical references for tailoring the principles of the craftsman’s ethos to school leadership. The best place to begin is to quote the opening of the article from which mine is derived:

Across cultures and time, the archetype of the craftsman has represented man’s ability to create and has been the mark of mature manhood. He is homo faber – man the creator. Instead of passively consuming and letting things happen to him, the craftsman fashions the world to his liking and proactively shapes and influences it …

When we think of the archetypal craftsman, images of a bearded man clad in a leather apron and rolled-up sleeves, toiling away in his workshop producing beautiful and useful items comes to mind. What’s interesting is that the ancient Greeks had a much more inclusive idea of the craftsman than our modern conception. Besides masons, potters, and carpenters, the ancient Greeks included jobs now considered “knowledge professions” like doctors, legislators, and administrators under the craftsman label. Even the work of a father was considered a craft of sorts that required the same care and attention to detail as that of the carpenter. Indeed, the ancient Greeks believed that the values and ethos of craftsmanship were things all should seek to live by. In so doing, a man could achieve arete, or excellence, and thus experience eudaimonia (human flourishing), or a flourishing life … Below we take a look at how these overarching principles of the traditional craftsman can apply to all areas of your life, no matter your profession.

Brett McKay, the publisher of the AoM blog, lists nine principles of the craftsman:

  1. Do things well for the sake of doing them well
  2. Plan but not too much
  3. Measure twice, cut once
  4. Work with what you got
  5. Cultivate patience
  6. Let go of your ego
  7. Develop your practical wisdom
  8. Mastery brings meaning
  9. Find your workshop

Do Things Well for the Sake of Doing Them Well

This principle states what should be the primary motivation for our work. We are to do our work well not so we will be praised, not so we will be rewarded, and not so we will feel good about ourselves. While not bad in and of themselves, these motivations are subordinate to the more noble motivation of doing things well because doing so is intrinsically worthwhile, it is the right thing to do. “Fundamental to the code of craftsmanship,” writes Brett, “is the desire to do something well for its own sake.”

This is a noble motivation but even this is subordinate to the Christian’s ultimate motivations. There are three scripture verses that set forth the motives for our work:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Col. 3:17

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Col. 3:23–24

The quality of our work is to reflect well on God. It is also to be done as though we were doing it for Christ.

For example, in preparing a presentation, the motivation is not to do well so that our audience will be impressed with us; our motivation is to impress them with God. And, we should devote the same energy and attention to detail in preparing and delivering our presentation as we would if we knew Jesus was going to in the audience—because he will be.

Likewise, how we conduct a meeting, how we teach a class, how we make decisions, how we train staff, and how we craft an email are all to be done with such craftsmanship that God is honored and Christ would be pleased if he were on the receiving end of our work. Imagine Jesus sitting in the audience, our class, our meeting, or at his computer reading our email. Those images should shape the motives and quality of our work.

There are two examples that will serve to illustrate what craftsmanship in our work looks like—one from “old world” craftsmanship and one from the biography of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:

Furniture Making

“Make every product better than it’s ever been done before. Make the parts you cannot see as well as the parts you can see. Use only the best materials, even for the most everyday items. Give the same attention to the smallest detail as you do to the largest. Design every item you make to last forever.” – Shaker Philosophy of Furniture Making

Computer Making

[Steve Jobs’s father] tried to pass along his love of mechanics and cars. “Steve, this is your workbench now,” he said as he marked off a section of the table in their garage. Jobs remembered being impressed by his father’s focus on craftsmanship. “I thought my dad’s sense of design was pretty good,” he said, “because he knew how to build anything … Fifty years later the fence [his father built] still surrounds the back and side yards of the house in Mountain View. As Jobs showed it off to me, he caressed the stockade panels and recalled a lesson that his father implanted deeply in him. It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see” …

Jobs’s father had once taught him that a drive for perfection meant caring about the craftsmanship even of the parts unseen. Jobs applied that to the layout of the circuit board inside the Apple II. He rejected the initial design because the lines were not straight enough.

Plan (But Not Too Much)

With any project, the craftsman creates twice: first mentally and then physically. Before he sets chisel to stone or hammer to wood, the craftsman has already created his work in his mind. In other words, he plans how to bring out the object from the rough materials and tools before him.

On the other hand, while the craftsman understands the importance of planning, he isn’t over-fastidious about it. Instead of detailed blueprints, the master craftsman prefers the rough sketch because he knows that unforeseen problems (or opportunities) can arise once he’s actually working.

For any leader planning is critical. Properly crafted plans steer our schools in the right direction and ensure that we have allocated our physical, financial, and human resources for maximum impact. But for some, procrastination masquerades as planning. Plan well but don’t spend so much time planning that little time or energy is available for execution. It is much easier to turn an aircraft carrier when it is moving than when it is dead in the water. Plan but get moving.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

This is one of the simplest and most memorable maxims of craftsmen, although it’s not always easy to follow through with in your everyday life. Suffice it to say that while you should leave room in your plans for improvisation, when it comes to making decisions that you can’t take back, make sure you’ve studied and pondered the choice thoroughly before you make your “cut.”

During my career as a school leader I have had the privilege of starting several significant initiatives. Two stand out in my mind: starting a new Christian school from scratch and launching 1:1 computing programs in two schools, one in the late 1990s and one this year. I have followed the BS/BS model: “Build Slow, Build Solid.” It is far better to spend the time, attention, and energy preparing properly than to rush headlong into a project and then be faced with cleaning up the resulting mess.

The adage to “measure twice, cut once,” was taught to me by my father when I helped him build houses. He taught me that, “lumber is expensive. Before turning on the circular saw measure again—make sure of your measurements then, and only then, cut.”

There are a lot of applications to this principle but hiring is at the top of the list. It is far better to be thorough and careful in finding the right person for a position the first time than to be faced with cleaning up after a bad hire and to do it over and over for the same position. Take your time, be thorough, hire right. Measure twice, cut once.

Work With What You Got

The master craftsman understands that most times he’ll never have the ideal materials, tools, or environment to work with. Unforeseen knots are discovered in wood and hidden imperfections in stone are revealed. Instead of becoming frustrated by such curveballs, the master craftsman adjusts his plans and works these imperfections into his creation so that you’d never know they were there … Instead of seeing these constraints and contingencies as obstacles, see them as creative opportunities and incorporate them into your life as unique and interesting pieces of texture. Remember, some of history’s greatest men turned what could have been a weakness into a strength.

Do not use your lack of gifts or resources as an excuse for not being a craftsman. No one has everything he or she needs or desires. Personal abilities and school resources are always limited.

Instead of focusing on what you do not have, make the most of what you do have. This is consistent with Jesus’s parable of the talents—each steward was given a different amount. He was not accountable for how much he was given, he was accountable for what did or did not do with what he was given. This should be our attitude as leaders—what has God provided? Let’s make the most of it by being creative, by focusing on possibilities rather than on limitations.

Cultivate Patience

A good craftsman has the patience to stay with frustrating work, even when it takes longer than he originally thought. He avoids frustration by living by the following maxim: when something takes longer than you expect, stop fighting it and embrace it

Us moderns have a perverse expectation that things should happen NOW. We want emails answered immediately and we even expect success to come right away … The reality is that things almost always take longer than expected, especially those things that are good and noble. So instead of fighting it, embrace it as the calm craftsman does. Life will become instantly more enjoyable and less stressful once you cultivate this virtue of patience.

Patience is a virtue often mentioned in the scriptures. Consider these examples:

Be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Rom. 12:12

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 1 Thess. 5:14

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. James 5:7–8

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love. 2 Cor. 6:3–6

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness. 2 Tim. 3:10

I recently learned the value of patience. After nearly three years of planning I was ready to launch our 1:1 computing initiative called Learning Unleashed. My plan was to implement the program last January in grades 7–8 and this fall in grades 9–12. My board suggested another plan—use January through June to conduct a small pilot program in the seventh grade before deploying the entire program in the Junior High.

After three years of hard work and having successfully launched a similar program several years prior, I was convinced we were ready. The delay was not necessary. It was time to move forward.

Although frustrated, I decided that the biblical thing to do was to embrace the delay, graciously submit to the board’s advice, and to publicly support the board’s recommendation.

While we would have been successful with the earlier and larger rollout of the program, the pilot revealed a number of unanticipated issues that would have made the launch more difficult and frustrating than anticipated. The delay gave us the opportunity to correct these problems and to provide more training before we deployed more broadly. By being patient and embracing the delay, we ended up with a smoother and more effectively deployed program.

Let Go of Your Ego

This principle is so important and so well stated in the original article that I am going to quote it at length.

The craftsman willingly opens himself up to teaching, criticism, and judgment from his peers and clients because that’s the only way he can improve. He doesn’t take criticism personally because the craftsman is more concerned about doing good work than feeling good about his work. A true craftsman understands that nobody cares how he feels about his work. In the end he knows that the only question that matters is: “Does it work?”

Modern culture has indoctrinated us that it’s more important to feel good about our work than to actually do good work. Self-help and career books tell us that we should find work that feels “authentic.” School children are taught that the only thing that counts is their effort, not if their work is actually good or correct. Crawford calls this emphasis on feelings as opposed to results a consumer ethic as opposed to a craftsmanship ethic.

The problem with the consumer ethic is that it creates individuals with self-inflated and fragile egos who are unable to withstand the sometimes harsh criticisms and judgments that invariably come in life and in work. Clients and bosses don’t care if you felt authentic” when writing a memo or if you tried really hard on a project. All they care about are the results. In life, it often takes mistakes in order to get better. You can’t get better if no one ever points out your failings.

If you wish to become the best man you can be, you must rid yourself of the consumer ethic of feelings and replace it with the craftsmanship ethic of results. Does your creation work? Does it look good? Does it add something to the world? If not, seek feedback and use that criticism to improve your work.

I am going to be transparent. I don’t like to have my work critiqued. For whatever reason I have a high need to be and to feel competent. Anything that threatens my sense of competence produces anxiety and stress. Usually, the main threat to my sense of competence is criticism or “second guessing” of my decisions.

This attitude of resisting criticism, of allowing ego to blind us to our shortcomings, is wrong for both biblical and practical reasons.

Biblically, it is clear that pride is the fundamental underlying sin of human nature. Pride was the fountainhead of Satan’s rebellion resulting in his rejection from heaven. Pride was the cause of Adam’s and Eve’s sin.

All of the subsequent suffering, turmoil, and death in our world has its origin in pride. Pride is deadly. Pride kills careers. Pride kills marriages. Pride kills testimonies and effectiveness. Pride leads eventually to physical and spiritual death. And, pride stops us from learning and growing.

The antidote to pride is humility, exemplified by Christ (Phil. 2:3ff). The Bible tells us to be humble, to listen to the advice and counsel of others:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud. Prov. 16:18–19

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes … Prov. 6:16–19

Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:6–10

Practically, it is important to embrace the truth that there is “wisdom in many counselors.” (Prov. 24:5–6) One of the roles of a good counselor and friend is to point out our shortcomings. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6) We need honest counselors and friends to show us our blind spots, faulty thinking, character flaws and weaknesses.

We need others to point out our shortcomings—there is no other way to improve. Failure to embrace the critiques and criticisms of others is to embrace mediocrity and pride—both of which are dishonoring to Christ and detrimental to us and our schools.

Develop Your Practical Wisdom

Through years of experience, the craftsman develops what Robert Greene calls a “masterly intuition.” He can sense problems and solutions by merely looking at an object or listening to it operate. I liken it to how a man will often know if there is something wrong with his car just by feeling the way it drives or hearing something subtle that wasn’t previously there …

Aristotle called this kind of intuition phronesis, or practical wisdom. The ancient philosopher believed that the phronesis was a virtue that all men should develop, not just carpenters or masons. Practical wisdom is what allows us to make good judgments when we face decisions when there’s no clear right or wrong answer. It gives us the ability ”to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.” Aristotle argued that practical wisdom for everyday life develops the same way craftsmen develop theirs — through experience and trial and error.

School leaders make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every year. In making some of these decisions we will not have all of the facts. In many instances there will be no clear right or wrong answer. We are often faced with a Solomon like decision in which we must “cut the baby in half.”

To make wise decisions when you do not have all of the facts or when faced with ambiguity, follow these steps:

  • Pray earnestly for wisdom, which God has promised to provide.

  • Study the scriptures for principles to apply. God does not give wisdom in isolation, he generally provides much of it through his word.

  • Seek the counsel of godly, biblically literate, and experienced Christians.

  • Take time to gather as much information as possible and to ponder the applicable biblical principles and counsel received. Then make your decision.

  • Assess the impact of your decision and amend if possible and appropriate. At the very least if your decision proves to be less than perfect-learn from it just as the craftsman learns from his mistakes.

Mastery Brings Meaning

Mastery is the goal of the true craftsman. As an apprentice, the would-be craftsman devotes years of his life humbly submitting to quiet observation. He watches his master work and gives an attentive ear to his instructions. After years of passive observation, an apprentice begins experimenting his craft to determine his skill. Through years of trial and error, he slowly hones his skill to a sharp edge. Even when a craftsman has obtained the level of master, he continues to dedicate his life to constant improvement. He understands that by increasing his ability, he increases his value. By mastering his trade, the craftsman is better able to live by the craftsmanship ethic, which in turn allows him to feel deeper personal satisfaction, develop confidence, contribute to his community, and thus discover greater and greater meaning and fulfillment in his work.

In Drive, Daniel Pink highlights research that has shown that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not the type of work that we do that leads to personal fulfillment. Rather it’s mastery of our work (along with autonomy and purpose) that brings us satisfaction. If you feel like you’re lacking meaning in your work or in your life, follow the example of the craftsman by seeking mastery. If you’re a computer programmer, make it a goal to constantly improve your programming chops; if you’re a manager, read the latest management research and apply it in your daily work. By seeking mastery, you’ll increase your self-efficacy and your ability to leave a mark on the world.

Each of us have been given “natural” and spiritual gifts for use in serving others and glorifying the God whose image we bear. We have a two-fold responsibility—to use these gifts and to hone and cultivate them so that we become masters of our “trade.”

Paul instructs his young apprentice Timothy to improve his teaching gifts: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. (1 Tim. 4:13–15) In his second letter to his apprentice in the faith, Paul writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)

The day we think we have arrived is the day we stop growing and our effectiveness begins to diminish. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep striving. Keep improving. Become a master of your gifts so that you can serve others well and mentor those who will follow you.

Find Your Workshop

We often imagine the archetypal craftsman toiling alone in his shop, but historically, the vocation of a craftsman was and still is very social. When a master craftsman wanted to commune with his fellow masters, he’d head to the nearest guildhall where new insights were shared and policies governing the craft debated. And now, as then, a craftsman’s workshop is the real hub of his sociality. Here he mentors and teaches an apprentice or journeyman, works alongside his peers, and interacts with his clients.

The workshop and guildhall give the craftsman a sense of community, identity, and belonging. Crawford says this of the community that craftsmanship fosters:

“So my work situates me in a particular community. The narrow mechanical things I concern myself with are inscribed within a larger circle of meaning; they are in the service of an activity that we recognize as part of a life well lived.

Mimic the craftsman by finding your metaphorical workshop. Be intentional about forming life-long brotherhoods. Find your platoon of men that will hold you accountable to a code of honor that demands excellence and honesty in all you do.

Where is your workshop? Who are the master craftsmen who mentor you and hold you accountable for excellence in your work and nobility in your character?

Where is your sphere of social interaction and influence? If you are a teacher it is your classroom. If you are a coach it is the locker room, the field, the gym. If you are a school leader it is your office, the meeting room, the faculty lounge, the hallway, the auditorium…It is everywhere you work and interact with others. This is where you ply your trade.

What are our tools? They are God’s word, good research, a good book, a hallway conversation, a presentation, an email. Perhaps an article or book or a football.

We have many tools at our disposal. Our calling is be a master at using them to craft lives. Craftsmen, traditionally understood, work with wood, metal, stone, clay, etc. Our material is nothing less than eternal souls. C.S. Lewis wrote:

Every human being is in the process of becoming a noble being, noble beyond imagination; or else, alas, a vile being beyond redemption…The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet if at all only in a nightmare. There are no ordinary people. It is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

You and I are craftsmen. God has called us to work on eternal souls. To do this well requires the grace of God and the biblically informed ethos of the craftsman. By adopting and living the traditional values of the craftsman we will be a blessing to others, glorify God, advance His kingdom and as Brett notes, “find more personal fulfillment and meaning, enrich our family and community, and hammer, mold, and sculpt an indelible legacy as a [leader].


Measure Twice, Cut Once: Applying the Ethos of the Craftsman to Our Everyday Lives by Brett,, July 3rd 2013

[Ref2]: Isaacson, Walter (2011–10–24). Steve Jobs (pp. 6, 74). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

[Ref3]: C. S. Lewis in his essay, “The Weight of Glory.”


Six Simple Steps to Create an Engaging In-service Training Program

That was a waste of time!

I have often muttered those or similar words to myself after sitting through a workshop. I walk in hoping that the workshop will be different from so many others, hoping that it will be engaging, informative, and practical. I usually emerge disappointed and frustrated.

That is the bad news. The worse news is that too often our teachers leave the training sessions WE conduct or arrange thinking or muttering the same thing–or worse.

After a few years of enduring fragmented training programs that are long on talk, short on practice, and with little accountability and follow-up, teachers soon learn to go through the motions of professional development. “This too shall pass” is the oft unspoken mantra. They make their appearance and then disappear with little evidence that the training changed anyone or anything. That is a waste of time, talent, and money.

It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way.

Professional development should be engaging and practical for teachers. It should also propel the school forward in achieving its core mission and strategic initiatives.

Here are six simple steps for creating an engaging and relevant professional development program.

Strategically Align Your Training
Training programs should align staff values and skills with your school’s strategic initiatives. For example, if one of your strategic initiatives is to enhance STEM instruction, then your in-service program needs to emphasize training in these areas. If one of your strategic initiatives is to strengthen student writing, then your in-service should focus on developing teachers’ writing skills and their skills in teaching writing.

Surprisingly, aligning training with the school’s strategic plan is rare. Usually, in-service training programs show little sustained connection with strategic objectives. As a result, training is disjointed with a different focus each year.

Road sign direction arrows confused

Take dead aim at your strategic objectives when planning your professional development program. Every tributary of training should flow into the strategic stream so that everything is moving in the same direction and mutually reinforcing. Your training should support your strategic plan and your strategic plan should inform your training plan.

Sustain Your Focus
Old habits die hard. New skills require time and sustained practice to become new habits.

The best way to create positive change is to maintain sustained focus in your training. Focus on a few key concepts and skills over several years. Avoid the trap of annual de jour training. Serve up the same basic entree for several years but add courses to the training entree from year to year.

This one and half minute video beautifully illustrates the power of focus:

Apple WWDC 2013 Intro video

Scaffold Your Training
To maximize your ROI, professional development programs should be focused, sustained, and scaffolded.

Skills work build future plan

For example, if your goal is to improve student writing, you could design a focused, multi-year, scaffolded training plan. For example:

  • Year 1: Train teachers to improve their own writing skills. After all, you cannot teach well what you have not mastered.
  • Year 2: Train teachers how to effectively teach writing.
  • Year 3: Train teachers how to efficiently and effectively assess student writing.
  • Year 4: Train teachers to help students use technology to produce and publish their writing to authentic audiences.

Clearly the training sequence above can be shortened. By combining training objectives, the above training can occur over two to three years. The point is that one week of in-service training will not produce significant improvement in the ability of teachers to teach writing, or any other skill. Unless training is sustained and scaffolded, there will be marginal impact on the quality of student writing.

This should not be a revelation. It takes years to teach students to write well. Why do we assume that we can teach teachers to become experts at teaching writing, or any other skill, in one week?

Less is More
We try to cover too much. I have been guilty of packing too much training into the in-service week. While well intentioned, this is not effective. Like too many clothes stuffed into a suitcase, teachers come out of training feeling pressed and wrinkled, not crisp and sharp, ready for a new year.

An individual can only absorb so much. The central question to ask is; “what are the two or three specific behaviors I want teachers to demonstrate in the classroom from this point forward?” The answer to that question should determine the scope of training. Discard or delay everything else.

Do an excellent job on a few things rather than a mediocre one of on many. Do not seek to cover topics, seek to master two or three.

Lectures play an important role in training but lectures seldom change professional practice. Consider the following diagram:

The Learning Pyramid

Reflect on the diagram for a movement. If the majority of your training is lecture-based then the majority of your training is lost, it is not affecting classroom practice.

Practice changes practice. There is a place for lecture, e.g., providing important background knowledge or explaining the rationale for the training but only hands-on-practice will change how teachers teach. Accordingly, the dominate form of training should the practice of new skills and concepts.

The best illustration I can give is technology training because we have all experienced bad technology training. The typical training involves a group assembled in front of a computer instructor. He or she demonstrates on the screen how to do “x.” We watch, take notes, and perhaps fiddle with our computers. But, if we do not quickly start practicing what we have been taught we will forget. Remember, there is a difference between being taught and learning. Practice produces learning.

If, on the other hand, a short presentation of a technique is shown and ample time is provided for practicing the new skill, then we begin to understand and use it. The more time we have to practice the more likely we are to incorporate the skill into our work.

Here is a good rule of thumb; a ratio of 1:3 should be used for training. For each hour of training 15 minutes should be lecture or demonstration and the remaining 45 minutes for hands-on work. Doesn’t this sound like good classroom teaching? If this is good classroom teaching it is good professional development.

Add Accountability

The adage, “what gets measured gets done” applies to teacher training. Because change is hard we need help and accountability. It is seldom enough to provide the rationale for change or even to practice new skills. If there is no consistent and transparent accountability for implementing new concepts and skills in the classroom there will be little change.

It is easy to make accountability a part of your professional development program. Revise your teacher evaluation instrument to include an assessment of the training provided. For example, if you provide training on techniques for teaching writing skills, add those techniques to the evaluation instrument so that they are assessed as part of the evaluation process.

Professional development can be effective and enjoyable. But is must not be ad hoc or an annual *de jour* experience. Good professional development is strategically aligned, is focused, sustained and scaffolded over several years. It is also hands-on with high levels of accountability for applying the training.

When these six elements of professional development are consistently practiced by school leaders, teachers are more likely to emerge from training declaring, “that was helpful, I can do that!”




How to Enhance Teaching and Learning at No Extra Cost

How to Enhance Teaching and Learning at No Extra Cost

Change is hard, even dangerous.   Attempts to change the behavior of others or an organization’s deeply entrenched practices will run headlong into active and passive resistance, if not outright hostility.

Acutely aware of the difficulty but confident in the rightness of the cause, we embarked on changing the school’s traditional schedule.

This was no small undertaking.  The schedule had been in place since the school’s founding.  Various school constituencies had a stake in the current schedule.  The prevailing consensus was, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And arguably, it was not broken; “We were doing just fine, thank you very much.”  Classes were full.  Faculty and student retention rates routinely stood at 94-95%.  We had a 100% college admission rate.  The senior class was routinely awarded millions of dollars in college scholarships and our ACT/SAT scores were high and rising across all tested disciplines.  Complicating the problem was a lurking skepticism about school “reform.”  In the U.S., too many educational fads had come and gone, creating a “this too shall pass” cynicism.  This was particularly true concerning “block scheduling,” which carried with it negative connotations, mostly deserved.

So why mess with a good thing?  Because, as Jim Collin’s points out, “Good is the enemy of great.”  We were good but we were convinced we could do better.  The choice before us was clear; we could rest competent and content or press toward our goal of creating a Christ-honoring world-class program that propelled teachers and students to higher levels of achievement.  We chose the latter.

I am happy, and frankly relieved, to share that the new schedule has exceeded our expectations.  It is an Extended Period (EP) schedule, not a block schedule.  This is an important distinction.

What Is an Extended Period Schedule?

The Extended Period Schedule is a hybrid of a traditional schedule with features of block scheduling, but without the drawbacks.  Teachers start at 7:30 each day.  This new schedule has three components:

  • Traditional seven period days on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays
  • Two days of Extended Period Instruction (EPI) and
  • A late start on Thursdays.

Monday  (traditional schedule)                 8:00 a.m.     3:00

Tuesday  (traditional schedule)                 8:00 a.m.     3:00

Wednesday  (EPI)                                           8:00 a.m.     3:00

Thursday late start & (EPI)                         9:00 a.m.      3:00

Friday  (traditional schedule)                    8:00 a.m.      3:00

Why the Change Was Made

We changed the schedule to provide students with more hands-on, active, engaging, and collaborative learning opportunities.  Extended periods provide more time for practicing writing and editing skills (essential for college success), for interactive science labs, for learning how to work on collaborative projects (also an essential skill for college and work), and for integrating technology into teaching and learning.  Extended periods provide time for more variety, more creative instruction, and more practice resulting in richer learning experiences and deeper learning.  In short, extended periods enhance teaching and learning by giving teachers and students time to think, not merely digest information.  Students move about and work in teams.  And, as our Learning Unleashed program (1:1 computing iPad program) is rolled out, students move from learning to use technology to using technology to learn.

The Extended Period Schedule also includes a late start Thursday.  The Thursday late start provides time to train teachers to work in teams to create integrated, creative, and engaging lessons that include the appropriate use of technology.  Teachers are also engaged in technology and pedagogical training on Thursday mornings.  The late start on Thursday also provides extra time for students to complete homework assignments, work on projects, and study for exams.

How the Change Was Made

Change is hard but not impossible.  To increase the likelihood of success and to ensure that the change was systemic and enduring but not cosmetic, we implemented a four-pronged strategy: Education, Communication, Training, and Accountability.


Our first task was to break through a comfortable mindset rooted in academic and geographic isolation.  Too often administrators and teachers are isolated from developments in the world.  This is particularly problematic for Christian schools where staff and students can be culturally isolated, existing in a marginalized Christian bubble.  We may catch a glimpse of world affairs through the news but understanding the deeper implications for our students requires more information and deeper analysis.  It requires constant exposure gleaned by “being in the world.”

We began several years ago to heighten the awareness of our faculty about how the world has changed and the implications of those changes for our students.  We demonstrated through reviewing international test scores, movies such as Two Million Minutes and quotes from leading industrialists, technologists, and economists that our students now compete against the best students in the best schools anywhere in the world.   Here is but one example:

 With the ability to make anything anywhere in the world and sell it anywhere else in the world, business firms can ‘cherry pick’ the skilled…wherever they exist in the world. Some third world countries are now making massive investment in basic education. American firms don’t have to hire an American high school graduate if that graduate is not world-class. His or her educational defects are not their problem. Investing to give the necessary market skills to a well-educated Chinese high school graduate may well look like a much more attractive investment (less costly) than having to retrain…a poorly trained American high school graduate.1  (Neef, 1998)

This was not a one time presentation. Multiple presentations in a variety of venues were made over several years.  This “set the table” or “set the mindset” for further discussion.


Communication was sustained, accurate, and careful.  The communication that occurred over several years was intentional and followed a logical path.  The communication did not start with the end in mind (e.g., Extended Periods), it began with deepening understanding of the fundamentals of Christian education, the place of the Christian school in culture, a deeper understanding of what it means to think Christianly, the shifting context in which our school operates (a globalized, technological, always connected world), an increasingly diverse and competitive educational marketplace (traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, Christian schools, homeschooling, and online schools), the rise of Asia, and the fall of the U.S. from the top-tier of academic performance relative to the rest of the world to the middle or lower tier relative to the industrialized world.

Language was also important.  We made a decisive distinction between being “world-class” and being “worldly.”  We differentiated between being excellent and being elitist.  And, we used terminology that was accurate yet benign.  For example, we realized early that many of our teachers and parents would confuse our new schedule with block scheduling.  Although the EP schedule had a few elements common with a block schedule, it was not a block in the traditional sense.  It was also more than a traditional schedule.  What to call it was the question.  Although not creative, we choose to call it an “Extended Period” Schedule because that is what it is; it extends the period from approximately 50 minutes to nearly 90 minutes, extending the time teachers have to engage students in deep learning and collaboration.  Language is important.  It must be accurate while avoiding negative connotations.  Because the language we use is important, it must be planned and intentional.

 Training and Accountability

Our greatest fear was that teachers would lecture to students for 90 minutes.  We knew that if that happened our students would be bored to death, our academic goals would be undercut, and our parents frustrated.

We also knew that habits die hard.  The only way to ensure that extended period teaching was more than an elongated lecture, we provided practical training coupled with constant supervision and accountability.  We began the training process two years ago by approaching the matter indirectly.  With a desire to improve student learning and anticipating an extended period schedule, we devoted two years of training to how the brain learns.  The training included books (e.g., How the Brain Learns and teacher written responses to the contents of what they read.  We also hired outside experts to train our teachers on the science of how the brain learns AND on how to teach based on this science.

In addition to this foundational training, we also hired four Christian professionals with extensive experience teaching in extended periods from two other Christian schools.  They spent two days with our teachers showing them how to create lesson plans and how to teach the effectively in extended periods.  This practical “hands-on” training was just “what the doctor ordered.”  While the training on brain research laid the pedagogical foundation, this practical “how to” training is what finally created the “mind shift” we were looking for.  We noticed a discernible level of “buy in” and even enthusiasm after this training.  The theoretical was married with the practical and a new perspective on teaching was conceived. We started out with worldview, the goal of developing a world-class school, and the study of cognitive science and ended up with the creation of actionable lesson plans.  We moved from theory to practice, from presentation to application, from “this too shall pass” to “I can and want to do this.”

Training, however, in the absence of accountability is a bit like throwing jello against the wall and hoping it sticks.  Notwithstanding initial enthusiasm, most of it slides off to the floor.  Training is the same way.  To put teachers through a day or even a week of presentations is unfair to them and does not change practice.  Practice changes practice.   This means that teachers must practice what they are being taught at the time they are being taught and from that point forward.  There is no going back.  The application of training to teaching is not an option, it is an expectation, a requirement.

This means that teachers must be held accountable to incorporate the training in the classroom.  The only way this can be done is through direct observation, the requirement of artifacts to demonstrate application, and through evaluations that measure consistent classroom application of training.  Anything short of these measures will result in minimal, spotty change, if any.  Without this level of accountability, we foster the “this too shall pass” attitude that plagues so many schools.

On the observation side, the junior and senior high principals and the Director of Curriculum and Instruction (DOCI) spend most of the day on Wednesdays and Thursdays reviewing EP lesson plans and observing every classroom.  They offer help and advice but also look for compliance. It has been said that “what gets measured gets done.”  While we would love to think that everyone is intrinsically motivated to do what is asked, the truth is that all of us need accountability, administrators no less than teachers and students.  If something is worth investing time and money in, it is worth monitoring and evaluating.

The Cost

Some change can be expensive but most change costs very little in money but a great deal in thought, hard work, and even courage.  Aside from the purchase of books and honorariums for our trainers, there is little cost associated with our change to extended periods.  But, there is a potentially huge payoff in student engagement and learning.  Low cost combined with significant gains in the quality of teaching and learning creates a high Educational Return on Investment (EROI) and increased marginal value for our parents.  Everyone benefits.

The Results

Although it is too early to have data to measure the results, I can share that all of the anecdotal feedback from students, parents, principals, and teachers has been positive, in fact, more positive than we expected at this early stage.  This is a tribute to professional, gracious, and hardworking teachers who deeply care about students and about doing a superior job.  It is also attributable to extensive Education, Communication, Training, and Accountability.

Change is hard and risky but it is not impossible.  With vision, planning, and hard work, undergirded by prayerfulness and a love for staff and students, we can create change that changes the lives of our students.

What have you changed lately?


Reference: Neef, D. (1998). The knowledge economy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.


How to Design & Deliver High Impact Presentations: Before & After Examples

Leaders make presentations. Transformative leaders deliver inspirational, informative, and persuasive presentations.

Good presentations are hard to design and deliver, which is why we have suffered through so many poorly delivered seminars and workshops. Although I like to think of myself as a decent speaker and presenter, the truth is that I’ve given my share of poor keynotes and boring seminars.

Fortunately for those who must listen to me (my staff) and those who will do so voluntarily during conferences, graduate classes, and workshops, I’m improving. My growth in giving higher impact presentations is the result of reading articles and books, the critique of others, and trial and error. I offer the following tips with the hope that you can benefit from my reading and experience.



Preparation Time

The amount of time that you spend on your presentation will vary based on the subject and context but in general, a 30-60 minute high impact presentation will require 36-90 hours of preparation. You read that right; a quality one hour presentation = 36-90 hours of preparation.

Presentation authority Nancy Duarte, author of the book Slideology and principal at Duarte Design (clients include Apple, Cisco, and Al Gore among many others), puts it this way; “The amount of time required to develop a presentation is directly proportional to how high the stakes are.” Duarte goes on to provide this guidance:

  • 6-20 Hours Research and collect input from the web, colleagues, and the industry
  • 1 hour Build an audience-needs map
  • 2 hours Generate ideas via sticky notes
  • 1 hour Organize the ideas
  • 1 hour Have colleagues critique or collaborate around the impact the ideas will have on the audience
  • 2 hours Sketch a structure and/or a storyboard
  • 20-60 hours Build the slides in a presentation application
  • 3 hours Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse (in the shower, on the treadmill, or during your commute)

Total Time: 36-90 hours

Is that accurate? Thirty six to ninety hours for a one hour presentation given all that I have to do? For what it is worth, that has been my experience lately. It takes a long time to prepare a good presentation. I have spent hours over several weeks preparing and designing presentations.

You are a steward not only of your time but of your audience’s time as well. Don’t waste your time or theirs by giving a poorly designed and delivered presentation. Don’t abuse your audience with a mediocre presentation.

I recommend that you schedule time throughout the week for several weeks to prepare your presentation. Your preparation time will be more efficient if you work on it in small, frequent chunks over an extended period of time.

Know your Audience

Your presentation is not about you; it is about your audience and what they need to hear, learn, and/or do. Your presentation is a service to them.

To serve your audience well you need to know them and their perceived as well as real needs. If I am speaking to an outside group I make it a habit to ask my host the following questions:

  • How many will be in attendance?
  • What is the average age?
  • What is the average educational level?
  • What will be the gender mix: balanced, mostly women, mostly men?
  • If this is a school audience, are most in attendance teachers, administrators, board members? If all three, in what proportion?
  • What are the primary areas of interest or concern of this audience regarding this topic? What are some of their likely questions?

Tailor your presentation to your audience. The stories you tell, the examples used, and the graphics employed should match the demographics and needs of your audience. Otherwise your presentation will be largely irrelevant.

Know the Venue

To prepare properly you need to know the venue and to request things that you may need. I typically ask:

  • What type of room/auditorium will I be in?
  • What type of sound and video equipment will be available?
  • Will I be controlling my slides or will you have an AV tech. assisting?
  • Will there be a podium mic? May I use a lapel mic.? (I prefer a lapel or head mic so that I am not restricted to standing behind a podium.)
  • I am using a Mac/Windows PC, can I load my PowerPoint/Keynote presentation on the local computer or do I need to have my computer on the platform?


Less is MUCH MORE! This is probably the most important lesson I have learned from my reading and my experience. Keep it simple, clean, and elegant. Remove everything that is not absolutely necessary on your slides and charts.

Less is more-fewer slides, fewer points, less text, and less time.

This is harder than it seems! We want to add information, not eliminate it. When designing your slides keep the following in mind:

  • You want to talk to your audience and you want them to listen and watch you. You do not want them reading slides!
  • Slides are NOT a teleprompter! Do not design and use slides as an outline of your talk.
  • Slides are used to illustrate key points. They should be simple, clear, and uncluttered.
  • Eliminate most transition effects–they distract from your presentation.
  • Have few to no bullet points.
  • You should seldom have more than six to eight words on a slide.
  • Use large easy to read font.
  • Use consistent font styles and colors.
  • Do not use clip art! It is cheesy and unprofessional. Find good photographs or graphics.

You should seldom use template designs for the same reason–they are distracting. Here is an example of a distracting verses a good slide template:

Distracting Template:


Good, Clean Template:


Good and Bad Examples

Assuming that a “picture is worth a thousand words,” here are some examples of before and after designs. Many of these are slides that I have produced–both good and bad and a few are provided from other sources as examples. My slides are indicated by the initials BLM.


Continue Reading…


Biblical Integration Lite: Telling it Like It Isn’t

Feather colour panteneGuest Article by Mark Kennedy (ACSI Canada)

When someone tells me that his school’s Christian character “goes without saying” I can’t help thinking, ‘that school may be in trouble’. Too often what goes without saying gradually goes without being, until it is simply and completely gone. It’s so easy for an educational institution to drift from its foundations with hardly anyone noticing. Historically that happened to some of North America’s most prominent universities and independent schools. Although they were once fervently Christian many of them are now completely secular or just superficially religious. They may be wealthy and respected institutions – places like Upper Canada College and Harvard University- but the Christian distinctive that so strongly marked their early years have vanished. A classic example is the entire public school system for the Province of Ontario. Founder Egerton Ryerson once declared that instruction in his public schools would be “but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal when not founded upon and sanctified by the undefiled and regenerating religion of Jesus Christ.”* How tragically prophetic.

These days the erosion of a school’s Christian character can start when it abandons the quest for authentic biblical integration and settles for ‘integration lite. On the surface ‘integration lite’ looks just fine. The word “Christian” is in the school’s name. The teachers are all born again and they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. And when it comes to teaching a Christian worldview, well that’s covered by using Christian school textbooks. But there is a lot more to genuine biblical integration than that.

Continue Reading…


A Prayer for Japan

This prayer was posted on the website Desiring God. This prayer may be worth sharing with students and staff as a way to teach a biblical worldview in the midst of a horrific disaster.

A Prayer for Japan

Father in heaven, you are the absolute Sovereign over the shaking of the earth, the rising of the sea, and the raging of the waves. We tremble at your power and bow before your unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways. We cover our faces and kiss your omnipotent hand. We fall helpless to the floor in prayer and feel how fragile the very ground is beneath our knees.

O God, we humble ourselves under your holy majesty and repent. In a moment—in the twinkling of an eye—we too could be swept away. We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan. We too are flesh. We have bodies and homes and cars and family and precious places. We know that if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment. So in this dark hour we turn against our sins, not against you.

And we cry for mercy for Japan. Mercy, Father. Not for what they or we deserve. But mercy.

Have you not encouraged us in this? Have we not heard a hundred times in your Word the riches of your kindness, forbearance, and patience? Do you not a thousand times withhold your judgments, leading your rebellious world toward repentance? Yes, Lord. For your ways are not our ways, and your thoughts are not our thoughts.

Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion. For surely you will abundantly pardon. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus, your beloved Son, will be saved.

May every heart-breaking loss—millions upon millions of losses—be healed by the wounded hands of the risen Christ. You are not unacquainted with your creatures’ pain. You did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all.

In Jesus you tasted loss. In Jesus you shared the overwhelming flood of our sorrows and suffering. In Jesus you are a sympathetic Priest in the midst of our pain.

Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.

And may the floods they so much dread make blessings break upon their head.

O let them not judge you with feeble sense, but trust you for your grace. And so behind this providence, soon find a smiling face.

In Jesus’ merciful name, Amen.


I Just Returned from the Future

clip_image001I just returned from the future.

In one of the strangest experiences I have had in a while, I lived the future as I read about it! I did not realize it for a while but then it struck me suddenly over dinner—”I am what I’m reading!”

Let me explain.

As I write this I am nearing the end of my annual Think Week (you can read details about Think Week in these two articles: How to Reduce Stress While Getting More Done; and in How To Find Time to Focus, Think, and Work). During my Think Week my primary focus is prayer and reading. On this trip I took several books with me including Humility (Andrew Murray), The Culture Code (Clotaire Rapaille), Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (John Piper), Derailed (Tim Irwin), Death by Meeting (Patrick Lencioni), and Generous Justice (Tim Keller).

I also took Anywhere: How Global Connectivity is Revolutionizing the Way We Do Business (Emily Nagle Green). This is the book I was reading when I realized that I was living the future. I will summarize some of the key points of this book and their implications for our schools in a subsequent post but for now let me simply state the theme of the book;

Within the next ten years the global ubiquitous digital network will connect most of the world’s people, places, information, and things, which will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, teach, and learn.

The author, Emily Green, knows what she is talking about. She is the President and CEO of the Yankee Group—one of the world’s premier research firms on the impact of the global connectivity revolution with operations in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is her description of five consumer segments: Analogs, Technophytes, Digital Shut-ins, Outlet Jockeys, and Actualized Anywheres (AA’s). As I was enjoying my dinner and reading it suddenly dawned on me just how much I was exhibiting the characteristics of the Actualized Anywheres. The short description of AA’s is that they “bring the concept of a ubiquitously connected consumer to life.” This is when it struck me—-I was literally living the future she was describing!

Here is how I know. I wrote down how I was handling my recreational and work related tasks during Think Week. Here is a short list.

Continue Reading…

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