From Fighting Fires to Fire Prevention


Note: ​School Leadership Reimagined is produced ​as a podcast and designed to be ​listened to, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number sixteen.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson. ​

Hey Builders, welcome back to another episode of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today, we’re talking about how to use systems to prevent fires about how to use systems to prevent fires. 

As a school leader, do you ever feel like you have no control over your day? You get up in the morning and you plan how you want to spend your day and what you want to accomplish and as soon as you get to work, your secretary greets you at the door and warns you, “Jessica’s parents are here to see you.” Or, as soon as you settle down to get some work done someone pops their head in your office and says, “Got a minute?” Or, you’re finally headed out to do a few classroom visits when your secretary stops you and says, “you’ve got another referral!” and on and on and on.

By the end of the day, you’’ve been very busy but you haven’t actually accomplished anything you wanted to do. Have you ever felt that way?

Well, there’s a reason you have very little control over your day and you’re not going to like it.

The reason that your days end up being so chaotic is you. Yes, you. Not all the discipline issues, not all the crazy parents, not all the needy teachers, not all the silly central office directives. It’s you.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that if the reason you are not getting everything done that you want to get done is you, then that means that the solution also is you. You can have control over your day and get more done even though you have a ton of discipline problems and a ton of interruptions and a ton of crazy parents and a ton of useless busy work from central office.

The secret?


I know, I know. There isn’t anything really sexy about systems. We all know that we need them but beyond that, they are, well kinda boring.

But today, I want to make the case that systems are the solution to the crazy chaotic days we’re currently experiencing. In fact, today, I’m going to show you just how sexy systems can be.

So if you spend a lot of time putting out fires and not doing meaningful work, here’s a quote that should give you hope. It’s by Sam Carpenter the author of the book Work the System. He says: Your task is to optimize one system after another, not careen through the day randomly taking care of whatever problems erupt. Your job is not to be a fire killer. Your job is to prevent fires.

Today, we’re going to talk about how to use systems to prevent fires. Oooohhh. How sexy is that?

First off I want to be clear. You already have a system for everything that you do in school whether you realize it or not. It may be a broken system or a dysfunctional system, but it is a system. All that fire fighting that you are currently doing. That’s your system. It may not feel like it but it is a system. It’s just a broken one. 

Everything in life is a system.

So if you have little control over your day or if you feel that your school is a little chaotic, or if you feel that your issue is not that you don’t have systems. It means that your systems are not working.

In fact, any time you have a recurring problem, then it means that you have a broken system.

But it gets worse. Here’s the sneaky thing about broken systems. A lot of us have gotten really good at compensating for those broken systems. We get stuff done in spite of the interruptions often taking work home and working through the weekend. We move our school forward in spite of the lack of cooperation from every teacher. Often that means we don’t get as far as we’d like but at least we’re making incremental progress. We raise student achievement in spite of a pervasive lack of rigor in every classroom by offering longer school days or extended school years or all kinds of supplemental academic programs for students on Saturdays and after school. We get really good at supplementing a broken instructional system instead of actually fixing the system or even better, developing a better system.

Here’s the truth: you can continue to compensate for a broken system, but unless you repair the system, the problems will keep happening.

Is there any wonder we’re constantly worn out? We’re too busy trying to work around broken systems instead of just fixing them. 

Trap Number Three: Prescription before Diagnosis

This one is pretty pervasive. We prescribe a solution before we properly diagnose the problem.

For instance, I was working with a small school system recently and they were trying to raise student achievement across the board. For years they had struggled to raise student achievement. This was a high poverty district with a lot of student mobility. About 30% of their teaching staff was not certified, provisionally certified, or a long-term substitute. They had a hard time recruiting teachers to work in the district. They had a huge drop out issue and very low graduation rates. They were at the bottom of their state in terms of test scores. In other words, they were facing some pretty big challenges.

Well, they had just been awarded a HUGE grant to help them, I’m talking millions of dollars over the next 5 years and do you know the first thing that what they wanted to spend the money on? More computers.

Their argument was that their students didn’t have access to computers therefore they weren’t doing their homework.

I am not arguing that a lack of computers may be a barrier. But I asked them, if you put a computer in every student’s hand, will that immediately solve the homework issue? How about the high student mobility issue? How about the dropout issue?

If the answer is no, then why are we focusing on computers first?

We do that a lot. We prescribe the answer before we spend the proper time diagnosing the problem. Kids not reading on grade level? It must mean that we need a reading program. Discipline problems on the rise? We need PBIS. Graduation rates low? We need credit recovery! Is there a fundamental lack of rigor in the classroom? AVID is the answer! Teachers not teaching the way that we should? PLC’s!

You would never allow your doctor to examine you and give you a prescription without first hearing the diagnosis so why do we allow ourselves to prescribe a solution before we really understand the problem?

I suspect that the reason we do this, the reason that we are so quick to prescribe before we diagnose is that often the symptoms are pretty painful and we want to address them right away.

But when we rush to prescribe a cure before we have the right diagnosis, we waste a lot of time and energy guessing. If we would just wait a bit, take time to properly diagnose the issue before we prescribe the cure, we have a greater shot at solving the issue and solving it for good. 

Fix the system and you fix the problem for good.

It baffles me that we expect people to succeed in spite of the system rather than creating a system that makes everyone successful.

Isn’t that backwards? I mean think about it.

If you have an underperforming teacher, we always focus on the teacher. What we don’t do is take a look what is going on with the system that could be contributing to their underperformance.

Let me give you a for instance. Just the other day, I was doing some coaching in a particular school and they were having a huge problem with a particular teacher. She did not understand the curriculum, she wasn’t teaching to the standards, and her students were falling further and further behind. Instead of dealing with the teacher directly they tried to pair her with another teacher to co-plan. Well, you know how that turned out don’t you? The other teacher planned lessons and this teacher just took them and taught them. The other teacher created assessments and this teacher took those assessments and gave them to her students.

It gets worse. Right before I came to the school, the other teacher had finally gotten fed up. She told her principal that she was tired of asking the other teacher to pull her weight and was not going to share her resources any more. Do you know what the principal did?

He guilt-tripped her. He said if you don’t then her students will suffer. So this teacher is expected to do her job and her colleague’s job all because this school refuses to fix the system that allows a teacher to sit there and do nothing.

Now before you start telling me about your unions and how hard it is to get rid of an underperforming teacher hear me out. After all, is the only answer to get rid of the teacher? Is there something else you could do instead to help that teacher do her part?

Because that’s exactly what I asked the principal. What systems do you have in place to help this teacher be accountable for pulling her own weight?

Well, he said that the only system he had was to write her up and maybe build a file on her and maybe he’d accumulate enough paperwork that he could dismiss her 2 or 3 years down the road.

Really, is that the best we can do?

What if we had a system that made accountability the natural response? So that’s what we started working on. First, we formally divided the work and made each teacher responsible for an individual contribution to the group work. Next, we redesigned the team meetings for accountability. I showed him how to use an accountable agenda and minutes so that when this teacher did not do her part, it would be much more glaring. In addition to that we found ways to reward the behaviors we wanted rather than just punish the behaviors we didn’t. That way the teacher who was doing the lion’s share of the work got rewarded and recognized. Finally, we used the Failsafe Feedback Framework so that the principal could have an accountability conversation with the teacher who was not pulling her weight and get her to make some specific commitments to her team. We also invited her union rep to be a part of those conversations so that the rep supported the principal in the process. As a result, the teacher started producing.

That’s just one example of what happens when you spend your time compensating for broken systems rather than building better systems. As long as you focus on compensating for bad systems you will continually wear yourself out and face chaos in your work.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that your day can be under your command.

With the right systems, you can regain control over your day and have the time and the bandwidth to focus on the things that are really important.

All you need to do is put the right systems in place.

Isn’t that exciting. I mean aren’t you just leaping for joy right now?

Well you should be because I am telling you, the right systems can save you a lot of headaches and wasted time. The right systems can help you go from putting out fires all the time to preventing fires.

But you need to put the RIGHT systems in place. How do you do that?

Well what you shouldn’t do is go out and build a bunch of random systems. Instead, you’re going to be strategic and tackle the most dysfunctional system first.

Here’s what I mean by that. Think about your day and figure out what drives you the craziest and keeps you from getting your work done. Is it the busses? Then you need a better system around the busses. Is it referrals? Then you need a better system to handle referrals. Is it teacher or parent interruptions, then you need a system to address those. You get the idea. Whatever is driving you the craziest and most affecting your productivity is your most dysfunctional system. You’re going to work on that first. 

And before we go, I just want to recap...

the 5 Traps that threaten the success of your change efforts:

  • Trap Number 5: Starting from Scratch
  • Trap Number 4: Prescription before Diagnosis
  • Trap Number 3: Tinkering with Change
  • Trap Number 2: Change on the Cheap
  • Trap Number 1: No Real Focus

Here’s the thing about all of these traps. They are sneaky little buggers. A lot of times you don’t even realize that you’ve fallen for one of these traps until you’re already in the midst of them.

But the good news is that once you recognize that you are in one of these traps, it’s pretty easy to extricate yourself and get back to Building again. The hard part is recognizing them and that’s because on the surface, they seem so logical. It seems perfectly logical to start from scratch each year or to do change on the cheap or whatever. We can make a pretty good argument for why we have to do things that way. And as long as we look at our change efforts or our strategic planning on the surface, our excuses can feel totally legitimate.

That’s why Builders look past the surface. They don’t just focus on what’s immediately in front of them. They are always thinking about their BIG goals and how they can best achieve them. That singular focus, that vigilance is the only protection you have against these traps. Lose your focus, start slacking off, and I promise you you will fall for these traps without even realizing it.

So stay vigilant my friends. It’s the only way to protect your vision from succumbing to these traps. 

So what I want to do right now is give you 5 signs you need a better system. 

These signs will help you figure out what systems you need to work on first. And, as you create systems your work is going to get easier and you are going to take back larger and larger portions of your day.

  1. If the process feels really complicated, you need a better system. A lot of times we know that we need systems so we create a system to deal with a recurring issue and that system becomes so complicated that it is hard to follow it. For instance, one of the schools I worked with had a really complicated system for teachers to call and out and get subs. The system started out simply enough. If a teacher needed to call out, the teacher would call the assistant principal in charge of subs and she would find a sub usually from the sub list. But then more and more teachers started calling out. So then the assistant principal made teachers submit a leave slip if they wanted to be out and get it approved and teachers had to find their own subs from the approved list and demonstrate on the leave slip that they had a sub. If a teacher had an emergency and needed to call out, the teacher would call the principal, put it in writing, and submit a leave slip on his return. The teachers also made a sub folder to have in place. Okay so far it still sounds pretty normal. But it gets worse. Over time, there was a shortage of subs. So, in addition to all the steps teachers had to call out, more teachers started calling out. They started running out of subs willing to work in the building so when a teacher called out so they were short of subs. Here’s where the system gets more complicated. If a teacher called out and did not have a sub, they would divide that teacher’s class into groups of 5 and disperse those students throughout the rest of the school. Those students would then sit in the back of those classrooms until the end of the period. You still following me? But it gets worse. The AP in charge of subs soon spent a large portion of her day dividing students up between classrooms and figuring out a way to keep track of students throughout the school. Now this might seem like an extreme case but think about your systems. Do you currently have a system that has gotten more and more complicated? Are you doing something because that’s the way it’s always been done? Systems are supposed to streamline things for you. They are supposed to make your work easier not more complicated. So if you are devoting a lot of time tending your system and that is keeping you from doing the work that really matters, it’s time to get a new system.
  2. If you have to work around your process in order to get anything done, you need a better system. I’ve already talked about this but let me give you another example to show you what I mean. This time let’s take a look at a the master scheduling process. In a lot of schools I know, the master schedule is so clunky and so complicated that people have to end up working around the master schedule hand scheduling a lot of students because the master schedule just doesn’t work for them. Or people have a master schedule from last year and use that as a template and then have to work around that template in order to make school work for kids. That’s pretty backwards. Here’s another example. You have a system for testing maybe even one that was given to you by the district. But that system doesn’t quite work for your school. So you create all these work arounds in order to get testing done. I could go on but you get the point right? Do you spend as much time working around the system as you do implementing the system? If so, you need a new system.
  3. If it’s creating a huge headache for you and keeping you from doing the work that you really want to do, you need a better system. For instance, I was recently consulting with a group of principals and one of the principals said to me that he never had time to get into classrooms because he was always dealing with the busses. When I asked him what he meant, he explained that each day when the busses arrived to school there was always several parent complaints that he had to deal with. Sometimes there were fights on the busses on the way to school so he had referrals right away. Sometimes the busses didn’t pick up all the students on the route so he had to deal with that. It was the same thing in the evening and sometimes it would take him up to an hour after the students left the building to deal with the bus issues before he could settle in and get some work done. I asked about his current system for addressing bus complaints and he said that he didn’t really have one. The issues were too complex for a system so he just took care of things as they came in. But nothing is too complex for a system. They may be too complex for your current system but they are not too complex for a better system. So we took a look at how the bus issues were happening for a while until we saw a pattern. For the most part, the issues on the bus were things like the busses not picking up students who were on their route, students missing the bus, and student incidents on the bus. Once any of these three things happened, the parents would start calling the school demanding answers. So first we spoke with the bus supervisor and cleaned up a lot of the issues around bussing arriving consistently. That alone cut down on the number of calls. But then we went further and developed a system for fielding parent calls. We set up a bus hotline for parents to call and leave a voicemail message with their complaints. Then the principal would check the voicemail box ONCE per day and carve out 45 minutes or so t address their issues and call parents back.
  4. If your system was designed to control bad behavior instead of promoting and supporting good behavior, you need a better system. I see this one a LOT. People create systems to curb the bad behavior of a few teachers rather than honor and the good work of those on your staff who are actually doing their jobs. I’ll give you a for instance that might step on a few people’s toes. If you are asking teachers to submit lesson plans each week because otherwise you have no guarantee that they are actually planning, you have a bad system. In fact, I was just saying this to a principal I am coaching the other day. He was insisting that his teachers turn in daily lesson plans every Friday. I asked him why he was doing that and he said it was a way to ensure that teachers were actually planning. Um not exactly. It’s a way to ensure that teachers are turning something in but let’s be honest, the teachers who are planning regularly would do it anyway and most of the teachers who aren’t planning are making up lesson plans to fulfill the requirement and doing something entirely different in the classroom. So then he said, well it helps me know what’s going on in the classrooms. That’s true if you actually sit down and read the lesson plans. But here’s the bigger problem his current system wasn’t addressing. Just because you see a daily lesson plan does not mean that you have the information that really matters such as how the lesson is situated in the larger instructional framework or scope and sequence. A daily lesson plan doesn’t tell you what happened yesterday and what students are working toward next week or next month. So even if everyone turned in their lesson plans every week, that system of collecting lesson plans creates a lot of work for both the teachers and you with very little payoff. In most cases it becomes a matter of compliance on both sides. So I suggested a better system. Instead of requiring teachers to submit daily lesson plans each week, have teachers submit unit plans for the marking period. That way you can tell if the teachers have a plan to help students meet or exceed the standards and you can intervene early if they don’t. With a unit plan, you can expect to walk in any teacher’s classroom at any time and very quickly figure out where they are in their unit and how their instruction is moving students towards the standards. Plus, it’s less busy work for the teachers and less work for you as well. Do you see what I mean here? All too often we create a policy or a system as a means of controlling bad behavior instead of encouraging good behavior.
  5. If you have to make a bunch of exceptions in your system, you need a better system. A mentor of mine told me about an experience he had raising his son. He said that his son had a strict bed time of 10 o’clock pm. But then he joined a hockey league at school and had hockey games that may not get him home until 10pm on some nights so they made an exception for game nights. Then the son got involved in student government and they were working on a service project that got him home at about 10 pm on Mondays, so the new rule was 10pm bed time on every night except weekends, game nights, and Mondays. Soon, there were so many exceptions that the bedtime only really applied to say every other Tuesday night. After a while, that rule no longer made sense. Now let’s put that in a school context. Do you have a system that requires a lot of exceptions? If so, you may want to reconsider it. I’ll give you a for instance. Earlier this year I was doing a training for school administrators when one of the principals I was working with asked me a question. Is there any time when you should make an exception to a rule for one of your good teachers? I asked her for a for instance. She said, “well I have a rule that all teachers should use a particular curriculum for their student advisory period. But a have a few teachers who really know how to connect with students and I would be okay letting them do their own thing. So I asked her, then why do you have a prescribed curriculum? She said it was so that they could ensure that their advisory period was meaningful to students. So I asked her, then if the curriculum is so good, shouldn’t every student engage in it? She said, yes but and stopped. Then she realized. She had chosen the curriculum because some of the teachers weren’t using the advisory period correctly. But when she started to consider all the exceptions she wanted to make, she realized that she only really cared that a hand full of non-compliant teachers actually followed the curriculum. So I challenged her. Why not make a policy and system for the teachers who were doing the advisory period right rather than making a policy for the ones who were doing it wrong? We do that all the time don’t we. So I want to challenge you to look for systems in your school that are more designed for the people who are doing things wrong instead of for the people who are doing things right. A good system has very few exceptions. So if you feel like you need to make exceptions for some people, then that’s a sign that your system is flawed and should be fixed. 

And before we go, I just want to recap...

today's learning:

  • You already have a system for everything that you do in school whether you realize it or not. It may be a broken system or a dysfunctional system, but it is a system. All that fire fighting that you are currently doing. That’s your system. It may not feel like it but it is a system. It’s just a broken one.
  • Any time you have a recurring problem, then it means that you have a broken system. But if you Fix the system and you fix the problem for good.
  • Your day can be under your command. With the right systems, you can regain control over your day and have the time and the bandwidth to focus on the things that are really important.
  • There are 5 Signs you need a better system. These signs will help you figure out what systems you need to work on first. And, as you create systems your work is going to get easier and you are going to take back larger and larger portions of your day.
  • Finally, I want to run through the 5 signs you need a better system one more time.
    • If the process feels really complicated, you need a better system.
    • If you have to work around your process in order to get anything done, you need a better system.
    • If it’s creating a huge headache for you and keeping you from doing the work that you really want to do, you need a better system.
    • If your system was designed to control bad behavior instead of promoting and supporting good behavior, you need a better system.
    • If you have to make a bunch of exceptions in your system, you need a better system.

Okay so hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you to make a greater investment in systems.

If you do, you can go from having unpredictable days full of interruptions and putting out fires, to orderly days that give you time to do the work that you really want and need to be doing.

No more waking up with a vague sense of dread as you wonder what fire you’ll have to put out today. No more spending nights and weekends which should be your own time completing work that you didn’t get a chance to complete at work because you were busy putting out fires. No more stress and anxiety about what’s NOT happening in your school because you’re so busy cleaning up messes that you can’t ever seem to get to the work that is most important.

That ends right now.

I challenge you each day to ask yourself, is the work I am doing really making a difference.
And if that isn’t sexy, I’m not sure what is.

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s spon​ser the Feedback Fast-Track Formula which is a 4-part online training program that helps you shave up to half the amount of time you are spending giving feedback to teachers while making your feedback twice as effective. In fact, if you use this process, you can help every teacher you work with score at least one level higher in at least one domain or problem area in one school year. Again, you can sign up for the training at 

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on linked in. Would you please find me at Robyn Jackson on Linked In and let’s connect? I’d love for us to be connected.

Next ​week...

Next week, we’re going to be shifting gears a bit because we’re going to talk about how to create a WOW experience for your students and teachers this year. It’s not something we talk about a lot, but it’s really important. So next week, we’re going to break down what a WOW experience is, why they are so important to shaping your school culture, and how to craft one, and you’re going to learn to do it all #likeabuilder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.