Turning Your Biggest Obstacles into Your Biggest Opportunities


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 eighteen.

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 season 2 of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and I am so excited to be back. Did you miss me? Because I sure did miss you.

Over the break, I spent a lot of time in schools talking with many of you, hearing your challenges as you try to transition from being a leader to being a builder and it got me to thinking.

The entire reason I started this podcast was to provide you with mini trainings that you could listen to on your commute or while you’re working out or if you’re like me, while you’re washing dishes or getting dressed in the morning. I wanted to give you really actionable training that helped you make the shift from being a leader to being a builder.

And yet, so many of you have told me that as much as you WANT to be a Builder and try to be Builders in your schools, there are just so many obstacles in your way.

So, I decided to make this season about how to turn your biggest obstacles into your biggest opportunities. After all, that’s what Builders do all the time.

So each week, I’m going to take a different obstacle many of you are facing and show you how to turn that obstacle into an opportunity that takes you closer and closer to your goals. Many of you have already shared with me your challenges but if you have an obstacle you’d like to see me tackle on the podcast this season, just send me a message in Linkedin and let me know YOUR biggest challenge in making the switch from being a leader to being a builder and I’ll try to address it on an upcoming episode.

For this episode I want to talk in general about how Builder’s turn their biggest obstacles into your biggest opportunities.

It sounds a little bit like a platitude or a cliche doesn’t it?

I mean really, it’s a nice thought but they call an obstacle and obstacle for a reason. It’s something that’s in the way of your success.

I mean let’s think of some of the obstacles you might be facing right now -- students who aren’t coming to school, parents who aren’t being supportive, students who are reading 2 and 3 grades below grade level, a lack of funding to support your educational program, teachers who are ineffective and resistant to change, central office mandates that create more work and keep you from focusing on the work you need to be doing, no time to get into classrooms because you are constantly putting out fires, and I could go on and on and on.

How can you take these very real obstacles and create opportunities from them?

That’s what we’re going to talk about on today’s episode.

But before I dive in, I have something exciting to share with you...

If you’ve been in the Mindsteps universe for a while then you already know that each year we host an amazing 3-Day intensive called Builder’s Lab. Well, I am happy to tell you that the tickets for Builder’s Lab 2019 are now on sale. In fact, if you purchase your tickets before October 17, 2019 you can take advantage of the Early Bird ticket price and save $100 off your ticket.

Now for those of you who don’t know what Builder’s Lab is, it’s only the BEST professional development intensive on the planet. You’ll come to Builder’s Lab with your biggest challenges and we’ll spend 3 days using the four disciplines of Buildership -- Feedback, Support, Accountability, and Culture to create a plan to solve your challenge in the next 90 days.

We keep Builder’s Lab small so that i have a chance to work with each and every one of you and give you my personal attention on your challenge. Plus, I’ve written a Builder’s Manual with over 100 pages of resources, templates, worksheets, and exemplars to give you everything you need to take all that you learn at Builder’s Lab back to your school and IMMEDIATELY apply it. In fact, we spend the entire afternoon on day 3 in an implementation lab where you get a chance to implement all that you’ve learned at Builder’s Lab right there with me and my team there to coach you. By the time you return to your school, you will have already made progress.

This is not your typical education conference with a whole bunch of disconnected keynote speeches and breakout sessions. This is a small intimate event where we spend 3 days together solving your biggest challenges and developing and actionable detailed plan for how you will implement what you’ve learned the moment you return to your school.

I have to warn you. We’ve already sold 25% of the tickets to Builder’s Lab 2019 so you need to act. And if you act fast, you can take advantage of our Early Bird special ticket and save $100 off the ticket price. For more information and to get your ticket to Builder’s Lab 2019 go to https://mindstepsinc.com/builders-lab/.

A lot of people talk to me in wishes. They say, I wish I could get into more classrooms but… or I wish I could have a more rigorous instructional program but… or I wish I could move up in the ranks but… or I wish I could raise test scores but…

Every time I hear an I wish but statement I think to myself, here is someone who has allowed his or her obstacles to choke out their dreams.

That’s the difference between a leader and a builder... 

A leader sees obstacles as things that are keeping him from getting to where he wants to be.

Builders see obstacles as unique opportunities that will ultimately HELP them achieve their goals.

Here’s what I mean by that.

I was recently working with two principals in the same district. They had basically the same demographics and served similar neighborhoods. They had essentially the same resources and they worked for the same superintendent.

Oh yeah and both were failing schools.

One year the school district mandated that they raise their test scores or else they would be taken over by the state.

When both principals sat down with their leadership team and looked at what they needed to do, they both needed to make at least a 20% gain that year to stay out of state take over.

Both were facing similar challenges. The students were generally reading at between 1 and 3 grades below grade level and seem apathetic to academics. The parents were for various reasons not involved in their children’s schooling meaning that they did not in general read to their children at home and did not come to the school-sponsored parent nights. The teachers were overwhelmed with classroom management issues and felt uncomfortable with the reading curriculum in general. And, both schools had pretty toxic cultures that were run by the local teacher’s union and were generally resistant to the administrative teams.


Well, one principal gathered his leadership team and after looking at these obstacles, determined that he needed to broaden the professional development program by hiring an outside coach to come in and work with teachers. He also purchased a new reading curriculum to try to bolster their scores and sent letters home to parents in multiple languages encouraging them to read with their students each night. He also doubled down on his observations in classrooms and gave teachers tons of feedback. And, he sat in on the teacher planning meetings to make sure that they were staying on track and following the curriculum.

They drilled the students and devoted significantly more instructional time to preparing students for the test. They had pep rallies to get students excited and fed students breakfast on test day.

When the scores came back, they had actually made the 20% jump in scores. They were estatic!

They had achieved huge gains!

Trouble is, the next year, they went back to business as usual and the next year when the scores came out, they realized that they had lost most of the gains they had achieved the year prior.

School number 2 did things differently. Instead of jumping to solve the problem, they spent a lot of time really examining the problem. Remember, they had many of the same obstacles--

The students were generally reading at between 1 and 3 grades below grade level and seem apathetic to academics. The parents were for various reasons not involved in their children’s schooling meaning that they did not in general read to their children at home and did not come to the school-sponsored parent nights. The teachers were overwhelmed with classroom management issues and felt uncomfortable with the reading curriculum in general. And, they had a pretty toxic culture that were run by the local teacher’s union and were generally resistant to the administrative team.

But this school was lead by a tribe of Builders. So they took a long hard look at their obstacles and tried to find the hidden opportunities in each.

First, students were reading 1-3 grades below reading level. The goal was to get them on grade level by the spring.

Right away, they knew that they were not going to get everyone on grade level that year. But they asked themselves, what would have to happen in order to get every single student on grade level?

Then they allowed themselves to dream. They came up with things like -- well we’d have to spend a large part of the day reading. OR, we would need a fairy god mother to touch each child. Remember they were brainstorming here and allowing themselves to imagine what it would take.

After brainstorming for a while, they began to ask themselves a question. Why are so many students performing below grade level?

It was an interesting question and after some discussion and some digging into the data they realized that most of the students were pretty good with word recognition but many struggled with reading comprehension.

So they began to focus their efforts not on EVERYTHING but on the ONE thing that would give them the biggest gains -- reading comprehension. Instead of buying a new reading curriculum, they focused on the part of the curriculum that dealt with reading comprehension. The in-school instructional coach started researching the best reading comprehension strategies and focused her PD on those.

Okay the next obstacle was parent apathy. So again, they asked themselves, why are parents seeming so apathetic. At first they thought that parents were working 2 jobs and therefore didn’t have time but when they investigated a little further they realized that was not true. Most of their parents worked ONE job. So what was really going on?

They decided to visit the neighborhoods after school and find out for themselves. So once per month, they would pick a day after school, they would take ice cream to a different neighborhood. They would set up on a busy block and hand out free ice cream to the kids and their parents right before dinner time. Then they would take out a soccer ball and kick it around with the kids or pull out a basketball and shoot a few hoops or break out a double-dutch rope and jump with the kids and when the parents came out, they woudl talk to them about how important it was to read with their children.

Here’s what they found out. A lot of homes didn’t have books and the parents weren’t comfortable reading.

So they worked with a local library to create a book mobile that would go into the communities each week and offer a selection of books. And they created a book list parents could choose from to read with their children and a list of questions parents could ask at the end of the reading to work with their chilren on reading comprehension.

Although they went out into the communities to gather information, they also managed to forge a bond with parents that got them more involved in school.

Next obstacle, classroom management. Many of the students where disruptive and they had a real issue with students getting into fights. That meant that most teachers didn’t let the students move much in the classroom because that’s usually when the fights broke out.

Again, they started by looking at the classroom management issue. They found out that yes, most of the disruptions seem to happen during transitions. So they did some PD around managing transitions. They also revamped their discipline procedures so that students who were sent to the office could still work on their reading comprehension while they were in detention. And the big thing they did was institute a new character education program to teach students how to better manage conflict. That cut down on the fights significantly. Plus, because the teachers were also improving their instructional practice, they found they dealt with less disciplinary issues.

The next obstacle they tackled was the toxic culture. The admin team invited the union rep to be in their brainstorming meetings and help them come up with solutions. For instance, one of the solutions to the reading comprehension problem that the admin team came up with was that teachers would have to work with some students after school. Many teachers balked at this because it infringed on their duty day. So the admin team sat down with the union rep to come up with another solution. They ended up instituting proactive intervention strategies that could be put in place during the school day so that teachers would not have to stay beyond the duty day. In exchange, teachers committed to making better use of their instructional time in order to give students the support they needed.

The unintended result of all this collaboration was that it overcame a lot of the distrust and warriness that had created much of the toxicity in the culture.

Here’s the end result. School B also made a 20% gain in test scores in the first year. But here’s the difference. They kept up with the changes they made and as a result, they continued to make test score gains year after year after year and went from being one of the worst performing schools in the district to being one of the best.

What was the difference?

School A looked at their obstacles as obstacles and did their best to deal with them. They made superficial changes but didn’t make any cultural shifts. As a result, they came up with short-term solutions that tried to work around the obstacles but didn’t not remove them.

School B on the other hand took each obstacle and used it as an opportunity to make lasting improvements to their school. I mean just look at all the opportunities they created to improve their instructional program, reach out to families and get them more involved, turn their relationship with the union from an antagonistic to a collaborative relationship, creatively address discipline issues, and permanently alter their students’ scores.

That’s what happens when you look for the opportunity in every obstacle. You find ways to be creative. You consider alternatives that didn’t even occur to you before the obstacle. And, you discover new ways to look at old problems and solve them.

And I see Builders doing this all the time.

  • For instance, I recently met with a group of incredible educators who found that one of the biggest obstacles to their success was that they were the often the only or one of only a few African-American female educators in their schools. Obstacle. But instead of lamenting the lack of support and community they faced, they decided to create their own PLC where they could support each other. As a result, they have not only created a safe community where they support, challenge, and cheer each other on, they have marshalled their collective expertise and passion to create a semi-annual conference on transformational leadership that is one of the BEST educational conferences in the country right now.
  • Or how about the private school principal I recently worked with who was newly hired just weeks before the accreditation committee was to return to her school for an evaluation. The prior principal had done NOTHING to prepare and with only weeks before the evaluation, she was scrambling to try to get 3 year’s worth of work completed in time. Because it was a close deadline, she wasn’t going to have time or the money to put together the elaborate notebooks that are usually distributed to the evaluation team. Obstacle. But instead of panicking, she decided to hand the accreditation team tablets with all the information from the notebooks. Not only was the team impressed by her use of technology, she was able to make a compelling case about why she wanted to purchase tablets for every student in the school.
  • Or what about the assistant principal who was serving under a really ineffective principal who undermined her at every chance. Obstacle. Instead of complaining about her boss, she figured out what was the work he liked to do least. Turns out he hated visiting classrooms and providing teachers with feedback. So she took on that role in the school for him and really honed her feedback skills. She also won the trust of the teaching staff and was able to significantly impact the teaching and learning program. The next year, the principal was removed and she became the new principal of the school.

These are just a few examples I’ve seen this week and I’ll tell you something else. Some of the biggest things I’ve created in my career are the direct result of turning an obstacle into an opportunity.

For instance, I used to be a high school English teacher and I was completely overwhelmed with the grading. I wanted to give my students really good feedback but it took so long and they hardly read my comments anyway. One day I was staring at a stack of papers and dreading grading them when I decided to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. How can I give students better feedback in less time. That’s how I created Color-Coded Grading.

I had so many students who were struggling. I was working with them during lunch and after school but I was spending a lot of time working with students one on one and not making any progress. They were still failing and what’s more, by the time they came to me for help, many of them were already in a free-fall of failure. I did some research and tried to turn that obstacle into an opportunity and that’s how I started using the Student SUCCESS plan (I’ll put a link to the plan in the show notes in case you’re interested). Anyway after I started using that plan, I went from several students failing each semester to NO students failing. You heard me zero students failing.

I started an AP program at my school but the problem was that most of my students were under-prepared for AP level work. Obstacle. So I changed the way that I taught and developed a way to help under-represented and under-prepared students access and be successful with rigorous instruction. That’s how I came up with what is now our Rigor Blueprint. Guess what? That obstacle turned into one of the biggest opportunities of my career and I tripled AP enrollment and increased our average scores.
Even as an administrator, I faced several obstacles that I turned into opportunities. When I struggled to get into more classrooms and give teachers meaningful feedback, I created micro-slicing which has helped thousands of administrators get into more classrooms and get to the root of a teacher’s practice.

I don’t tell you all of this to brag. I just want you to know that for me, some of the biggest obstacles in my career have lead to some of my biggest opportunities and it’s not because I’m so amazing or anything it’s because early on, I learned to adopt this mindset.

You can do the same thing too. No matter what obstacle you are facing right now I guarantee that if you look for it, you’ll find a huge opportunity buried somewhere inside. So I want to encourage you today to stop letting your obstacles keep you from your goals. Inside every obstacle is an opportunity if you know how to look for it.

So I want you to take a look at some of the obstacles you’re facing right now and I want you to ask yourself:

Is there any way that what seems like a bad thing right now might turn into a good thing sometime in the future?

In other words, where is the opportunity? 

How can I use this challenge to make my school better? 

That’s part of the Builder’s Superpower. They never look at a roadblock and see an insurmountable problem. Instead, they realize that the obstacle in the path becomes the path. They don’t try to avoid challenges. That’s what bosses do. They don’t even try to solve challenges. That’s what leaders do. Builders are always working to transform challenges into new opportunities that they wouldn’t have had had they not faced the challenge in the first place.

Remember, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve your condition and improve your school.

So this week, I want to challenge you to look at your current obstacles differently. Instead of seeing your challenges as something that limits your ability to reach your goals, I want you to ask yourself, where is the opportunity here? How can I turn this challenge on it’s head and create an opportunity I wouldn’t have had otherwise?

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s sponsor Builder’s Lab 2019 where we’re going to spend 3 days taking you step-by-step and showing you exactly how to remove your biggest obstacle once and for all so that you can achieve your school goals. Don’t forget that early bird registration is going on right now where you can save $100 off your ticket if you purchase your ticket by October 17, 2018. For more information go to https://mindstepsinc.com/builders-lab/.

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on LinkedIn. 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 time we’re going to tackle a huge obstacle many school leaders face -- Meetings. If you are sick and tired of unproductive meetings that drag on and on and everyone sits around celebrating problems but nothing gets resolved by the end of the meeting. Or, if you make commitments as a team in the meeting and then nobody follows up and does anything once the meeting is over. Well this is the episode for you. I’m going to share with you the most powerful way to run a meeting and you’re going to learn to run all of your own meetings #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 https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/

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