How to Hold a Boundary #LikeABuilder


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

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.

Hello Builders!

Welcome to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined. I’m your host Robyn Jackson and welcome to episode 30 where we’re going to talk about how to hold a boundary #LikeABuilder.

But before we dive in,

I want to tell you about 2 events I’m hosting this summer.

The first one is Builders Lab which is happening June 24-26, 2019 in California. This is a great event if you are a principal, assistant principal, or a district leader who supports school-based administrators. We’ll spend 3 days together developing the four disciplines of Buildership. You’ll upgrade your feedback to teachers so that they not only welcome your feedback, but immediately act on it and use it to significantly improve your practice. You’ll differentiate your support for teachers so that you are meeting teachers where they are and get this, you’ll do it without creating a bunch of extra work for yourself. You’ll help teachers be more accountable to your core values, vision, and mission and take more ownership over their own practice. And, you’ll overcome toxicity in your culture and create a school culture where every adult in your building is working together for student success.

At the end of our 3 days together, you’ll know exactly how to overcome pushback, get all your teachers committed to your school vision, and create a school culture where everyone takes ownership over their practice and works together to live out your school mission.

Now we’re also doing something else really cool. We’ve heard from a LOT of instructional coaches who have said, “Can you create something that’s just for us?” There just isn’t a lot of training out there that is focused on the unique challenges that instructional coaches face.

So, we’ve created Builder’s Lab, the Coach’s Edition. This workshop has all the things that people LOVE about Builder’s Lab but with a specific focus on instructional coaches. As a coach, you are kinda out there on your own. You don’t have the positional authority that an administrator has so you can’t compel teachers to act on your feedback, and you are often not really seen as a part of the team with the administrators in your building. You’re under pressure to produce results but without the support you need to be able to do it. 

By the time we’ve completed our 3 days together, you’ll be ready to go back to your school and be a Change Agent in your school that has a significant impact on the teaching and learning at your school. 

So right now, go to and get your tickets today for either Builder’s Lab or Builder’s Lab the Coach’s Edition and get ready to discover how to get everyone who works in your school or district on board and working together towards your school goals. That’s and I’ll also put a link in the show notes. 

Ok, let’s talk about holding boundaries.

I need to say from the very beginning that I am deeply indebted to Annie Hyman Pratt for much of what I’ve learned over the years about holding Boundaries. Annie is a brilliant consultant and if you want to learn more about her work, I’ll link to her company IMPAQ in the show notes.  

So let’s start by talking about what a boundary is

I kinda like Wikipedia’s definition of a boundary. Wikipedia says that boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.

All of us have personal boundaries. For instance, I do not like it when people ask to touch my hair. It’s micro-aggressive and rude. So if anyone tries to touch my hair, they’ve crossed a boundary.

But in addition to our personal boundaries, we have organizational boundaries and they are different from one school to the next.

For instance, some schools do not allow students to call the adults by their first names. That’s a boundary. Or some schools expect teachers to sign out equipment before they take it from the media center. That’s a boundary. Some schools expect teachers to be at work every morning by 7:30 am. That’s a boundary.

The point is, we all have a set of boundaries by which we expect others to operate.

So what happens when someone crosses a boundary? Or worse, what do you do when someone repeatedly crosses a boundary?

Well, here’s how leaders typically handle it.

Either they confront the person directly, give them a consquence (usually that means getting written up), and tighten up the controls on not only that person, but sometimes leaders will tighten the rules for the entire staff. So if one person repeatedly comes in after 7:30 am, they make a new rule that everyone must sign in the main office by 7:30 am.

The other thing that leaders may do is instead is not confront the teacher directly. Instead, they send out an email to the entire staff stating that everyone MUST be at work by 7:30 am and eventually instituting a new rule that everyone must sign in by 7:30 am.

Either way, the tools in the leader’s toolbox for enforcing a boundary are limited and in many cases heavy-handed.

Here’s the bad part. They often just don’t work.

So you make the new rule that everyone must sign in and guess what? The people who were coming at 7:30 anyway sign in and follow the new rule only now they are mad at you for making their morning that much more difficult. And the ones who weren’t getting in on time anyway?

They still don’t get to work by 7:30.

Even if you meet with them and write them up, it doesn’t mean that they will change their behavior.

And if they continue to come to work tardy even after you’ve written them up? Well, you’ve played all the cards in your hand so now what?

That’s the thing about the way that many of us were taught to hold boundaries. The only tools that we really have are to create more rules or policies, have sternly-worded and often awkward conversations with the person who has crossed the boundary, and then write that person up.

That’s it. That’s pretty much all we’ve got.

And before you write me and tell me that you would NEVER let someone violate a boundary, or that type of thing would NEVER happen on your watch, just wait. It will. Someone, somewhere is going to test your boundaries. Expect it.

It’s just a matter of time.

And when it happens, if you handle it like a Boss, you’ll simply try to ground that teacher into the ground by responding in a heavy-handed way that is really more about your ego than it is about the health of your school culture.

And if you handle it like a Leader, you will soon find that the limited tools in your tool-belt are no match for a teacher who is determined to violate boundaries.

But, if you enforce boundaries like a Builder, you never have to worry that a teacher may best you in a boundary standoff.

That’s because Builders don’t allow themselves to be painted into a corner or get caught up in a power struggle with teachers. And Builders do not negotiate with terrorists.

Instead, Builders calmly and firmly hold boundaries by using three tools - clarity, choice, and consequences. 

Let’s start with clarity. There’s a saying: Expectations without agreement lead to conflict. What that means is that if you have an expectation for teacher behavior but you have never gotten the teacher to agree to abide by that behavior, at some point you are going to have conflict.

So the first way to enforce a boundary is to ensure that everyone is in agreement about the boundary in the first place.

That means that you need to establish clear boundaries before you try to enforce them.

I’ll give you an example. I was working with a school once and an administrator was really frustrated because a particular teacher was not contributing to the team during team planning time. She showed up, but she didn’t contribute.

So I was coaching her on how to handle that teacher and I asked her, what is the agreement that the teacher is violating?

The administrator immediately responded, “Well she is not being a good team member. She just takes for the other team members but she doesn’t give them anything in return.”

“Ok, I get that that’s your expectation for how people should behave in a team meeting, but is there an agreement among staff that this is how people will behave in team meetings?

She looked at me like I had two heads and said “She should know that’s what’s expected!”

Again, expectations without agreement lead to conflict.

You see the agreement the staff had was that everyone would GO to team meetings. The expectation was that everyone would contribute to team meetings but it was not a clear boundary. The teacher had agreed to GO to team meetings, but she had not agreed to contribute to them.

The administrator I was coaching got even more angry. She said, “I don’t see why I need an agreement around that. It’s implied. Who doesn’t go to a team meeting and think that they can just take but they never have to add to the meeting?”

I looked at her for a moment and then I said, “that teacher does.”

Then I suggested that she invite the teacher into the office and share with her the expectations for how team members should contribute during team meetings. Then I suggested that she create a MOU that outlined the expectations and have both parties sign it.

The administrator thought I was being totally ridiculous but she tried it. After having the conversation and getting agreement from the teacher, she noticed that the teacher did try to contribute more to the meetings.

Problem solved.

So the first step is to be very clear about your expectations and get the other party to agree to those expectations because without that agreement, you really don’t have a clear boundary.

So that’s clarity. But in addition to clarity you also need Choice. You cannot force anyone to abide by your boundaries and in many cases, the more you push a person, the more they will resist.

So instead of creating rules or trying to compell someone to honor a boundary by force, Builders always give people a choice.

Now if you are a control freak like me, giving someone else a choice about whether or not they respect a boundary can feel pretty scary. After all, what if they choose no?

Here’s what Builder’s know -- when you don’t give people choices the best you can hope for is compliance. Now if all you’re after is compliance, then don’t give people choices.

But if you want true cooperation and even true commitment, then people have to actually make a choice to do what you are asking them to do.

So your job is to present people with choices and make the right choice very attractive.

Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. When I first became an assistant principal, I came across a few teachers who were not entering grades on a regular basis. Parents were calling and complaining that 4 weeks or 6 weeks into a marking period and their students still didn’t have any grades.

Other teachers were inputting grades on a regular basis but they were giving a LOT of points for some assignments and hardly any points for other assignments so their grades seemed unbalanced.

Now, if I had handled this like a leader, I would have issued new grading and reporting policies or made a requirement that teachers have so many grades uploaded by a certain time. Maybe I might have even pulled the grades of the teachers in question, called them into my office, and confronted them about their grades.

But I had been a teacher and I knew that depending on what you are teaching, grades fall differently. I also knew that if I mandated when and how teachers graded, teachers would start inflating grades or creating meaningless assigments just so that they could have grades in the gradebook.

I didn’t want that.

So here’s what I did. I met with each teacher at least once during the marking period to discuss their grades. The idea was that I wanted to understand how they graded, see how their students were performing thus far, and see if there was a way that I could support teachers.

I promised each teacher that we would only meet for 10 minutes and I gave them a choice about when we would meet. I also gave them a choice about how they would present their grades -- some teachers just grabbed their grade books brought them by my office. Others made elaborate charts showing me their grade distribution.

The important thing is that we had a conversation about their grades. And if I noticed any red flags during those conversations, together we would address those red flags and fix them.

Teachers had choice and with that choice came ownership. 

I didn’t mandate that they grade a particular way. My expectation and our agreement was that their grades must be fair and transparent. But, they had a lot of choice about how they organized their grades. If they could demonstrate that their grades were fair and transparent, no problem. If they couldn’t then I could hold the boundary with them and look at ways to adjust their grades to make them fair and transparent, without mandating to them exactly how they should grade.

That’s how Builders establish boundaries. They create boundaries based on principles rather than boundaries based on cut and dry rules. If my boundary is that teachers need to have so many grades posted each week, then I severely limit teachers’ freedom and choice and the best I can hope for is compliance to my rule.

But if I establish a boundary based on a principle, and I explain that principle and get buy in on the principle, teachers are not just complying; teachers are choosing to abide by a boundary because they believe in it. You don’t have to micro-manage these kinds of boundaries. People respect them because they have chosen to believe in them themselves.

When you establish boundaries based on principles you not only give teachers a lot of choice, you empower them to make the right decision even when you aren’t watching. 

Okay, so we’ve covered Clarity and Choice. The third rule when establishing and holding people to boundaries is Consequences. Duh duh dun…

Consequence has been made out to be a bad word but it’s not a bad word at all. Consequences are the natural results of our choices. If I eat too much for too long, I am going to get fat. Nobody is forcing me to get fat. That is just the natural consequence of my choice.

The problem is, we try to manufacture consequences that are punitive rather than communicating and enforcing the natural consequences of a person’s choice.

For instance, if a teacher repeatedly comes in late, we write that teacher up or make that teacher sign into the office each day or some other punishment. The problem is, we end up punishing ourselves at least just as much as we punish the teacher.

I remember working in a school years ago where the teachers were expected to turn in lesson plans each Friday by 2 pm. The problem was that there was this one teacher who NEVER turned her plans in on time.

So the administrator administered a set of consequences. If the teacher didn’t turn in her lesson plans by 2pm on Friday, she would have to stay late on Friday until they were done.

Here’s the problem. If the teacher had to stay late, the administrator had to stay late to make sure that she actually stayed and turned in her plans.

So who’s suffering the consequences?

They both are.

Here’s how Builder’s approach that problem. First off, I asked the administrator what is the point of having teachers turn in lesson plans each week?

He explained that that way he would know what the teachers were teaching and make sure that the teachers were actually planning.

Ok so if that is the point, then do you have time to read all the lesson plans for each teacher in your building over the weekend?

He admitted that he didn’t always have a chance.

Again, who’s suffering the consequences?

So I asked him, what happens if you discover that a teacher is planning to teach something on Monday that is not on grade level?

He admitted that there was little he could do to prevent the lesson from being taught since he would have discovered the error over the weekend and wouldn’t have enough time to actually catch the teacher before she taught the lesson.

So I told him, Look you’re holding a boundary that doesn’t serve you.

But what am I supposed to do to make sure that teachers are planning he asked?

Here’s what I told him. I actually don’t believe that you should collect daily lesson plans from teachers as a policy especially if your goal is to ensure that teachers are planning effectively. Lesson plans don’t tell you whether the teacher is consistently moving students towards the standards over time, they don’t tell you whether a teacher has a clear scope and sequence or learning trajectory, they don’t tell you whether a teacher has a clear assessment plan. In fact, about the only thing daily lesson plans do tell you is that the teacher knows how to properly fill in the blanks of whatever lesson planning template you use.

You know what really gives you information about a teacher’s practice? Unit plans.

Unit plans tell you whether a teacher has a plan on how to help students reach the standards, understand the scope and sequence of their course, has a clear assessment plan, is providing proactive interventions and well as opportunities to remediate, differentiates for various learning needs, makes cross curricular and cross grade level connections, and keeps students engaged across a unit.

Plus, if you ask teachers to share their unit plans with you at least one week prior to teaching the unit, you have time to catch any areas that may not serve students and work with the teacher to correct that error BEFORE they teach the unit.

And here’s the thing. If I have your unit plan, then when I walk into a teacher’s classroom, I should be able to tell within minutes where the lesson I am observing is situated in the broader unit without ever looking at the teacher’s lesson plan. If I can’t, there’s a problem.

Okay so what does this have to do with consequences?

Well, in that situation, the consequences for not turning in a daily lesson plan was to stay after school and complete it then and get a note to file. The admin is paying as much as the teacher.

But there are hidden consequences to the administrator even if the teacher turns in the plans on time. Now the administrator has to spend a part of his weekend every weekend reading and giving feedback on those plans.

And what’s more? There are almost NO consequences if the lesson plans are poorly done.

So what Builder’s do is they consider the consequences before establishing a boundary. 

They choose boundaries with natural consequences.

So let’s go back to having teachers turn in unit plans. If a teacher does not turn in a unit plan a week in advance, you still have time to enforce the boundary without having to spend every Friday monitoring teacher detention. You could ask the teacher to sit down with you during their planning period and map out the unit plan with you. That way you can support the teacher during the planning process.

If the plan isn’t good, what’s the consequence? You can sit down with the teacher and give the teacher feedback and an opportunity to fix the plan prior to teaching it. And, you can do an unannounced classroom visit during the first week of the plan and give teachers further feedback on it’s implementation.

Again, no drama, no conflict and you keep the focus on instruction rather than on the teacher.

And in the end, that’s the key difference between the way that leaders and builders hold boundaries. When leaders attempt to hold a boundary, a lot of times it ends in stricter rules or conflict. The leader then spends more and more time chasing, checking, and correcting teachers and less time building their vision for their school.

Builders on the other hand start by thinking through their boundaries before they establish them. 

They focus on the principle rather than the rule. That way, when they present the boundary to the staff, they can engage the staff in a meaningful dialogue around the principle involved first and then agreement around the principle before they introduce a hard and fast rule. That way everyone understand why the boundary exists and more people are likely to commit to it.

Once the boundary is established, Builders don’t waste a bunch of time checking, chasing, and correcting teachers. They trust teachers to make the right decision adn if the teacher chooses differently, the Builder doesn’t get all upset and confront the teacher. Instead, the Builder calmly applies the natural consequences of that choice with the teacher with the expectation that once the teacher experiences those consequences, they will make a better choice the next time.

Now I know that all of this sounds like pie in the sky thinking to many of you. I get it. We’ve all been trained that if you don’t stay right on top of someone, they will violate all the boundaries and chaos will ensue.

But let me ask you something. Is that working? Is doing things that way satisfying? Is the stress and pressure that comes from always checking, chasing, and correcting others worth the begrudging compliance you get in return?

It isn’t worth it to a Builder. Instead, Builders put in the work ahead of time and establish clear boundaries with built in choice and built in natural consequences and focus their attention on the work that is most important which is realizing their vision for their school. And that’s how you hold a boundary #LikeABuilder

Now, before we go, 

Don’t forget to get your ticket to Builder’s Lab 2019. If you want to find out how to get your people on board and moving so that you can still reach your goals THIS year, even the resistant nay-sayers or the people who are just plain stuck, then you need to come to Builder’s Lab 2019. Just go to and get your ticket now.

And, let’s make sure that we’re connected on LinkedIn okay? Find me at Robyn Jackson and let’s connect!

Also, I would love to know what you think about the podcast. Would you please go to itunes and leave me an honest review? Not only would it give me incredible feedback, it will help others find this podcast as well.

And speaking of finding this podcast, if you’ve been served by this podcast, would you please share this podcast with someone else? I would count it as a personal favor if you would.

Next week...

Okay, next week we’re going to talk about what many consider to be a pretty boring topic -- data. But Builders have a unique way of looking at data that allows them to make better and quicker decisions and actually change student outcomes. Oh, and they are able to do it in less time and with less stress.

So how do you use data without losing your mind in the process? We’ll tackle that next time where you’ll learn how to use data #likeabuilder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

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