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Lessons on effective and thoughtful school leadership

As the coordinator of the Master of School Administration Program at Campbell University, I have a theme for each of the classes that I teach.  For Leadership Interactions, it is the flow through a year.  For Resource Management, it is the impact of non-teaching staff and environment on instruction and achievement.  For Effective Leadership Practices, it is humor – cartoons and videos about teaching and learning at each level, each age group of staff, and other factors that change the way principals lead.  For Data-Driven, Site-Based Decision Making, it is visionary leadership through data. 

None is more instructive than the theme of People, Time, and Money.  In each lesson, I use metaphors for leadership and the pitfalls that become barriers that become failures.  Here are the lessons central to helping aspiring principals realize the importance of effective and thoughtful leadership.

Lesson 1: Setting Priorities

I begin with an empty jar.  I place large rocks in the jar with the instruction to “tell me when/if it gets full.  Students tell me when no more “big rocks” can fill the jar.

Then the gravel goes in with the same disclaimer.  They stop me when no more gravel can be placed in the jar.

Next, I add sand.  They repeat the “full” message.  At this point, I add water until the jar is full.

Instruction must start with the “big rocks.”

We debrief.  Their “lesson” is that priorities must start with the “big rocks.”  If any ingredient is placed in the jar in any other order, the jar will be “full” but some important “work” will be omitted. They observe that water acts as a glue to make the other parts stay put.  

Lesson 2: Kind Words

As class begins, I place a stick between each two to four students.  The sticks are twisted and gnarled.  I ask them to create a metaphor for education using the stick. 

As they work in teams, I walk around with a yardstick in my hand, tapping a table here, jamming the floor there, and generally allowing my “mean face” to stay put.

They produce outstanding metaphors, but no matter what they produce, I am critical.  I find fault with the way they worked together, the metaphor they produced, or even how they display their stick.

When everyone had been thoroughly demoralized and embarrassed, I halt the activity and debrief.  I ask them to look closely at the stick’s twists.  Inside each is a tiny vine which is responsible for the large limb becoming twisted.  I point out that the limb has grown in an unnatural way because some tiny force affected its growth.

They get it.  These vines are our words that can twist learners’ souls and make their educational experience ugly and painful.  They get that little acts of unkindness are damaging to the normal growth of students and staff just as they felt my wrath!  

I implore them to discipline with dignity.

Lesson 3: ESP

In the third class, I designate a person at random and communicate with them before class that we are going to have “ESP.”  The task of the class is to determine how we got/get ESP.

There are nine playing cards displayed on the board with one to nine dots designating their value.  They are arranged in three rows and three columns.  Each card has been arranged at random.

My “ESP PARTNER” leaves the room and the class designates which card the partner is to identify.  When the partner enters the room, I ask various questions. “Is it this one?”  “Which one is it?” They always reply correctly.

…not being in the know, not being in the “in crowd,” and not being able to see what everyone else sees leads to shutting down learning, failure to have confidence in what they see, and that critical observation can lead to success.

By observing, a few students will also “get” ESP and leave the room.  After several rounds, the game ends and the debriefing begins.

Lessons learned from this activity are that not being in the know, not being in the “in crowd,” and not being able to see what everyone else sees leads to shutting down learning, failure to have confidence in what they see, and that critical observation can lead to success.  The secret is that each card occupied a particular location (top left, center, middle right, etc.) which corresponds to the position of the cards.  I simply point to the position of the correct card on the first “Is it this one?”


Lesson 4: The Scissors

For this activity, all candidates sit in a large circle.  I illustrate the game.  “We are going to pass a pair of scissors either crossed or uncrossed.  You are to say which you are doing as you pass them.

As scissors get passed, the candidate will state “crossed” or “uncrossed” and I will either say “Yes” or “No.”  The majority of the first five rounds are incorrect though the scissors are crossed or uncrossed.  The problem is, the scissors are NOT what is determining crossed or uncrossed. 

In round one, we are looking at legs and in round two we look at whether the scissors cross the body or are handed to the side (crossed or uncrossed).

They begin to see the importance of noticing who is struggling and offering hints and suggestions.  Their role, then, is to make sure students and staff are given adequate support to solve problems.

When I ask candidates to debrief this, those who did not see the pattern relate to students to “feel stupid” because everyone knows but them.  They share deeply that they watched so carefully but did not see the pattern.  They begin to see the importance of noticing who is struggling and offering hints and suggestions.  Their role, then, is to make sure students and staff are given adequate support to solve problems.

The activity also reinforces the power of observation established in several of the metaphors.  There are so many things to which administrators must pay attention and without some feedback, they will sometimes miss the big picture.

Lesson 5: World’s Easiest Quiz

This fun quiz is given with a lot of hype.  I tell them that we are going to take a quiz sure to make them all winners.

The quiz consists of ten questions, all of which have seemingly un-miss-able answers.  For example, “Of what material are moleskin pants made?”  The obvious answer is “moleskin,” and they promptly respond with that answer.  The last of the ten questions is the ONLY one that they get right.

In debriefing, they correctly relate that we are sometimes lulled into thinking the answer is obvious, simple, easy, etc.  They understand, then, that they must dig deeper before jumping to conclusions as administrators of schools.

Lesson 6: Picture 1


This activity usually happens about Halloween.  I move everyone some distance from me and ask them to call out descriptive words of a picture that I hold up.

The picture is a “demon head” with a headdress and evil beard.  They call out words like, “Ugly,” “Evil,” “Scary,” and “Mean.” 

Then I take the picture around the room to show everyone the true picture.  It is called “GOSSIP” and depicts ladies in front of a church whispering.

Gossip is destructive to schooling.

They get the metaphor: Gossip is destructive to schooling.  It is ugly and evil and mean and scary.  Their job is to eliminate gossip as a force on their campuses.


Lesson 7: Picture 2


This activity is exactly like Lesson 6 except that the picture is of a skull.  The words they call out are similar with some changes from the “Gossip” picture.  Words include, “Bad teeth” and “death.”

The debriefing of this picture is equally shocking.  The skull is actually a refined lady with perfectly coiffed hair sitting in front of a mirrored dresser.  The name of the picture is “VANITY.”

School leadership is not about YOU.  It is about the children and the staff and the community and the parents.  Once it becomes about YOU, the school will die.

Their metaphor is that school leadership is not vanity – it’s not about you.  It is about the children and the staff and the community and the parents.  Once it becomes about you, the school will die.


Lesson 8: Picture 3

I show the class a small, 4×6 fuzzy picture and ask them to identify the object in the picture.  After several minutes with no one successfully identifying the image, they begin to ask me questions about the image that I can answer with a “YES” or a “NO.”  “Is it living?” “Is it an animal?” 


After some trial and error, sending the picture around the room for all to handle, I hold it up to the light and we consider the profile in reverse image.  A few “AHA’s” resound.

It is, indeed, a cow looking at the observer.  Once the image is identified, it is impossible to look without seeing it.

Debriefing this one is easy: the obvious is sometimes hidden so you have to consider all perspectives to reveal the truth. 

The job of an administrator is to look from every angle, to persevere until the true picture emerges and then to never forget that image.

Lesson 9: Pictures 4 and 5

These old images have circulated for years and so this is easy to play.  The first image is called, “Is it a MAN or a MOUSE?”  Both are clearly seen by some while others can only see the ONE that they first identify.

The second image is “HAG” or “BEAUTY”?  Both are visible depending upon your perspective.

The lessons reinforce the importance of having different perspectives.

We all look at the same set of data but some see the positives (growth) while others see the negative (not reaching standard).

Lesson 10: Unravel It

I place these letters on the board:           E   I   L   N   S   T

I give the class five minutes to make as many six-letter words as they can.

The list includes:              


listen, and

tinsel.   .

Their objective now is to make a sentence using all three words that become a guiding principle for principals.  The better ones are:  “To have a shiny school full of glittering tinsel, BE SILENT AND LISTEN!” 

The lesson is reinforced in every class: 

For successful and effective principals, listening is critical!  

Lesson 11: Phone Home

This is a simple but powerful activity.  I ask students to draw a phone number pad without looking at their phone.   

I stand at the board with a square with 10 smaller squares appropriately drawn.  I ask them to tell me what letters/numbers go in each square to emulate their phone pad.

In more than fifteen years of doing this activity, I have never had the class get it right!  They invariably start the one with “ABC.”

Debriefing:  How many times a day do you look at your phone?  Anyone less than three times per day average?  

So you look at your phone dial 3-5 times per day, and yet cannot repeat what the dial looks like?  But we expect children to be able to spit back materials that they may have seen twice?  What?  Enough said – lesson taught.  Experience is a valuable but not the only teacher.

Lesson 12: Solving Problems and Puzzles

In this lesson, I give each table group a puzzle or problem to solve in about five minutes.  They all struggle with the puzzles and problems, and I give them permission to seek help from other tables.  Some tables can solve the other table’s problem, but not their own. 

The lesson is to learn to think differently. 

All puzzles require different skills and use of different parts of the brain.  Skills can be developed and sharpened to identify and solve a problem or put pieces of a discipline or facilities issue together.

Lesson 13: How Many Do You Have and How Do I Know?

I love doing this activity!  I ask candidates to follow a mathematical formula which will tell me how many brothers/sons and sisters/daughters they have.  They do their quite easy computation and tell me their “final answer.”  When they do, I reveal to the class how many brothers/sisters or sons/daughters they have.  I ask each candidate if they revealed the information to me in any way, which, of course, they say, “Never.” 

“So how did I know?”  Someone will generally figure out a pattern of numbers, but more importantly, that I take out the numbers that I asked them to put in which reveals the numeric pattern.  I read the numbers to tell them how many brothers/sisters or sons/daughters they have.

The lesson:  Whatever we put in should come out.  What comes out should be the correct answers, which are then obvious to everyone and upon which we can act.

Lesson 14: How Many Times?

I give every student a piece of paper.  Each piece is different from every other piece.  I give thick paper, thin paper, waxed paper, tin foil, tissues – both toilet and facial, large gift wrapping paper, gift tissue paper, etc.

I ask them to predict how many times they will be able to fold the paper in half.  I then ask them to fold the paper in half as many times as they can.  They must count the number of folds and record it on the chart on the board.

No one can fold the paper in half more than nine times!

The lesson is simple – no matter how hard we try, some things are impossible to stretch! 

They must know the difference, and push the limits but then stop when it is obvious that they cannot push further.

Lesson 15: Where Does It Come From?

I ask the class to examine every label which they can see and to call out the country of manufacturing origin.  I keep a running tally.

After everyone has revealed all of the labels decently exposed, we look at the data.  The United States is usually about fourth or fifth in the number of items that they find are manufactured here. 

Why does that matter? 

Our schools are charged with educating students for jobs that are not yet created.  Our job is to stay focused on teaching the skills that will enable students to succeed in a rapidly changing world economy.

Lesson 16: I’m Going on a Trip x 2

This first oldie continues to stay in my list of metaphors because it teaches such a great lesson.  I read a passage with the charge to listen carefully to the details.

Candidates record perfectly the “data” from the trip as I tell them at which bus stop students entered the bus, what the group did at their destination, and what time the trip returned.

My final question, “What is the age and gender of the bus driver?”  The students will nearly always say, “You did not tell us that!”  But indeed I did.  The first sentence of the “trip story” read, “You are taking a group of students on a field trip.”  Thus the age and gender are the age and gender of each candidate.

The lesson is that learning is listening, data are trivial or important, and we spend an inordinate amount of time doing things that really do not matter (like tracking the “facts” without meaning).

The second part of this activity is “I’m going on a trip,” and I invite candidates to come along.  They must state their name and what they would like to bring.  The item they wish to bring determines whether or not they can come – it must be an “appropriate” item. 

I pronounce that they “CAN COME” or “NO, YOU CAN’T COME.” The clues begin to be understood,  “My name is Peggy, and I want to bring some Popcorn.”  The next round I will say my name and bring “Peanuts.”  Then “Pigs.”  Then “Pencils.”  Other candidates:  “Karen – bring Kites.”  “Sally – bring Soda.”  “Tim – bring Tomatoes.”  “Will – bring Water.”

Finally, when all “can come,” we debrief.  They are stunned that they did not “get it” sooner (just as children think they can but don’t).  They want to change the rules (which we do) to see if they can perceive the pattern. 

They understand that patterns of behavior in students must be dealt with to encourage them to come on board the schooling trip.

Lesson 17: Fill in the Blank

On the board, I draw a circle with six equal parts.  On the right side of the circle are the marks I, V, X.  On the left and the corresponding parts are the marks A, E and a ? mark.

The objective is to fill in the question mark in twenty questions (YES OR NO ONLY) or less.

The pattern is that the right side marks are Roman Numerals which correspond to the letter position in the alphabet (I is matched by A as the first letter of the alphabet; V is matched to E, the fifth letter; and J becomes the letter in the ? which corresponds to X or the tenth letter of the alphabet.

Next, I write _____ T T F F S S ____        

Fill in the blanks?   O for ONE and E for EIGHT

The lessons?  Patterns continue to be important! 

Behavior is the most obvious one – adult and child. 

Lesson 18: What Does It Spell?

My favorite class and staff metaphor was to put these letters on the board: G H O T I.  Teams are to work together to tell what it spells.  They can draw it, tell where it lives, what it eats, what eats it, what is a good accompaniment, etc.  After a few failed attempts, the early grades teachers/candidates will say, “FISH,” which is exactly what it is!

GH as in enough;  O as in women; and TI as in nation.

The lesson? 

When in doubt, remember that “everything you really needed to know you learned in Kindergarten.”

Peggy Smith

Dr. Peggy Smith is a professor at Campbell University and coordinates Campbell’s Master of School Administration program.