Why are companies such as Zappos, Geico and Google continually ranked among the best places to work if you want to be happy and successful? Can classroom teachers learn and adapt their strategies to fully engage their students and improve their happiness and performance? How can school leaders look differently at the training, resources, and support they provide so as to foster a climate of engaged, high performing teachers and students?

Not long ago, three former teachers turned researchers set off to discover what K–12 schools can learn from the best-run organizations in America. The researchers, Mallory Dwinal, David Richard and Jennifer Wu, began by identifying the best workplaces and looking systematically at the structures and processes that high-performing managers put in place to create their dynamic cultures. They figured out which of those outside practices could be translated into a school setting, and finally, they refined the practices by partnering with three sets of teachers eager to pilot-test their hypotheses.

Yes, schools are not companies, but in both settings, the person in charge is seeking to create a climate that empowers team members and maximizes positive results. What’s more, many students will one day look for jobs in workplaces that embrace these management principles. Why not intentionally organize classrooms to help prepare them to learn in an environment that mirrors what they will encounter in the future?

First principles of the best managers

Researchers found that the best managers in effectively run organizations do at least three things extraordinarily well:

  1. They empower their teams and do not micromanage
  2. They are great coaches
  3. They emphasize accountability

These principles are common sense. The challenge for teachers, however, is breaking them down into actions they can take consistently in traditional classroom that are not designed to make that easy. Analyzing well-run organizations spurred ideas about how to plant high-impact interventions more firmly and seamlessly into classroom routines.

Through the classroom pilots, the researchers and teachers found they can replicate the successes of top managers by breaking the principles down into seven specific, practical moves to introduce a similar culture into their classroom routine. They called these moves their “playbook,” and you can learn about them and see pictures, templates, and tools that these teachers discovered during their pilots in How to Create Higher Performing, Happier Classrooms in Seven Moves. Here they are in summary.

The Seven Moves

Empower the team and do not micromanage

  1. Teach mindsets. Develop the mindsets of agency, creativity, growth mindset and passion for learning. A mindset is a mental attitude or inclination that predetermines how a person will respond to a given situation. Where employers screen for them, teachers can embed activities into the student experience that nurture the mindsets that their students need to engage with in order to master academic content.
  2. Release control. Provide content and resources that students are free to access without your direct instruction. The traditional classroom model leads students through a single, unified curriculum at the pace of the whole group. Other models, such as online and blended learning are emerging, however, that empower students to drive their own learning and free up teachers’ time for those who need more help.
  3. Encourage teaming. Drawing on the research[1] of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, today’s fast-paced world relies on the skill of people quickly coming together to solve problems, as opposed to teams selected for long-term balance and stability. To teach this, teachers can foster peer-to-peer learning and dynamic, team-based collaboration.

Be a good coach

  1. Give feedback. In schools, we associate the term “feedback” with either formal assessments and grading protocols for students or high-stakes performance reviews for teachers. In high-performing classrooms, feedback is focused on positive, constructive improvement, not evaluation. Create a culture of feedback so that students receive personal, frequent, and actionable feedback in the moment, in small groups, and in one-on-ones.
  2. Build relationships of trust. In a time of broad societal changes in the functioning of families and children, as New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, “many students come to school lacking a secure emotional base … Today we have to fortify the heart if we are going to educate the mind.”[2] Show interest and concern in students as individuals and trust in their ability to drive their own learning, given the right structures are in place.

Emphasize accountability

  1. Help students hold themselves accountable. Give them tools to set goals, track their progress, follow through, and take stock of where they are, pausing to reflect about how to improve before beginning the cycle anew..
  2. Hold yourself accountable. Use reflection time, peers, student surveys, and self-assessments to make sure that you are on track personally and requiring of yourself the same commitment to setting goals, learning, tracking progress, reporting, and reflection that you expect of their students.

Many of these moves will look familiar to teachers. As it turns out, the research team found that the first principles managers follow align closely with good teaching practices validated by a wide body of education research. As one example, in 2011, the Educational Endowment Foundation conducted a meta-study that looked at the wide range of interventions that schools in Great Britain used to improve the academic performance of five- to 16-year-olds. The study[3] found the interventions that provided the most lasting effects were:

  • Collaborative learning in the presence of a clearly defined task
  • Feedback on learner performance
  • Mastery learning—mastering a unit before continuing to the next
  • Metacognition and self-regulation—letting learners set and monitor their goals
  • Tutoring—either one on one with the teacher or with peers
  • Reading comprehension and oral discussion strategies
How school officials can lead the way

Of course, classrooms are not companies, students don’t produce revenue, and teachers can’t hire and fire learners as they work to prepare them for college and career success. Moreover, teachers operate under rules and regulations emanating from the district on down through the principle’s office. What role can school and district leaders play in modeling best practices and helping teachers grow and succeed?

  1. Incorporate the seven moves into professional development plans, so that teachers have time and resources to learn together.
  2. Provide access to content and technology that students can use, such as laptops, bandwidth and software subscriptions. Not only does it encourage independent learning, the resources give teachers more time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups as needed while the other students take online classes and collaborate on projects.
  3. Model good coaching behavior. With less emphasis on direct instruction and lectures, teachers can appreciate a school leader’s example of acting as a guide in the learning process and letting teachers be accountable. When principals coach their own teachers, they not only build them up, but also give them ideas of how they can build their students up.
  4. Separate evaluative from developmental feedback for teachers. In the teacher evaluation system, with rewards and punishments for performance, there are risks associated with trying something new. In the developmental feedback system, coaches give teachers feedback to help them improve, help them problem-solve, even dare to fail—but innovation doesn’t come with any negative repercussions.
  5. Encourage and celebrate a new culture. When education leaders get excited, it’s contagious. If changing the way students learn is really a priority, school leaders will set the tone by celebrating successes and promoting that culture.

Too often, our young people attend schools designed for different students in a different world known as the past. By creatively applying models from the most effective workplaces of today, teachers and school leaders have the power to transform their worlds into the happier, higher performing organizations that students need now and in the future.

This article is based on How to Create Higher Performing, Happier Classrooms in Seven Moves: A Playbook for Teachers, from which this article was adapted.

Citations[1] Amy C. Edmonsdon, “Teamwork on the Fly,” Harvard Business Review, April 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/04/teamwork-on-the-fly-2 (accessed November 3, 2016)

[2] David Brooks, “The Building Blocks of Learning,” New York Times, June 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/opinion/the-building-blocks-of-learnin… (accessed September 7, 2016).

[3] “Teaching & Learning Toolkit,” Education Endowment Foundation, https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/teaching-learning-t… (accessed June 25, 2016).

Heather Staker
Heather Staker is the founder of Ready to Blend, a training firm specializing in blended learning for K–12 schools and co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. She is an adjunct research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute, publisher of "How to Create Higher Performing, Happier Classrooms in Seven Moves: A Playbook for Teachers," from which this article was adapted.