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Writing— Still a Needed Skill in the 21st Century


During a recent training teachers and leaders answered this question, “Which academic skill has helped you the most overall? Helped you moved forward and upward?”  The most frequent answer was writing. 


Answers vary.  Here are some of the more common responses:

  • It helps me clarify my thoughts
  • It allows me to share my ideas clearly with my supervisors and team members
  • It creates a document to which people can refer for guidance

Connected to Success

Writing may be by far the single academic skill most closely associated with college and work success.  We know this, but yet, look at the following statistics from the Alliance for Excellent Education (2011)—Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment. They are causes for concern:

  • Poor writing skills cost businesses 3.1 billion annually (National Commission on Writing, 2004)
  • Only one out of four twelfth-grade students are proficient writers (Salahu-Din, Persky, and Miller, 2008)
  • Nearly one-third of high school graduates are not ready for college-level English composition courses (ACT, 2005)
  • College instructors estimate that half of high school graduates are unprepared for college-level writing (Achieve, Inc. 2005)
  • College graduates earn 70 percent more than high school graduates (Taggart et al., 2001)
  • More than half of adult scoring at the lowest literacy levels are dropouts (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005)

More and more colleges are requiring well developed writing skills, research capabilities and thinking skills. This means we need to provide students with strong skills during their k-12 experience.   Students need to learn how to:

  • Write Expository, descriptive, and persuasive pieces
  • Pre-write, how to edit, and how to re-write a piece before it is submitted and, often, after it has been submitted once and feedback has been provided.
  • To present arguments clearly, substantiate each point, and utilize the basics of a style manual when constructing a paper.
  • To write free of grammatical, spelling, and usage errors.

Next Blog: How to write a paragraph in six easy steps

We will stay here all day until you get it right!

5 to 1 Ratio


“You all know how to line up, so I don’t know why you are not doing it!”

“Quiet down now! Sit down, please!”

“How many times do I have to tell you not to yell out?”

“We will stay here all day until you get it right!”

I was walking through a building with a principal and these were just some of the comments we heard during our 15 minute walk.  The last line is always my favorite. It was directed at students lining up to go back to class after lunch.  I thought to myself, “Is that really a punishment to students? Not going back to class?”

The situation became a bit more surreal, as the principal stopped and said to me, “Give me a minute, I need to fix this.”  He then proceeded to repeat what the teacher had said and done, but louder and with additional gesticulations.

Behavior is an integral part of culture. When we can change the behavior of people they will change the culture.  

How can we change behavior?

Here is a very simplified approach:

First, identify the behavior you want—what do you want to see?

Second, reinforce the heck out of it—be specific!

Positive to Negative Ratio

Research is pretty clear that there should be a 5:1 ratio between positive interactions and negative interactions:

“Parents and teachers should strive to achieve the “magic ratio” of 5:1 positive interactions with children because higher ratios of positive to negative interactions have been found to predict favorable attitudes to work and relationships and are a component of an effective approach to classroom management.” (Fabiano et al , 2007)

The comments overheard at the beginning of this post are examples of negative interactions. So, what does a positive interaction look like?

“Thank you for sitting down and getting right down to work.”

“Mary, you are so good, raising your hand and waiting to be called on.”

“Bobby, thank you for quietly lining up.”

Now what? Monitor!

We have identified the behavior we want:  a ratio of at least 5:1 positive to negative teacher student interactions.

We have established what a positive interaction looks/sounds like and what a negative interaction looks/sounds like.

Now we need to monitor this behavior or lack of this behavior in the classroom.   What we monitor is what grows! Here is a simple, low-tech strategy. During your classroom visits bring a stopwatch or use timer app on your smart phone.  Count how many positive and negative interactions you hear over a 30 to 60 second time span.  That should give you a good sample of what is happening in that classroom.  Share your observation with the teacher.  If the ratio is on target, reinforce the behavior. If it is not, be specific on the feedback and determine the “why.”    

If you see a pattern of similar behavior across the building, consider providing professional development. The professional development should address the behavior observed during the visits providing skills and strategies. It should close with a clear call to action that provides a clear picture of the behavior you expect from staff.  Then monitor and see if interactions have changed. Provide feedback and reinforcement.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander

People are people, student or teacher.  If a high ratio of positive to negative interactions help change student behavior, it will also change staff behavior.  That means leaders should be thoughtful in how they interact with their staff, just as they ask teachers to be thoughtful in how they interact with their students. 

Reflect on your staff interactions or better yet, keep a log for a week and document how many positive interactions versus negative interactions.  Here are some factors to consider:

  • Who are you interacting with? How often?
  • Are you seeing the same people? Why?
  • Are your interactions positive or negative?
  • Do you have an agenda when you visit them?

Time is a precious commodity. Use your time with focus and purpose.

What Advertising can teach us about building culture


Creating an effective culture and context for you and your staff to work in is an important part of any leader’s responsibility. It is not an easy process to create or change a culture, while at the same time it is not impossible. Like most change initiatives it involves reflection, planning and effective implementation. 

Advertising and Culture

Here is a question that is fun to ask people and makes a point (also a great way to figure out ages of the people you are asking).   Below are the first parts of some ad slogans. See if you can finish them.  The answers with the years they ran will be in the following paragraph.

  • Winston tastes good…
  • You deserve a break today, so get…
  • Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz…
  • Where’s the …


  • Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should (1954 -72)
  • You deserve a break, so get up an d get away at McDonald’s (1971-75)
  • Plop, Plop, Fizz, Oh What a relief it is (Alka Seltzer 1970’s)
  • Where’s the beef? (Wendy’s 1984)

How can it be that these ad campaigns ran over 40 years ago, but we still remember them? Advertisers are great at creating a message and making it part of a culture.  They take their message and drum it into our heads via jingles, commercials, print ads, billboards and these days via our mobile devices.  Leaders need to so the same thing!

I have a Mission Statement, what can I do with it?

In most cases, organizations have a mission statement, but it doesn’t get used well. Lots of work goes into creating it—a committee is set up, input solicited, draft created and reviewed and then a final approval-- and then too often, it is posted on a wall and forgotten.  An investment of so many people over such a length of time shouldn’t be wasted.  So, have an end game in mind when you are creating a mission statement.

How would an advertiser use a mission statement? Here is one suggestion. Review your mission statement and pull out a tagline that can be easily used.  Below are some examples:

Mission Statement #1:

To achieve our vision, we will prepare our students to become independent learners with the desires, the skills, and the abilities necessary for lifelong learning. This will require creating a learning environment which is centered around students, directed by teachers, and supported by home and community.

Possible Tagline: We prepare our students to become independent and lifelong learners

Mission Statement #2

The mission of XXX School, a diversified community of individuals, is to ensure that each student achieves his/her full potential through educational experiences utilizing technology within a nurturing and motivating environment in partnership with family, business, and community.

Possible Tagline: We ensure that each student reaches their full potential

Here are some suggestions on how to use the tagline daily:

When you see students engaged in learning you can say:

  • You are doing a great job paying attention to your teacher. That is the way to become an independent and lifelong learner (Mission Statement #1)
  • When you pay attention such good attention to what you are learning you are on your way to reaching your full potential! (Mission Statement #2)

When you want to express behavior expectations:

  • Lifelong learners don’t interrupt, but pay attention and ask questions (Mission Statement #1)
  • If you want to reach your full potential we must listen and ask questions (Mission Statement #2)

Other ideas:

  • Display your mission statement and tagline prominently in your hallways and classrooms. Refer to it during the day.
  • Display your tagline on your letterhead and memos
  • Close out your memos and notes to staff with your tagline or some form of it
  • Use it as a positive reinforce of student and staff behavior—You are being such a great independent learner (Mission Statement #1) or You really are reaching your full potential today (Mission Statement #2)

Engage your people

Last week I was invited to do some training with a district’s leaders about managing change. We spoke about engaging people in the process. We agreed that change can be a chaotic process and that people engage and join the movement the original vision often changes.

During the discussion one of the principals shared a great idea to engage staff.  She asked each of her teachers to create a sign with these words along the top: #WhyITeach. Each teacher was invited to list a reason and post the sign on their classroom door.  What was the result?

  • Teacher had to reflect on what they do and why they do it.  It developed a sense of purpose and focus. It rekindled passion in some cases.
  • That passion was shared with anyone and everyone who walk through the hallways
  • It created a sense of community and purpose
  • Staff and students felt pride in being part of their school
  • It changed the culture through advertising! (and it may have planted some seeds that will grow into future teachers)


Leaders need to get their message out there. They can learn some valuable lessons from advertising.  Create a clear message that represents your values. Identify the people you want to affect. Get your message out there by embedding it in the daily routine of the staff. 


Basketball Algebra


Bro. Carl Tershak was my high school algebra teacher.  He was also my basketball coach.  Looking back I realize, like many teachers and coaches, he taught me a great deal. Early on he taught me the power of diversion. 


Bro. Carl would come into class, books and lesson plan in hand. Before he could get started my hand would dart up with a question.  Was it about algebra? No.  It was about basketball.  I knew he loved the sport and he loved coaching it.  It was something close to his heart and most importantly, he loved talking about it. Sometimes the question was about a new strategy or the last game.  It didn’t really matter. Bro. Carl was off for 30 minutes or so—and that meant no algebra.

That all ended one day when he came into class, slammed his book down on the desk and barked out to me, “You! Back of the room!  And I don’t want to hear a word out of you.”  Forty Five minutes later he breathed a sigh and confessed, “It was the only way I knew to keep you from distracting me and getting us all off topic.”

Leadership Lessons Learned: People may try to divert your attention and redirect you.  Don’t let them!  Stay focused.  Keep your group focused. Encourage questions, but not every question needs to be answered immediately. Prioritize!


I may be the worst basketball team player ever from my high school!  I often tell people that I could have worn my clothes under the warm-ups—I rarely went in.  I wasn’t a good dribbler or shooter.  But, I wanted to be and I wanted to be on the team. Bro. Carl saw that and encouraged me.  He had some of the good players spend time with me teaching, coaching and encouraging me. And then the impossible happened—I made the team.  Looking back, I know I wasn’t good enough, but Bro. Carl saw and recognized my desire and determination.  He didn’t expect any less from me and at the same time was realistic.  He treated me like any of the other players. He was honest about my play time.  He always made me feel supported and part of the team.

Leadership Lessons Learned: Recognize the passion in people. Fan their dreams. Set high expectations and do what you can to support them.  Their loyalty and appreciation will last a lifetime.


My most vivid memory of Algebra class is this rule: What you do to one side of the equation you need to do to the other side of the equation.  That is what the equal sign means.  When you don’t your answer is wrong.

We all have had the moment of terror when you are asked up to the blackboard (I guess now days, it is a white board) and asked to solve the problem.  I can still hear Bro. Carl’s voice intervening, “if you add five to one side, what do you need to do to the other side?”  This principle of math has even a deeper meaning when applied to life in general. 

Leadership Lessons Learned:  Want people to listen to you? Listen to them! Want to influence others? Be open to influence yourself.  Relationships shouldn’t be one-sided. In the most effective relationships, both sides are affected and changed.

One Step at a Time

After a test or a homework assignment, Bro. Carl would put the most common mistakes up on the board and go over each problem.  He would always tell us to save our work, so we could review it and find where we went wrong.  Together we would go over the the problems and identify the errors made.  The most common feedback: Follow the rules. Take it one step at a time. This will make it easier to get a correct answer first time around and if not, it will make it easier to find where you made your mistake.”

Leadership Lessons Learned: Review your work. Look at the data.  Take it one step at a time. Find a process that works for you and your people and implement it with fidelity.  Learn from your mistakes.

Protect your People

After school there was always a choose-up game, often with students and staff playing side by side.  It was a great way of expanding our perceptions of others outside the roles of student/teacher.  There was one teacher that often joined us—we will call him Jim.  Jim was a big guy and not always a happy person.  During these games he often ran rough shod over us—getting a little more physical than necessary, especially since his opponents were high school students. Bro. Carl often didn’t play, but watched these games. One day, after a particularly rough play by the other teacher, he joined the game.  Bro. Carl, a big man himself, enthusiastically protected his teammates from Jim. After several plays of such protection, Jim’s behavior changed. From that point on, the games became more enjoyable for all of us.

Leadership Lessons Learned: Work on expanding your view and understanding of others. Look past their roles and learn more about them.  Protect your people!  That doesn’t mean physically. It means protect them with your guidance, empower them with your actions and advocate for them with your influence.


There are lessons to be learned from our daily interactions with others. Be open to recognize them and learn from them.  Leaders are often focused on influencing others. Real leader are open to being influenced by others. That is how we all grow. 

Information Glut and What You Can Do about It

Information Glut


Technology provides almost limitless access to information.  If you can get to a computer, you can “Google” anything.  Here are some examples:

School transformation:  176,000,000 results

Leadership: 763,000,000 results

If you are looking for effective leadership, then you get 19,800,000 results

Even when you search for something relatively specific the amount of information out there is overwhelming:

Effective leadership in public schools for school turnaround:  382,000

The result is Information Glut! Here is what we know: Information is useless without the knowledge of how it applies to context and how to use it.

Consider this scenario.  You need heart surgery.  You go to a friend and he or she “Googles” heart surgery and reads and studies all about the procedure over a course of several months. Would you trust them to do the surgery?  They have all the information, right? Of course, you would not. Information is not knowledge-they have not been able to apply the information within the right context. It doesn’t guarantee skill development.  That has to happen through use and practice.

Defining some terms:

Different people define words and terms differently (I know, I rival Captain Obvious).  For the purposes of this post, we are going to find definitions that Michael Fullan provides us in his book, “Leading in a Culture of Change,”—one of my favorites.   

  • Explicit knowledge is words and numbers that can be communicated in the form of data and information
  • Tacit knowledge  is skills, beliefs and understanding that are below the level of awareness (think intuition)

Here are some clarifying points:

  • Explicit knowledge is fact and figure (what we got when we “Googled” terms earlier)
  • Knowledge expressed in words and numbers represent only “the tip of the iceberg”
  • The Japanese view knowledge as primarily tacit (not easily visible and expressible)
  • Tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize (this makes it difficult to communicate it to others)
  • Tacit knowledge is deeply roots in a person’s experiences as well as their values and beliefs—trust has to be established before they share)

One of the goals of effective leaders is to help their people turn information into knowledge.

What’s a leader to do?

How does a leader facilitate knowledge sharing? We already determined that it is not just sharing information (explicit knowledge—remember the heart surgery example). 

A question I often ask educators is, “Tell me a time in your career when you learned the most.” The majority answer, “When I was a student teacher.” When pushed for why they reply that it was the immediate feedback, the exchange of information that was applicable to what they were doing at the moment  and access to the experience of a master teacher who gave them practical information on the how and why.  What can we learn from these answers?  Turning information into knowledge is a social process. Leaders NEED to have good relationships with their people and cultivate a culture where staff members can establish good relationships with each other.

Here are some actions leaders can take:

  • Commit themselves to constantly generating and increasing knowledge inside and outside of their organization
  • Provide people with  a moral purpose  that compels people to share information
  • Keep the user in mind. What are their needs and how will knowledge sharing benefit them
  • Help staff understand and accept the need for change and the importance of knowledge sharing to that change
  • Provide opportunities for learning by thoughtfully embedding appropriate activities in their day that will prompt knowledge sharing.  Create a situation or product, and/or set goals that necessitate people talking and sharing to be successful
  • Create environment in which people feel safe to communicate and share
  • Identify knowledge sharing as a responsibility of each staff person
  • Be active and lead the process—but don’t dominate it—allow opportunities for other leaders to evolve
  • Model effective and productive questioning, listening and feedback

Creating a knowledge-sharing culture is work and can’t be done from the top down. The leader can be the catalyst, but it is the people that ultimately effect change and in turn change the culture.  Provide embedded activities to allow for sharing, and enable people to share. Such changes can’t be mandated or managed. They are grown.   

Changing the context:

All of us have been participants in training—as participants, as trainers and more than likely as both. One of the frustrating facts for both the participants and the trainer is the realization that no matter how good the training, how enthusiastic the participation and all the good intentions, most of the information presented will never find itself into the workplace.  There are several reasons, but today we are going to look at just one. 

If you went to a course to learn a new language and you mastered that new language, but when you returned to your work or home nobody else was speaking that language, what would happen? You would find no use for it and your new skill would fade away. That is what happens when people return to their workplace.

Leaders must be thoughtful in planning change and professional development.  In addition to ensuring staff is getting the best information possible, they must also ensure they are returning to an environment that has been changed to allow staff to practice this new skill.

Fullan writes, “Information is machines, Knowledge is people.” Information without application or context is confusing.  Knowledge is information examined, digested and applied. It is shared.

Convert tacit to explicit

We already have established that we live in a time of information glut. It is everywhere and accessible --thanks to the internet.  Now that is not a bad thing or a good thing.  The good or the bad is how well it is used to help us achieve our goals-- to create purposeful change that has a positive impact.

Points to consider regarding the use of knowledge:

  • It must be  focused and aligned with the change desired
  • It should bring clarity to the situation-information glut brings confusion
  • It should shared across the organization with different people with different backgrounds and perspectives
  • It should motivate and excite—generate an internal commitment within individuals that carries over to the group
  • It should facilitate relationships and communication-both formal and informal conversations about how it can be used or what happened when it was used

What happens when we share knowledge?

  • People rely on others to listen and provide input
  • People are enabled to share their insights freely and discuss concerns
  • Groups form and self organize
  • Trust and hope emerge, satisfaction increases
  • People feel safe to explore new ideas


 People are the factor that converts information into knowledge that can be used. Real Leaders model knowledge sharing.  They make it a valued and integral element of their culture.  It should become part of a rubric of how teams and their members are assessed. 

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