The $64,000 Question: What Will Your Response Be?

For those that don’t know, The $64,000 Question was a popular TV game show back in the 1950s. It was broadcast between 1955 and 1958.

It is spring, and anyone in education knows that it is the season for hiring. Administrators know it, along with department heads, human resource directors, and superintendents. Hiring most often results from retirements, enrollment needs, new positions, and a variety of other reasons. The season may bring about some trepidation if there are lots of positions to fill, however, it can also be an exciting time where those responsible for hiring get to onboard new educators into their schools and district.

Shared from

As a school administrator for 19 years, I’m now well acquainted with the rhythm of the school year (the “ebb and flow” from season to season) and especially the cadence of hiring. While this has become all too familiar to me, I continue to learn and grow and there are things about my own hiring processes that are a work in progress.

Over the course of many years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, both at my own school, and while in service to the district.  I’ve also had the good fortune to work with skilled superintendents that have supported the process and taught me along the way. While a principal in Maine in a rural district, I worked at a fairly large elementary school in a three town district.  I remember my former superintendent telling principals that every opportunity you have to hire is always an opportunity to hire better than what you had before. He also shared with principals that when looking at candidates, you could always work to help someone acquire skills, but work ethic and attitude probably “were what they were,” and if a candidate did not have all three, you should look elsewhere.

Shared from

For the past eight years I’ve been a principal in Lexington, Massachusetts, and during that time, I’ve continued to grow professionally and explore interviewing and hiring as a means to get the very best possible teaching candidates and educators for the students in my school. Shortly after I started in Lexington, my former superintendent shared an article he had written about the 10 minute screening interview.  The piece was short but insightful. It helped me to maximize my time, and the time spent by interview committees. In essence, you would select a group of possible candidates and bring each one of them in for a short (10 minutes or so) screening interview. You could ask them two to three questions, not necessarily related to the job, but questions that would give you a small window into getting to know them a little better. Based on the screening interview and other qualifications you pre-screened for, you would then bring back a smaller pool for longer interviews with a larger committee.  For instance, if you did approximate 10 minute screening interviews, you could potentially screen about 4-6 people in an hour, and over the course of a few hours, screen upwards of 12-18 people. I’ve done this with my assistant principal and this has helped us narrow down pools of candidates so that when we bring a handful of candidates back to the larger interview team (panel interview), we make the most of the 45 minutes to an hour we have with them.

So you’re probably wondering where the “$64,000 question” comes into play now that I’ve shared a bit about what I’ve learned and the process I use.  Well, to be honest, I did not come up with the question but saw it somewhere else and I knew immediately it would help me get candidates that viewed schools in a way that would demonstrate their commitment to teaching and learning.  During my screening interviews, I always ask the following question:

“Why do you think some schools are successful and other schools are not?”

I generally get a very puzzled look from interviewees after asking it, and I’ve often gotten comments such as, “Wow, that is a great question,” or “Wow, that is a difficult question.”  In all honesty, I do note the reaction to the question and the candidates ability to coherently respond as part of my notes, however, I am generally looking for the content and thought around the answer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell  you that when candidates answer the question with the word(s) “resources, having resources, having a new building, etc,” I generally consider them as less preferred candidates.  I know that, while additional resources are always helpful, I have seen many schools do AMAZING work for students with not a lot of money, material objects or resources.

Shared via






The answers I am hoping to hear from candidates could include any one or all of the following:

  • “They hire and retain outstanding, skilled and dedicated teachers” (one of the single most important factors)
  • “There is strong leadership that is student focused” (plays a significant role in a school’s success)
  • “The school promotes and supports parent involvement and the school works to involve parents in multiple ways and venues”
  • “Targeted, thoughtful professional development and a growth mindset for all members of the school contributes to schools being successful”
  • “The school uses high levels of communication regularly with parents to keep them informed about their students”
  • “Diversity, equity and inclusion are taken into account in all aspects of teaching and learning”
  • “The importance of the right relationships are the foundation of all work”

This is not an exhaustive list of answers, however, as you can see, the answers are related to positive school culture and a focus on students and learning. They demonstrate commitment to processes, actions and behaviors, not necessarily getting more “stuff”.

So, whether you are faced with the $64,000 dollar question during a screening interview, or you are an administrator, experienced teacher, office secretary, department head, etc., you are not only thinking about the question, but more importantly, how you will answer or how your actions demonstrate those skills and behaviors that make schools successful, thriving places for students.



Teach Like a Barista…Personalization Matters

Co-authored by Robert Harris and Thomas Martellone

While the following blog entry is not an endorsement of Starbucks over any of its competitors, or is it a criticism of the current state of educational practice, Starbuck’s business model contains some simple suggestions for school improvement.

Every morning, multitudes of educators across America flock to their local Starbucks and frequently wait in  long lines to pick up their favorite specialty coffee drink before the start of their school day. As a note, our individual coffee preferences just happen to be a grande Americano or a grande non-fat cappuccino respectively. 

Shared via
Shared via

While waiting, it’s impressive to see how adept the baristas are at customizing each person’s drink no matter how complicated the order may be. From a consumer’s perspective, customers look forward to drinking top quality coffee that is worth the wait.  They enjoy an environment that is welcoming with jazz or classical music playing in the background. They know that if they’re hungry or need coffee supplies, there are always additional items for purchase, and finally, they can sit comfortably at a table and take advantage of Starbuck’s free WiFi.

However, from our perspective as educational leaders, there are other valuable lessons we believe classroom educators can take away from the Starbuck’s experience.  In the same way that Starbucks trains its baristas to personalize each customer’s coffee drinking experience, educators should be trained to personalize the learning experience for each and every student in their classrooms. Educators should be learning about their students’ individual needs through daily interactions with them; and based on these needs, should be tailoring and delivering personalized instruction for them.  Collectively, educators spend countless hours interacting with students.  Think about the power of knowing what each student’s needs are, and as a result, personalizing instruction to help them succeed – academically, socially, and emotionally.

In the same way Starbucks hopes to gain customer loyalty by offering a high quality, personalized experience; educators should create high quality, engaging, and personalized instruction so that students look forward to coming to school every day. An engaging classroom  should have a ‘buzz’ in the air very similar to the atmosphere in a Starbucks. Students, like Starbucks customers, should be discussing the books they are reading, sharing their ideas and  theories, and refining their understandings about the world they live in by posing and answering critical questions.  

Shared via
Shared via

In the same way that Starbucks offers an array of additional items for sale, educators should provide students with curriculum extensions to support and personalize their learning experience.  Finally, where Starbucks provides its customers with free access to the Internet, schools should be providing students with easily accessible, digitally rich classroom environments. While the most important factor in advancing student growth is still effective teaching; in the 21st century classroom, effective teaching also requires using the right digital tools to personalize instruction.

The next time you’re waiting in a long line at Starbucks, think about teaching like a barista.  Is your student a “grande Americano” or a “non-fat grande cappuccino” drinker, and how will you personalize their learning experience?

Robert Harris is the current Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in the Lexington Public Schools.  Thomas Martellone is the current principal of Fiske Elementary School in Lexington.


Student Engagement: A Path to Learning

This summer I was fortunate to be selected as a presenter at NAESP 2016 in National Harbor, Maryland on student engagement as a means to increase student learning. Having been in education now for 23 years, and having seen numerous initiatives and fads come and go, I feel as though student engagement is a mindset and a focus that is perennial to good teaching.

Shared from:
Shared from:

Over the past seven years, my current position of principal at Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts has allowed me to continue working with staff and students in ways that promote engagement across the school setting. This, in part, has helped us continue to promote high levels of learning in an already high performing school.

I’m well aware of pedagogy and teaching practices that support learning, having been a classroom teacher and an administrator that focused on and still focuses on well developed lessons, appropriate content and objectives, developmentally appropriate teaching, etc. However, even if all of the above things are in place, if students are disengaged, you will not enter into any significant learning.

So what can schools do to promote student engagement during an era of accountability and heavy data use?  There is really no “silver bullet” to student engagement, however, there are simple and thoughtful things schools can do that will promote engagement and support learning.

Most importantly, relationships should be at the forefront.  James Comer noted that “No significant learning happens without a significant relationship.” It is imperative that the belief about forming relationships permeates your school.  That means teacher to student, administrator to student, teacher to teacher and administrator to teacher.

This does not happen overnight…relationships are cultivated over time and built on trust, respect, and honesty.  I’ve always known the importance of these relationships, however, I feel that over the past several years, I’ve worked to place an even heavier emphasis on them for the benefit of students.

Shared via
Shared via

It is crucial that teachers quickly build relationships with students and get to know them as learners and as individuals.  It is also important for administrators to know the students in their school.  I work to try and know every single student in my school.  It is a challenge with almost 500 students, but I feel that it is important to have connections with them and to know about them as much as possible.  I also work hard to know my staff as well.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m best friends with them, however, it means that I know about them as people, celebrating their successes, their challenges, and helping them meet the needs of students.

As we build relationships, we do some of the following activities to promote engagement for all stakeholders in our school:

  • Highlight and promote every student in the school over the course of the year through our “Student of the Week” program.

  • Promote positivity and gratitude with staff through our Golden Owl Award, Give a WHOOT Grams and Thankful Thursdays.

  • Use a student Twitter center as one means to give students voice, share positive information about school and model appropriate social media use.

  • Deliver positive messages to staff and students related to #celebratemonday, valuing students as individuals, and valuing contributions made by both staff and students.

  • Clearly identify expected behaviors and work to support those expectations through our school wide system of PBIS which includes student-administrator lunches, preferred assembly seating and positive phone calls home.

These are just a handful of things we do to promote student engagement.  Our hope is that by working to find ways to engage ALL students, we will capitalize on their level of connectedness to promote and support greater levels of learning.

Shared via
Shared via

Did something here catch your eye?  Want to know more about a specific way we promote student engagement?  You can view my presentation from NAESP2016 at this link: , E-mail me at  or connect with me on Twitter @tommartellone.  


Principal Support: Staying Connected to Teachers

This past week, I was very busy working across many projects to get our school ready for opening day on August 30th.  It wasn’t unlike any other week I have had prior to a school opening.  Hallways had multiple pieces of furniture in them, supplies were being unpacked, students were being registered, and the usual pre-opening of school business was taking place.  As a matter of fact, after being a principal for 18 years, I’d say that the week was mostly quite familiar.

As I walked through the halls, I stuck my head into one teacher’s classroom to check in and see how things were going.  This particular teacher was new to my school and district the year prior, and despite my wanting to keep teachers where they were, she was reassigned to teach first grade, which meant that she inherited a new room and many materials. As I walked into the room and took a quick survey of everything, the teacher said to me, “You don’t like where my word wall is do you?” We both laughed, as she quickly had gotten to know me and knew that I would give some gentle feedback about the word wall and its placement.  Of course, I shared that I thought the word wall was covering up some valuable “real estate” in the classroom (a 4×4 whiteboard near a small group instructional area) and the teacher agreed, also sharing that she was somewhat stuck with all of the “stuff” in the room and how to arrange it.

Shared from
Shared from

I offered to help, saying that I had some thoughts about how she might maximize space in the room and have some varied areas that would support different types of learners and curriculum. I was happy to stay in the classroom for a while and I told the teacher that I thought it would take about 20 minutes.  She was receptive to my help and suggestions and noted that she didn’t want to take me away from my work, which I said wasn’t too much.  I somewhat secretly stretched the truth here….I was buried in work, however, I do love helping teachers and being connected to their classrooms.  And not to be a martyr, but I’d always stop to help a teacher and do my other work later, after all, my job is to support and provide great conditions for teaching and learning.

We went about the room, me making suggestions and visualizing how the room could be arranged, and then both of us moving furniture and placing it around the room to create instructional and learning areas for students.  Each time we’d move some furniture, I’d check in with the teacher to see what she thought of the placement and if she thought it would be conducive to students learning and her teaching.  There were some suggestions that were duds, but most were good and fortunately, she really liked the ideas I had (she seemed to be honest) and I really loved helping set up the classroom.

My goal has always been to stay connected to teachers and kids as an administrator.  It is easy to get pulled away and become detached from what happens or from what the job really entails.  I was actually flattered that the teacher was willing to have me help and I also really enjoyed thinking about how to maximize the spaces around the classroom for learning.  Don’t get me wrong, this teacher was and is very capable and would have gotten the room sorted out and done a fine job.  

Shared from
Shared from

I was lucky that she was open to my ideas and that she wanted to include me in the work.  After a short time (more like 45 minutes or so) we got her room situated to the point where things were in place and she was able to picture what teaching and learning would happen where.  I left to go back to the office to work for a while and when I checked in later, she was “unstuck” and busy putting things in place and preparing for students.

My take aways from my classroom help that day were as follows:

  • Always stay connected to your teachers and students. They are your network and your teachers carry out the heavy lifting of your school. You can not risk not working side by side with them.

  • Be willing to offer help, even when your plate is full.  A small gesture goes a long way and you’ll find a place later to get your work finished.

  • Not every suggestion is a great one.  I made some suggestions that were not the best for the teacher and we navigated changes.  Be open to feedback and be flexible.

  • Be purposeful in everything you do.  I was careful as to what I recommended because I wanted to help the teacher maximize space for the sake of student learning.

  • Love what you do!  I still love setting up a classroom and being a teacher, even though I am a principal and lead a school.  I’ll never forget the joy of creating a great classroom experience for students.

I am so thankful that my teacher welcomed me into her room, trusted me enough to know what I’d give constructive feedback on, and then let me be part of setting up her classroom.  I know that she was appreciative of the help, but honestly, I was the one who was most appreciative for her helping me stay connected! It’s always this type of work that makes me love my job and realize the importance of what I do each and every day. For that, I am extremely grateful.

It’s a Personal Thing…Work-Life Balance

Quite a few years ago, my aunt once told me, “Tommy, everyone has free agency.” Basically, that means that everyone has the ability to make decisions for themselves, which may or may not best meet their needs, however, they ultimately make the decision.

I share this because I hear a lot about “work-life” balance, and people seem quick to impose what they believe should be someone else’s level of balance. However, work-life balance is personal, and what one person finds balance in, another may not, however, each person has his or her own free agency to make that decision.

Shared via
Shared via

Last month, I went on vacation after attending two conferences.  By the time vacation was done, and after those two conferences, I was gone from my house for almost 3 weeks.  While I absolutely love being home in my house, puttering and working on various projects, I really do thrive most when I am working.  We got home from vacation on Friday evening, and the next morning early, I found myself at work for just a short bit, checking in on things.  That was followed up with having the rest of the month “off” for vacation, however, I went in to work and worked at home almost every day. Sounds crazy, right?  Not so much…and I think I have great work-life balance…for me.

You see, even though I worked many days during my month of vacation (I worked almost 3 out of 4 weeks), I still did many other things, like communicate with family and friends, spend time with my partner, visit with my mother, work on my genealogy research, work outside in my yard, go to the movies, etc.  I also won’t be a martyr and complain in a month that I didn’t get to take all my vacation time away from work.  That’s because for me, I derive a significant amount of pleasure out of working.  And I still find time to do all the other things I enjoy and need to get done!  My work-life balance works well for me, as part of my free agency to choose how I allocate my time.

Now, I don’t assume that my level of work life balance is the same as someone else’s either. I have colleagues that have young children, elderly parents, graduate school, etc. and based on their personal situation, they may need more time away from work as part of their life demands and free agency related to how they spend their time.  And that’s great.  It’s great that they get to spend their time in ways that works for them and feels good to them.  Because I recognize this, I don’t comment to them when they tell me how long they were on vacation, or the fact that they don’t bring work home, etc. because I understand that everyone’s needs are different.

Although I appreciate when people say, “You really need to take time off to recharge so you won’t be wore down when school starts”, I also want to ask them, “What makes you think that being here and working won’t recharge me and help me be more ready?” Again, people make the assumption that because they have a particular need for time away from work, that anyone who doesn’t do the same does not have work-life balance.

Quite simply, work-life balance is created when each of us uses “free agency” to spend our time in ways that meet our own personal and professional needs.  This will always look different for everyone, and we must be cognizant to not make an assumption that because someone works a lot or appears to work less, that there is a deficit in one area or another.

Shared via
Shared via

And if you find you are struggling with work life balance, you need to ask yourself, “What do I need personally and professionally to feel that I have my own sense of balance so I can be my best self all the time?”  That may require you to set limits on your professional and personal activities and it may take adjustment over time.  It is like being on a see-saw with another person.  You may not strike a perfect balance between the two of you the first couple times you go up and down.  It definitely takes time, self awareness, regulation, and understanding others.

At the end of the day, we each need to recognize our own “work-life” balance, and be careful that we don’t impose our own free agency on the free agency of others while trying to be supportive.  

What Stories Will You Make Possible This School Year?

It’s that time of year again when I am thinking about school a lot. Not that I don’t reflect on my work and the work of my school each day throughout the year, but particularly, at this time of the year, we’re getting ready to launch into what will soon be the opening of school.  I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t excited.  If you asked anyone that has been to school recently, they’d also tell you I’m excited!  Personally, and professionally, I am always excited for summer to end and to get back into routines and be with students and educators.

Shared via
Shared via

As we all know, schools are intended to be institutions of learning.  However, I got to thinking; Wouldn’t you want your school to also be known as generous, big hearted, and hopeful?  It then made me think- What stories do we want to make and what stories do we want to be possible for our school communities?While I was out walking my dog a couple of days ago, I noticed in my newsfeed a heading about President Obama speaking at the recent DNC.  I scrolled through the abbreviated transcript, and while I’m not interested in bringing politics into my professional life, I was struck by his speech and something he shared about his experience in the United States.  I read it over at least three times, thinking about what he had said, thinking about my work at school and thinking about all of our collective work as school principals and leaders.  The president talked about the United States as being a “generous, big hearted, hopeful country”. He then went on to share that because of that, the U.S. “made my story; that made all of our stories possible.”

There are two questions that arise from thinking this way as a principal:

  1. What conditions will you help create to have the best possible stories made?
  2. What stories will be made and TOLD by your students, educators, and parents?

As a principal, I know how important it is for me to not only create conditions for great stories to be told, but for me to share great stories as well.  As I am heading into the new school year, I am thinking of the following:

  1. Work hard to build positive relationships every day.  Do this with students, educators and parents, colleagues, my PLN, and everyone I come into contact with.
  2. Listen, listen, listen. Talk a little, listen some more.
  3. Be present, both physically and emotionally.
  4. Hold everyone, including myself, to reasonably high standards.
  5. Promote creativity, innovation, risk taking.
  6. Celebrate successes, and be forgiving when mistakes are made.
  7. Promote positivity, gratitude, and curiosity.
  8. Communicate a lot, in multiple ways, and be clear about the work of the schol.
  9. Share stories outside of the school to showcase all the great work students and educators are doing: Do this as much as possible.
  10. Most importantly, never waiver or lose focus on the needs of students.

For my students, educators, and parents,  I also recognize the importance of the school experience for them.  I know that they will come to school each day, and at the end of the day, will leave the school house with their own “stories” to share. Here’s what stories I hope we’ll help make for them:

  1. I was listened to and cared for by my school.
  2. In the school community, I was known and appreciated.
  3. I had the opportunity to ask questions, lots of questions, and I got to talk about learning with others.
  4. When I had a need or a problem, someone was available to me to help and support me.
  5. If I made a mistake, I knew that I would be respected and use the opportunity to learn.
  6. School was a safe place for me to be each day.
  7. Our school promoted and gave me opportunities to be creative and think.
  8. Every person in my school community was valued for their individual differences, and our collective strength as a group.
  9. Learning and teaching were fun, and I enjoyed being at school.
  10. Most importantly, I learned a lot about myself, and others, along with learning content.
Shared via
Shared via

While you’re getting ready to launch your school year, what conditions will you work to create that will influence the “stories” being told about your school?  What stories will you tell? One can’t help but think, and shouldn’t stop thinking of this while creating the best schools possible for our communities in the upcoming school year. My hope is that we all help create stories that reflect hope, generosity, kindness, and most importantly, learning.As I work through the last days of summer to help prepare for 500 students, 115 staff members, and our extended school community, I know that the words of the President will continue to run through my head. As I’m finalizing schedules, talking to new families, and supporting staff as they come into school and prepare for a new year.  I truly want them to leave OUR school each day and at the end of the year with stories that reflect kindness, hope, generosity, and most of all, a love for learning.

Why I Create…The Principal as Educational “Artist”

My professional career for the past 23 years has been as an educator.  I was an elementary school teacher and for the past 18 years, I’ve been a principal. For all intents and purposes, I generally tell people I am an administrator.  That is, until I thought about it tonight.  Tonight, I decided that actually, I create art.  

No, I don’t teach elementary art, and no, I’m not a school administrator moonlighting as an artist.  But I get to create art every day.  You see, I’m an administrator that is always thinking about work; my work, teachers’ work, students’ work, and I’m always reflecting upon the experiences I have and the experiences of those around me.  My goal is to always push myself to improve, most importantly, for students and teachers, and then of course, for myself.

Tonight as I was at my computer working on a number of different things both personally and professionally, I thought about Erik Wahl’s presentation last year at the NAESP 2015 Annual Conference.  Erik provided us with a highly engaging presentation related to creativity, as he encouraged principals and administrators to foster creativity as a means to improve the student and teacher experience.  As I thought about the presentation and my upcoming school year, I did a search on YouTube for Erik Wahl.  I particularly liked the following video:

The caption that accompanied the video noted:

“Erik encourages us to push our talents beyond what we think we are capable of in an effort to achieve something that we didn’t think we were capable of doing. Watch his collaborative project featuring an incredibly unique installation of the Mona Lisa portrait.”

So if I’m an elementary school principal, you’re probably wondering how I am creating art while leading a school of 500 students and 115 staff. Well, on some level, it is easy. You see, I love coming to work each day and serving students, educators and parents. When I tell you that I love it, I mean, I race to school each day eager to not only do my job well, but to do it better than I have the day before.  As Erik Wahl noted, I’m looking to “push my talents beyond what I’ve been capable of doing before”.  How do I do that?  I do it through reflecting on my work, asking myself what I could do differently or better, through networking with other administrators, by learning from educators that have skills that I don’t.  I’m honest with myself and the work I do, and I’m sure to celebrate my successes and admit my mistakes. It is often through my mistakes that I have some of my best learning.

Yet, where does the art come in?  What am I creating? Well, as I am reflecting on my work each day and pushing myself to continue to learn and do better, I’m also doing the following:

  • Promoting and creating positive relationships with students, educators, and parents, and being thoughtful about how I interact with them every single time.

  • Cultivating the climate and culture of my school, so that there is a positive experience for all members of the school community as they interact with each other.

  • Developing opportunities for educators, students, parents, and other staff across the district to collaborate and share ideas that are good for students.

  • Taking safe risks and supporting students, staff and parents as they work to create and innovate in an atmosphere that welcomes trying new things and is supportive when new ideas don’t work as we would have hoped.

  • Expecting high levels of work and effort from myself, educators, students and parents. Everyone is expected to give their best effort and everyone’s contribution to our school is valued.

  • Building relationships. They’re the cornerstone of everything we do in education.  As Dr. James P. Comer noted, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship”  My work each day is to connect, engage, empathize and support.

I could develop a longer list, however, I’m hoping that you see my point.  You see, I do create and I am an artist of sorts.  I’m an educational “artist”, working to create the very best conditions for students to learn and educators to teach, and for everyone to find joy in what they do, each and every day.  And if you’re a fellow school administrator, you’re also an artist.  You’re working to do the same things, and to provide the same joy for your students and teachers every single day.

Erik Wahl Twitter Photo
Shared via Twitter @ErikWahl Jul 11 #successisnonearerthanwheniwasyoung

You see, Erik Wahl has it right in thinking that we need to push ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of doing, or creating. He understands that the human experience benefits from art, and creating, and creativity.   It is in that place where we will do our best work for students.  It is in that place where we will learn, and make mistakes, and build relationships, and we will create. Why? Because we are all artists, and we should all be working to create the very best experience for our students.  

I”m excited about the possibilities of what I can help create for my school in the upcoming year. How will you create in your school? What artistry will you perform?