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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

The Principal Connection / The Rule of Six

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Lois is a highly skilled teacher, yet she could improve the algebra lesson I observed her teach. She established the objective for the class, her pace was brisk, and students seemed engaged and enthused. But her summative questions were unclear, and the bell rang without a sense of closure.
Mark, another teacher, has worked well with his student Carolyn's family, and Carolyn has improved her attendance and work completion. But at the family's next parent-teacher conference, I noticed that Mark began by talking for five minutes.
Lois and Mark are veteran teachers who strengthen my school, but each needs to be stronger in certain areas. Then there is Alicia, a new teacher. Her classroom control is weak, and her creative ideas never come to fruition. She tries hard, but she has not succeeded.
Each of these individuals needs a different kind of support, but they share the need to be receptive to negative feedback. Each of these situations pushed me to draw on my skill at delivering critical feedback in such a way that the listener hears it, considers it, and acts on it. Good leaders praise, but they also push, prod, and let teachers know when their performance isn't satisfactory.

What Is the Rule of Six?

Creating a context in which teachers can use negative feedback constructively is an important—but difficult—part of the principal's job. The rule of six helps.
A counselor friend shared the rule of six with me years ago. This rule recognizes that all communication takes place within the context of a relationship. If you want to build a supportive relationship, you need to give the other person in the relationship at least six positive comments for every negative one.
A working relationship is like a checking account: Your "deposits"—positive comments or interactions—must remain greater than your withdrawals. A one-to-one ratio of positives to negatives is deadly and makes it likely that well-intentioned critical comments will fall on deaf ears. A three-to-one ratio is an improvement, but it probably won't move the relationship forward.
My friend explained that many couples who came to her for counseling had already stopped investing in their relationship, although they weren't aware of it. Their interactions were mostly neutral comments with some criticisms. If one partner had begun offering positives about the other person or the contributions that person made, it would have yielded major benefits to the partnership.
As my friend talked, I thought about my role at school. Do my affirmations become rare when I'm feeling pinched for time? How often, I wondered, do my positive messages grow fewer after I've worked with someone for years? Do I work to achieve that six-to-one ratio with teachers who are having difficulties? And what happens to my ability to deliver positive messages when the feedback others give me falls short of a healthy positive-to-negative ratio?

Approaching the Goal

  • Focus on what's working rather than on what needs to change. This is hard for me. I tend to take successes for granted and quickly turn my focus to how things could be even better. The rule of six reminds me that I need to take the time to praise what is praiseworthy. It helps me keep my aspirations and relationships in perspective. Finding time to focus on the positive is a habit that can be developed, and thinking of the rule of six reminds me to strive for the right balance among praise, suggestions, and criticism.
  • Make compliments genuine. Manufacturing positive comments that aren't valid is a waste of everyone's time. It may be harder to come up with things to praise for a struggling teacher, but finding subtle strengths and building on successes—even with employees who have a long way to go—is another sign of leadership.
Even on my good days, I doubt that I offer six positive comments for every negative one. Of course, that's the point of the high number; it reminds us that we must work harder at focusing on whatever others do that is effective and worthy of praise. Leaders should do this because people deserve to have their achievements noted and also because it creates conditions that enable us to deliver difficult messages when necessary. People will listen to negative feedback from good leaders even when it's painful to do so, if the relationship is strong and they trust that leader.
In 2009, I'm going to make a point of seeking positive observations to share with teachers like Lois, Mark, and Alicia. I'm going to try to do this all the time with everyone. What about you? What's your ratio?

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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