Focus on the Fundamentals

Back in my days teaching high school math and coaching high school boys tennis, I remember being notified one morning about an emergency staff meeting after school.  I texted my assistant coach to let him know I would be late for practice and to start practice with the team without me.  After that, I put my phone on silent and went to the staff meeting.  After the meeting, I looked at my phone to find a missed call and voicemail from my assistant coach asking me if he should work on game play or drills with the players.

With the time now being well into practice, I hopped in my car and headed to practice.  Upon arriving at the tennis courts, my Assistant greeted me with a smile while the players were busy practicing on the courts.  I apologized for not being able to answer his question earlier and asked what he ended up choosing.  His reply was profound: in the midst of uncertainty, I decided to focus on the fundamentals.  

Not only did I thank my assistant for his wisdom, but I knew at that time that his profound statement had immense life applications in other contexts.

As we approach changes in testing, accountability systems, teacher evaluation systems, and technological ramification,  I find myself using the same response I heard on the tennis courts years ago – in the midst of uncertainty, focus on the fundamentals.

Regardless of the changes that might be occurring at the National, state, or district levels, we know the research behind strategies for good teaching.  Although the newspaper headlines stress the dilemma of our future, we cannot let it handcuff our ability to lead and promote what really matters in informing classroom instruction. While logistical decisions may have to be made that change a process, don’t let it paralyze the leadership necessary to lead staff development in good teaching practices.  In the midst of any uncertainty, focus on the fundamentals:

  • Staff professional development on the purpose and use of learning targets to guide instruction;
  • Staff time to develop and streamline common formative assessments for instructions;
  • Staff training on differentiation strategies to adjust pacing, resources, rigor, and activities for students; and
  • Staff instruction on becoming more culturally aware and sensitive to students.

While having answers, on many things, may provide clarity for planning, leaders must be able to embrace the messy and continue the journey in establishing, monitoring, and reinforcing the fundamental concepts and strategies to engage student learning.  There’s no reason to wait for clear answers in every situation, for when there is uncertainty, focus on the fundamentals.


  1. Neil, I always relate to and appreciate sports analogies. This is one of the best. I appreciate how you see the big picture and don’t get bogged down in the indecision that’s around the corner. What you do focus on is what’s best for students and how do we get there. Your post also validates my thinking in planning our teachers’ summer PD and gives me clarity. Thank you!

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