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Stop Fake Work in Education

Stop Fake Work in Education
Creating Real Work Cultures That Drive Student Success

Foreword by Debbie Silver

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July 2020 | 296 pages | Corwin

Don’t do more work—do the right work.

Educators at all levels have increasing demands keeping them working harder than ever, but they are often working hard on things that don’t really help them reach the loftiest of goals—student success. This “Fake Work” can mire the most dedicated educator in exhaustion, burnout, and a lack of confidence that improvement is possible. 

Nielson and Burks show leaders and their teams how to stop doing Fake Work, by providing tools for gaining focus, building high-performance teams, and identifying and driving the right work with the right behaviorsWhen you offer your team a better way of working, planning, and collaborating, you turn Fake Work into Real Work—and stagnancy into dynamic change. This data-driven, research-based guide shows you

An overall approach to addressing your culture—the foundational elements that supports the change that sets you up for maximum performance.
A simple, three-part model—strategy, alignment, execution—for shedding Fake Work
Road maps for aligning organizational strategies and actions
Tools for gaining focus, building teams, and cultivating productive behaviors
Real educators’ stories
Exercises, reflection questions, charts, checklists, and more

School change remains elusive when the path to success is murky. Clear the way for principals, teachers and students by turning Fake Work into Real Work—and uncertainty into true success.

Companion Website Contents
Foreword by Debbie Silver
About the Authors
It’s All About Student Success

This Book Is About Real Work

We Use Real Educators’ Stories

Our Research and Experience Taught Us to Focus on Work

Focus on Work

This Book Is Practical, Reflective, and Tool-Based

Take Advantage of the Benefits of the Book

The Book Comes From Our Converging Journeys From Diverse Roots to Common Paths

Section I. The Foundational Principles of Fake Work and Real Work—and Knowing the Difference
Chapter 1. Fake Work: A Road to Nowhere
Real Work and Fake Work Defined

Fake Work Negatively Influences School Boards, Administrators, Teachers, and Students

“Standing on the X”: Focusing on the Point, the Pinnacle, and the Launching Pad for Success

Fake Work Is Illusive and Easily Misdiagnosed Because It Is Work—Often Hard Work

The Nature of Work Has Changed and Educators Are Overwhelmed With the New Reality

Section II. Understanding the Causes of Fake Work: How It Damages the Work Environment
Chapter 2. Exploring the Origins of Fake Work in Education
Fake Work Is Plentiful and Complicated

The Root Causes of Fake Work

Chapter 3. The Culture of Fake Work and Four Causes That Enable Dysfunctionality
Cause 1—A Complacent Culture: Organizations Allow Old Habits to Inhibit Excellence

Culture Drives Performance and Is Threatened by an Accumulation of Flaws

Cause 2—Ineffective Teams: Teams Have Few Common Goals and Minimal Collaboration

Providing Perspective on Professional Learning Communities

Cause 3—Inadequate Communication: Poor Communication Results in Missed Opportunities, Mixed Messages, and Poor Problem-Solving

Communication Breakdowns

Cause 4—Unprincipled and Negative Behaviors: Cultural Values Fade When the Wrong Behaviors Are Unchecked and the Right Ones Are Unsupported

Chapter 4. Fake Work Results From Poor Strategies, Weak Priorities, and the Failure to Align
Cause 5—No Strategic Clarity: Without a Clear and Common Roadmap, Organizations Flounder

Cause 6—Unclear Work Priorities: Too Often, Critical Tasks Are Not Linked to Strategies

Cause 7—No Strategic Alignment: Without Alignment, Teams Default to Silos and Lack Collaboration and Cohesion

Chapter 5. Two Causes That Undermine Executing and Sustaining Strategic Implementation
Cause 8—Failure to Execute: Organizational Intent Falters Without Real Work Plans and Being Accountable for Them

Cause 9—Diminishing Long-Term Commitments: Individual and Team Effectiveness Dwindles When Teams Fail to Manage, Maintain, and Sustain Implementation

Summary of the Causes of Fake Work and Transitioning to Real Work

Section III. The Paths to Real Work: A Step-by-Step Process for Strategy, Alignment, and Execution
Prologue: Five Fundamentals for Doing Real Work
Build a High-Performance Culture

Vision and Mission Provide a Mythic Quality to a Very Real World

Culture Thrives in a Moral Fabric With Values Interconnected by Trust

Teams Are the Operational Reality of a Performing Culture

Prioritize Strategic Plans That Focus on Ambitious Targets

Adhere to the Process for Real Work: The Work Itself

Embrace the “Everyone a Leader” Type of Leadership

Ensure That Your Work Is Renewable and Sustainable

Path 1: Create a High-Performance Educational Culture
The Essence of Culture

Step 1: Assess Your Organization to Find Out Who You Are Now

Step 2: Create an Inventory of Behaviors You Want to Cultivate

Step 3: Transform Teams Into Cooperative and Collaborative Powerhouses

Step 4: Prioritize Communication and Communication Planning

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 2: Think Strategically
Step 1: Invest in Strategic Thinking to Gaze Into the Future

Step 2: Find the Right Questions and Turn Them Into Insightful Answers

Step 3: Do a SWOT Analysis to Gauge Your Fitness and to Penetrate Factors That Affect Planning

Step 4: Conduct a Stakeholder Analysis to Plan for Partnerships and Potential Distractions

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 3: Plan Strategically
Step 1: Understand the Elements of a Strategic Plan

Step 2: Engage Strategic Leaders at Every Level

Step 3: Collect Data Strategically

Step 4: Write an Executive Summary

Step 5: Formulate a Vision and Mission That Epitomize Your Highest Aspirations for the Future

Step 6: Identify Your “Navigational Stars”—the Values Vital to Your New Culture

Step 7: Create Objectives That Focus on Your Biggest Challenges

Step 8: Create a Dashboard for Your Objectives and Watch Them Closely

Step 9: Create a Portrait of a Graduate

Step 10: Develop Strategies to Achieve the Objectives

Step 11: Partner With the Board to Work on the District’s Vision

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 4: Focus on Your Real Work Priorities
Step 1: Develop a Task List That Reflects What You Do at Work

Step 2: Consult With Your Team

Step 3: Relate Your Work to the Strategic Plan

Step 4: Prioritize Real Work Tasks

Step 5: Narrow and Refine Your Real Work Tasks

Step 6: Shift Your Work Paradigm

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 5: Align Cultures, Leaders, Teams, and Schools
Step 1: Ensure That Alignment Is a Team Process

Step 2: Establish Alignment as the Essential Connection—the Glue—Between Strategy and Execution

Step 3: Create Alignment at Every Level—Systemwide

Step 4: Build the Critical Steps to Establish Alignment

Summary and The Path to Action

Path 6: Execute the Real Work
Step 1: Develop Real Work Plans for Each Priority

Step 2: Plan for Strategic Execution of Your Real Work Plan

Step 3: Plan to Cascade Real Work Plans and Priorities Throughout the Entire Organization

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 7: Sustain the Real Work
Step 1: Cascade the Real Work Process Throughout the Organization

Step 2: Monitor Performance to Promote Accountability and Teamwork

Step 3: Perform Quarterly Reviews to Demonstrate Ongoing Commitments

Step 4: Establish Real Work Meeting Guidelines

Step 5: Celebrate Success and Stimulate Renewed Commitment

Step 6: Empower People and Build Leaders

Summary and the Path to Action

Epilogue: And Then There Was Transformation


Nielson and Burks reframe the work of schools. They advocate that leaders become discerning and discriminate between fake work and meaningful work. Through scholarly writing, stories from the field, and charts, they have created a hands-on guide for culture building.  As a principal and a superintendent this book would have been invaluable guide. Just the charts alone provide a powerful reflective tool for leaders.

Diane P. Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Retired Superintendent, Author

Having worked with Betty Burk for many years, I have observed first-hand the effectiveness of the practices identified in this book. Mrs. Burk and Mr. Nielson share research that has allowed them to develop effective strategies focused on how leaders can maximize high-leverage approaches to their work as well as how to recognize distractors that can get in the way of success. This book is a great resource for anyone wanting to increase their effectiveness, by honing in on practices that yield positive results and managing work that can get in the way. Using the approaches in this book, will aid in a leaders ability to grow a collaborative and climate focused on the “right work”.

Damon J. Edwards, Ed.D.
Deputy Superintendent, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD
Schertz, Texas

Gaylan Nielson and Betty Burks have nailed it!  As acentral office administrator who received extensive training around the concept of “Fake Work” and its impact on people working harder but accomplishing less is now centered around the topic of education.  As a superintendent of schools, I cannot wait to apply the strategies that lead to building a high-performance culture that drives student success through an emphasis on the “Real Work”.  Finally, a book that is practical and easy to apply to the field of education.

Dr. Jose H. Moreno
Superintendent of Schools, Robstown ISD
Robstown, Texas

Reflecting on the sense of urgency to “get it right” in our schools, the book has captured the essence of the real work that must be done to achieve that lofty goal.  Commendations are offered, in that the book serves as a:

  • Compelling call to action for educators to become transformative agents of change within schools;
  • Strong resource and vehicle for strengthening school culture by working both collectively and strategically;
  • Transformational platform for creating essential school-wide and systematic change; and a
  • Roadmap for ensuring that we, as educators, remain relentlessly focused on “Standing on the X”.
Diane Cantelli
Retired Assistant Superintendent, Poway Unified School System
San Diego County, California

As a professional development consultant, I want to align the work we do with teachers and principals with district strategic plans. It's often difficult, if not impossible. Now I realize that it's because of Fake Work! When the strategic intent of the district is disconnected from the focus on student success, there is no purpose for professional learning. Nielson and Burks offer a way to cut through the often difficult processes of strategic planning with this thoughtful, fully developed yet concise guide to creating a plan around the real work of great schools. It's an easy read and a book from two people who know schools and can guide others in improving student achievement with a careful but easy to accomplish process.

Christine Drew
Consultant and Author, President, Syfr Learning LLC

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