The Cheeseburger Theory

Once a month a rotating population of teenagers gathered in the Principal’s office at a school where I worked as a district administrator and reading teacher. The Principal carefully finessed soliciting their input on a variety of topics (complaining about teachers not allowed) and closed the session by asking how he could do a better job. One session revealed a serious concern from a young man who had the misfortune of being scheduled for the final lunch period of the day. He lamented, “They are always out of cheeseburgers.”  The Principal walked down to the cafeteria post discussion, and after a brief chat with the Food Service Director was assured that tomorrow, there would be cheeseburgers. The word spend like wildfire: He really listens!

Each time he held a session, he chose one thing he could implement immediately so students knew that he was serious about their input  and that these meetings impacted school decisions. His credibility soared! And so…when he needed to make changes to policies or curriculum or make difficult personnel decisions, the students trusted him, believed he had their best interest at heart.

I have always called this The Cheeseburger Theory and have shared this story and theory with colleagues throughout my career. This story is now almost twenty years old, and, recently, John Hattie’s research (2009) names exactly what was happening in the Principal’s office. “Students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference. There are four key factors of credibility: trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy” ( Although all of the key factors can be found both in this story and in the practice of facilitating student listening groups, it was the immediacy of his response that provided the pathway to trust.

Now that your Literacy Event top-five list has been created (see August 9 and August 10 posts), it’s time to apply The Cheeseburger Theory. Choose one of the characteristics from the class list to incorporate into the next-day lesson, and then leave five minutes at the close of class to name exactly how you used this trait in your planning. Follow this by asking if anyone saw any of the other traits evident in the day’s work. The message is clear “Trust me. I will listen, and I need your input to make our work meaningful.” This becomes your entry to establishing a level of credibility that will allow you to challenge all students to engage in rigorous work and thoughtful conversations as the semester progresses. Credibility is the foundation for creating an academic community where the risk-taking can happen that results in student growth for all the learners in your room.

My next post: A variation on Literacy Events


Evans, Darren. “Make Them Believe in You.” TESS, 17 February 2012.

Hattie, John A.C.  Visible Learning.  New York: Routledge, 2009.  Print.