Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Lead Like a Coach: A Consistent Presence

When school leaders make instructional walks a daily habit, we start to discover patterns and trends. Some of them are particular to a teacher and some are schoolwide. Regardless, gaining a clearer understanding of the instructional pulse of the school or a classroom only happens when we are a consistent presence and enter each learning environment with an open mind. This consistency in nonevaluative classroom visits, noticing strengths and naming practices, often leads to more trust between administration and faculty members which is more conducive to professional growth.

Example: During a later visit with the same 4th graders reading Little House in the Big Woods, the students were ready to start practicing their book club roles with the text. “Today we are going to focus on the role of the discussion director. Look back on your sheet and review the questions you have prepared after reading the chapter.” Students pulled out their book club folders, the quiet chatter of excitement filling the room in anticipation of being able to talk with peers.

Having the context from the previous instructional walk, I felt in a better position to observe what was happening and document the learning. I sat with four students. Two of the four students started discussing a topic unrelated to their reading. They stopped when a peer reminded them of their task.

Next, one student posed their question. “If you lived back in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, would you have been happy or sad about not having the Internet?” The group responded with clear positions, either way, talking around their own lives. There was very little follow up on each other’s questions, such as “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more”. Three of the students were more interested in getting their own ideas out there. One was quiet and, evident by their body language, disengaged in the conversation.

In a typical classroom visit or an announced observation that did not have the context or history of the literacy block, I might have developed and followed an inaccurate narrative that this teacher had not effectively taught students how to facilitate meaningful book discussions. Thankfully I was a consistent presence in the classroom, even for brief pop-ins during my daily visits. Subsequently, I knew the students were just trying out book clubs for size. My prediction for a future lesson would likely be a teacher-led reflective conversation around what went well and what needed work. Knowing the teacher’s thoughtful attention to planning, I could feel more confident in where instruction was heading.

Back in the book club…

The students continued to talk in the group but not with each other. One of the group members tried to insert his ideas whenever there was a rare moment of silence, and sometimes even when there was not. The quieter student continued to remain quietly frustrated, hands folded across their chest and seeming to ride out this experience.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist and I stopped the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice that your statements are in your response to your questions. What you are saying is also not really about the book, or even related to what each of you is saying.” Heads turned with faces of mild confusion. “You know, the purpose of a book club is not just to learn more about the book.” The students now looked at me like I had a third eye. “Really. What you are trying to learn is not just how to talk to each other about books but how to talk to other people in general. The art of conversation can be really tough. Would you like to learn a strategy that might help improve your conversations and make it more fun?”

The uncertainty of their response was the permission I needed. I explained how great conversationalists are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. “They state things like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Tell me more’, or ‘Why do you say that?’. Great conversationalists also stick to the subject of the discussion, which in this case is the book and not necessarily our own personal experiences. Want to try this strategy out?” Similar uncertainty in response, but the students did reset their discussion by going to the next question. “What if….” Students took turns responding to this question with less interruption. Not yet a deep conversation, but a move in the right direction.

Once each of the three students responded, I asked the discussion director which response they thought was the most connected to the question she asked. When they selected one of their classmates, I asked why. “Because he shared parts from the book and how the story could change if what I had suggested might have actually happened.” I agreed and thanked this student.

At the end of my classroom visit, I handed my instructional walk notes to the teacher while stating, “You are having your students attempt to engage in complex conversations around a book. Not an easy task for any teacher.” She smiled and thanked me for visiting. Then I asked if I could address the class. She agreed without hesitation. “Students,” I announced, “do you know that your teacher has you learning many essential skills in your classroom?” I proceeded with an explanation similar to the one I just shared with my small group. “You are lucky to have this opportunity for building these life skills and strategies.” 

If this were a typical classroom visit, in which I popped in for an unannounced observation or an evaluative classroom walkthrough, it would have been from a supervisory perspective. Likely I would have some checklist or rubric to go off of as I watched for best practices in action. But I would be lacking so much, such as the context of the unit progression and the opportunity to partner with the teacher in the instruction.

In comparison, after this instructional walk, I had a desire to get back into this classroom soon, to see where this unit of study would go. Based on her openness to sharing her work with me and responding to the feedback, I believe the teacher was interested as well. I don’t believe most school leaders would have a similar feeling after a formal teacher evaluation. When our jobs are to judge and to score, there is little incentive to focus on what’s going well or to become part of a schoolwide professional learning process.

Watch and Learn

I was in a 4th-grade classroom, conducting an instructional walk. The class was being led by the teacher in a shared reading of Little House in the Big Woods. While the students followed along in their copy of the text as the teacher read aloud, my mind was tempted to go toward assumptions about whole class novel studies.

  • They are teacher-directed and do not provide for student voice and choice.
  • One common text does not address different reading abilities.
  • Time spent reading together means less time reading independently.

After a few minutes, the teacher paused where she was reading and asked the students to turn and talk about the story so far. Then she walked over to where I was sitting. “We are using this novel to teach students how to have authentic conversations about what they are reading. We are starting with turn and talk. Gradually we will build in roles and strategies.” 

I thanked her for sharing this information with me. Our school goal is “A Community of Readers”. This teacher was taking a current text they use within their study of history and building in discussion strategies that we were learning about during professional development. I added this context to the anecdotal notes I was writing and would eventually give to her.

When principals visit classrooms, the typical stance is to evaluate. To judge how effective instruction is for students. During instructional walks, the goal is to learn. Not just about what is happening in the classroom. To become smarter as leaders as well as to examine our own assumptions. We don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in the school, but we should be the one most willing to learn. 

Technology in Education and Opportunity Cost

Matt Renwick

During a regional principal’s meeting today, our conversation steered toward the integration of technology within instruction. Smartphones were a frequent topic, especially from the secondary school leaders. Distractions and inappropriate use seemed to be the common reason for some of the administrators’ disdain for students’ mobile devices.

I empathized, as a former junior high school assistant principal. My administrative career began in 2011 which is around the time that iPhones started to come into prominence. From the beginning of my secondary tenure until my shift to an elementary principal role four years later, smartphones grew in frequency and in use in school. I always had a few of them on my desk or in a drawer. Many of them were more advanced than my district-issued smartphone.

Today, every educator seems to have a different perspective on the use of technology during classroom instruction. Each one of us seems to have…

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Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2018

This is a special newsletter, highlighting the ten most memorable blog posts I read this year. Thank you for sharing your ideas! (Photo credit: Simon Maage on Unsplash)

  1. Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) at Moving Writers shares how she uses blogging to grow independent writers in her high school English classes.
  2. Christina Torres (@biblio_phile) at On Being writes about how teaching saves her life every single day at her middle school in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  3. Mary Beth Nicklaus (@MBethNicklaus) at Wisconsin English Journal reflects on guiding boys to stay true to their self-selected novels during reading intervention in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.
  4. Benjamin Doxtdator (@doxdatorb) at Long View on Education questions whether innovation in education can be reduced to a mindset or a quality such as grit.
  5. Ariel Sacks (@arielsacks) at Education Week Blog makes a case that school librarians are the literacy leaders we need, especially in light of cuts to this area.

For the remaining five blog posts, click here to go to my newsletter. Sign up for free today for weekly delivery to your inbox.

Express Gratitude By Blogging

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

This month I have committed to reading one blog post a day and leaving a comment. It’s my way of saying thanks to other educators and writers who take the time to share their thinking online, as well as to frequent the sites of readers of my own blog.

Maybe you don’t have a blog but have always wanted to start one. When I have asked people what’s stopping them, they usually cite one of two reasons: “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t have anything worth sharing.” I won’t argue with the first reason; people’s life circumstances can vary. But the second one is debatable because every educator I know who writes regularly online about their practice is providing a benefit to others as well as themselves.

In fact, sharing our work and our reflections in a public space is one of the best ways to express gratitude for others. Consider the following reasons.

  • Blogging reduces professional isolation. When you write about your experiences and observations in school, other educators who read what you share will often relate. They may realize they are not alone in feeling a certain way about a similar situation, for example, confusion over whether or not to purchase a commercial literacy program. I know this because I have received comments and emails in appreciation for bringing up these topics (and likewise reciprocated on others’ sites). Benefit: other educators.
  • Blogging improves your practice. Through the act of writing about our professional lives, we start a process of reflection. We put our ideas down, reread and see what we initially wrote from a more objective perspective, and then continue writing in response to our thinking. Writing is an act of creation, so it makes sense that we will come to deeper or different understandings about a topic through this process. That will make us better educators, which can impact the staff and students with whom we work. Benefit: our school.
  • Blogging puts our ideas somewhere. I know educators will bring home their challenges, unloading the days’ frustrations onto their spouse and nearest adult. Maybe we feel better, yet I don’t know if this is the best approach to living a fulfilling life. What if you altered some details, not letting “the facts get in the way of the truth”, and published a post around an area of concern? Now we have put these thoughts somewhere that won’t change the mood at home and will likely be appreciated by our colleagues online (see reason #1). If the post is too close to our current school context, leave it as a draft or trash it. The act of reflection itself can be satisfying enough. Benefit: our families/friends.
  • Blogging brings value. The opposite of those who feel like they have nothing to say or share are people who expect to be compensated for all of their writing efforts. Some see blogging as giving away their work. Others worry about their ideas getting lost in all of the tweets and posts. I remember one well-known connected educator remark about blogging: “The market is saturated.”  It’s not. Good ideas always have an audience. And no one has a better point of view about the world of education than those currently practicing within it. Maybe your writing efforts won’t bring in additional income, but it will give you more credibility and visibility, which is of immense value as you navigate your teaching or leading career. Benefit: you and everyone else.

I write this post not to put one more thing on your plate. Rather, I encourage you to rethink your plate. By adding to the collective understanding of education through blogging, we help others and ourselves become more connected, we grow as professionals, we find a healthy outlet for our ideas, and we build on our practice. Writing online about your practice is a selfless action that can benefit everyone, yourself included.

Embracing the Leader/Coach Paradox

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

There are many contradictions in life that, for whatever reason, actually support one another.

For example, as a school leader, I am responsible for student learning outcomes and staff culture. Yet the reality is that we may not have a direct influence on student learning. Our teachers and staff can take credit along with the kids’parents. If success is attained schoolwide or it is fleeting, we look to leadership to determine why. So on the one hand, we have this responsibility while on the other hand, we lack a visible pathway for how we impact student learning.

This paradox creates a call to action for school leaders to rethink their roles in education. We should desire to clarify our roles in the school, maybe even find ways in which our work can more directly influence the teaching/learning experience. That is why I have taken more of a coaching stance in my work. I am attempting to “lead like a coach” in that I will shift to this approach when the timing and conditions are conducive for professional growth.

There are potentially multiple benefits in these dual identities. Professional growth is not just for the teacher. As a leader, I am finding that I can learn as much as anyone when acting as a coach. It’s impossible for me to know everything about the curriculum and instruction at each grade level and within each department. By being curious about the inner workings of our classrooms, I can become more knowledgeable about the practices we currently employ. This stance I take as a coach is the first step in understanding our school’s strengths and areas for growth. The information I gather can serve future professional learning experiences.

These dual roles of a leader/coach are not exclusive to the principalship. Teacher-leaders including instructional coaches have to adopt multiple identities while working with their clients. Lipton and Wellman describe three stances that an instructional specialist might take (Educational Leadership, 2007):

  • Coaching (teacher is the primary source of information and analysis)
  • Collaborating (specialist and teacher co-develop ideas and co-analyze situations, work products, and other data once they have clarified the problem)
  • Consulting (supplies information, identifies and analyzes gaps, suggests solutions, thinks aloud about cause-and-effect relationships, and makes connections to principles of practice)

Considering this shared idea of multiple roles as a teacher-leader or as a principal-coach, I believe that the biggest challenge in successfully fulfilling the needs of educators striving to grow is knowing when to make these shifts. For example, when do we don a coaching hat and when should we be serving as a collaborator? Related, how do we shift back to the role of supervisor while still guiding the teacher to be the true evaluator of their own work? These are some of the questions I continue to explore as I learn more deeply about the promise of leading like a coach.