A Triangle of Trust: A Framework for the Principal-Coach-Teacher Partnership

As a principal new to a school, trust has been a priority in my first year. Trust is defined in a number of ways. It is doing what we say we will do. Trust involves speaking the truth while having the tact to say it thoughtfully. When literacy leaders hold others accountable, as well as helping others hold themselves accountable, trust can flourish. Building trust in the schoolhouse is a prerequisite for professional learning.

Once trust is built, it needs to be sustained. I am learning that a critical part of this work is having clarity about the purpose and goals of a school. Defining the expected outcomes for student learning in a given year and how a school will get to that point is important. Equally important is having time to discuss these goals at length as a faculty. This ensures everyone is on board and questions and concerns have been addressed.

For example, our goal as a school is for at least 90% of our students to achieve proficiency in reading by the end of the year. Our professional learning plan in order to reach this goal involves professional literacy learning in a variety of forums, including an online video series, book studies, and instructional coaching.

Trust is developed, clarity is achieved: now the work can begin. In his book Unmistakable Impact, Jim Knight suggests a partnership approach to this work. “In a true partnership, one partner does not tell the other what to do; they discuss, dialogue, and then decide together” (29). What this looks like is different in every school. Yet I think we can apply any instructional coaching initiative to a broader frame. The mental model I offer here is one frame to consider when thinking about the principal-coach-teacher partnership.

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In a triangle of trust, each person is an essential part of the system. No one person is more important than another, although duties and responsibilities might look different in each role. Between each person is a specific focus that is relevant to the relationship (trust) and connected to the building goal (clarity).

  • Between the coach and the principal, the focus is on identifying opportunities for professional learning.
  • Between the principal and teacher, the focus is on setting high expectations for students achievement and growth.
  • Between the coach and teacher, the focus is on exploring possibilities for collaborative inquiry.

Next is an example in my school that describes this partnership approach to professional learning.

Between the coach and the principal

I get together with our instructional coach once a week to discuss current coaching cycles, student data and application of schoolwide literacy initiatives. We had concluded previously that some of our students were lagging in their reading fluency. The data supported this. The results were attributed to classrooms not allocating enough time for independent reading. It wasn’t necessarily the teachers’ fault; the current schedule is choppy, plus faculty had not received training in this area in the past. We discussed opportunities for professional learning while we prepared for the mid-year data meetings…

Between the principal and the teachers

Grade level teams met with the instructional coach, lead interventionist and me to look at student data and discuss placement of reading intervention at the mid-year point. During these discussions, the conversation inevitably ended up where teams were ready to consider new strategies to continue increasing reading fluency.

At this point, I would share an article on independent reading. It was accompanied with assessment tools that teachers could use when conferring with students. The expectation was clear. However, multiple pathways were offered in which teachers might better facilitate independent reading in their classrooms…

Between the teachers and the coach

While a few teachers connected with me after the meeting about more resources regarding independent reading, I realize that not every teacher is comfortable with this. Being a professional learner demands vulnerability and mistake making. This requires a safe setting. An effective instructional coach can provide this necessary environment.

One teacher reached out to our instructional coach, wanting to explore the tenets of independent reading. After a brief observation, it was decided that students need to first work on stamina and on selecting best fit books. The coach agreed to observe students while the teacher demonstrated for them these skills. Data over time, including tallies noting student engagement levels, showed that improvements were made. By directly seeing the impact that this coaching cycle had on student learning, the teacher came to see what was possible.

Frames have their limits. In this example, both the coach and the principal set the expectations for the building through the use of data and an identification of a better practice. Also, some teachers sought out the principal for guidance on independent reading. Yet within this framework, trust and clarity were a priority. These two critical elements are the foundation for professional learning in a school.

Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.

Three Ways to Increase Student Engagement in Reading

The research is clear: If a student is not motivated to read and is not engaged in the text, all of the strategy instruction a teacher might provide may be for naught (Guthrie and Klauda, 2014; Ivey, 2014; Wanzek et al, 2014). That is why it is critical that we make reading meaningful so that students make meaning out of what they are reading and become lifelong readers.

The following three activities are excellent beginnings for increasing reading engagement.

1. Reading Aloud

This is quite possibly the most underutilized practice K-12 that also has the greatest potential for developing engaged readers. It’s how I got engaged in reading – my 3rd grade teacher read aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I was hooked. I don’t know how many times I reread that book after hearing it read aloud (my parents could verify).

When I was a 5th and 6th grade teacher, one of my go-to resources was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. The treasury of recommended read alouds in the back of the book was indensible to me as a busy classroom teacher. Whatever he recommended, I know I could count on as a quality text that would create an excellent shared reading experience with my students.

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As a school principal, I continue to utilize reading aloud. For example, I read favorite poems, jokes and quotes during morning announcements. Also, teachers invite me to read a favorite picture book in their classroom. It’s a great way to share an excellent story while also getting to know the students better. In addition, I model for everyone – students and teachers – the importance of creating shared experiences around the written word.

2. Speedbooking

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to new titles they might want to read and add them to their to-read list. The power in this practice is that the students are the ones recommending the books, not the teacher. This idea comes from an article out of the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal. It is an activity designed for English language learners, but as with most better practices, it is excellent for all students.

To start, I explain the purpose for the activity (to discover new books to read; to build a stronger community of readers; to learn how to write and share a short book review). Then I model for the students how to prepare their reviews. Recently, I used a favorite chapter book/read aloud of mine, The Smartest Man in Ireland by Mollie Hunter. Here are my notes I wrote under the document camera for 5th graders.

The students write their own short summary notes as I write mine in front of them. I make the point that the focus is on being able to verbally share a book review. The notes are there as talking points. Also stressed is the importance of stating the author’s name and considering why the audience might want to read the book. Students are apt to describe why they like something without thinking about their listeners in their review.

With notes and book in hand, students get into two circles facing each other. For some humor, I share with the students that adults used to participate in speeddating to meet someone they might want to date (“Ewww!” is the common response). To draw the analogy, I explain that they should be particular about which book(s) they might want to read and to be a critical consumer if they don’t find a title appealing.

This leads into each student getting 1-2 minutes to verbally share a book revew of their favorite title with their partner and then switch. One side of the circle moves either to the left or to the right, and the process starts over again. When a book strikes their fancy, they should write it down to consider for later. They may not hear every book and that is okay. A final product is a to-read list on an index card they can use as a book mark.

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3. Book Raffle

In 2013 I wrote about hosting a book raffle in a 5th grade classroom (click here for that post). The idea comes from Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller and Susan Kelley. Here is how it works:

  1. Select books from the school library and bring them into the classroom.
  2. Provide a list of the titles for each student + sticky notes for the raffle.
  3. Recommend each book to the students while they note which ones they want.
  4. Students put raffle tickets in for the texts they want to read.
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I have read all of these books. I could not recommend them without having read them.
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Students note which books they want on the list and prepare raffle tickets.
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The cups in front of each book will hold their raffle tickets.
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Students put in their raffle tickets for the books they want to read

All of the titles are from our school library. With the lists the students now have, they can check out any book they want but couldn’t get right away at a later date. I encourage students to “bug” their classmates to finish a book they want to read next.

All three of these activities are only the beginning for building reading engagement in a classroom. Teachers have to keep the momentum going, by reading aloud daily in the classroom, by frequently checking in and conferring with students during independent reading time, and by celebrating their literary accomplishments, such as number of books read and how widely they are reading. Donalyn Miller’s two resources (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) are filled with excellent ideas for any teacher looking to build reading engagement in their classrooms.

References

My Current Thinking on Library Media Specialists and 21st Century Learning

This is a summary of a conversation I had with our school’s library media specialist (LMS) Kari Kabat. She conducted an interview with me for a graduate class she is taking.

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How are schools helping students develop 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, inquiry and technology skills)?

Investing in an LMS is essential. We have a full time LMS in both of our buildings which is an important first step. Having this support for teachers and students to develop these skills and learning experiences will help with school culture and make it a part of how they do business. Developing goals and a framework for integration along with timelines to accomplishing these goals is a great start. Technology integration and having students use the 4C’s is not the responsibility of one person, but rather having the LMS there to support and model these skills for the students and teachers to begin to take a more active role in integrating them with the curriculum. This is what I see as a part of an LMS’ role in a school.

How would you like to see change or improvement in schools?

Using the gradual release of responsibility model to support a school’s efforts to help staff have more buy-in for using these methods with students.  We need to move from a consumption-based culture to more of a creation-based, collaborative one. Most schools need to make this shift. Students can have opportunities to produce authentic writing pieces and projects and not simply use technology only to consume more information.

What do you think are the three most important things a school librarian could do to help a school reach its goals and to help students develop 21st century skills?

First, have a well stocked school library that is appealing and always open for students to come find a book whenever they need one. Knowledge does not come out of thin air. A measure of this will be high circulation rates.

Second, introduce students and teachers to the tools that will help them accomplish one of the 4C’s.  With the LMS in a supporting role, they may model a lesson that highlights a specific “C” with students during their technology block and then help the teachers see how this can be used in other ways to support their work with students on the core curriculum. Introduce a tool to support the C and then expand from there.

Finally, develop a makerspace that will allow students to have a place to come explore, innovate, and create. A makerspace can be an excellent way to incorporate 21st century skills in an indirect way. Expanding offerings beyond the library centers and making them available as a place where teachers and students can come to think critically and problem solve together can help teachers rethink their instruction.

What issues do you see getting in the way of this approach happening?

Mindsets.  Educators should be rethinking who the library really belongs to.  It it not just a department in the school. Rather, it belongs to everyone in the school.  It should be a place of service, where you can come to have your needs met and explore your interests. That might be a place to find a good book or a place to inspire your creativity and imagination and allow you to investigate new ideas.

Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.

Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.

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For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias).