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.

Connecting Instructional Walks with Teacher Frameworks

For the last five years as an elementary school principal, I have explored the best approach to providing feedback and supervision for our faculty. I had initially created an instructional walkthrough form that allowed me to provide a narrative-based observation about instruction as well as being able to monitor where instruction was at with regard to the gradual release of responsibility. Click here for that post that describes this process.

I have discovered a better approach to staff supervision and feedback: Instructional Walks, highlighted in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Actually, this approach has been sitting in front of me for four years now. Regie and her team promoted this more authentic practice for principals back in 2012 at her Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI.

Better late than never! I don’t know why educators like me have to always “make it their own”. Maybe just part of being a professional. I have discovered several advantages to taking a completely narrative-based approach to faculty supervision:

  • The visits are completely unannounced and can happen at any time. I don’t have to ask permission. However, this system was developed with my teachers, with the understanding that I lead like a coach, offering praise and feedback and treating each visit as one small observation among many throughout the school year. Trust and relationships were developed before this process started.
  • The lens in which I view instruction is connected directly to our school’s goals. This year, we are focused on increasing literacy engagement. We developed tenets of engagement by doing an article study early in the year. These attributes become the key words in which I “tag” each walk within a teacher’s digital portfolio via Evernote. They also receive a paper copy of my notes, which I write by hand.
  • For the first time as a principal, I have been able to experience instruction instead of monitoring and scoring it. I feel like I have a much better understanding of each teacher’s instructional approach and how our students are progressing as learners. From what I can gather, teachers also appreciate this different approach. As one teacher told me in the lounge, “I get more out of your one page of observational notes than from our old evaluation system.”

All affirming feedback for this process. However, the one challenge I have found in using instructional walks as the primary form for teacher supervision and evaluation is aligning my observations with the Danielson Framework for Teaching. Using software such as Teachscape allows the principal to tag each artifact by the appropriate component and score it based on the framework with ease. Instructional walks are, like good teaching, a complex activity. This makes the assessment part of teacher supervision complex as well.

To help our faculty categorize my observations and evidence from my instructional walks notes, I created a short screencast that describes how teachers can tag each artifact. I thought you might also find it helpful, especially if you are taking a more authentic and respectful approach to teacher supervision.

School Leaders as Readers: The Winter 2016 Book Choice

In a very close vote, the book selected for Winter 2016 is Peer Coaching by Pam Robbins (ASCD, 2015).

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I am excited to read this with you. Our school is preparing to implement this professional learning practice in mid-March. The information gathered here will be helpful. The related discussions with other school leaders will enhance this text and our work.

One change to the School Leaders as Readers group: We will be using a Google+ Community instead of the Goodreads Group. While I liked the connection between a literacy-based social media tool and the online discussion component, it seemed like other readers were not engaged in using it to share their thinking regarding our fall book.

To access our book club, click here. You will be asked to request access to the group, moderated by me. If you want to post your thinking in the group, you can do so right within the community as text, link a blog post, or add multimedia related to the text. For example, I plan on sharing the peer coaching materials we have developed for conducting them in our school.

Looking forward to learning together! Conversation starts anytime. The timeline for reading this text will be shared within the Google+ community.

O.W.N. – A Mnemonic Device When Having Coaching Conversations, Online or Otherwise

In a previous post, I shared some of the main points from an excellent resource for school coaches and leaders, Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda G. Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly (Corwin, 2010).

In this post, I want to expand on part of that text – the conversation itself – and show how I have applied this knowledge to online spaces.

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash
Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Here is the passage itself that I am referring to:

In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking. (p 57)

Instead of trying to commit this quote to memory and then recalling it when I am engaging in discussion with a colleague online, I created this mnemonic device to help me remember this process.

O.W.N. = Observe, Wonder, Next Steps

Each attribute connects with a part of the previous quote. When I make an observation of what someone else says, I am paraphrasing that which was shared. Wondering is synonymous with “asking powerful, open-ended questions”. If I have done the first two steps really well, then it should naturally lead to deeper thinking and next steps in the learning process.

Here is an example, from a book study I am currently facilitated within a Google+ Community, on the topic of digital portfolios for students.

1. I posted a question for everyone to respond to at their leisure (our conversations are asynchronous).

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2. One of the participants responded to this line of questions.

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3. After others in the community “+1’d” her response, and deservedly so, I responded in the comments of her post using the O.W.N. framework.

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Looking back, do you see where I paraphrase what she said (observe) and asked open-ended questions (wonder) to promote deeper thinking (next steps)? Below is an annotated image that breaks down this process.

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My observations took up the majority of my response. I think it is important to recognize all the positives we see in objective ways before guiding the learner toward other possibilities. First, any advice I might give may be wrong! Second, this open-ended language gives others in the community the opportunity to chime in and be the expert on the topic, Third and most importantly, the person on the other end of this coaching conversation (Shireen, in this case) is much more likely to be responsive to new ideas. I am not telling her what to do. I am provoking thinking (“When you frame your questions, how do you ensure…”) and offering a new perspective (“…and avoid deterring creative thinking?”).

I feel like this conversation went pretty well, based on her response.

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I responded with a brief affirmation, which concluded our conversation.

This is a decent example of a coaching conversation, which could have occurred online or in person. To be honest, I could provide many more examples of what not to do! Sometimes I give advice without asking first (the job of a mentor, not a coach). Other times, my question is too leading to where I think that person should go. This is an additional benefit of the mnemonic device O.W.N. – the acronym itself is a visual reminder that the person on the other end of the conversation should be the one constructing the knowledge and “owning” their learning.

One final advantage of structuring our coaching responses in this way in online spaces is that others in the community start to emulate your language in their own responses. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly stated. People see how you connect with others as the facilitator/coach, how the recipients respond, and then they often follow suite. I encourage you to try this method out in your interactions. Let us know how it goes.

Coaching Conversations in Online Spaces

I’ve recently started a book club around my text on digital portfolios for students. We are currently discussing Chapter 1 in a Google+ Community, using a thought-provoking question or statement for the participants to respond to asynchronously per day.

As we discuss in this online space, I have come back to a text I’ve used in the past regarding coaching:

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This text was referenced in a connected coaching course I took with Lani Ritter Hall a few years back. It is a very practical resource for school leaders and coaches. At less than 100 pages, I can quickly go back and find the most salient points to reference in my work with connected educators in online spaces. Here are a few of my favorite parts of the text.

Coaching conversations differ from typical, spur-of-the-moment conversations. First, they are highly intentional rather than just friendly or informal interactions. In addition, coaching conversations are focused on the other person – her strengths and her challenges, and the attributes she brings to the conversations. A third characteristic of coaching conversations is that their purpose is to stimulate growth and change. In other words, coaching conversations lead to action. (p 3)

This is a lengthy quote. Let me break it down into the three main attributes of coaching conversations:

  • Highly intentional
  • Focused on the other person
  • Purpose is to stimulate growth and change

With each response to someone’s post in our Google+ Community, I try to apply these characteristics. My comments are considerate of where the person is at in using digital tools for student assessment, and where they want to go. This awareness helps me remain focused on the person and their situation, for example by noting specific details they shared in their initial post. My overall purpose, to stimulate growth and change, can be realized by keeping my comments objective and my questions open-ended (“You stated that you want to focus on building a better audience for your students. What activities and tools might allow for you to make this happen in your classroom?”)

When you are a committed listener you focus your full attention – mind and body – on what the other person is saying. You listen not only to the words expressed but also to underlying emotions and body language. In other words you listen to the essence of the conversation. (p 30)

This is where having coaching conversations in online spaces becomes a challenge, for the obvious reasons. We cannot read body language or assume underlying emotions. It is more difficult to express ourselves in this way within this medium. What I try to do is use positive presuppositions (52). This means assuming that the other person has the best of intentions, and to respond in a manner that allows for the person to expand on their ideas. This “pulling out of their thinking” again involves making observations and asking wondering questions.

One of the benefits of learning in online spaces is the spaces of silence that naturally occur, especially in asynchronous situations where time is not a factor in posts and responses.

Committed listeners…recognize the value of silence in conversations and avoid unproductive listening patterns that interfere with the deep listening of coaching conversations. (p 30)

One of our teachers pointed out the benefits of silence during a prior online learning community. “When you are not expected to answer a question right away, it gives you time to thinking and reflect on possible responses.” This period of reflection can allow learners to develop smarter responses, an advantage of learning online vs. in person.

I became very intentional about trying to separate my coaching from my mentoring. I tried to be transparent when I was mentoring, ask permission before I did it, and most importantly, to be intentional about not doing it. (p 92)

There is a fine line between coaching and mentoring. “In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking” (57). Mentoring is different. A mentor gives direct advice, in fact telling the person on the other end of the conversation what he or she might want to try in their practice.

I am sure there a few members in our Google+ Community that would like to be told what to do. However, it is more important that they arrive at a deeper understanding for student-centered assessment on their own terms when possible. Of course I will offer advice when asked. But I believe the best learning happens when we can build a deeper understanding together, with the learner doing the lion’s share of the work.

This short animation, also shared during the Connected Coaching course with Lani Ritter Hall, nicely sums up this concept for me of coaching and learning in online spaces.

Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

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photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Do you want to develop digital portfolios with your students? Join our book club!

The single most important thing you could do tomorrow for little to no money is have every student establish a digital portfolio where they collect their best work as evidence of their skills.

-Dr. Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence, Harvard University

Developing digital portfolios with your students can be a game-changing action in your classroom. Here are just a few of the benefits:

Not sure where to begin? Then join our July Book Club!

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Here is how to get started:

  1. Purchase the book on Amazon (link), iBooks (link), or Nook (link). I am offering 10% off this month when purchased directly through me, if you don’t mind the brief lag in response and a PayPal request.
  2. Request access to our Google+ Community (link). This is where our conversations will be housed.
  3. Check out the dates below for a timeline of chapters to be read.

June 29 – July 3:   Chapter 1 – Purposes for Portfolios

July 6 – July 10:    Chapter 2 – Performance Portfolios

July 13- July 17:   Chapter 3 – Progress Portfolios

July 20 – July 24:  Chapter 4 – From Files to Footprints: Beyond Digital Student Portfolios

In August, we will keep the conversations going informally. It would be a good month to ask final questions and conclude our time together with a celebration of sorts.

What you can expect from me:

  • A thought-provoking question posted once a week day in our Google+ Community throughout the four weeks. Also expect possible follow up responses from distinguished members of our community and/or me.
  • Full access during these four weeks to me for questions and demonstrations you might request regarding digital tools, processes, and leadership strategies. I will include my personal phone number and offer Google+ Hangouts to chat in real time.
  • An update on what our school is implementing regarding digital portfolios, current tools of choice, and our school’s brand new process for helping students reflect on and respond to their important and lifeworthy work online.

Not bad, right? I am also willing to issue very formal (~ahem~) certificates of participation for this book club, assuming frequent and thoughtful activity in our Google+ Community. This documentation may be used toward professional hours/accreditation within your district or university. Please check with your supervisor before assuming anything.

In closing, I can confidently state that the teachers I’ve observed who have experienced the greatest growth in their students’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions are those that a) highlighted their students’ best work, b) provided time for them to reflect on their progress, and c) gave feedback on their current capacities and allowed for personal goal setting.

If these descriptors sounds like the teacher that you might want to be in 2015-2016, I highly encourage you to join us for our July 2015 book club. You won’t regret it.

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