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.

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

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  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.

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  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

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Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

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  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

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If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.

Costs and Benefits of Social Media in Education

On more than one occasion I have misplaced my smart phone. My initial response is panic (“What if someone is trying to get a hold of me?”). After this is general acceptance of my disconnectedness. In these opportunities for solitude my mind tends to wander. I cannot check Twitter, Facebook or a Google+ Community, so I seek different forms of cognitive engagement, such as connecting with my family more and attending to the immediate experiences in front of me. With being disconnected, I also find myself reflecting on my experiences and plans for the future. Yes, I miss having the world’s knowledge and diverse communities at my fingertips. But there is a cost to this access.

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This lead presents a counter to the promise of the Internet facilitating powerful connections among people. There is little doubt that social media and engaging in global and diverse conversations has brought many benefits to society at large, especially for our younger generation studied extensively by Ito and colleagues (2008). Adolescents can feel empowered when they engage in online communities around areas of interest. They can participate at their preferred depth and frequency, either as an observer and/or a contributor. There are no age limits; perceived and actual levels of expertise and curiosity determine the authority that is attributed to a participant.

The opportunities provided through social media are not only couched in learning. There are also social and emotional advantages to these new connections, also pointed out by Ito and fellow researchers.

“These processes make social status and friendship more explicit and public, providing a broader set of contexts for observing these informal forms of social evaluation and peer-based learning. In other words, it makes peer negotiations visible in new ways, and it provides opportunities to observe and learn about social norms from their peers” (18-19).

It is tempting to paint a largely rosy picture of a highly connected world. Yet as I pointed out, there are trade-offs to being “always on”. danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), also finds the benefits that youth reap in “networked publics”, extensions that allows them to “extend the pleasure” (4) of their locally-based friendships. While these online spaces allow for the social interaction that adolescents crave, these digital communities can also create new challenges. For example, students will post something that they believe is temporary, yet can stick around for a long time if the recipient chooses to save it.

“Conversations conducted through social media are far from ephemeral; they endure…Alice’s message doesn’t expire when Bob reads it, and Bob can keep that message for decades” (11).

Also of concern is how Internet-mediated relationships can alter in-person interactions. Social scientist Sherry Turkle found that the mere presence of a smartphone at a dinner table keeps people’s conversations at more surface-level topics (2015). Guest’s attention is “split” between the present dialogue and what might be happening online.

I don’t want to come across as a Luddite when I question the efficacy of learning through social media. My many connections via Facebook, Twitter and blogging have brought formally unattainable knowledge to my work and a richer experience to my world. I just wouldn’t want it to monopolize the life I have in front of me.

References

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, R., Lange, P. & Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media. MacArthur Foundation. Chicago, IL.

Turkle, S. (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s talk. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stop-googling-lets-talk.html

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Ten Ways to Not Make Mistakes as a School Principal

  • Always try to find a happy medium when working with staff and families regarding complex problems.
  • Announce all of your classroom visits and observations. That way teachers will have a heads up when you are coming and will be better prepared for instruction.
  • In your newsletters to families, avoid writing about topics beyond appopriate clothing for the seasons, upcoming school events, and generic forms of praise.
  • Don’t ever veer from the student handbook regarding attendance and student discipline, regardless of the circumstances or context.
  • Allow faculty issues to fester until it comes to head, and then swoop in to solve it for them.
  • Avoid the staff lounge for fear of catching unpleasant remarks about you or your performance as a principal.
  • Make no moves forward right away with an initiative to allow all staff members to feel more comfortable with the possibility of change.
  • Attend every teacher/team meeting and take copious notes. This will ensure that there are no surprises and conversations run smoothly.
  • Expect that teachers stick closely to the prescribed programs and collect weekly lesson plans. This way, the curriculum will be delivered with fidelity.
  • Have an open door policy so you can drop everything you are doing when someone stops in and asks if you’ve got a minute.

(This post is satirical, of course. Avoidance and black-and-white thinking may be less demanding cognitively, but the results are often worse than if we had acted. We were hired to be leaders and learners. So – lead and learn!)

Mistakes Will Be Made

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I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website (mattrenwick.com) in the meantime.

The Three P’s of Learning and Living

This is a transcript of my speech I gave for our 5th graders’ Moving On Up ceremony. It is also my last address I will give at Howe Elementary School, as I have taken a leadership position with the Mineral Point Area School District, also in Wisconsin.

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So how many days are left? (smattering of responses)  Uh, teachers, I was addressing the students…;-)

That’s okay! Having a clean end to a school year can be rewarding for all of us, educators included. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on the school year as a whole. A little bit of disengagement with the current pace of life is not a bad thing.

During these transitions, it is also good to take stock in our current situation. This means acknowledging where we came from, where we are at, and where we anticipate going. As I took some time to do this recently in preparation for this speech, I discovered that my life as an educator has followed three basic principles up to this point. They are not steps to be taken. Rather, these principles served as guideposts. I share and describe these with you today, as I believe they might also apply to your own personal learning and living journeys.

The first principle is passion. When I was your age, I was passionate about pretty much one thing: Sports. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, our school’s basketball team, the wrestling club, or a pickup football game in a friend’s backyard. If an athletic contest was taking place, I was sure to be involved.

Okay adults, you may want to cover your ears…One thing I did not have a passion for was school. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. I just didn’t work as hard as I could have. Part of that is my own fault – I could have made more of a commitment to my education, and getting my grades up to where they belong with a little more effort. But I didn’t. Also a part of this lack of engagement was that I often didn’t see the relevance in the learning experiences I was asked to pursue. Unlike sports, where our practices were always in preparation for an opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, school lacked that same opportunity for me. I did what I needed to do in school in order to participate in my passion.

As I progressed through school and entered college, I started coaching the very same teams that I used to participate in as a younger student. This is when I realized that my passion for athletics could also be merged with a career, specifically working with kids in school. This led to the second principle I discovered of living and learning: Persistence.

We hear a lot about “grit” and teaching kids to persevere through challenges. It is my personal opinion that you cannot teach this skill. As educators and parents, we can only create the conditions in which learners will want to pursue a level of mastery and expertise in an area of interest.  That is what happened with me. Once I knew what I believed I wanted to do as a profession, I worked harder in my academics. I rose from a so-so student in high school to being named to the Dean’s List in college several times. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

The thing about passion creating the conditions for persistence is, when someone wants to become very good at something, we start to identify gaps in our skills and abilities. For me, this happened in my 2nd year of teaching. Previously, I had taught 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas, including reading and writing. I thought I was flying along in my first year, offering kids great literature and opportunities to write about what they read. When I moved to a 3rd and 4th grade position the next year, I realized that while I had been teaching reading and writing, I was not teaching readers and writers. It became evident to me with these younger students that I could not merely expose them to resources.

So I read everything I could about effective literacy instruction. I pored over current resources, attended conferences about differentiation and assessment, and observed veteran teachers in their classrooms. Once I persisted in improving myself, I gradually became the teacher I wanted to be for my students.

When I felt I had become proficient in instruction, I found this need to share it with other educators and make a difference in their professional lives. This led to me getting my administrative license ten years ago, which leads me to my current position at Howe. When I accepted the position five years ago, I felt like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my purpose in life, the third principle.

What I didn’t anticipate was how my purpose might change between then and today. My passion for education and my persistence in learning everything about my profession evolved into writing about my experiences and the knowledge I had gained to support our work. Writing online in the form of social media and blogging has led to published articles and books on the topics of technology in education and school leadership. This was not in the plans five years ago, yet here I was, trying to balance a full time principal position while writing and share about my work and finding balance with my family and personal life. It was becoming an impossible task.

This year, I realized that purpose in education has changed a bit. I am no longer content with leading a school as my sole pursuit, as admirable as this vocation is. The saddest part about this discovery is that my passions and pursuits are not conducive with being the principal at Howe Elementary School. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, nor my writing and everything that comes with that.

Enough about me. (By the way, have you noticed that principals like to hear themselves talk?) This is about your special day. You have achieved a major milestone in your educational career and I congratulate you. You should celebrate. Once the confetti settles, consider some humble advice as you take that next step in your life:

  • Your passions may not align with your current responsibilities. That’s okay. Keep working hard. The habits you build now will transfer when you find what excites you in the future.
  • Don’t let what you believe you are good at right now necessarily determine what you will become later in life. While I loved sports, as many of you do, I did not have the necessary talent to “make it”. I became open to combining what I loved to do with what I could provide for others that would bring satisfaction and stability in my life.
  • Persistence is largely dependent on how relevant one finds their current learning and living experiences. Try not to rely on every person in your life to connect your situations with your personal pursuits. Instead, figure out where the connections are between what you love and what is possible.
  • Allow your circumstances to reveal what your true purpose in life might be. If you look closely enough, you might see that what you are striving for may not be what you originally anticipated. This is also okay. It’s a natural part of the change process.
  • Write out or draw a visual of your dream job. I did this at the recommendation of a close colleague. It was excellent advice. When I started applying for positions this spring, I approached each interview as an opportunity for the district to partner with me on our mutual goals (instead of trying to sell myself as a “good fit” for the district). If I was going to move forward, it had to be on my terms with regard to my dream job.
  • Resist allowing others to frame what you are seeking. This is important. They mean well, but they don’t know you or what you are truly after. For example, a few districts did not hire me for the position I sought, but thought I would be excellent for __________. I politely declined. Although it was scary, especially for my wife as I had already resigned my position at Howe, I am glad I kept after what I really wanted.
  • At the same time, consider the advice of others, especially those you respect and admire. They have most likely gone through similar experiences and can offer suggestions that will be helpful. Having good mentors in your life is essential. Still, keep your focus on what you are really after. When ready to move forward with what you really want, don’t settle. You may regret it.

To close, the principles of passion, persistence, and purpose lead me to think about an important phrase you most likely learned about during your social studies instruction. It is at the beginning of our country’s Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice that it is not “Life, Liberty and Happiness”? “the pursuit of” is critical language. Our founding fathers understood that while it is our right to live our lives as free people, it is up to us to find our true happiness. It is not an entitlement, but an opportunity if you so choose to pursue it. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. I will be thinking about you as I pursue my renewed purpose in life. Have a great summer.