The Principal as a Coach

Last year I wrote a post titled “Getting Started with Student-Centered Coaching”. It was a reflection after sitting down with each one of my teachers for 1/2 hour twice during the year. The interventionists and principals in my district had recently received training from Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching. Me being the go-getter, I had to dive right in and try it out. During these sessions, I focused on asking predetermined questions to a) get to know my teachers better (I was new to the building), and b) provide some reflective guidance for staff to help them consider their own practices.

I remember feeling exhausted after two full days of concurrent coaching sessions. Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy listening to each teacher’s plan for the year with their students. I think I felt this way because I may have been doing a bit more of the mental work, in terms of preparing for the sessions and directing the conversations.

(Image retrieved from

This year, I made a few changes. First, I finished reading Student-Centered Coaching. There was some good information about how coaches can vary the way they work with staff based on a variety of factors, such as gender or what generation they came from. For example, females prefer to face who they are talking to, while males prefer to sit side-by-side. Having an almost all female staff, I made the switch. Also, I attempted to differentiate the way I listened and complemented the baby boomers, who prefer recognition, and the millennials, who seek meaning in their work. Just making a few environmental shifts in my approach seemed to improve our conversations.

Another noted change is the way the coaching sessions were facilitated. I still had my list of four to five questions to use. The difference was I only used them to keep conversation going as needed. Last year, I read the list as a script, which was helpful as I was new to coaching. This year, I still had the questions to the side but gave the teacher more control over the conversation. In fact, my first question I asked most of my staff was, “Is there anything in particular you would like to focus on?”. The majority of the time, the teacher eagerly accepted this invitation. And before we knew it, our 1/2 hour was up.

One additional change from last year to this year is approaching my role as a coach as more of a learner. My questions were not rhetorical or prescribed; very often I asked teachers to tell me more about what they were sharing because I truly did not have the answer and wanted to learn more. One of the sessions ended with the teacher showing me how to use a behavior management tool on the iPad. Who’s coaching who?

With this year’s coaching sessions completed and time to reflect, I am impressed with how independent my staff is with regard to their instructional focus and how they are innovating in the classroom. They are willing to set the bar high for the expected student outcomes. If their students don’t hit the mark, it won’t be for lack of effort or not implementing best practices. That we developed these goals and plans together puts us on the same team: a group focused on helping students achieve their learning goals and experience success.

“Leader vs. Manager” Revisited

Administrators and Teacher Leaders: Does this visual look familiar to you?

Leadership gurus such as Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis used this framework to describe the different ways an administrator drives his or her organization toward a common vision and goal. It was taught in my graduate courses as I am sure it was in yours. It was and still is a helpful way to thinking about the multiple facets of our positions.

But is it that simple? Does any school leader feel like they have two clear, distinguishable roles anymore? I don’t. The additional expectations that have become a part of our positions have both blurred and broken out of the lines between leader and manager. To think of myself as simply a leader and a manager no longer encompasses what I do every day for our students, school and community.

As I have written about my experiences as an elementary principal on my blog since November of 2011, I have noticed that my posts could be categorized into several different categories. In fact, I have tagged them as such:

  • Principal as a Thinker
  • Principal as a Learner
  • Principal as a Reader
  • Principal as a Writer
  • Principal as a Teacher
  • Principal as an Innovator
  • Principal as a Coach
  • Principal as a Collaborator
  • Principal as an Advocate
  • Principal as a Change Agent

Warren Bennis did something similar in his book On Becoming a Leader (1989). However, I have a hard time applying some of his descriptors to my position as a school principal. This way of categorizing my reflections has helped me see what I do for what it really is: A complex, ever-changing vocation that continues to reward as much as it challenges.

What would you add or revise on this list? Please share in the comments.

Rethinking My School’s Homework Policy

Since becoming a more connected educator, I have learned much from my professional learning network about the pros and cons of homework, especially at the elementary level. With my student handbook needing an update, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my school’s beliefs regarding this topic.


Cathy Vatterot, author of Rethinking Homework, offers a reasonable view of how educators can address this touchy subject. With her recommendations, along with information and experiences shared by my colleagues, I made some substantial changes to my school’s homework policy. Text in bold are my potential additions; language with strikethrough may be deleted.


Homework is an out-of-school assignment that contributes to the educational process of the child. It should be an extension of class work and should be related to the objectives of the curriculum presently being studied.

Homework may include additional practice exercises, reading of material on a specific subject, in-depth extension of classroom activities, or independent project work related to the subject. Instructional time is maximized and consists of introducing new material, so drill and memorization review and reinforcement become an important part of homework.

Effective school research indicates that a positive correlation exists between expanding opportunities for learning and academic achievement. Most children, therefore, will have some homework each school day. Homework may include problem solving, completion of assignments introduced in class, projects, reading ahead in the textbook and other tasks as assigned by teachers. The daily amount of time depends upon grade level, varying from 10 to 45 minutes daily at the elementary level. In order to attain the maximum benefits from homework, your child is responsible for completing homework assignments on time and as directed.

The homework policy that has been established at Howe School indicates that all students will, on a regular basis, receive homework assignments for completion outside of the regularly allocated class time. The amount, frequency and nature of the assignments should be based on the teacher’s professional judgement, students’ needs and reflect the child’s grade, subject and needs. Homework will vary by instructional level, with assignments potentially increasing in length and frequency as the child progresses through the grades.

Homework fulfills the following purposes:

To review and reinforce classroom learning by providing practice with an application of knowledge gained.
To teach children responsibility, neatness and organizational skills. To promote family involvement, school connectedness and two way communication between home and school.

The following amount of time is expected what you might expect for homework daily (excluding Wednesdays):
Grades K and 1st – Approximately 10-20 minutes
Grades 2nd and 3rd – Approximately 15-30 minutes
Grades 4th and 5th – Approximately 20-40 minutes

Note: These expectations will take into consideration a child’s ability and nature of assignments. Any child not completing homework assignments will be expected to stay inside during the noon recess to finish the work.

The following expectations exist for teachers, all children, and parents.

Each teacher will: assign meaningful homework; take into account the capabilities of the class; assign work that will benefit each child and give all children feedback on assignments.

Each child will: learn to accept this responsibility; complete the assignments on time and with high quality; and develop good study habits.

Each parent must: nurture that responsibility in his/her child; encourage his/her child to complete homework assignments; provide for a climate that will foster educational endeavors; and stress the value of hard work and good study habits.

All children make far greater advances in academics when homework is given frequently to extend the school day. Additionally, Academic gains are greater when parents take a vital supportive role in helping the child fulfill his/her responsibility. Ask your child’s teacher for helpful hints in more information in helping your child complete homework assignments.

Students who do not complete their homework at home are expected to complete it before school or during noon recess.

As a result of student absences, sometimes make-up work is requested. If a child is absent for one or two days, make-up work may not be sent home prior to the student’s return. We are anxious for students to get well. Reading a library book is encouraged. Although we appreciate parent requests, teachers need sufficient time to gather materials. If a student is absent more than two days, please contact the office before 8:30 a.m. so the teacher has time to prepare materials by the end of the school day. With classes of 20 or more students and the possibility of several absences, it takes a significant amount of time to honor make-up work requests. We appreciate your understanding.

I am also sharing these possible revisions with staff and families. When we briefly discussed this topic as a faculty, beliefs were expectedly all over the place. Having a strict policy does not honor where everyone is at on this topic. My hope is that the changes we make will reflect best practices, knowing that it may always be a work in progress.


Where are you at on the continuum of homework in school, especially at the elementary level? How would you revise this policy? Please share in the comments.

Making a Case for iPads

Within the next month or so, I along with two other administrators may be going to our board of education with a proposal to purchase iPads for our K-5 buildings. Specifically, we would be looking at four iPads per K-2 classroom and a mobile cart of 30 at grades 3-5

Here is our argument for “Why iPads” in contrast to laptops or desktops.

Continue reading “Making a Case for iPads”

Examples of Practice: Goodreads and the Common Core

Literature and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the very first standard is titled “Reading: Literature”. I say this because some educators have expressed concerns about fiction being pushed out of literacy instruction. A deliberate review of the CCSS should clear up this misconception.

Another component I appreciate about our new national standards is a focus on the reading-writing connection. My building has participated in professional development on this topic for three years now. We believe that when we develop better readers, students’ writing also improves and vice versa. Last year we collected data that supports this belief.


An example of the reading-writing connection is in Standard 4 – Writing, under “Texts Types of Purposes” for Grade 3. The first element expects students to write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view or reason. An important component to this type of writing is using specific information from the text to support an assertion.

Because we simply don’t have enough initiatives to take on this year (notice the sarcasm?), we are also exploring different ways to leverage technology to enhance student engagement and learning while addressing the CCSS. One Web 2.0 tool that has lots of potential is Goodreads. You can connect with other readers and their personal libraries to discover your next book. I have described it to others as Facebook for bookworms.

Recently, I read aloud The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco to a group of third graders. After the book was finished, we did a shared writing activity by forming an opinion about the book in my reading journal.


You’ll notice the quotes above the rating and paragraph. While I wrote, I stressed with the students how important it is to document text from the story to support our opinion.

This book review served as a first draft for posting our review on Goodreads. Using an iPad with the screen mirrored on the whiteboard, we wrote our final draft together.


Posting our opinion on my Goodreads account provided an authentic purpose. Our audience was anyone online looking for a reliable review of this book. We then compared our rating with some other readers, including Goodreads friends Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) and Laura Komos (@laurakomos).


Seeing experts share the same opinion as ours about The Junkyard Wonders was both exciting and affirming for us. As well, the students had the opportunity to read friends’ exemplary writing as a model for future opinion pieces. I believe this is a strong example of integrating a Web 2.0 tool to facilitate an authentic literacy activity that addresses the Common Core for students.

Stretching Our Skills: Challenge Before Require

Not many people like to be told what to do. When one hears the word “requirement”, it almost seems to convey the message that the task will not be completed unless someone else expects it to be done. Making something required may breed noncompliance and sometimes even contempt. Maybe that is why people tend to go a few miles per hour over the speed limit, or have a tendency at times to turn in a project just a shade late.
Although it is not always possible, I would much rather be given a challenge. It is like a dare, as if someone is saying, “You know, I am just going to throw this out there as a possibility. I don’t know if you will be able to achieve the goal, although I know you have the potential.” With a requirement, a person may likely do the bare minimum. But a challenge? The sky’s the limit.


Below is a challenge I am thinking about posing to my teaching staff. We are currently using iPads to document and assess student writing in digital portfolios. I also want to encourage them to innovate in their own classroom. By calling this voluntary activity a “challenge”, my hope is they will see this as an opportunity to show what they know and can do with the iPad to support best instructional practices. The investment we’ve made in technology needs to be used to its full potential. With specific choice in language, an initiative can have a much better chance of succeeding when growth is on the person’s terms.

2013 iPad Challenge
The best way to learn how to integrate new technology into the classroom is to jump in and try it out!
Purpose: To use the iPad in your instruction with a high level of integration. The way you apply this tool should augment, modify or redefine the specific teaching activity and thereby more positively impact student learning.
Procedure: Consider your instruction first. Then consider how an application on the iPad could enhance it. Important – the Reflection app and mirroring technology must be part of your teaching activity. Use the linked template below for your planning purposes.
Payoff: Upload evidence of your activity to a Web 2.0 tool. Note the URL in the template and submit it to Matt. For your time and efforts, you will receive $50 in the App Store. You can receive up to $100 (two pieces of evidence) to purchase educational apps.
Publish: Your final product will be posted on a public wiki for all the world to see. Congratulations!

Feedback After an Evernote and iPad Workshop

I recently hosted a one hour technology session for district staff. The topic: Using Evernote on the iPad to Confer With and Assess Readers.

Afterward, I emailed each participant a survey via Google Forms to gather feedback. The last question I posed was, “What is one way you see using Evernote with the iPad in your current teaching position?” Here are their responses:

“I plan to have students read and record them, then play back. I am working on fluency with a lot of kids and I would like them to hear themselves. I’m not sure on the conferencing part/note taking yet, but we’ll see as I mess with it. With things like this I don’t make plans, I just jump in and see where it takes me.”

“I plan on recording students’ one minute reading fluency assessments and then embedding a picture of the actual passage they read with miscues and self-corrections marked. I am also going to take a pic of a page in their independent reading book and record them reading as part of my ‘running records on the fly'”

“I plan to record running records and allow students to hear themselves read, both immediately after reading and later on in the year (to show growth).”

“Photograph and save student work samples using hash tags so that I can easily access them later.”

“During running records: record students’ reading of the selection in order to score/check the record at a later time. This allows for me to focus on fluency during the assessment as well as have documentation of the students’ reading at that point in time.”

“I plan to use this when I conference with my students. It is my hope to try this today!”

“I could see myself taking a picture of what a student is working on and sharing it with the classroom teacher.”

“In Reading Intervention, I could record a students’ reading of a passage and replay it for them to hear. Together we could discuss strengths and weaknesses and set goals for improvement.”

“I plan to use Evernote by making notes as I meet with students during guided reading groups. Each group is reading a different book that they were able to choose. I will use it to create a notebook for each group. – Jot down their predictions and record audio of students reading and/or our group discussions at the end of each chapter.”

“I don’t have my own iPad, so I don’t see myself continuing with this. Maybe having your own iPad should be a requirement for this course.”

“I find this to be effective for my guided reading. I can keep all of my notes together instead of having a post-it here and a post-it there. I can view my notes from home too without having to bring my notes home with me.”

“I started using Evernote the next day. I took pictures of student tradition writing and them recorded their voice reading it. Next I am going to use volunteers to display on reflection and go through the process of editing on the SMARTboard.”

I am scheduled to run this workshop again for Central Wisconsin reading teachers in January. This information is invaluable to me as I think about how I will change my instruction to better meet the needs of the participants.