In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by principal, Larissa McCoy and coach, Robyn Sullivan-Jackson from the Leto Highschool in Hillsborough County Florida, to discuss the coach/principal partnership.
Get in touch with Larissa: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get in touch with Robyn: email@example.com
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Steve [Intro]: 00:40 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 01:08 A high school coach/principal partnership. I’m excited to have on our podcast today, principal Larissa McCoy and coach Robyn Sullivan-Jackson from the Leto High School in Hillsborough County, Florida. Ladies, thank you to both of you for joining us and Larissa, I’m wondering if you might start by just giving us a little description of Leto High School.
Larissa: 01:34 So, Leto High School is a school of about 2,080 students. We serve grades 9 through 12 and we’re a comprehensive high school, so we are very focused on giving kids opportunities beyond your typical core classroom. We have a lot of really awesome CTE programs. We have a NAF Academy for hospitality and tourism and mechatronics. We have a nationally recognized culinary program, in addition to having a collegiate Academy that allows students to earn their AA degree prior to graduating from high school, from our local community college. So definitely a lot of opportunities with regard to that. We are a title one renaissance school because 89% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. And about 75% of our students are Hispanic, most of which are from Cuba. And then the rest of our population, that other 25% is sort of divided, I want to say pretty evenly among you know, every other race you could imagine. So it’s definitely a very interesting school. When we came here three years ago in 2017 our school was considered an achievement zone school, which means that it was in turnaround status. So, you know, that’s been something that we’ve sort of been working on and trying to fix/manage since we’ve been here.
Steve: 02:48 It sounds like a great place for studying lots of different elements of education, so I’m glad we’re getting a chance to look at how coaching fits in. Robyn, could you talk a little bit about the description of your coaching role?
Robyn: 03:03 As in any role, I think in a high school, it changes day to day, but my kind of purpose when Larissa and I came to Leto, because we were at a previous school together as well, was to really help take on some of those turnaround things that we needed to do help with that change process. At our previous school, I was the only coach and here I had a team of coaches. So also to kind of train those coaches and kind of work with teachers and model that coaching role role for them as well. We have a math coach, a writing coach, my kind of specialty is reading. We have a success coach as well. So it’s nice to have a team to do that with. But my focus really is on literacy and working with teachers to make sure that our kids are not below grade level, which when we got here, about 70% were considered not proficient in reading.
Steve: 04:10 Larissa, what are the expectations that you have for your staff to be participating with the coaches and how do you communicate those expectations?
Larissa: 04:23 So I’m glad you asked that question because I think that changes from place to place. But at our school now, when we first came in, the first, you know, we really had to come in as transformational leaders, which is extremely challenging because I’m sure that as you know, that takes a lot of figuring out ways to build trust, you know, with people to make sure that they were willing and able to accept the help that we know that they needed. So one of the things that when we first came in is, I really, before we even the year even started, I actually did a retreat with our coaches to help them just kind of sit them down and to say, listen, you know, this is what this is going to look like. This might be what we’re going to be up against.
Larissa: 05:01 And s,o let’s talk through ways right now that we can really make sure that we make people feel comfortable when we have conversations with them that might make them feel uncomfortable. So in training the coaches, we really talked a lot about student centered coaching. So making sure that we’re not just blaming the teacher for things, but instead talking about what students are doing or not doing or what those outcomes look like. So that’s kind of how we started everything. Teachers knew right away because I am a very clear communicator. What I mean by that is I don’t mince words and I pretty much am a very straight shooter. So I was very, very passionate about the fact that we needed to change instructional practices that our schools to best serve the students that were coming here. And I, you know, I explained to them that we were going to offer different opportunities for that.
Larissa: 05:47 We created an instructional leadership team to build capacity among teachers who were here that were already doing great things with kids who then could maybe help us do great things with, you know, other teachers so they could help kids. I talk to teachers a lot about, you know, taking risks. There was a culture of fear here when we got here. And so that culture of fear, unfortunately, made teachers afraid to take a risk and to try things that were new because they feared that their evaluation would somehow be negatively impacted if they did something and it failed. And so I spent a lot of the first two years here really communicating with teachers that I wanted them to use our coaches to learn how to take those risks. And I wanted them to utilize those coaches for support.
Larissa: 06:30 And while I told them I would never impose a coach upon them, because I think that nothing gets done when I’m making you do it. Let’s be honest with each other. While that was never going to be my goal, that I really wanted them to understand and to kind of see what their role was. And so we did a lot of publicity campaigning, if you will, at the beginning. They would create different opportunities for teachers to come in to like, mini PD sessions. We did a huge thing at the beginning of the year where we set up a table and they were able to come by and kind of meet the coaches and talk to them and share with them ideas about things that they thought they needed as teachers. And then we tried to utilize those things in order to give them what they needed or what they said they wanted. While at the same time still knowing that the instructional leadership team was going to use data to make sure that we, you know, also talked about the things that we really needed to talk about, even if people weren’t necessarily going to say that right away.
Larissa: 07:16 So my staff knew that the coaches were here in a support role, that they were available any time that they needed something, but that we weren’t psychic and so they needed to really talk to us and ask us for that support. That said, if I went into a teacher’s classroom and I realized that that teacher needed support, then I would have a coaching conversation with them. And at the end of that, really to continue that cycle, I would suggest that they work with a coach. And to be really honest with you, every single teacher that had that conversation with by that point was willing and able to work with the coaches. At this point, now we’re in our third year, the coaches don’t have a single day where they can do things because they’re in teacher’s classrooms, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Larissa: 07:55 So my expectation in the beginning really was, coaches, I want you to build trust. Teachers, I want you to take risks and together you guys can do that. And so I want you to work and I want you to partner together so that we can try new things to make sure that we’re serving our students. Because it is unacceptable that 71% of our students are not for efficient when it comes to reading and literacy.
Robyn: 08:18 In the beginning, we spent a lot of time trying to build, like, safe spaces that looked more like PD. Like we would do a learning walk and we would do many a lunch and learn type PD sessions where we could just kind of facilitate a learning environment that people had a choice to sign up for or come to. It gave them an opportunity to get to know us as coaches and get to kind of match our strength maybe with what they needed or our personality types with what they needed because we’re all very different.
Robyn: 08:50 And based on that we were able to build relationships with teachers. And then they saw the usefulness of the help and that we weren’t there to tell on them or to rat them out that we were really just held there to help them facilitate their classrooms and to facilitate their own professional learning. And then based on those relationships, you know a lot of this job is word of mouth. So we started getting more people coming to us saying this teacher said you did this with them and it was awesome and they loved that strategy or you were able to come in and just tweak one little thing in the classroom and it’s made all the difference with their kids. So we were able to sell ourselves a little bit that way in a nonthreatening, like, non-evaluative situation, which I think has been really helpful.
Steve: 09:35 Can one or maybe both of you, give me an example, when you described that you wanted teachers to be taking risks, can you give me a specific example of a teacher and what might fit your picture of that teacher taking a risk?
Robyn: 09:52 So when we got here, like Larson said, there was kind of this culture of fear and there was a lot of people assigning work and not actually teaching. So there was a lot of worksheets and teachers kind of just looking at the kids or talking at them. There was no real pedagogy being applied in a lot of classrooms. So there was no one really doing research and trying to find engagement strategies for their students or literacy strategies or really kind of any strategy at all. And the teachers were scared that if they try something to really engage the students or get to that higher level of learning and it failed, that they would also fail on their evaluations. But you know, unfortunately it impacts teacher pay and all of these other things. So instead they were trying to play it real safe with them.
Robyn: 10:48 Beautifully designed PowerPoints and some very interesting, creative worksheets. But there was no instructional risks in terms of rigor or engagement occurring in the classroom. And some of them had tried to take risks and kind of been burned. So word gets out quickly.
Larissa: 11:07 There was actually a math teacher who set up in a meeting one time here and said, listen, you know, I hear you telling me this, but in the past two administrations, I did that and then I got hammered, like, they killed me and then I changed my teaching assignments and there just had been such a culture of like, without a word,
Robyn: 11:26 Be quiet and do your work.
Larissa: 11:27 Yeah. But even the culture been between administration and teachers was very – it just wasn’t good. It was polarizing on so many levels. And when I heard that, you know, I literally made the rule the first year that I was here, I said, look, like, I want you to take those risks.
Larissa: 11:42 So you’re going to take a risk in your classroom. I want you to put a sign on your door that says, not today. And today I will not come in your classroom to evaluate you. Now I might come into to see what you’re doing, but I’m not going to come into your classroom to evaluate you because I need you to try and fail. The only way that you learn anything is if you try it. But if you never do, we’ll never get there. Like, we will never arrive. And so I think of that math teacher is one of them. I also think of another math teacher who was second year into teaching when I got here. He had a lot of the skills that were going to be really, really positive for kids, but he couldn’t figure out, I think, how to balance the culture that existed at this school, which was a culture of protect yourself, not your students in some cases.
Larissa: 12:24 And I hate saying that out loud because I don’t want to paint the wrong picture, but I do believe that’s how the majority of the staff felt. That they had to kind of cover their own butts instead of worrying about what was best for kids. And so, this particular teacher, I remember calling him in for his midyear evaluation and I said, look man, like you are wonderful at mentoring kids and you have a connection with kids that I can’t teach to anybody. But if you don’t get yourself together instructionally, I swear to God.
Steve: 12:50 [laughter]
Larissa: 12:50 And you know, he was like, what do I do? And so he was the first time that I feel like I actually really made a connection with a teacher and was able to help parlay that into something really positive for kids. And right away, you know, I said, listen, my expectation is – I love that you have great relationships with kids, but in order to continue to work with those kids, you have to have a job here.
Larissa: 13:11 You know? And so, I was joking, but I wasn’t joking. Right? Like, and he knew that. So we had a conversation about like, what he wanted to try and sort of the culture of the department that maybe even made him even more fearful to try that because they would tell their war stories from years past and so it would make him reluctant. And I’ll never forget, it was probably two weeks after I had that meeting with him. We’d just come back from spring break and he said, hey, I want you to come into my classroom today and see this thing, because I tried it yesterday and I think it works really good. But like, maybe I’m wrong because I don’t know what I’m doing. And I said, all right man, like I’ll come in, you know, like no problem, I’ll see you second period.
Larissa: 13:48 And so I went into his classroom and when I tell you that he had come up with this dynamite assessment, it was actually was an assessment strategy that he was using. And I said to him, I said, where’d you learn this from? And he said, well, when I talked to you and then I told you that I was really struggling with assessment and when I asked you which teachers were doing that best in our school, I reached out to those teachers and on my planning period every day I went and watched them teach. And so I took this from an English classroom, he took the strategy from an English classroom. He said, I took it from an English classroom and I just adapted it for my kids. But I thought it was really cool and I thought it worked yesterday, but I’m just curious like, maybe I’m off and maybe it didn’t really work.
Larissa: 14:26 And so we talked through that and we had a great conversation and we looked at the data and you know, I’m like, well how, why do you think it works and what makes you concerned that it didn’t? And it just opened the door to have a conversation where this kid realized very quickly that it was okay to take risks and that those risks would then be celebrated. Because right after that, when we had our next professional development or our next PLC meeting, like, I talked to them about how awesome it was to engage in work with him where he was trying new things, that it was being successful for kids. And then we had him stand up and talk about that with teachers. So it really was trying to just get that, you know, that piece of buy in from at least one or two people where they could kind of again, share their story because word of mouth always I think matters more than anything. But yeah, that was, I think that was a good success story. And I will tell you this, he is one of the best math teachers I have ever seen, two years later.
Steve: 15:16 What’s so powerful is, while you had some joking with him at the beginning that he had to change, what made it work was he knew that you believed in him and that you knew that he could change. And I think you also knew that he wanted what was best for kids. So those two things then encouraged him to take the risk. And the other piece I’m hearing, which is really the message we need to get to, is it’s not only that risk taking is okay, not risk-taking isn’t okay. If you aren’t trying something new to get a greater student learning than you’re getting now, that’s the problem. So we really need to put the sign up on the door that says, come on in today, I’m trying something new, knowing that I don’t want my administrator to miss the fact that I’m trying something new.
Larissa & Robyn: 16:07 That’s where we are now.
Steve’: 16:10 Yeah, I agree. I that’s what exactly what, that’s exactly what I was thinking. That’s the next step. You’ve gone from risk taking, being okay to risk taking, being an expectation.
Robyn: 16:21 Absolutely. Yeah. I would say at least three times a week I get a text message or a teacher that comes by my office and says, can you please come in and say, I’m trying this, or my kids want you to see what they’ve done. Like, even that the kids know us as coaches and they love when we’re there with them and working with the teachers and stuff as well because we build relationships with them. But they are proud of their teachers for trying new things and making learning fun for them and they want to share that with other people on campus, which is amazing.
Larissa: 16:55 And I think they want witnesses to their success. And I know that sounds really weird maybe, but for the kids that we have at Leto, a lot of them, you know, they’ve been through a lot of things, man.
Larissa: 17:06 Like they’ve been through a lot. So many of our kids have come here from Cuba. Most of them were not born and raised here and so they have had such interesting and I say interesting, and that could mean a lot of things both negative and positive. But they come from very interesting backgrounds where sometimes, I think that there haven’t been a lot of witnesses to their success and there hasn’t been a lot of support with regard to education because they were dealing with so many other things that just – you had to get through life. And so, in what I even see in the culture of kids that has changed here is that they want to be successful now. So when we kind of came here, there was a level of apathy that I don’t know I can even describe because it was so disheartening to me both on the part of teachers and students and now kids are like, “I want to take this class and I wouldn’t do this and will you come watch me and we’re doing a lab today, are you going to come see it Ms. McCoy?” And “hey we’re doing this thing where we put the brain task scope thing on our heads for AP psychology and we talk about each piece of the brain and how this operates and how this works.”
Larissa: 18:04 And I’m like, wow, this is amazing. Like, kids are talking to us about instruction now, which never happened when we first got here at all. So there’s definitely this want for them to have witnesses to their success. And I think what’s also been really cool is that we’re also then able to be witnesses to teacher success. And now we’re now they’re being recognized positively as well, which makes that risk taking a little bit more safe. I know that sounds weird because risk and safe sort of don’t go together, but I think there is a safer environment now for taking those risks.
Steve: 18:36 The same risks want your kids to be taking.
Larissa: 18:39 Absolutely. And if we don’t model that for them, then they’ll never do it either. And I truly believe that while I know that like the microcosm of, you know, whatever and that this is obviously not the real world, we do have to do everything that we can to prepare them for what it looks like when they leave. And if we can at least teach them those strategies or we can at least showcase to them that risk is okay – calculated risk, you know, I mean, I’m not saying do all kinds of crazy stuff, but planned or calculated risks are a hundred percent okay. And just because the other members of your family did this doesn’t mean you have to do that too. In fact, so many of these parents that come and sit with me, talk to me about why they escaped Cuba and why they came here. And almost every single time it feels like them making sure that their child has an opportunity that they didn’t have. And I think our kids recognize that and now they’re playing to that because now it’s being fostered in the classroom. So because the teacher’s expectations have changed, now the student’s expectations for themselves are changing too, which has been really, really positive for our school.
Steve: 19:40 I’m wondering if you’d describe a little bit, the communication process that you’ve put in place between coaches and principals since you have more than one coach there.
Larissa: 19:53 Sure. So we meet once a week in the morning, usually on a Monday, schedule those out so that we can literally sit down and have conversations about, sort of, everyone’s mission for the week and how that aligns to whatever our focus is for that week or for that month or you know, quarter, depending on whatever the year is or situation. So that also helps us make sure that we’re not duplicating our efforts. That’s one thing that’s really possible at a large school is that, you know, one person gets pulled to do this and another person taps another person for the same thing. And so we tried to really make sure that during those meetings we’re having conversations about making sure that we spend our time, I guess intelligently and that we sort of divide and conquer, if you will. So sometimes like at those meetings, I know that I’ve spoken with teachers, like for instance, I had a conversation with two teachers yesterday who when we went through a walkthrough, there’s room for improvement.
Larissa: 20:48 So in having those conversations with those teachers yesterday, we talked about potential things that they could utilize in order, you know, in terms of resources and support from me that might be able to help facilitate them being more risk takers or really, they’re ACP people and so, they were alternatively certified, they didn’t come from an ed background. So what they’re missing is, is they have the content knowledge, but they’re missing the strategies. So in those conversations, both of them said that they would like to work with coaching – do a coaching cycle with one of our coaches and do a one on one coaching cycle. So when we meet Monday after spring break, the conversation that I’m going to finish and have with our coaches is, hey listen, this is what’s going on. This is what the need is.
Larissa: 21:27 Who feels like they can best meet that need for this person. So my coaches do have very different personalities and I did that by design. You know, as Larissa, I’m a mess sometimes and I am a tough, passionately rowdy person. There doesn’t need to be any more Larissa’s at Leto high school. And I’m very well aware of that.
Steve: 21:47 [laughter].
Larissa: 21:47 And so I also try to make that – true it’s just really honest. But also try to make that with coaches because different people like to work with different people. And so I have one coach who is the nicest, kindest, sweetest, most cheerleading person you’ve ever met in your entire life. Like, when I’m done talking to her, I feel like a million bucks. You know, I have one coach that she can sell you the clothes that you’re wearing, like she could sell you anything.
Larissa: 22:13 In fact, every time we go to a conference, someone tries to pick her up because they, I mean she’s just, she’s a salesman. And then there’s Robyn and Robin has a very Robyn as a big picture person. And so when it comes down to making little decisions, she understands how they affect that big picture. And so she comes from a very different lens and she’s also the most experienced coach of them. So we have had these conversations and we figure out based on this teacher, based on this need, who is the best person to tackle this particular situation at this time? We coordinate our schedules and then of course like we also utilize information and we have conversations from whatever happened at our PLC that week or in our instructional leadership team meeting. And that helps us plan for the future. So we have PLCs, and we request teacher feedback and we try to really use that information in order to drive what we do for the next meeting, those pieces of paper and those recommendations from teachers then go to our instructional leadership team. And then we conduct the conversation with them, which is about 12 faculty members at representative of every department in the school, including electives. So we always run that stuff by them and get their opinion first.
Larissa: 23:10 And then as a coaching and administrative staff, we take all of that information and then we turn that into whatever direction we need to go next. In the past, my ILPs have run a little bit differently. We’re going to move to that shift next year. But again, because there was sort of a culture of fear here and a culture of, I’m afraid to stand up in front of my colleagues and say that I love teaching and that teaching is great, there has been some reluctance there and this year is the first time that our teachers in front of the entire faculty, they’ve done a lot of differentiated PD where, regarding small groups but entire in front of the entire faculty have taken on and led entire PLCs by themselves. So again, it’s morphing and it’s changing, but in communicating with the coaches our biggest piece is that Monday morning and figuring out what is our weekly, what is our mission for this week, how does that tie into the bigger picture? And then where are we going from here? And that sort of what we talk about every time we meet.
Steve: 24:16 Robyn, how does that impact your day to day decisions then as to how your time gets scheduled?
Robyn: 24:25 So basically, it just kind of, we’ll share what teachers we’re working with. If we are, you know, this time of year as we get closer to testing, we’re doing a lot of kind of like student instruction too, just depending on where the teachers are and what they need and what the kids need. So we kind of calendar everything out because we do technically have two literacy coaches with the writing coach and myself. We make sure that we’re not planning on going to the same teachers or we don’t want to duplicate our efforts. So that helps me plan out. I usually am the person that’s putting the PD together for the school as well. So it helps me narrow down what we need to focus on. For a semester, I was designing all of the PLCs based on some work that I’m doing with the district and Jim Burke’s Academic Moves.
Robyn: 25:16 So I kind of run through what we were going to do for the PLC that week, talk about what they had noticed in their groups as they rotated around. So it really just kind of helps, helps me decide what my focus is, who my focus is going to be, and then calendar everything out from there.
Larissa: 25:33 And I think this is so important for other principals to know and to be aware of too. Like, I trust these three coaches with everything. And I trust that the decisions that they’re going to make and that the calendar things that they’ve already done are what’s best for kids and teachers. And so when they say, I have this scheduled on Tuesday because we’re meeting on Monday, but they scheduled this with a teacher before and this is what I’m going to do, I trust that that’s the most important thing that they need to do that day.
Larissa: 26:00 Because I know that my coaches are able to discern between what is a priority and what’s not. And so what I never want to do as a principal is try to dictate to them everything that they need to do. Because I think that when you try to confine or – you can’t do that. You know, coaching has – it’s a relationship business. And you really have to, I have to be able to trust my coaches to know that what they’re doing right now is the best thing for kids and for teachers. And so I think that’s something that’s really important for me to say too is that I just, I trust them completely. And we do know each other from another school. We’ve worked together for a long time and they came with me to Leto when I came here, but two of them were not in coaching role so they still had to learn and they still had to do different things.
Larissa: 26:46 But I have been able to observe their coaching practices now over the last two and a half years and there is not a decision that any of them make that I feel like I ever have to question because I know that they’re consistent because their hearts don’t change. Like, they are always about what’s best for kids and I know that and so I’m able to trust them because of that.
Robyn: 27:08 My whole career, I’ve worked with Larissa, we often joke that we share a brain, which I think helps in this relationship. But I did
my pre-internship in her classroom and then she was my department head.
Steve: 27:22 Oh, wow.
Robyn: 27:22 I think we’re on year 12 of working together. So we know exactly what we’re going to get from each other in any situation. And it’s the same with the other two coaches as well. We’re very close.
Robyn: 27:35 We’re in constant communication. Two of us share an office. We start every day checking in with each other just in terms of communication between the other coaches as well. So even if one of us, we can’t all three get to Larissa, one of us has probably heard from her, we can check in that way. We also work very closely with our assistant principal for curriculum. So one thing amazing about our administration is we can go to them with anything. Their door is never closed. Their phones are never off. If there’s ever any question that we have or a need that needs to be met, we have access to them, which is huge because we always feel supported as well, which helps us better support teachers.
Steve: 28:19 What I was hearing is that there’s a common vision that you’ve brought the whole leadership group together around and that you’ve continued to build with teachers that allows people to make decisions on their own because they know those decisions would align with the common core beliefs that you’re working from as a school.
Larissa: 28:48 Absolutely. And I probably need you to stand by me and articulate eveything I say because you make it sound so much better than I just made it sound. Yes.
Steve: 28:55 [laughter]
Steve: 28:58 Well, listen, I was told I was going to love the conversation with the two of you and I definitely have.
Steve: 29:04 Thank you both.
Steve: 29:04 Have a great day.
Larissa : 29:09 Thank you so much.
Robyn: 29:09 Thank you. Have a great day.
Steve: 29:09 Bye, bye.
Steve [Outro]: 29:11 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean, and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.