School principal and author of “Leading Like a Coach,” Matt Renwick, promotes school leaders working with a community in which each member contributes their strengths and ideas to improving instruction. He explores five key elements from his book.
Create confidence through trust.
Organize around a priority.
Affirm promising practices.
Help teachers become leaders.
Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve : 00:28 Leading like a coach. Joining our podcast today is Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal from Wisconsin and the author of a new book titled, “Leading Like a Coach.” A description of Matt’s book has this statement in it: “Matt reframes the approach to school-wide change from a leader acting alone, to a leader working with a community, a community in which each member contributes their strengths and ideas to improving instruction.” When I read that statement, it sure aligns with the mantra that I’ve been on for years that teaching is a team sport. So I
dropped Matt a note and he agreed and happy to say he is with us here today. So welcome Matt.
Matt: 01:17 Thank you, Steve. I’m glad to be here.
Steve : 01:20 So Matt, would you start off by giving us a little introduction to your background and the role that you’re in at the school today and I’m kind of wondering how that led to you taking on the task of writing this book?
Matt: 01:34 Yeah. I found it interesting you sharing your experience as a fifth and sixth grade teacher in an open concept experience. That was actually a similar experience I had in a multi-age classroom. We did natural looping, and we designed thematic units integrated units together and it was very project-oriented and it was just a lot of fun.
Steve : 01:57 Was that in Wisconsin?
Matt: 01:58 It was in Wisconsin. Yep. Rudolph, Wisconsin – about central Wisconsin. And I noticed, as I progressed through my teaching career, standards became more prominent, testing evaluations all became much more a part of the school and experience and I felt kind of, maybe some of the joy leaving it too. And that kind of prompted me to think, how could I maybe influence at a school-wide level, have more impact in protecting that joy and that learning experience in a way that teachers and kids can be a part of. And so that’s why it got me into the principalship. And once I was there, I don’t know if it was a rude awakening, but it was definitely a realization that you can’t just put out some kind of a goal and offer some professional development and monitor progress and then expect outcomes. It’s just school change and improvement is not linear in that sense as we might put it on paper. And so that led me to learning more about coaching, instructional coaching in particular, and really trying to embed it into my practice, working with teachers, working with staff, even working with colleagues. How do I talk, how do I present myself? And really, like you said in the description of working together to get collective goals.
Steve : 03:18 Yeah. I’m real big on the concept of team and I describe that very frequently, what a lot of schools call teams are really what I would call franchises. So I got a group of teachers that come to a franchise meeting, they exchange tips and strategies, but they still go back and run their own classroom versus people coming together as a team, which is that they really got a combined responsibility for student success.
Matt: 03:54 Yeah. Seeing, I can’t do this job without you.
Steve : 03:59 Yeah.
Matt: 03:59 And that’s what I realized as a principal. I couldn’t do this job without the teacher’s input and understanding their decision making and trying to stop coming in and judging. And not that there’s not a place for that as a part of a supervisor, but it really has become a fraction of how I spend my days now. I’m now coming in daily, just learning, just coming in with kind of getting rid of my biases as much as I can and trying not to make assumptions and just coming in and noticing what’s going on, trying to notice what’s going well, communicating that with the teachers and eventually leading into conversations around their instruction, which is where as I’m sure you see as well in your work, is that’s where the impact happens, is learning together. And it’s so much more effective than like I said, that very technical way of trying to get people to improve. And that just doesn’t get you very far.
Steve : 05:03 At best minimum competencies.
Matt: 05:06 Yeah.
Steve : 05:07 We can evaluate whether minimum competencies are in place or not, but we can’t grow out of that evaluation process.
Matt: 05:13 That’s 100% correct. And that’s where evaluations can be effective. You get people to a minimum area, minimum level, like you said, but where go from there? And that’s kind of what I felt a decade ago, which is where kind of the idea for this book came about is, what is my role beyond getting teachers to a standard level of instruction? And I even wrote a blog post about it a decade ago, “can a principal also be a coach?” So the seed was planted there. 10 years later, we’ve got the book and I’m hoping to get it into the hands of leaders, not just principals, but coaches and superintendents and anyone who’s a leader, teacher leaders, I think can find this book helpful.
Steve : 05:55 I can tell you that a whole lot of years ago – so it was in the 80’s that I began to work in the area of coaching and way back then people would raise the question, can the administrator be an evaluator and a coach? And we responded to the fact that not only can they, but they really need to. Because at a minimum, they needed to model the behavior you wanted teachers to take on in the classroom. So most of the time the teacher’s a coach. There comes that day that the teacher puts on the evaluator hat and does the assessment. And then the next day, the teacher’s back in the coaching role using the outcome of the of the evaluation or the assessment to assist in jumping back in and working with growth. So I’ve always had the thought that it’s critical that an administrator, in effect, takes on both roles. And then a whole lot of years ago, they introduced that term of instructional leadership and I responded that if you really thought that the principal was an instructional leader, then part of the administrator’s evaluation would be looking at the growth that the teachers made as they worked with that principal.
Matt: 07:19 Yeah, I wish I would’ve gone back even farther and explored your work, just learning more about it here. And I’ve even had teachers when you mentioned, how can a principal also be a coach? I’ve even had a teacher say, I don’t think you can, because you’re an evaluator. How can you also coach? There seems to be some rigidity with where they just need these things to be siloed. What I try to do with this work is really kind of embrace that complexity and really be kind of fluid and shift from one of the other, just kinda like you said, with the teachers of one day, it’s evaluating other days, it’s really coaching. And I appreciate you noting too that this has a kind of bootstrapping effect too when you’re talking with teachers and you’re using coaching strategies like paraphrasing and posing questions and pausing.
Matt: 08:08 I remember a teacher last year coaching one of her first graders. He was writing all of these topics on camping, but he didn’t have a title. And she just said, “take a look at all of what you’ve written, all your topics, your table of contents and what do you think would be a good title?” And he’s like, “fun and camping.” And she’s like, “yes,” and he totally owned it and there was a lot of pride with that process. And later on, I just said, I couldn’t help but notice you using paraphrasing and some of the things we’ve talked about in our staff meetings and coaching. I hear you doing it. And likewise, I’ve tried it myself, so it absolutely can work.
Steve : 08:52 Critical modeling.
Matt: 08:53 Yeah. And there’s even research too. My background is in cognitive coaching. I’m not a cognitive coach per-se, but I’ve had coursework on it. And there was one research study where they looked at three different people working with teachers – an administrator, a coach, and a peer, and they were all trained in coaching and the result was, it didn’t matter who coached you, improvement occurred. And so that’s one of the studies I listed in the book to just really kind of break that myth that as an evaluator, I can’t also support learning.
Steve : 09:32 Would you say that the support comes from – the two words that come out my mind are conversation and reflection and they kind of go back together. So in effect, what that teacher did, she used a question to cause the first grade student to do some reflection and that led to the student’s thinking. And so it doesn’t matter which of those hats I have on, as long as I can cause reflection and conversation to occur. And historically, what was wrong with the evaluation is that those two things didn’t occur. The administrator came in, did all the thinking and issued a report. And so the teacher didn’t grow because the teacher wasn’t engaged in conversation or reflection.
Matt: 10:16 Yeah, I was there. I was coming in and checking all the boxes in my initial part of my principalship. And I was thinking back, I’m astonished at how often I was wrong because I didn’t ask and I wasn’t curious. I was trying to get certainty. I wanted to get it right. I can’t tell you how many calibration activities I’ve gone through with rubrics.
Matt: 10:44 And they really train you to not deviate from, are you curious because you want it to be accurate and I agree with that, but without
having conversations and reflections with the teacher, you’re only getting a limited perspective.
Steve : 10:56 And that’s where the growth comes. So even if you get a perfect, accurate evaluation, you didn’t cause any growth to happen.
Matt: 11:04 Right.
Steve : 11:04 If you weren’t able to move it into a coaching environment.
Matt: 11:09 Yeah. What’s driving this process.
Steve : 11:13 Well Matt, I see that you laid your book out in five key practices and I thought it would be valuable if we just kind of bounced through each of those as an outline for folks. So the first one that you had laid out was create confidence through trust. Could you take a moment or two and talk about that?
Matt: 11:37 We’ve heard a lot about trust and how it’s important, and even writing this book, I was writing this chapter and being able to count on someone and be able to know they’re not going to immediately jump to conclusions or only looked at the negative pieces, felt like that was kind of already said. And so what’s different about this? And that’s where the confidence piece comes in. When I trust that teacher I was just mentioning and instead of quickly naming it, or, I asked a question, right? And so I trusted them that they could articulate the practices they were doing. And I wasn’t, like you said, I wasn’t giving advice. I wasn’t telling them what I necessarily thought or didn’t think. And I think through those repeated experiences, then we’re creating confidence. They’re confident in themselves, I’m confident coming in the classroom and we can really start to have pretty authentic conversations. I don’t want to say honest because sometimes people right away conflate that with –
Steve : 12:41 Good word.
Matt: 12:42 Overly critical, right? But really naming and noticing those practices that they’re doing. So yeah, I wanted to start with trust
though and to make sure that that was in place before we start getting into the coaching side of things.
Steve : 12:57 So when I talk about trust, I usually connect it to the word vulnerability. Do you see a way that plays into that – in effect, you as the coaching administrator are vulnerable as well as the teachers are vulnerable?
Matt: 13:14 That’s huge. And in my initial work as a principal, I was reluctant to be open and honest about my own challenges and mistakes. And the pandemic certainly forced me even more so to be vulnerable. I remember we were preparing for the last school year and I had a few teachers just saying, I’m not feeling supported. And I could have come back and said, oh, remember all these trainings we did and all the technology we bought. And instead, I just said, I’m sorry you were feeling unsupported. My apologies for that. Please let me know what I can do to better support you. Here’s my phone number at home, give me a call over the weekend. And this was before the first day of the 2021 school year. No one called me, but I think just having that out there, I mean, they appreciated that. And it didn’t decrease my – I don’t think, their perception of my credibility or capacity. And I think they felt like we’re in it together.
Steve : 14:24 That’s the key. Great. The second element that you laid out is organize around a priority.
Matt: 14:33 Yeah. And not to date this podcast, I’m gonna tell another pandemic experience. The past couple of years it’s been tough to operate like more like a coach, primarily because we’ve been in survival mode. And how do you support that other than getting rid of obstacles and increasing resources, but with the priority it’s, what are you aiming for as a school and where do you need to grow? And I always start with what we’re doing well. I think that’s important, but then what’s that next step? So in my school, for example, it’s literacy, it’s particularly reading. And so that gives me a lens in which I can come into classrooms now, and hopefully we’ve got professional learning happening so that they’ve seen good practice, and now they’re trying to apply it.
Matt: 15:26 And then I can come in and really have a, not a laserlike focus, but have a framework in which to operate around common language. For example, what level of discussion are kids at with their book clubs and what kind of questions are being posed? Is it open ended or closed ended? And within that framework for literacy instruction, whatever that may be, whatever the school chooses, it really helps me as a principal or whatever kind of leader you are, to then engage in that conversation. So, yeah, frameworks can be – I mean I don’t know what a favorite one of yours is, but we use the gradual release of responsibility or optimal learning model, it’s kind of a adaptation of that.
Steve : 16:12 The whole concept of identifying a priority is critical in the in coaching for the one-on-one relationship. And I would say equal – I do a lot of work with professional learning communities and I’ve actually been voicing a phrase for the last couple years of goals before norms. That there’s a tendency when you bring this group together, you’re gonna put together a set of norms for everyone to operate with. Norms are are important but it’s a whole lot easier to agree on norms if we got some common reason for being there.
Steve : 17:04 And I was doing a coaching call with a a new instructional coach earlier today and she’s talking about an experienced teacher who’s just kind of like stuck where he is at. He’s at an okay spot and not moving on. And my conversation with her is, you’ve gotta be able to move the conversation to where there’s something important for him to make happen for kids that isn’t happening. And if you can get him to voice what that is, then now you and he can work together because you got something to make happen. So that spot that we’re moving towards is critical in coaching.
Matt: 17:35 And that’s what’s nice about a framework too, is there can be opportunities within that for a teacher to, I wanna work on this, and everyone’s working on something and I think that’s really important. And I wrote down the goals before norms. I think that that’s a good point of making sure form follows function.
Steve : 17:56 Yep. Third one you mentioned was affirm promising practices.
Matt: 18:02 Yeah. There was just an article I read on Twitter Inc. – it’s more of a business journal I think and they just basically said like, when you give critical feedback, people either do one of two things. They forget it, or they remember it and they don’t do anything about it. And I just think of some of the critical feedback I’ve received and like, I remember being resistant and because I have this belief and I am very good at what I do and that’s what we want in teachers. We want them to be confident but how do you get there? And so that’s where affirming, promising practices is to start with what are they doing well, and it’s validated. It’s not – if you remember the Saturday night life clip, Stuart Smalley, you know, good enough, I’m smart enough.
Matt: 18:51 Where’s the evidence on that? It’s not just a pat in the back it’s, here’s what you did, and here’s the impact that it had on kids. And that’s objective reality, right? That’s not something I’m just sugar coating. And so, again, with that teacher, when you allow that student to identify the title for their book, you empower them as a writer and that’s gonna carry forward the rest of the way. When I visit classrooms, 95% of the time, I’m writing notes. You can see on the cover of my book, in the book, you have some examples of instructional walks. They’re not walkthroughs, I’m not checking boxes. I’m not looking for certain things. I’m just documenting what happened. And then near the end, I’m affirming what they did well, and the impact that it had on kids. And that for me, is the entry point to those coaching conversations and which we can talk about practices that, that may be worth pursuing for improvement.
Steve : 19:59 So I’m guessing that ties closely then to the fourth element, which was communicate feedback. So those two kind of get paired together?
Matt: 20:09 Yeah. Communicate is a key word. And that’ll certainly help create that coach acronym, but it’s not giving feedback. It’s not delivering feedback. Like you said before, it’s principals might come in and just say, here’s, what’s going well, here’s what you need to improve on. It really is communicating it in a sense that I want teachers to hear it. And often that feedback isn’t coming from me, it’s coming from their own sources of knowledge, it’s their own experiences and things that they have forgotten about, maybe they got in a rut and then we start talking and they’re like, “oh yeah, I did that unit five years ago and I did that practice and I wonder why I stopped doing that.” And so when we say communicate feedback, it’s through that conversation that we have, and it’s often through questions, right?
Matt: 21:02 I have a new teacher who’s classroom library was very – it looked like a public library. All the spines were out, none of the books were facing out. So I withheld my assumption and I just said, “hey, how’s your classroom library going? What are you liking about it? What what’s challenging you?” And she’s like, “oh, it’s been great because the kids wanted it this way. They are the ones that said, well, I want all the series books together and we didn’t have enough room to face them all out, but the kids are reading more and and taking care of the classroom library.” I’m like, “that’s great.” And then I realized she needs, maybe she needs more shelving. So that led into that conversation of what do you need from me then? But through that conversation, she was able to reflect on her process and her decision making. And I think the point there too is it’s not
just communicating feedback to the teacher, it’s the teacher communicating feedback to me.
Steve : 22:03 I was just gonna say, as I was listening to you, you’re describing she was reflecting, but I think I’m hearing you were reflecting too.
Matt: 22:10 Oh yeah. I’m learning as much, if not more than the teachers because I’m not in their classroom, I’m in there 1%, 2% of the actual time. It would be very pompous of me to say I can come in and a matter of couple hours, here’s all the things you need to work on. It’s just not possible. So I’m coming in there trying to do these conversations around once every two to three weeks. It’s been a little bit slower with the pandemic, but these conversations accelerate my learning. So when I comes time for evaluation cycles, observations that are more formal, nothing’s really a surprise. And for the teacher too, and it’s really a lot less stressful when we have to engage in that work and a lot more accurate when I’m actually adding evidence into those systems.
Steve : 23:06 It’s interesting that when I flagged you to can communicate feedback, one of the first words you went to was questions. And it’s probably not what would jump out at people when they first consider the word communicate.
Matt: 23:22 Yeah.
Steve : 23:22 But it really is what makes it communication. Because it creates the conversation.
Matt: 23:27 Yeah. And the cognitive coaching work training I’ve done, or remember an activity, what are the five forms of feedback and which do you think are most effective and the number one is mediative questions. Not to say that there isn’t a time where I just need to say something, you know, because there is something that’s going on that’s just either really great or I do have concerns about. But even then, I can approach it with a thoughtful question.
Steve : 23:55 It comes out of the conversation.
Matt: 23:59 Yes.
Steve : 23:59 It in effect emerges out of the conversation so it feels normal.
Steve : 24:05 Where as when you’re in that evaluation process, it was kind of like, where did that come from?
Matt: 24:09 Yeah. It feels like you’re talking about the weather and and it’s a lot less stress inducing. And I remember one activity in a classroom, it was probably culturally insensitive, it wasn’t terrible, but I remember talking to them about it. I recognize that they’re bringing in diverse texts and they are facilitating conversations and the kids are doing research and this and this and all these affirming things. And then I finally said, and this was actually a question that my coach, my executive coach, my leadership coach helped me craft because I knew I was gonna ask this coming in, “how might a person of color come in and view this activity you’re doing today?” And it wasn’t accusatory, it wasn’t affirming, it was truly curious because I wanted to know what they were thinking when they went into this activity. And then they explained it and and then I did finally leave with, here’s kind of a next step is just continue to ask yourself that question whenever you’re designing any of these activities. And I appreciate your efforts here to diversify our curriculum and I think that’s important. And it did improve. So it’s a much more respectful, I think, way to engage in these types of things.
Steve : 25:29 Alright. And the last one that you had was help teachers become leaders and learners.
Matt: 25:34 And this is kind of a meta strategy, I guess. It’s incorporating all of these things. The note taking, the paraphrasing, the opposing questions. And I think this really comes to some advice I was given, which I think is for principal in particular to hear is to stick around in your schools to not hop around. To really commit to five to seven years at a minimum of being in that school. Because that seems to me, and I don’t know your experience, Steve, but that seems to be how long it takes to really kind of right the ship or get it going into the direction we all wanted to go.
Steve : 26:13 Build a team.
Matt: 26:14 Yeah, as a team.
Steve : 26:16 How do you build a team in a year and move on.
Matt: 26:19 Absolutely. Yeah. There’s it really isn’t any way. But that’s what I’ve noticed. In my previous school where I was there for five years, in my current school where I’m at for six years now, really starting to see teachers stepping up and becoming the leaders. And right now we’re looking to going through a curriculum renewal process for literacy and my coach is setting up site visits and I probably had a dozen teachers giving their opinions on one of the resources we looked at and everyone felt fairly safe speaking out, but I don’t think that would’ve happened five years ago. So in that chapter, it’s a shorter chapter, but it highlights one school and one district that through their commitment over the long term, really saw some profound change. And so it can happen, but there are no overnight successes in education.
Steve : 27:15 Well, Matt, I appreciate you taking the time to lay this out here for us. I’m wondering if you could tell the listeners the best way that they might communicate follow up with you.
Matt: 27:26 I am on Twitter. I enjoy puns and wordplay. So it’s @ReadByExample. I have some particular focus on literacy and leadership. I can also be found at my newsletter blog, readbyexample.substack.com, and the book can be found at Corwin or Amazon or wherever else they sell these books. But I’ve appreciated meeting you. I’ve heard your name before and just getting to know a little bit more about your work, it’s something I might pursue more as well. So thank you.
Steve : 28:04 You’re very welcome. We’ll be sure to put the sites that you just mentioned into the lead into this podcast so folks will be able to find you good luck to you.
Matt: 28:13 Thank you, Steve.
Steve : 28:14 Take care.
Steve [Outro]: 28:16 Thank you 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.