Field Trip: Principals & Fishbowls
At Franklin Public Schools in Wisconsin, building the capacity of teachers means developing principals.
In this interview, Director of Teaching and Learning Christopher Reuter and principal Erin King share what they’ve learned over the past few years as FPS has worked to grow building leaders as well as teachers.
- Near-immediate post-observation conversations with teachers
- Modeling conversations about practice in a fishbowl setting for other administrators to observe
- Getting teacher buy-in to the evaluation process
- Setting the tone for productive conversations
- The vital foundation of relationships and trust in the observation process
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: My focus has really been working with our principal team around deliberate practice and better understanding how to build their own capacity, so that no matter the complex task that comes forward to them day to day, they are equipped to solve or develop a team to solve that complex problem.
Hello, and welcome to Field Trip — the podcast where we share stories of excellence and innovation from other school and district leaders.
ERIN KING: As administrators we don’t see each other engage in post observation conversations with teachers, so we assume that we’re probably all doing it in the same way. I was told that I’m not necessarily doing it the same way as others and wanted others to be able to experience that.
From HR to Curriculum & Instruction, from the central office to the principal’s office, we look at how education leaders around the country are providing a better environment for teachers and staff, and a better education for students.
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
My guests today are Christopher Reuter, Director of Teaching and Learning at Franklin Public Schools in Wisconsin, and Erin King, a principal in the same district. Chris and Erin, it’s good to have you here.
Chris Reuter: It’s great to be here, Ryan.
Erin King: Good morning.
A bit of background: Franklin Public Schools is a south side suburb of Milwaukee. It’s high-performing — they exceed expectations on state accountability metrics, and there are seven schools: 5 elementary schools, one middle school where Erin is the principal, and one high school that has about 1600 students.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: We’re not a huge district, but we’re not a small district in comparison to the surrounding Southeastern Wisconsin school districts.
As the director of teaching and learning, what is your job, Chris? What is most important on your plate when you walk into work every day?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: Well, at the end of the day, it’s teaching and learning, right? It’s right in the title. My job is to help build the capacity of the people in our organization, so that every day we are delivering quality instruction to meet the needs of all students that walk through all seven of those buildings, for not only the present tense that we’re in with them, but the future, so that they’re college and career ready and they’re successful beyond Franklin High School after 12th grade.
Franklin Public Schools has been on a journey toward higher educator effectiveness for a number of years now. In 2011, Wisconsin began making significant changes to its evaluation process across the state for both teachers and principals — using multiple measures looking areas of professional practice and student outcomes.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: Franklin was one of the first districts at the table to work through some of those discussions. Our now superintendent, who at the time was our director of HR, Dr. Judy Miller, she worked at the state level on the evaluation framework through some committee work and brought that work back to Franklin Public Schools.
At the time, I believe I was a first-year assistant principle at the middle school. We heard this term SLO, and we didn’t really know what that meant.
The district had been using the Danielson Framework for Teaching for ten to fifteen years already, so while the language and understanding of Charlotte Danielson’s work wasn’t new, the way they went about using it was. They began trying out the new system, and Chris worked with a handful of teachers as part of Franklin’s pilot program. They then shared that data back to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: That’s kind of where we began, and from there, it’s morphed into a more, I think, usable coaching framework, as well as at the end of the day, an accountability measure around student data and achievement and teacher practice. We’ve had a lot of bumps along the way, and it’s not perfect yet, but I feel that as an organization, we’re growing every year with our understanding, and really trying to grow beyond compliance and build toward commitment. Very early on, and Erin can probably attest to this too, as we worked together at the middle school for a while, and it was very much checklists, “Let’s get this done. I have my goal. I have my number of observations. I had my meetings with my administrator. Check, check, check, done. Now it’s a new year.”
We really have worked, over the last couple of years, and we’ll continue to work to better understand how we can utilize the Framework, as well as student learning outcomes as growth, and coaching, and development of our practice, knowing that we can be better every day.
I know that a large part of your work, Chris, focuses on developing principals. How do you do that?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: Yeah. As I said, my job is obviously to develop and expand the capacity of teaching and learning across the district, and I think the principalship, at least in the state of Wisconsin right now, is the hardest job in public education. You’re pulled in every direction. You just open up any newspaper, go to any website that has news or social media, and you see the many things that happen daily in our schools, and it’s the principal who’s got to carry that load, as well as connect the ever-moving parts together to make sure that everyone’s moving forward.
My job in developing principals is through exposure to new learning and understanding, but then also the application of how they’re going to take that learning and come up against obstacles and barriers and overcome them. It’s really easy to say, “Let’s go to a conference on PBIS,” or, “Let’s go to a conference on personalized learning.”
Those are just things or strategies to get to teaching and learning. My focus has really been working with our principal team around deliberate practice and better understanding how to build their own capacity, so that no matter the complex task that comes forward to them day to day, whether it’s a curriculum issue, whether it’s a student issue, they are equipped to solve or develop a team to solve that complex problem versus being reactive and saying, “We’ll go to conference and learn something, and then hope it works in our buildings.” Really being analytical and strategic thinkers, so that they can bring coherence to their building daily, so it is focused on children and teaching and learning.
We’re about to speak with Erin, who as you said, is one of your principals there at Franklin. Erin, how long have you been in your role as a principal?
ERIN KING: This is my second year as the building principal, and I was the associate principal for the three years prior to that in the same building here at Forest Park.
What is your building like?
ERIN KING: Our building is currently seventh and eighth grade students only. We have 721 students, so we have about 360 at each grade level. We are a house system, meaning that we have four core teachers that rally around about 120 students in order to make it more of a community within this building. Our students have math, and literacy, science, and social studies, and then quite a lot of opportunities within the exploratories around tech ed, family consumer science, business, along with PE and musics. Our students come every day, and they are ready to go. Our teaching staff is up to that task on a daily basis.
As you heard, I was just asking Chris about what it looks like to develop principals. What does that look like from your end, as you have grown in your own role? What would you say have been the most helpful things that have helped you reach your goals?
ERIN KING: I would say the most helpful has been … Well, there’s two things that come to mind. First is our administrative team. We come together regularly, and last year specifically, we focused a lot on our own learning as principals and administrators and what that looks like, and had a lot of professional conversations, and engaged in book studies, in order to deepen our own understanding and have those conversations with each other to make sure we’re working within a system and growing within a system.
The second part is really the observation process for myself. Last year was, I think, more formalized, where the director team all came and conducted observations of me leading within this building, having conversations with teachers, and then the most powerful growth moments were in those post observation conversations with my director, where they really posed questions and really challenged my thinking, my mindset, the way I go about the job, and helped me to reflect throughout that process.
Of course, you now work with teachers to help them examine their own practice. I know that you’ve been working to model a different way of approaching supervision and teacher evaluations. What have you been doing on that front?
ERIN KING: Well, it started last year, where my PPG was really around learning-focused conversations with individuals, which is why I asked the director team to come and observe me during post-observation conversations with teachers. I really had a big “aha” moment during my own observation cycle that I wasn’t providing timely feedback, because I was trying to have everything look perfect, have it all done, tied up in a bow with my feedback entered into it. I was waiting too long to have those conversations with teachers and focused too much on maybe that one observation period versus instructional practice overall.
How do evaluations look different at Franklin today than what people might have been used to a decade or two ago?
ERIN KING: It is more evidence-based, where we are really looking at what is happening with students. I think we are focused far more on what students are doing versus what the teacher is doing. I think a decade ago all of the evidence and the conversation would have really revolved around the teacher, and the moves that they are making as a teacher, and the instruction that they are saying versus how and what the impact is on students. So, we’re shifting the focus of the conversation to the impact that we’re making, because that’s the ultimate goal.
Let’s talk about what the observation process looks like and how these conversations go. What do you do before, during, and then after an observation?
ERIN KING: We meet with each teacher before the observation, “we” meaning my assistant principal and I. We both follow the same process. I’ll meet with a teacher prior to the observation, and I ask them, “Tell me what I’m going to see third hour?” They walk me through what I might see. If they don’t focus in on what the students will be doing, because that is a shift, if they talk a lot about what they will be doing, I ask them explicitly, “What will I see and hear kids doing?” Then if they don’t explicitly bring up our building focus — we have two around literacy and engagement — then I ask them, “How will I see our building priorities come to life within the classroom?”
It’s a pretty quick meeting. It’s about 10 to 15 minutes, we don’t want to take up more time than we need to. Because I expect them to be responsive within the lesson, so I don’t expect them to be able to tell me every nuance of their class period.
After the pre-observation conversation, Erin conducts the observation itself — and she does record evidence using Frontline Professional Growth, the system that Franklin Public Schools uses to manage their evaluation process.
ERIN KING: But even that has evolved to trying to take a step back and looking at the whole structure of the class period, what the majority of student are doing, the feel of what is happening in the classroom versus, “Johnny stopped and tied his shoe.” That makes no impact. It does not matter, so looking at those high leverage pieces of evidence within the class period.
And then, Erin asks the teacher to meet with her right away the next day – even if she hasn’t yet cleaned up her evidence statements or entered feedback into the system, and even if the teacher hasn’t had a chance to log their own reflection.
ERIN KING: I’m okay with that, because the power is in the conversation. I just have out the one sheet of paper where I wrote notes down about their pre-observation, and then we have a post-observation conversation. We did some learning around learning-focused conversation, one of Charlotte Danielson’s books, and really open-ended questions, and we start with, “So, thinking back to third hour yesterday, what comes to mind?” Then I do very little talking and do a lot of listening.
You mentioned that you meet with them right away, the very next day. What’s important, Erin, about that quick timeline?
ERIN KING: Acknowledging that our teachers have a really hard job, where they are teaching a lot of lessons in a day, and if we wait three, four, even a week later, they’ve taught a lot of lessons, and being able to reflect on their instructional moves and their responsiveness to certain students or situations in the classroom, the reflection is not nearly as able to go into the depth of the work nearly as well. That timeliness is incredibly important, not only for the true reflection, but also for the whole genuine feeling around this process.
The longer you wait, the more nerves do get the best of teachers, and they start to worry about it and wonder what I’m going to think about them, and they start to go personal with it and get worried about it. That quick timeframe helps not only the climate and culture in the building, but also the true understanding of the depth of the conversation.
I know that schools everywhere are grappling with how to approach observations and improve practice. What has your change process looked like as you’ve dealt with this issue? Where did you start, and where are you now?
ERIN KING: I started last year as the building principal for the first year, moving from AP, trying to best understand how I can have an impact on this building. I discovered that it is through those conversations. I focused in on learning-focused conversations with individuals last year, really dug into some literature around that, engaged in conversation with my own colleagues and the director team, and then was really transparent with teachers that this was my growth area, and that’s why I am working on it. I am asking directors to join us in these post observation conversations to provide me feedback. That transparency with teachers, I think, also helped the climate and culture, in the sense that they saw me being vulnerable and seeking feedback from others as well in this growth process.
Taking it from there this year, understanding that I really want to widen my sphere of influence, I’m focused on teams, and impacting teams, and moving them forward, as that is really our biggest bang for our buck, as we don’t work in silos anymore, that we are working together as a team in order to impact as many students as possible.
So, I’ve been seeking feedback this year around how I am engaging in learning-focused conversations with teams, whether that’s a PLC, a grade level team, or a house team, where they’re focused in on students and individuals around social-emotional needs. I’ve been soliciting some feedback from the directors there and engaging in learning around emotional intelligence and how I can improve myself in order to impact teams.
It sounds like this is a real two-way dialogue. I know you mentioned that teachers give you feedback on the observation process — but how do you get them to buy in to what you’re doing in the first place?
ERIN KING: I do. I ask them for feedback, and I’m very honest. I put my cards on the table, and my staff I believe has seen that, now that I’ve been in this building for four and a half years, that really who I am is who I am every day. They see that honesty, and that transparency, and vulnerability. They’ve seen it at a different level with engaging and getting pretty honest feedback from the director team at my post-observation conversations, or during the team meetings, where there are directors there, and they are there for me and not for others.
Even just seeing that and experiencing it, they see that I am learning and growing as well, which has been part of the feedback that teachers have given me, that they really appreciate that they see that I’m learning, and that I’m growing, and that I’m dedicated to that process, which is very similar to the process that they’re going through.
How do you set the tone for a productive conversation as you observe teachers and then have these conversations? How do you do it in such a way that they then receive and act upon that feedback? Also, how do you make sure that the conversation is two-way and not just top-down?
ERIN KING: By listening. I pose open ended questions, and then I listen. Really it’s been hard for me to have extra-long wait time, but if I really have the wait time, they will fill the silence, and they will continue to talk. The power in that, listening and them talking, is I’m able to have insights into their thoughts and how they are approaching their instruction, and how they’re approaching students, and gaining information around their mindsets in order to really find high leverage entry points to be able to continue to move them forward.
I know that lately you’ve been spreading the knowledge that you’ve been able to gain and actually modeling some of these observations in front of other administrators. Talk to me more about that. How did that begin?
ERIN KING: I think it began by my director team coming to me, probably Chris, coming and saying, “Hey. We’ve seen you engage in this practice with teachers, because as administrators we don’t see each other engage in post-observation conversations with teachers, so we assume that we’re probably all doing it in the same way. I was told that I’m not necessarily doing it the same way as others, and wanted others to be able to experience that. So Chris approached me to see if I would be willing to model or have a fishbowl where I’d model a post-observation conversation in front of the other administrators. Now my phone’s ringing.
No. Take your time. That’s fine.
ERIN KING: We often think that we might do things similarly, even though the way that we go about the work might be different, and I think that was the case with our learning-focused conversations and the way that we, Jake and I, here at Forest Park, were engaging in those conversations.
So I approached a teacher that I have complete faith and trust in that is a real growth-mindsetted professional, and asked her if she would be willing to engage in this fishbowl and put herself out there, be vulnerable along with me and model a post-observation conversation. She was willing to do that, so we engaged in the pre-observation conversation on a Tuesday, or I think it was a Monday. Then I observed her on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday she went with me up to the high school, where our administrative meeting was. We engaged in the post-observation conversation in front of all of the other principals, and directors, and superintendent within the district.
Was that at all nerve-wracking, either for you or for the teacher?
ERIN KING: Oh yeah, for both of us. We were definitely nervous. I was probably less nervous, but you wouldn’t know it from the teacher’s perspective. She held it together really well. She is always calm and such a learner and did a very nice job being able to articulate her thoughts around her instruction and what she can continue to learn and improve.
How was this room set up? Is there anything special about the way that this actually looks when you’re there in the room having this conversation in front of the other administrators?
ERIN KING: We were in the middle of the room with tables around us in a U-shape, but I think that the most important thing was I had a document camera that was displaying my notes from the pre-observation conversation, and the notes that I took along the way during the post-observation conversation, which we then referenced during our debrief when we were done with our conversation. The other principals were asking, “What were the notes you were writing? How did you circle to this feedback? Did you know what you wanted her to learn and where it was going to end?” We were able to reference those notes throughout that debrief.
Have you done more of these? What does that look like now?
ERIN KING: We have not done more of those at this time. I do anticipate that we would continue to do this type of learning, because I feel that it was incredibly valuable. We had some positive feedback from the other principals and directors.
Can you tell me a little bit about that feedback? What sort of things did you hear from people who were watching you?
ERIN KING: Chris might have more insight into that, but they were grateful to hear how the conversation flowed. Did it start with some compliments around the teacher and what I saw specifically within the classroom in order to set the stage of calm and comfortable and that this wasn’t a “gotcha.” And then really the open-ended questions and talking through which sentence stems I might utilize or how I might go about the process, and then how to interweave our building focus with making it authentic, and not just planting it in there, because we need to talk about it, and then it becomes very compliance based. Chris, do you have any insight?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: Yeah. I was wondering when you were going to let me talk. [Laughter] I think that Erin, as you heard … Ryan, Erin is, you can tell from the themes that are coming out, she’s one of our best at making connections. That was evident in the observations that she talks about with directors, as well as the work she did with one of her teachers in front of the entire district leadership team. She’s really good at being very clear on how that observation relates back to the own professional growth of the teacher, around their professional practice goal, and how it relates back to the teacher’s SLO as well as the building SLO, and then makes those connections for the teacher, but also asks the questions that puts it back on the teacher to make the connections themselves.
I think that’s really the focus that we’re trying to move forward with in Franklin around learning-focused conversations, rather than it being an administrator or a supervisor coming in and rescuing and saying, “This is what you should do. This is what you need to do,” it’s guiding that conversation, so that the teacher is able to say, “Man, if I would’ve done a small group at this time, I would have had more formative data to guide my future instruction. I think something I need is some coaching around that, or I need further feedback from you as my administrator.”
We really are trying to shift that focus from — just like in the classroom where we want the kids to be their own problem solvers and utilize their resources, and support as needed with scaffolds, we want to do the same with teachers. So we’re not just coming in and saving the day or sharing advice after the fact, when the lesson’s already done.
That’s great. Apart from the actual observation that happens in these fish bowls, what conversations do you have with the people who are there to watch, either before or after the observation itself, or before or after the conversation itself?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: I can share from a systems standpoint. Since Erin engaged in this work and modeled this in front of our admin team, I’ve observed three, four principals since then in the same venue, so it’s caught on that, “Look at the work that Erin’s done over the last year and how that’s developed her and the feedback she’s received.” Myself and two other directors have all observed at least two to three principals in the venue in providing feedback.
We as a director team meet every Monday, and one of our standing agenda items is to calibrate around our observation of principals and share what we saw, talking about the post-observation conversation, where that went. We’re trying to model and do what Erin does with her teachers with our principals as well, whether it be one on one or in small groups.
And Chris told me that other administrators hadn’t done fishbowl observations with the whole group like this, but he will work with principals individually as they have these post-observation conversations.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: So, I might go over to one of our elementary schools, observe an elementary principal having a learning-focused conversation with their teacher post observation. It’s not the whole group, but the more one on one, kind of like the work that Erin did last year leading up to where she’s at now.
Are you using this as a way to model observations and train other administrators as well?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: We’re trying. We’re trying. We’re trying to show that, again, it’s about the ongoing conversation and not the event.
Here’s a fairly broad question for both of you, Chris and Erin, and you can choose how you’d like to answer it. What would you say are the most important things you’ve learned — whether it’s in how administrators perform observations and have these professional conversations with teachers or just in general, as you’ve been on this journey toward higher educator effectiveness — are there particular things that have really come up and made you say, “Ah. That was a missing piece that we’ve been able to put into place as a result of what we’ve learned over the past few years”?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: I think from a systems approach, and this happens with anything, because it’s safe and easy, at the end of the day, we got too focused on structure to start when we engaged in this journey of educator effectiveness. It was more about the forms, and timelines, and dates, than it was about the practice, the strategies, the belief. That’s the hard work that there’s not a clear, linear path. The structural path is very easy to accomplish and feel a sense of gratitude and accomplishment, however that has the lowest impact. It’s those strategies, self and standards, that have the greatest impact.
That’s great. Erin, any thoughts from you?
ERIN KING: I think my biggest takeaway is that people do want to learn, and they want to grow, that they signed up to be an educator, because they believe in the best of kids, and they want to get better. When our system, like Chris was saying, gets too bogged down in compliance, and forms, and any sort of online documentation program that we use, no matter what the platform is, if that’s where we focus, that’s where teachers focus.
If we model learning, and growing, and open conversation that doesn’t have some Big Brother ending point to it that they think is coming, people want to grow, and teachers are doing this work for the right reasons, we just need to model that and continue the growth efforts.
The question that comes to my mind immediately after hearing this is, as you supervise people, teachers and principals, how do you maintain this level of excitement for learning and wanting to have these conversations that are all about education, and how do you balance that with being someone’s boss or someone’s supervisor?
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: I’ll let Erin go first, since I’m her supervisor. I’d like to hear the answer to that one.
ERIN KING: This feels like a gotcha. [Laughter]
The question is leading towards relationships, and trust, and understanding, and reminding each other that we choose to do this work. Nobody is forcing anybody to come to this building every day. You choose, I choose to come and work with middle school students, and we want the best for them.
Our world continues to change and continues to evolve. We are not unique in that in education. You look at any other business or platform out there, it’s going to continue to change, and we are great at change and reminding people of that, that’s why we’re here and that we choose to come and building relationships with people.
So, when you have open, honest conversations, you’re able to do that and not end up leaving here worried about your job or thinking that somebody is going to be watching you and being really nervous and upset about that, that it really is relationships. Those take a long time to form if they’re going to be really good relationships and not based on anything but trust.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: I would echo everything. The foundation of a good education system is relationships. We all got into education for public service, because we had a relationship at a school, an experience during our school time that changed us or put us on a course of action that was positive, and we wanted to give back. We choose to come and do this job every day to work with kids. They’re our product. They’re our customer. They’re our everything. You have to keep coming back to why we come to work. It’s about kids, and it’s about the relationships. We build with them every day, whether they’re good or bad, and how do we get better at building those relationships? Because ultimately if they don’t walk through the doors, we don’t have a job, so we have a moral imperative to continue to strive to be better every day for them.
Chris Reuter and Erin King are on the line with us from Franklin Public Schools in Wisconsin, and Chris and Erin, thank you both again for your time today.
CHRISTOPHER REUTER: You’re welcome, Ryan. Thank you.
ERIN KING: You’re welcome.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for the K-12 market. That includes Frontline Professional Growth, a holistic solution to help educators manage the entire educator growth cycle in one system, including employee evaluations and professional learning, and provide tools for educators to collaborate online. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.