An Interview with Randy Sprick and Tricia McKale-Skyles

May 22, 2018
Written by
Jim Knight

An Interview with Randy Sprick and Tricia McKale-Skyles

August 17, 2023
May 22, 2018
Written by
Jim Knight

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Randy and Tricia, of Safe and Civil Schools, about their work surrounding coaching and behavior. You can read the full interview below.

In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, I’ll be posting interviews with experts like them who will be presenting. I hope they inspire, educate, and provoke new thinking. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

‍Tell us about your story

(Randy) I got into working with kids because I needed a job to put myself through college and began working as a teacher’s aide in a program for severely behaviorally disturbed kids. That started in 1968, and I joined in 1971. To this day, I consider it one of the best models for working with tough kids both academically and behaviorally to get them back into a mainstream program. I got my certificate a couple of years later and became a teacher, and then moved into teacher coaching.

‍How did you come to write about coaching?

(Randy) I was doing coaching for a particular instructional methodology, Direct Instruction (it was called DISTAR back then), and started to develop a reputation that I knew something about behavior. So the publisher of Direct Instruction at the time, SRA, Science, Research Associates, asked me to write a classroom management book. I subsequently wrote The Solution Book, which was sort of the first edition of a book that is now called Champs. Helping teachers implement the approach is what lead me to work on Coaching Classroom Management book.

‍How about you, Trish?

(Trish) I got involved with both of you when I was an instructional coach in Topeka, Kansas. Behavior, schoolwide policy, and procedural issues in classroom management were getting in the way of us being able to do anything instructionally. We needed a model to follow, so we brought in Safe and Civil Schools. At first I didn’t like it. In the very first session, I had decided that it was too simple and that it would fall by the wayside relatively quickly. So, I went in because we were required to coach a couple of teachers through it; in fact, I deliberately went in with a teacher who had already decided she was quitting, with the intent that this teacher would quit, and then I would say, ”See, I told you. CHAMPS doesn’t work.” But in spite of my best efforts to sabotage the program, it worked, and I became a believer. It blends the art and the science of teaching, which is rare, even in otherwise good programs and processes.

(Jim) You became our behavioral expert. What was the draw for behavior for you?

(Trish) I’m a tier 3 kid. I struggled with school, and pretty early on work I found things in some of this that could have helped me so I would not have fought the system as hard as I did. So it kind of became my quest to make sure that no other child would have to go through the bad management I did.

‍Tell me about your publications on coaching

(Trish) As far as the Coaching Classroom Management is concerned, I don’t remember how that started. All I know is that I wormed my way into it relatively quickly because I wanted to be a part of it.

(Jim) Well, I don’t think that there is any worming going on. We saw it as a chance to learn from you. We had just soaked up Randy’s work, so it was logical to me that you would be a part of it. Please describe that book a bit.

(Trish) The Coaching Classroom Management book came about because we wanted to combine the best of both worlds – what we know is good instructional one-on-one coaching and what we know are good classroom management skills. To marry those two worlds together, we needed a current practitioner to try some things out. Through that process of trial and error, we created a publication that creates that three-pronged approach. It focuses on what evaluative coaches, administrators, need to do to construct a vision and a purpose as well as psychological safety for the teachers who will be involved in the systems change and what the nonevaluative coaches, those who need confidentiality to work with the teachers and dig deep into data to show current reality, and then create strategies to bring about the needed change. The third areas focuses on what we need to be doing together.

‍What about some other publications from Safe and Civil Schools – or not just books but supports that Safe and Civil Schools provides?

(Randy) We focus on three major areas. First, school behavior support – helping to guide leadership teams unify the staff around effective practices and getting staff to realize that they need to consciously construct the climate of the school; that is, it should be an inviting, safe place for kids that fosters building relationships between adults and kids. The second layer is the classroom. Champs, our book for K-8, basically guides teachers through the decisions they have to make to deliver effective instruction, based on the research. But teachers have a lot of flexibility with regard to how they do it. No one needs to completely change their personality or their style to do this well. Discipline in the Secondary Classroom is basically Champs for high school. A lot of districts have adopted the two books as their district-led approach. At that same level, classroom universal is where coaching classroom management comes in. The district should not demand that teachers implement a program but provide resources and assistance in implementing the approach effectively. That is where the coaching piece has been a huge addition to our work, and we owe a great deal to you, Jim, in helping us shape that book. The third aspect of what we do is the resources we develop to help professionals design plans for individual students that are human, effective, and data-driven. In short, we view ourselves as offering a comprehensive approach to behavior that a district can adopt and use as a guide for how to set up multitiered systems of behavior support.

(Jim) Thanks for those kind words, but we also learned enormously from you and continue to learn from work that you and your colleagues are doing at Safe and Civil Schools. What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching and coaching around behavior?

(Randy) One of the core features of our work is data-driven decision making; that is, using the knowledge base within the research literature about what effective teachers do. We can measure with simple tools whether a teacher is using a certain strategy or is doing some things ineffectively, and then we can share those data with the teacher and suggest that if he manipulate these certain variables, he can achieve the goals he has for her students, both behaviorally and academically.

(Trish) But ultimately, our approach to all professional development underscores that teachers are free to accept or reject any idea that we bring them. Research shows very clearly what effective teachers do; it’s not up to the coach whether something gets implemented or not, but it is up to the coach to how to break things down to make them easy for teachers to implement – they are still the drivers of what happens in their classrooms. If we can show them that those high-leverage strategies that we talk about are quite simple to implement, people will make a change – if they relieve any kind of pain, they will be willing to make the change. But when coaches do not give high-leverage strategies or do not remove pain, teachers choose the pain of the status quo. That is, ultimately, you don’t change unless the pain of the change is less than the pain of the status quo.

(Randy) I would like to add two things. One, early on in my own coaching, I was good intuitively at interacting with teachers, finding out the point where we could meet, either motivated by pain – frustration or anger that the kids are driving teachers crazy – or altruism. Those are two very different things although the procedures that you are sharing with the teacher are very much the same.Second, one of the reasons we try, whenever possible, to work with districts longitudinally is that some things can be established by a district so that over time we can say to a teacher, “you’re still going to have tremendous autonomy in terms of style, but there are certain absolutes we all have to abide by.” For example, we encourage districts to adopt the absolute rule that nobody should be belittled.

(Trish) Part of the autonomy is that it is freedom within form. It’s not the absence of all form. So, marrying consistency and autonomy is critical; administrators need to set some consistent targets per classroom, like 90% engaged and on task and 90% compliance with behavioral expectations that have 3 to 1, 4 to 1, or 5 to 1 positive behavioral interactions. But how you get there is largely up to the teachers and the conversation they had with their coach. Without a clear target like that, there’s no need for coaches. Without clear targets, teachers might be getting better, but they’re still ineffective. So, it becomes a celebration of mediocrity as, for example, when you walk into a school and the principal says, “you should visit this teacher’s classroom; she does a great job.” And the teacher is doing a wonderful job compared to everyone around her, but if you look at the effectiveness research and targets like engagement, compliance, ratio, she is still low. So you have to have targets, otherwise, what are the coaches coaching towards? Would you disagree with that?

(Jim) First off, we wouldn’t give feedback the way you described it. I like the idea of a schoolwide commitment to have principles and values to work from – what is best for kids. Our beliefs in Better Conversations is that we don’t judge others; we are affirmative, not judgmental. We see the coach as a partner talking to a teacher, so we bring things up that a teacher might bring up to another teacher. I would rather have the teacher look at a video than me saying, “look, you need to do this with the kids.” And if someone has to say something, I would rather have it be the administrator than the coach. But we really believe that teachers have to get a clear picture of reality and give the feedback to themselves, including self-reflection. If teachers don’t want to watch the video, then we would audio record the class, and if they don’t want to record the class, then we would keep a script of what is happening in the class. But regardless, we believe strongly that teachers have to come to an awareness, understanding, on their own.

(Trish) That’s collaborative exploration of data. I agree with that. We don’t have a lot of coaches on our team, but when we have been tasked with going in, we don’t assess using top-down feedback. Instead, we approach the situation like, “here is a reflection; what are your thoughts?” Because, ultimately, it’s up to the teacher. At the same time, however, there are districtwide targets that everybody needs to work on.

(Randy) Let’s say you are sharing some data with a teacher regarding on-task behavior for a target kid and suggest looking at ratios of interaction and the teacher says she has already done that and then adds that she just doesn’t like the kid. In that case, if we have some districtwide beliefs around like and dislike, it allows me to relate to those. Jim, if you were interacting with this same teacher, what would your recommendation be for the coach?

(Jim) In Better Conversations, we talk about toxic conversations. A part of creating better conversations is that you have to redirect toxic conversations. We are the professionals, and we have to take responsibility for creating a place that is psychologically safe. So, I would approach that person in the same way that I would approach somebody who said something sexist or racist: I would want to have a strategy, so I might name what they said, for example; redirect it but address it in some way.

(Trish) So, you are really naming it.

(Trish) When we are setting the culture and climate of a school, when you hit that tipping point, there is a tendency for everybody to agree that kids are first and that we don’t want to belittle everyone. Yet, you still have those few teachers saying, “I don’t like this kid.” I am cautious about writing those teachers off because 50% of our new teachers are leaving the profession within the first five years, so I want coaches to know that if you approach it through that context of, “so you don’t like this kid, so what do we do?,” sometimes changes in their behavior change their beliefs. We often focus so hard on needing to change the beliefs first that we never get any traction. At a certain point, you go, “let’s just try this,” and it goes back to the pain versus altruism. Let’s just try this, and over time that is what changes the beliefs.

‍What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

(Randy) One thing that I am emphasizing more is the importance of teachers having pre-planned protocols for common events. I have been giving people a suggestive protocol in a word document so they can more easily make it their own. This isn’t the “right” protocol in all situations, but the metaphor I give is that of a pilot who is faced with an engine going out mid-flight. The pilot isn’t going to go, “oh, crap, what do I do?” Instead, he is going to assess the situation and switch to the sub-protocol. In other words, he is not having to make a decision in that moment. So, in teaching, I think teachers should have a protocol in mind for common misbehaviors like a kid getting off task. I think a huge part of what makes behavior problems more emotional than academic problems is trying to think in the moment, “what do I do with this behavior that puts my authority in question?”

(Randy) The other thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that whatever procedures are proving effective need to be archived within the school so that they outlast tenure of any individual. So, at the schoolwide level, for example, your arrival procedures, your lessons, and your description to your staff about how you supervise morning arrival, and who does what and where during morning arrival, need to be archived so the procedures, if effective live on even with change of leadership in the building.. . What we are really talking about is building-based generational progress

(Trish) I don’t know if this is something new I’ve learned, but it has become crystal-clear to me that effective coaching as part of the behavioral model takes time. For example, giving teachers an hour every month to engage in coaching that might not be the best use of time. Maybe you need to find a different way to coach. Again, it goes back to it’s got to be processes and procedures, not people-specific.

(Jim) For us, the goal is critical. Once you’ve got the goal, then everything should be helping you get to the goal. We would say that you have to meet at least once a week and there is kind of a hierarchy, face-to-face is the best. If you can’t do face-to-face, maybe meet on Skype, or if that doesn’t work, a phone call, and if you can’t do a phone call, e-mail or text; regardless, there has to be a check-in at least once a week.

‍What is a good metaphor for what coaches do?

(Randy) I think one potential metaphor is a really inspirational sports coach. In basketball, for example, the objective is clear: It’s win the game, foster teamwork, etc. A masterful coach does everything possible to both teach skill, inspire, and work toward clear and agreed-upon goals – winning that championship. It’s up to the principal or district to be clear on what the goals and objectives are and the intended outcome.

(Jim) Our phrase is: firm on the standard, flexible on how to get there. It’s treating teachers like professionals.

(Randy) And there is no way that we will ever have the exact answers to what a teacher is to do. When you look at two absolute master teachers, you see many stylistic differences between them and, yet, they can be equally effective.

(Trish) I think that is the very thing, that all of our work is up against. We don’t want skilled laborers taking care of the hearts and minds of our youth, yet the system itself is designed to do just that.

(Randy) An example of that is the TELL surveys of over one million teachers in 25,000 districts in 16 states. One of the biggest correlates of achievement was teachers having input on school improvement plans, specifically regarding behavior and discipline. But only 4% of teachers strongly agreed that they had a voice, and only 25% moderately agreed with that statement. This means that 70% of teachers disagreed – talk about skilled laborers …

(Jim) Related to that, a Gallup poll found that compared to doctors, nurses, truck drivers, service workers in restaurants, miners, and construction workers, teachers were the least likely to feel heard.

‍Our conference theme is courage. How do you see your work helping people have courage, living out the theme of courage? Where does courage show up in your work?

(Randy) I think courage shows up in our basic mindset that every kid has the ability to make progress in terms of behavior, academics, etc., because that says that as the teacher I am accepting a huge level of responsibility to find the strategy that will allow that to happen. With graduation rates hovering most optimistically at 83%, I think it takes courage on every educator’s part to say that we want to reach more and more kids that our system has historically never reached. That requires guided work.

(Trish) I think the realm of behavior in general requires a certain amount of courage. Because all other things be equal, teachers feel more threatened by the kid who is noncompliant behaviorally than the one who is showing academic deficit. It is tough having to create an environment that is conducive to kids being able to manage behavioral deficits.

‍Please give us a summary of what you will present at TLC

(Randy) In the preconference, we will give a vision of multitiered support for behavior at the building level to reduce the probability that anybody falls through the cracks of our system because of behavior, motivation, or discipline issue. Then Trisha is going to spend the afternoon on coaching classroom management. Basically, what you offer at the instructional coaching institute.I will also be doing a session called changing the mindset of teachers towards student misbehavior, including how protocols can reduce the probability that we are threatened by misbehavior and fall into negative patterns.

(Trish) I am going to talk about working with students with challenging behavior.

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