In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, Coaching, we’ll be posting interviews with experts who have presented at the conference or those who will be presenting this year. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, we hope they inspire, educate, and provoke new thinking. We don’t always agree with everything we hear in the interviews, but we are grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and we hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.
Tara M. Martin is an enthusiastic educator, speaker, and author. Her book, Be REAL: Educate from the Heart, speaks to the importance of life experiences and personal strengths for each person’s growth and development. Individualizing learning has been a focus throughout her career serving as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and district administrator. She is also the founder of #BookSnaps, a strategy used in schools in seventeen different countries that utilizes Snapchat alongside several other digital, visual representation platforms to increase student engagement and reading comprehension. All of her work strives to challenge the status quo through innovative change and to embrace each individual’s unique identity, and we are very excited to welcome her as a speaker at this year’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference.
Jim: You were an instructional coach for a while, if I’m not mistaken.
Tara: Right, for about eight years. I spent a good chunk of my time in the instructional coaching role and then later moved into administration. As an administrator, I served as a mentor and supervisor of our district instructional coaches. We actually began a coaching program that year. So cool.
Jim: Where was that?
Tara: Auburn-Washburn. Coaching has my heart, no doubt.
Jim: How did you come to write about education?
Tara: Be REAL: Educate from the Heart is mostly about valuing relationships, and keeping our life experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly – very much a part of who we are; it helps us relate to others. And, that, my friend…leads right into coaching. As a coach, I found that the more real I was with the people that I serve, the better we were as a team to take each other to this place of growth. By growth, I mean a new place, no longer their current reality but actually stretching to a new level.
Coaching is very much embedded in my book and also in my life. In fact, my family calls me the Life Coach. I feel like often times people are coming to me and telling me their problems, their current situation. My job is to listen to learn and ask great questions that help them identify pieces they can adjust or grow from personally or professionally.
Jim: So, all of this has led to your book. Tell me about your book.
Tara: My book is called Be REAL: Educate from the Heart. REAL is an acronym. It’s being Relatable, Exposing vulnerability, Approachable, and Learning through life. I feel like – and I talk about this in the book – technology is such a fantastic tool that we have today. We’re able to connect with educators all around the world and create incredible experiences for our learners. However, I do think that no form of technology or artificial intelligence will ever replace the heart of the individuals that we serve, and it will never replace the REALness–the being relatable, exposing vulnerability, approachable, and learning through life.
If we could keep that piece – being REAL – the center of everything we do, then we have job security, right? But more than that, we’re able to connect to our people. Throughout my book I share stories and strategies to embrace this idea of becoming more relatable, exposing vulnerability, more approachable and always continue to learn through life.
I’ve worked in several districts but began my educational career in Topeka.
Jim: In 501?
Jim: Where did you work?
Tara: I worked at Bishop Elementary. It’s no longer, but that’s the one I worked at. They’ve combined it. It’s another school now.
Jim: Our coaching started in 501.
Tara: That’s right! I was trained by you there.
Jim: When you were at 501?
Tara: Yes. I’ve been trained by you multiple times. I was trained by Bruce Wellman, too.
Jim: He was big at 501.
Tara: I was trained by both of you guys right at the onset, which was such a blessing. In my book I share personal stories of how I served the learners within my realm of influence as a teacher, a coach, and as an administrator. It doesn’t leave the readers hanging and wondering how though. I also share a lot of strategies and things that I’ve used over the years to help me to stay REAL with my learners.
Jim: What’s a story that illustrates this journey you’ve gone on? A personal story?
Tara: I’m just going to tell you the first one that comes to my head. As a little girl I did not do well in school. Let me share a little background, my mom required special services throughout her education, and she didn’t have a great view of the school system because of her experiences. Later in her high school years, she and my biological father got pregnant with me, and my biological father dropped out of high school upon hearing this news. Unfortunately, they had a lot of poor decisions stacked upon one another and later had a bubbly baby girl. Life was tough for my parents and later my blended families.
School started off rough for this little girl. I got a little frowny face on my hand every single day of kindergarten. I remember that. I was a really terrible kid. Well, I’m not so sure I was a really a “bad” kid, I just wasn’t studious and struggled with learning. Therefore, my behaviors caused those around me to view me negatively.
When I entered the second grade, I was still learning my letters and sounds, and most of my peers were reading at that point. I remember my second-grade teacher, Mrs. S, asking the kids, “What do you want to learn by the end of second grade?” I mean, you’re like seven years old. I’m guessing most seven-year-olds wouldn’t know an answer to that, but I knew what I wanted to learn. She said, “Don’t tell us now but when you go out to recess, I want you to share your answer.” I really don’t remember what my peers said, but I remember looking her in the eye after she got down on one knee, and I told her with excitement, “I want to learn to read!” And she replied, “Okay, you’re going to learn to read.”
I thought when I came back from recess, it was done, I was going to be able to read, right? In my seven-year-old mind, I thought it might naturally happen. But it didn’t quite happen like that. Every day when I got off the bus, I walked into the classroom and Mrs. S tutored me. I remember the kids were all lined up outside the door, and I got to go in early. I thought it was special privileges, and I must be her favorite student. Little did I know she was teaching me something that would propel me forward in life. I still have no idea how she taught me so much that year. All I can remember is that I got a hug and a homemade granola bar every single school day. I still remember that.
I don’t even know the strategies she used to teach me, but she connected with me in a very real way. I learned to read that year, and I actually never struggled in school again. Literally, a straight-A student, scholarships to go to college. I excelled in undergrad and graduate school, and I honestly believe that Mrs. S helped re-wire my brain. She helped me believe that I could overcome my life circumstances. She was my first “life coach,” if you will! I didn’t really understand it when I was a second-grader, but she would say things such as, “You are not determined by how you live right now.” “You can become something–anything you want.” “What do you want to be?” And she always helped me to dream and to keep dreaming!
I think no matter what age group we teach as educators, we have an impact on these children that is unbelievable, and it all begins with relationships. It all starts with being REAL with them, and understanding where they are and stretching them to that next level. It’s all about coaching, right?
I think a teacher changed the way I think about life. And what’s really crazy is I went back to visit Mrs. S right after undergraduate school, and she barely even remembered me. She really thought she was just doing her job. Yet, in my mind, I was this special favorite kid! I was her special project that she took on! However, it wasn’t that way for her.
I believe, as educators, often times we don’t realize the life-long impact we have on our students.
I’ll never not write about her or talk about Mrs. S, because she is the anchor in my development as an educator and as a professional. This story always reminds me that we must keep this piece in perspective when we’re teaching and when we’re serving our learners of any age. What they take away might be way more than we ever imagined when “doing what we do” as educators.
Jim: That’s awesome. The power of one teacher, eh?
Tara: It saved me. Since then, of course, I’ve had many “coaches” in my life–sports coaches, teachers, friends, pastors, and mentors who continue to influence me. But that one, Mrs. S, changed my outlook on life, and I will always remember her for as long as I live. It was pivotal for me personally and professionally. It was transformational if you will.
Jim: And think of the impact you’re having now. You wouldn’t be having that impact if it hadn’t been for her. Her impact extends far beyond what it means just to you because look at what you’re doing for other people too. So, tell me what you mean by “be REAL.” I get the words, but why did you choose that title and what does the title mean?
Tara: Aw, thanks, Jim.
In my mind, I feel like a lot of times in this world there’s so much fake everything. There’s fake news. There are people sharing only their highlight reel on social media. Everything you see makes you wonder, “Is that real? Is that the way that they live every single day?” For children especially–a lot of times they feel like everything is all put together and that their teachers, their leaders, are superhuman. I’ve heard others say, “Wow…they must be living this perfect little life.” I remember thinking such thoughts as a teen. “Wow, those people really never struggle.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should air your dirty laundry or anything like that as an educator, but I do think we need to share the process of learning. When we do so, others feel as though they can relate to us. Like, “Wow, I’m in a real world with real humans who are my leaders.” Then, they might feel as though they might one day attain such a role or profession.
Being REAL seems to be the common thread…that thing that sets the mentors in my life apart. The REAL mentors and their actions are often those things that are permanently anchored in my long-term memory. So, REAL…it became my, “why.” It became what I want to always represent in this thing called life.
Being REAL means embracing all of who you are to be a better leader, a better educator, a better person. But it also means embracing all of who your learners are.
If all of us can be exactly who we’re supposed to be and serve our purpose in life – and be accepted for that, our REAL self – what an amazing world that we would live in, right? I think often times people feel like they need to be something that they’re not to be able to fit into. So, being real is about embracing your individuality, the good, the bad, and the ugly of our experiences and using it to empathize, to overcome, and to better serve others.
Jim: It’s hard to have real relationships if you’re not authentic in yourself.
Jim: Do you think being real is the same as being authentic?
Tara: Oh yeah, I do.
Jim: How did you come to discover the importance of being real?
Tara: Out of all the people who influenced my life, it’s the ones who were able to build that relationship with me that inspired me to want to write Be REAL. Like I said earlier, growing up in a rather abusive home life, I was embarrassed of that part of my life–even well into my adulthood. However, I began to see what being REAL was all about during my early teaching years.
In fact, one year one of my third grader’s brother had been tragically murdered, and unfortunately, my father was murdered just earlier in that same year. During that extremely difficult time, I began to realize that my life experiences gave me new perspective – sometimes things that other educators around me couldn’t feel or relate to. I started to see how things that happened in my life helped me to empathize with other people who are going through similar things. It became less shameful to think about my past. It kind of became a catalyst for helping me to serve those that are within my realm of influence better, because I could identify with them a little more. That’s when I began to embrace the good and the yucky of my past to better serve others.
Jim: So, you discovered these ideas essentially from your interactions with people who helped shape your life. You saw what they were doing and you said, “What they’re doing is authentic.” How did you come to go from that learning to writing the book?
Tara: Maybe that is the foundation, but my ideas within the book come from years of studying, reading, learning, and going through multiple years of education and upper education. I am a connected educator, a blogger, a national speaker, and have had lots of influences that helped shape my thinking and empowered me to write the book Be REAL.
Jim: What do you spend your time doing mostly now?
Tara: I do a lot of things. I spend a lot of time writing, of course. I ghost-write for my publisher which is Dave Burgess Consulting. I’m considered their public relations/marketing/communications director, so that’s my long title.
I also work a lot with our new authors. It’s interesting how I have the opportunity to use my coaching skills in this area. As the new authors are getting ready to launch their book, I prepare them for launching their book into the world.
We have a whole little series of events that happens before the launch and then during the launch. Usually during this time, the new author is very emotional. It’s hard to put your work out there for the first time; it causes a great deal of anxiety. So, I get to work with them through those fears and help them to feel comfortable with launching their message into the world. I love this piece of my job!
I also develop all of the digital promotions and help our authors connect with others to amplify their message with what we call a virtual book tour. And I have the honor of traveling around the nation and speaking to children and teachers, too. I love motivating others and encouraging them to stay REAL and chase their big dreams!
Jim: Obviously, you guys are doing great stuff because Dave is having such a huge impact.
Tara: He and Shelley are so much fun to work with, too. We’re developing my role from the ground up because they never had this role in their world. It’s really fun to take all the things that I’ve learned in all the different roles of education and apply them to this role. It goes back to that empathy piece. I can truly empathize with the author/educators I serve because I can relate to them.
Jim: I know. It’s an interesting thing. Our focus is – we have a simple little catch-phrase: excellent instruction every day, for every kid, everywhere. Basically, that all students get excellent instruction. We’re always trying to figure out what’s the best way to do that. We want to have an impact, so is it through Twitter? Is it through Facebook? Is it through presentations? Is it follow-up coaching? It’s just a really interesting challenge.
Tara: I’ve only been in this role for 8 months and, you know, I think as educators we really have to prepare students to be learners and relentlessly discover their own learning. I’ve never had the training to do exactly what I do right now. I’ve learned most of it through YouTube, books, and webinars. Jim, I feel like the jobs that we’re preparing our students for are not yet created. We hear that all of the time. Well, I’m basically living that life right philosophy right now! Building the plane and flying it at the same time. I think our kids are going to have a very similar future. They’re not going to be equipped with what they need for that job necessarily, but if we can equip them to serve, to be relentless learners, and to create with purpose, I think they will make it.
Jim: Did your experience as a coach inform your writing of the book?
Tara: Very much. As I said earlier, I was trained by you, and I even talk about you in my book. I mention the influence of Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton, as well. I was also trained by them. I pretty much blend the two styles of coaching and created what I call a hybrid version – the REAL Talk Treasures. These treasures of communication are a blend of many things I have learned from multiple styles of coaching with my spin on them. It’s six treasures, and they begin with Valuing Individuality. Recognizing the individual, who they are, and what they do right at the onset.
I read this book by Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiryso my second Treasure, I call after his book name. I don’t use his ideas necessarily but I definitely credit this title to him, leading with Humble Inquiry. Great questioning skills are like magic in a conversation. I know you know that, but it’s vital to effective communication.
Humble Inquiry is a very open-ended question. Honestly, as silly as this sounds, I like Facebook’s idea of “What’s on your mind?” I love that question. I often ask it. I don’t necessarily love Facebook, but I think it’s a great question when you’re leading into a conversation. “So, tell me what’s on your mind? What are you thinking?” And just going from there.
The other REAL Talk Treasures are Listen to Learn, Empower, Provide Accountability and Open Exaltation.
I love Open Exaltation and believe it is often a piece that is skipped in many of the models that I studied. It’s just sharing out the great things that one being coached accomplished. I’m very active on social media, and in my district, we had our own hashtag. One example of Open Exaltation is when teachers and coaches were doing incredible things, I LOVED sharing them out to an authentic audience via our district hashtag. “Look at this amazing thing that happened over in this school.” It breaks down the barriers of classroom walls and school buildings and allows others to see the incredible work. It’s like publishing a book for all the world to see, right? Similar concept.
In Be REAL, I give strategies for effective communication, but I also sandwich those strategies with REAL stories.
Jim: It seems to me that you’re talking about teachers but you’re also talking about coaches. How does your Be REAL message relevant for coaches?
Tara: I think it’s relevant for all roles of education, honestly. Truly it’s relevant for all roles of life. Dave told me, “I think your book could be, ‘Be REAL: Live from the Heart’ instead of ‘Educate from the Heart.’”
No matter what you’re doing and no matter what role you’re serving in, you must build relationships. As long as we work with humans, the Be REAL message will be relevant. I think this especially applies to coaches because you are not necessarily a teacher and you’re not an administrator – you’re somewhere in the middle. You are a bridge between the two roles. It’s especially vital for the coach to keep it real and build lasting relationships. You’re not a supervisor; you’re a helper. However, you’re not living in their teacher-world every day, either. So, the coach has to be empathetic to what the teachers are doing and how they are feeling. The must be REAL: Relatable, Exposing a little vulnerability, be Approachable – my gosh, if you’re not approachable you’re not going to get very far. And we must always stretch ourselves to Learn through life – that’s just a given.
Jim: What would be a good metaphor for coaching?
Tara: A great coach is much like an attentive gardener. A gardener provides care for the plant and its environment but can’t force the plant to grow. Likewise, a coach helps others weed out negativity, they provide meaningful collaboration and shower those they are coaching with feedback, but they can’t make them grow. Just as we can’t see the sunshine working inside the plant or the roots growing beneath the dirt, often we can’t “see” the growth happening within an individual. However, an excellent coach allows space for internal growth to take place. When the plant is ready to be harvested, those that need it to benefit from it, never seeing the gardener’s work behind the scenes. Exceptional coaching is like a gardener; they don’t need recognition. They simply enjoy helping others and watching them fulfill their purpose.
Jim: Tell me a bit about what you’re going to present at the TLC conference this October.
Tara: I would love to teach REAL plus the Innovators’ Compass workshop. It’s a workshop I do. The idea of the compass came from my friend, Ela Ben-Ur. She created an Innovator’s Compass to help students when they’re doing design-thinking work to become unstuck.
Ela allowed me to tweak the compass and build a relationship-building tool. It has a similar function but with different questions for helping to learn more about those that we serve. I call it REAL + Innovators’ Compass. It’s our two ideas combined.
During this workshop, the participants will actually walk through the process of the compass. We will all actually go through it and discover why it works together. It’s powerful. However, as the participant, you have to trust the process. Just know at the end of this workshop, I often hear others say, “Wow, I learned a lot about another individual in just 30 minutes.”
The best part is when the participants revisit their compass in about three months. In fact, I did this with my coaches when I worked with them in Auburn-Washburn, and they were always astounded by the things that they could cross off after a few months. They would say things to me such as, “Wow. First of all, my current reality is not that any longer.” And then quadrant four, “Oh my goodness, I’ve checked all these things off. We need to do it again.”
That’s why it’s called REAL + Innovators’ Compass because it’s constantly stretching you to take action and to grow. The compass is certainly a tool that you can take and use with an entire classroom of students, as an administrator with your staff, or as a coach during a one-on-one conversation.
Jim: So, the coaches can use it for themselves to learn about themselves, and then they can use it with teachers to help the teachers think through what their goals are and then monitor their progress.
Tara: Yes, indeed. Jim, what you gain in that 35-minute activity could take you many, many coffee visits to learn about someone else! It’s true. And it might take several counselor visits to learn all of those fascinating things about yourself. It’s a priceless gem. I hope we have several participants who join the REAL + Innovators’ Compass workshop this fall!
Here is a list of some people you can expect to see at the Teaching Learning Coaching Conference 2019! Click on each name below to review some of their work.
We hope to see you in Kansas City!
Professor of Teacher Education,
Distinguished Writer in Residence,
Equity Leadership Coach,
TED Talk Presenter, Principal,
Founder and CEO,
|Ellen & Bruce Eisenberg|
Executive Director, Associate Director
The Joy of Coaching
Instructional Coaching Group
Instructional Coaching Group
CEO and Co-founder,
The Disruptive Equity Education Project
The Coach Approach to School Leadership
Growth Coaching International
Executive Educator, Coach
Instructional Coaching Group
Chief Education Officer,
Research for Better Teaching
Author, School Consultant
Safe and Civil Schools
|Bradley Staats |
University of NC School of Kenan-Flagler Business School
Instructional Coaching Group
|Christian Van Nieuwerburgh|
Growth Coaching International
Innovative Curriculum Facilitator,
Lawrence Public Schools
Bowling Green City Schools