Continuous coaching with Mike McKenna

Michael McKenna is the Founding School Leader of Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School in Memphis, TN. Mike started his career in education at The Soulsville Charter School, also in Memphis, where he was both a teacher and team leader. After a stint in Philadelphia, where he was a Miles Family Fellow and Assistant Principal with KIPP, he and his family decided to return to Memphis. Initially opening in 2016 with 260 students in grades K-4, Memphis Delta Preparatory aims to serve over 500 students in grades K-5 in the South Memphis community. Mike is also Partner and Fellow at Jounce Partners.

 Thriving Schools: Where did the idea for opening Memphis Delta Preparatory come from?

Mike: During my time at Jounce Partners, we regularly talked about the need for having more schools that were “all-in” with making teacher-coaching their absolute top priority. There were some schools that were implementing the model at 50% or 70%, but no one was really implementing a model where the school leader was, above all else, the instructional leader – meaning all they would do is coach and develop their teachers.

Thriving Schools: Well, that’s the main reason we wanted to talk to you! We want to better understand the tradeoffs leaders must make to spend more time on coaching and development. What do you think is the hardest thing for school leaders to get right in thinking about this?

Mike: I don’t think it’s a question of someone doing something right or wrong, but rather whether they’re committed to the tradeoff they’re making. And that’s what I think people tend to get wrong – they don’t actually make the tradeoff. Instead, they do too many things half the way. There are schools that are amazing because an administrator has decided to spend all their time on systems and making sure they’re as tight as possible. And believe it or not, they spend hardly no time developing their teachers. Because that’s the tradeoff that they’ve made and they’ve committed to it all the way. Now I happen to make a different tradeoff! That is, I think school leaders have to be the instructional leader in their buildings! And that means they have to make tradeoffs in order to get into more classrooms and create more touchpoints for coaching. I’m sure your audience knows this already, but great teaching is THE factor, above all others, that changes life outcomes. So we try to develop our teachers every single day so that our students get to experience excellent teaching.

Thriving Schools: Staying on this idea of tradeoffs, can you tell us how you keep your focus on coaching and developing your staff?

Mike: Absolutely! The leader has to set the tone that great teaching is the school’s top priority. So that means there are times when I’m walking down the hallway and I see a student crying or acting up. And instead of consoling that student or taking them somewhere else, I’m going to go and coach a teacher. Because I know that will help our school get better in the long run. It will allow our teachers to address and prevent those issues from happening in the future rather than always putting a Band-Aid on it. The same thing applies when I’m in a classroom. My eyes are directly on the teacher and focusing on what they’re doing and how I can help them get better.

Thriving Schools: This mindset seems hard to act on, especially when educators have been trained to help students in distress. What experiences helped shaped your thinking on this?

Mike: Back when I was working at Jounce Partners, we would see school leaders who would spend hours in a day dealing with a small handful of students and the issues they were having. We would see school leaders taking on scheduling questions, parents’ concerns, and countless other things that were taking away from their time with teachers. And as a result, their classrooms weren’t running as well as they could be – these leaders had become stuck in a cycle of always putting Band-Aids on problems each and every day.

Thriving Schools: So what is the most important tradeoff that school leaders have to get right in order to shift their focus to development?

Mike: Again, it’s not a single tradeoff. I’m always asking myself, “How does this interaction or moment help my teachers get better at their craft?” So, it’s more like a thousand mini-tradeoffs!

Thriving Schools: Let’s dig into some more examples of this! What are some of the other “mini-tradeoffs” that you make so that you can spend more time developing your staff?

Mike: First of all, I don’t monitor lunches for most of the day. And I don’t spend hours in a car line. When I was an AP at KIPP, I spent 2 hours and 30 minutes monitoring lunches, 45 minutes at arrival, and 45 minutes at dismissal each and every day. And to me, that was the craziest thing in the world. I had become an AP because I was super effective in the classroom and I wanted to expand my reach to help others. But I was using my time to sit and watch kids eat lunch.

Thriving Schools: Can you give use a few more?

Mike: Of course! I’m even making tradeoffs when it comes to coaching meetings. As an example, let’s think about the typical meeting set-up. A typical observation cycle would have you go and sit in the back of a class for 20 minutes, then go and take your notes and put them into a plan, spend 30-45 minutes planning the meeting you’re going to have, and then go and finally meet/coach the teacher. We want to get to the place where we’re not spending 30 minutes planning for a meeting, but we’re ready to have a coaching meeting right now!

Thriving Schools: And why is shortening the feedback cycle is so important?

Mike: Think of a great coach and what they do when they call a timeout. They’re ready during that timeout to coach, develop, and give feedback to their players right away. Right? They don’t call a timeout, have their players go sit on the bench, and tell them I need 10 minutes to get my plan ready. That’s the kind of efficiency that allows them to coach more and to make that coaching most effective!

Thriving Schools: So how do you apply that same logic in a school setting?

Mike: We say this a lot around here, “If you see something, say something.” So if you’re a coach, you have an idea for improvement, and you feel confident in your ability to convey impactful feedback, then do it! And you’ll see that your teachers will get good at receiving and implementing that feedback, especially when they’ve received coaching outside of the classroom and they know what to expect. So I’ve been practicing the “Next Question” drill with one of my teachers. It’s a drill that develops a teacher’s habit to always ask another question in response to a student’s answer. So we practice that drill outside of class (which might be during a brief encounter in the hallway), and we get in the habit of just asking question after question. Now, when I see that teacher in class, I can immediately prompt them to ask the next question of their students. And all I have to do to prompt that is say “Next Question” or jump in and ask a student whatever the next question might be. Again, by analogy, when I say “Box Out” as a coach, my players know what that is without me having to hold a meeting about it. We try to set up structures that allow us to coach in this exact manner because we know this is the most effective and efficient way to help teachers get better.

Thriving Schools: It seems like you’re trying to find a way to make each interaction with your staff meaningful. Why is that important?

Mike: Because our job is to help our staff get better, not to make them feel comfortable. Because I know long-term, that’s where real teacher happiness comes from – having a sense that they’re really effective in the classroom and feeling like they’re doing their job well. It doesn’t come from administrators providing short-term fixes that ignore the underlying problem. Again, back to the idea of lunches. If I supervise lunch, it might be short-term comfortable. But it doesn’t help us get long-term better.

Thriving Schools: Can we also get an example of how you adapt your coaching to focus on teachers getting better rather than getting comfortable?

Mike: Here’s one of the things that I love to do. Let’s say we’re at the start of the year and I have teachers struggling with attaining “100%” participation in their classroom. Many coaches might model this and then hand the classroom back over to the teacher. When doing this, the class is at 100% - the students are calm, cool, and collected. Instead, I’ll do the opposite. I’ll intentionally do something to rile the students back up. And by doing this, I then want a teacher to realize they have the skills to settle things back down. So rather than thanking me for coming in and calming the class down, they’re now seeing in the moment that they have what it takes to manage their class. Then, we’ll do it again! This next time, we might have students tell a partner about their 3 favorite ice-creams (or something else completely arbitrary) so we can get the class riled up. And again, we’re going to practice our techniques for “100%!”