portrait of Jim KnightJim Knight is director of the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. His latest book, Better Conversations, deals with communication in schools. In this month’s questionnaire, we asked him about what it takes to be a good coach and principal, teacher autonomy, and the most meaningful books he’s read lately.

What is the Kansas Coaching Project? 

It’s an initiative established at the University of Kansas to study the most effective ways to improve teaching and learning. We’ve been at it for two decades, and we’re learning something every day. We recently focused on communication in particular because more than just about anything else, communication influences all aspects of education.

What makes a great coach?

When coaching teachers, you must earn their trust through your character, competence, reliability, stewardship, and compassion. Teachers need to know that you have their best interests at heart. That’s not as easy as it may sound.

What makes an effective principal?

To create great schools, principals need to understand what good instruction is and how effective professional development empowers people to get better. That means principals need to (a) make sure teachers have a real voice in their learning and (b) that all forms of professional learning are designed to have an unmistakably positive impact on teachers. Instructional coaching as we describe it is one way to do this.

What are the most important things that principals should know about instruction and learning?

It’s really helpful if schools develop an “instructional playbook” of teaching strategies. A playbook should be simple, yet comprehensive. The playbook I describe in my book High-Impact Instruction has 16 teaching strategies that powerfully address content planning, formative assessment, instruction, and community building.

How have instruction and learning changed in the last decade?

According to most recent research, we’re getting further away from teacher autonomy and closer to a command-and-control system. That’s unfortunate, in my view.

What can NASSP as an organization do to improve education?

As an organization, NASSP should respect teacher autonomy, recognize that teaching and instruction are complex, that one size does not fit all, and that it’s important to adopt a model of change that truly addresses the real-life concerns of teachers and the current reality in classrooms.

What books have you read recently that were really meaningful?

One is called Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, and it describes how good learners can receive feedback effectively. I also learned a lot from Being Mortal  by Atul Gawande, which talks about how our society deals with people living their last days. The book helped me see how important it is to make every minute count; it reinforced how important it is to treat every person, especially the elderly, with respect, and not as an object.