Conversation with Matt Horvat

Episode #201
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Chris Williams: Welcome to Leading Smart Season Two.

This begins an exciting new chapter as we expand the view from my life experiences to that of other leaders who have shown the ability to manage effectively in the brainpower age. There are many resources to learn about leadership. But it seems the vast majority of them place their foundation on the academic research and writings of those who study their craft. My goal has always been to relate the experience of leadership. I find I learned best by hearing the stories and insights of people who’ve been there, done that.

Season One was me relating the many experiences from my admittedly eclectic career. But it was always my intention to augment that with the voices of the many talented leaders I’ve had the privilege to know.

That begins today. With season two, we’ll alternate my experiences and thoughts on the details of leadership, with conversations with smart leaders about their lives of building and managing teams. We’ll start with a conversation with one of my dear friends and a smart leader in the world of education, Matt Porter, that we talked about his journey into the realm of managing educators how to lead teachers as they work to improve their craft, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into his otherwise well tuned machine.

Matt Horvat: There’s no there’s no book for this. There’s no like, let me pull out the pandemic book or guide and follow that as I figure out what the end of the school year looks like or how to prepare to open next year.

CW: As I’ve said, from the start of this podcast, I think of teachers as some of the ultimate brainpower workers. That’s why I wanted to begin our session. have conversations with Matt, to explore the joys and challenges of leading in the world of education. And that’s what this is all about.


This is Leading Smart, the show about managing in the brainpower age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace.

I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

Today’s conversation is on leading and developing teachers. This is Episode 201. A Conversation with Matt Horvat.


Chris Williams: Matt Horvat is the Head of School at the Overlake School in Redmond Washington. Overlake is an independent college preparatory school that is widely regarded as one of the finest in the Pacific Northwest. Overlake graduates go on to great success at many of the top colleges and universities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should own up to my unabashed bias. All three of our children graduated from Overlake. I served on the Board of Trustees for almost two decades, and I was the chair of the committee that hired Matt some seven years ago. Through that process, Matt and I have become close friends. So it’s fair to say I might be little biased in his favor.

That aside, I wanted to talk to Matt because he and I have frequent conversations about leadership. And I find him to be an excellent and thoughtful leader. And I specifically wanted to talk to someone in education because of my experience with both teaching and with helping to lead teachers.

Teachers are some of the purest brainpower workers. They are literally in the business of teaching people how to learn. The output of their work is the output of other brains. The results are difficult to quantify, and the metrics for success couldn’t be more amorphous. In light of this, they’re the epitome of brain power workers. So as we lead off, what I hope will be a long series of interviews with brain power leaders, I could think of no better place to start than with Matt


Chris Williams: I began our conversation where I always like to begin with understanding the formative experiences that lead people into their chosen profession. I’ve always been fascinated with the often serendipitous ways people find their path. Maps experience was no exception.

Matt Horvat: Growing up, I was not a city person. And I went to an all boys Jesuit high school in the city of Philadelphia and I had a long commute to get there. You know, it wasn’t this old stories of like, uphill both ways. Through the snow. But it was a good commute. You know, I had to take a bus to a train to a subway to a kind of a bus to get to school. So it took a while to get there.

And you know, I went to school with kids, at that point, a lot of kids who came from the city of Philadelphia so 50 to 60% of the kids were on financial aid so they received some, you know, some aid from the school. And the school is relatively inexpensive when you consider, for example, what an independent school might cost I mean, this was probably half the cost of any of the other what would be considered independent or, or private schools in the area or outside the city. And on top of that, 50 to 60% of the kids were getting financial aid.

So it was a school that filled with, I would say, maybe described as educational strivers, like, these were kids who had a test, take a test to get into the school. And they only took kids who scored a certain score on the test and it was a test at the school develops, it wasn’t sort of a standardized test and that, you know, everybody took. And you know, a lot of strivers.

So kids got into that school and we’re like, Okay, I’ve got my ticket, you know, and I’m gonna, I’m not going to be what my father is, which maybe is a plumber or a bus driver or a police officer, which we’re all you know, those are fine professions, but I think kids saw it as like, I’m going to become something else. I’m going to become a, you know, doctor or a lawyer or, you know, work in business and not have to have the experience of I watched my parents have which is, you know, one of challenge around trying to make it all work for a family living in the city of Philadelphia.

So that was a really very formative experience for four years. And you know, the Jesuits have a real focus on education and life of the mind is really important. So I had some, I definitely had teachers there who were influential. And I think back now or really pushed me and push my thinking in ways that were really important for me.

CW: Given this start, I wondered how he went from this base of a quality education to the other side of the classroom, to becoming a teacher. What was the turning point?

MH: So I was in graduate school, getting a master’s in math, and I ended up teaching a fifth grade class just through a variety of factors. And I had to teach the metric system which is, you know, base 10. And it seems pretty straightforward. And I realized that I wasn’t particularly good that first day when I had to come to class and teach class and also then had to teach like group of ninth graders geometry I think later in the day. I didn’t really do much preparation because I, I had an over inflated sense of self and thought, like, no problem. And I realized pretty quickly that I was not particularly good at it.

And that sort of got me thinking like, these are interesting problems, like, how do you teach somebody something? Like, that’s a really interesting problem. And, you know, I often think, you know, there’s always a crack on teachers like, Oh, yeah, it’s not, you know, if you can’t really be successful in anything else, you can always become a teacher. And actually, I would say that, you know, teaching someone how to read or teaching someone how to, like, understand the metric system. That’s like, there isn’t really actually good research about how that happens. Like cognitively what happens in people’s brains, they can go from being understanding, like, not how to read and then learn how to read, for example. Like, there really isn’t good research on that.

So, you know, people often say like, Oh, it’s not rocket science, you know, and I’ll say, it’s actually harder than rocket science because rocket science like we know, like, okay, you have to give it so much of force to get it out of the atmosphere. And then once you get an atmosphere, okay, there’s a lot of like conditions and variables there and you have to manage them all. But you know what they are. With like reading, you don’t really know like, well, we’re going to present a bunch of different things. And one of these things we think is going to work. But sometimes those things don’t work. And it comes down to like, a kid’s particular age or their ability to just finally grasp cognitively what’s happening.

So I felt like, those were really interesting problems at the time to try to solve like, how do you teach kids something? And how well does it stick? And how long does it stay with them? Is it just like you’ve taught them something and they know it only in like that context? And then two weeks later, they don’t know it? So I was, that was exciting for me. And I think back to like, the classes I was taking at the time, I actually wanted to be an actuary, which isn’t, you know, it’s a particular career, but not one that’s when I look at it now that I thought had as many interesting problems in it as education at a time so I thought like, this is going to be great. And I remember I called my mom at that point, my father passed away but I you know, I’m a child of two immigrants and I called my mom and said, “You know, I think I’m gonna become a teacher.” And her initial reaction was she said, “Oh, and all that education.”

So I still got that degree in math and also in education. And then I ended up teaching and, you know, taught computer science, I taught math, taught a little bit of science. And again, like, really interesting problems, like how do you teach somebody something, you know, and how do you make it stick, in essence, like, how do you ensure that what you’ve taught them? in one week, three, four, a month, you know, several months later the next year that actually like they’ve retained it is, I think, a challenge that I’m still trying to figure out like, I don’t, I don’t think that’s been from cognitive science or just from as a profession. I don’t think those that has been written fully yet.

CW: Matt, like so many of us was drawn to his field of education because he was fascinated by the challenges. He enjoyed not just the day to day work, but was intrigued by the overarching problems. That led him to think about not just doing, but leading.

MH: I think in a leadership role in a school then you get to, like work on a bigger problem, which is like how do we teach? You know, how are our teachers teaching all of these kids here and what what structures do we have in place to ensure that we’ve created the best environment for that to happen? So that like we’ve, we’ve gotten rid of some of the variables that we know could be limiting factors to kids being able to understand whatever it is we’re trying to teach them and whatever discipline that is. And so that doesn’t you can’t do that as a classroom teacher, you know, you can you can change some of the variables certainly in your class, but you can’t control some of the larger variables. And so I felt like in in being a leader, you really get to sort of say like, Hey, we can turn the some of the big dials. So that that gives the flexibility to teachers say like, okay, I can control these other dials here, that can ensure that like, students are having the, you know, the best environment for them to be able to learn whatever it is, we’re we’re trying to teach them.

CW: Also like many of us who ended up as leaders, the initial transition wasn’t an explicit and conscious decision. Many who end up as leaders just followed their passion for the challenges of their profession. Their choice to be a leader wasn’t as much a thirst for power, as it was a thirst for more impact.

MH: Yeah, I don’t think initially, you know, and I think I still, I guess, as just as a person I pining away for being in the classroom because although, as I mentioned, like you get to a leadership position, you know, moves particular types of dials, you don’t get to really see like, what are the effects because you’re not teaching. So, you know, when I think being in a classroom, and working with kids, you really get to see like, Oh, those shifts that we’ve made large shifts we made in the organization have really helped me and in my classroom be more successful.

So when you ask, like, “Did I make a conscious decision?” I don’t think so. And, you know, I think some of it initially was a need of the institution or the organization that was working for and then stepping into that, no responsibility, maybe initially hesitantly and, and then over time, you know, taking a larger role into leadership positions that became available.

CW: For many who transition into leadership, there’s fear of the stigma of being a manager. Those who decide to move into management are often looked down upon as having “sold out”.

MH: Just like in all organizations, you know, the Peter Principle is in full effect and education in other places. So, you know, I had worked for people who I thought How did that happen? Like, how did that person have, you know, get that particular role and have that amount of power over an organization given their, you know, inability to fundamentally understand like, what is happening in this, like, what’s our mission? What’s our goal? What are we trying to achieve?

CW: One of the biggest concerns people have when they move into management is about losing touch. Not being involved enough to still remember how the job is really done.

MH: You know, I’ve always worried about that. I always worry, I’ve lost touch with that, you know, and have I just started to listen to my own internal monologue around what I think is best for for a school. So as a result, like I continue to teach, because I really want to know like, we’ve made the shifts are these really helpful for kids or were these just like administrative shifts, trying to prove that like, we can do those things as a school, but actually it doesn’t really have an effect on students.

CW: Matt’s move into leadership took firm hold when you took a large role at a school in Chicago. It was the school where we located in when we were searching for a head for Overlake the role was a major challenge. And when we talked Matt downplayed the complexity of the job. But the job was filled with landmines from a particularly demanding parent base made up largely of University Professors to a strong faculty union. That Matt handled it with a plum was impressive. But the fact that he found it an interesting challenge was even more so.

MH: Once I, when I went and worked at a school for six years, in Chicago, really large school, part of the university, had a very, you know, a strong faculty that was definitely had ideas around, like what should happen in a school. It was also a unionized faculty, so not only did they like, have strong opinions, but they had the sort of representation to say like, and we’re going to get a seat at the table because, you know, of how we are organized. And I thought that was a really interesting, like set of challenges going to that school. And, you know, at that point, I realized like, yeah, being in the classroom, and I taught there to being in the classroom has its own set of challenges, which and variables and you can make changes and shifts, but for me, professionally like to be to have a whole new set of challenges as it relates to human beings and how to get human beings to change and to, you know, to see that like, Hey, this is actually going to be good for all of us to do whatever cultural shift we may need to make in order to help organizations, I thought was a really interesting problem as well.

So sort of going back to like teaching the metric system, it was like a version of teaching the metric system but now to, you know, adults who, frankly, are not as pliable as students, you know, kids are far more forgiving. You know, when you make a mistake in class, they’ll say like, Oh, you made a mistake. You’re like, hey, thanks so much. We’re adults are really quick to say like, You’re an idiot, you made a mistake. I don’t respect you anymore.

CW: Recognizing the challenge of leading and being able to lead is one thing, but leading in the world of brainpower workers is often complex. And as I described earlier, teaching is an especially tough challenge. Matt and I then turned to the question of evaluation of teachers. How do you decide what good teaching looks like?

MH: Yeah, so that’s a, you know, teaching, it’s often said, it’s like, part science part art. And I think there’s some, you know, I would say that that’s very true. And what might work effectively for one group of students doesn’t really work all that effectively for another group of students. And, you know, again, you’re trying to teach somebody or a group of kids, you know, some content, some skills, and by the end of the year, you’re going to figure out like, were we successful in that? Or were we not successful in that?

So there are some obviously, there’s some metrics you can use, but those are really the variables involved with those metrics don’t really give you metrics that are super clean at the end, you know, so the variables can be everything from how did your school year unfold? For example, like we’re in we’re in a pandemic right now. You know, that’s a there’s there’s a whole set of challenges associated with teaching online that you now have to sort of step back and say like, what did we actually cover with kids during this time when they were all online. So I mean, that’s an extreme example that we’re in a pandemic and so that obviously changes the educational experience. But those things that are small in nature can happen throughout the year.

So being able to measure kids and say like, Oh, yeah, you know, here’s where they were when they started. And here’s where they were at the end is really difficult. In fact, I think at one point, the Gates Foundation did a bunch of research on like, what is good teaching, and they actually couldn’t identify I mean, they had certain qualities and some level of organization, you know, communication skills really important. You know, caring about your students is really important, but they couldn’t really say like, boy, if you could find somebody with these like 15 skill sets and qualities and you’re going to be guaranteed they’re going to be an excellent teacher.

CW: Given these vague metrics and the complexities of measurement, how do you promote better teaching? How do you shoot for a vague target? This is where I think Matt has shown outstanding perception as a leader. He recognizes the complexity of both the job and the challenge of improving.

MH: So I think as a leader of a school, you know, I think first of all, you have to gain people’s trust that they think that you actually are out to support them and ultimately support the students that they’re going to teach. So they need to, you need to gain their trust. And you do that through a variety of ways. You know, you’re accessible, you listen to them, you know, frankly, that you’re around like you, you’re available. You go to see their classes, you engage with them, you ask them questions. You know, you don’t assume that you know, everything. I think anytime a leader says like, I know everything, you know, you’re in trouble.

So I think those, you know, you build a level of trust with people. And then you start to say, like, here are the ways that we can, you know, get better at what we’re doing. And then what we’re doing is not, you know, we’re not like, terrible at this. And so you have to remind people that like, you know, it’s constant improvement, like we’ve got to find ways to constantly get better at what we do. It’s our requirement, you know, it’s, it’s in teaching because you’re working with kids, you don’t always get immediate feedback from students. You know, students are pretty, as I said earlier, like they’re pretty, they’re pretty forgiving. And so, you know, we have to as professionals, as teachers think about like, am I? Am I still doing exactly the same things that I’ve done for the last five years? And I haven’t really thought about, like, whether this is effective or not? And are the kids actually getting it? Or am I reading my own press too much? Like, I really have to think about what, like, what parts of my instruction Am I going to change?

So you have to create an environment where people feel like it’s safe to do that, you know, they have to feel like I if I change some level of my instruction, or if I, you know, change my curriculum, that I’m not gonna have an administrator coming in and saying, like, why, who gave you the okay to do this? You know, we’ve heard that things are not good, or I came to watch a lesson and it seemed like, you know, things were not like they were three weeks ago because you tried some new technique and so I don’t think you should try that. So I think, you know, you have to give people the okay that they can do that.

CW: One of the big things Matt brought to Overlake was the concept of an instructional coach. Teaching can be in a way a lonely profession. There are few adults or peers who get a chance to observe your work directly and give you the kinds of feedback that can help you improve. Of course, you get pushback from students or parents, but few people are there to give you support in the actual process and methods of teaching. Matt brought up to the Overlake board the idea of hiring an instructional coach, an idea he’d seen done at the collegiate level.

MH: A big one that I’m a big fan of is instructional coaching. So having someone that works with you know, that’s that works with a teacher in the classroom that is not there to evaluate the teacher but there to support the teacher. To give, you know, feedback to the teacher to talk to the teacher like what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish? You know, what are some other instructional methods you can use? Why are you covering this particular topic before you cover that topic, and again, not in a way of you’re doing it wrong, but just like asking some questions can be incredibly supportive of the teacher because, you know, teaching is also can be a pretty lonely profession, you just go in and you work with students, you don’t get a chance to really work with adults that much. You get to work with members of your department or your department chair.

But, you know, having an instructional coach worked with you for five, six, seven weeks at a time can really allow you to engage with another adult about work that you’re doing. Which is like, the fundamental work that you do every day is the work that you’re in, in the classroom of students with so so I’m, you know, you’ve got to get people to trust you, you’ve got to give them the okay to try things like hey, it’s all right. Like, we’re not gonna come back at you and say like, that was a, you know, you’re in trouble now. And then third thing, you need to give them some support and just say like, here, here are the people that are going to be able to work with you as you’re thinking about your instruction.

CW: Though the idea of coaching was a hit with the board and seemed like a great idea, it’s often a tough sell. Teaching is an old profession, people have been doing it for millennia, and especially experienced teachers are inclined to feel that “I’ve taught this same class for 20 years, why should I change?” So the challenge for Matt was how to get coaching embraced by the faculty.

MH: You know, so you get some early adopters. So anytime you make a change in an organization, you know, you get people who are ready to make that change and are and are ready to embrace it fully. So you get them involved, and then they become your, your good press in the community. And so they’ll talk about like that was, you know, working with a professional with the instructional coach has really helped me I’ve really thought about instruction in different way. And I’ve like, shifted from using this to this technique, or I made this move and where I’ve thought about my curriculum, and I’ve realigned it because it may, you know, just seem to go much better for the students.

So you get some early adopters who are really very positive about the experience, to sort of work in your community and say, here’s all the benefits that go with go along with coaching. You don’t back off of it either. So you don’t just try it for a few months. And if it doesn’t go, well, you’re like, Okay, so we’re not going to do that anymore. But you say like, you know, this, we’re going to be in this for the foreseeable future. So this isn’t something that’s just going to, we’re going to try for a little bit, it’s going to go away.

So you know, you’re going to stick with it, you get some early adopters. And then you do have to put some, like, the expectation is that everybody’s going to work with the instructional coach. So whether you’re an early adopter, or you’re somebody who’s like several months from now going to work with the coach or a year and a half now, everybody over a cycle is going to work with the instructional coach, it’s just in your own professional advantage or your own professional development, it becomes necessary to do this.

And so eventually, you know, you get everybody to do it. I would say that, in my experience, you get a high percentage of people who see the value and want to do more with the coach, you always have a few people who are like I’m at the end of my career, or I just don’t feel like I’m flexible enough to do this. Or I just have a closed mindset. And, you know, eventually, maybe those people don’t always like hang around, you know, they just get tired of being pushed in ways that maybe they don’t want to be pushed.

CW: This then raises the question of hiring. If the goal is to have people who will embrace the kinds of personal development represented by the instructional coach, how does this affect hiring? Does Matt look for people who aren’t just competent in their field of study and good teachers, but also who are students of teaching?

MH: Definitely. So in the, you know, in the interview process, you know, whether it’s through a resume or an interview or a group interview, you’re asking them about questions like How well do you collaborate, give me examples of times you’ve collaborated, give me examples of times you’ve, you know, changed instruction or what did that, you know, what were the motivators for you to change instruction? You know, when have you been involved in curricular change? And, you know, what part did you play in that curricular change?

You know, at Overlake, we really expect people to collaborate, to work with an instructional coach. We have instructional coaches, you know, so to give people that are coming in, like, hey, they’ve asked me a lot of questions around issues of collaboration and coaching and so if I’m going to go there, I would imagine they’re going to expect me to do those things. And we’re also trying to suss that out, give us examples from from, you know, prospective candidates, give us examples of what you’ve what you’ve done in these areas. And, you know, not just sort of like, yeah, I think collaboration is great. That really isn’t a specific example.

CW: Another element of making this kind of culture change is evaluation of performance. To have an effective culture change, the expectations around performance need to be reset, as well.

MH: And I think that’s probably like an ongoing process for us, you know, how do we embed that part of like, okay, I am, you know, I have to be, I have to, you know, work with my students and do all the things that’s required of me as a teacher, in the classroom and outside of the classroom. And then how well am I working with my colleagues is, you know, that’s a cultural shift that you need to make in an organization where people see that that is as important as like the work that I do in the classroom with my students.

You know, I think we’ve made great progress there people now know. I knew that we were in good shape when we hired a teacher a few years ago. And I’ve met with her after I think like six to eight months of the school year so almost towards the end of the school year, and asked her a variety of questions and one of the things she a theme she came back to over and over what she said boy, like, we really collaborate a lot. So I thought, like, Alright, good. You know, this is a new faculty member who just assumes that like that’s the way that it is here. We really work together a lot in the idea that I could be off on my own, just like going my class. And she told me that her previous experience had been one where she was like, I just taught my classes, went into my room did my thing, worked with the department around you know, sort of administrative types of things, but didn’t really talk much about curriculum. That was a very different experience coming to the to Overlake and having to do that pretty consistently.

CW: One thing I noticed, both when I’ve taught and through discussion with teachers, is that education seems to be a profession where given the chance, everyone wants to get their voice heard. That all major and some minor decisions from hiring and curriculum to even what’s on the lunch menu, are something that is open for debate. It feels to me is something that takes forever and is often frustrating. I asked Matt, if he felt if it’s a good thing?

MH: Yeah, I would say that like as it comes to curriculum, I think it’s it’s a critical, I think if you are not engaged in a conversation with others about the work that you’re doing and what you’re expecting of students and how you assess students, with other members of the minimum of your department, then there’s a there’s a significant lost opportunity for students.

Because students are going to move through the program or whatever part you’re of and are going to have to each year figure out like, I always say, like, is this the same math class, or this year that we had last year? Or is this a different math class? Because I got to figure out how this teacher works. And this teacher seems to be like, using terminology that seems really different and using assessments that are really different, and I’m not sure whether this person cares about whether I, you know how I go about finishing math problems as compared to the person I had the year before. Like, you don’t want to have students spend time trying to figure those things out, you know, you want them to seamlessly move from class to class, as they’re moving through their academic program and understand like, yeah, there’s some real consistencies, even though it’s a new teacher, and I’m like learning a different type of mathematics, here’s what they’re gonna expect of me, you know, they’re going to expect that I, you know, have good computational skills. And I’ve kind of follow these patterns that I’ve already been established for me.

And so, you know, there’s a real benefit for kids as far as like, they can see that the program is consistent. And then you’re just assured as a as a program that you’re like, you know, you’re not the you’re creating the Goldilocks moment, you know, you’re not overdoing it in some areas, and possibly under doing it and others you really want to be like, we are really hitting all of the topics that we need to hit. And we can only do that by assured like, here are all the things we want kids to be able to know and do by the time they graduate. We have to make sure that we are, you know, spacing them out correctly through their academic program at the school.

CW: I admit to feeling that this collaboration process, often long and arduous, is painful. Doesn’t it slow you down? Doesn’t it make new things harder?

MH: Yeah, I guess I’m yeah, I would, I would guess I would delineate like I see curriculum is being a very, super collaborative process, something that you need to have everybody participate in fully, which is hard work. You know, a lot of teachers don’t necessarily want to talk about curriculum, because that may make them have to change something that they really like about their curriculum that they’re teaching. And so that’s can really, it’s challenging work. It can be can take a takes a number of people table to do that work.

I would say that other initiatives that you want to do at a school so for example, if you want to think about like how are you using technology effectively, you definitely want to understand like what you’re obviously what you’re doing now and how a change in technology is going to support students in a different way. But those are probably decisions that you can’t spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about and discussing, because the nature of technology changes. So by the time you make a decision like, Hey, we think we’re going to adopt this new technology, it actually isn’t so new and it might not be what you’re actually might not solve the problems that you have.

So I think at times, there are decisions that you have to make as an organization, after having done your research on the organization and knowing that those are, those are just opportunities for you as a leader to say like, okay, that’s one of the dials that I can turn that I know will have repercussions throughout the program, but there are changes that we have to make.

CW: Schools have a luxury not afforded to many other organizations. They operate on an academic year that is fixed and has a very formal calendar. This affords the chance to do some rigorous planning, and it offers a fresh start with a new wave of students each year. This cycle changes a great deal about how leadership is done. In a typical business, there is usually continuous forward motion, and far fewer opportunities for a fresh start.

MH: You know, we’re schools, so we are not quarterly driven organizations for profit organizations. So we really believe in the ability to get people that do things better. We believe that about students, I mean, every day we work with kids, we think like, every day, they’re going to get a little bit better. And at the end of it, they’re going to, you know, have more knowledge and skill than they did at the start of the year.

So, so we believe that about teachers too. So we can, we’ll say like, oh, we’re gonna work with this person, you will maybe they’ll work with the instructional coach, or maybe they’ll work with the other department member or their department chair and we’ll help that person get better. Maybe they can be improved.

You know, the other thing you have to realize, which I think also comes up, certainly in the for profit world is that, you know, people’s personal lives to come into their professional lives. And so you may have a person who’s been in been teaching in the school for a number of years and they’re really quite good. And then they have a bad year based on things not really necessarily related to what’s happening at work, but maybe what’s happening in their life outside of work. So you have to work with those people because, you know, you don’t want to lose somebody who for years has really demonstrated excellence. And then in one year, say like, Okay, well, they’re having a bad year. So like, let’s heave them out and find somebody else.

Because in all organizations, one of the hardest things you do is hire, you know, it takes a lot of time takes a lot of resource. And you’re not always sure until you know, you’ve hired the person and they’re actually working in your school whether, you know, you’ve hired somebody who’s, who’s effective or not. So as I said, I think when looking at faculty, you know, you have to consider the effectiveness of that person over time and, and then of course, like if someone is really not meeting the expectation is to make a change.

CW: A key element of the effectiveness of teams in brainpower organizations is the culture. This can be especially true with teachers. Does the culture support them? Do they reinforce the culture? And how well do new people adapt to that culture,

MH: Are they able to culturally figure out like how this organization works. When I at my previous school, we hired a person who came in and the person had worked at an all boys school before coming in and worked there for like five or six years, really great references was kind of a younger teacher, great academic background was really going to add a lot to the program. And I would go and observe the teachers classes, you know, the first few months and it was clear the teacher was struggling. And he had come to a school that was like the opposite of a boy schools, very laid back. Students had really close relationships with teachers often say like the student Island and the adult Island were pretty close. So you could get to them, you know, pretty easily. And he had a really formal style with the kids really expected the kids to, you know, sit in their seats and don’t talk until you raise your hand until I call on you and you know, I’m in charge in this room.

And it was clear he was struggling because the kids like this was the they didn’t have this experience universally, they would leave that room and go to somebody else’s room and the teacher would be a lot more relaxed. And so I think it was like the third or fourth, you know, time that I had been in his class and, you know, talking with him. And he finally realized, I mean, in conversation with them, he realized that he could actually become the teacher that he’d always hoped he could be, but that he had been trained in this other environment where he was really like, he described it as a boy’s school where like, you really had to tell those students all the time that like, you were in charge that you were the teacher that they had to be respectful to you that they had to, you know, not sort of think in any way that they could step. You know, step out of line was also a school that had a dress code. And you know, we didn’t have we didn’t have that either. And it was just fascinating to watch him pick up on the culture of the school and realize like, Oh, I don’t need to be that person. And, you know, I think that person is still there. I think he’s been very successful. He has been a department chair, you know, has really, I think he’s found his his place to work.

But again, that’s just an example of someone coming in and you have to give them the time to figure out the culture like allow them to, and you have to help them with that, not just figure it out, but you got to give them touchstones along the way early on in the school year, whether that’s in the, you know, pre-service training that happens or early in the school year or, you know, just allow them to realize that they are experienced people but you know, figuring out how the school operates may take a little more time. And so in hiring, you know, person knows the material, knows how to teach now we just got to see whether they can figure out how the culture of the school works and some people that might take a year or two to fully do.


CW: We then turned our attention to the current environment, the era of COVID-19. We spoke in early May nearing the end of the school year. The school had been operating entirely remotely since early March when the pandemic hit, and everything shut down. Overlake was particularly well placed for such an event, largely because all students have their own laptop, either their own or provided by the school. This made one hurdle of remote learning less painful, but nonetheless, the change was essentially instantaneous.

MH: Yeah, so there there’s no, there’s no playbook for this. And when we started the year in September, we weren’t thinking, yeah, we’re going to be come March, we’re going to be in a fully online school trying to provide the same level of instructional educational instruction that we were in January and February that we’re going to do in March because of going online. So I think some things that helped us that we did, again, not knowing that we would be an online school, so you mentioned technology, and I would say more specifically around technology. You know, we got a learning management system in place and we’ve got a level of comfort with that. The learning management system we use is Canvas and we’ve had it for four or five years and so there’s just a level of comfort. With that, as a platform, you know, so we’re not, we weren’t sort of in the start of March saying like, Okay, are we going to use Google Docs? Are we going to like, you know, what, what are we going to use here as our communication tool as relates to like, connecting with kids, whether it’s, you know, in, in meetings or in information sharing, so we sort of had that established.

We also had a really strong teaching and learning team. So people trusted that team. And as I said, that’s where our coaches come from, so they saw them as a real resource. And, you know, that group of people in a really short amount of time, so our teaching and learning team, were able to provide some good resources that people saw is really helpful to them as they transition to an online instruction.

You know, we were helped by that. But with that said, we are learning in real time, like we are trying to understand like, what is it that I can transfer that I was doing in my brick and mortar classroom that I can transfer it online? And what are the things that I realized that are just not going to be possible to do anymore and so I’m gonna have to adjust those. What are do assessments look like, you know, in the past as to do these types of assessments, they might not be possible anymore because these assessments required kids to be in physical space with me. So, you know, again, trying to learn in real time about what works and what doesn’t work.

And also recognize that teaching an online class for our faculty is, is the time commitment to that is very different than the time commitment of being on on campus. And it’s, it’s more significant because again, they’re learning in real time. You know, the the touchstones that we’ve had, that we always had in the springtime are now you know, sort of gone, and we’re in this very different environment.

CW: In talking previously, Matt had told me that the abrupt change felt like hiring an entirely new faculty on a single day. Everyone seemed to be starting from scratch.

MH: So it’s like all relatively brand new teachers, and we’re saying to these brand new teachers great. Here’s the curriculum we used to do. We want you to amend it, make some changes, because we’re going to have less time to do it in. And we also want you to revamp all the assessments that you’ve that we’ve done in the past, you can’t do those anymore. Or if you’re going to do them, you got to figure out how to do them a little differently, or in some cases, you have to do them completely differently. That’s sort of what we’ve asked our faculty to do in the last 10 weeks. And again, they’re all new. Imagine they’re all new faculty, because none of them have had experience of teaching online until, you know, March 8.

CW: But academia is a “plan heavy” world where they plan years in advance. Then comes this lightning fast change. How does the culture adapt to this quick decision making?

MH: So it’s a great experiment like, in one way… So most of our time has been spent thinking about like, how do we support our faculty? How do we support our students? How do we keep the school going? How do we continue to create a sense of community? We’ve also though, recognized that this is it been a tremendous opportunity to sort of reevaluate like what have we learned from this, are there things that we can take away when we come back to a brick and mortar school whenever that will be fully, you know, we sort of return to what we had before.

Yeah, and and we don’t have that we didn’t, we didn’t have the luxury of what you described, like we’re going to spend two years thinking about this before we actually teach like one small class for six weeks in the middle of the year, that’s going to be online with you know, one teacher, like all of us had to do this in a really short amount of time.

So, you know, disruption, I think, can provide you with some really good information. And I think that information can also be leveraged maybe in the future to think about like, okay, when we go back to brick and mortar are the things that we can take away from this online experience that will actually enhance the educational program for kids.

I think that this comes back to the question of trust. I think making decisions in an organization if people don’t trust you trust the leadership, then you’re gonna have some real challenges because in a situation like this, we’ll make a number of decisions in a pretty short amount of time with limited information. And those decisions, it will be clear that there will be other different decisions we could have made. But we chose this one for a variety of factors that seemed like the right ones to make, and they maybe were the right ones to make at that time, we probably want some challenges with whatever decision we make.

So, you know, if you don’t have trust in your community that you can do that, then it’s going to be really hard to move forward. Because they’ll just be people spending time and like those decision trees still and saying like, Well, I’m not sure why we decided to do this. And so I can’t really even move forward to think about how I’m going to do my work differently because I’m still stuck on like, we shouldn’t have made that decision. So again, like having trust in your organ in your community, communicating as much as you possibly can around like, here’s some decisions we have to make, providing opportunity for people if they feel like they want to participate in some way like Hey, come on, you know, if you want to participate in the work that we have to do, you know, you can certainly do that. You know And again, I tried to be as transparent as possible.

CW: One of the features that makes the Overlake school special is its warm community feel. It’s why we felt comfortable sending our children there. And it’s one of the key features the school is recognized for. It’s a friendly place with lots of trust built on being close together. In the age of remote learning, community building is a challenge for all organizations, particularly for schools, and very much so for a place like Overlake.

MH: So we’ve learned a lot about that, as I said, learning in real time. And so we’ve done some things. Certainly, you know, from a communication standpoint, there’s multiple ways now that we’re communicating with our employees. There’s multiple ways that we’re communicating with our families and with our students. So we’ve changed that in this new reality because the idea that we can communicate in the ways of we used to people would come to campus know all that sort of obviously changed.

So I think Communication is key to creating that sense of community. I feel tied into it, I know what’s happening, they’re letting me know some of this is personal in nature, some of it is also keeps me like what are the fundamental reasons I’m interested in this school that like, is reminding me about that constantly. So. So I think communication is key, I think also creating events for people so that they can, you know, we used to do this, and we can’t do that anymore, because that required us to be in space with each other. But we’re now doing this as a way to try to continue to connect to each other. You know, and recognize that we have a shared common commonality that our children may go to the same school or that we work in the same place.

So, you know, thinking about how you reimagine events that you’ve had in the past, into something that’s much more digital, I think is critical for creating, continuing to create that sense of community. And I think you know, when you get the opportunity to come back, you know, be incredibly planful and thoughtful around, like, how do you continue to create community.

And then I think in the future, we have to go back online like taking, see what we’ve learned this year, and then, you know, make changes based on like, this is really effective. This is not so effective. Let’s do more of this and less of that. So planning for next year is most of the work that we’re doing. We have three weeks to go to school, so still have to finish out the year we’ve graduation, a bunch of other sort of planned events that are really important. But we’re also spending time thinking about like, what is August look like?

CW: Then we turn to next year? What does Matt think next year looks like?

MH: Yeah, I think it’ll be some kind of a hybrid model where we’ll have some of the students on campus each day, you know, rotating through, I’m either on campus or I’m at home, and if I’m at home, I’m live streaming my classes because that’s gonna be live streamed. And then if I’m in class, I’m in class.

You know, it’s going to force us to change instruction, we’ll probably have to do more direct instruction, it’s going to be harder. Next to do some of the things that we’ve done, you know, group work that gets a little more challenging if you only have half your class there.

So, you know, but we’re not alone in that, like, this is not a this is not our school’s challenge. That’s it’s a challenge for all schools. How are kids learning online? What does that look like, as opposed to when they’re in brick and mortar? And, you know, what can we take from brick and mortar and try to transfer into online? What doesn’t work? We still need to fully understand that, you know, and I think that I say that, or I say, us, I have to understand not just us as a school, I think, you know, education in general, you know, and that’s just like, colleges, universities, high schools, middle schools, you know, even elementary schools, like how can we what’s transferable and what’s not?

CW: Given all this? Does brick and mortars still make sense?

MH: I really think that, that there is a hunger for, I will talk about high school kids and middle school kids. There’s a hunger for kids to be in space with each other. I do think that the amount of learning that happens that is not. That’s organic in nature. So, you know, isn’t necessarily just created just in the classroom, but in conversations that happen on the walk between classes in the lunchroom, before class starts in the middle of class, where people feel comfortable asking a question or asking a friend a question in class, you lose a lot of that in this in this new space.

And maybe you can capture some efficiencies, because, you know, people aren’t required to come, you know, transport themselves to your location and then transport themselves home and there’s, you know, probably lost time and transition during the day that you can probably get a little more efficient around but that efficiency I don’t think equals sort of the the learning that can happen when kids are in space with each other.

And I think that, I mean, I fundamentally believe that as humans, like we longed to be in space with each other. We don’t actually long to just be isolated. You know, all the research on on our closest cousins to chimps say that, like human beings are actually far more social than even chimps, because we really do want to be in community and, and that, you know, one of the worst things you can do to a person is put them in isolation. You know, in prisons, how do they punish people, you know, the most as they put them into solitary confinement, because that’s like a place we don’t want to be.

I mean, we’re not in in the world of isolation completely, but we are missing and I would say, it’s, it’s, when I say missing, I really think about middle school and upper school kids, they are missing being in space with each other than just all that that brings. And so I think that we will learn a bunch of things around online learning. And I think that we will use some of what we’ve learned particularly, to think about our curriculum and you know, how can we offer classes right now that we, that we’re not able to do because of the size of our school or the number of students we can serve and there might be some opportunity there for the school to think A little more broadly than where we are right now.

But I do think you know, our destiny is not to become an online school our destiny is to become a stay at brick and mortar school and to provide all that we provide kids in that setting.


CW: I want to thank Matt for his time. It’s always fun to chat with someone who thinks so thoughtfully about leadership. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as well.


Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my website, CLWill.com.

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode returns to the studio with a look at firing on a larger scale. It’s called Mass Exit. I hope you’ll listen. Until then please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.