Kim Cofino and Clint Hamada of the Coach Better podcast and Eduro Learning interviewed NSRF Executive Director Michele Mattoon about NSRF protocols and Critical Friends Group learning communities. We encourage you to listen, take some notes, and contact us using this form if you’d like to know more. (You can also check out upcoming open trainings for individuals here or, if you’d like to learn more about bringing NSRF trainings to your organization, read this page.)

As NSRF International Facilitator Christine Botbyl says,

What a rich opportunity for educators, coaches, and school leaders to listen for an hour and learn how harnessing the power of structured conversations (aka: protocols) and #CriticalFriendsGroups can:

✅ increase relational competence,
✅ enact inclusive and equitable practices, and
✅ promote belonging among their communities.

Listen to the entire podcast below or on the Coach Better website. You can also view the highlights of Michele’s interview on YouTube. Share this podcast with your colleagues, and please let us know what you think!

Coach Better Podcast Interview TRANSCRIPT (refined for flow and clarity)
with Kim Cofino, Clint Hamada, and Michele Mattoon

KIM: Welcome back to another episode of The Coach Better podcast. I am very happy to be here today with Michele Mattoon, executive director of National School Reform Faculty, the creators of the CFG protocols that I know many of you listening use all the time. I was very fortunate to speak to Michele for the Women Who Lead interview series; we were talking about it two years ago now, and I’m very excited to be back to dig a little bit deeper into your work at NRSF and leadership and coaching and how that all comes together. So Michele, welcome to the podcast!

MICHELE: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

KIM: Thank you, thank you! … Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got to where you are, and what you do at NSRF?

MICHELE: I’ve been in education now for more years than I like to admit… like 36 years, I think. I started out being a teacher and in fact teaching elementary school – the little guys. So I spent over two decades really teaching first and second graders. I taught in an independent school, so there were plenty of opportunities to also teach other [age groups], early childhood through high school, which was a lot of fun.

Along that time, I became the elementary school coordinator, which is like the equivalent of being the principal of the lower school. But, you know, that really didn’t feel quite right to me. I did that for two or three years, but in the meantime, when I was a teacher, our school actually received one of the very first trainings of the NSRF. We were part of that pilot program. So I got [my initial training] very early. And as a teacher, when I got the training, I had this incredible epiphany and thought, “Wow, this is a game changer! [Training with NSRF] will really change the way I work with my colleagues, even how I work with my students in the classroom.” And then [what I’d gained in the training] sneaked into my personal life as well. It was very powerful.

Interestingly enough, at the same time, I started to do a lot of mindfulness practice. So I’d been to my first retreat [on mindfulness practice], came back, and then immediately did this work, too. Those two practices [the NSRF training and mindfulness] converged into this incredible “aha” moment for me. I became a coach, a coach to many groups in our school and really wanted to move further, so I became a facilitator for the NSRF, and actually around 2008, I was in the right place at the right time and was offered the directorship at that point. So that’s when I made my transition into working and being the executive director for NSRF.

KIM: Beautiful. I know I want to dig deeper into what NSRF does and what you do at NSRF, and I will jump into that right now because, for those who don’t know, I ask you: what does a protocol mean? … I want to talk about the importance of intentional conversations and using protocols and structures … Can you tell us about, when coaches or educators talk about this concept of a “protocol”, what do they mean? Why is it different from just a regular conversation? And you talked about this epiphany, that it was a game changer. What made you think that? What was it about that? Then we can go into a little more depth on that work.

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Protocols are really just structured conversations. They’re conversations that are very intentionally structured so that the person or the group who goes through the protocol actually gets their desired outcomes at the end. They act as a guide with guardrails to take you from where you start in your conversation to where you want to be, without meandering around or careening off a mountain [off topic and out of focus].

It really takes you as straight a path as possible to where you want to go [to reach your meeting’s end goals]. To do that, it really forces you – but in a very kind and nice way – to think through something very deliberately.

For example, many of the protocols ask, “Okay, what is it you want to do?” So the presenter will present what it is they want and all the context around it [to define their needs]. And then there’s usually a chance right after that [for those listening to the presenter] to ask [the presenter] clarifying questions so everybody’s in the same place. And again, every step of this process is timed; it’s built so equity of voice happens. Everybody in the group gets a chance to speak. The hierarchy is completely flattened, so there’s not one person who gets to say more [like] they have more importance.

After the clarifying questions, there’s usually some kind of analysis that happens. [As we analyze the presenter’s needs, the protocol asks us to] really pull apart the problem … really think about it and reflect on it and discuss it. And then, after this process, we come up with [possible] solutions and we come up with solutions while the other person just [listens and] thinks about it – what we’ve said. Then, in the very end, they often reflect back to realize and share what was helpful and what they might do. [The presenter might share] which of these suggestions [they might] try to bring about. Then an important part of the process is [for everyone to come together] to debrief … [The protocol will ask them to consider how things went and asks,] “What did we think? Did we get what we want? Was this the correct process? How did you feel about it?”

[The final, reflective] piece is really important because that lets us know if we were either very successful or maybe if we picked the wrong protocol or maybe we got off track and we should have been better with our timing. Making time for reflection in the end means we move forward and improve each time we come together again in the future.

So, of course, not all the protocols follow that exact path, but they all have basic elements of [presenting/sharing, clarifying, analyzing, and reflecting] in them. But they’re [each] very different. If you visit our website, we have many protocols and activities, and they all do something different. So it’s important to pick the right tool for what you want to accomplish … [Knowing how protocols work and which one is best for a situation is] a big part of our training, for example.

I do want to draw a really important distinction between using a protocol by itself and having a CFG (a critical friends group community) where you have a professional learning community that specifically meets regularly over time and uses these protocols to really deepen their learning and understanding and to help each other continuously improve their practices. And that piece [–building a Critical Friends Group community –] that’s the piece that’s going to change the culture of your school. That’s the piece that’s going to give you that “aha” moment that I had.

The protocols are really useful and you can use them any time, but that piece [of having a Critical Friends Group community] meeting together, going deeper and deeper into their professional practice, supporting each other, having a stake in each other’s success, that’s the amazing magical piece that really puts schools–when we’re all involved in it–into a much more healthy and productive culture and one that everybody wants to be a part of …

KIM: Beautiful. Thank you. And I appreciate the distinction between using the protocol and having the CFG community; I definitely want to talk about that a little bit more. I really appreciate … your very clear description of what is a protocol and that concept of the guardrails.

I know, for myself, the very first time I did a CFG protocol I think it was “The Final Word” – and, you know, I had found it by myself in a Google search, like no one taught it to me … I was having a book club meeting with my colleagues, and we had one person who really dominated every conversation, and it was my chance to lead the book group. And I was like, “I’ve got to figure this out … How can we do this so this one person doesn’t dominate the conversation and everybody’s voice gets heard?” … I know I didn’t have the same experience as you in terms of being in a pilot study and having that ongoing group. But, man, that one conversation [went so well and afterward] I was like, “Oh, I need to do this for everything, every time when there’s professional learning happening!”

And that part you talked about – the equity of voice … it’s very interesting [because] the dynamics of this particular group – and it’s not going to be surprising when you hear it – the person who talked the most was partnered in a team with the person who talked the least. So you can imagine their everyday working relationship was very much: one person talks, the other one listens. I was part of the larger scale of that team and was like, “I’ve got to figure out something.” Like, I don’t have any problem getting my voice in there, but you know, I want to make sure everybody has their voice, and – Wow! – that moment [in which] everybody had their two minutes (I think it was “The Final Word” or “the Four A’s” – I can’t remember which one; debriefing a text protocol was what we were doing.) it was just amazing to have that [timed] structure. We got through so much of a conversation! We got to [have a] much more in-depth conversation than we had in any other [previous] conversation, because we had that protocol, and we had those guardrails … It allowed us to FOCUS on the text instead of on individuals … I don’t know… persistent … dynamic!

MICHELE: … social dynamics!

KIM: Yes!

MICHELE: … It makes such a difference. And I will say to you, one of the things that I found very quickly, once you experience [structured protocols in a meeting] and you see how efficient and effective [they can be], how they just get you to a place where something gets done, you will be ruined for unstructured meetings after that. You’ll sit in [an unstructured] meeting and somebody will just start talking, and then the group will wander and [some] get up [to leave]. You’re like, “Can’t somebody just structure this meeting?” Because [once you’ve experienced structured protocols], you know there’s a better way.

KIM: … I’m just going to take a quick moment to let everyone know that Clint [my co-host] just joined us .. and I’m sure Clint is going to jump in … which is great!

But – Yes, Michele, exactly that. Like anytime in a meeting where there isn’t a protocol or there isn’t a structure, I’m sitting there like, you know, twirling my hair in rage because how can we function like this? We don’t. We don’t function like this.

So I think that, really, I do want to talk more about the CFG community, too, but that does get me to my my first kind of planned question for this conversation which is: how is it, why is it that we don’t have protocols in our practice already and why are they so important?

I think you’ve [already] addressed that in a couple of different ways, but maybe [I’ll] give you a little bit more space to talk about the quote that I think of which is–and it’s not related to protocols specifically–but I also spoke to Jennifer Abrams for the Women Who Lead interviews and for the podcast, and she often says, “We know how to have conversations, but we don’t know how to have intentional conversations.” And that connects me to protocols right there, because we just kind of expect that we’re going to go into a meeting of professionals, and we’re going to be able to have an intentional conversation. But actually there are so many other dynamics at play that we need to have this structure defined for us so that we can have an intentional conversation.

MICHELE: You know, one of the quotes I always think of when I give trainings is actually one that Einstein did, which is “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I might’ve paraphrased that a little bit, but it’s true. The thing is that it doesn’t come naturally to human beings to have a structured conversation. We don’t do that well. In fact, when people don’t know what to expect when they come to our training, they experience a protocol, and I always debrief it [to reflect on how it went] because it’s like, “Okay, here’s your first experience. How do you feel?” And I tend to use one of the most restrictive [protocols] because then [for some] it always feels like, “Oh, this is so much better!” as they go. But many times people say, “Well, it just didn’t feel natural,” and my response to that is always “Good!” We don’t want it to be “natural” because if we keep doing what we naturally do, we are going to keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over again.

But I will promise you – our typical coaches’ trainings are five days – and by the end it’s going to feel so natural to you, and you’re going to wonder why you hadn’t done this and why people just don’t do it. It’s such an interesting thing. [By] the third day of the training people, you know, a light turns on over their head, and we facilitators [see that a] “shift happens” because that is when the mindset [shifts] … you can see people go, “Oh!” and they “get it.” It suddenly comes together for them and [they] understand. The real power of what it can do really becomes clear to most people at that point.

So I think that … this idea of structuring conversations is incredibly important when doing certain things. I think sometimes we get so excited (the people who take the training) with structuring things they want to then take the tools and sort of force them into conversations. And I say that is the worst thing to do. If you don’t need a protocol, please don’t use it. Because if you use a protocol when you don’t need one, what it does is it teaches people that there’s all this useless, confining structure that doesn’t give them anything. So then they just throw the whole baby out with the bathwater at that point. So, you know, please don’t do that. Only use a protocol or structure if you need it. If you can just have a conversation, just have the conversation. That’s okay. You don’t have to protocol everything.

KIM: Yeah … I’m not a trainer… but that’s been my experience, too … Actually intentionally using protocols when you need them and not using protocols in the same session. Let’s say you’re doing a PD … that also really helps people see like, “Oh, when we do the protocol, we’re having this structured, purposeful conversation, but then there’s another time when we just chat at our tables”, you know, and … being able to compare between the two is actually kind of a powerful opportunity to see why the protocol is so valuable.

MICHELE: And, you know, I just want to say that … protocols are just so useful if you have a certain amount of time, you want to get something done, and you want to hear every voice in the room. Generally speaking, people who use protocols have a set of ground rules or we call them agreements: How do we work? How do we do the best job with each other as we work through a process? And, you know, it’s … such an important piece that sets this, this culture. It’s like knowing what to expect; you sort of settle into it. And the more you use [those set agreements], the easier they become and the deeper you can go with them as you go.

I’m sure you experienced that, Kim. It really is a learning process where it’s like, “Oh gosh, this was really good for this thing. And this was really, you know, this was a very important step. So we don’t want to take that piece out if we don’t have enough time, right?”

KIM: Yeah. And I think that time piece is really important too, because … recognizing that when you do a protocol, it might take a little bit longer than if you were previously used to just having people have a conversation, and you could say, “okay, talk for 5 minutes” and you know, you maybe wouldn’t get the result you wanted, but you knew it would only take 5 minutes, whereas the protocol itself might actually take 10 minutes because everyone gets their time to speak or whatever. It takes longer, but the outcome is better. And I think that is also part of the judgment of when you use them versus when, when not.

CLINT: So I was going to ask…

KIM: Oh, I can tell Clint has something to say.

CLINT: Yeah, I was going to say you sort of answered the question that I had in my mind as you were talking about this. I think one of the things as … a new coach or as a new leader or, you know, working with the team … how do you really decide when is the protocol appropriate and when it’s not?

… I think that idea of when do you have that structured conversation versus, you know, when do you want to have that free talking like Kim was saying. How do you ensure that everybody has a voice in the room … keeping mindful of your time constraints? I’m just wondering if there are any other key considerations that you would share as … a new coach or as a new leader to be like, you know, in this sort of situation, you really must 100% really – I don’t wanna say always use a protocol – but consider using a protocol.

MICHELE: I always consider using a protocol, number one, if there’s a problem that needs to be solved. I mean, if as a group somebody said, “Look, you as a group need to come up with … a solution to this,” and if it seems to be a problem that somebody can’t just say, “Hey, what if we do that?” and everybody’s going to go, “Oh, yeah, that sounds great!”… If it’s going to be more than [simply throwing out an idea and everyone agrees], I would use a protocol. Absolutely.

I would say that [protocols] especially come in handy if the problem, or if what you’re trying to do, is somewhat complex and it has layers, … and/or if you know that people have strong feelings on many sides. If you think that some people feel disenfranchised or hardly ever get to speak and some people, as Kim said, speak a lot and all the time and repeat themselves with emphasis. That’s the time to use a protocol.

And [the word] “protocols”, you know, it’s jargon. When I say “protocol”, people are like, “Oh, gosh, what is that? I have no idea.” And the minute we introduce jargon into what we’re saying, we’ve immediately divided the group into two groups: us, the people who know what “protocol” means or what that jargon means, and them, those people who don’t. So immediately you’re putting those people who don’t know into a poor position because either they’re going to have to admit that they don’t know what it means and ask people to explain it to them–which can seem bad in certain groups–or they just pretend they know what it means and hope at some point it will come to them, but that [can create] a lot of tension.

… One of the things that we need to be very careful of when we introduce [protocols] is to … not use the word “protocol.” I’ll say, “Hey, listen, you know, we’ve had this experience where we haven’t gotten to actually finish what we’ve been trying to do or this is a tough problem … I’ve got this structured way of having our conversation. Let’s try it! … I’ll just take you through step by step, and, at the end, we’ll just talk about it and see if it was helpful or not.” And, if you say it that way, people are usually like, “Okay!” And so you get [to say], “Okay, here’s the first thing we’re going to do. Here’s the second thing. And by the way, I’m timing it.” … And then they go, “Wow, that was really great. Where did you learn that?” And that might be where I say, “Oh, well, you know, we call it a protocol …” [and explain more]. But I think that … resistance can be immediate simply because of something like using jargon [which might imply] “oh, you know, I’m so smart; I learned this protocol, and we’re going to try it” and people are feeling like, “No, no, I don’t want to do it.”

So you just have to be careful … There are definitely situations where I think it can be helpful. If you think that you may have difficulty getting something done and having everybody happy with the end result, I would say use a protocol.

KIM: That’s a really good point about the jargon and the word “protocol.” I also call it a “structured conversation.” I don’t know if that’s in your literature …

MICHELE: Yes, we do use it.

KIM: … Okay, so that’s probably where I got it. But everyone knows what a conversation is, right? So if you can say, “How do you feel about having a structured conversation about this? Here’s how this one is going to work…” – and as soon as you do that and they go through it, what’s amazing is then they have this toolkit of, like you said, 100 or 200 other protocols, because now they know what a protocol is, and they can go to your website and find all those other protocols. So I think that is like a nice way to bring us all together in a process that doesn’t feel intimidating, but also opens the door to future potential structured, purposeful conversations. And I’m sure there is a ton to get out of going through the process of being trained on how to use them, than just, like, showing up and using them like I do. So then there’s also that [training] opportunity, too, really building your skills on facilitating conversations properly.

I wanted to ask you, so I run a program called “The Coach” where I train instructional coaches, K-12 instructional coaches, on being a better coach, essentially learning how to build a thriving coaching culture in their schools, and one of the things I include in that program is an opportunity for them to think about how they might structure intentional conversations, leading professional learning, being intentional in their conversations with their coaches, and one of the resources I share is your website – and it’s one of many resources, so people don’t always immediately catch it – but then I always bring it back up around in our face-to-face conversations like this and once people catch it, they’re like, “Where has this been all my life? How did I not know about this thing?”

So I want to give you an opportunity to share how you see coaches, whether they’re instructional coaches or a specific type of coach or leaders using protocols in their practice, whether it’s specifically for professional learning or in intentional conversations. How do you see coaches and leaders using protocols beyond when we have a problem? Obviously it makes a lot of sense to me, but, beyond that, when we have a problem we need to solve in a set amount of time, how are they using them in their regular practice? And maybe this gets a little back to the CFG groups as well.

MICHELE: I think the thing about coaches – any kind of coach – is that you are there to really support a person or a group of people, right? And you want to give them the tools that they specifically need. So hopefully if it’s a good coach, it’s a very tailored sort of conversation. [A good coach is] really trying to take that person [they’re coaching] and help them get to a place where they’re improving their own practice. [As their coach,] you’re really the support system for them. And, of course, you’re learning together, but you have the skills that help them think through their own problems.

One of the things we teach that is so important is questioning and how you question people. There are a lot of different professional development courses that you can take about questioning, but I do think that we rely heavily on that. We have three or four different kinds of questions that we use in our protocols that really are intentionally built to do different things. Especially the probing questions, which really aren’t about you having an answer; they’re really made to make somebody think more deeply about the issue at hand. And because they’re thinking they won’t have a ready answer, [and] you don’t expect them to. They basically with, “Hmm, well, I need to think about that…” And that’s great! …

[Coaches may] often use our protocols to help deliver content if they’re trying to teach … they’re teaching instructional coaches and … [they may] not use our protocols as is but [for] really learning, like, how to group people, how to time them, how to ask them certain questions and certain pieces, how to move them from here’s what I’m going to present to you … let’s analyze this and see what we gleaned from it. And then let’s think about how we can use that in our practice, and then have them use it and then follow up: How did that go? What worked well? What didn’t work well? What can we be doing? What more tools can I give you? You know, if you’ve had great success in this, let’s move on to something else.

So that kind of thinking is exactly the kind of thinking we use in protocols. And that piece of debriefing and really applying, using, and debriefing – that’s the goal. Because if you don’t have that debrief and then the follow up, you’re missing out on such a huge chunk of learning. Because what’s great about a coach is hopefully you will be seeing them again, and they will be saying, “Hey, how did that go?” And if you know that somebody is going to ask you that question, you’re much more likely to have really tried to do what you’ve worked out with your coach. So it’s just an incredibly nice learning circle of somebody who is there for you and who can help celebrate your successes and support you with your challenges and just keep you on track to learn and improve your practice.

KIM: I think that’s a really good point about – and I’m not going to describe it as well as you did, I’m going to try to make it in my own words – seeing if we can pull something out of it. But by using a protocol to facilitate professional learning, you are almost studying the structure of how people build understanding, because the protocol is giving you that structure and in maybe adapting it or even just applying it as written you’re taking a meta view, like a bird’s eye view of, “Oh, this is how this group of people is going to come to an understanding about this thing we’re working on,” and just doing that process and doing it again and again and refining your skills makes you better at facilitating professional learning overall because then you understand these are the frameworks, these are the pieces, these are the structures that need to be in place. Yes, I can follow this one word for word or I can make up my own that is kind of along those lines and will facilitate this process with all of the essential pieces in place. And I think that’s, to me, that’s a kind of meta view of looking at the protocols.

MICHELE: It absolutely is. And I think that just the collaborative piece of protocols (which we really haven’t talked about so much up to this point) … but that’s such a key piece, the fact that everybody gets their voices heard, and we are working together to come up with solutions and there’s no place – this is one of the things that I love dearly about protocols – there’s no place ever for anybody to say, “No, that’s not going to work … You know, we tried that ten years ago and it didn’t work then, so it’s not going to work now.” You know, there’s no place for that. Everybody throws out their solutions, and then we analyze them and take the ones we think are going to work for us.

So there’s no place where we shut down each other’s thinking. We don’t do that. We honor everybody and what they do. And that doesn’t mean we have to take every single idea that comes up, but it means that we hear and we consider and we respect and we create and we build on each other’s ideas. That piece is so important because when people leave the process, they feel really good. They feel like: I contributed; I helped; I learned from other people; I took stuff away that I might be able to use in my process, even if I wasn’t the one who was specifically being helped. That creates that sense of belonging that’s really important, and it really gives us a stake in each other’s success. We want that person to succeed because we were there to help them with some solutions. So we really want to know: how did it go? Did it go great? (Yay! Yay!) or Oh, let’s try it this way this time, right? … Some people think, “Oh, it’s such a dry structure. You know, we lose our humanity”. It is the exact opposite. It allows empathy and considerations and respect to come out when you are in that process.

CLINT: I think the important part of that is when they’re done well. I think sometimes we’ve all been in situations where … someone didn’t put the thought behind it or they’re just like, “Oh, yes, I’m going to pull this protocol off the shelf” and not really think about how it’s going to be implemented or who is in the room or why they’re doing it. They’re doing the protocol for what you were talking about [earlier], for the “jargon” factor of it to say, “Well, I have a protocol in my meeting” or “I have a protocol in my process.” But what they haven’t really thought about is: “Is this the correct protocol? Am I applying it at the right time with the right people in the right place?” And sometimes that will cause the participants to be like, “Oh, I’ve done this before…” Like teachers are notorious, right? “I’ve done this once before and it didn’t work, so I never want to do it again.” And so I think it’s really ensuring, too, that the coaches or the leaders who are using those protocols are implementing them in good faith and with … proper training, [and] they really have an understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish with that.

And I think we talked about the collaboration piece; I think the collaboration piece of planning a meeting with somebody else and being able to say, “This is the protocol that I want to use” or “I’m thinking about this and here’s what I want. What do you think?” And then really digging into, well, why are you using that protocol? What are you hoping to elicit? … How do you expect that conversation to go? And is that going to be helpful? I mean, that, to me, is gold too. It gives me a framework so I can have a conversation with somebody else about what I’m trying to accomplish, and we can speak the same language. And I’m confident 100% of the time that my meeting or my process will be better because we’ve had that conversation around the structures and around the intentional conversations and how we want those to go.

MICHELE: I think that’s such a good point, Clint. … I always say to think about the protocols like tools and you’ve got to pick the right one and maybe you don’t need a tool at all. But, if you do, make sure that if you pick the hammer there’s a nail, and it’s not the saw that you wanted, right? Because that can be disastrous if you use a hammer when you’re supposed to be using a saw. Bad idea! And it’s the same thing with protocols. You can’t just pick one out and just try to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s not going to work, and the end result is going to be disastrous. We say, you may create “an epidemic of eye rolling” the next time somebody says the word “protocol” and nobody wants that. So there you go.

KIM: So tell us a little bit more about the collaborative nature of using protocols in our work. Maybe this gets at the committed CFG groups in a school. … How do you use protocols in this collaborative sense that you were referencing before?

MICHELE: For sure, if you have a CFG group – and, by the way, a “Critical Friends Group” is just a very special kind of PLC or professional learning community – it’s a PLC where people use protocols, basically, and they meet regularly over time. We call it “critical friends” … [and] a lot of people [ask], “Why do you call it critical friends?” People may think, “Geez, having a group where you sit around and criticize each other? …That doesn’t sound great.” But, no …

… “critical” meaning that it is really important. This is something you have to do. If you want to really improve your practice, it is vital that you have these colleagues who are there to help you. And the “friends” part is that they’re there to help each other, and they’re there to give you open and honest feedback that is helpful and respectful. And they’re there to celebrate your successes. That’s why it’s called “critical friends.”

I think that when you’re in a Critical Friends Group community, the idea is everybody is going to, at some point, bring something to the table: their imperfect work, a problem they need to solve, or a plan they need to make. So they need you to help them think about how to roll it out, this new initiative, whatever it is they’ve got. And so you are receiving [feedback] sometimes and you’re giving [feedback] a lot of times. And that’s what feels really good about that group. You can feel good when you give something to somebody and they are appreciative, and it’s helpful to them and it feels really good that people take an hour out of their day to help you. It’s just an amazing feeling. And, because it is collaborative, everybody gets a chance to do that and to talk every single time.

One of the things that we found out is – and people are always amazed at this – we’ll have a protocol and then it’s done, over in 40 minutes to an hour. And yet people are like, “Wait, wait, wait.” They still want to talk about it! They still have more things to say. … That’s when you know the process was successful because you leave people wanting more. And the idea is that they will see each other and say, “Hey, can we get together with coffee, you know, and talk more about this because I have more resources that I can give you?” or “I’d love to hear your take on this,” or “You seem to know so much about it.” And that’s where it can be really positive, because then people start those conversations outside of that structure or outside of that group, because they’ve really started to build community. I think that’s really important. And you can even feel it when it’s outside of the CFG group, but it’s a meeting or it’s professional development that you’re doing.

Right now, I also work outside of education, and I’m working with a medical device company that’s global actually, and we’re delivering content. I work with a guy who knows the IT stuff – he’s the content guy – but I’m the person who structures the training and who provides that kind of thing that we’re talking about. And they hire us over and over and over again because their people say, “We love those trainings … Call Coltrain Group!” And that’s what you want because …

… people really do enjoy learning. They enjoy talking. They enjoy having people listen to them, and they enjoy feeling that they got somewhere and that they [were able to] talk deeply about something they care deeply about. That’s why we got into education, to be able to talk about it in a meaningful way. And that’s what [critical friends groups and protocols] allow us to do.

KIM: Oh, yes. So what you described is so wonderful. I wanted to ask you … The schools that implement CFG well, what are they doing? What structures do they have in place? What does that look like?

MICHELE: Okay, so the schools that do it well … It really permeates through their whole culture. What they have done, basically, is they’ve instituted Critical Friends Groups with the majority of their people, who meet regularly over the school year. And it goes beyond… Those teachers use protocols and structured conversations in their classrooms with their students; they use them with parents, if they have parent meetings; they use them out in the community; the administrators have taken the training, and they use them. And this becomes just the way we do things. It starts to feel really natural. and it doesn’t feel like a big change, or whatever. Once you move it into the culture, that’s when you see this amazing change happen.

But it doesn’t happen overnight, and you can’t just have two groups in a school meeting, and three people who use protocols in a meeting here and there. That’s not going to make change happen. … It will be great for those people who meet in those groups, but it’s not going to change the culture of the school. It really is important that you use them in groups that meet continuously over time and that your students love them, by the way, and they really love facilitating them. Because after they see it, you can give a student a timer and, and they get to facilitate. It’s great. … Having those skills as a student, once they leave your school to go into higher ed or into a job, I mean, it’s an amazing leadership skill to have.

So I think that it just permeates through the culture of the school, and it’s amazing what people get done and how they feel about each other in that kind of environment. And I’m not saying that that’s the only way you can have a really healthy environment, but I am saying that it is one of the things that really make people want to be there.

And, as Clint pointed out – which can’t be emphasized enough, it has to be done well. I really do encourage people to be formally trained, at least enough [people trained for] a critical mass, one for every ten staff people you have. That way you have enough people who know how to do it, and they do it with fidelity, so people learn from the people who really know how to do it. And that really helps set the tone. It doesn’t mean you have to get everybody trained all at once – that can grow over time – but it should be an intentional process if you’re interested in that as a school. Otherwise, we can train one person and they will love it and they’ll use it, but the greater school community, unfortunately, won’t be able to benefit from their expertise.

KIM: As we were talking about that, I was thinking about all of the things that schools want to do and all of the things that make such a good school culture, and, so, how do schools make the decision? Where do they start? You know what I mean?

MICHELE: Yeah, it’s always time and money.

KIM: It is.

MICHELE: I don’t have a solution.

KIM: There’s no answer.

MICHELE: But it’s – you know, it’s less and less about money and more and more about time.

KIM: And capacity, yes.


What I know about our culture is we hate to take anything off our plate, and we’re constantly trying to put more and more and more on our plate. That’s a tough one. But we often say, “Think about protocols as a tool to help you get all the stuff off your plate.” So if you have a plate and you’ve got all this “food” on it, think about protocols as your fork, your spoon, your knife.

You’ve got to get this problem off your plate; you pick the right tool. It will get that food to your mouth efficiently and effectively until it’s all gone. There’s a learning curve, at first, to learn it, but, once you learn it, it can make everything else that you do so efficient and productive. It can really be helpful. But it’s tough … I will agree with you 100% …

CLINT: … I’ve experienced it firsthand. You know, I think protocols and that structure, that commitment to that structure, from a school’s point of view and trying to, like you said, [grow] that critical mass. Who is that critical mass of people in your school? Maybe it’s your heads of department or maybe … that small group is [trained] initially … It’s one of those high leverage culture shifts … It does take three or four years, but, eventually, you see everybody then has a fluency in the language.


CLINT: So your meetings are more efficient and more effective because when you have a protocol that works, and it’s one that we know works … everybody goes “Okay! We think we know it!” 90% of us know what that is, and the 10% who don’t, there are nine people there who can help you out. So we can then train each other and support each other a lot faster …

And I’m really curious to know … I think … the measure of success for a lot of things is how it self-propagates through your community and through your organization. I’m curious to know a little bit more about … how it affects the classroom, and is there anybody who’s doing any sort of research or digging into those students who have been exposed to protocols like this that are maybe more like coaching or leadership protocols that work their way into the classroom and sort of their effectiveness in the classroom and even their kind of leadership potential, like you said, beyond the classroom, because I think they go out into the world with these skills, you know, and if I were to encounter a high school student who is like, “Oh, yes, I know how to do that,” I would be blown away if I have them as an intern or if I’m seeing them as a university professor. I’d be curious to know, is there any research in that area or is anybody looking into what is the multiplier effect of these protocols and critical friends groups as it filters down into our classrooms?

MICHELE: … Unfortunately, we are a poor nonprofit organization who tries to offer our training as cheaply as possible, so we don’t have a big research department, which is too bad because that would definitely be something that I would consider. We have tons of anecdotal stuff from people, from teachers who use them in their classrooms who actually have [used protocols]. I mean, I did [use them] as a teacher; our whole school did as teachers. And I taught first and second grade … I had to modify them a bit, but the kids were all over it. And I often taught with protocols because protocols help you, as Kim said, do that “little dance” between [presenting] the formal content … and [using] a protocol to really process it. Analyze that and think about how we’re going to use it and apply it and make connections. Right? That’s what protocols are really good for.

And kids, as I said, really like them … [Protocols are] predictable, which feels really good; Kids know what to expect. [Given the structure of a protocol] they actually give feedback to each other but in very specific ways … and they’re very respectful, and they don’t come across as evaluative or judging in any way. It’s about helping each other.

And so I think … we do know that when teachers use them in the classrooms with their kids, their kids enjoy it. And because they are enjoying it, they learn more, and they take it home and they talk to their parents about it, and they want to continue to do it. In fact, some of them, if you use them on a regular basis and then suddenly you stop, we’ve heard many teachers say their students were like, “Hey, how come we’re not doing that thing anymore, that we did?”

So, you know, I would love for somebody to really delve into the research. I will say that we worked with the growth mindset people in Stanford University through their PERTS (which stands for Project for Education Research That Scales) department, which is… sort of the practical branch of how to apply a growth mindset. So if you go to PERTS’ website, [you’ll find] tons of free stuff on growth mindset. But together, [NSRF and PERTS] did a training on growth mindset but using protocols … They sought us out because they know that our protocols were written to encourage growth mindset. So let’s teach growth mindset through the structure of protocols and then they also have protocols. These were for teachers to use with each other, but we always debrief when we talk about how you might use this with your colleagues. We always say, “Now how might you use this with your students?” Always, always, always. So they have ideas about how to do both of those things … And when we teach leaders, we [ask], “How can you use them with leaders? How can you use these with teachers? How can you use them with parents?” We really try to expand this idea of using them with all areas. How can you support teachers in using these things? So, I’m not sure that really answered your question, Clint.

CLINT: What I’m, what I’m really hearing is there’s a doctoral thesis just waiting to happen.

MICHELE: Yes! So contact me if you’re interested in doing it. I would love to help you.

CLINT: That would be amazing.

KIM: Hopefully you’ll, you’ll get someone from listening to this podcast. That would be super cool. If you go from the podcast, tell them that you heard it here.

MICHELE: That would be great!

KIM: You have been … with NSRF from the very beginning?

MICHELE: Yeah, almost from the very beginning.

KIM: … And one of the themes that we’re kind of hitting on this year in the podcast is this concept of “from defining to refining”. We talked earlier, in the call, about the definition of what is a protocol – you made that really clear for us. As an organization, how have you refined your practice? What have you refined about protocols as you’ve grown over the years? What are some tweaks or some changes you’ve implemented that you can reflect on that might be interesting for us to hear. And then I’ll just ask you the very two simple questions to end our call.

MICHELE: Okay. Well, we are constantly refining. We have updated our protocols several times because we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and we also learn more about the science and the psychology behind why our protocols work. So for me, that was the biggest thing. Like we knew this stuff worked, now suddenly I’m reading all sorts of research and going, “Ah, that’s why that works. Oh, no wonder!”, right? And then intentionally really building that piece in. So you’ll notice [differences], … I have [older, original] protocols, almost hand-written ones [versus] how they look now, you know, after 30 years. So it’s a really interesting process. … I’ll also say that we keep adding [new protocols and activities]. And then there’s some that I have actually taken off our website over the years because I didn’t find them particularly useful, and I know that there’s better ways of doing it. So we’ve done all of that.

We’ve also expanded how we think about using them. And so, as I said, we’ve done different trainings where we’ve partnered with other organizations that have also helped us really inform our practice, like with the Stanford folks and then also with TeachThought, which happens to be a project-based learning organization. We’ve done trainings together.

We’ve also been thinking about different contexts and then looking at protocols through the lens of “belonging.” We’ve created this belonging mindset, like using protocols to really intentionally build belonging, you know, because it’s the big thing now, as it should be, I think. Belonging is the foundational thing that needs to happen, for any kind of real learning, continuous learning and support. And we know that our protocols help build that sense [of belonging]. And so looking at how we intentionally build belonging or how we intentionally think about growth and use growth mindset and encourage it, these are things that are really important.

And we’ve changed our protocols over the years [as well as developed] some of the specialized trainings that we do. … It’s a crazy world out there right now, and we’ve had a lot of people [ask] us, “Do you have trainings about how we can better handle difficult conversations?” And I say, “Yes, we do!” Then I quickly built a training for that. So I think really understanding how we can use these structured conversations to sort of navigate these different pieces that we have to deal with in life is a big thing that NSRF has done and continues to do over the years. And I’m just really lucky to be a part of that.

KIM: I love the way you’re sharing all that, because … I find it is easy for me to get excited and distracted by the newest thing. And so I’m always saying, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” But there is so much value in digging deep in what you already offer, love, know about, are passionate about, and through that lens finding new ways to explore. It’s like that Jim Collins “hedgehog” concept that you really get deep into that thing that you really want to be good at, and, through that lens, you can see so many other things. And that’s how you describe, like, getting good at understanding protocols and the power of protocols, you can see how that can support work towards belonging, work towards growth mindset, work towards having successful difficult conversations.

MICHELE: Project-based learning … You know, we [and] you, you kind of have a niche … We often have people say, “Do you guys do equity training?” … We’re not experts in equity training. We think it’s super important and our protocols, without a doubt, really support that because of equity of voice, because of the language that we use, because of the way we give feedback. So people often use our protocols when really doing that kind of hard work. But we’re not the experts on that; there are plenty of people who do that much better, and there’s no reason for us to even try to get into that space. But we’re here to really support that. So I think that’s an important piece to think about.

KIM: And I don’t know if I’m, like, beating a dead horse here, but that idea of “digging deep into your niche” … and understanding how and where you can support and understanding the value of continuing to look deeper at that …

I don’t know …I think a lot of times … In schools in particular, we have this concept of what I call “tick-box PD” [which can mean] “I got to get the badge for every single thing” …. “I’m a Commonsense certified teacher”; “I’m a Google certified teacher”; “I’m an Apple distinguished educator.” Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick (and it drives me nuts, in case you couldn’t tell). [We say these things] as opposed to saying, “This is what I believe in. This is what I think is powerful. This is what I think is important, and I’m going to keep exploring that,” and, through that lens, [we are] able to see so many other things instead of this surface level tick box. There’s a difference between that, like, constantly trying to tick the boxes versus this idea of refining and going deep. And I don’t know, that’s, that’s just something I’m thinking about.


KIM: Okay. So I have two final questions – quick questions for you. One is: on a personal level for you as a leader, what’s your uniquely endearing trait that people when they think of Michele this is what they think of?

MICHELE: I make mistakes all the time, and I don’t mind admitting it. I will own it. I will say, “Oh, thank you. I appreciate you pointing that out.” I don’t know if that’s endearing, but it definitely hopefully helps people feel like – You know, I don’t know where we got this idea that we’re supposed to be perfect. We’re human beings! Everybody knows we’re not perfect. We all know we’re not perfect. We all know that you’re not perfect. But, somehow, we have this idea that we can never make a mistake in front [of others], or else we lose everything. You know, people won’t respect us.

And that’s just silly. We need to create an atmosphere where people can take risks and be okay with it. And in fact, realize it. As we always say as educators: these are learning processes! But we don’t usually … model that. And so I think that, hopefully, being welcoming and being a human being and showing that we’re vulnerable and we will take the risk and we make mistakes … We stumble along the way, and that’s okay. I mean, we may have to do a lot of apologizing, we may need to make sure that we do it differently the next time, but it’s okay. I don’t know. Hopefully that’s what it is.

KIM: People need to hear that. That is beautiful. I love it. Final question: If people want to connect with you or with NSRF, how can they find you online? And I will, for sure, have links in the show notes, but if you could just tell people where to contact you and say the name in case they’re on their phones right now, and then anyone who wants to get in touch with you about that research that’s maybe how they’ll get in touch with you.

MICHELE: So, you know, if you just Google “the National School Reform Faculty”, we will come right up. NSRF@NSRFHARMONY, that’s [our email address]. [Our website is] On our website there’s a “Contact Us” [page]; it has my email. My email is just Michele (with one “L”) @ NSRFHarmony dot org. You can get a hold of me personally. It may take me a while to get to your email or sometimes, if you’re lucky, you catch me as I’m doing my email, and I’ll get back to you right away. … It’s easy to get a hold of me. It’s easy to find us on the web. We’ll come right up.

KIM: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, Michele. There are so many pieces in here that I want to dig a little bit deeper into. I really look forward to sharing this podcast with everyone. Thank you so much for your time today.

MICHELE: This was so much fun! Thanks, Kim. Thanks, Clint.

CLINT: Thank you.

MICHELE: Have a great day!

KIM: You too!

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