Matthew Renwick in classroom with students

Empowering Students to Become Lifelong Learners [Interview with Matthew Renwick]

Matthew Renwick has been working in public education for seventeen years. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, Matthew served as a dean of students at a junior high school, which evolved into an assistant principal role along with athletic director duties. Now as an elementary principal, Matthew enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. He recently obtained his director of instruction license.

FreshGrade: What’s the most challenging thing about driving change in education?

Matt: Sticking with it. Staying focused on what you know is best practice and good for student learning is challenging. Technology is one of those shiny objects both literally and figuratively that schools often gravitate toward, thinking that simply putting technology into the classroom by itself can solve the problem. Sometimes it’s not really exciting focusing on literacy and math. We shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, but we have to stick to our vision and mission. Aligning what you do with technology is a key to that.

FreshGrade: What are some things students can do that make your job easier?

Matt: Being actively involved in the learning process is very important for students if we want to see an increase in engagement. This includes having an interest in what they are learning, some level of choice, and a classroom climate that encourages risk-taking. Understanding how students are motivated provides an understanding of how we are doing as a school. The kids’ ideas, their work on the walls, and our interactions provide a lot of qualitative opportunities to assess how well best practice is embedded in our instruction.

FreshGrade: What are some things students do that make your job harder?

MATT: When baggage from outside the learning environment comes into the school, it can make things tough. A student didn’t eat breakfast, or they need a clean pair of clothes. Often it is not something that the students have complete control over which is hard. It’s very challenging for students to learn when their basic needs aren’t being met. If we can help meet those needs, students will be better able to engage in their learning. Making a difference in a child’s life, both academically and as a person who cares about them, is why we do what we do.

FreshGrade: How can we enable and empower students to become lifelong learners who understand the value and process behind self-directed learning?

MATT: I think that comes back to changing assessments practices by not looking solely at the end results but to look at the learning journey in its entirety. Recording a reading video of a child is more powerful than a score or grade. Then capturing a recording of a student weeks later and again a few weeks after that is a much more powerful demonstration of learning than a reading test. Letting students drive and own their learning can be enhanced through student participation or student-led portfolios. Having students reflect on their thinking and evidence of learning allows them to become self-advocates. Students need to learn how to learn before the best learning can happen.

FreshGrade: What’s the most impactful technological change you’ve seen in education in the last 5 years?

Matt: In my opinion, it is the inexpensive, $100-200 mobile device. They are in the hands of virtually every kid now. Even in financially challenging environments there are smartphones, laptops and other devices that are not prohibitively expensive. Whether this looks like a laptop for every kid or they are bringing their own devices is still being determined. The policy of no devices in schools is not helpful. How do we teach kids to use devices in ways that enable learning? Can we use Instagram to highlight learning or assignments? It’s why we like FreshGrade, as it infiltrates the students’ and parents’ social media-centric world.

FreshGrade: What are the greatest challenges with parent engagement?

Matt: What we try to convey to our educators and staff is that parents don’t always work regular hours like we might. Often our parents are doing shift work or going away for weeks at a time for work, such as over-the-road long haul truckers. There are also parents that work two or three jobs. It’s challenging to get them into school, so utilizing digital communications is great way to keep families involved in their child’s learning when they might not be able to be there in person.

FreshGrade: What does a typical day look like for you as an educator?

Matt: It’s different every day. The variety is one of the best parts of my job. I often get to drive my own schedule. I love to be in the classroom every day and meet with students and teachers as much as I can. Our school-wide goal is to increase literacy and engagement, so it’s important for me to be a part of this endeavor. My job is a blend of management and leadership throughout the day.

What was the experience in your childhood or youth that helped set you on your career path?

Matt: I was not a terribly strong student in my younger years and my report card would often reveal that. My mind was somewhere else when I was a student. Our assessments consisted of tests and report cards. I didn’t have a bad experience, but I know my learning could have been better represented. That’s why I am so passionate about what I do. I ask myself “Is this an environment I would thrive in?” and that question guides me. This comes back to the relationships between the students and between the student and the teacher. Doing only the things that support traditional instructional classroom activities and assessments misses the great opportunity and importance of relationships.

FreshGrade: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your professional career to date?

Matt: Never assume. In other words, hold our biases at bay and try not to take things at face value. If we can drop our assumptions to understand what is motivating the people we interact with, we can learn more about what their true challenges are and what drives them to succeed.

FreshGrade: What does education look like in 15 years? How is it different?

Matt: No more rows of desks. More fluid collaborative spaces where instead of saying “This is what we are doing today”, we might ask “What will you be doing today?”. People won’t be talking about one to one in 15 years because it will simply be a part of our lives. Still, I hope the future is about the conversations and relationships.



Thanks to Matthew Renwick for sharing his insights with us and kicking off our thought leadership interview series. Connect with Matthew on Twitter, LinkedIn or on his website. Image Credit: Matthew Renwick.



This interview is available for reuse and redistribution based on the Attribution/Share Alike Creative Commons 4.0 license.


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