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For all the exploration of the learning process from understanding the impact of students’ past experience, to conducting brain scans during learning, to exploring the concept of the zone of proximal development, there is remarkably little work on what it means to teach.

We can explain teachingbrainwhat it means to give a lecture, or facilitate an experience, but are those activities explicitly teaching? Is it teaching when a child helps their younger sibling understand the rules of a game? Is it teaching when an adolescent helps their grandparent use Skype for the first time? Is there a difference between the child helping their sibling and what occurs in the classroom of a trained professional teacher? In The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriguez answers yes to all four questions. Those are all teaching interactions, however, they are each teaching at varied levels of complexity and development.

Rodriguez’s core claim is that classroom teaching is substantially more complex than we imagine it to be. Teaching, unlike learning, is inherently an interaction between teacher and learner. One can learn independently, but you can never teach in isolation. Teaching, like other skills, also has varying degrees of complexity from the reflexive level that primarily uses the midbrain, to high levels of conceptual abstraction requiring a strong understanding of intersectional relationships. This could explain the difference between teaching someone rote memorization of capitol cities and teaching someone the complex power relationships between black citizens of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

This explanation of teaching as a complex interaction represents an important shift from only examining the cognitive demands of the learner to examining the relationship between the cognitive demands on both learner and teacher simultaneously.

In addition to the complexity scale, Rodriguez lays out five areas of awareness that a teacher can grow in order to become more effective as helping others learn new concepts. Each area of awareness can be developed from a very basic level to a highly nuanced and complex level.

  • Awareness of Learner: This is most commonly discussed as a teacher’s knowledge of their students. If I understand that my student loves skateboarding, I can potentially serve them better by making explicit connections between the content in class and their love of skateboarding.  If I do not have this knowledge, I may miss opportunities to engage them in the class.
  • Awareness of Teaching Practice: This awareness is also commonly discussed. This would be a teacher’s understanding of their own pedagogical abilities. This could be thought of as the teacher’s toolbox of techniques and their ability to self-assess their pedagogical skill or classroom management. An example could be that I am aware that I like to facilitate discussion in my social studies classes and I’ve developed particular methods for engaging students in discussion of relevant topics. This area is commonly seen in teacher evaluations.
  • Awareness of Context: The awareness of context is often where we begin to differentiate good teachers from more average teachers. This would be the idea that a teacher may adapt their plans in light of an event or respond to student experience. For example a teacher may abandon their lesson plan when a particularly important current event occurs so that they can help their students explore it. This would be a teacher that takes advantage of “teachable moments” to provide highly relevant instruction.
  • Awareness of Self as Teacher: In my experience this is an undervalued awareness and I only found it actively mentioned in mentoring scenarios. This awareness is understanding how your individual nature impacts your teaching. This means an understanding that my race, gender identity, and cultural background all have an impact on my teaching. This was explicitly brought to my attention in my first year of teaching when a Jewish student specifically asked for my advice on a sensitive topic because I’d identified my Jewish background to the class. It is possible she may have not felt as comfortable coming to me otherwise. Additionally that same piece of my identity may have negatively impacted other students, but regardless of my desires, it has an impact on my teaching that I need to be aware off. My ability to speak Spanish has other unique impacts that I can be aware of.
  • Awareness of Interaction: This last awareness is where Rodriguez introduces particularly new ideas. She claims that it is not sufficient to understand the learner and understand the self, but we must be aware of the unique interaction that occurs when the teacher interacts with a given learner or group of learners. The challenge here is that each interaction is unique and can be highly impacted by the other four categories. My interaction with a given student may change dramatically in a new context and in order to be effective I need to understand that awareness. My interaction with a group of students can also be impacted by my knowledge of their backgrounds and by my awareness of my self as a teacher. This is a highly nuanced awareness and depends significant exploration to fully understand.

Beyond simply naming these categories of awareness, Rodriguez posits that each one has varying degrees of complexity and a given teacher can develop their skill and level of awareness through practice. This is where her research becomes particularly useful to me and my interest in developing new teachers.

As a mentor, I struggled at times to help teachers find a clear way to develop their practice. Many districts use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, however, the framework highly emphasizes Awareness of Learner and Awareness of Teaching Practice without significant mention of the Awareness of Context, Self, or Interaction. Additionally, Danielson makes the assumption that the highest degree of teaching skill is for students to be independent yet does not allow for varied contexts where it may be desirable for the teacher to take a more active role, for example during the introduction of new concepts or content. With some additional work to flesh out descriptors and examples for the five areas of awareness at varying levels of complexity, one could have a powerful structure for understanding various pathways to teacher development.

That being said, I would caution against handing such a structure to a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, and ask them to go develop their awareness. Developing Awareness of Self as a Teacher may include significant introspective work that is best facilitated by a coach or mentor. Additionally the Awareness of Interaction would require extensive reflection and analysis of teaching moments, likely best captured on video and collaboratively analyzed. As such, the five areas of awareness, and their levels of complexity, would be a powerful structure for a new teacher mentor, principal, or an instructional coach. This would provide the person assisting the teacher’s growth with a vocabulary and guidance beyond their own personal experience and as the mentor/mentee role is in many ways a teaching interaction this framework could guide the mentor or coach as well in their own development.

Often in my work as a mentor I found myself searching for meaningful vocabulary to describe the importance of awareness of self. The structure outlined in The Teaching Brain would be helpful to better categorize and explain how to develop. Additionally, the concept of varying cognitive complexity allows for discussions of teacher development even when the classroom appears to be running smoothly. I’ve seen evaluators struggle to discuss improvement when teachers are doing well, and the awareness of self as teacher and awareness of interaction can be continually developed because we change, our students change, and there are always new interactions when we encounter new people in new contexts. This is also not limited to the teacher/student interaction and could be explored as interactions between peers or supervisors in the appropriate context.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rodriguez to explore her ideas further and she is in the process of examining how the brain reacts during the teaching interaction for both teacher and learner. Humans can teach and learn by instinct, and we are continually teaching each other, yet we have little understanding of teaching itself, or what differentiates the highly skilled master teacher in the classroom from the untrained lay person.

We each have an experience with “that one great teacher” who moved us in a particular way, and we can say with confidence that there was something that made the teacher stand above the other teachers, yet we can seldom put that experience into words. My high school English teacher Nancy Jones held me accountable for the quality of my work, but there were also innumerable other interactions we had and decisions she made that are intangible or invisible to me. Something she did put me in a place to be ready to hear her feedback and the integrate that feedback into my own practice. It would be incredible to be able to name and identify those intangible components to better learn from her example and other master teachers.

Teaching in the United States suffers from a powerful lack of credibility. Providing teachers with scripted lessons, fast tracking certification with minimal training, and evaluating teachers based on compliance undermine the concept that a teacher is a highly trained professional. Perhaps through further development of Rodriguez’s initial work we can better understand teaching as a complex interaction between teacher and learner that is highly tailored to the individual’s needs. Perhaps by better understanding that interaction, we can more effectively name the qualities of excellent teaching and, more clearly honor and praise teachers for the work they do.

Excellent teaching should not be magical or random. Excellent teaching must come from training, reflective practice, and dedication to the craft. In order for that to occur we need to better understand teaching itself. With The Teaching Brain, Rodriguez has made an excellent beginning and opened the door for many years of additional research.

We’re coming up on the semester in my district, and it’s a good time to take stock of the year so far and think about opportunities to make changes.  So far nearly all of my teachers have been working in triage mode, responding reactively to address needs as they arise, always working to prevent getting overwhelmed.  They tend to move from one problem to the next with a high degree of presentism.  Similarly, I’ve been working reactively with my teachers, targeting those teachers that I perceive to have the highest needs, and trying to get everyone to a baseline of “this job is doable” before deeply pushing practice.  I want to change this in the second semester both for myself and the teachers I work with so that we can push a more philosophical and transformational approach to developing a teaching persona.

To this end I’m scheduling midyear reflection meetings with each teacher. In each of these meetings I’m specifically blocking out time to move our discussions away from the day to day issues and to look at first semester holistically, then setting focus areas for our work in the second semester.  In light of my previous thoughts on structuring discussion, I’ve put together a template for the discussion, something of a hybrid between open discussion, and a formal protocol.

The process works as follows with room for individual variation:

Step 1: Begin with an informal post winter break check-in to reestablish the teacher/coach relationship.

This is a quick way to reconnect and remind teachers that I am focused on supporting them as an individual person within the teaching role.  They are a human being first, and a teacher second.  A trusting relationship is essential to all of our work together, and therefore I need to remember to deliberately inject micro moments of relationship building into the process.  I cannot simply jump straight into the work and assume that a relationship will follow.  I need to intentionally build collegiality and trust so that my teachers will feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.

Step 2: Explain purpose of mid-year reflection.

The purpose of the meeting is to explicitly step away from the day to day, reactive, work of teaching.  Put aside the discipline issues, step away from evaluations, and put down the grading.  By stepping back like this we are able to get a more holistic perspective to the work, and we can move in a more proactive direction.  This wider perspective is commonly lost on teachers, and they are unable to see bigger patterns in their work due to a myriad of immediate needs.

In addition to the shift in focus, the timing of the meeting is highly intentional.  I am a big proponent of making change immediately once a need is identified, however, some changes (such as a change to grading system) need to wait until the semester.  Additionally, my teachers with semester classes have a chance to completely reset the structure of their course.  With a structured conversation that reflects on first semester, and makes plans for second semester, I can help teachers put their desires into practice at a logical time while continuing to act against the sentiment of, “next year I’d like to…”

Step 3: Move into a reflection on successes to date.

I specifically address successes before areas of growth because of how infrequently my teachers discuss their own success.  Whether from a sense of humility, high standards, or a lack of perspective my teachers rarely lead with discussing their successes.  Self-critique is far more common.  While thoughtful critique of areas of growth is extremely important, it is also important for my teachers to be able to identify and name their areas of strength.  This serves to boost teacher morale at a difficult time in the school year, as well as to improve teachers’ reflective accuracy.  Appropriately identifying areas of strength and success, is equally important to identifying weaknesses when building a teacher’s ability to self- assess.

In practice, I find that teachers have many more success than they initially give themselves credit for.  By taking the time to think critically about success, and not just failure, we can investigate how to maintain successful practices, and how to extend those patterns of success into new areas of instruction.  This serves as an important foundation for creating longterm patterns of growth.

Step 4: Ask teacher what they would like to add to their list of successes.

I’ve found great success wording the transition from discussing success to growth as “now that you’ve identified your success so far, what would you like to add to the list?”

This question does two things that benefit the teacher.  Initially, this wording honors the list of success and places value on them.  There is an agreement between teacher and coach that the previously identified successes are valid.  This confirmation is an important piece of feedback that helps teachers improve their self-reflection.

Secondly, there is an assumption inherent in the question that it is possible to grow the list of success, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.  This is a subtle move, and extremely important.  Continued growth is an essential component of success, and I want the teacher to work from an assumption that these are workable goals.  When I, as a coach, assume that my teachers are capable of growth, it makes it easier for them to grow in those areas.  This is also an act of modeling.  I show that I operate with an assumption of continued growth, and teachers can take that into their working in the classroom to help students grow.

Step 5:  Explore how to begin making progress toward those new items.

This is the step where we move from the reflective stage into practical planning.  We prioritize from the collaboratively generated list of ideas, and start to lay out the steps by which these areas will be developed.  This step is highly differentiated based on the specific needs of the teachers, but the goal is to turn the plans for growth into a reality.  The process can vary from a few simple interventions where a teacher needs exposure to new ideas, or it can be a more involved process that requires a teacher to think deeply about their identity as a teacher, and what that means for how to structure their classroom.

So far this process is going well.  I am only part way through my caseload, and I am seeing meaningful gains.  For some teachers this includes managing difficult teaching assignments, for some it is establishing more collegial relationships with their co-workers, and for others it is finding the personal strength to forge their own path despite external pressure to conform.  I am hoping that these midyear meetings will establish the focus I found lacking in the first semester.  I also hope that from our first semester work my teachers are empowered with the skills needed to work through many of the smaller issues with teaching more independently, thus allowing me to focus on developing their persona as a teacher and honing the more philosophical aspects of the profession through the second semester.

Last day in Kansas!
(And yes, I made a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” joke when we made it to the airport in Missouri.)

Thursday was only a half day (due to flight constraints on our part), and if my lack of notes from Day 2 was an indication of my lack of engagement, my notes from the day represent a high degree of authentic engagement.  I have more notes from three hours of day three than all seven hours of day two.  I attribute this to two major factors: Knight was back on his A game as a presenter and he was delivering content that was very new to me on a philosophical and theoretical level.  All the issues from day two: resolved.

Knight’s focus for the day was quality communication and he busted right out of the gate with theory and research.  Well… not quite right out of the gate.  There was a forty minute question and review time, but compared to the extremely lengthy review from day two I hardly noticed and it felt like he was busting right out of the gate.

Knight began with a potentially controversial claim: we have a communication crisis.  To me this immediately smacked of a generational bias: Knight’s boomer stodginess against my millennial early adoption of new technology.  I wanted him to defend himself.  I wanted justification for such an audacious claim.  I got what I wanted.  Knight (slightly) backed off his initially provocative ledge into a more nuanced position, recognizing that he’d played a part to get people to pay attention.  He does not discount the usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of communication that do not require people to be face to face, however he did maintain that the ultimate form of communication is face to face, one on one, in person.

It is important that we interact personally in order to catch all of the nuance of nonverbal communication.  Technology has to be seen as an additional tool, not a replacement for quality discussion.  In my work as a coach the vast majority of my interactions are face to face, and so developing my skill in reading non-verbal queues, effective listening, and building trust are extremely helpful.  Communication is also, of course, not limited to my work and as such I was able to build authentic connections and meaning throughout the day as Knight worked through his “9 Strategies for Communication” which are as follows:

  • Take the Partnership Approach (See Day 1)
  • Listen.  Seriously… listen.
  • Create connection between yourself and others.
  • Build Trust (This was the last one we were able to see due to leaving early.)
  • Find Common Ground
  • Control Destructive Emotions
  • Witness the Good
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Empathy

Take the Partnership Approach really boils down to drinking the Kool-Aid from day one, and I’m willing to accept that.  This is primarily because the Partnership Approach was presented as a fundamental set of beliefs governing interactions between people that extends beyond my work as a coach.  (For more on my thoughts on this read my summary of Day 1.)

The segment on listening was unexpectedly powerful for me.  I’m not the best listener ever.  I’m really good at thinking about a response while other people are talking, I’m very good at interrupting, and I’m a highly skilled self-focuser.  None of this helps listening as it turns out.  Knight outlined some very simple steps to quality listening which essentially boil down to “shut up, externally and internally, and pay attention to the other person.”  Then he made us practice, and that was where he got me on board.  Quality listening takes conscious expenditure of energy and Knight had us deliberately listen to a partner for three minutes.  I was immediately aware of how often I interrupt and talk over other people.  This is a huge area of growth for me personally and professionally and a listening goal is going to go right up with the video goal from the first day.

The connection segment was fairly brief and it focused primarily on summarizing Gottman’s work around relationships and marriage.  This was helpful in that it provides a clear language for how people connect, or fail to connected.  Gottman claims that people make a bid for connection in a variety of ways ranging from the ostentatious (Let’s take the credit card and go nuts!) to the more mundane (Would you like a cup of coffee?)  These bids represent a hope of connection from one person to another and how the other person responded to the bid is extraordinarily important component in whether or not those two people will connect.

This concept immediately shifted my entire mindset on what it means to make a connection and I instantly decontextualized a plethora of connections in my life be they deep, superficial, nonexistent, or stillborn.  I imaged how the bid was presented and received and quickly came to terms with many issues that had been presenting difficulty.  Gottman explains that people react to a bid in one of three ways:

  • They turn toward the bid:  This is an acceptance of the bid, and acknowledges that the bid has value and there is a shared interest.  This leads to positive connections very smoothly and efficiently.
  • They turn against the bid:  This is when someone directly opposes the bid.  This acknowledges that a bid has been presented, but makes it clear that the bid was an incorrect method of approach to a connection.  This does not necessarily shut the door to future bids.  Sarcasm can very easily be misinterpreted as turning against a bid.
  • The third option is that a recipient may turn away from a bid, effectively ignoring the bidder.  This is the most damaging for the relationship because the recipient does not even acknowledge that a bid has been made and the bidder is left feeling immediately devalued.  Turning away from a bid is particularly insidious because it can happen inadvertently when a recipient is truly unaware that a bid has been made.

This was just enough of Gottman’s work that I feel equipped to leverage the language in my personal and professional work, and I am still interested in investigating it further to deepen my understanding.  I see this work on connection playing a massive role in my life.

The last piece I was present for was the segment on building trust.  The whole thing can be summarized by Knight’s equation for trust below:
Trust Equation
Essentially the factors on the top of the equation help increase people’s trust in you while self-focus serves to diminish trust.  This section was very straightforward and served to give names to many of the thoughts I already had around trust and building trust in the teachers I work with.

The three days of Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Conference deeply highlighted the importance of maintaining basics of quality education throughout a session.  Day 1 had everything I needed: community building, challenge, relevance, and choice.  When I lost relevancy and challenge in day 2, Knight lost me as a participant.  When he added them back on the third day, I was immediately reenergized and cognitively engaged.  Despite the difficulties of the second day, I have a strong collection of thoughts, methods, and theories to leverage in my work with novice teachers.  I know that I will be a better coach as a result of these last three days, largely, thought not exclusively, because I can now give name and justification to many of the moves I make.  As an added bonus I can take many of these techniques and theories and integrate them positively into my personal life.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Local Music Scavenger Hunt Wrap-Up:
I want to begin by giving huge props to Taryn at Love Garden.  She really outdid herself with the recommendations and I’m leaving with a very positive view of the Lawrence music scene.  Instead of linking just a couple more bands, I’ve opted to list everything I left with in no particular order or classification.  Happy hunting.

  • Y(our) Fri(end) – Taryn’s band that I linked on day 1.
  • The Noise FM – garage rock sounds with higher than garage production values.
  • Heartscape Landbreak – intellectual, somewhat meditative, very cerebral art rock.
  • Hospital Ships – some of the same guys as above, much more accessible and straight ahead indie rock
  • Cowboy Indian Bear – Should be named Bear Ninja Cowboy.  Very ethereal, harmonized vocals over a variety of song structures. Mellow.
  • The ACB’s – Extremely accessible indie-pop.  Un-complex and very fun.
  • Fourth of July – Lo Fi mid-tempo indie rock.  They have a good beat and you can dance awkwardly like all the other hipsters.
  • Olassa – Straight ahead, stripped down, country in the spirit of Emmylou Harris or Allison Krauss.  Lovely.
  • Truckstop Honeymoon – Old fashioned bluegrass, most of the time, with contemporary lyrics.  Extremely fun.
  • Quiet Corral – Lawrence’s answer to Mumford and Sons.  Accessible, listenable, excellent.

Holy Bonus Tracks Batman! (Love Garden was sold out of their records but they have bandcamp pages.)

  • Bloodbirds – Punk rock.  What… you want more?  Ok… it’s fast, loud, and really good.  Happy?
  • Müscle Wörship – More punk rock with a better band name.

Lawrence Kansas

The goal for day one of the conference was to lay the philosophical and theoretical groundwork of instructional coaching, therefore day two of a three-day conference should be the big push on the new learning.  I was hoping to be piled with new information that I would have to spend this blog post sorting through as I processed my thoughts from the day.  Alas, that was not the case.  Quite the opposite in fact.

photo (10)Today was a disappointment and I was significantly less engaged in the content. (See the graph)  In a full eight-hour day I left with only five pages of notes in a small moleskin, and one of these pages is a mind map of the previous day (below).   This significant change in my engagement was primarily due to an inappropriately long time spent on review, information that did not meet my needs, and a generally low level of intellectual demand throughout the day.

We spent over ninety minutes superficially reviewing every single component of the previous day.  I am not opposed to reviewing material, and it is an essential component of learning, however balancing to the appropriate amount is essential.  I will own the fact that by writing yesterday’s one thousand word post I did a substantial amount of review independently that a large number of participants likely did not do.  However, my colleagues agreed that the amount of review was highly unnecessary.

After that ninety minutes on review Knight opened the floor to questions without setting any criteria for the questions.  This went on for nearly an additional hour.  As the questions dragged on, I just kept adding to my mind map to create what you see below, complete with Jim the Knight, Immanuel Kant, and Paulo Freire:

Image After the lengthy morning of review and individual questions ended with a break, I was hopeful that we would come back together for a continued focus on how proper coaching technique.  We did that, but to a very limited degree.  As much as yesterday was highly stimulating and steeped in philosophy, today was intensely tactical.  This was the day to drink the “Jim Knight’s Coaching Method” flavor of Kool-Aid.  Step by tedious step, Knight outlined a granular methodology.  Where on day one he presented the grounding research and philosophy before discussing specifics, he only focused on the specifics today, and these specifics took very little intellectual work on my part.  Additionally the specifics were not well aligned with the particulars of my work with novice teachers, leading to further disengagement.

The biggest disconnect seemed to come from Knight’s assumption that coaches work at the building level and are tasked with working with all teachers, whereas I work at the district level, almost entirely with teachers new to the profession.  From a theoretical, strategic, standpoint there are huge similarities and I can then translate well from his assumptions into my work, however, at the tactical level I was left with a pile of methods that do not relate well to the reality of my position.  Also Knight was frankly working at a very foundational level of tactics that I simply do not need.

Overall Day 2 was a significant letdown.  I started the day highly optimistic and looking to find deep meaning in the work.  Knight lost me initially with the excessive amount of superficial review and unfocused question time, and then he failed to regain my attention by presenting new content that was significantly too straightforward or misaligned to my needs.  While the day was disappointing from the standpoint of learning about instructional coaching, I was able to shift my focus in the afternoon to watch how he presented so that I could clearly identify my issues with his choices and delivery in order to inform my own practice.  Most notably I will look to take more formative assessment during workshop sessions, and then have the presence of mind to adjust my workshop based on the information from that assessment to best meet the needs of my audience.  I don’t want anyone in my talks to feel how I felt today.  I’m remaining hopeful for day three.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Scavenger Hunt Part 2:

Today’s highlights from heading back to Love Garden and finding Taryn again is definitely Hearscape Landbreak’s Practitioners of Light and Attraction by the Noise FM.  They fulfill my needs for intellectually elitist art rock and straight-ahead, yet well executed, garage rock respectively.  Enjoy.

Heartscape Landbreak

The Noise FM

Lawrence, Kansas

Day one of an education conference usually goes by quickly.  There is significant time spent on norming, getting to know new people, and establishing the work for the remaining days.  Today was no different: there was a protocol for partnering, setting the purpose for instructional coaching, we baselined potential barriers to adults helping adults, and then launched into Jim Knight’s foundational framework for coaching.  A predictably structured, yet well executed, first day.

Jim Knight sees coaching as a moral imperative to help teachers reach more students.  I appreciate this view of coaching as it aligns powerfully with my vision of quality education: namely that all students improve as a result of a teacher’s intervention.  In terms of delivery, Knight struck an effective balance between compelling anecdotes, such as an audio example of a high school freshman who could not read a simple passage, and deep, evidence-based statistics around implementation rates of new learning with and without follow-up by coaches.  He very succinctly made the case for instructional coaching.

After presenting the need for coaching (a fairly easy sell to a room full of coaches) Knight worked through his “5 Simple Truths of Helping,” outlining the potential hurdles of adults providing help to other adults.  This was primarily reaffirming to me as they were topics I had considered, though Knight’s language gives me a much stronger vocabulary for explaining these concepts to others.  The 5 truths can be summarized as such:

  • In order to change we need an awareness of what to change and an authentic need for the change.
  • Teaching is intensely personal and as coaches we need to speak bold truths in a way that respects teachers’ identity.
  • Teachers, as knowledge workers, have a high need for autonomy and need to construct knowledge for themselves.
  • Coaches must respect teachers’ status as highly trained and experienced professionals and avoid a paternalist role.
  • All parties must commit to the goal, ergo it must be a personal and authentic goal.

These truths provide a strong philosophical foundation for adult education as contrasted with educating youth, and while they are not particularly groundbreaking, they are important to stay mindful of.  It is easy, and highly problematic, to slip into habits from teaching youth, and being able to name these basics will allow me to integrate the truths into my practice.

With the groundwork established we moved into Knight’s approach to coaching which he terms “the Partnership Approach.”  This is framed with seven attributes that all serve the goal of philosophically grounding the coach in the role of a collaborator and partner in the teacher’s work of educating youth.  Where the 5 Truths are intended to cover all work with adults helping other adults, the  Partnership Approach is specific to the role of the instructional coach.  The attributes are as follows:

  1. Equality: Simply put, everyone has equal worth by the simple fact of being a human being.  (Think categorical imperative.)
  2. Choice: More specifically this is limited choice.  Choice provides valuable autonomy, however too much choice can be paralyzing and should be avoided.
  3. Voice: Teachers often report feeling like their opinions have no bearing on their work.  Coaching is a time to increase teachers’ impact in their work.
  4. Dialogue: Specifically the double movement of meaning between coach and teacher in a way that is based on humility, hope, faith, and humanity.  (From Paulo Freire!)
  5. Praxis: This is literally the practical application of theory.  Teachers have to be able to implement the issues discussed.
  6. Reflection: This is reflection with the goal of improvement and the consideration of ideas prior to implementation.
  7. Reciprocity: The basic assumption that both parties in a dialogue are capable of making meaningful contribution.

I’m most impressed by Knight’s heavy inclusion of Paulo Freire’s work from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his commitment to instructional coaching as a moral obligation.  Freire establishes teaching as an inherently revolutionary act whose purpose is to establish a new, more humanizing, status quo.  For Freire education, an literacy most importantly, is the path out of poverty, oppression, and it is a universal right founded in Kant’s concepts of universal respect for all humans as beings capable of reason.  From reading Knight’s work I did not expect this level of passion for equity and my attitude toward Knight noticeably shifted when he leveraged Freire.

The room full is of coaches and administrators from middle class and affluent districts as those are the districts that can afford to hire coaches.  There is one woman of color, and zero men of color in the group of participants, and Knight is pushing a strong social justice agenda based on equality of opportunity and education’s ability to humanize the most oppressed.  It is encouraging to know that these ideas are not reserved for abstract academia or urban schools highly impacted by poverty (read: High percentage Black and Latino students) and the ideas are leveraged in service of powerful education across all schools.

I left the first day very hopeful for the remainder of the conference.  Through Knight’s presentation, what was previously based on instinct can now be executed in a more deliberate and repeatable fashion.  My most valuable takeaway, however, is intensely practical: I need to film my teachers and myself.  This is, without question, the easiest and most powerful way to establish an honest picture of what someone’s teaching (or my coaching) looks like from an outside perspective and the barrier to entry is extraordinarily low given available technology.  I am giving myself a personal goal to use video in a teacher observation and debrief next week, after I return from the conference.

PS: A big shout out to Taryn at the Love Garden record shop for hooking me up with some fantastic local indie music. Enjoy some beautiful, contemplative, indie rock.

I wake up in a mad rush.  I’ve overslept.  I never oversleep on a work day.  What’s happening?  I rush to school in a distracted tornado of coffee and papers.  When I arrive I can’t remember anyone’s name, or even what I was planning to teach today.  This is crazy.  I’m standing in front of the class blubbering and stalling for time, wondering where all my copies are, pouring sweat, and frantically trying to remember the day’s intended learning outcomes.  What is going on here?  This disoriented state persists for a few agonizingly slow minutes.  Then I wake up again.  Three AM on the clock.  It must be late August.

There are unmistakable feelings of excitement and dread at the beginning of the school year, and they can be directly tracked by the frequency of my school-related dreams.  I never dream about school in the middle of the school year, but the dreams always return in the last few days of a break: forgotten lesson plans, missing papers, terrible observations.  It hits every time like clockwork.

It’s that time of year again.  The time when teachers go through their New Year’s Resolution ritual, making all sorts of goals for the upcoming term.  This list can get very long and that makes sense.  We all want to do a better job each time we enter the school-year cycle, and this is the right time to do it: new students, new classes, newly refreshed, and if other teachers are anything like I am, they have a substantial list of resolutions to help direct the upcoming year.

The most common goals I hear are: grading faster, delivering better feedback, creating better work/life balance, making students better readers, and improving the depth of student engagement.  Attached to those broad targets are the myriad of small items that make up the daily work of a teacher such as refining the late-work policy, improving pacing, predicting difficult lessons, establishing routines, getting to know students, and the like.  These lists often border on the endless.

The sheer volume of topics that a teacher can tackle leads quickly to over-committing to making things better.  Teachers are often optimists, and they’re usually willing to take on a huge number of tasks in the name of student improvement.  This is rarely ideal though.  Over-commitment leads to too many obligations and instead of getting everything done, nothing gets accomplished and the over-committed teacher has trouble deciding what to work on and easily slides back into their comfort zone.  My suggestion is to pick a couple areas of focus and do them well.  By narrowing your selections you help ensure that you can actually achieve your goals.

Along this line it’s worth taking the time to lay out how you want to achieve these targets in a concrete, specific way.  Want to really get to know your students right away?  Fantastic.  Pick that as an area and take immediate action by conducting a student survey in the first couple of days and making a commitment to knowing everyone’s name by the end of the first week.  Students react very strongly when teachers care about them as a person in addition to their academic success.

The most important part of starting the year off strong is to be selective with your goals.  By all means you should set ambitious goals, goals that force you to stretch and grow as a professional, however, it is important that those goals are also achievable.  Too often in education we set impossibly high standards and are forced to settle for less than success.  By setting high standards that are also still attainable you begin creating a repeatable positive feedback system.  You will feel good when you accomplish your goals, and that will encourage you to keep setting goals as opposed to the disheartening feeling of having to continually pick yourself up when you fall short of too-lofty aims.

Pick two targets and structure your approach in the following manner:

  1. Write your intended goal in clear, specific language.  (I will know all of my students as students and the context they bring to the classroom.)
  2. Create specific, time-bound, criteria by which you can measure your progress.  (I will know all their names by the end of the first week.  I will know at least one of their interests by the end of the second week.)
  3. Ensure that your goal is actually achievable and realistic.  (Is this something that you actually have control over?)
  4. Now share your goals with someone that you trust so that they can help hold you accountable.  (Want to really provide incentive?  Tell them you’ll pay them $20 each time you don’t meet your goal.)
  5. Once you achieve your initial goals, set new ones and repeat the process.

In the spirit of transparency and accountability I will demonstrate with one of my own goals:

  1. I will create positive working relationships with the novice teachers on my caseload and normalize my presence in their classrooms.
  2. To this end: I will meet face to face with each teacher on my caseload in the first two weeks.  By the end of the third week of school I will observe all of my teachers while they are teaching.
  3. This is well within my control.  It requires that I effectively schedule all of my teachers, and develop trust with the teachers new to my caseload.
  4. I am telling my blog readers, and I will be telling the other members of my mentor team.

Teachers are regularly encouraged to do it all or take on more than is manageable.  You need to remember that it is ok to say no, limit your scope, and focus on doing an excellent job within that area of focus.  This will allow you to give serious thought to what you are working on, and will allow you to go through the process thoroughly.  Once you achieve your specific goals, you can then set new goals that help continue your growth.  Growth is a continual process, and only by staying committed to a trajectory of improvement will we achieve the levels of success that we want.

Carol Dweck’s Mindset is worth your time.  Even more so if you are (or are planning to be) a manager, friend, partner, teacher, coach, or parent.  Dweck‘s thesis is very straightforward: much of what determines your success, or lack of success, is rooted in your mindset.  More specifically: whether you have a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.”

Dweck’s overall claim (spoiler alert) is growth mindset – good, fixed mindset – bad.  This makes a certain amount of logical sense from the outset.  (Even more so if you’ve already read pieces like Outliers that focus on the amount of hard work needed for achieving true excellence.)  If you have a worldview in which you can improve and personality faults are malleable, you are better able to change your state and make positive change in your life.  When you believe that all your ability, intellect, and talent was fixed at birth, then you take on behaviors that reinforce those ideas and stunt your growth.

Dweck does not limit herself to education.  She also examines the benefits of a growth mindset in coaching, parenting, interpersonal relationships and business.  Each time the growth mindset is the clear winner through example after example.  I appreciate that Dweck chose to take an anecdotal, qualitative, approach to her work.  The mindset issue can be easily countered with examples of fixed mindset individuals who have achieved success, so a statistics-focused, quantitative, approach would soon look like Swiss cheese.  Dweck regularly reinforces that mindset is highly personal, and that changing fixed to growth mindset, while influenceable, is ultimately dependent on the individual’s desire to change.

For myself as a teacher, the most immediately useful section of the book is (no surprise) the chapter on teachers, parents, and coaches.  Dweck cites numerous qualitative examples of how the growth mindset helps those with power (teachers, parents, coaches) create success in their respective charges.  I do a lot of this already with my AVID class: my entire approach to the class is to help my students adopt a growth mindset with regards to their ability, intellect, and potential for positive change.  It was affirming to see that my theories are backed by research.  I do not, however, spend as much time explicitly discussing a growth mindset with my history classes.  I intend to change that, particularly with regard to the skill-based segments of my class: reading, writing, argumentation, and the like.

Making the growth mindset more explicit is a relatively minor change from the way I’ve been teaching so far.  The growth mindset is already present in the classroom.  We just need to name it and make the process more intentional.  The larger hurdle is disseminating the information to my peers.

Dweck’s provides many examples of the fixed mindset teacher that gives up when students do not present the desired level of ability, or the teacher who blames deficiencies on other teachers or schools. I’ve heard “they should have learned that in middle school,” or “they teach writing in English class,” enough times that I can’t count them.  I regularly hear “I’m just not good at math,” or “I love history, but I can’t write essays,” and it is a constant struggle to help students see that regardless of their current level of ability, they have the space for growth and improvement.  The rub is that helping my peers see that students benefit from a growth mindset is not enough.  In order for it to work I need to help my peers develop their own growth mindset so that they are willing to change how they teach.  Changing adults is harder than changing youth.

There was ninety-five pounds on the ground in front of me and I was supposed to lift it over my head in one movement.  My previous max was seventy-five pounds.  I was not thrilled, and a little nervous, at the prospect of moving straight from a naked bar (45#) to ninety-five.

Then he said “you’ve got this.  Just pick it up.”

And I did.  And I PRed my snatch by twenty pounds.  Just like that.  Then I did eight more snatches at ninety-five pounds.  Then I did twelve snatches at one hundred and fifteen pounds.  At the end of about fifteen minutes I’d hit a PR on the snatch by forty pounds.  Not because I was any stronger than when I’d walked into the gym.  Because of coaching.  My trainer was right in front of me giving me useful feedback on my form, consistent encouragement, and the unwavering belief that I was fully capable of the task he’d set in front of me.

This is why coaching is so powerful.  Before that day I’d been scared to even power clean more than ninety-five pounds, let alone snatch it.  After that workout I feel much more comfortable with the movement and increasing my weight.

Ten minutes of feedback and coaching and I’m feeling empowered.

This success through coaching is possible in education as well as physical exercise.

There is an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 2011) where a surgeon made the connection that athletes like Raphael Nadal and LeBron James continue to employ coaches despite their incredible ability (often many coaches).  He then posited that it would be logical then to have a coach for his surgery to act as an additional set of eyes and provide feedback so he could improve his practice, thus drawing to attention how our best athletes are continually coached throughout their careers, yet other professions receive no coaching after their introductory education.

Teaching fits directly into this no-coaching category.  As a teacher with four years of experience, I receive direct feedback from my evaluator only twice a year.  In my first year I was observed three times, though the third was more of a formality of the hiring process and I was given zero feedback from that last observation.

I’ve had the benefit of helpful administrators and as such have found the observation process valuable.  I’m provided with strong feedback that allows me to improve my practice.  Additionally my administrators have been anything but punitive and we’re able to have an open discussion about what went on in the classroom.  Every time I’m observed I learn something I can improve and I’ve incorporated much of that feedback into regular practice.

I appear to be something of an anomaly though.  Many of my co-workers (and I’ve worked at four schools) have anxiety related to the observation process.  There is a general fear that their practice will be criticized, punitive measures will be taken, and the idea that they might fail in some respect.  The solution is clear to me: more coaching.

We need to move the current high stakes observation model into a coaching model.  Every time a professional sports team practices they have a coach running the practice.  When the athletes train individually the invariably have personal trainers to help them improve.  This is what we need for teachers as well.

I understand that it is unreasonable for a teacher to have a one to one ratio with a coach at all times.  As valuable as that might be, there are more efficient options.  I particularly reasonable option would be to open up funding for strong teachers to become coaches.  This could be a progressive system where teachers who show individual leadership can move from teaching five classes, to teaching four, but having a coaching responsibility within their department.  As they improve as coaches they could move to increasing their coaching responsibility.  This would allow successful teachers to pass on institutional knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum to new teachers, and it would allow for career path options for older teachers.  This would serve to help new teachers and prevent burnout among veterans.

Additionally moving to a coaching model would allow teachers to be observed more frequently.  By increasing the frequency of observations two main things will be achieved.  First with more observations the relative stakes of a single observations are significantly lower.  You know there will be more chances to show your ability and “one bad day” will not be as detrimental.  Secondly this will give administrators a substantially better sample of what a given teacher’s classroom looks like.  The coaching teacher need only write up a brief report of their observations to work in conjunction with the current administrator-centered evaluation system.

In the current model many teachers gear up for an observation, pull out their “great lesson”, and plan the day down to the detail.  I know teachers who report using the same lesson (or style of lesson) when they are observed for multiple years in a row.  For unscheduled observations teachers will go into hyperdrive for a week or two once they hear a colleague has been observed and then relax back into their normal routine once their observation is passed.  I am personally guilty of both of these practices and while they have helped me get excellent evaluations, they do not necessarily push me to improve my practice in the way that regular coaching has in my athletic endeavors.

If we want to improve instruction on a broad level coaching and mentorship are necessary.  Administrators are already overextend and coaching is something that peer teachers and department heads could do if it were properly built into a school’s schedule and budget.  Continuing to ask more of our education system without providing the appropriate support structures will not create change.

One of the main positive aspects of standards based grading is the students’ ability to show mastery of a learning target multiple times.  This process can work with training teachers as well.  The country continually points out failing schools, inadequate teachers, and a general decline in the quality of public education.  We are accused of having a broken public education system.  In my experience, most teachers want to provide high quality education to their students.  These teachers have the heart.  They have the desire to be great.  What they need is guidance and education on how to achieve greatness.  We tell students that they have support and that even the best of the best only succeed with strong support structures.  It is time to add that support structure to our teachers.