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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.

I would normally say that I don’t believe in protocols for structuring discussion.  Oh they work.  But I don’t need them.  They work for other people.  I know how to participate in and lead discussion. I don’t need the strict structure.  In fact, the strict method of a protocol just gets in the way of quality conversation.  My mind got changed last week.

As part of a series of professional learning my district has the fortune of working with Mark Church from the Harvard Project Zero and Visible Thinking.  The first part of his work is rooted in the power of protocols for structuring conversation around difficult topics.  In our first session Church had participants practice a protocol for sharing aspects of our practice (in this case a success).  It works in groups of at least three participants as follows:

  1. The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
  2. The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
  3. The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
  4. The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining group members

I entered into the protocol with minimal faith in it’s effectiveness, however, being a good student, my group committed to following the protocol with fidelity.  I was very happy to have my initial cynicism proven wrong.  In both the listener and presenter role I learned a great deal about myself and my colleagues and found the protocol to be extremely effective.

When I was in the listener role I discovered how one of my colleagues defines success.  For her success is a partnership.  When she collaborates, or when she can find teamwork she is successful as a mentor.  She is successful when the whole group succeeds.  As she was describing her success in step one I immediately found myself relating her story back to my interactions with her and many puzzle pieces began to slide into place.  This process helped me understand how central collaboration is to her, and this should help me work more effectively with her in the future because I understand her values more completely.

The listener role also helped me definite my own success to share when I took the presenter role.  Initially I was unable to come up with a success that I though was worthy of discussion.  When my colleague shared her success, and defined her process for helping her teacher, I was able to apply that to my own practice and redefine what I thought of as “good enough.”

The presenter role was much more difficult than the listener role for me.  I found that in order to share a legitimate success I had to be extremely vulnerable and trust my teammates.  This is where the protocol proved its worth.  Since I knew that I had time to explain my story (3 minutes) and that there was built in time for clarifying questions (5 minutes), I was confident that my colleagues would not get the wrong impression, and if there was a miscommunication it could be rectified.  This knowledge helped me relax into the process and allowed me to share more authentically.  Additionally I found the time when the 2 listening members of the group to be incredibly empowering as my colleagues found more aspects of success in my story than I had initially identified.

The result of the entire process was that I was able to understand my own success more completely and I was better able to see the value in my colleagues’ work.  This is an enormous gain for very minimal output.  I am confident that if Church had said “share about your successes” we would have had a much less productive conversation.  The protocol forced me out of my comfort zone by forcing me to listen without responding, and by forcing me to share about my successes, and I am better for it.

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.

It’s mid-October and the reality of the school year has set in.  The leaves are turning, the weather is getting colder and wetter, and darkness is creeping up around the edges of the day.  School is reestablishing itself as a consistent pattern in students’ lives.  This is when cracks begin to show.  Don’t fear the reset.

Teachers begin the year with the best of intentions: “This is the year that I’ll be planned out a week in advance.”  “This year, I’ll get it will all come together and run smoothly.”  These intentions are even more extreme with new teachers.  The optimistic, excited idealism, while helpful in August preparations, can quickly become battered, and worn by mid-October.  The young teacher easily falls into a repetitive funk, realizing the routines and procedures they established in September are insufficient.  It is a quick step into a swamp of cynicism leading to the laments of Cubs fans the world over: “maybe next year will be better.”

You are not a victim of Cubs’ management.  This is your classroom and you have the autonomy to take matters into your own hands.  Reset the classroom expectations.  Right now.

“Right now?  How do I make the time? I’ve got all this content to cover.”

There is a assumed need to justify time spend on non-curricular topics. We are expected to teach routines at the beginning of the year and there is a perception that once taught, they shouldn’t be revisited.  After all, if it was done correctly, the students should know the expectations.  Right?

It can feel like a step backward to revisit proper bathroom procedure six weeks after you thought you had it established, but we need to remember that anything new takes practice and repetition in order to become habitual. As adults, how often do we need to be reminded to go to the gym or eat healthy before it becomes a normal part of our lives?  Students need time and repetition as well.

Teaching routines, procedures, and expectations is not a deviation from curriculum.  Classroom procedures work in the service of curriculum and help the classroom function more smoothly, allowing for maximum effective use of limited time.  If these routines and procedures break down midway through the year they need to be repaired.  You are not losing time by revisiting routines.  Quite the opposite.

If it is broken: fix it.  A routine that’s slipped from consistent to inconsistent is no longer a routine, and it needs to be reestablished.  Perhaps the routine needs to be modified so that it cam be maintained more easily.  The purpose of a routine for quickly turning in papers is to increase efficiency, and thereby gain more instructional time.  Less time collecting papers equals more time teaching.  If the routine is no longer a time-saver, it needs to be re-taught and the best time to start is right now.  The same goes for any expectations around behavior, respect, quality of work, or using the bathroom.

Starting right away is the best option. You simply go the shortest amount of time with the ineffective routine.  Beyond this, however, beginning to correct issues immediately serves as strong, lifelong, modeling for students.  It is powerful for young people to see an adult take immediate action.  They see that the teacher has high expectations, and the willingness to course-correct.  Having the vulnerability to admit a mistake, and take the actions necessary to fix that mistake is a powerful show of awareness, confidence, and strength.  All virtues we would hope to instill and develop in our students.

It comes down to the central concept of teaching: if you want something done right, you need to teach the right way to do it.  If your students are not performing how you want them to, you need to keep teaching them until they get it right. Regardless of the topic, it takes accountability, persistence, and a willingness to go back and fix issues.  PIck your area for change and start right now.

She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction.  Here it comes.  You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up.  In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high.  Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string.   There’s no missing that hand.  The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room.  They know it’s coming too.  The question.  The big question.  The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.

“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point?  Does this even matter?”

[You Freeze]

OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:

  1. Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
  2. Tell the kid it will help them in college.
  3. Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Tell them it is part of the curriculum.

You’ve got one shot to get this right.  Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing.  Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.

Correct answer?  E: None of the above.

“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?”  Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly.  The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.

None of the answers above will satisfy this student.  She wants a real answer.  The first two may work for a lot of students.  These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance.  That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement.  These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards.  These are relying on extrinsic motivation.  Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class.  Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn.  The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.

Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning.  It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate.  Students are conscripts in public education.  In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely.  We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant.  We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.

Answer D is the weakest of the four.  By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom.  With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment.  The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?”  The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered.  This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility.  Not helpful.

Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer.  You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school.  The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own.  You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.

The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.”  This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning.  It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)

“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question.  Quite the opposite.  This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing.  This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes.  If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning.  After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.

Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching.  If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.

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.

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.