Embracing the Leader/Coach Paradox

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

There are many contradictions in life that, for whatever reason, actually support one another.

For example, as a school leader, I am responsible for student learning outcomes and staff culture. Yet the reality is that we may not have a direct influence on student learning. Our teachers and staff can take credit along with the kids’parents. If success is attained schoolwide or it is fleeting, we look to leadership to determine why. So on the one hand, we have this responsibility while on the other hand, we lack a visible pathway for how we impact student learning.

This paradox creates a call to action for school leaders to rethink their roles in education. We should desire to clarify our roles in the school, maybe even find ways in which our work can more directly influence the teaching/learning experience. That is why I have taken more of a coaching stance in my work. I am attempting to “lead like a coach” in that I will shift to this approach when the timing and conditions are conducive for professional growth.

There are potentially multiple benefits in these dual identities. Professional growth is not just for the teacher. As a leader, I am finding that I can learn as much as anyone when acting as a coach. It’s impossible for me to know everything about the curriculum and instruction at each grade level and within each department. By being curious about the inner workings of our classrooms, I can become more knowledgeable about the practices we currently employ. This stance I take as a coach is the first step in understanding our school’s strengths and areas for growth. The information I gather can serve future professional learning experiences.

These dual roles of a leader/coach are not exclusive to the principalship. Teacher-leaders including instructional coaches have to adopt multiple identities while working with their clients. Lipton and Wellman describe three stances that an instructional specialist might take (Educational Leadership, 2007):

  • Coaching (teacher is the primary source of information and analysis)
  • Collaborating (specialist and teacher co-develop ideas and co-analyze situations, work products, and other data once they have clarified the problem)
  • Consulting (supplies information, identifies and analyzes gaps, suggests solutions, thinks aloud about cause-and-effect relationships, and makes connections to principles of practice)

Considering this shared idea of multiple roles as a teacher-leader or as a principal-coach, I believe that the biggest challenge in successfully fulfilling the needs of educators striving to grow is knowing when to make these shifts. For example, when do we don a coaching hat and when should we be serving as a collaborator? Related, how do we shift back to the role of supervisor while still guiding the teacher to be the true evaluator of their own work? These are some of the questions I continue to explore as I learn more deeply about the promise of leading like a coach.

The Changing Roles of Educators

 

My Post (2).jpg

My son did not want to practice his trumpet. He was finding anything else to do to avoid this daily task. To be honest, I felt the same way when I was in 6th grade and the novelty of playing the trumpet had worn off after about two weeks.

Knowing his affinity for pop music, I asked him to search online for the trumpet sheet music for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (his favorite song). He was excited to find someone had uploaded a video tutorial, a step-by-step visual demonstration for learning to play the melody for this song.

While he was keeping up with the tutorial, I elected to videotape his performance. This was just me being a dad, documenting him playing to share out later with family and friends. He saw me recording his practice and then asked me, “Could I see how I did?” Sure, I said, and we watched him doing his best to play the song. His nose wrinkled up as he commented on how his attempt was less than what he had expected. “I’m going to try it another time. Record me again?”

With the access people have to learn almost anything at any time from anywhere, how does the role of the educator change?I see two distinct shifts: what we teach and how we teach. This is curriculum and instruction, respectively. Regarding what we teach, the access provided by the Internet to almost any content seems limitless. No one textbook or resource can possibly serve as a primary source of information anymore. Teachers need to be more adventurous and at the same time increasingly discerning. For every excellent Uptown Funk video tutorial, there are many poor examples of similar content.

With how to teach, the Internet comes into play again. People can teach themselves what they want to learn (consider how many times one searches YouTube to repair some appliance). So our role as educators needs to shift from the person delivering the content to a coach or a mentor, providing feedback and offering suggestions when necessary. I didn’t have to say much when my son watched himself playing. He understood the criteria for success (the what) and could compare that with his own visible performance (the how).

These shifts take time. We need to give ourselves some grace and remember that we are doing the best we know how today. Tomorrow will be better provided we are open to change.

Teacher Observations: Are we talking about the right thing?

I’ve got it written in my planner: start the teacher evaluation cycle. Something I am definitely going to communicate with faculty this week. Okay, probably.

The formal evaluation process is one aspect of my role as a principal that I have minimized over time. It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. I even see it as beneficial when addressing performance that is not up to a minimum standard of excellence. But when it comes to what matters regarding teacher supervision, I would rather focus on my daily classroom visits and instructional walks.

As I have described in the past here, instructional walks are informal observations of instruction. What I experience is communicate in writing. They are non-evaluative and focused primarily on the positive aspects of teaching and learning in the classroom. My role is active: I am interacting with kids and letting the teacher know what’s going well in the classroom. Feedback is provided only when trust is established between the teacher and me and the faculty have been provided with the professional learning to improve.

This topic is on my mind right now because of a recent article in ASCD Education Update. In it, a teacher and a principal from two different schools provide a hypothetical conversation about the accuracy and effectiveness of traditional classroom walkthroughs. The teacher felt like the principal only came in when some of his students were not cooperating. He also wanted this administrator to inquire more about why certain kids were not successful. In response, the principal empathized with the teacher, acknowledging the limits of their evaluation system with a promise to be more present.

While I appreciate these types of conversations, and I understand that different states approach teacher evaluation differently, I feel like we are not talking about the right thing.

The right thing, from my perspective, is to discuss instruction as colleagues. To have constructive and even critical discussions about teaching and learning. To engage in conversation and reflection without worry of reprieve or hurt feelings. In these situations, we almost forget about who is in what role. We are focused on the practice.

Can this happen when a principal’s time is monopolized by a system that positions them primarily as an evaluator instead of a mentor and a coach? I don’t believe so. In these situations, trust is hard to build. Collegial relationships rarely form to their potential. Teaching to standards that need to be checked off a list of look-fors can inhibit innovation and the creative process of teaching.

My only suggestion is, as I shared previously, to minimize as much as we can regarding the current evaluation system if it is not effective for engaging educators in a reflective process of constant improvement. Dot those I’s. Cross your T’s. And when the paperwork is done, get back into the classroom and start learning and leading with your teachers.

 

Lead Like a Coach

kevin-maillefer-496375-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash

I am part of a family of coaches. My earliest memories in athletics include going to summer basketball camps during my elementary school years. My grandfather, a former high school basketball coach, would stop over and stand on the sidelines while we scrimmaged or drilled. I can still hear the squeak of rubber soles against hardwood as we played while he looked from afar. My memory of him does not include a lot of talk about basketball; for him, it was more a presence and quiet observation.

From there I have had my step-father serve as an assistant coach during junior high basketball. My father-in-law is also a former high school basketball coach; my brother-in-law and sister-in-law also excelled in coaching in this sport. It shouldn’t surprise that I too became a coach once able. Throughout my college career, I would come home during the summers to lead summer recreation programs including Little League and girls’ softball.

As a newly minted teacher, I quickly sought out the opportunity to coach junior high basketball. One story I like to share from that time is that when I received a coaching stipend one year, I took that check, deposited it in my bank account, and then bought a ring that I would later offer to my girlfriend. (In case you’re wondering – she said yes.)

My career led to becoming an athletic director as part of my role as an assistant principal at a junior high school. I was now a coach for coaches, in a sense. While I couldn’t be as involved in the day-to-day coaching experience, I gained a broader perspective about what characteristics an excellent coach might embody.

These memories have spurred reflection about what not only makes a great coach but also how these qualities also make them great leaders. These reflections have raised awareness for me about how my own position as a school principal can “take a coaching stance” when working with faculty. At any rate, here is a working list that I have developed. I see these attributes as applicable to anyone in a coaching role within a school: instructional coach, teacher-leader, and a principal.

  • Make goals clear and attainable for the work
  • Maintain high expectations for performance
  • Develop beliefs, commitments, and values with a team
  • Able to demonstrate new skills and strategies
  • Celebrate people’s efforts and successes
  • Foster trust and relationships with team members
  • Create an environment that is conducive for innovation and independence
  • Provide support through instructional coaching, online PD, study groups, etc.
  • Build collective responsibility and empower others to lead
  • Communicate when expectations are not being met

Leading like a coach in a school is complex. I don’t know if any one person can distill all of the qualities to specific criteria. So what are your thoughts? Would you add (or subtract) from this list? I am truly interested; please share in the comments.

 

How Do We Graduate Self-Determining Adults?

As I read through my highlights in the section entitled “Developing Self-determining Learners” in Regie Routman’s book, Literacy Essentials, I couldn’t help but have my literacy coach hat on as well as my parent hat.  

As I read the highlighted words below, I found myself saying “That’s what I want for my kids!  That’s what I want for every kid–to be able to graduate from our K-12 system with these qualities so that they would be better apt to lead a successful life.”

Not only is it what I want, it is what our kids need to thrive in the world in which they’ll live when they graduate, a world much different than when we were kids.

Some of the highlighted words were “self-direct, self-reflect, self-taught, deep inner questioning, set their own worthwhile goals, curiosity and knowing how to learn.”  

If my kids graduated with these qualities, I would be confident they would be able to navigate their life more effectively.

If our kids graduated from high school and they possessed these qualities, we would have succeeded in our endeavors.

As I contemplated these concepts with my literacy coach hat on, I began reflecting on two things: 1) John Hattie’s work and his list of top instructional practices 2) My most effective coaching cycles over the last four years.

Much of what Routman encourages in this section are several of those practices from John Hattie’s work: learning targets/goals, success criteria, feedback, and monitoring learning to name a few.  As I think of my most effective coaching cycles, it is those cycles where the teacher chose to work on some of these top instructional practices. The engagement that I saw in students skyrocketed. The ownership of learning did as well.  And each time, the teacher would get so much enjoyment and satisfaction as she watched her students progress in their learning–as they became self-determining learners.

But, here’s where my own questioning came in and this is a question I’ve contemplated as I’ve become very familiar with these things that both Routman and Hattie are suggesting impacts kids.  When we discuss how we engage kids, how we teach them in a way that prepares them for the world in which they will live and how we improve student achievement, why are things such as learning targets, success criteria and feedback not received with the same level of excitement as other topics or initiatives? I’m going to refrain from naming those other topics, because I don’t want to come across as not seeing the value in those.  But I wonder that sometimes Hattie’s work (much of what Routman is suggesting) is not as sexy or fun to learn about (or at least seemingly) as other initiatives and we miss the boat when it comes to impacting kids with them.

To take my wondering deeper, I contemplated some possibilities as to why they are not as sexy. I wonder if it is because we think learning targets, success criteria and feedback are for the adults. When, in reality, we want students taking ownership of those things. They facilitate student-directed learning.  If they are not used for that purpose, perhaps I could see why one would think learning targets aren’t something to get excited about–if we just write it on the board as a lesson’s learning objective, of course that’s not engaging to learn about.

You see, in those most successful student-centered learning cycles I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of, it is when students have taken ownership of the learning because of the learning targets, success criteria and feedback. Not because teacher went through the motions and utilized them in instruction.

It excites me to no end to think of a district putting several years of focus on those things Routman is suggesting we do to create self-determining learners. Just think if a K-12 system focused on this, what our students would be capable of as they enter the workforce.  I have no doubt engagement and student achievement would skyrocket. And, our kids would be better prepared for life.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

What Does it Mean to Create Readers?

“When I think of reading I think of pleasure, favorite authors, beloved books, libraries, bookstores, stories, and relaxation.  I think of finding solace, of being suspended within the unique world a talented author has created.  I think of language beautifully crafted and books so mesmerizing that afterward, I want to tell other readers, “You’ve got to read this book.”  I do not think of levels, programs, groupings, or tests.  Those are school things that ultimately do not determine who becomes a reader.” ~ Regie Routman, Literacy Essentials

As I read Regie’s words, I was invigorated and passionately agreed with what it means to be a reader.  It’s the type of reader I want my son to be and all kids to be.

However, as I read through Regie’s tips on how to create readers (see below), I began reflecting on myself as a K-12 literacy coach.  I wondered, despite my beliefs being aligned with Regie’s in how to create life-long readers, do I, as a literacy coach, not balance my discussions with standards, strategies, and the workshop structure with other things such as teachers sharing their reading lives, daily read alouds, and getting kids engaged in text?

My initial thought was, “The questions I get from teachers typically are centered around the steps of the mini-lesson, how to group kids or wanting clarity on a standard and less about how to engage students in life-long reading.”  While these questions are important, one thing I could do is be the one who brings up the discussions around engaged-life long readers more than what I do.   I need to balance teacher needs/questions with pushing their thinking about what Regie says the end goal of teaching reading is: students who choose to read for pleasure and information and to expand our worldview. Based on the tips proposed in the section Regie entitled “Excellence 5: Teaching Readers,” below are some questions literacy leaders can use to guide teachers in creating readers.

  1.  How do you share your reading life with your students?
  2. Who can you invite into your classroom to share their reading life with your kids?
  3. Reflect on yourself as a reader? Are you a non-reader and do you believe it’s too late for you? (Research says it’s not too late).
  4. Is a daily read aloud a ritual in your classroom?
  5. Do you stop too much to model thinking in your read aloud (to the point where enjoyment in the text is lost)?
  6. Do you utilize engaging picture books (yes, even for middle school and high school teachers)?
  7. Do you encourage your students to study the craft of the author in their independent reading books?
  8. Is independent reading a non-negotiable in your classroom every day?
  9. Do students have access to a wide range of interesting and readable text in your classroom?
  10. Do you tap into the knowledge of experts in creating life-long readers (Donalyn Miller, Teri Lesesne, Franki Sibberson, Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Laura Robb, Cris Tovani and Pernille Ripp)?
  11. Do you know what books your students prefer?
  12. Do you limit extrinsic rewards?
  13. Do you balance fiction and non-fiction?
  14. Do you have a personal preference for fiction and does that lead you to not using as much non-fiction?
  15. Do you confer with students on appropriately pushing their text complexity?
  16. Do you over-emphasize the teaching of standards at the expense of teaching the reader?

And, finally, here are some questions for literacy leaders who want to balance “school things” with the ultimate goal of creating life-long readers. (Note, these are questions I came up with to check and challenge myself on the topic).

  1. Do I balance my discussions topics with teachers (addressing school topics and life-long reading topics?)
  2. As a K-12 system, do we agree on the ultimate goal of teaching reading?
  3. How do I embed some of the 16 questions above in formal professional development settings?
  4. Is it reasonable to commit to bringing up at least one of these discussions with a teacher or group of teachers on a weekly basis?
  5. What challenges exist in our K-12 system that may hinder our end goal of creating life-long readers?
  6. Do my movers and shakers (teacher leaders) buy into and promote creating life-long readers?

For me, this all comes down to my belief about reading: Reading changes lives, makes us better people, and allows us to navigate life more effectively.  I want this for our kids, not just during their school years, but beyond their time in a K-12 system.  We have to think about what our kids need beyond our tests, our programs, our benchmarks and our interventions. All of that matters, but if we have not made a concerted effort to create life-long readers when they leave our system, perhaps we have failed in our ultimate goal.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Growing Teacher Leaders

Picture1

As the new school year begins, I am entering my third year as an instructional coach. This year I will serve K-2 teachers at two elementary sites within our district. This is a new coaching model that our district is moving to in order for our coaching team to have a stronger focus, impact student achievement, and achieve district goals.

In Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she outlines some specific ways that coaches can achieve success over time. These ways include knowing our purpose, sharing the vision, and maintaining a strong focus.  As our team embarks on this new coaching model, like Allen, we must ask ourselves, what is our focus and what are we willing to give up so that we can identify a small number of high-leverage moves that will help us reach our goals?

One of the challenges of this kind of successful coaching is scheduling. Being able to attend every grade level meeting is not possible. Allen acknowledges this challenge and the need for structures to be in place in order to “propel the momentum of our work.” For the work to be sustainable, it cannot only be dependent on one or two people. This is where teacher leadership must be cultivated in order to fill the gaps that having only one coach can leave.

Allen outlines a process that utilizes teacher leaders. This process provides a way for teachers to work and make meaning together and hold a common interpretation of the curriculum. The belief is that this raises the level of consistency in implementation of the curriculum, therefore, raising student achievement. The teacher leader facilitates the work based on what the team wants to emphasize.

Two reflection templates are provided with questions for teachers to consider.

  1. Reflecting on Curriculum Units

What do you notice?

What questions do you have?

What are the key understandings for the unit?

What do you still need?

Picture2.png

  1. Reflecting on Student Work

What does the student know in regards to the learning goal?

What are the next steps for instruction?

How will progress be monitored?

What does the student still need to demonstrate to meet the learning goal?

Are any confusions or misconceptions observed?

Picture3.png

I am excited about this process since it gives me another tool to use in helping cultivate leaders and help teachers take ownership over their grade level meetings. It’s that next step I have needed as I reflect on my previous experiences with grade level meetings. The idea of helping facilitate meetings that will give teachers direction, a shared understanding of their unit, opportunities to share effective instructional strategies, and reflect on student work with common expectations makes this coach excited to get started. Let the growing of teacher leaders begin!