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

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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

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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?

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  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?

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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!

What Did You Do Today?

Every day for the past two weeks since starting my new coaching position my husband has asked me this question.  Only knowing me as a classroom teacher for the past seventeen years, I think he is trying to wrap his head around what exactly it is that I do all day.  I think I am too.  

It feels foreign to not have a group of first graders waiting for me to get there each day.  I didn’t have to prepare a classroom for Meet the Teacher Day or think through how I would spend the first few days building community.   It is the weirdest feeling to walk on campus each morning and realize that no one is waiting for me.  This is freaking me out a bit.  I have all these insecurities and questions rolling through my head.  What if the teachers think I am doing nothing while they are in the trenches with kids?  What if my administrator thinks I am doing nothing all day because I don’t have lesson plans written or a room full of children?  What do I have to show for how my time is spent at the end of each day?  I’m pretty sure that my husband keeps asking because he is worried after leaving my “safe” job that maybe if I’m not looking busy enough unemployment is just around the corner!

This is why I am now holding on to, Chapter Sixteen: Nuts and Bolts-Scheduling and Budgeting, for dear life.  This chapter answers and confirms that my insecurities might not be far off.  That if I want to be perceived as an equal member of the school community, I have to find a tangible way to reflect the intangible things that have kept me busy and exhausted each day.  That teachers ARE probably thinking, What does she do all day?  Here are the things I have started working on and thinking about to keep myself accountable and to document my time so that all of those questions mentioned can be answered quickly and easily.

First, I am creating an amazing literacy space for teachers and students that started out two weeks ago as a room filled with boxes of books and empty shelves.  The mascot of our sweet little school is the Knights.  Therefore, I decided the space where the kids and teachers will come to find books and resources needed to look and feel like a castle.  It will be called, The Knight’s Nook, and children will be summoned by a princess (the head of our lower school) to come and be dubbed the Knights of the Reading Round Table (thank goodness that is the shape of the tables that got left in the room).  The transformation of this space is something tangible everyone can see and the fact that we are surprising everyone with a big reveal builds anticipation and excitement around reading.  This will be my first gift of literacy to the school.

Second, I have made it a goal to have my schedule visible to all by the end of the second week so everyone knows where I am and what I am doing.  The first few weeks I wanted to give the teacher’s time with their students to get to know them, finish assessments and build a classroom community before I inserted myself.  In the meantime, I have been stopping in, offering teacher’s coverage for bathroom breaks or to refill their water bottles and reading aloud to the kids so I can begin to get to know them in my own way.  I have been complimenting the amazing environments teachers have set up for students, noticing how much they know their students already and empathizing over how tough the first few weeks of school really are. This has helped teachers see that although I haven’t started my “real” job yet, I am not sitting in a room by myself doing nothing while they are in the trenches.

Third, I have been collecting questions and ideas so that when I meet with my administrator we can have a specific, smart conversation about my role as the literacy coach.  We can decide bottom lines, non-negotiables and where I fit.  She will be able to see through these questions and observations how I have been spending the last few weeks-knee deep in observation and reflection to help decide next steps.

Finally, I am going to take Jennifer’s advice and start documenting my day.  Even though I will have a visible schedule, it will be important to write down all that I am accomplishing in a day when I am not in a classroom.  The conversations, the planning both short and long-term and the gathering of resources.  I want anyone who asks to see how valuable my position is to the literacy reform of the school.  To quickly see that even though my day is more flexible, it is full.

In doing all of these things as my next steps, in this new position in a new school, I am hoping that my day is transparent, people see my worth and are excited and able to trust me to help them grow as literacy leaders themselves.  I am hoping that this will calm my anxieties and the questions running through my head (and my husband’s as well).  So, what did I do today?  Sit back and get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to tell you!

Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success