Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Lead Like a Coach: A Consistent Presence

When school leaders make instructional walks a daily habit, we start to discover patterns and trends. Some of them are particular to a teacher and some are schoolwide. Regardless, gaining a clearer understanding of the instructional pulse of the school or a classroom only happens when we are a consistent presence and enter each learning environment with an open mind. This consistency in nonevaluative classroom visits, noticing strengths and naming practices, often leads to more trust between administration and faculty members which is more conducive to professional growth.

Example: During a later visit with the same 4th graders reading Little House in the Big Woods, the students were ready to start practicing their book club roles with the text. “Today we are going to focus on the role of the discussion director. Look back on your sheet and review the questions you have prepared after reading the chapter.” Students pulled out their book club folders, the quiet chatter of excitement filling the room in anticipation of being able to talk with peers.

Having the context from the previous instructional walk, I felt in a better position to observe what was happening and document the learning. I sat with four students. Two of the four students started discussing a topic unrelated to their reading. They stopped when a peer reminded them of their task.

Next, one student posed their question. “If you lived back in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, would you have been happy or sad about not having the Internet?” The group responded with clear positions, either way, talking around their own lives. There was very little follow up on each other’s questions, such as “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more”. Three of the students were more interested in getting their own ideas out there. One was quiet and, evident by their body language, disengaged in the conversation.

In a typical classroom visit or an announced observation that did not have the context or history of the literacy block, I might have developed and followed an inaccurate narrative that this teacher had not effectively taught students how to facilitate meaningful book discussions. Thankfully I was a consistent presence in the classroom, even for brief pop-ins during my daily visits. Subsequently, I knew the students were just trying out book clubs for size. My prediction for a future lesson would likely be a teacher-led reflective conversation around what went well and what needed work. Knowing the teacher’s thoughtful attention to planning, I could feel more confident in where instruction was heading.

Back in the book club…

The students continued to talk in the group but not with each other. One of the group members tried to insert his ideas whenever there was a rare moment of silence, and sometimes even when there was not. The quieter student continued to remain quietly frustrated, hands folded across their chest and seeming to ride out this experience.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist and I stopped the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice that your statements are in your response to your questions. What you are saying is also not really about the book, or even related to what each of you is saying.” Heads turned with faces of mild confusion. “You know, the purpose of a book club is not just to learn more about the book.” The students now looked at me like I had a third eye. “Really. What you are trying to learn is not just how to talk to each other about books but how to talk to other people in general. The art of conversation can be really tough. Would you like to learn a strategy that might help improve your conversations and make it more fun?”

The uncertainty of their response was the permission I needed. I explained how great conversationalists are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. “They state things like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Tell me more’, or ‘Why do you say that?’. Great conversationalists also stick to the subject of the discussion, which in this case is the book and not necessarily our own personal experiences. Want to try this strategy out?” Similar uncertainty in response, but the students did reset their discussion by going to the next question. “What if….” Students took turns responding to this question with less interruption. Not yet a deep conversation, but a move in the right direction.

Once each of the three students responded, I asked the discussion director which response they thought was the most connected to the question she asked. When they selected one of their classmates, I asked why. “Because he shared parts from the book and how the story could change if what I had suggested might have actually happened.” I agreed and thanked this student.

At the end of my classroom visit, I handed my instructional walk notes to the teacher while stating, “You are having your students attempt to engage in complex conversations around a book. Not an easy task for any teacher.” She smiled and thanked me for visiting. Then I asked if I could address the class. She agreed without hesitation. “Students,” I announced, “do you know that your teacher has you learning many essential skills in your classroom?” I proceeded with an explanation similar to the one I just shared with my small group. “You are lucky to have this opportunity for building these life skills and strategies.” 

If this were a typical classroom visit, in which I popped in for an unannounced observation or an evaluative classroom walkthrough, it would have been from a supervisory perspective. Likely I would have some checklist or rubric to go off of as I watched for best practices in action. But I would be lacking so much, such as the context of the unit progression and the opportunity to partner with the teacher in the instruction.

In comparison, after this instructional walk, I had a desire to get back into this classroom soon, to see where this unit of study would go. Based on her openness to sharing her work with me and responding to the feedback, I believe the teacher was interested as well. I don’t believe most school leaders would have a similar feeling after a formal teacher evaluation. When our jobs are to judge and to score, there is little incentive to focus on what’s going well or to become part of a schoolwide professional learning process.

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

 

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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

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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.