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.

Innovation in Education

I walked into a classroom that was modeling the story structure process. The teacher had provided one-word sentence starters as a guide. The students were using this structure to organize a personal narrative in their writing journals.

There is little doubt the world has changed with the advent of technology and globalization. It is hard to imagine some of the jobs people have today existing even twenty years ago. Schools are, like any large enterprise, challenged to keep up.

But does that mean we are “behind the times”? What if some of the practices we have utilized in the past are, in fact, timeless? Consider the story structure I saw in the classroom. It is very similar to what Pixar Animation uses when they plan out a movie:

Once upon a time there was ___.

Every day, ___.

One day ___.

Because of that, ___.

Because of that, ___.

Until finally ___.

Pretty innovative, right? Pixar uses a tried and true structure to create some of the most technologically advanced media today. This company has one toe in the 21st century and the other in an abiding idea. Pixar knows it works due to their success both financially and in the awards and the accolades they have received.

Of course, some ideas in education do need to be relegated to the past. That goes for every complex profession. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that continued to use mercury to treat health issues. So we do have an obligation to be critical consumers of instructional approaches, both tried and new. That’s why reflecting on our beliefs and discussing the impact of our practice on student learning with colleagues is important. 

Leadership as Process

It is October, which means it is school learning objective time. Principals are diligently crafting statements that are S.M.A.R.T. “By the end of the school year,…” and then we make a prediction about the future. In April, we revisit these statements and see if our crystal balls were correct.

I must admit that my goals are usually not fully met. I aim too high, at least by educator evaluation standards. These systems are set up to shoot for just above the status quo instead of for the stars. Great for reporting out. Yet I don’t want to lower my expectations.

Setting objectives and goals are a good thing. We should have something tangible to strive for and know that we have a target to hit. My challenge with this annual exercise is how heavily we focus on a product while largely ignoring the process to get there.

Left alone, schools can purchase a resource or adopt a commercial curriculum that is aligned to the standards. But are they also aligned with our specific students’ needs? Do the practices and resources we implement engage our population of kids? Maybe we are marching toward a specific destination, but are we taking the best pathway to get there?

Having a plan and implementing a plan are two different things. Like an effective classroom teacher, we have to be responsive to the climate and the culture of a school. That means we should be aware of our environment, accept our current status, and then move forward together.

For example, when I arrived at my current elementary school, there was some interest in going schoolwide with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for reading and for writing. Professionally, I find a lot of positive qualities about the program. Also in the periphery was a desire to get a more consistent literacy curriculum. Our scores reflected a need for instructional consistency and coherence.

If we have an outcome-focused leadership style, then it makes a lot of sense to purchase a program that promises exactly what is being requested. But that means we are investing in stuff instead of investing in teachers. So we declined. The teacher-leaders and I weren’t saying no to one program or passing the buck on making a hard decision. What we wanted instead was a clear plan to become better as practitioners.

This meant first revisiting our identities as educators. What does it mean as a teacher and a professional if the lessons were scripted for us? Are we not worthy of the trust and responsibility that is essential for the many decisions we make every day? This led to examining our beliefs about the foundation of literacy, the reading-writing connection. We found unanimity on only two specific areas out of 21 statements. Instead of treating this as a failure, we saw these two areas of agreement as a starting point for success. We nurtured this beginning and started growing ourselves to become the faculty we were meant to be for our students. After two years of work, we found nine areas of agreement on these same statements.

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There are no ratings or other evaluation scores attached to these statements. I am not sure how to quantify our growth as a faculty, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to if I knew how. Instead, we changed how we saw ourselves and how we viewed our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. This is not an objective or goal that is suggested by our evaluation program, but maybe it should be.

I get to this point in a post and I feel like we are bragging. We are not. While I believe our teachers are special, there are great educators in every school. The difference, I think, is that we chose to focus more on the process of becoming better and less on the outcomes that were largely out of our hands. This reduced our anxiety with regard to test scores and public perception of our school. Anyone can do this work.

Why Friday Should Be Your New Monday

This morning, a student arriving at school was wearing a shirt with the following phrase on the front:

Got That Friday Feeling

I laughed and then went about my day.

Fridays always seem a bit lighter and loose. For examples, jeans replace khakis. These quiet yet clear transitions to the weekend are normal. Yet can they also cause us to not appreciate the present? We are mentally on Saturday time even before Friday begins.

Related, is this why people generally struggle more with Mondays? As I consider this question, the theory does make some sense. For example, because we prioritize our weekends (as we should), we may also become frustrated with the lack of transition to Monday. All of that paperwork left on our desk isn’t filing itself. It’s like we are almost starting behind when we come back from two days off.

So I humbly suggest turning your Fridays into your Mondays. Not all day Friday. Only part, likely the afternoon. By cleaning up loose ends from the current week, we are also preparing for the following week. Here are a few steps I find helpful. Some of these ideas come from or are adapted from The Together Leader: Get Organized for Your Success – and Sanity! by Maia Heyck-Merlin (there is also a teacher version of this resource).

  1. Clear off all of your extra paperwork and scan it (or file it if you must). I use Scannable to create PDFs of documents with my phone. They are saved in Evernote, a digital file organizer that acts as my second brain.
  2. Clean up as many emails as possible from the inbox. I will move important conversations that I have responded to in a categorized folder. The rest I delete. Typically I don’t get to “inbox zero”, but then again my email is not my to-do list…
  3. …which happens to be Things, an iOS application. I have it on my MacBook Air, iPad, and iPhone. I add tasks that come up during the day to this app which syncs across all devices. During my Friday/Monday time, I move any tasks that didn’t get completed to a future date. There is more to Things than just to-dos, such as project management and creating checklists for regularly scheduled activities.
  4. I journal daily. It helps me get my thoughts out of my head and onto paper so I don’t dwell on them over the weekend. If you have not journaled before, consider Fridays as a good day for that. I follow some general prompts when I need direction:
    • What went well this week? What are you happy about?
    • Where did you come up short? Why do you think that is?
    • How is this week’s work connected to our school goals?
    • What needs to happen next week to sustain the momentum?
  5. Now that my mind is clearer and my priorities are more in order, I can start scheduling for the following week. I add my big rocks, my priorities, first: daily instructional walks, parent/staff meetings, professional learning team time, a weekly touch base with our instructional coach and my assistant, and deadlines for any big projects. I have a print planner as well. I write these out from my digital calendar to confirm the accuracy of dates. (Some people may not need this confirmation. I am not one of those people.)

With my desk cleared and my mind uncluttered, I am more able to enjoy the weekend. There is less that is mentally weighing on my mind as I enjoy time with family and friends. For sure, I cannot turn off my work brain; I always have lingering projects and tasks that will need to be continued when I come back Monday. Yet even when I am not 100% successful in preparing for Monday, the time and effort spent on Friday does help.

 

High Expectations

Have you heard the following statement made in the past?

That teacher has really high expectations.

I have. Several times. From experience I have found that this statement, typically coming from an educational leader, means one of two things:

  • The teacher has high expectations and believes all students can learn to their potential. The administrator is stating this because they are proud of him/her.
  • The teacher has high expectations and that is why some students struggle in his/her class. The administrator is stating this because they won’t address the situation.

If the situation is the former, then their beliefs and practices are student-centered. He or she is able to balance grade level and standards-based benchmarks with the immediate needs of the students. They use a variety of strategies and approaches to ensure that each student has access to an excellent educational experience. If a student fails to make sufficient progress, they usually blame themselves and seek out more support and ideas.

If the situation is the latter, then their beliefs and practices are the status quo. He or she is only able to see academic performance as a response to their initial instruction; student needs are secondary to teacher directives. They are limited in or resistant to new strategies and approaches to ensure that each student has access to an excellent educational experience. If a student fails to make sufficient progress, they usually blame others such as interventionists or parents and expect them to provide more support.

I realize that this is a more black-and-white perspective than I usually post on this site. I also realize that a similar dichotomy could also be applied to administrators. In any case, it is only when we understand the true meaning behind our statements that we can truly start to make change schoolwide.

The Reason We Don’t Change

The reason we don’t change is fear. The more specific reasons may vary – not sure how to start, concerned about making mistakes, worried about ridicule – but they all fall under the category of fear.

In my own career as an educator, I can think of several instances in which fear was the underlying factor in my decision making. One example that comes to mind is when I first started student teaching. My cooperating teacher expected me to read aloud every day to the 6th graders. He even provided me with a tried and true book (Where the Red Fern Grows).

I resisted this practice initially. I was uncomfortable with being in the spotlight for that long. All those eyes on me made me want to crawl out of my own skin. I do believe my introversion/anxiety led me to be more successful with student-directed classroom experiences such as cooperative learning. However, there were times when I should have been more of the center of attention for demonstrations. My cooperating teacher was often out of the classroom to attend to building leadership duties, so I found reasons to not read aloud: the previous lesson ran too long or I had to deal with a student behavior.

Eventually, I did come to integrate read aloud in my classroom and actually embrace it as a keystone of my instruction. So what changed? Among other things, I remember taking a closer look at reading aloud and trying to understand the benefits of this practice. The research I discovered about it along with the enjoyment I eventually experienced outweighed any anxieties I was experiencing. My fear gave way to the benefits.

To address a fear in order to make a positive change, blogger, author, and fellow introvert Beth Buelow offers a process:

  1. List your fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or “FUDS”.
  2. Perform a reality check.
  3. Realize you have choices.
  4. Choose a prosperity perspective.

I think if I had access to this process, I probably would have started reading aloud much sooner. For example:

  • My FUD was not just being in the spotlight but worrying about what others thought of me as I read aloud.
  • My reality check was that I was more concerned about how people would view me, which was probably not aligned with others’ actual perspectives.
  • My choices were to continue to avoid reading aloud in spite of all the evidence to support it or to create the conditions in which I would feel more comfortable with reading aloud.
  • My prosperity perspective (thinking in terms of “both/and” instead of “either/or”) was to have the students help me select the read aloud so that we would all have ownership in the story and I would feel less anxious about the experience. I also dimmed the lights so it helped everyone, but especially me, calm down during read aloud.

To summarize, I went from actively resisting reading aloud to becoming a strong proponent for the practice, including writing blog posts about favorite books to share with students for the Nerdy Book Club blog. This change came about not by resisting my fears, but by better understanding why I was afraid and then addressing it with strategies.

So what fear are you struggling with that is preventing you from changing? Are you trying to let a practice go and/or adopt a new one? How might this process help? If you have changed, how did you overcome your fear? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Read by Example Newsletter, 9-22-18: Professional Growth

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

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This week I found personal growth to be a common thread in the posts and related resources.

  1. When we lead like a coach, we are more likely to see growth in our teachers. Check out my post on this topic.
  2. An excellent resource for leading like a coach is Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly.
  3. Can principals even be coaches? I wrote about this in a post from five years ago. I am not sure I currently agree with my thinking at that time.
  4. I questioned whether we are talking about what really matters when try to grow professionally in this post.
  5. The previous post references a recent ASCD Education Update article. The subject involves a teacher and a principal facilitate a mock conversation about the challenges with traditional teacher evaluation systems.
  6. Last summer, I wrote a post on how literacy leaders might release some of the responsibility of professional development to teachers via study groups.
  7. The previous post is in response to Jennifer Allen’s excellent resource Becoming a Literacy Leader. We (contributors and I) responded to this book in our own online study group; click here to check out all of our posts.
  8. I wrote a short response to the memoir I just read, Educated by Tara Westover.
  9. My wife and I plan to attend an author Skype visit with Tara Westover at a local library (we both read the book). Check out the author’s website for her schedule.
  10. Journaling is how Westover documented her upbringing. Related, I enjoyed this article by Benjamin Hardy for developing a habit and process regarding reflective journaling for professional and/or personal growth.

What’s going on in your world? Any themes you are noticing? Please share in the comments.