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.

Watch and Learn

I was in a 4th-grade classroom, conducting an instructional walk. The class was being led by the teacher in a shared reading of Little House in the Big Woods. While the students followed along in their copy of the text as the teacher read aloud, my mind was tempted to go toward assumptions about whole class novel studies.

  • They are teacher-directed and do not provide for student voice and choice.
  • One common text does not address different reading abilities.
  • Time spent reading together means less time reading independently.

After a few minutes, the teacher paused where she was reading and asked the students to turn and talk about the story so far. Then she walked over to where I was sitting. “We are using this novel to teach students how to have authentic conversations about what they are reading. We are starting with turn and talk. Gradually we will build in roles and strategies.” 

I thanked her for sharing this information with me. Our school goal is “A Community of Readers”. This teacher was taking a current text they use within their study of history and building in discussion strategies that we were learning about during professional development. I added this context to the anecdotal notes I was writing and would eventually give to her.

When principals visit classrooms, the typical stance is to evaluate. To judge how effective instruction is for students. During instructional walks, the goal is to learn. Not just about what is happening in the classroom. To become smarter as leaders as well as to examine our own assumptions. We don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in the school, but we should be the one most willing to learn. 

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.

Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

Five Apps for Reducing Isolation and Increasing Connectedness

The principalship, as well as other leadership positions in schools, can be isolating. We typically don’t have a team of our own within a building. Even when part of a district, it can be hard to build a professional community with colleagues; competing for limited resources plus the busyness of our days too often keeps us at a distance.

I recommend five apps that have helped me bridge this divide and foster a sense of connectedness with other educators.

  • Google+ Communities – While I know a lot of educators use Facebook groups for connecting with colleagues, I prefer Communities. It feels less like social media and more like a chat room. You can create categories for organizing posts. Being a part of the Google ecosystem is also helpful for sharing content.
  • email – Whether Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail, email is still a tried and true method for connecting with others. What I am referring to here is different than work messages. I use email as an ongoing correspondence with close colleagues: timeless technology for writing back and forth with each other. So…rethink email!
  • Slack – I’ve used this communication tool during educational conferences and for technology discussion boards. I find Slack a cross between email and a discussion board. It takes some getting used to but I do like the interface and feel of it.
  • Tweetbot – This app is my preferred Twitter client. I don’t get all of the ads or suggested tweets like I do with the native application. Twitter chats, direct messages, and lists all help me stay connected with other educators. The only part of Tweetbot I find lacking is the inability for group chats in direct messages.
  • Voxer – I’m not a heavy user of Voxer but I do enjoy the back-and-forth you can have with this walkie-talkie app. Communications can be light, mostly chatting about topics that have nothing to do with school. Other times I am reaching out to a principal regarding a prospective teaching candidate or for problem-solving.

Of course, the best app for reducing isolation and increasing connectedness is the physical presence of others. It’s a big reason why I attend educational conferences and participate in monthly regional school leader meetings. But during the in-between, my personal/professional connections mediated online are the next best thing.

What app or digital tool do you prefer to stay connected with colleagues? Why do you like it? Please share in the comments.

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.

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.