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.

Rejection is a Doorway to Opportunity

Rejection is a common element in my life right now. I have been told “no” many times, all in the nicest ways possible. “We offered the position to someone else.” “We really liked what you had to share, but…” “Unfortunately, this submission will not work with our publication.” Here is a running list of some of my bigger rejections:

  • Two declined manuscripts to Educational Leadership
  • One declined article for Edutopia
  • Two proposals to my district leadership about rethinking my current position
  • Multiple applications and interviews that haven’t panned out

Failure and I have become quite close. I share this because, as I write, I am currently between jobs. (I thought “between jobs” was a cliché, until I actually started to live it.) I am exploring opportunities to stay connected with schools while finding a bit more time to write, publish, and work with other educators beyond the four walls of a schoolhouse. In essence, I am pursuing my dream job.

In the past I have only lightly pursued the possibilities. Last year I applied for a director of elementary education in the Twin Cities, MN. When I didn’t get a call back, I told myself, “Well, it wasn’t my time. I will wait until another opportunity comes along.” I was tiptoeing across an icy pond, unsure about the safety and not wanting to risk it. The problem with this approach is we become reliant on someone else to create that dream job for us. This may never come along. Only we know what we really need out of our lives.

Professional Reflection: How are we helping our students or teachers develop their own dreams?

At the behest of a colleague/mentor, I described and wrote out my dream job. I detailed how I wanted to spend more time writing on a daily basis, as well as the outcomes I envisioned would be a product of my work and collaboration with others. One example: I would love to conduct research on how a more authentic approach to teacher supervision and evaluation would increase teacher autonomy and student engagement. God knows the current system isn’t working. I have been exploring these concepts this past school year. The initial results have been promising.

Will an open position provide for this opportunity? Do the possibilities currently available share the same values I have and honor my most personal and professional requests? In making my desires known, I may be filtering myself out of positions that would not have been a good fit for anyone, employer or employee. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Professional Reflection: How does rejection play a positive role in our instruction or instructional coaching?

I continue to tell myself that rejection is the doorway to opportunity. If one situation does not work out, this means that a better option is just down the road. But I am also a realist. I have a family to provide for and I have responsibilities. Maybe the opportunities aren’t readily available in plain sight. I realize that I might have to create my own doorway to opportunity, even if that means chalking an outline on the wall and busting through the drywall to carve out a pathway toward what I want and we need.

Wherever life leads us, we have to find that balance between what the world appears to provide for us and our responsibilities in advocating for and sometimes creating what we want. I am realizing on this journey that it is taking some people out of their comfort zones, even if they are not along for the ride. They like stability, and by golly so should you. But they are not living out my dreams any more than I am there’s.

Spring can be a tumultuous season. As you may surmise, I am not referring simply to the rambunctiousness our students display as we count down the days. I know that I am one of several educators out there also exploring what’s possible in their lives. Stay with it, I say. Keep your mind open to what is possible instead of only to what is available. Have faith that one rejection might well be a bend in the road toward what you truly desire.

Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration

Having trouble navigating Twitter? Check out an article I wrote for EdTech K-12, on how to use this social media tool for better professional learning:

How Twitter Can Power Your Professional Learning

Continue reading “Update from readingbyexample.com: An article, a post, an opportunity, and a reading celebration”

Nothing Wrong with a Little Rejection

I have to admit, things have been going well lately. My 5th installment on passion-based learning, posted on Powerful Learning Practice’s blog was selected for a March’s Editors Choice Content Award by SmartBrief. The manuscript for my first book, Digital Student Portfolios, looks more like a real book every day. The weather in Wisconsin allowed the students to wear T-shirts during recess today. Like I said, very little to complain about.


photo credit: Daniel Kulinski via photopin cc

These precipitating events helped ease the rejection of my article for the summer edition of Educational Leadership. Tentatively titled “Digital Book Clubs”, I wrote a narrative piece about how the students, staff, and parents in our school have all participated in accessing online resources as we engage in reading. I had a few people read it ahead of time; they thought it was a worthy submission.

What also helped in dealing with the fact that my article wasn’t good enough to make the cut was the feedback provided by ASCD. “I’m sorry to report that yours is one of the very good manuscripts we cannot publish. Because you have put so much work into this piece, I hope you will submit it elsewhere. Our editors gave it high ratings.” Although not specific to my article in general, the effort was appreciated.

This rejection is not my first nor my last. I am sure I will submit something in the future to Educational Leadership. What I can hang my hat on is that I was a learner of my own practice through the act of writing. What I learned during this process was invaluable, from drafting the initial piece, to revising and editing it to make it submission-ready, to subsequent revisions to improve upon it even more. As I came back to the text, each time I found an idea that led me back to why we tried these practices in the first place.

The difference in the spelling of “rejection” and “reflection” is only two letters. Maybe this is not a coincidence.

What I Have Learning About Mastery From Martial Arts

My son recently tested for his next level in taekwondo. Before all the students test, they are asked a series of questions, in order to assess their understanding in areas such as the offensive and defensive moves in their new form.

What is the meaning of your form?

How many moves are in your form?

Did you make your bed this morning?

The last question is a personal favorite :). It’s knuckle push ups for those with messy rooms. Responsibility is applied conceptually within my son’s program.

Students are also expected to perform their newly acquired knowledge and skills. Mastery is shown by displaying accuracy in their moves and through board breaking. If a student does not successfully break the board the first time, or if their form is not up to snuff, they try again. And again. And again. No student is left behind. They were invited to testing day because the instructors felt they were ready. Some students are not encouraged to test even though they are eligible; the instructor felt they needed more practice before this summative assessment.

  • When it is time for students to show what they know, is failure in option in our classrooms?
  • If a student is not ready to test, do we allow them more time to prepare?

medium_475602666 photo credit: Taekwonweirdo via photopin cc

The most interesting question that gets asked of all students is the reporting of their grades. The master instructor asks each one of them to publicly share what they received on their most recent report card. Personal responsibility is also connected to their efforts in school. If a student wants to attain black belt, they have to be in good standing in their academics. At this last testing event, I heard the following responses, and these are only the ones I remember:

“All A’s and B’s”

“Mostly 3’s and 4’s”

“My child does not receive grades; we homeschool, and he is assessed every day on his progress.”

“I got an E, some P’s, and one S.”

“We do standards-based grading, so we won’t know until later in the school year.”

At the end of this roll call, the master instructor quietly laughed and shook his head. “I used to teach physical education. When I taught, all we had were letter grades.” His comment hit home. In my own school, we report out two different types of grades: letters (A to F at 5th grade) and numbers (4 to 1 in K-4). In our effort to be more accurate in our assessments, we sometimes muddy the waters in what is considered mastery.

Schools would be wise to look to extracurriculars when trying to better represent student performance and progress. Taekwondo, and I suspect other martial arts, are a great example. For each belt, it is very clear what the student has to accomplish in order to don the next color. There are specific kicks, combinations, and forms that must be learned to move on. These skills are an iteration of a broader learning progression; one set of learning targets is built upon knowledge both previously attained and yet to come. Also, the athletic ability is not as important as the adherence to the criteria for achievement. Students are not compared to one another. Their performance is as much about personal bests as it is about mastery.

  • When we grade students, is our final assessment based on a common standard? Are we calibrating our judgment through collaboration?
  • Are we comfortable giving an “A” to two different levels of understanding and performance, as long as both learners met the criteria for mastery?


photo credit: palindrome6996 via photopin cc

In a prior post on this topic, I tried to start a conversation about this issue. As I reread my post and subsequent replies to readers’ comments, I don’t think I left the door open enough to facilitate a quality dialogue. I felt like I came across as knowing more than I probably do. After reading some of the articles in Educational Leadership’s most recent issue, Getting Students to Mastery, I have discovered the complexities on this topic. Grant Wiggins suggests that to help students attain a worthy goal, teachers should “provide valid feedback early and often” and help students “track their progress in closing the gap” toward true mastery (15). Thomas Guskey notes that mastery in itself “can be the learners’ purpose for engaging in a task or activity” (20). Guskey encourages teachers to focus on three practices when helping students strive for mastery (20):

  1. Allow students to resubmit assignments than need more work;
  2. Do not pressure students by consistently talking about grades and assessments; and
  3. Encourage self-comparisons and avoid comparing students’ achievement with that of other students.

When done right, it seems school and martial arts have much in common.