Monday, January 16, 2017

Beyond 'Yep' and 'Nope': How To Have Richer Conversations with Our Students

“Anyone have questions?” Crickets.
“You doing okay?” Yep.
“You need help at all?” I’m confused. “Can you tell me what’s confusing?”   Everything.

Let’s be real. There are days when getting a root canal seems easier than getting your students to talk about where they are in the learning process. Teacher as guide on the side and facilitator of learning can seem quite daunting when conversations feel one-sided.  It’s hard to guide without the ability to tease out more from our students about their learning.

As we explore what personalization and customization of learning can look like in today’s schools, it seems we must consider this question: How can more impactful one-on-one conversations yield even greater learning?  While we can shift structures and create more opportunities for students to explore passions and make choices in the learning process, it seems we can’t truly personalize without getting really darn good at making it personal with one-on-one conversations that are deep and tailored to the needs of the learner. We have to figure out how to get our learners beyond the crickets and one-word answers, but this can be easier said than done.

Intrigued with how I might have more impactful one-on-one conversations, I started researching and came upon a fantastic article titled “Conferring: The Essential Teaching Act.”  Author Katie Wood Ray outlines 4 steps to more powerful conversations with our students. Though Ray’s context is about writing conferences, I’m finding these 4 steps to be practical and powerful no matter the context of learning.

I’ve created a simple guide to Wood Ray’s steps and hope you find it useful to make your personal conversations with students even richer!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

4 Simple Changes to Get Control of Your Email

How do you plead to the charge of…
emailing after hours? Guilty
emailing after hours in order to remove items from your personal to-do list, despite knowingly yet unintentionally adding them so someone else’s to-do list? Guilty


In case you haven’t heard, the French passed a new law taking effect January 1 that includes a provision to limit work emails during non-work hours.  Will this law be the beginning of a global trend?  Who knows?  But it did cause me to reflect upon my own email habits.  It’s an area that I’m intentionally working to improve.  While in many ways, email can improve efficiencies, enhance communications, and create accessibility, it can also create stress, miscommunications, and an impersonal atmosphere.   


As a school leader, it’s important to me that the culture in our schools is focused on building relationships and creating learning experiences.  Being buried in emails can erode a school over time. We must tame the beast!  As stated, I’m 100% guilty of poor email habits, but I’m diligently working to improve and am finding 4 specific habits to be game-changers for my email life.  


Change #1: Review the upcoming week and write any emails that I know will need to be sent.
As I’ve shifted into an administrative role, I’m finding I have more limited ability to schedule my day. As situations happen, I need to be available to students and staff.  Scheduling out my week and pre-writing emails has helped me to focus on priorities, make sure important tasks get done, and be as available as possible. I try to do this over the weekend, so I feel in control of the week ahead.


Change #2: Save these emails as drafts and schedule when I should send these emails throughout the week during work hours.  
The draft button has become my friend!  In the past, I rarely used it. When I had time to write an email, I would send it out no matter the time of day.  If an email isn’t needed right away, I now save it as a draft and send it at a later time during work hours.


Change #3: Make a concerted effort to be sensitive to the schedules of other people, and when possible send emails at a time that will likely best suit their schedule.
This one is challenging because I don’t always know the daily happenings of my colleagues, but I’ll give a quick example.  If I know a colleague is out sick, I will try to wait until they return to send emails.  There’s nothing worse than feeling like you can’t take a needed sick day because your email (and work) is piling up on you.


Change #4: When possible, seek out people for face-to-face or phone conversations, rather than sending an email.
Sometimes email is just faster, but I’m really making an effort to make my email list an errand list of who to talk with face-to-face.  Most of the time, those conversations then turn into an opportunity to talk about other happenings, which is always a good thing!

Even after making these changes, I might still be guilty of the above charges, but I’ve improved significantly. To my surprise, I’m finding that when I stick to these healthier habits, I’m less buried in emails and I feel happier and more able to focus on the real work!  I’d love to hear your suggestions for managing your email and/or about any specific email challenges you are facing in the comment section.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

5 Things No One Told Me About Instructional Coaching

No matter how detailed the job description or how many tips you've gotten from insiders, every job has its surprises.  While writing my last post A Baker's Dozen of Essential Skills for Instructional Coaches, I found myself reflecting on those aspects of the work that no one told me about and I wasn't expecting.

Here are the 5 things no one told me about instructional coaching, as well as a few tips for working through these aspects of the craft.

1. Sometimes you'll feel like a Lone Wolf: It's likely you are the only instructional coach in your building, and you may even be traveling to multiple schools.  While hopefully you are a welcomed team member in your school, it's unlikely you have any job-alike team at your site.  This can leave you sometimes feeling like you're on an island for a couple different reasons:
  • There's just nobody that seems to entirely get those unique challenges that come with being an instructional coach.  This is especially challenging on the rough days. 
  • You're constantly feeling like a third wheel during team-based experiences, whether professional or social. 
Remedies for Lone Wolf Syndrome: 
  • Embrace the idea of going stag! When you network among the different teams in your building, rather than sticking with one group, it allows you to build stronger relationships with the staff. This will make your coaching partnerships so much stronger.  Coaches go stag for a reason!
  • Use this networking mentality to be a connector.  There is often little opportunity for teachers to connect with other staff members beyond their own department or grade level.  Teachers will find it incredibly valuable when you can help them make meaningful connections.
  • Build a strong coaching PLN, with coaches in your district, surrounding districts, and online. #Educoach is a great place to start. 
2. Sometimes you'll feel like a Utility Player: Coaches can often be asked to support teachers with many different needs, as well as many different improvement initiatives.  While this can keep your job continually fresh and challenging, you are also subject to feeling scatterbrained and as though you are not making a significant impact in any particular area if you aren't careful.  You may also feel ill-equipped to support the vast variety of needs, and find yourself questioning your own expertise. 

Remedies for Utility Player Syndrome: 
  • Be a willing learner. As long as you are willing to learn new ideas and seek out the resources to understand, you will be successful. 
  • Rely on the expertise of those around you.  Coaches do not, and should not be the experts of all things.  Coaching is about partnering with others, and pairing your expertise to do great things for kids. 
  • Keep your eye on the prize. I learned so much by thinking about Diane Sweeney's ideas of coaches using a 60% rule. This is a helpful way for coaches to make sure they don't get sucked into so many side projects that there isn't any time left for coaching.  Read more about Sweeney's 60% rule in her post Getting to 60%
3. Sometimes you'll feel like a Passenger Seat Driver: Coaching is about partnership and supporting teachers in accomplishing their goals for students.  Allowing teachers to be in the driver's seat is important, but sometimes challenging.  There are times when a coach can feel like the teacher has made a quick exit, pulled over, and kicked you out of the car!  You are left standing on the sidelines wondering what you said or did that caused this coaching partnership to end so abruptly. This has happened to me multiple times, sometimes when I suggested co-teaching or at other times when the teacher said they were just too busy to continue working together. 

Remedies for Passenger Seat Driver Syndrome
  • Make sure to share with staff all the ways you can partner (co-planning, co-teaching, etc.) and allow teachers choice in how they would like to work together.  
  • Give yourself the time to allow trust to build.  No matter how supportive and positive you are, it's vulnerable to work with a coach.  
  • Be reflective of your coaching moves. Did you allow the student goals as established by the teacher to drive the work?  Did you push too hard? Or is there a different timeframe when the teacher might be able to devote more time to working together? 
4. Sometimes you'll feel like the Face of Every Initiative: As schools and districts decide on different improvement initiatives, coaches are likely asked for insight in how to support teachers in embracing the change.  I actually love this work. Partnering with teachers to find what works in the classroom that can help an entire school improve is exciting!  If your district or school has a lot of initiatives, however, this can quickly leaving you feeling like the poster child of change. Coaches must be careful here because teachers may lose sight of the idea that coaches are there to support teachers in reaching their goals for kids, rather than drive initiatives. 

Remedies for the Face of Change Syndrome: 
  • Know the why.  If you understand the need for change, and how the improvement initiative can support student learning, you will be an authentic believer in the work. 
  • Remember that education is an incredibly complex profession, and there are often many areas that need improvement. While it's important to focus improvement efforts, we must also embrace that we can always get better at more than one thing at a time!
  • Again, be protective of your time to do coaching work.  If you don't protect your time to do the actual work of coaching, no one else will.  
5. Sometimes you'll feel like a Catalyst for Change: Coaching is incredibly powerful work because you are working with teachers who want to improve their craft and see students learn. This is so incredibly rewarding!  When you see students reach a goal or have an 'aha' moment, because a teacher was willing to try something with your support, there is no better feeling.  When a teacher overcomes a challenge that has been exhausting them or realizes through reflection a way to meet the needs of kids, you realize that coaching makes a difference!  

Remedies: Savor it!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Baker's Dozen of Essential Skills for Instructional Coaches

Legend has it the practice of adding a 13th item to make a baker's dozen started because bakers could be fined if all 12 items didn't meet the appropriate weight or quality.  Throwing in a 13th item compensated for any potential disparity. Who knew?! We are all bound to have certain skill sets that aren't as strong as others. While I don't think anyone needs to be fined for their weaknesses, it's a powerful way to think about how that little bit of extra can help us overshadow our deficits.

I just completed my fifth year of instructional coaching and am reflecting upon the skill sets that have been necessary in this unique role.  While all of these skills might not be in your job description or in books on instructional coaching, it's what has truly been necessary in my work.  Some of these I'm better at than others, which has kept the work challenging for me.

I hope my list will inspire you to think about your own practice. Perhaps spend a little time ranking the 13 items from your greatest skill to your weakest.  Ask someone else to rank you on these same items and then compare with your own ranking.  Think about actionable ways in which you can more deeply infuse your strengths into your work, and specific plans for how you might improve your weaker areas.

ARE YOU...

  • A LEARNER: I'm often presented with questions I don't know how to answer, or ideas I don't know how to execute.  A relentless drive to learn new things and seek out information, try possibilities, and learn from the experience is necessary and makes the work incredibly rewarding.
  • A SEEKER: In my school, participation in coaching is voluntary. Continually seeking ways to partner with teachers is important to making an impact on students.  Coaches with an entrepreneurial spirit will find opportunities hidden in all kinds of conversations.  
  • REFLECTIVE: Like most work in education, coaching is both an art and a science.  I've often felt like I should have posed a different question to a teacher, or suggested a different idea. Continuous reflection always makes us better for the next time!
  • AN EFFECTIVE MULTI-TASKER: The work of coaching is dynamic and somewhat unpredictable.  At times, I find myself working with multiple teachers of different contents and grade levels, with all different needs.  In addition, you may have roles on committees or be preparing professional development sessions.  Finding ways to be organized so that you can effectively partner and shift gears is key!
  • A CONNECTOR: I realized quickly that I will never have all the ideas, information, or resources to help teachers meet the needs of their students.  As a coach, it's amazing fun to connect teachers with other educators that can help them accomplish their goals.  As a coach, you have the unique opportunity to be in lots of classrooms; keep good mental notes of the strengths of teachers and connect teachers when you can.  Also, don't forget about connecting teachers with researchers in the field and educators on social media.
  • A QUESTIONER: Questions are the secret weapon of coaching! Artfully asking the right question can help a teacher to realize and articulate goals, ideas, frustrations, and hopes. 
  • A LISTENER: If there's one thing I've learned from coaching, it's that every classroom, every teacher, every student, and every situation is unique.  Of course, research-based best practice gives us a guide, but there is no pre-set recipe for teaching.  To be effective, coaches must be willing to listen, listen, and listen some more.
  • A COLLABORATOR: Without true partnership, instructional coaching doesn't work. While I believe coaches can be incredibly supportive when they bring ideas to the table, coaching must rely on the unique strengths and contributions of the teacher.  The teacher must still be the decision-maker!
  • AN OPPORTUNIST: Teaching is challenging, and sometimes frustrating work.  Often, teachers come to coaches when they at the peak of frustration.  Rather than letting the conversation end after the venting, effective coaches find opportunity in these moments of frustration to start a collaborative venture of trying a new method or researching an answer that will support student learning and ease teacher frustration.
  • A NAVIGATOR: There are moments in coaching when you realize you pushed a teacher too far out of the comfort zone; the teacher suddenly seems to be looking for the first opportunity to exit the coaching partnership.  Yikes!  This is the worst.  Coaching requires the ability to navigate conversations in a way that doesn't make teachers go looking for the door. 
  • AN ADVOCATE: Coaches are in a unique position because they are not administrators, yet they likely get to know all teachers in the building in a deep professional capacity. Coaches also likely get insight into what administrators see as needing improvement, and the rationale behind it.  Finding ways to advocate for student learning, teacher success, and systemwide improvement requires tactfully and sincerely offering perspective and examples, while posing questions that will challenge us all to be better.
  • A REFRAMER: Cynicism can creep into the profession through internal and external passageways. The ability to reframe conversations to focus on the positive and on the good in our work is the only way to thrive in this position.  You will enter many conversations of frustration and challenge; without the ability to reframe, you will find yourself defeated.  Find ways to lift up students, teachers, and principals at every opportunity. 
  • A SOLUTIONEER: The bottom line is that teachers will not come back for more coaching if you can't partner in creating solutions to help their students be more successful.  This doesn't mean that you have to create the solution yourself, but you must be relentless in finding ways to make a difference for kids.  Teachers don't have time for any less.
Being a learner and a listener come the most naturally to me, while being a seeker and a navigator are the most challenging.  I'm so thankful, however, for the opportunity to have coached. Check back next week for my post on 5 Things No One Told Me About Instructional Coaching!  

As always, I would love to hear your reactions to this post.  Leave a comment!

Best, 
Sara