Saturday, September 15, 2018

3 C’s for Recommending

If you know four notes, teach someone who knows three.
Dan Berkowitz

Sharing our repertoire is the common lot of coaches. We recommend based on what we have seen, read, and experienced.  When teachers lack knowledge and experience in an area where coaches have expertise, recommending can be an effective move. Using a mental checklist of “3 C’s for Recommending” can improve the impact of recommendations. As you purposefully plan for feedback conversations, seek to be clear, concise, and conversational.

Be Clear

Although there are times when questioning to prompt or probe is effective, if there is a suggestion you plan to make, say it.  Don’t make a recommendation disguised as a question, and don’t rely on buzzwords.  Describe what it is you think could happen in concrete, actionable terms. What will it look like when the suggestion has been implemented?

For recommendations, target something that can make a short-term, noticeable difference. Of course, it has to be implementable – by this teacher, at this time.  It needs to be something that the teacher is ready to do; adjust recommendations based on the teacher’s level of experience and expertise. You can work out together how she will apply the new strategy in her own instruction.

To support implementation of the suggestion, it’s important to have the necessary resources. Recommendations might be accompanied by materials, video clips, or suggestions about someone at the school with expertise in the area.  When recommendations come with commensurate resources – the necessary knowledge and materials to support them – teachers are more likely to see recommendations as a creative challenge to which they can rise.

Be Concise

As you consider recommendations, prioritize one area for improvement. Having a narrow area of focus builds self-efficacy, where a laundry list of suggestions would be daunting, deflating, and perhaps defeating.  What’s motivating is to have an actionable task that can be implemented in a short period of time.

After choosing an area for improvement, narrow to a specific recommendation. For recommendations to be actionable, they need to be focused.  A narrow recommendation feels helpful; a broad one may feel evaluative.**  For example, saying, “It might be helpful to put sticky notes with your pre-planned questions on the pages of the read-aloud book,” could be a helpful comment. Saying, “You should ask more high-level questions,” feels judgmental.

Keep the recommending conversation brief. Although coaches often complain that it’s hard to find time for a substantive coaching conversation, brevity can be used to advantage when making recommendations.  Keeping the conversation succinct makes the focus clear.

Be Conversational

A casual tone puts the teacher at ease, lower defenses, and makes conversations more productive. Consider the temperament (and current situation) of the teacher. You’ll recommend differently to an easy-going teacher than to a defensive one. It’s always wise to listen respectfully and have positive assumptions, but these are especially important if the teacher feels vulnerable.

Give recommendations as part of a dialogue. The recommendation is not the first sentence in the conversation or the last. It helps to lead in with positive comments and follow-up by asking the teacher’s thoughts about the recommendation. An exchange of ideas solidifies the recommendation.

The recommendation should be a “special delivery.” Give consideration to body language, word choice, and seating arrangement.  Nod.  Make eye contact. Sit side by side. Recognize the teacher’s point of view. The way that a recommendation is given makes almost as much difference as its content. Aim for collaboration during the recommending conversation.

All the Right Moves

Recommending isn’t always the right move; sometimes it’s more helpful to model, question, affirm, or praise. But when a suggestion is called for, being clear, concise, and conversational can encourage uptake and increase coaches’ effectiveness.

*Berkowitz, D. (2013). Spirit Magazine, March 2013, p. 67.
**Archer, J. Cantrell, S. Holtzman, S., Joe, J., Tocci, C., & Wood, J. (2016). Better feedback for better teaching: A practical guide to improving classroom observations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Building vocabulary in a blended classroom with “Word Sneak”:

A podcast on mentoring new teachers on social-emotional  learning:

Avoiding isolation as an instructional coach:

I love the idea of jot lots as a formative assessment tool.  I bet you can come up with ideas for use in addition to theses:

Give students and teachers the opportunity to write themselves into new ways of being:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Listen First

Shari Frost’s memory of a student encounter of the hilarious kind got me thinking again about how helpful it is to listen before speaking.  Shari tells about a first-grader who, in the middle of a small-group discussion, asked, “Mrs. Frost, how do you make babies?” While Shari’s mind raced about how to respond, another student provided with the needed answer, “Change the y to i and add es.”  Thankfully, Shari hadn’t jumped in too soon with unwanted information!*

In this blog, I’ve often extolled the habit of listening before speaking, and Shari’s story was a good reminder.  During a meeting with coaches last week, a seasoned coach made a similar recommendation to the group.  “Ask the teacher what she thinks she needs to work on,” she said.  Listen before speaking.

So I tried it this week as I met with seven novice teachers.  After observing in their classrooms, I met with these teachers and asked what they felt went well in the lesson.  Then I listened. Later, I asked them what they felt like they were ready to work on in their teaching.  Then I listened.  Each response showed insight and gave direction to our conversation.

I was surprised when Margaret said she wanted to become more confident in the content she was teaching.  Because she came across as self-assured, with a well-developed teacher stance, I never would have thought to make that recommendation.  But glancing at notes I’d made to myself about areas for improvement, I could see how knowing the content better would help Margaret to use students’ responses to support their learning and to ask better follow-up questions  – two things on the “to do” list I had created.

Sarah’s desire to have the kids focus better while on the carpet led us easily to a discussion of some of the things on my list – like providing opportunities for students to talk with one another so that they could be more active participants in the lesson.

Although not every teacher set a goal that provided a perfect inroad to my aspirations for them, listening to what the teacher felt she was ready to do next ensured that there was buy-in for the goals we were working toward.  Steven Covey, author of 7 Habit of Highly Effective People, suggested that we “seek first to understand.”  By listening before speaking, coaching can develop mutual understanding.

*Shari’s full account of the story can be found here.  Sorry I’ve already spoiled it for you!

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Tips for starting the new year as a coach:

During lesson closure, ask students to reflect – fist to five:

Usable quotes on revising writing:

Bringing empathy to coaching:

“Naughty” behaviors that are developmentally appropriate:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Open Your Door

This week, I was talking with a group of teachers about the constraining practices they are being asked to use – scripted, whole-class phonics instruction that doesn’t account for the individual differences of their first graders – some of whom read abundantly and others who cannot yet name all of the letters.  I heard myself whispering the words, “Close your door and teach.”  While this seemed, in some ways, to be an appropriate response to the situation, I realized at once how hypocritical I was being.  Isn’t coaching, after all, about opening our doors?

There is so much value in going public with our practice.  When we open our doors, we see teaching as a professional interaction, not a solitary exercise.  Sharing our practice can have an immediate, productive impact on pedagogy.  As we open our doors and teach, and then reflect with others, we learn through the complexity and messiness of our real context.  As we talk with another, we think about what has occurred in ways that haven’t happened until we put it into words.  We see the work differently.

Coaching stimulates professional conversations about teaching and learning. It gives us the opportunity for feedback and analysis.  Coaching treats teachers as professionals and empowers them to work on their craft.  At its best, coaching empowers teachers and boosts the professionalism of teaching.

Classrooms are data-rich spaces, and coaches help teachers evaluate practice in the midst of these spaces.  Coaches support teachers to take risks, and coaching reinforces the notion that we are all working toward the same goals of improved student learning. 

Having given this some thought, what will I say when I next meet with this team of knowledgeable, but manacled, teachers?  I want to support them to teach flexibly to meet the incredibly varied needs of their students.  I want to help them collect data about these differences, and show that some students just don’t need the script, and others aren’t ready for it.  I want to give them the professional voice to open their doors and teach proudly, teach confidently, teach in the ways their rich experience (and knowledge of research in the field) prescribes, not in the ways prescribed by an off-the-shelf manual. 

I hope most coaches are in a position to advocate for best practices.  I hope most administrators listen to not only those in the hierarchy but those in the classrooms.  I hope we can all do what is in the best interest of children. 

This week, you might want to take a look at:

During coaching, seek first to understand:

Dealing with students’ uncomfortable writing topics:

How to cultivate student-generated questions:

Involving students in feedback (this works for older students, too!):

Every teacher needs a mentor:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Kidwatching during Modeling

As Roland Barth, author of Improving Schools from Within, has said, “There is no more powerful way of learning and improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us” (Barth, 2006, p. 11).  Modelling a lesson in a teacher’s classroom provides the opportunity for observation.  Whether only one teacher observes or you invite the whole team, observations are an experience ripe with prospects for instructional improvement.

Pre-Observation: Laying the Foundation for Teacher Learning

Effective observation starts with wondering.  As you prepare for the lesson, ask about not just teacher needs, but also student needs.  Get together before the observation lesson and elevate the questions that guided your planning.  Tell the teacher(s) what you are wondering about now. Will students grasp the concepts as intended?  Will they have success with the mini-steps leading up to that concept?  Will they find the work interesting? 

What Will Students’ Do?
Completing the template below can help you prepare for the observation by focusing on student learning.  Before the observation, look together at each step in the lesson and consider what you think will happen: anticipate students’ responses and how you might adjust.  Make a corresponding list of things you want to pay attention to while the lesson is being taught.  Observer(s) will capture these things in their notes; hopefully you can capture them in your brain for later reflection.

The “points to notice” column on our chart will guide our notetaking once the lesson is underway, but it is also helpful to think beforehand about the structure for notetaking.  Some teachers like to use two column notes: What the teacher says/does in one column and what the students say/do in another.  Since our lessons will be student focused, the right column will be very full by the end of the lesson!  Sometimes, the team agrees on a structure for notetaking, but more often, each follows their own instincts about how to capture what happens in the classroom.  For me, that means writing or typing as fast as I can, trying to get exact words and notice actions and even facial expressions.  Sometimes, it the team is observing, we divide and conquer, giving each teacher a set of students or a station to specifically attend to. 

Objective Observing: What Do We See and Hear?
During an observation, notes should be objective.  Evaluation can wait!  Notes should reflect just what is happening.  There will be time for reflection later.  I encourage teachers to sharpen their senses so they see and hear the nuances of student and teacher actions and interactions.

Wearing Our Culture Glasses
Before stepping into the classroom, it’s also helpful to remind ourselves to wear our “culture” glasses – to be especially tuned to how culture and context are impacting students’ responses throughout the lesson.  We want to make note of these, because it will help us adjust the lesson, improve its effectiveness, and apply new understandings in our future planning.  Being sensitive to the affective responses of students will give us clues about the fit between the lesson and our students’ culture.  These details will also give us a sense of whether the lesson is successfully building on students’ background knowledge.  Be sure to note the “aha” expressions and the looks of confusion.  For example, during a fifth-grade lesson, we noticed how confused students seemed about the word problem asking them to determine payment at a parking garage.  Later, when we thought this through, we realized there wasn’t a parking garage within a 50-mile radius of their community!  Noticing students’ affective responses pointed out a mismatch between lesson content and students’ background.

It’s also helpful to remind observers to shift their focus throughout the lesson.  Even if there has been a pre-assignment to focus on a particular student or group, observers should get in the habit of lifting their gaze from time to time to see what other students are doing, to note the arrangement of the room and the choreography of the lesson.  These factors all influence individual students’ learning.

Linking PD to Practice
Being prepared before an observation and thoughtfully observant during the lesson ensures a productive debrief.  According to Reeves (2010), “observing professional practice in action has been a missing link in professional development,” (p. 81), and it is a link that can sharpen teachers’ attention to student learning and broaden their instructional repertoire.  Modelling, the first stage in the GIR model, provides this link.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Tips for asking questions after coaching conversations:

No more reading for junk – and other ways to raise self-motivated readers (share this with parents and teachers):

Making it personal to build community:

Reading nonfiction for the pleasure of it:

5 Worthwhile risks for new teachers:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Mindful Observation

This week, I am writing about mindful observation – observing with increased awareness and presence.  Let’s start by being present in this moment, wherever you are, while you are reading this blog.  Breathe in slowly.  Breathe out slowly.  Pause.  Center yourself.  Now notice.  What do you see? Look around.  Pause.  What do you hear? Any subtle smells?  Do you feel your back against the chair? Your feet on the floor?  Intentionally raise your awareness of your senses and pause before reading on.  How do you feel?

When teaching, the onslaught of sounds, movement, and decisions bombards us, with little time available to process.  Observing, however, provides an opportunity to mindfully attend to what is going on in the classroom.  Jon Kabat-Zinn* defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of an experience.”  Even if judgment will come, it can wait until you have genuinely experienced the moment. 

Being mindful is about being fully present where you are and how it feels to be there.  When we are mindful, we are open to new information and aware of more than one perspective.  When we make ourselves mindfully present during observations, we pay attention to aspects of the environment that we might otherwise overlook.  Being mindful helps us delve deeper and challenge moment-to-moment judgments.  We become aware of our assumptions.  We take stock of how we are feeling and become more attuned to how others are feeling. 

Achieving mindfulness in the midst of commotion

Much like the exercise at the beginning of this post, I encourage you to pause and become mindful, multiple times, during an observation.  If you’re like me, your fingers are flying on the keyboard while you observe, trying to absorb everything that happens.  However, that very preoccupation can keep me from being completely present.  Without missing too much in my notes, I can purposefully pause, center myself, and do a “sense check,” attending to all that is going on around me.  Turn my head, shift my position.  Listen for more than just words.  After this expectant pause, I can go back to notetaking and capture the richer, broader experience of being in this lesson, in this classroom.

Reflecting mindfully through writing

Soon after an observation, give yourself a few minutes for reflective writing, while all is still fresh.  Four minutes is enough.  Really.  You just need to capture those fleeting feelings while they are fresh.  Challenge your judgments.  Step back from instinctive reactions.  Look deeper.  Scan your body and mind for impressions and write these down.  Notice your emotions and concerns.  Mindful writing increases perceptiveness and discernment and supports our reasoning.**

Use your notes from during and after the observation to write to the teacher whose class you’ve observed.  Share with her an important insight you gained while in the classroom.  This initial communication can open opportunities for deep thinking together during a debrief. 

Share mindful observation with others

Once you have some practice with mindful observation, share the practice with others.  Give the teacher who will observe you some tips for how to observe mindfully.  What has worked for you?  When the teacher you are modeling for observes mindfully, your demonstration lesson will be more powerful.

As mindful observation spreads throughout your school, you might notice an increased focus, more openness, and a certain sense of calm, even amidst the busy, decision-packed moments of the everyday.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Notice.    

* Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice,10, 144–156.

** I am indebted to Nicole Damico and Anne Whitney for their thoughts on Mindful Writing.  See Damico, N., & Whitney, A. E. (2017). Turning off autopilot: Mindful writing for teachers. Voices From the Middle, 25(2), 37-40.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Growing as a coach by providing powerful feedback:

Teach on the first day:

Building independence so teachers can confer during reading workshop:

Helping teachers deal with the emotional side of change:

Beat beginning-of-school-year stress:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, August 10, 2018


For many of us, the start of a new school year is nipping at our heals, bringing questions to coaches’ minds about what to do with assessment data, whether we need coaching agreements, and how to use various face-to-face and online platforms.  With so much on our plates, it’s important that we don’t wear a badge of busy-ness that prevents others from approaching us with questions and requests. 

How do we replenish and center ourselves so that we can help to fill others?  This question was on my mind this week as I had a FaceTime meeting with a teacher-leader (I’ll call her Jerri) who seemed burned out and dragged down – not a good spot for August 10, with the school year about to get underway.

As I coached this woman who is an amazing coach herself, my mind was racing for what she might do to re-energize.  I hope the questions I asked and the thoughts I shared were helpful to her, and I hope they might be helpful to you, too, as the year gets underway.

Do What Fuels You

During our conversation, Jerri mentioned the self-reflection she has been doing; she realizes that what really brings her joy is teaching – and that has sometimes been missing from her current job description.  If it is missing from yours, too, and would help you to fuel, think about how you can build opportunities for teaching into your calendar early in the year.  Offering to model a new practice gives you that opportunity, but if you really need some kid time to boost your joy-o-meter, you don’t have to wait for the perfect modeling opportunity.  Let a few colleagues know that you need your teaching “fix,” and offer to drop in while the teacher attends an IEP meeting or leaves early for an appointment. 

Kid time is just one way to get re-fueled (and re-tooled) for the coaching job.  Pause now and consider what it is that renews your energy.  Take time to admire the sunset, read a few pages from a novel, or cuddle with a toddler.  You owe it to yourself and to the teachers you’ll coach to start the year with a full tank.

Take a Deep Breath

One of the most centering things I do during a busy day is to take a deep breath.  When I pause to steady myself, fill my lungs with air, and exhale slowly, I have more capacity to deal with the current situation.  Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the nervous system in a way that promotes a state of calmness.  It quiets the mind.

Enter a Room Mindfully

Lisa Lucas, author of Practicing Presence, suggest the habit of pausing in a threshold to enter a room mindfully.  I have used this pause to focus my attention, to leave behind what I was doing and focus on what I am doing.  The threshold pause helps me be more aware of important aspects of the environment I am entering.

Be Present

The children’s book, What Does It Mean to Be Present gives examples we adults can apply.  Being present means listening carefully, appreciating what you have, waiting patiently, and “treating each new experience as an opportunity.”  It means being grateful and savoring each bite of the day.  It means “being still enough to hear your inner voice.”

Do Nothing

Our quest to be efficient and productive may be destroying our creativity.  Time fillers are at our fingertips – a quick scroll through Facebook or repost on Twitter fills the pause at the copy machine, the stop at the red light.  But those pauses, those brief moments to connect with our own thoughts, can be the time when inspiration comes. Give your genius time to grow by occasionally and intentionally doing nothing.


Somewhere along the continuum between “doing what fuels us” and “doing nothing” comes the need for prioritizing.  Steven Covey, whose books on highly-effective people have now trickled down to children, recommends gauging importance and urgency to put first things first.  If we routinely give attention to the non-urgent but important things, the occurrence of urgent unimportant things decreases, and we are able to use our time more productively and feel better about the things we do accomplish.

Although some of these things came to mind during my conversation with Jerri this wee, I only thought of others when I gave myself time to ponder, time to take a deep breath, and time to write (which fuels me!).  So I’ll revisit this topic with Jerri when I see her next – or hope she is reading her way through this post and feeling re-energized!  It is only when we are filled that we have something to give.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Tips for new (or reminders for returning) coaches:

A podcast on going public with our practice (click and scroll down):

Coaching about classroom culture:

Celebrating how very child is a reader (even before they read words):

Another Steven Covey habit that applies to coaching – Seek first to understand:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Like on Facebook at: for more coaching and teaching tips!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Asynchronous Coaching

As you think about the school year that is about to get underway, you may want to consider how asynchronous coaching could make your work more effective.  Coaching using email or other forms of digital communication allows for conversations that can happen at the convenience of the coach and teacher.  Because schedules are often hard to align, this can be a real advantage, giving everyone the chance for unhurried dialogue.  Below are tips and cautions for using this mode of interaction as a coaching tool.

Establish Relationships First

I’ve found that email is not a good first encounter for coaching.  Face-to-face conversations allow me to read the situation and the teacher’s reactions so that I can respond in ways that build trust.  If I’m well into a coaching cycle, or have a previously-established relationship with a teacher, email can be an efficient way to move some parts of the coaching process along. 

Set an Informal Tone

Because an email may not be perceived as personal, use a casual, relaxed tone. Reread and revise to make your written words sound like talk so that your email will feel more approachable.  Review to take out any sting.  Having the opportunity to carefully construct our messages and rethink how they might be perceived is an advantage of asynchronous communication.

Ask Questions

Email is a good venue for posing questions; the teacher has the opportunity to respond thoughtfully, and you won’t come off as overbearing if your email is asking for their views. 

To open a conversation, you might ask:
*What’s the unit you’re working on?
*What are you noticing about students’ work?
*What are you wondering about?

If you’re emailing after a lesson has been taught, you might ask questions like:
*What did you learn about your students today?
*What did you notice today about how the sequence of instruction affected students’ thinking?
*What do you envision happening next?

Follow Up Face-to-Face
Although good conversation can happen through back-and-forth email exchanges, build in opportunities for face-to-face, even with teachers you know well.  Being in the teacher’s classroom gives deeper insights about what goes on there.  In-person meeting are usually less formal, so you might get more information, hearing opinions and the inside story.  And we all benefit from the assurance of a smile.

Trying to fit coaching conversations into overlapping niches of school schedules can be challenging.  Asynchronous communication can increase our coaching impact when our tone, questions, and follow-up demonstrate the faith and trust we have developed.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Launching the year in math:

How an offer to help reorganize a classroom library leads to a coaching opportunity:

Be your own mentor – Tips to pass along to new teachers:

Make a memory box to save special moments in the classroom:

A podcast on mentoring new teachers: supporting students’ social-emotional learning:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

Was this helpful?  Please share!
Want to know about new posts? Click “Follow” (bottom right)

Like on Facebook at: for more coaching and teaching tips!