Friday, July 12, 2019

Magic Words for Collaboration & Coaching

This week I had the good fortune of working with two groups of teachers, with a focus on collaboration.  I learned a lot from listening, and hopefully they took away a good idea or two.  One of the ideas my mind kept coming back to was the power of words.  Words chosen thoughtfully can support collaboration, and these same words have a magic touch when coaching.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Some: What are some things we could try?

Some is a plural word that opens thinking.  When we ask about some things instead of saying, “What could we (you) try?”  We are opening our minds to brainstorm possibilities, rather than quickly narrowing our thinking.   The first idea out of our mouths is usually not the best idea, so let’s leave the conversation open for a while.

Could/might: What are some things we could try?

These modal verbs express possibility.  Like plurals, their tentativeness gives us the opportunity to process ideas.

Celebrate:  What do you want to celebrate about that lesson (or that student work, etc.)?

Beginning a conversation with successes gets the ball going in the right direction.  But I like the word celebrate more than success.  It just sounds so celebratory!  Success feels a bit more judgmental.

Puzzle: What were you puzzled by?

When something is puzzling, there is a challenge implied.  On the other hand, when something is  frustrating, we may wring our hands and complain.  Similar situation, different word choice, different outcome.

Clues:  What clues did you notice?  or What clues do we have?

Again, the word clue implies that the game is afoot! We are coaxed to figure something out.  The word clue is much more enticing than evidence, especially after the overuse of the phrase evidence-based during the last decade or so.

These are just a few of the magic words that support coaching and collaboration.  If you can think of others, please “comment” below.  I’d love to add to the list!

Teacher collaboration is something I’m passionate about!  Really!  You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Collaborative Lesson Study, available here for pre-order (20% discount code is TCP2019).  Please indulge me in celebrating this book.  I’m so excited to share what I’ve learned!


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

Research Shows Teacher Collaboration Helps Raise Student Achievement:

Have a laugh with “Behavior Charts for Educators” by Gerry Brooks:

Learning character traits through word sorts:

Two questions to ask a teacher before coaching:

When collaborating, colleagues match complementary strengths:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Principles for Effective Professional Learning

Are you working with your school’s leadership team to improve instruction?  Have you targeted an area where you would like to see growth during the upcoming school year?  Maybe your school’s goal is to include more STEM instruction, to incorporate social-emotional learning, or to implement a writer’s workshop approach.  Once you’ve determine an instructional goal, how do you make it happen?

Research on professional development suggests of few key characteristics of teachers’ learning that I think will ring true for you. 

Discussion-based learning: Teachers’ learning, like their students, is contextual and social.  Professional learning that includes collaboration and social construction of knowledge promotes teacher learning and also models interactive learning structures that teachers can take to their own classrooms. Text talks, protocols for professional discussion, and co-constructed anchor charts help teachers generate and hang on to important ideas.

Personalization: Peery (2004) argued, “Teachers must invest in their own growth by posing their own questions…This personalization is the essence of development.” But how do you personalize teacher learning when a focus has already been selected?  I’ve found that it is helpful to generate a list of essential questions about the topic (beforehand or as you launch a new initiative). Then let each teacher pick from among these the one s/he is most interested in investigating. You can also personalize by offering several articles for learning about the topic and letting teachers choose which to read, by giving opportunities for teachers to journal about their own learning, and by including time for teachers to design lessons that put principles into practice in their own classrooms.  Professional growth is possible when training is responsive to teachers’ personal needs.

Conceptual Understanding linked to Practical Application:  To be effective, teachers’ professional learning needs to maintain a link between conceptual and practical tools. When principles are presented, teachers need the opportunity to plan how to put them into practice.  This works best when professional learning experiences happen right in the school.

Time: short, stand-and-deliver inservice workshops can introduce or build awareness of new content, but real change requires extended opportunities for professional development.  Research suggests that longer duration produces sustained results. It’s hard to make the things listed above happen without investing considerable time. Having the time to think, read, write, and talk together supports Implementation.
As you ponder and plan for the upcoming school year, be sure to think about how the principles of professional learning, listed above, will be part of your plan for purposeful change.

Peery, A.B. (2004). Deep change: Professional Development from the Inside Out. Lanham, MD:
Scarecrow Education.

Teachers’ professional learning is something I’m passionate about!  One form of professional learning that includes the above attributes is Lesson Study.  You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Collaborative Lesson Study, available here for pre-order (20% discount code is TCP2019).  Please indulge me in celebrating this book.  I’m so excited to share what I’ve learned!

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

3 Ways to More “Aha” Moments in Coaching: 

I’ve tried this and it works!  Combining character traits and vocabulary instruction:

How mentors help first-year teachers:

The ABC’s of feedback:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Coaching for Flexibility: Adjusting Active Ingredients

Teaching is a complex activity that includes frequent, multi-factor decision-making. Planning an effective lesson requires understanding; adjusting that plan appropriately as the lesson unfolds requires insight and flexibility.

I like to apply a baking metaphor when I think about teachers’ flexibility. Great bakers understand how to adjust ingredients based on their knowledge of how those ingredients interact. A baker knows how to adjust the liquid in a cake recipe on a humid day, how to adjust the baking powder at higher altitudes, how to balance sweetness with spice. Similarly, coaches can help teachers understand how to adjust a lesson when students are energetic or talkative, when they are confused, or when they are ready to be challenged.

Knowing the active ingredients in a lesson, those most important experiences that will enable learning, allows flexibility with other aspects of the lesson. When teachers can identify the active ingredients in the lesson, those key pieces that make it work, they can determine how other aspects of the lesson can be adjusted to interact effectively.

Flexibility begins during planning as teachers created your plan and decide what materials to use. Encourage teachers to use curriculum resources flexibly to match their students, Then, as the lesson plays out, there will be more opportunities for flexible use of materials.

Through thoughtful preparation, the teacher is well-positioned to be flexible based on what she sees and hears from students. Deviations from the plan might include changing materials or adjusting instructional methods as the lesson unfolds. Students are constantly giving the teacher information to guide the remainder of the lesson.  Encourage teachers to keep their learning targets in view as they adjust to students’ needs. Because no two classes are the same, materials, methods, and pacing will differ. Flexibility acknowledges this variability.

When teachers fail to flexibly adapt a lesson, students are denied the opportunity for richer learning that might have occurred had the adjustments been made.  Even as you work with teachers to plan effective lessons, emphasize that they are not tied to that plan.

So, if a read-aloud book is too far outside kids’ experiences, the teacher should stop reading it. If the number line isn’t working as a visual for fractions, she might pull out the unifix cubes. If evidence from students’ faces, comments, or work suggests the need for a change, encourage teachers to make that change. If staying the course means you will never reach your destination, it’s time for a change.

Another aspect of the lesson where flexibility is evident is during discussions between teacher and student. Teachers demonstrate lack of flexibility when they ignore a student’s comment or genuine question or when they quickly dismiss it. Learning is supported when, instead, a teacher listens and asks questions to better understand students’ reasoning or to clarify or extend students’ thinking.

Every classroom has a different combination of learners who have unique needs and experiences. Because of this variation, there are many, many aspects of a lesson that require a flexible response. Coaches can help teachers identify the goals and active ingredients of a lesson so that teachers know where to stay firm and where to be flexible within a lesson.


Helping teachers develop flexibility is something I’m passionate about!  You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Collaborative Lesson Study, available here for pre-order (20% discount code is TCP2019).  Please indulge me in celebrating this book.  I’m so excited to share what I’ve learned!

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

Barry Lane’s TedXTalk on the Power of Kindness:

This video about lemonade stand entrepreneurs:

Questions for a team-coaching meeting on student engagement:

How to establish structures for writing response groups:

Tips for new instructional coaches:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Endure or Enjoy!

Yesterday I visited with my Aunt Joan, a smiling, white-haired woman whose blue eyes still twinkle, even though she will soon be 90 years old.  As the wife of a small-town farmer, she has faced many challenges and has worked hard throughout her life.  She still does.  This winter, her physician had to threaten to withhold a prescription in order to get her to promise not to shovel the snow from her walkway. Even though she’s had rheumatoid arthritis for almost 70 years, when I talked with her yesterday, her only complaint about doing yard work was that she is no longer steady enough to trim the tops of her bushes.  She’s an amazing woman.

During our conversation, Aunt Joan both reminisced and talked about the future.  She said she wouldn’t trade her life for anything, and she gave me some advice:  Whatever situation you are given, make the most of it.  Be positive, she said.  The thing that matters most is your attitude.

This is sound advice no matter your profession. And for teachers, who work every day with impressionable children and youth, teachers’ attitudes have a ripple effect.

Teaching is hard work, but focusing on the negative is toxic, for both teachers and students.  A negative attitude creates distance between teachers and students and among colleagues, making the work harder. It breeds negative feelings about our profession that extend beyond the teachers’ lounge.

Human interactions can cultivate hope or breed despair.  They can build dreams or dash hopes.  So teachers need to give themselves regular check-ups to consider the attitudes they are reflecting to their students.

It always helps to start with ourselves. If I bite my tongue rather than speaking ungraciously of another, I am a builder instead of one who tears down. If I ask questions to get to know my colleagues better, I am strengthening relationships.  If I share a story of student growth and learning, I am creating celebratory expectations.

As coaches, we can find ways to shift conversations to be more hopeful and helpful. Model positive talk about students.  If students are called lazy, shift the conversation to focus on practices that enhance student motivation.  If students are described as incapable, help teacher uncover their areas of strength. Shifting the conversation away from complaining can raise expectations for students and help teachers feel more efficacious.  

Coaches can also take a direct approach to changing attitudes.  Anonymously collect complaints you hear about students, then bring these comments to a faculty meeting for discussion.  Ask teachers to reflect: What do these statements imply about expectations and interactions? Then give a one-week complaint-free challenge.  You can lighten the tone by giving each teacher a few complaint “tickets” to be issued when they catch a colleague complaining during the week. After the week has passed, have teacher reflect on any changes.  Do they walk away from school at the end of the day with more energy? With more joy?

Teachers can find something positive to talk about, replacing negativity with joy and grumbling with thankfulness. They can build relationships with students and colleagues. As teachers spend less time talking about negative aspects of their jobs and their students and focus on more positive experiences, they feel more hope for the future of education and for their role in that future.  Instructional coaches can provide support and inspiration to help teachers enjoy, not just endure, their professions. 

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

If you’re planning PD, read this:

Tips for moving into a coaching position:

Relationship-building tips for instructional coaches:

Sharable articles on the research that should guide literacy instruction:

Getting started with trauma-informed practices:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Coaching for Understanding

For years, I’ve used the acronym “KUD” when determining lesson objectives. K = Know, D = Do, and the middle, the “U” is the all-important “understand.”  But what does it mean to really understand something?

When defining understanding, it is helpful to think first about what it is not. Understanding is not knowledge. It is not the ability to recall a storehouse of facts.  It is not repeating someone else’s claim. Understanding is something you see and grasp for yourself. You get the what and why of it. You don’t just know facts, you connect them and use them.

Understanding is complicated. It is means grasping a conclusion, not committing something to memory. Understanding includes inferences and insights, principles and generalizations that go beyond the obvious. Understanding is making meaning on your own. Understanding is deep.

Understanding may be founded in both knowledge of content and knowledge of procedures. Understanding develops through opportunities to apply, analyze, predict, prove, explain, defend, interpret, generalize, synthesize, and make connections.

When teachers want students to understand, they design learning activities where students are active participants. They include class discussions rather than simply asking questions that quiz students’ knowledge.

When coaches want teachers to understand, they also provide opportunities for active participation.  Rather than giving teachers a scripted lesson plan, they provide professional literature and support reflection.  They encourage informed experimentation and ask open-ended questions.  Both teachers’ and coaches’ understanding is expanded in the process.

As teachers and coaches gain understanding of how students learn, they do things differently.  Understanding brings structure to our knowledge and informs our actions.  And we can justify those actions; we can explain why something matters.  When a new wave of reform washes over us, our understanding anchors us.  We can adjust and apply our learning in varied and unique situations.

Think of something you really understand about instruction – a teaching principal that you are sure of.  How did you gain that understanding?  How might you help others gain it? 

Coaches support learning that increases understanding for both students and teachers. Understanding cannot be thrust upon anyone; they have to open the door for it, walk in, wander around, and explore until they find it.  Information is easily found through a Google search or Siri query, but understanding is an undertaking – one that is worth the effort for students, teachers, and coaches.


Helping students and teachers develop understanding is something I’m passionate about!  You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Collaborative Lesson Study, available here for pre-order (20% discount code is TCP2019).  Please indulge me in celebrating this book.  I’m so excited to share what I’ve learned!

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

Establishing the why and how of collaborative work with teachers:

Ways to encourage student collaboration:

Don’t let the tag-line fool you – this article about fostering friendship among classmates is powerful for all (not just pre-school teachers):

A book list to help build a classroom library that mirrors your classroom community:

10-Minute Podcast: 5 awesome things for teachers to do this summer:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!
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Friday, June 7, 2019

Revisioning Teachers’ Professional Development through Collaborative Lesson Study

Professional development should be done by teachers, not done to them.  It works best when it comes from the inside out, not from the top down.  This idea is not new, and it is well-supported in research.  However, teachers’ professional development is often provided, rather than supported.  Why is this?

There seems to be a belief that “outside experts” have the silver bullet for improved instruction and student achievement.  Billions of dollars have been spent on professional development in the United States, with a trend toward less-effective, shorter-duration trainings (Blank, de las Alas, & Smith, 2008; Wei, Darling-Hammond, & Adamson, 2010; Yoon et al., 2007).  But externally-imposed professional development is not “powerful enough, specific enough, or sustained enough” to effect lasting change (Fullan, 2007, p. 35).

Real changes in instructional practice and student learning come about through professional development that is focused at the classroom level.  As suggested by Thomas Guskey (2005), “The hard lesson we have gleaned from analyzing various waves of education reform is that it doesn’t matter what happens at the national, state, or even district level.  Unless change takes place at the building and classroom levels, improvement is unlikely” (p. 40).  No matter the grand imperatives and high-level planning, it is in the classroom where changes in teaching and learning can actually occur.  So it makes sense to start there.

This I why instructional coaching matters.  This is why professional learning communities (PLCs) matter.  When PLCs are truly learning communities that regard teachers as professionals, professional development happens.

What is professional development?  Let’s take a look at each of the words making up that phrase.  Professional means being connected to a profession.  A profession requires prolonged preparation and formal qualification. Because teachers have earned their teaching credentials, they are licensed professionals and should be regarded as such.  This implies acknowledgement and respect for their knowledge and expertise about teaching.  Professional development should regard teachers as professionals.

A close look at the idea of development is also enlightening.  The root word, develop, has meanings with differing connotations that are worth considering. Something can develop or it can be developed.  It’s important to think about who is doing the work. Is something developing from within or being developed from an outside source?  Piaget and Vygotsky had ideas about child development that might shed some light. Piaget saw development as a natural unfolding. Vygotsky saw development as supported by tools and by “more knowledgeable others.”  Professional development can occur through a blend of these ideas, a supported unfolding. This is the role of coaching.  This is the purpose of providing structures for professional learning communities.  One such structure is collaborative Lesson Study.

In contrast to top-down reforms, Lesson Study is professional development that empowers teachers to drive improvement as they determine new ideas and methods to incorporate into their teaching. This job-embedded professional learning process has the potential to improve student achievement by looking closely at classroom practice. 

Lesson Study is as straightforward as it sounds: the study of a lesson. However, Catherine Lewis, who learned about Lesson Study in Japan and has been instrumental in spreading its use in the United States, points out that during Lesson Study teachers improve lessons not as an end unto itself, “but as a way to deepen their own content knowledge, their knowledge of student thinking, their understanding of teaching and learning, and their commitment to improvement of their own practice and that of colleagues” (Lewis & Hurd, 2011, p. 24).

I’ve been supporting teachers in Lesson Study for about nine years, and I’ve seen dramatic results in teacher learning and student achievement (Collet, 2017; 2019).  Here’s my model for Lesson Study:

Pretty simple, right?  Although teachers often plan and reflect together, they don’t often observe together a lesson they have collaboratively planned.  And I truly believe the observation piece is key (more about that next week).  As an instructional coach, you can support the Lesson Study process and enhance its effectiveness.  I hope you’ll consider doing so.

There are other places to find out about Lesson Study, but I’d love it if you learned about the process by reading my upcoming book, which you can find here.  It won’t be in print until Sept. 5, but there’s a 20% off promo code for pre-orders right now (the code is: TCP2019).  I’ve loved making this book for teachers. I hope you’ll love it and share it, too!  Lesson Study supports authentic, productive professional development. 


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

This video about Lesson Study:

What do teachers really want from PD? Respect:

This Tedx Talk on windows and mirrors on the bookshelf:

The language of affirmation:

A book about hacking instructional design:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Mentoring Rosine

Today I had the extraordinary experience of meeting a new friend, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who I’ll call Rosine.  I volunteered to mentor her as a newcomer to our community, but I have learned so much from her already!

Rosine is like all of us in that her past informs her present. Because of difficult experiences in her home country, Rosine carries trauma in her heart, barely below the surface. Yet she met me with a smile and shared the names and ages of her five children, plus two other nearly-grown children that she has adopted.  She talked stoically about her new job at a chicken-processing plan, where she works long shifts segmenting chicken wings in a refrigerated room.  As she talked, she instinctively began rubbing the hand that works the snippers during those long hours.  I can’t really comprehend this work environment, but I have talked with others who have worked there, so I had a sense of the physical toll. I expressed empathy and saw her shoulders drop, some tension eased.  She balanced that story with enthusiastic gratitude that her four older children were able to attend school!  We could not pay for that in the Congo, she said.  It was as if she were saying, “The struggle is worth it.”

We talked for a moment about Rosine’s goals for the future: to get a GED so that she would have other employment options. To finish college. To build a future for her family.  Then I asked, “How can I serve you?”

I am not quite sure why, but at that moment, her eyes filled with tears.  I think maybe it was because suddenly, she felt there was someone else who might help her carry this burden, and in the same moment she felt both the weight of all she carries and the relief that someone might help lift it.

We talked some more about her immediate goal of obtaining the GED.  She was worried about asking for time off work to prepare. She had concerns about her own abilities to take the test in a language that was not her native tongue.  I offered to find out about preparation classes nearby.  But I felt it would also help her to have a tangible reminder of my offer to serve, so I said I would bring her a GED study guide. She could use this to prepare on her own, as time and energy allowed.  I just placed the order for the book, and when it arrives, I’ll write an encouraging note in the cover before I deliver it.  I hope it will help.

Rosine’s experience is extreme.  It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to mentor a refugee, and the teachers I typically work with haven’t had the life traumas that Rosine has experienced. However, every teacher has experienced scaled-back versions of these experiences.  Every teacher has faced personal challenges and also difficulties in the work environment.  My work with teachers and teacher candidates is a different kind of support, but I see reflections of today’s experiences with Rosine in the work I do in schools.  

Although I’ve never coached a teacher who has seen trauma such as Rosine’s, no teacher lives a charmed life.  In addition to carrying personal challenges, teachers feel the struggles of their students.  And the profession itself is wrought with struggles.  As a coach, I should reflect on what I know about a teacher’s burden.  And even if I I’m unaware of specific difficulties she faces, if I assume that there are some, I will probably be right.  Reminding myself of this helps me bring my heart to my coaching work.  

I can think about how a teacher’s past informs her present.  In less traumatic terms, this might mean considering initiatives she has been involved with in the past and bearing in mind the outcomes of those initiatives.  It might mean thinking about situations when her teaching has been observed by others: What was the context and what feedback did she get?  Understanding a teacher’s back-story informs our coaching response.

Like the clues I got from noticing Rosine’s unconscious hand-rubbing, during a coaching conversation I can try to be aware of subtle non-verbal messages a teacher is giving. Do her eyes light up when she talks about the STEM activity she did with her class? Does her brow furrow when assessment data is discussed?  Sometimes body language is more telling than words.

Just as Rosine became more open about her struggles when I expressed empathy, an appropriate emotional response from a coach can peel back layers so that we can get at the real work.  For example, understanding the toll of public test scores, relating to the challenge of difficult classroom dynamics, or recognizing the truth that there is never enough time can build a productive affinity.  So can sharing the joy of professional goals met, of student growth, and of personal triumphs.

When I asked Rosine, “How can I serve you?” I was acknowledging that Rosine has her own aspirations. I didn’t come with a checklist for new immigrants. I wanted to speak to her needs.  It was a good reminder that coaches get the most traction when teachers set the direction.  We can then talk specifics, and both of us can walk away with a to-do list.

My intuitive offer to come back with something to put in Rosine’s hands makes me wonder – How can I follow up a coaching conversation with a tangible reminder of my support?  Stopping to think about this reminds me:  I will follow up on a conversation I had with an early-career teacher.  I will lend a book that I thought of after we talked – one that might be just what she is looking for.

My time “mentoring” Rosine today taught me so much!  What a remarkable woman she is!  Rosine has moved to a place that is far different from her home country and is learning to navigate a foreign culture. She speaks four languages, raises seven children, works long hours in harsh conditions, and greets visitors with a smile.  I’ve only spent an hour with her, and I have already learned so much. About humanity, about perseverance, and about mentoring and coaching.

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

Creating a teacher self-care plan:

How to build a positive classroom culture:

Creating a culture of collaboration:

Mirror books for African American Boys:

Transitioning from teacher to coach:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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