Friday, November 15, 2019

Top It Off

Last week’s post talked about finding the raw materials to help teachers go from good to great.  But the journey from good to great is not just for teachers – it is for coaches, too! 

This week, I participated in a group process for creating a school vision.  After several rounds of writing and combining ideas individually, in pairs, and in small groups, we were ready to take it to the next level and look at the ideas from everyone in the room using a process similar to affinity mapping.  Our facilitator said, “Find the person in your group who really likes to group things and look for patterns.  If that’s you, tell your group so.”  As soon as she said those words, I knew I should step forward.  She was describing something I LOVE to do.  This may sound crazy, but I got excited about the possibility, so I volunteer myself to be our small group’s delegate for the assignment.  Looking for commonalities was my nerdy kind of fun.  Here’s how it ended up:

(Of course, this isn’t the end of the vision-creation process, but it was an important step along the way.)

In this scenario, I recognized my own strength.  Now, how do I use it in my coaching role?  One thing I do, when working with a group of teachers, is look at observation data and find patterns there.  What can we celebrate as a strength of the team?  What is an area where we are all good and could be GREAT?  Finding ways to put my pattern-seeking strength to work can also help me improve as a coach.  Our talents are our greatest asset.

A cool thing about finding the good things and building on them is that we usually love doing what we are good at.  It’s what you volunteer for and circle back to whenever you can.  Ask yourself:  When do I feel spikes of enthusiasm?  When does my energy flow?  What do others tell me I are good at? What seems easy for me, but others complain about doing it?  Once you are aware of your genius, you are able to use it more intentionally, and this can take you from good to great.  Pause…just for a moment….and think of something you are good at.  When you top off a strength, you are wisely investing your energy.

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

Results and resources of coaching:

Involving or empowering teachers?  Listen in:

Using reading notebook covers for reflection and goal-setting:

The case for active learning:

The benefits of having to cope with a little mess:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Raw Material for Greatness

Marcus Buckingham, in a podcast called “9 Lies about Work,”* described the importance of building on the good things that are happening on the job.  "Your current goodness is the raw material for your greatness," he said.  Those words resonated with me because of my work in instructional coaching.  Affirming and praising are the final phases of the research-developed GIR coaching model, but they are important coaching moves all along the way. 

When you have a chance to talk with teachers after observing instruction, be sure to notice things that went well.  Some of these were probably preplanned, but other successes became apparent during the unfolding of the lesson.  Highlighting what went well can move it from good to great!

While observing a third grade math lesson, I noticed that as students discussed the process they used to solve a fractions problem, it helped them to correct errors, especially when students asked their peers clarifying questions.  Emphasizing this effective aspect of the lesson encouraged the teacher to include another step in the instructions for small-group work.  After a group member described how they solved the problem, students were encouraged to:  “Ask questions about what they did.”  Making this step a more explicit part of the process increased opportunities for students to listen to and learn from one another.  It took something that went well during the lesson and made it even better!  Students found success as they worked a problem independently and then shared their process with others in their small group.

When we lift something from the lesson that went well and hold it up for examination, we increase the chances that it will happen again. Noticing and naming successes settles them in our brains so that we can call them up again when the situation warrants. Our teaching toolkits get bigger.

As you observe a lesson, you can find many things that went right. Celebrate successes!  The debrief conversation provides a space to unpack experience and think about both the observable and the inner work of teaching. Teaching is complex and messy because teachers and their students are unique.   Aspects of instruction that work in a teacher’s classroom context are the raw materials for making instruction even better!

You can read more about retaining successes in my book, Collaborative Lesson Study, which is now two months old. J  I loved making this book for teachers and hope you’ll love reading it!  It’s available here (20% discount code is TCP2019). 

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

Self-management vs. classroom management:

What are they doing right with education in Finland?  Listen up:

New research supports a growth mindset. Here are some tips:

Having courage for difficult conversations:

Allington’s summary of research-based practices for reading instruction. A must to read and share:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, November 1, 2019

Not all Pumpkins Turn Into Coaches

During this harvest season, images of pumpkins are everywhere, looking golden and ripe.  Some of these round beauties met their demise yesterday, turning into Jack-o-Lanterns.  I was reminded of this makeover in an advertising email with the heading, “Not all pumpkins turn into coaches!”  That got me thinking about the Cinderella story and her magically-transformed pumpkin-coach – the coach that carried her to the fortuitous ball. 

Coaches of the Cinderella variety are conveyances that carry people to where they want to go.  Costa & Garmston use this as a metaphor for instructional coaching, saying, “To coach means to convey a valued colleague from where he or she is to where he or she wants to be.”  It’s a useful metaphor, but, like all metaphors, it’s faulty if we take it too far.  I don’t like the carriage image that implies carrying someone along.  When coaching, I hope to support teachers as they refine perceptions and processes so that they are carrying themselves.

How do we turn into the kind of coach who invites, moves, and empowers teachers?  For me, it’s an ongoing transformation.  I’m moving, too, trying to get better at my craft while I help teachers improve theirs. 

Something I’m continually thinking about is how to offer the right amount of support – not too little, not too much…just right!  The GIR model creates a kind of path for this, for thinking about how to build capacity by making sure teachers have ownership for the process. 

I’ve had enough experience to know that sometimes a recommendation is just what is needed – I take a consulting role.  But I’ve noticed that sometimes my recommendations are perceived as directives.  It’s difficult, when sitting in the coach’s seat, to ensure that the teacher maintains ownership for instructional decisions.  I don’t want my suggestions to curb others’ thinking.  I don’t want to save the day; I want to make sure they do.

Through recommendations, I want to invest in teachers, not divest them.  I want to infuse ideas that build their genius, not rob them of the opportunity to use and extend their own intelligence.  I want my recommendations to encourage teachers to use their talent, expertise, and experience.  I want to support a teacher’s ability to solve and avoid problems.  I want to contribute a relevant insight that will move the teacher forward.  All this while acknowledging that the teacher knows his students and their needs, that he has insights gained from first-hand experience that will help him make good decisions.  I want to get involved in the details in appropriate ways while keeping the ownership with the teacher.  It is sometimes hard to know when to talk and when to stop.

For me, a writer’s workshop analogy helps me remember about positions of power.  As I confer with students, I have to resist the urge to put a mark to the child’s page.  If I really want to support her writing growth, the pencil has to stay in her hand.  We can talk about craft, but she is the one who will choose how to use it in her writing.  Similarly, as a coach, I sometimes recommend, but the pen must stay in the teachers’ hand (metaphorically) if I want her to convey herself to where she wants to be as a teacher.  She decides how to apply the craft.

As the harvest season moves on and I see more images for pumpkin transformations (pie, anyone?), I’ll use that as a cue to do a coaching self-check: Who has the pen? Who has the power?  Is my coaching helping the teacher move along a path she has chosen?  I hope you’ll join me in the magical transformation of becoming a better coach.

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

This post is about more than classroom management; consider how the conversation with teachers was facilitated (they include their agenda at the end):

Showing appreciation for peers’ contributions:

Free, online, non-fiction text sets:

Structures to create a coaching culture:

Try 6 Ed Tech tools recommended in this Cult of Pedagogy podcast episode:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, October 26, 2019


When I take my three-year-old grandson home from a visit, his part of the conversation goes something like this:  Why are the windshield wipers on? Why is it raining?  Why are we turning this way? Why are you driving slow?  Why are you driving fast?  You get the picture.  Clearly, he has learned the power of the word why. 

Although most of us have lost the incessant curiosity of a three-year-old, as coaches it might be helpful for us to use the word why more often.  When questions are at the core of our thinking, we can engage the intellectual curiosity of the teachers we are working with.

That’s what Andi did when working with a group of high-school English teachers.  With the ACT test coming up for their juniors, test prep was on their minds.  They had identified grammar and punctuation rules as an area of need based on previous assessment data and evidence from student work.  A conversation grew around Andi’s questions: “What is the overall goal you want to achieve regarding punctuation?” and “Why is it important for them to understand punctuation or at least how to use it?”

Liz responded that, “They need to know how to be clear,” and Cherie followed up with, “Well, they need to know how to write when they go to college.”  Andi’s questions helped teachers extend their focus from a narrow goal of doing well on the upcoming test to one with broader application.  

As they planned a lesson with this purpose in mind, Andi again asked questions.  When they discussed how students’ Native American cultural heritage meant that speaking out in class might press against cultural norms, Andi asked, “By what other means might they show they understand what you are teaching them besides answering aloud?”  Through discussion, they ended up planning an effective, interactive lesson where students worked collaboratively in small groups, moving from station to station to create sentences with varied structure and punctuation from strips with words and phrases.  Andi’s questions supported design of a lesson that was culturally appropriate, authentically purposeful, and highly engaging for students.

Andi’s questions challenged teachers to find a better way than the worksheets they had previously used for grammar instruction.  Teachers were engaged and intrigued.  They had energy for the task because they were curious.  Andi’s questions encouraged them not only to think, but to rethink what they had done previously when teaching grammar.  Her questions generated collective learning.

Teachers will give their full effort when coaches ask questions and challenge them to find answers, rather than when we tell them what to do.  Asking question shifts the thinking to teachers, creating energy and intelligence.  Teachers are interested and immersed in the work.

As you take up the role of questioner, be careful not to generate both the questions and the answers.  A poor questioner asks only questions he already knows the answers to.  His questions feel like a test of other people’s knowledge.  A good questioner opens a genuine inquiry.  Coaches don’t have to spread their intelligence across both asking questions and finding all the answers.  Recognizing that we don’t have to have all the answers frees us to ask the really hard, thought-provoking questions – the kind that will lead a teacher or team through rich inquiry.

Asking good questions creates a vacuum that needs to be filled: there is space between what we know and what we need to know, what we can currently do and what we need to be able to do.  Closing that space requires effort and action.  The positive tension that is created raises the motivation for figuring it out.

When you ask a question, you may already have an opinion about the topic.  But bite your tongue and be ready to listen more than you speak.  The one who does the talking does the learning (true in the classroom and in coaching!).  When we tell less and ask more, teachers’ contributions may surpass even what they thought they had to give.  Being challenged, and rising to that challenge, is a rewarding experience.

When coaches focus the good minds of teachers in important inquiry, together we can figure out how to meet students’ needs.  Probably the most important role we can play as coaches is focusing on the right issues and asking the right questions.  

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

3 Ways to More “Aha” Moments in Coaching:

A great conversation about dealing with distraction:

A list of suggestions for establishing positive relationships with parents:

A podcast on norms that can lead to teacher burnout:

This video about singing in science (ideas applicable for any subject!):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Extreme Question Challenge

Asking questions is the pivotal coaching move – the shift that takes us from a consulting to a cognitively-challenging stance.  It’s the central move in the GIR model.  Yet, time and again, coaches tell me it’s the hardest shift to make along the Gradual Increase of Responsibility model for coaching.  It can be difficult to break the habit of making recommendations, even when teachers we are working with don’t need them.

As I read about the “Extreme Question Challenge,” in Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers, I couldn’t help but make a coaching connection and think about how the challenge might help coaches make a difficult shift.  Liz describes a time when she was complaining to a colleague about how, at home, she had become “the bossy mom,” constantly barking orders and telling her kids what to do.  Her colleague offered an interesting challenge: “Try speaking to your children only in the form of questions. No statements, no directives, no orders. Just questions.” Although the idea at first seemed ludicrous, Liz decided to give it a try for one evening. As the dreaded bedtime routine rolled around, Liz asked, “What time is it?” One child responded, “It’s bedtime.” “What do we do when we get ready for bed?” Liz asked.  Liz’s children responded to all of her questions, leading themselves through the bedtime routine that was typically such a struggle. 

Liz said she was shocked and wondered, “What has happened to my children? How long have they known how to do this?”  She kept up the experiment for a couple of days before returning to more normal conversational patterns.  Liz said she discovered her kids knew how to do a lot more things than she had thought.

Impressed by this revelation, she decided to try the experiment with the business team she managed.  Liz reported that she found her team to be even smarter than she previously thought!  She realized they didn’t need her to tell them what to do, but, rather, they needed her to ask them intelligent questions.

So, what do you think?  Are you ready to try the Extreme Question Challenge in coaching?  To force a change in habit, you could make a short-term, 100% commitment.  Try it for one meeting.  If you think the shift in conversational pattern might seem abrupt or strange to teachers, tell them you are experimenting with your coaching role.  Then go for it and see what happens!  As the teachers you are working with take up the increased intellectual challenge, it’s likely there will be greater collective learning – for the teachers and for you! 

Once a coach accepts that she doesn’t have to have all the answers, she is free to ask bigger questions.  Together, you and the teachers you are coaching can figure out things you don’t yet know.  Full effort comes when people see a challenge they can respond to.  Brains will be stretched as you each reach for the next inquiry and response.  

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

Three ways to manage a chatty classroom:

Why kids need play:

Play is good for adults, too:

How to stay in the profession:

5 essentials for coaching success:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Working with “Pumpkin Patch Teachers”

In honor of October, I’m reposting “Working with ‘Pumpkin Patch Teachers,'" the post that went viral in October 2016.  It’s my most-read post of all time! 

Are you working with a teacher who is desperately hanging on to old ways of doing things? Jennifer Schwanke calls these teachers “Pumpkin Patch Teachers,” referencing a social studies teacher she knew who, every year around Halloween, made each student buy a pumpkin and dress it up as a character from American history…..even after American history was no longer part of her grade level standards. The project should have disappeared, but didn’t, because it was fun, easy, and enjoyed by both the teacher and her students.

Working with Pumpkin Patch teachers can be discouraging. Over the years I’ve noticed a few coaching strategies that encourage reluctant teachers to embrace innovation—or at least try something new! Here are a few ideas you might consider when working with reluctant teachers:

I frequently espouse the merits of modeling, and this coaching move can encourage change with teachers who are highly-invested in the status quo. Seeing a strategy work, especially in her own class with her own students, can nudge a teacher in a new direction.

Providing opportunities for peers to share ideas with one another about implementing a new strategy can also be helpful. Sometimes hearing about something in a slightly different way makes it resonate. And colleagues often share similar contexts and concerns, making their insights especially helpful.

Finding a way to provide resources can also move the change process along. What teacher doesn’t like new stuff for her classroom? Beg, borrow, and reallocate to get materials into the hands of reluctant teachers. Then review the new resources with the teacher so they don’t end up gathering dust on a shelf.

Offer time. That is one thing teachers never have enough of. For hard-to-reach teachers, covering her class (by teaching yourself or, better yet, arranging for a sub) can give the teacher time to plan for implementing new ideas. If you are not able to be with the teacher during this released time, provide structures that will support planning, and then follow up.

Asking questions can provide a segue into non-threatening suggestions. If you observe, ask questions afterward about instructional decisions. The teacher’s responses will give you insight about her purposes and open opportunities for offering recommendations in ways that are more likely to be welcomed.

Offer support. “Would you like me to look for resources for you?” “Do you have a unit coming up that you’d like help revising?” Specific offers of help are less likely to be turned away than more general overtures.

Pumpkin patch teachers may require some extra effort on the front end, but with support they’re likely to become just as loyal to the new ideas as they were to the old!

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

Praising the process and goal-setting to develop a growth mindset:

This is a long but important article about how educators talk to parents. Scroll down to the “we have to” section that starts with the bolded: Drop the Educational Lingo. Share #1, #2, & #4 before parent teacher conferences. Please!

Reports and blogs on the National Day on Writing will inspire you to inspire others:

Making sure asking: “Does it make sense?” makes sense:

That’s it for this week. Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, October 5, 2019

Notice & Name

In his book, Choice Words, Peter Johnston (2004) reminds teachers to help students observe closely and look for patterns, noticing and naming what they see. Johnston suggests that this practice invites students to make sense of information.  The same practice can be applied with teachers during a coaching conversation.  By noticing and naming features of a lesson, we support effective instruction.

Our noticings can include recognition of the different ways students responded during the lesson.  Encourage the teacher you are working with to describe something he saw or heard and tell why it matters, and you can do the same. Using the sentence stem, “I saw” or “I heard” can keep the conversation focused on evidence of student learning.  Connecting these noticings to statements of importance (What did I notice and why does this matter?) helps us link our noticings to practice.   For example, we might notice, “I saw that when students were standing up around their table during the small group work, they moved the manipulatives more.”  Our “Why does this matter?” might be: “Students are more interactive when they are standing.” These statements of importance require us to make inferences. Our noticings about student learning usually signal aspects of effective instruction that transcend the specific lesson – generalizable take-aways that the teacher can use again and again.  Asking, “Why does it matter?” also helps us develop beliefs based on these conclusions, and we determine future actions that seem right based on our beliefs.

As coaches, we can also notice and name the brilliant things teachers do.  As we watch teachers at work, we can find their individual genius and label it.  When we think about what the teacher seems to do well almost without effort, we have identified an area of brilliance!  For example, Sarah is a first-grade teacher who listens carefully to student responses and uses those responses to build students’ understanding.  When I mentioned this to Sarah, she smiled shyly and was humbly pleased, but surprised!  Sometimes areas of strength come so automatically that teachers may not even be aware of their own genius.  By shining a spotlight on things the teacher does well, we build their confidence and encourage more of the same.  Even better if we can name these attributes around their colleagues, who then know where to turn with questions about the practice.

By noticing and naming what is working for students and teachers, we build on successes and improve instruction!

Reflecting with teachers is something I’m passionate about!  You can read more about it in my book, Collaborative Lesson Study, which is now 1 month old.  J  It’s available here (20% discount code is TCP2019).  If you’d like to join the free Facebook book club for the book, click here. 

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

This TeachThought podcast where I talk about Lesson Study and how it values teachers and teaching:

A video about using peer teaching to review homework and build students’ understanding:

Why books, and the conversations about them, matter:

How movement and exercise support learning:

Scroll down for 7 student engagement strategies (even though it says for reading instruction, these apply generally):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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