Friday, February 21, 2020


I take my work seriously.  Students and learning matter, and this gives me clear focus.  But sometimes my fervor and focus get in the way of my coaching.  My intensity can make me feel less accessible and receptive.  A few years back, I was coached by a colleague about an upcoming meeting.  “You and Susie are both so intense,” he said.  “You can be intimidating.” 

At first I laughed, because Suzie and I are both petite – if we stood on the scales together, we’d barely tip the needle over 200 lbs.  How could two tiny women be intimidating?  But, on further reflection, I knew he was right.  We can both have that fierce gaze that means, “I am not giving up until we get this right!”  And that attribute, unfortunately, could push people away.  I decided this was something I needed to work on.  I needed to be more approachable. 

I started thinking about things I hadn’t thought about before: How I sat in a chair while listening, for example.  Even though a leaning-in posture can say, “I’m paying attention,” it might also feel in-your-face.  So I practiced leaning back and looking relaxed from time to time.  I reminded myself to uncross my arms.  I laid an open hand loosely on the table.  These subtle gestures can make me feel more approachable during one-on-one and group conversations.

When I enter a classroom for an observation, I have to remind myself to keep a smile on my face.  Even though on the inside I am always SO happy to be there, I sometime get so focused on taking everything in that I notice my brow is furrowed.  That sends a signal that I don’t intend!  Teachers (and sometimes students) read that expression as, “Something is wrong here.”  Even when it isn’t.  So I do facial readjustments throughout an observation.

I also try to remember to slide into the classroom rather than striding in.  I don’t want my walk to say that I’m all business.  I don’t want to create a diversion, I want to blend in.  This might seem extreme, but I even think about what shoes I’ll wear, because I don’t want my heels click-clicking as I enter the room or as I wander over to a group of students to listen in on their collaboration.  I don’t want my posture to be too stick-straight, because my bearing could be intimidating.

Until I’ve really established rapport with a teacher, I don’t bring my laptop into her room.  That big, official screen seems to create a barrier and differences in our status.  It does not feel welcoming.  It does not feel pleasant.  Even though I’m much better at capturing all the little details using my keyboard, it’s not worth the hurdle it creates.  At first, I get what data I can with my notebook or iPad. 

This week, I met three preservice teachers who I’ll be spending a lot of time with next month (we are going to Ireland together!).  Before they joined me in my office, I reminded myself to smile a lot.  I put away my big laptop and got out the caramels.  I asked what they are excited about and what advice they had about preparing for the trip, because I hadn’t really had time to think about it yet.  There won’t be much time for rapport-building once we get to Ireland, because we’ll jump right in to working in the school, so I knew I needed a strong start during our 30-minute get-together.  I hope that reminding myself to be approachable got our relationship started on the right foot.  As with all coaching work, positive relationships will be vital.  If you are like me and your intensity sometimes gets in the way of your approachability, paying attention to posture, positioning, and facial expressions can help teachers feel at ease.

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

Using the questions for Learning categories in coaching:

Social-Emotional benefits of 3 common literacy practices:

EdCamp-style PD at your school:

Getting power from having students write to politicians:

A 3-minute listen about why sitting affects teens’ mental health:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Coaching for Development

In last week’s post, I mentioned that I’d just attended the CCIRA Literacy Conference where I had the opportunity to lead two workshops about differentiated coaching. During those sessions, I began by discussing some shared assumptions for successful coaching:

·       We can separate the teaching from the teacher.

·       Practice is something that can be changed, not an indelible part of a teacher’s personality.

·       Professionals have a common body of knowledge and practices.

I described how crucial these assumptions are for two main reasons: 1) If the focus is on the teacher rather than the teaching, the teacher you are working with may feel personally attacked.  2)  If the focus is on the teacher, rather than the teaching, the teacher may see his professional practice as a matter of personality or style, rather than as an understanding of effective practices. 

Those sessions were on Thursday.

On Friday, I attended a session on coaching new teachers, ready to gather additional wisdom about coaching.  I’ll call the presenter Sandy.  One of Sandy’s first slides said this:  “Coach to develop the teacher, not the teaching,”  Of course, that caught my attention.  I knew Sandy was a knowledgeable and experienced coach.  Was she sending the exact opposite message from what I’d preached the day before?  I listened intently, trying to grasp her rationale.

She made an analogy:  “Just like when you’re teaching reading to students,” she said, “You want to teach the reader, not the reading.”  That was all she said on the subject, but it gave me food for thought.

As a literacy coach, I have encouraged teachers not to simply teach the text (novel, play, article, etc.).  The goal is not only to have students understand the themes of Tuck Everlasting, for example.  We also have goals about skills and strategies the reader will develop while reading the book.  Students will, we hope, take these skills and strategies with them as they approach future texts.  I think this is what Sandy meant when she said, “Coach to develop the teacher, not the teaching,”

When we coach, it is not just about making a single lesson better.  By focusing on practices in a specific lesson, we hope to illuminate principles and practices that transcend that single lesson, that will be generalizable to many contexts.  We are not simply coaching for performance, we are also coaching for development. 

Coaching for performance is about fixing a specific problem or building a specific skill.  It is urgent and important and necessary.  But our coaching doesn’t stop there.  When we coach for development, we are cultivating understanding that leads to flexible use of practices and principles.  Coaching for development calls a teacher forward to learn, improve, and grow, rather than simply sorting out a specific situation.  Such a conversation is more rare, but it is also more significant.

When I said, “We can separate the teaching from the teacher,” I was making the case that there is a professional body of knowledge about instruction that guides teachers’ decision-making. I think Sandy would agree.  When Sandy said, “Coach to develop the teacher, not the teaching,” she was suggesting a coaching approach that transcends the specific situation.  I would agree. 

Although our statements at first seemed contradictory, together they make an important claim: By supporting teachers’ understanding of instructional principles and practices, we encourage professional development in the true sense of the word.  That is why coaching is powerful PD. 

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

Reading conferences that give you info. about the reading, rather than the book he is holding:

Questions for co-teachers (including coaches who co-teach):

Ask students to identify word gaps (instead of teacher-selected vocabulary lists):

Three C’s to guide children’s use of screen media (podcast):

How relatedness supports student motivation:

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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Touchstones for Teaching

The notion that beliefs guide actions resonates across decades and communities.  The popular “This I Believe” radio show from the 1950s has morphed into a website by the same name, where people from all over the world share essays describing the core values that guide their lives.

Teachers’ beliefs likewise guide their actions in the classroom, so understanding a teacher’s beliefs about education and instruction can give us touchstones for coaching.  When looking for improvement, connect with a core belief.

How do you peel away the layers and get to a teacher’s core beliefs?  One way is to ask why she became a teacher.  What was her journey?

This week I had the opportunity to hear Gravity Goldberg at the CCIRA literacy conference.  Gravity described a time when learning about a teacher’s journey uncovered core teaching beliefs.  The story made me think more about the centrality of teacher’s beliefs for sustainable change.

Gravity was coaching at a high school with hard-to-reach teachers.  Thankfully, there was a first-year teacher willing to accept Gravity’s support.  It seemed, however, that practices Gravity suggested butted up against recommendations this young teacher was getting from a more-experienced colleague. In an attempt to begin building a relationship with the more-experienced teacher, Gravity asked, “Why did you become a teacher?” 

This veteran teacher was adamant that she wanted students who left her classroom to be prepared for college.  Peeling back another layer, the teacher told of her own experience as a first-generation college student.  With a combination of sadness and determination, she described how her first college paper came back with a D-, red-penned and inscribed, “See me.” The teacher talked about how that conversation unfolded, with the professor asking where she’d attended high school and then proclaiming, “Well, they didn’t prepare you for college!”  This teacher’s response to the shaming was to promise herself that no student she had would leave her classroom unprepared.  Her approach, however, was to do the red marking now so that it could be avoided later. 

Gravity described this conversation not as a magical turning point where the teacher suddenly stopped marking each-and-every-error on student papers.  There was nothing that abrupt.  However, the teacher’s story gave Gravity a touchstone for further conversations. Over time, the teacher recognized that she was perpetuating her own experience with shaming onto her students, and she made some shifts. 

Asking about a teacher’s why – their raison d’être as a teacher – is one way to uncover a teacher’s beliefs.  How else might you guide a conversation to peel back the layers and uncover teaching beliefs?  When might understanding a teacher’s core beliefs be helpful? 

When a teacher seems reluctant to change practices, it may be rooted to a core belief, which may be held implicitly. As the teacher makes that belief explicit, she can intentionally examine whether the belief still hold value for her, and how her practices align or misalign with her beliefs.

As coaches, understanding teachers’ beliefs can help us support them as they bring their practices into alignment with their personal guiding principles.

I started a new Facebook book group for my book, Collaborative Lesson Study.  For a free, downloadable Quickstart Guide to Lesson Study and an invitation to join the closed Facebook group, go here.  Each week between now and March 27 we’ll discuss one chapter (and I’ll add a quick video).  Read or comment as much or as little as you’d like.  

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

The why’s and how’s of including movement in learning:

How Big Bird finds a safe place in his imagination (works for big people, too!):

Using “passion blogging” to teach literary analysis:

Kids thrive in schools where the adults are learning, too:

Podcasting with young students:

That's it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, February 1, 2020

Don’t Compare, Connect!

I’m a proponent of giving teachers the opportunity to get into each other’s classrooms.  Structures like lab visits and lesson study  create an open culture for sharing.  However, sometimes sharing leads to comparing, and that can be toxic.

Problems with Comparison

Perhaps it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others.  Comparison seems to give us a yardstick for how we are doing.  However, no two situations are the same.  Schools are complex environments that don’t create level playing fields.  Teachers may beat themselves up for not working hard enough if they compare themselves unfavorably to others, even when hard work couldn’t make up the difference.  

Comparison is unhealthy when it’s a self-to-other comparison.  Even if a teacher compares and finds herself the “better” teacher, no one wins.  Mental arithmetic that pits teacher against teacher using comparatives and superlatives depletes teams of the energy needed for their joint work.  Better, best, worse, and worst are energy-draining words that create a demoralizing contest.

Comparisons turn allies into rivals.  When teachers use other teachers as benchmarks to evaluate themselves, it’s hard to avoid envy and to celebrate and learn from the good others do. 

Healthier Comparisons

If comparisons come up in one-on-one coaching sessions, it can be helpful to initially redirect a conversation to strengths and successes. It’s impossible to be best at everything, but everyone has teaching talents and past successes that can be remembered.  Specific affirmations (that don’t compare to others) can help a comparing conversation take a more constructive course.  What we’re good at can lead to appropriate goals.

Reflecting on practices within one’s own teaching can lead to helpful targets for improvement.  Helping teachers focus on one instructional feature in past, present, and future lessons is a healthy comparison.  When teachers thoughtfully compete against their past selves, they are likely to win – and wins are measured in instructional improvement, not personal attributes.  Having a clear idea of what they have been doing, what they are now doing, and what they hope to do can help teachers take realistic steps toward reaching their goals.

How Connections Help

So what is the role of peer observation and collaboration?  How can we invite teachers to connect without promoting unhealthy comparison? 

One benefit of observation is the new perspective provided.  When a teacher determines a very narrow focus for observation, watching becomes an exercise in learning about a practice rather than making unhelpful personal comparisons.  Your comments as a coach can encourage teachers to be observant and thoughtful rather than judgmental. 

When meeting with a teaching team, we can encourage this kind of helpful conversation by modeling concrete descriptions of what was observed. Although you will sometimes talk about what you saw and heard the teacher do, it can be helpful to focus on students’ responses (rather than what the teacher was doing) during a post-observation conversation.  Insights about how students responded to the lesson will guide instructional improvement.

Encouraging teachers to ask one another for recommendations sends a message that we are all in this together.  When teachers move from self-comparison to connection, everyone benefits. As success builds on success, teachers can achieve their individual instructional goals.  Colleagues who support one another create ongoing upward movement.  Teacher collaboration is an example of the Quaker proverb: “Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee and we’ll ascend together.”

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

Books and ideas about bravery:

Lots of great tips for promoting your coaching role:

Evaluating tasks for higher-order thinking (read or listen here):

Are teachers you work with struggling with negative emotions?  Here’s some constructive support:

Tips for Peaceful Classrooms:

This week we started a Facebook group study of my book, Collaborative Lesson Study.  For a free, downloadable Quickstart Guide to Lesson Study and an invitation to join the closed Facebook group, go here.  Each week between now and March 27 we’ll discuss one chapter (and I’ll add a quick video).  Read or comment as much or as little as you’d like.  

That’s all for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, January 24, 2020


Why can two coaches use exactly the same approaches and protocols and have different results?  I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve observed coaches who have varying degrees of success.  In doing so, I’ve recognized that protocols and structures are important, but there are personal attributes that can make a difference between a successful coach and an unsuccessful one.  The good news is, these attributes can be cultivated.

One important attribute is humility.  How do you know if you’re humble enough?  At the risk of being too proud, I’ll tell you two stories about when my humility gained important attention and respect. 

Two summers ago, I had the chance to go to China and teach a children’s writing camp.  It was an awesome experience!  The children, of course, after they got over their surprise, treated me just like they would treat another teacher.  But for the adults, it was different.  I have to admit, I didn’t mind being treated like royalty!  Everyone wanted to make sure their international visitor was having a good experience.  Well, that was nice, but I tried not to let it go to my head.

One day, we did a really messy lesson where students earned frosting and decorations for their sugar cookies based on how descriptive their writing was.  We hurried to finish up before students left for the day, and afterwards there was quite a sticky mess!  There were four student teachers and one university professor (the hostess for my trip) who all began gathering and cleaning.  I grabbed some frosting covered trays, headed to the sink, and started scrubbing.  My back was to the others as I cleaned the trays, but I heard whispering and turned my head to see the student teachers tipping their heads together and murmuring to one another. Their professor had her phone out and was taking a picture – of me.  I wondered what was up and was a little self-conscious, but I turned back to the sink and kept scrubbing.

Later, when we met to debrief the day, the professor held up her phone with the photo of me.  She said to her student teachers, “This is what I want you to understand.  See how Vicki serves?”  The fact that I did not sit there and watch them clean up, but pitched in and helped, made them all more ready to learn as we continued our work together.

A similar experience occurred when I was working as a district literacy coordinator and was assigned to support teachers at a school that had just been labeled, “Turnaround,” meaning that if they didn’t turn things around, they’d be taken over.  Needless to say, it was a tense environment!  When I showed up for the first meeting, Ellen, the instructional coach, welcomed me from atop a folding chair, where she was putting up a bulletin board border. “What can I do to help?” I asked, knowing, like she did, that the superintendent would be making a “surprise” visit in about an hour.  Between the two of us, we quickly finished the bulletin board, stapling up statements of district and school goals to greet school visitors.  I noticed several teachers pause in their treks down the hall and look up at me, questioning.  Later, Mary Ellen told me, “You won a lot of trust that way.”  Rolling up my sleeves and stapling a few papers before the superintendent’s visit helped teachers feel that I was on their side, working with them, not on them.

The gist of being humble is how you position yourself.  Side by side works better than directing from above.  This is true both literally and metaphorically.  If I stand in front of the screen while teachers are sitting at the table, I’m not taking a humble stance.  If I hold my ideas above those of others, I might be a bit arrogant. 

Oh, yes – and don’t be too proud about your humility!  😊   Just when you think, “I’m there, I’m humble!” you may start to feel a bit too good about yourself for it to actually be true.  That’s why this is such a tricky attribute to maintain!

Coaches are often hired because they have extensive knowledge and experience. But the truly wise coach will recognize that keeping her ego in check is necessary for developing and sustaining coaching relationships.  It’s wonderful to be confident about what we bring to the table, but we must always acknowledge that others bring valid and valuable knowledge and experience, and coaching is a learning journey we undertake together.

Attributes like humility can make or break a coach’s work, even if she has all the right procedures in place.  I’m working to grow these attributes myself, and I hope sharing these ideas will support you on your own personal journey.

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

Supporting healthy reflection:

The case for independent reading:

Preserving teachers, preventing burnout:

Why gamification is worth considering as an instructional approach:

Storifying social-emotional learning (the article specifies the EL classroom, but the ideas work all around):


I’m starting a new Facebook book group for my book, Collaborative Lesson Study.  For a free, downloadable Quickstart Guide to Lesson Study and an invitation to join the closed Facebook group, go here.  Each week between Jan. 27 and March 27 we’ll discuss one chapter (and I’ll add a quick video).  Read or comment as much or as little as you’d like.  

That’s all for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Making the Strange Familiar

Hue and Jinn are international doctoral students who, through what I would call a strange turn of events, were teaching a university Introduction to Education course.  Although neither of them had teaching experience, they had a lifetime apprenticeship in education as students in their own countries, Vietnam and China.  You might not be surprised to hear that the cultural expectations for instruction in these countries are quite different from those in the US.  Although this situation sounds like a recipe for disaster, it turned into a remarkable learning experience for Hue, Jinn, their students, and the fabulous coach who supported them during this experience.

There were certainly challenges for Hue and Jinn.  Because the educational norms in this new context were so different, Jinn said, “It was a culture shock all the time.”  When she described teaching in this new setting, she said, “It’s like walking out of your comfort zone.”  This situation created cognitive dissonance, a situation involving conflicting behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs.

Do the teachers you work with sometimes feel they are walking out of their comfort zone as they try new practices?  How does the support you provide as a coach help what feels strange to become familiar?

Hue said, “There are times when I think this is a problem, but it might not be so, and another area needs attention instead.”  Because her norms for what instruction should look and sound like differed from those in her new setting, she felt she was sometimes blind to things that needed changing.  How do you shine the light from a different angle to illuminate what really needs attention in classrooms where you coach?

Jennifer, who was coaching these teachers, used the tools of the GIR model as they worked together.  As they planned together, she made recommendations.  Maybe we should print another copy of the assignment so that they have a physical copy as they listen,” she suggested.  Using the tentative maybe left the plan open for Jinn and Hue to consider.  

Jennifer modeled a lesson, and Hue said, “I watched you and it helped me…I observed your class and how you taught.”  Jinn noticed differences between Jennifer’s instruction and the experiences she’d had as a student in China.  She noticed how Jennifer encouraged student discussion and wanted to weave this into her own class.

During the debrief conversation, as they considered revisions for the lesson, Jennifer asked questions.  “How should we revise this activity to clarify?”  “Should we scrap the two questions?”  Her use of the word we signified their collaborative process and empowered Hue and Jinn as decision makers, even though they lacked experience in this context. 

Reviewing student work with Hue and Jinn after they had taught a lesson, Jennifer affirmed, “I think the feedback from the 2+2 shows me that how you structured this activity really worked!”  Her enthusiasm helped them gain confidence with strategies that were alien to their own previous learning experiences,

During the coaching cycle, Jennifer sometimes created cognitive dissonance for these two teachers.  She drew their attention to aspects of instruction that they hadn’t noticed because they had different assumptions about what should be happening in a classroom.  She made the familiar strange.

More importantly, Jennifer was able to make the strange familiar.  Modeling and thoughtful conversation helped Jinn and Hue gain confidence with new strategies.  Confusion turned to understanding as they resolved friction between their own previous experiences and the expectations in this new context.  Honest inquiry led to transformative learning for these two teachers.

How might making the familiar strange benefit the teachers you work with?  How could you make that happen?  Sometimes, getting out of the teacher mode and into the observer mode when a coach models is enough to shift perspectives.  Watching a video of themselves teach is another way to make the familiar strange.  What else might you try?

Once awareness increases, how can you make the strange familiar so that teachers’ confidence increases?  When teachers try a new practice or a different learning tool, a close look at student work can help them see the impact and create resolve for change.

Even though the situation with Hue and Jinn is strange (different from the teachers you are supporting), the coaching elements are familiar.  I hope that reading about their experiences demonstrates how making the strange familiar can lead to new insights, and I hope it heightens awareness of the benefits of these coaching tools.

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

Teaming with parents for social-emotional learning:

Change is always voluntary:

How the easy-to-implement tradition of Writing Wednesdays built a community:

More ways to use graphic organizers:

Coaching for increased classroom discussion (during math):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Agree to Disagree?

Today I had the interesting opportunity of watching three Japanese teachers argue about a lesson.  Although there were occasional smiles and nodding heads, there was also energetic debate.  This struck me, especially, since one of the things I’ve noticed during my first week in Japan is how respectful and quiet the culture is (you’re even asked to put your phone on “manners” mode in the subway).  But that didn’t stop a healthy disagreement when debriefing a lesson about subtraction.

During the lesson, third-grade students were asked to use the digits 1-4 and come up with the minimum difference in a two-digit subtraction equation.  The problem on the board looked like this:

And they had these number cards to use:

The teacher took an inductive approach, having students generate lots of possible equations and then looking at what they noticed.  Then they expanded the problem to three digits and had another go. 

During the debrief, the heated discussion was whether the strategy should have been more clearly articulated before moving on to the three-digit problem.  The coach and one teacher thought so; the teacher who had taught the lesson did not.  It reminded me of the many discussions about scaffolding I’ve had with teachers over the years.  (I side with the teacher gave students plenty of time to figure out the pattern on their own and with peers, rather than the ones who wanted to be sure everyone understood an algorithm before moving on.) 

This question about scaffolding seems to creep up in every content area.  How many hints do you give? How much do you model?  How explicit does the graphic organizer need to be?  Sometimes we feel like Goldilocks, searching for the “just right” solution.  And it could be that there is more than one just right.

In the debate amongst Japanese educators, it was interesting to hear one of the teachers say, “Well, maybe that was the right thing for this group of students.” He seemed to concede that, even though he was having a heated debate about the best way to do it, there was actually more than one best way.  And the argument stirred up some important justifications for their varied ideas.

I remember how the gray-bearded Russian professor who taught me Vygotsky’s theories would longingly describe the philosophical arguments that occurred among Vygotsky and his peers.  “No one here in the U.S. will argue like that with me,” he said.  “Not even my wife” (who happened to be another professor in the department).

Although there’s certainly plenty of argument occurring in the U.S., what seems to be lacking is civil discourse.  Maybe we could model this in our educational conversations. When we agree to respectfully disagree during team meetings and debrief conversations, our arguments might uncover important insights that will guide instruction.

Our culture doesn’t seem to be too good at this kind of disagreement. What do you think you could do to support healthy instructional discussions that don’t skirt around points of disagreement?  How could you create a conversational culture where it’s okay to express a divergent opinion?  Change doesn’t happen when everyone agrees with the status quo.  Supporting open conversation is important to instructional improvement.

p.s.  The answer to the above subtraction puzzle described above is the same no matter which four consecutive digits are used!

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

The ABC’s of feedback:

The importance of sharing correct examples (rather than having students spot the mistake):

Sharable articles on the research that should guide literacy instruction:

5 Steps for Teacher Self-Care:

Maybe we could take some ideas from this business article about why we should disagree more at work:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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