Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why the resistance?

When I became an instructional coach, eager and energetic and ready to change the world, I thought everyone would welcome me with open arms into their classrooms. After all, I was a classroom teacher too, just like them, and I was bursting with ideas to share. So I was understandably dismayed when no one came banging on my door begging me to come help them set up their room or read to their class or plan for their first writing unit. Some teachers were even actively resistant, turning down my offers with “thanks but no thanks” and a wan smile.

I was soon to learn that every coach deals at some point with resistant teachers. Many coaches have it even worse than I did, with folks who are outright rude about their desire to be left alone. Sometimes this resistance is due to the way coaching was explained to the staff – if teachers have the misunderstanding that the coach is there to “fix” them, or if in the past they’ve only known coaches to work with struggling teachers assigned to them by the principal, then they are understandably resistant to working with the coach themselves. Working with the coach then becomes an admission of incompetence.

But even if the idea of instructional coaching has been introduced positively to faculty members, coaches still often encounter resistant teachers. These are the teachers who sit inattentively in the back of professional learning meetings, if they attend at all, and then return to their classrooms to teach the way they’ve always taught. The temptation is to label them “afraid of change” or “set in their ways” and to inwardly feel like a failure every time you walk by their room.

However, in Jim Knight’s book “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction”, he argues that may be the wrong perspective. Teachers are among the professions he calls “knowledge workers” and have a deep-seated need for autonomy. Knight quotes Thomas Davenport, an expert on knowledge workers:

One important aspect of knowledge workers is that they don’t like to be told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

People who think for a living. When I read that for the first time, a metaphorical bell went off in my head. Of COURSE that’s why some teachers are resistant to unsolicited suggestions or interruptions in their carefully planned day. Because teaching is about thinking, any unsolicited comment can become a judgment on the teacher’s thinking. Even something as simple as beginning a “no fake reading” campaign in every classroom can become, to some teachers, a judgment on the worth of their prior instruction.

The key, then, is to create a nonthreatening coaching partnership with the faculty so that when the classroom teacher encounters a difficult situation in her teaching – a hole in her “intellectual territory” so to speak – she feels comfortable asking the coach for suggestions. This requires that the coach respect the teacher’s need for autonomy and choice. Many times this is easy, because most highly-effective teachers are also highly reflective, and are constantly searching for new and better ways to reach their students. I find that the best teachers are often the hardest on themselves, and they are the ones always asking me for more and better strategies for reaching those puzzling students that keep them up at night.

Resistant teachers are not necessarily resistant to new ideas – they’re resistant to feeling as if their prior ideas and experience have no value.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Drop-in Discomfort

Of all the things I do as an instructional coach, there’s one that has made me so uncomfortable that I can no longer bring myself to do it. That unpleasant task is making unannounced drop-in visits to teachers’ classrooms. My first two years as a coach I tried it, because for some reason I thought it was part of the job, but each time I felt uncomfortable and unnatural while visiting. I could never put my finger on exactly why it didn’t feel right, but one thing I’ve learned in life is to trust my gut instinct first, and analyze it later. I’m still analyzing this one.

As a classroom teacher myself, I never had an instructional coach just “drop in” to my classroom. If she visited, it was because I’d asked her to read with a child or help me model a book talk or help me analyze a problem with a lesson. My principal, on the other hand, regularly dropped in to squat next to a child and ask what he was learning about (invariably, she’d always ask the one clueless child, who had no idea of the point of the lesson. I quickly learned to seat the highly verbal, attentive children near the doorway). It made sense to me for my principal to drop in - I knew it was her job to check in on students and make sure that I was teaching well. I received my evaluations from her, and she had the responsibility of the entire school resting on her shoulders. From these “check-in” visits by my principal I got the same idea many teachers have – anyone who comes by unannounced just to visit is there for supervisory purposes.

It wasn’t until I began reading Jim Knight’s “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction” that I found evidence for why my discomfort with drop-ins might be justified. Jim argues that the coaching-teacher relationship should act as an equal partnership. The coach is a colleague and peer of the classroom teacher – not necessarily the “expert”, and certainly not a supervisor or the “program police”, there to ensure that teachers are correctly using district-bought materials. The coach is a fellow teacher whose job it is to provide time and space for reflection about teaching practice. Together, the coach and teacher act as partners to address whatever issues the teacher identifies. Coaching works best if the classroom teacher is a willing participant and the instigator of the partnership with the coach. Oftentimes coaches are asked by principals to work with teachers, but those situations are rarely as successful because of the sense that the coach as been “assigned” to help. Choice is an important aspect of the coaching-teacher partnership.

And I suppose that’s why I’m uncomfortable with dropping into classrooms – there’s no choice in that act on the part of the teacher. Anytime someone drops into a classroom our prior baggage in the field of education tells us that the person dropping in is evaluating us, however earnestly they may deny it. It’s immediately thought of as a supervisory behavior. And it’s not a behavior that equal partners do to each other. How many of your fellow teachers drop in unannounced to your classroom with no agenda but to just listen to your lesson, talk with your students, and surreptitiously see how your teaching’s going?

Of course, there are times when visits do feel more natural – mostly when they’re announced and agreed upon ahead of time. I feel much more comfortable if, for instance, we’ve been focusing our professional learning for the past few weeks on tying literacy centers to standards and we have come to an agreement as a group on what that should look like in our classrooms. After a period of time I can tell teachers I’ll be visiting to see how our professional learning has impacted procedures in classrooms according to our agreed-upon criteria. If I ask them to email me with specific things they’d like me to look for while I visit, then I’ve reintroduced the element of choice, and it becomes a two-sided conversation about our practice, rather than a one-sided drop-in that hints of supervision.

The coaching partnership should be a dialogue, where both parties have a voice. Voice and choice are perhaps the heart of coaching.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Rocks and Sand of Coaching

If there’s one thing I hear more than anything else from other instructional coaches, it’s the frustration with the multitude of tasks competing for our time and the struggle to find the time to get everything done that we need to. So many coaches, myself included, look back on periods of time (the past week, month, day) and wonder what, exactly, we accomplished for all the energy that we expended.

Despite our district having a clearly defined evaluation tool that outlines the expectations for our job, coaches often end up spreading themselves an inch deep and a mile wide. It’s as if the evaluation tool is considered a “minimum bar”, similar to the “recommended passenger limit” on a subway car, and the school faculty or administration are the uniformed people on Japanese subways pushing “just one more” passenger in until the doors almost burst from overload. Many coaches around the country are doing tasks that stretch the definition of coach: substituting when subs cannot be found, helping at field day, providing interventions or enrichment activities for students, copying papers for teachers, or creating master schedules.

Somehow, we’ve got to figure out how to prioritize what’s most important for coaches to be doing. It reminds me of a metaphor I once saw for prioritizing the big, important things in life: if you consider your life to be a jar into which all the events in your life must fit, and the most important things are rocks, while the least important things are sand, it becomes obvious which you should fit into the jar of life first. If you allow the little things in life - the sand – to take priority, then there’s no room left over for the bigger important “rocks”. But if you make space for the rocks first, then all the sand will trickle through and find a way to fit. Only then will you have a balanced life with room for the things most important to you as well as those little things that just come up.

Coaches need to find a way to fit in the big rocks of coaching teachers and let the sand of “little things that come up” trickle through and find their own space. First we must decide: what are those big rocks of coaching? Is it modeling in classrooms? Extended time spent with a teacher gradually releasing instruction? Conversations with teachers exploring professional decision making? Once those big rocks are found, then they must be given priority, and that involves convincing your administration of the importance of the big rocks, and the inconsequence of the sand.

How have you been able to prioritize the important things in your life?

Monday, April 19, 2010


Welcome to the first posting on my blog! The title of my blog comes from the 3 things I find most important in life - coaching, teaching, and learning. My mom (a teacher) and my dad (not a teacher - a raft guide) were my first teachers, and taught me to love learning. In my opinion, if I'm not learning something new, then I'm not really living. Every day offers opportunities to learn something, but sometimes I've got to really search for that nugget of knowledge. It's often offered in the form of a small comment or action that's easily overlooked. I hope that I have a chance to share these small learnings with you through this blog. Enjoy!

Testing Mania

It’s testing season where I coach, as I’m sure it is in many places across the country right now, and as I’ve walked the halls during the past few weeks I’ve heard frazzled teachers engaging in what can only be described as last minute cramming sessions. As the date of the test neared, the stress level rose in direct proportion, so that today, the day before the actual test, teachers’ voices rose to a pitch only dogs could hear and kids sat frozen in their seats.

Teacher: “ OK, everybody – opposites what?”

Dead silence.

Teacher: “I know we’ve gone over this, boys and girls. Think – opposites do what?”

Students sit still, hoping one of their peers will sacrifice themselves. Finally, one brave soul volunteers, “They’re big?”

Teacher: “NO! No, no, no! We just did this last month! Opposites attract! North pole! South pole! I know we went over this!”

At this point the teacher’s voice has risen to fever pitch and the kids shift uncomfortably in their seats, wide-eyed, half hoping for the teacher to implode.

No matter how much we prepare for big events, whether it’s a test, a play in front of parents, or a class presentation before the school board, everyone gets a case of the stupids immediately before the big day. Students appear to have forgotten everything we taught them and even half of what they learned the grade before. We can bang our heads against this wall of lapsed memory, which I have done many a time, or we can anticipate its coming and prepare to employ other strategies with students in the days immediately before the test.

In the example above, everyone ends up unhappy – the teacher feels like a failure, sure that, with her job in the hands (or heads) of 25 clueless youngsters, she should go ahead and apply at Wal-Mart and sell her car. The children, who may have previously had some confidence that they could pass the upcoming test, just had their worst fears confirmed because now they know for sure they WON’T and will instead repeat their current grade, possibly with this same crazy teacher who had seemed so calm and reassuring up until a month ago. Just in time for the big moment, everyone falls apart emotionally, and all confidence is lost.

In reality, it may not be that bad, but we’ve all got to admit to occasional less-than-stellar performances right before high-stakes testing occurs. Our stress level transmits to the students, no matter how hard we might try to appear patient and understanding. And it’s a law of some sort that students’ knowledge level dips in the days before the big test.

I propose a different set of rituals in the run-up to the big day. Granted, there needs to be some preparation time for teaching test format and the genre of “test passages”, but that can happen during the month before the test. In the days right before, however, I suggest that we put away all test prep materials, all those test packets and commercially produced test practice booklets, and instead spend some time reminding kids of all they’ve learned over the past 160 days or so. How about we pass out their portfolios and have them look back at their writing from the beginning of the year, finding at least 2 things they know they can do better now than they did when they first arrived in our class? Or have them meet in small groups and pull out the books they first recorded on their book logs way back in August, and talk about how much they’ve learned about authors, different genres, inferring character motives, and how visualizing can help us remember what we read. Perhaps everyone could make a T-chart comparing the “old me” and the “new me”, recording the growth in list form and subject categories.

Most children have probably lost sight of the younger version of themselves that nervously showed up in your room so many days ago, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we probably have too. Everyone, adults and children, deserves to celebrate growth. And in the act of celebrating, if we end up forgetting about the test for just a moment or two, that’s okay too.