Wednesday, September 29, 2010


The importance of listening has been underestimated in the job of coaching, in my perception. Too many people think a coach's job is to impart wisdom about literacy to teachers. The thought is often that the coach is the expert in their academic area and so must convince the other teachers in her building to come around to the "correct" way of teaching. The coach then works her heart out leading after-school professional development sessions and scheduling modeled lessons, but ends up frustrated by the end of the year when only a few pioneers, the teachers who will try anything, are applying her strategies. The coach grumbles, makes plans to readdress it next year, and the cycle continues. After a few years of this, the coach begins to believe either a) "there's something wrong with these teachers" or b) "there's something wrong with me" and in either instance wants to quit. Sometimes they do quit, but continue to remain in the position of coach.

Granted, there can be lots of reasons that coaching doesn't "work" at a school. But I think a huge part of a coach's success has to do with his or her willingness to listen to the teachers she works with. And by listen, I mean truly listen. William Isaacs says we have trouble with this because:

If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said.

I don't know how many times I've done this, but I know it's a lot. In his book "Dialogue - the Art of Thinking Together", Isaacs says "People do not listen, they reload". I have been guilty of this many times in my life, ignoring the person talking to me in an effort to pre-argue my point in my head so I can jump in at the earliest opportunity to get that point across.

And yet those people in my life that I value most are the ones who I feel have truly listened to me. The childhood teachers I felt closest to were the ones who made me feel cared about and listened to. The leaders I've worked for whom I most respect were the ones who respected me right back by listening to my opinion - really listening, and considering what I had to say.

As coaches, we should be offering that focused listening to the teachers with whom we work. If we truly listen, then oftentimes we'll learn something. And when people feel listened to, more likely than not they'll be more willing to listen right back.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Delicate Dance: Teacher Conferences

This past week I’ve been following up some earlier professional learning on guided reading by offering to give feedback to teachers one-on-one as they work with a small group of kids. It’s always intimidating for teachers to be observed, mainly for reasons that I’ve already written about: teaching is a profession where we think for a living, so any comments on our actions is really a comment on our character.

I’ve tried to help by avoiding the “O-word” (observation) and instead have phrased it as “offering feedback”, and I’ve been using the same form with the teachers that they used with me when they observed me working with a group of students during our professional learning.

Working one-on-one with teachers is some of the most delicate work we do as coaches. A slightly different choice of words can be the difference between building confidence or building a wall between the coach and teacher. I always try to think of how I’d feel sitting in their chair if someone came in making suggestions, and it’s helped me to realize how innocent I often am of the judgmental way words can sound. I’ve found that using the words “I wonder” has helped. As in, “I wonder if you’d tried a meaning-based prompt here if he would have figured out the word sooner?” or “I wonder if he’s waiting for you to provide most of the help? What do you think he’d do if you just waited him out?” The trick, of course, is to truly wonder about whatever I’m asking. People can smell a fake question a mile away and nothing turns people off quicker than feeling manipulated.

The other thing I’ve discovered about individual conferences with teachers comes from the wisdom of Donald Graves, writing workshop guru. He has always said, “Teach the writer, not the writing. Focus on one important thing that will make this child a better writer after the conference is done.” Helping a teacher home in on one big thing that can help them with many students, not one particular student is critical. But this is often difficult if there are a plethora of “next steps” to address. By choosing one, and not overwhelming the teacher, the time spent in conference will be well worth it.

Graves also says, “The student should leave the conference wanting to write.” If we use the right language, and can be transparent with our feedback, teachers will leave our conference wanting to teach.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Fog of Teaching

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a “retreat” for one of our grade levels where we have spent very valuable time discussing the meat of what we do as teachers. We’ve interspersed really deep discussions about curriculum and instructional strategies with hilarious stories of bathroom mishaps and “the things children say”. It’s been both intense and relaxing, and we’ve gotten an incredible amount accomplished.

If only teaching could always be like this.

Unfortunately, too often we can’t or don’t spend time discussing the “meat” of our teaching with our colleagues because the clutter of daily school operations gets in the way. Meetings become clogged with lists of complaints or field trip details and organizational tasks take up the planning time we could so much better use to reflect on our teaching effectiveness. And no one knows better the flustered feeling one gets when eight kids need to go to the bathroom, someone spills their drink on the carpet, and the technology won’t work, all as the principal enters the classroom with her clipboard for an observation.

The best teachers are able to teach on the fly and adapt as needed, but for many teachers daily life in the classroom can feel very much like “the fog of war”. I think of it as the fog of teaching.

The fog of war is described as the degree of uncertainty and lack of situational awareness that occurs in a large battle. It’s the confusion that tends to stop forward progress and sometimes even cause instances of friendly fire. In the classroom, at least, we don’t have to worry about fatalities due to the fog of teaching, but there are casualties. If we succumb to the sense of confusion we feel in the midst of the daily bombardment of information and operational/classroom management requirements, then we lose our forward momentum and the vision of where we’d like our students to be.

How do we prevent the fog of teaching? In actuality, I don’t think there’s a way to completely avoid periods of time during which the fog descends. There will always be report card weeks that fall on a full moon and a holiday weekend. But for the times in between, we have got to set aside sacred time to discuss the meat of teaching. We have to ignore the operational and discipline issues in order to focus on the curricular and instructional decision-making that is at the heart of teaching, and then share these ideas with our colleagues. Just like a soldier working through the sleep-deprivation, harassing orders and harsh conditions of boot camp in order to condition himself to think clearly on the battle field, as teachers we have to force ourselves to maintain intentional practices even in the most adverse of conditions. Otherwise, we’ll all just wander around in a fog.