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.