Up To The Mountain–Why You Should Teach

January 18th, 2016

One of my favorite recordings is  Solomon Burke singing Patty Griffin’s magnificent song, “Up To The Mountain”—her tribute to Martin Luther King based on the famous mountain top speech Mr. King gave the night before he was assassinated in Memphis.   This song is so important to me that I’ve asked Jenny to have it played at my funeral, which I’m hoping is many years from now.  Here are they lyrics:

I went up to the mountain because you asked me to

Up over the clouds to where the sky is blue

I could see all around me everywhere

I could see all around me everywhere

Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired

And I’ll be working ‘til the day I expire

Sometimes I lay down no more can I do

But then I go on again because you asked me to

Some days I look down afraid I will fall

Though the sun shines I see nothing at all

And I hear your sweet voice come and then go

Telling me softly you love me so

The peaceful valley just over the mountain

The peaceful valley few come to know

I may never get there ever in this lifetime

Sooner or later it’s there I will go

Sooner or later it’s there I will go

There are many important messages in this song—the power of knowing you have a calling, that you are doing what you are meant to do, that you are acting on the force and focus that come from a perfectly clear personal vision.  But what hit me this weekend as I listened was the difference one person can make when all of those factors are united laser-like in action dedicated to making the world freer, more just, equitable, humane.  This is what George Bernard Shaw has written is the “true joy in life,”

the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy…

The people who strive for mighty purposes shine like lights in the darkness of our day-to-day struggles. These heroes, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, seem like saints who have accomplished so much, people so far above us that we can never approach what they do.

And yet, the fight they fight, for freedom, health, equality, respect, goodness, that is a fight all of us can fight.  And that is a fight, I believe, that is especially there for every teacher to choose.  When a teacher’s kindness and empathy help a student find self-respect, when a teacher’s high expectations compel a student to believe she can be more than she realizes, when a teacher’s commitment to self-improvement helps him better teach students to read, the teacher is engaged in the same struggle that our saintly heroes fought—the fight to make the world a better place.  In a real way, profoundly dedicated teachers are climbing “up to the mountain.”  To teach with integrity is to hold up hope that the world can and will be better.

There is no measuring this hard, good work; there is only the knowledge that we are doing the best we can. And who is to say that a second-grade teacher in New Orleans or an AP English teacher in New York City won’t ultimately have as much impact as Martin Luther King.

It was a teacher, after all, that brought Mr. King into the world and taught him how to read.


November 30th, 2015

Goal setting is an essential part of coaching. Coaches often partner with teachers to set SMART goals, which are variously understood to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Actionable/Assignable), Realistic (Relevant) and Timely (or Time Bound). I believe teachers and coaches can set better goals if they consider a different acronym, PEERS, which highlights a few additional factors that are very important when setting goals. Teachers that create goals that address the PEERS factors will likely find that their goals will have more impact. I introduced PEERS goals in my book Focus on Teaching, and here I include a slightly modified version of what I first wrote about in that book.

Powerful. People who want to make an important difference in students’ lives should sort through every possible goal by asking a simple question: Will this goal make a real difference in students’ lives? Thus, a teacher might list several possible goals, such as increasing student time on task to 95%, increasing students’ vocabulary quiz scores to a 90% or higher average, decreasing student disruptions to fewer than four per 10 minutes, improving the quality of students’ writing and so forth.

Easy. Powerful goals that are difficult or impossible to implement are not as helpful as powerful goals that are easy to implement. Difficult-to-implement goals, no matter how powerful, often end up on the scrap heap of unrealized good intentions. The best goals are goals that are powerful and easy, because they have the greatest likelihood of being implemented, and because they provide more time for teachers, who are very busy, to work on other important tasks.

In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, Patterson and his colleagues explain why easy and powerful goals are so important:

“When it comes to altering behavior, you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? … And second, Can they do this thing? … Consequently, when trying to change behaviors, think of the only two questions that matter. Is it worth it? … Can I do it?”

Emotionally compelling. In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Heath and Heath suggest that effective goals need to be more than SMART; they need to compel people to action by moving them emotionally. According to the authors, effective goals “provide a destination postcard—a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.”

Reachable. Teachers and coaches need to consider whether or not their goal, however admirable, is one that can actually be reached. A reachable goal is one that builds hope.

Shane Lopez, a researcher at the University of Kansas and The Gallup Organization, has been described as the world’s leading expert on hope. In Making Hope Happens: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others, Lopez writes that hope requires three elements. First, hope requires a goal that sets out an idea of “where we want to go, what we want to accomplish, who we want to be.” Second, to feel hope, we need agency, our “perceived ability to shape our lives day to day … [our knowledge that] … we can make things happen.” Finally, hope requires pathways, “plans that carry us forward.”

A goal that fosters hope is a goal that has a reasonable chance of being achieved because (a) teachers believe they can achieve it (agency) and (b) it includes a strategy or strategies that can help them achieve it (pathways). Increasing student achievement by 20% on the state reading assessment is an admirable goal, but it is not helpful unless teacher and coach can identify a strategy that will help them reach the goal. Decreasing non-instructional time from 22% to 5% by teaching students expectations for transitions, for example, is a more effective goal because it shows the destination as well as the pathways that teachers can realistically expect will get them there.

A reachable goal also has to be one that people will know they have reached. That is, as SMART goals have shown for years, the goal has to be measurable; it has to have a finish line.

Student-focused. Finally, effective goals are student-focused rather than teacher-focused. When teachers choose teacher goals (“Let’s use graphic organizers at least twice a week”), they may implement the goal, but have no idea whether or not it made a difference for students. Additionally, no measure of excellence is built into the goal so people may implement the goal poorly and still meet the goal.

A student-focused goal, on the other hand, provides clear feedback on whether or not changes make a difference for students. Additionally, student-focused goals carry with them a built-in measure of quality. If a teacher ineffectively implements a teaching practice, it is unlikely that he will achieve the goal. The teacher will have to keep refining his use of the practice until he is able to implement it effectively, so that its use can lead to achievement of the goal.

Surface Coaching versus Deep Coaching

November 23rd, 2015

In 2008 Joellen Killion wrote a short essay distinguishing between coaching light and coaching heavy.

“Coaching light,” Joellen wrote, “occurs when coaches want to build and maintain relationships more than they want to improve teaching and learning. From this perspective, coaches may act to increase their perceived value to teachers by providing resources and avoiding challenging conversations.”

In contrast, when coaches are “coaching heavy,” they “work outside their comfort zone and stretch their coaching skills, content knowledge, leadership skills, relationship skills, and instructional skills. They are increasingly aware of the beliefs that drive their actions and reexamine them frequently.”

Working with coaches, I have found Joellen’s distinctions very helpful, and I have tweaked them slightly so they better address instructional coaching more specifically. Following Joellen’s lead, I distinguish between surface coaching and deep coaching.

When instructional coaches do surface coaching, like Joellen’s coaching light, they provide teachers with resources, offer supportive comments, model lessons, provide quick observations and share quick feedback. Surface coaching does not involve teachers in the deep work of setting student focused goals and collaborating until those goals are met. It usually only involves superficial reflection and little change.

When instructional coaches do deep coaching, however, they guide teachers through a reflective process that involves setting goals. They identify teaching strategies to be implemented to reach those goals and the collaboration and adaptation of teaching and learning that is required until the goals are met. Deep coaching is coaching that follows a proven model for change similar to that I described recently. You can read about the coaching cycle here.


When state and district leaders consider the kind of coaching they promote, and when coaches sit down to discuss coaching with teachers, I suggest they start by asking what kind of coaching they want. Meaningful improvement likely will not happen unless people choose to go deep.

The Most Important Part of Instructional Coaching? Setting a Goal

November 9th, 2015

For most of my career, I have been studying teacher growth. I have found, as I am sure many readers have found, that one-shot workshops and other quick-fix forms of professional development often have little impact on teaching and learning. For that reason, my colleagues and I have spent more than a decade studying instructional coaching.

Our research has uncovered that one factor plays an incredibly important role in successful instructional coaching. When coaches set measureable student goals with teachers and provide effective support, coaching can really make a difference. When coaches and teachers do not set goals, coaching can be a waste of time.

Successful goals have three characteristics

We have found the following to be essential characteristics of effective goals:

1. The goal has to be based on a clear picture of what is happening in the classroom. The easiest way to do this is to just video record the class. Coaches can also gather data such as Time On Task or Ratios of Interaction if that is what they prefer, but teachers need to see the data as reliable.

2. The goal must be a student goal. If coach and teacher set a teacher goal, they cannot be sure that the goal will make a difference. When a student goal is set, coach and teacher keep working until something significant happens for students. Setting a student goal also takes the focus off the teacher, which often helps the coaching relationship.

3. The teacher has to care about the goal a lot. If the teacher does not care about the goal, not much is going to happen.

How the Process Works

We usually complete the following steps to set goals:

1. The coach video records the teacher’s class or gathers some other data.

2. If video is recorded, the teacher and coach watch the video separately. The teacher might watch the video using the surveys “Watch your studentsWatch yourself.”

3. When they meet after they have watched the video, the coach asks a few questions to help the teacher identify a goal, such as the following:

• On a scale of 1-10, how close was today’s class to your ideal?

• What would have to change for it to be closer to a 10?

• What would your students be doing if that change happened? Describe what the students would look like.

• How would we measure that change?

• Is that a goal you would like to try to achieve?

• Which teaching strategy can we use to achieve that goal? We offer a list of teaching strategies from High-Impact Instruction that teachers can choose from, but coaches could use other books or instructional frameworks such as Robert Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching, or Jon Saphier & Mary Ann Haley-Speca’s Skillful Teacher

4. Once a measurable student goal is established, the coach should confirm that the teacher really is committed to implementing the goal, by asking questions such as “Is this a goal you really want to achieve? Does this matter to you?”

If the teacher is committed to the goal, then coach and teacher move forward. If the teacher is not committed, then coach and teacher revisit the goal until one is identified that matters to the teacher.

Our research on instructional coaching has led us to many insights into the importance of modeling, effective questions, effective communication skills, how to explore data and so forth. In my opinion, our most important finding is that goals are incredibly important. When teachers set a measureable student goal, there is a good chance the coaching will really improve instruction. When there is no goal, there is a real danger that coaching will have no lasting impact.

Why Are All the Coaches Female and the Principals Male?

November 2nd, 2015

Recently I was giving a talk about instructional coaching at a large school district in the Midwest. I was talking for two days and as is often the case, I presented on the first day to principals and coaches together. Then on the second day, I went into more depth about the coaching cycle with coaches.

Day one was a lot of fun and the audience was filled, as is almost always the case, with caring, dedicated educators. On day two, the principals went back to their schools and I met with the coaches. What I discovered the moment I walked into the room was that the men were no longer there. In this district, the men were the principals and the women were the coaches.

This is the way I see it in most districts, though not all. Most principals are male and most instructional coaches are female (in fact my guess is over 80% of coaches are female). I have presented to over 30,000 coaches from almost all continents and again and again coaches are woman and principals are men.

So, I have been trying to figure out why. I have thought about linguist Deborah Tannen’s somewhat controversial finding   that men are more prone to hierarchical conversation where they compete to be one up on colleagues and women are more likely to engage in conversations with the goal of networking to connect with other. Many people have read her theories, which are nicely summarized in her book You Just Don’t Understand. Maybe, I wondered, the coaching position just attracts more women because relationship stands at the heart of coaching.

But Tannen’s research is not enough. The gender difference is too great, and I have to say that the only reason that makes sense is that our educational systems, which are largely made up of women, are not giving women a fair chance to get positions as administrators. This is holding our schools back. Schools that fail to promote women are failing to tap into the largest group in their schools, women.

This discrepancy is also morally wrong. I have been in many districts where woman are given an equal and fair chance at all leadership positions; perhaps the majority of the districts I have visited. When all the leaders are men, I suggest school leaders should think deeply about why that inequity exists.

Our students deserve the best leaders possible and if that leader is a woman we need to make sure she has a fair chance to get the position she deserves. Our schools and our children will be better for it.

Better Conversations

October 26th, 2015

My newest book, Better Conversations, is being released today, so I am posting a short excerpt from the new book. You can see the link for the trailer for the book here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3FrWTXC8Uw

During one of my presentations on Better Conversations, a bright, young English teacher asked me a great question. “I think it’s really important to be authentic,” he said. “If I start to really listen to my friends, ask better questions, try to find common ground as you suggest, won’t I be written me off as a fake? I worry that trying to learn and do all these ideas might make me inauthentic.”

My quick response was that authenticity and good communication are not mutually exclusive terms, and that authenticity should never be an excuse for poor communication. However, I wanted to come up with a better answer. That night I looked up “authentic” in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that, according to the OED, “authentic” refers to something that is “real, actual, genuine; original, first-hand; really proceeding from its stated source.” In this sense, an authentic Picasso is a painting that was unquestionably painted by the master himself. An authentic person, then, would be someone who lives in a way that is completely consistent with who they are.

I tried to expand and deepen my understanding of the term authentic by revisiting my university philosophy classes and by going to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I was reminded that our modern understanding of authenticity is shaped in large measure by what existentialist philosophers have written. Kierkegaard, for example, whose definition of authenticity was informed by his faith in God, described authentic people as those who find faith and then live with integrity in ways that are consistent with their faith (see Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, 1964).

Nietzsche, in contrast, whose definition of authenticity was grounded in his atheism, described authentic people as those who live lives that are not shaped by conventional norms and morality, but who live according to their own principles (see Beyond Good and Evil,1966). In both of these definitions, authentic people are seen as those who know what they believe and who act consistently with those beliefs. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “To say that something is authentic is to say that it is what it professes to be.”

Authenticity then involves two parts: (a) who we say we are and (b) what we do. Authenticity is definitely not just mindlessly reacting in whatever way feels good in the moment. To be an authentic communicator we have to know what we believe and then we have to act in a way that is consistent with those beliefs. The journey toward having better conversations, therefore, is actually a journey toward authenticity. Both beliefs and actions (which I am referring to as habits) matter.

The Power of Words

October 19th, 2015

Originally published February 26, 2013 on reading.org

The Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love.Margaret Atwood

We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way.Leon Russell

Margaret Atwood is right, of course. We could communicate more effectively with more words to describe different kinds of love. But having just one word is infinitely better than none.

Words, despite their limitations, help us talk about topics we would not otherwise be able to discuss, and see things we would not otherwise be able to see. A word is a candle held up in the darkness to help us move forward.

Words might be humanity’s greatest invention. A common vocabulary helps us share emotions, share ideas, learn, grow. And this is just as true in conversation in schools as it is in conversations at home.

An important common vocabulary in schools, as Phil Schlechty has explained, could be developed around student engagement. Teachers can have meaningful conversations defining and acting on the terms authentic engagement, strategic compliance, and off-task behavior. And once the words are defined, teachers can share ideas and strategies to increase authentic engagement.

Educators can also benefit from coming to a shared understanding of positive reinforcement, and defining such ideas as growth mindset, ratio of interaction, and positivity. When people develop clear definitions of positive and negative reinforcements, they begin to see interactions in a clearer way in the classroom. Some words make the invisible, visible.

Powerful professional learning also happens when teachers agree about the meaning of other words, such as those describing reading strategies, like text-to-self or summarizing, or writing concepts such as sentence fluency, coherence, or voice. The simple act of talking about a word like voice, and working to develop a shared, deeper understanding, can be very meaningful professional development.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who need to develop a shared vocabulary. When administrators do not share with teachers a common vocabulary about the meaning and importance of observations, their evaluations have little positive impact on teaching and learning. What good is an administrator’s evaluation when the teacher and administrator can’t authentically talk about what was observed? Worse, what good are observations when observers can’t clearly define what they are seeing?

A clear picture of reality is an essential part of growth, but the picture does have to be clear, and people need a shared understanding if they are going to talk about it.

Students should also be a part of developing a shared vocabulary. When students understand authentic engagement and strategic compliance, they can give meaningful feedback to their teachers on what works and what doesn’t work for them. Sandi Silbernagel, for example, a teacher in Slidell, Louisiana, learns a lot by asking her second graders for their feedback on their level of engagement.

No doubt Leon Russell was right. Sometimes the words can get in the way. But without words we can’t talk. Language is the means by which communication takes place.

And as in life, so in schools. We should do all we can to develop a shared vocabulary. When we can truly talk about what we see, important learning—for teachers, administrators, and students—can really happen.

Welcome to Monday Morning Coaching

October 12th, 2015

Over the past decade, I have written quite a few columns about instructional coaching and published them in a number of different ways. Many of these columns address questions that are front and center in many coaches’ minds. I have decided to share those columns along with other new ones, on this blog on Monday mornings—and I am going to call this, wait for it, Monday Morning Coaching. Other columns related to all aspects of High-Impact Professional Learning will be posted on Thursdays.

Each week on Monday there will be a different column addressing a fundamental coaching issue. Today’s first column is about the value of a coach.

What is the Value of a Coach?

“Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Atul Gawande

A district administrator recently wrote to tell me that her district was facing “tough financial decisions” that are naturally causing lower morale. Everyone in her district feels under attack and, “the coaches are naturally questioning their value.”

All of us experience dark times when we wonder if we are making a difference, and coaches are no different. So I thought I would do my best to answer the coaches’ question.

What is the value of a coach?

Coaches Support & Encourage Teachers. A coach is a trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board and a witness to the good. These days can be difficult for educators with increased expectations, decreased funding, more pressure and less encouragement. Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally.

Coaches understand teachers because they are teachers themselves and most model practices as a part of coaching. For that reason, they can empathize with teachers in ways that are more difficult for others. Coaches get what it is like to have a great day and an awful day (sometimes in the same day). They know how rewarding and tough teaching can be.

Many coaches have told me that an important part of what they do is to listen to their colleagues when it seems like their colleagues have no one else who is able or available to listen.

Coaches Encourage Meaningful Conversation. Every organization improves or declines based on the quality of the conversation within it. Michael Fullan, who has written more than 30 books about educational change, sums this up in his great book Organizational Culture and Leadership:

We have found that the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, things get better. If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.

Coaches study the art of communication—often video recording themselves and reflecting on how they ask questions, listen, encourage, and connect. They know how important each interaction can be, and they strive to engage in positive, supportive, honest conversations at all times. In this way, coaches move a school forward one conversation at a time.

A coach is a second set of hands. I do not buy the line that teachers do not want to learn. In my experience, when teachers are respected and treated as professionals, most of them are passionate about their own learning and growth. The trouble is that teachers are swamped with urgent tasks. Often teachers have too much to do to organize learning how to implement new practices.

Coaches make learning much easier. Coaches do the work of organizing materials, explaining the practices, modeling and providing support. Thanks to coaches, teachers around the world finally are able to do what they most want to do, find new ways to reach more students.

A coach is a second set of eyes. The task of teaching, as I experienced just a week ago, can be a complicated and crazy ride demanding every ounce of a teacher’s attention. When you are locked-in to ensuring that your 33 seventh graders are on-task and learning, it can be difficult to pause and deeply reflect on what is actually going on in the classroom.

A coach can gather data a teacher would like to gather if they were not so busy actually teaching. Also, coaches can gather data that might otherwise go undetected, recording, for example, how teachers use their time, students’ levels of engagement, teachers’ positivity ratio and the kind of questions asked by teachers and students.

A coach leaves a legacy. We go into education because we want to make a difference, to leave our world a little better than we found it. George Lukas sums up what we all know to be true when he writes about the teachers who taught him:

“Apart from my parents, my teachers have done the most to shape my life.”

Few people can be more confident that they are making a difference than a coach. Every time a coach helps a teacher implement a new teaching or learning strategy, the coach is helping every other student that teacher will teach. One step forward for a teacher is one step forward for hundreds or thousands of children. Multiply that impact by all a coach does every day, and you get a clear picture of the value of coach.

Education is the way we move society forward. And coaches are one important way we move schools forward. For that reason, if you want to make our world a better place, there are few ways more powerful than being a coach.

What is the value of a coach? A coach is as valuable as a better future for our children. That seems extremely valuable to me.

Burning Bright

September 30th, 2015

Last year my wife Jenny completed the Wisconsin Ironman Competition in Madison. In case you are not aware, an Ironman involves a 2.4 mile swim in open water, a 112 mile bike ride and a marathon—a 26.2 mile run. That is not all. There are cut off times for each of the competitions. The participants need to finish the swim in two hours and 20 minutes. They need to finish the bike ride in eight hours and 10 minutes. Their whole race must be completed by midnight. If they miss they cut, they are pulled out of the race. Simply put, it is one amazingly tough competition. It is probably the toughest endurance race anyone can do with the exception of some freakishly difficult elite races.

I was captivated by the race the whole day. I felt like I was watching some grand, complex, rich, beautiful opera. This was especially true at the cutoffs. The deadlines were unforgiving. If someone was one second late, they did not get to complete the race. I watched jubilant, whooping cyclists cross the deadline 15 seconds before the deadline. I also watched several families eyes get red and tears flow when their loved-ones were not able to make the cutoff. The volunteers given the tough job of pulling people from the race were given the heart-breaking nickname, dream killers.

The race of course is not the whole story or even the main story. The race is the final accomplishment of a year of dedicated work. Many were the times when Jenny got up and completed an 18-mile run, a 60, or 80-mile bike ride before I had finished breakfast. Every competitor in the Ironman had his or her own version of this story.

As she prepared for the race the one thing Jenny heard more than anything else was the question she first heard from our friendly, retired electrician who asked, “What in the world would provoke you to do something like that?” I think though that a better question is, “Why don’t more of us do something like that?” I say this because what I saw in the Ironman was people who were profoundly testing their limits, who were living fully and who seemed to be saying “I only have this one life to live and I want to see what I can accomplish.” It was a beautiful thing to see so many people doing everything in their power to do something amazing.

As I watched the competitors I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quotation:

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.

Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.

Of course Shaw did not race an Ironman and neither will I, nor will many people who read this column. The issue is not what race we run. The issue is to make our lives burn as brightly as possible. There are so many ways we can do that. As parents. As teachers. As artists. It does not matter what we do. We can write a blog, or a help a child feel loved and inspired, or volunteer in our community, or fight for rights, or respect, or equality. What matters is that we give it our all.

Life is short, but the opportunity to live it fully is there for us to us every day. Making the best of that opportunity, to burn as brightly as possible, that is really in many ways what life is all about.

Three New Articles About Instructional Coaching

May 31st, 2015

In the past few months, I’ve published three articles that you might find valuable, if you are interested in coaching.

First, for the February JSD, I published an article on the Instructional Coaching Cycle. You may read it here: The Instructional Coaching Cycle

Second, for Principal Leadership, I published an article on how to set up a successful coaching program.
You can read it here: Success Factors for Instructional Coaching Programs

Finally, for Scholastic’s Administr@tor Magazine, I published an article on how principals can support instructional coaches.

You can read it here: How Principals Can Support Instructional Coaches